Look, before I begin the tale of Jennie Jerome, mother of Winston Churchill, I am going to tell you a personal story that you are not allowed to interrupt. I come from a family of fairly rabid anglophiles. We are not actually British, we are Canadian, but Mom worked in London, and somehow this has lead to many moments where we ask God to save the Queen. More than I think would typically be experienced by a Canadian family living in the United States.
My favorite childhood story was called “Clarence” (no, apparently it was called Sold For A Farthing) and it was about a little brown sparrow that survived the London Blitz during World War II and he was very brave and then one day he just curled up in his owner’s hand and died. I also read books normal kids enjoy, like Arthurian mythology. These tales of mighty knights end by saying that King Arthur is in Avalon, resting, and waiting to return when Britain needs him most.
Incidentally, I am tearing up just remembering these stories from my childhood.
Since I had the capacity to put two and two together as a kid, I asked why King Arthur didn’t return during World War II. The fact that he had not suggested that absolutely terrible, apocalyptic conditions were in store for Britain, and all the sparrows in the land, probably in the near future. I was looking forward to Arthur’s return, hopefully on a cool horse, but was also very worried about an imminent apocalypse.
And my mother turned to me with tears in her eyes – as though World War II had happened yesterday and we had been there, crouching in a grocery with Margaret Thatcher – and told me that King Arthur had returned in the form of Winston Churchill.
And I was pretty bummed because I really expected him to look more like a Disney prince.
You know, a lot of Winston Churchill’s attributes are not exactly in keeping with Arthurian mythology.
He was . . . God, Winston Churchill was just so cool. You see that as an adult. He was hard drinking, and chain smoking, and did not take no for an answer. Take this, one of his greatest speeches:
What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their Finest Hour.’
There’s also this lighter story about him, from H.A. Grunwald’s Churchill: A Life Triumphant, which says:
Toward the end of World War II, before the July 1945 election that he would lose, The Times (London) prepared an editorial suggesting that Churchill campaign as a non-partisan world leader and retire gracefully soon afterward. The editor kindly informed Churchill that he was going to make these two points.
“Mr. Editor,” Churchill replied to the first point, “I fight for my corner.”
And, to the second: “Mr. Editor, I leave when the pub closes.”
Where did all of that chutzpah come from? I would like to say from his mom, Jennie, who was born in Brooklyn.
I wish I could make this more of a Cinderella story than it is, but Jennie was not born impoverished in Brooklyn. She did not, presumably, have some sort of Dog Day Afternoon accent. Her father, Leonard Jerome, was a part owner of The New York Times and also founded The American Jockey Club. He basically introduced horse racing to America. He also had a mistress, Jennie Lind, the Swedish opera singer – WHO I AM SUPPOSEDLY VAGUELY RELATED TO! THIS IS THE BEST NEWS EVER! – whom he supposedly named his daughter after.
Jennie’s mom, understandably, took her children away to live in Paris. They later moved to England where, in 1873, Jennie Jerome met Lord Randolph Spencer-Churchill at a sailing party. She was already a renowned beauty; Lord d’Abernon said that there was “more of the panther than of the woman in her look” which seems like a compliment. In any event, Churchill was smitten. Immediately after he wrote this letter, which I frankly expected to be more romantic but, okay, fine:
14 August 1887 Marine Hotel
Dear Miss Jeannette
I missed my boat & have not been able to go; so shall not start till early Monday morning.
Thank you so very much for the photograph which is much better than the others; shall hope to see you after church tomorrow. You see I keep turning up like a bad shilling
Yours vy sincerely
Randolph S. Churchill
It’s nice to know that if you become the parent of someone really important, even your mediocre letters will be housed at the Library of Congress.
And on a more romantic note, he proposed after knowing her for three days.
But there were roadblocks that prevented them from getting married on the fourth day! Namely, his family did not approve of Randolph marrying an American because . .. of the American revolution? More likely because they did not approve of Jennie’s horse racing, mistress-having father. Fortunately, the Prince of Wales’ judgement superseded theirs.
Elizabeth Mahon writes in Scandalous Women>:
Jennie had also made the acquaintance of the Prince of Wales, who adored American women, in particular Jennie. He liked their freshness, their wit, and their irreverance. Unlike most aristocratic English girls who led incredibly sheltered lives until their debuts, wealthy American girls were out and about. They’d traveled to Europe, spoke several languages and had that brashness that comes from believing that America was the greatest country in the world. And they were well dressed to boot, sporting the latest couture from Charles Worth, the Englishman whose dresses were de rigeur for the American heiress. From the time of his visit to the United States in 1860, the first heir to the throne to set foot on American soil, the Prince had a soft spot for American women.
As he later told Winston Churchill at a dinner, “If it weren’t for me, you wouldn’t be here.” The approval of the Prince of Wales paved the way for their eventual marriage at the British Embassy in Paris in April of 1874.
I like this story, because it reaffirms my family’s faith in the fundamental decency of the British people. Frankly, they sometimes fuck it up when I meet them in person and they forget to act in kind dignified ways but, yes, of course the Prince of Wales stepped in and said it was cool to marry an American. Of course he did. That’s pretty much the Prince of Wales’ job, to stand around making sure the right people find each other.
Winston Churchill was born very shortly afterwards; there’s some debate over whether he was premature or if the couple just had premarital sex. And he was born in a cloakroom. Jennie had been out dancing at a party that night and never made it into a bedroom.
If you are thinking just like Jesus – congratulations, you would fit in with my family and, also, no, that was a stable in Bethlehem. They’re different. It was a fancy party. It wasn’t a sacred humble beginning. When he was later asked about his birth, Winston replied, “Although present on the occasion, I have no clear recollection of the events leading up to it.”
Winston adored Jennie right from the start. The same can’t necessarily be said of her.
I have always had a worrying suspicion that I would like my children most when they were of an age to have drinks with me at the Carlyle Hotel. Jennie seemingly felt the same way, and mostly left Winston in the care of nannies and then at boarding school. He wrote her a lot of letters begging to visit. She rarely responded. Here is one of his pleas:
Sunday [?12 June 1887] [Brighton]
My dear Mamma,
I hope you are as well as I am. I am writing this letter to back up my last. I hope you will not disappoint me. I can think of nothing else but Jubilee. Uncertainty is at all time perplexing write to me by return post please!!! I love you so much dear Mummy and I know you love me too much to disappoint me. Do write to tell me what you intend to do. I must come home, I feel I must. Write to Miss Thomson a letter after this principle so:—My dear
Could you allow Winston to come up to London on Saturday the 18th for the Jubilee. I should like him to see the procession very much, and I also promised him that he should come up the Jubilee.
I remain yours,
I think that the above will hit its mark, anyhow you can try. I know you will be successful.
I am looking forward to seeing Buffalow Bill, yourself, Jack, Everest, and home. I would sooner come home for the Jubilee and have no amusement at all than stay down here and have tremendous fun.
The weather is fine.
Please, as you love me, do as I have begged you.
Love to all I remain as ever, Your loving son
For Heavens sake Remember!!!
Jesus Christ, I want to forge a letter to him on her behalf. Just let poor little Winston go see Buffalo Bill. Those multiple exclamation marks are heartbreaking.
A friend of mine suggests that Jennie was a trollop and Churchill completely re-wrote history to make her seem noble. I like Jennie, but that label may be true. Through Winston’s school years she had affairs with a number of people, including Karl Kinsky, the Prince of Wales (he liked American women) and Herbert von Bismarck.
I have no idea if Winston actually went to the Jubilee or not. So, okay, she was a mediocre mother. But it GOT BETTER.
Specifically, it improved when Winston was older and his mom realized he was probably going to be an influential political figure. She had always worked to advance her husband’s political career, and Winston’s would be no different. Her numerous lovers (she was sometimes called “Lady Randy”) came in useful, too. The Daily Mail notes:
After countless flirtations with British gentry, including John Delacour, Lord Wolverton and Lord Astor, Jennie fell in love with a fellow American, Bourke Cockran, who would become another of Winston’s surrogate fathers.
And just as Jennie’s Parisian lovers came in useful when she decided Winston should learn French, Cockran was now instructed to introduce her 22-year-old son to New York.
There, Winston was so popular that back in England Jennie set out to sing her son’s praises wherever she went. Having failed to boost Randolph’s career, she was determined to bolster her son’s – to his great benefit.
In 1895, when her husband died, Jennie founded The Anglo-Saxon Review, a literary magazine. Around that time she noted, ““We owe something to extravagance, for thrift and adventure seldom go hand in hand.”
She then married a man who, at age 23, was only 16 days older than Winston. She met him at a ball where he was dressed as a black person. This was perhaps her most scandalous moment, though the Churchill family stood by her. When she found out that he was penniless, she divorced him in 1914. She married again, in 1918, to Montagu Porch who was 32.
She was just like Demi Moore but without the whippits.
Jennie died at age 65 after slipping down a flight of stairs while wearing some new high heels. She had to have a gangrenous leg amputated beforehand. Supposedly Winston Churchill drove through the night to be with her, which is a lot more than she ever did for him when he was at boarding school.
On her deathbed she wondered, “Is this punishment for living life the way I wanted and not the way others wanted me to?”
Nah, probably not.
Of his mother’s death, which he did recall the events leading up to, Winston loyally said, “I do not feel a sense of tragedy but only loss. Her life was a full one. The wind was in her veins.”
She sounds like she had fun, and Winston Churchill sounds like the kind of son King Arthur would have approved of. Next week, in keeping with the Anglomania, we will talk about Elizabeth II’s mother or, as you may know her, Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. And then, the next week, I swear I’ll do someone French or something.