11 October 2018
If Churchill wasn’t an alcoholic, but if he fanned tall drinking tales about himself, then what was he at heart? Alastair Stewart explores the evidence.
If Churchill wasn’t an alcoholic, but if he fanned tall drinking tales about himself, then what was he at heart? Alastair Stewart explores the evidence.
The facts don’t easily lend themselves easily to discontinue this boozing hagiography. In 1929, Churchill was hit by a car in New York and seriously injured. He describes the incident in an essay titled ‘My New York Misadventure’. If there’s any humour to be derived from such an injury, it comes from the administrations of Churchill’s American doctor:
“…the post-accident convalescence of the Hon. Winston S. Churchill necessitates the use of alcoholic spirits especially at meal times. The quantity is naturally indefinite but the minimum requirements would be 250 cubic centimeters.”
There’s a lot of delight in the sheer rambunctiousness of the ‘medication’. While the ‘prescription’ has passed into Churchill mythology, it’s worth remembering that the doctor had to prescribe it because Prohibition was still in effect. As Martin Gilbert notes in his biography Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years, the note saved Churchill having to smuggle brandy into the USA inside hot water bottles.
Churchill’s grandson, his namesake Winston Churchill, also said that he remembers how his father Randolph was entrusted with attaining a good supply of “medicine” for trips to America. It was to be housed in a variety of large glass containers for their entry into Prohibition America. The Churchills were men for all seasons if nothing else.
A 'constant sipper'
For all the stories, Churchill was a constant sipper when it came to alcohol. At a dinner given by President Roosevelt on his yacht, the Williamsburg, in 1942, Churchill asked his scientific advisor, Professor Frederick Lindemann, later Lord Cherwell or the ‘Prof’, to whip out his ever-present slide rule and do a calculation.
The prime minister would then say that he estimated that in 62 years he had on average consumed a quart of wine and spirits a day. He then asked that if all of those drinks were poured into the room in which they were dining, how deep would they measure?
The response from Lord Cherwell was usually: “Just under two-and-a-half feet.” This, the then-future US Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, reported, was “very disappointing to the Old Man. He had expected that we would all be swimming like goldfish in a bowl, whereas it would hardly come up to our knees”.
On cue, Churchill would reply: “How much to do – how little time remains.” Churchill’s principal private secretary, Sir John Martin, records a similar version in his diaries, Downing Street: The War Years – Diaries, Letters and a Memoir as does Walter H. Thompson, Churchill’s bodyguard in his memoirs.
Party trick or not, Churchill was no drunkard. The only validated occasion Churchill has been worse for wear was noted by Danny Mander, one of Churchill’s bodyguards at the Tehran Conference in 1943. Mander, speaking at the 2006 Churchill Conference in Chicago, said that he had helped a drunk Churchill and Anthony Eden home after a long dinner and series of toasts with the Russians.
“The only time I saw the PM the worse for alcohol was when I helped him walk back to our legation after one of those long dinners with the Russians. It was a fine, clear night and he and Eden chose to walk rather than ride in the limousine. They were still on their feet – just. I put my arm within his to hold him steady and had a corporal do the same for Mr. Eden.”
One wonders how long and indeed how numerous the toasts were to sink someone of Churchill’s constitution. If we accept one confirmation about Churchill being drunk out of millions of accounts, reports and recollections, Churchill can still be said to have stayed true his opinion about drunkenness in his autobiography, My Early Life:
“I had been brought up and trained to have the utmost contempt for people who got drunk – except on very exceptional occasions and a few anniversaries.”
According to the historian Michael Richards, Churchill: “amused himself by allowing people to think he had a bottomless capacity”. He also estimates the drinks and cigars were a party prop:
“It would appear that his affinity to the bottle was at least partly a prop – like his cigars, which were often allowed to go out, rarely smoked beyond a third, and usually discarded after being well-chewed. Nevertheless he had a formidable capacity.”
Churchill relied on his charm, and part of that was making himself the life and soul of all events and travelling extensively throughout the war to be able to meet leaders and figures of importance and apply it. His ability to entertain, and cajole, not only secured American support during in the Second World War but allowed him to discuss military and political matters with fervour, particularly with the Russians. Being half cut, as they say, was just not an option.
As most of Churchill’s diplomacy and policy decisions were undertaken and decided at dinner tables, Cita Stelzer’s Dinner with Churchill is a marvellous book that serves as an insightful analysis of his diplomatic technique and personal style as well as doubling as a food and drinks guide to history.
As the years have progressed, documents have been declassified and released by the National Archives. Among them is a Foreign Office account of the 1942 Moscow visit and a meeting between Churchill and Stalin. After the meeting began at 7 pm it was 1 am when Sir Alexander Cadogan, who was permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office, was “summoned to come at once to Stalin’s rooms at the Kremlin.” He writes:
“There I found Winston and Stalin, and Molotov who had joined them, sitting with a heavily laden board between them: food of all kinds crowned by a sucking (sic) pig, and innumerable bottles.
“What Stalin made me drink seemed pretty savage: Winston, who by that time was complaining of a slight headache, seemed wisely to be confining himself to a comparatively innocuous effervescent Caucasian red wine. We broke up soon after 3, giving me just time to get back to the hotel, pack, and leave for the aerodrome at 4.15.”
William Manchester was either being factual or sarcastic when he wrote that Churchill was not a heavy drinker, despite the quantities he drank:
“…the legend that he is a heavy drinker is quite untrue. Churchill is a sensible if unorthodox drinker. There is always some alcohol in his bloodstream and it reaches its peak in the evening after he has had two or three scotches, several glasses of champagne, at least two brandies, and a highball.”
Don’t drink on an empty stomach
Food, save for a generalisation about Churchill’s huge appetites, occupies significantly less focus than his alcohol intake for his detractors. It does, however, explain why it was that he could seemingly ingest large quantities and function.
When General Montgomery declared, “I neither drink nor smoke and I am 100 per cent fit,” Churchill retorted “I both drink and smoke and I am 200 per cent fit!” He did have a point, but for an alleged alcoholic, Churchill was more moderate than he’d have you believe. In The Story of the Malakand Field Force, Churchill famously said:
“A single glass of champagne imparts a feeling of exhilaration. The nerves are braced, the imagination is agreeably stirred, the wits become more nimble. A bottle produces a contrary effect. Excess causes a comatose insensibility. So it is with war, and the quality of both is best discovered by sipping.”
An appreciation for alcohol does not mean alcoholism. While Churchill also enjoyed vintage Hine brandy, it was Pol Roger champagne which has done more to fuel the Churchill rumour. He adored the drink, saying: “I could not live without Champagne. In victory I deserve it. In defeat I need it.” In 1965, after his death, Pol Roger placed a black border around bottles exported to Britain. Madame Pol Roger was among some of the personal friends invited to Churchill’s funeral service at St. Paul’s Cathedral. By 1984, Pol Roger had even launched a full-bodied cuvée named Sir Winston Churchill.
His business had been prodigious, even some of his habits, but it is not a case someone with alcoholic tendencies when running a war machine. The misnomer calculation that Churchill must have drunk 42,000 bottles of champagne in his life is rooted in the moot point that he drank two bottles a day.
Sir John Colville observed to Martin Gilbert that what Churchill started sipping in the morning was only a trace of whisky diluted by a full glass of water and was in fact “whisky-flavoured mouthwash.” His daughter, Mary Soames, called it the “Papa’s cocktail” and his children saw their father drink it throughout the day. Author Richard Langworth said that his “whisky and soda” was actually a “layer of scotch in a tumbler full of soda. His daughter gave me a sample of this ‘Papa Cocktail.’ It scarcely qualifies as alcoholic. He did not use ice.”
General Hastings Ismay recalls Churchill saying: “When I was younger I made it a rule never to take strong drink before lunch. It is now my rule never to do so before breakfast.” The truth is more nuanced: Churchill was a great sipper, and the ‘cocktail’ was a simple combo of 1.5 oz Johnnie Walker Red Label – some sources say black – and filled with seltzer.
When it comes to tackling the most pervasive myth that accompanies the Churchill legend, Norman McGowan, his valet after he left office, said in his memoirs that:
“About an hour after breakfast I would place his first whisky and soda of the day beside him. For the rest of the day the tumbler was never empty, but he drank very slowly, absent-mindedly sipping it from time to time and making each glass last about two hours. It was literally drowned in soda at the outset and as ice cubes had to be in it, which melted long before he had finished, the drink was a very innocuous one.”
According to Georgina Landemare – who spent over 15 years cooking for the Churchill family – Churchill had a healthy and occasionally indulgent appetite. Her memoirs, Recipes from No 10 are a fascinating account of Churchill’s eating habits. The book was adapted by the Imperial War Museums with the book Churchill’s Cookbook and contains a selection of her recipes for Churchill.
What Landemare and Stelzer make clear, is that Churchill had an enjoyment of food and it’s impossible to isolate alcohol intake from that fact. Landemare tackled war-time rationing as best she could. Churchill enjoyed traditional English food like roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, lobster, dressed crab and hare, but had several dislikes including the German dish sauerkraut and marmalade. He detested corned beef, lemon curd, pickled onions and black pudding.
Sonia Purnell, the author of First Lady: The Life and Wars of Clementine Churchill by Sonia Purnell, notes that although the family’s domestic circumstances were above those in the rest of the country, the Churchill household and Mrs Landemare found it no easier to procure resources than the rest of the nation. When Eleanor Roosevelt and other Washingtonians were guests at Downing Street, Clementine had to say: “I’m sorry dear, I could not buy any fish. You will have to eat macaroni.” Ambassador Henry Morgenthau also noted without enthusiasm: “Then they gave us little left-over bits made into meatloaf.”
By contrast, as Max Hastings observes in his book Finest Years, “some of Churchill’s guests recoiled from his self-indulgence at a time when the rest of the country was enduring whale steaks.” Diplomatic coupons were something of a way around this, and they allowed Churchill and some of his guests to enjoy a style and quality of food now widely available across the country. If Churchill was gluttonous, it’s confirmed by his predecessor Neville Chamberlain. The costs of Chequers rose dramatically as Kathleen Hill, Churchill’s secretary, records in January 1942 stating that “the Food Account was very high”.
One night when Churchill took a party to the Savoy, the Canadian prime minister Mackenzie King was disgusted that Churchill insisted on ordering both fish and meat, in defiance of rationing regulations and found it “disgraceful that Winston should behave like this.”
If there’s a defence, it’s in Stelzer’s observation that policy through pomp and ceremony were made at the dinner table. Churchill never allowed his preferences for food and wine to interfere with the main reason for his dinner gatherings: congeniality and policy.
Clementine Churchill, who fully supported Landemare writing her memoirs, said in its introduction that she was “enchanted” to have Mrs Landemare “because I knew she would be able to make the best of rations and that everyone in the household would be happy and contented”. Landemare had occasionally worked for the Churchill’s throughout the 1930s and became a full-time private cook at Downing Street, the War Rooms, Chequers and Chartwell at the weekends and stayed with the Churchill’s until 1953 and retired at the age of 70. In a BBC interview with Joan Bakewell, Landemare said it was her “war work” to look after Churchill, and this she did.
Like most of those dear to Churchill, Landemare possessed a good humour as a biography by her grandson confirms. As he notes, when they were called to the bomb shelter in 1940, Churchill rushed to the kitchen to Mrs Landemare. She responded, “Sir, the soufflé isn’t quite done”. Mary Soames, Churchill’s daughter, also recollects that after Churchill lost the 1945 election, Landemare made honey sandwiches and said: “I don’t know what the world is coming to, but I thought I might make some tea.” After victory in Europe, Churchill thanked Mrs Landemare “most cordially” adding that he would not have managed through the war without her.
Churchill was, ultimately, a constant sipper with a handsome appetite. This detail has been overlooked in the Churchill legend in favour of more witty or quirky moments attributed to a volume of drink.
The real price of ale
Churchill could not possibly have survived if he had drunk as much as public myth would like to think. If any further evidence of this is required, compare him to his children.
Randolph, like most of Churchill’s children, suffered his father’s demons with few of his virtues to balance them out. The deeply troubled son possessed some of the skill of his father, but none of his restraint. As his cousin Anita Leslie recalled in her biography of him, Randolph would often say the phrase “when I am Prime Minister”. While he had the same teeming memory, he was a notorious alcoholic and extremely aggressive.
As John Pearson says in his book, The Private Lives of Winston Churchill, Randolph was spoiled by his father and began drinking heavily in his late teens. He was allowed to stay at dinner until the wee hours with his father’s circle, including F.E Smith along with Lloyd George, Lord Beaverbrook, and Brendan Bracken. Birkenhead, in particular, who was a chronic alcoholic himself and would die of his affliction, helped develop in Randolph the habits of a severe drinking problem. Randolph described the set-up to Leslie as:
“My father, who was F. E.’s greatest friend, had brought me up on all the famous anecdotes illustrating F.E.’s wit, brilliance and arrogance. Without F. E.’s learning or his majestic command of language, I sought to emulate his style of polished repartee. It didn’t work in my case.”
Randolph was generally deemed rude and boorish for the rest of his days. When on a lecture tour, Randolph undertook excessive drinking and making rude gestures to women as his travelling companion as author Evelyn Waugh confirmed. Waugh wrote that Randolph was “Britishly drunk all the time, soliciting respectable women at luncheon parties”. On hearing that a lung growth was not malignant, Waugh said: “It was a typical triumph of modern science to find the one part of Randolph which was not malignant and to remove it.”
His relationship with his father was appalling. McGowan treads lightly on the subject, euphemistically saying that: “The relationship would not have been the intimate thing it was if there had not been the differences of views when robust Anglo-Saxon words were hurled one to the other.”
June Osborne, Randolph’s wife, recalls a particularly cruel argument at Chartwell that illuminates this. Randolph, drunk, had upset everyone at dinner by his coarse language and behaviour. Churchill was so “shaken with fury” that, according to June, Clementine was worried her husband would suffer a seizure. Randolph promised he would never see his father again and told his wife to start packing to leave Chartwell. By 1am, Churchill went to his son in his pyjamas to tell them: “I am going to die soon. I cannot go to bed without composing a quarrel and kissing [you] both.”
Once, in a restaurant, a drunken Randolph had silenced the other diners – as told to Anita Leslie by author Christopher Sykes – by yelling at June a string of abuse amongst which he called her “a paltry little middle-class bitch always anxious to please and failing owing to her dismal manners.” By the summer of 1954 June was unable to take any more and left Randolph.
If there can be a defence of Randolph, it’s in his honesty. In his memoirs, Twenty-One Years, he recounts candidly the abuse he suffered at the hands of a young assistant master at boarding school when he was 10. The assistant master at Sandroyd near Cobham in Surrey made:
“…some pretext for me to go and see him in his room. When I got there he made me sit down beside him on the bed. He undid his trousers and caused me to manipulate his organ. I was much surprised but stood in awe of him and cannot pretend that I found it particularly disgusting, or even that I had any sense of guilt until the housemaid came in without knocking to deliver his laundry.”
Only then, when the master turned red and hastily buttoned his trousers did Randolph realise he was doing something wrong. Randolph states that he was unscarred by the episode. When the abuser told him to respond to questions about why he had gone into that bedroom with an invented story about a lost cricket ball, Randolph innocently did so.
Randolph, claiming he was emotionally unhurt by the event, told the story to his sister Diana, and their nanny overheard who in turn told Clementine who told Churchill:
“I remember very well how my father sent for me one morning when he was still lying in bed and having his breakfast and asked me about the truth of the matter. I told him the truth as I have always done. I don’t think I have ever seen him so angry before or since. He leapt out of bed, ordered his car and drove all across country – the round trip must have been well over two hundred miles. When Winston returned late that night having discovered that the master concerned had been sacked he simply said to his son, ‘Never let anyone do that to you again.’”
It is unclear what action Churchill took. For his son, it’s a fact that alcohol destroyed any chance of self-control on his already overbearing and self-destructive nature. Randolph died in 1968, a mere three years after his 90-year old father from a heart attack at the age of 57.
Sadly, save for Mary Soames, the same pattern afflicted Randolph’s younger sister, Sarah. Born in 1914, Sarah had numerous issues with alcohol including multiple arrests for disorderly conduct. She was married three times with various scandals attached to her name. Mary Lovell in her book, The Churchills: A Family at the Heart of History, charts the multiple occasions she was picked up by the police, including spending ten days at Holloway Prison. Her partner, Antony Beauchamp, committed suicide four years earlier and fuelled her spiral. She was released on the condition that she would seek further help for her drink problem at the Maudsley Hospital.
According to Lovell, Churchill and Clementine “bore the headlines stoically” but were privately extremely upset. They held the mantra of never explaining and never apologising, but Clementine reported that Sarah’s doctor had begged her, as soon as she finished her present theatrical tour, to “do a serious cure”. Sarah, on the other hand in correspondence with her mother, said she would rather die. Sarah struggled with alcohol throughout her life, dying in 1982 at the age of 67, after her mother in 1977 at the age of 92.
Diana, Churchill’s eldest daughter, remains the most tragic. Like her brother and sister, she struggled with the violent mood swings and depression and alcohol issues that came to define most of Churchill’s progeny. Married twice, Diana had several nervous breakdowns throughout her life. She died at age 54 in 1963 from a deliberate overdose of barbiturates. She is buried with her parents (who both outlived her) and siblings at St Martin’s Church, Bladon, near Woodstock, Oxfordshire.
In death, Diana joined Marigold who had tragically died in 1921 of septicaemia at the age of three. Only Mary Soames superseded her father to the age of 91 and died in 2014. Churchill’s youngest daughter was spared much of the darkness that plagued her siblings and her father. Her works, including the beautiful Speaking For Themselves: The Private Letters of Sir Winston and Lady Churchill and her biography, A Daughter’s Tale, are splendid resources about her family and father. According to Roy Jenkins, Churchill was an “enthusiastic and loving father” but one who expected too much of his children.
When contrasted with his children’s relationship with alcohol, there is a darker side to the embellished stories about Churchill. The same man who stood fresh out of a bath and said to President Roosevelt, “You see, Mr President, I have nothing to hide” is the one whose children were severely dysfunctional.
The myth of Churchill and the reality of Churchill, the man, are extremely different beasts. For all the favour given over to the former, in some part, the latter must pay the price. It is very reminiscent of Lord Henry’s bon mots in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Dorian committed himself to the armchair philosophy of Lord Henry while his portrait slowly suffered.
In this, there’s a darker side to the Churchill saga, and it’s often his family who suffered the consequences.
QUICK LINK: Churchill part 5
About the author
Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer and journalist. He was previously a press officer in the Scottish Parliament and worked in public affairs. He graduated from Edinburgh University with an MA in International Relations and writes regularly on politics and the arts in the Spanish and British press.
(images copyright Library of Congress reproduction numbers LC-DIG-ppmsca-05370 and LC-F8- 43188