Remember the man, not the myth - part 5

20 September 2018
Sir Winston Churchill. Copyright Library of Congress, reproduction number LC-USE613-D-005938
In part 5 of his Sir Winston Churchill series, Alastair Stewart examines Churchill's reputation as a heavy drinker.

In part 5 of his Sir Winston Churchill series, Alastair Stewart examines Churchill's reputation as a heavy drinker.

Winston Churchill’s capacity for drink has been a subject of extreme conjecture and hyperbole. In many respects, it’s the key to his affability and enduring appeal. “Booze”, as Peter O’Toole said, “is the most outrageous of all drugs, which is why I chose it.”

People who can hold their liquor in the most unlikely of situations, cause a bit of mischief and deliver scathing one-liners pass into legend. You could scour sociological studies for hours and not come up with an answer as to why insobriety and pith are the backbones for a legendary persona.

Churchill sits hilariously among An A-Z of Hellraisers: A Comprehensive Compendium of Outrageous Insobriety by Robert Sellers. He belongs more with the likes of Richard Burton, Oliver Reed and Richard Harris than plodding historical dullards.

Churchill may have cultivated his image as a man about town, but he was never, as his modern detractors would argue, an alcoholic.

Was Winston Churchill an alcoholic?

Blunt, but to the point. One of the most famous of the unreliable half-truths about Winston Churchill is his propensity to drink. It is the most relatable, the most amusing, but also the most misleading aspect of his character.

Anders Hallengren said that Ernest Hemingway’s famed machismo hid a more profound and sensitive soul. The same is true for Churchill. If one contrasts the lesser reported fact that his son, the gifted, but agonisingly self-destructive Randolph, was a coarse alcoholic and died of heart attack at fifty-seven, then we find a misnomer at the heart of the Churchill story.

“I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has never taken out of me” is one of the most famous Churchill quips of all time and appears across a plethora of sources. There’s little validity to the sentiment, however. Marian Holmes, a wartime secretary to Churchill, recalled to Phil Craig and Tim Clayton in their book Finest Hour that she never saw Churchill drunk beyond control:

“He never drank to the point that he wasn’t clear minded, ever. I never saw it even on celebratory occasions…He drank with food, that was the point, and there’s all the difference in the world, because he was a very good trencherman.”

John Peck, one of Churchill’s wartime private secretaries, likewise confirmed to Sir Martin Gilbert in his book In Search of Churchill that: “Personally, throughout the time I knew him I never saw him the worse for drink.”

There are many similarities in the accounts from friend and foe alike about how much Churchill drank. If there’s a recurring theme, it’s that nearly all opinions are based on how much the witness thinks they could drink rather than what was typical for Churchill himself. As Richard M. Langworth, the editor of the magazine Finest Hour,  notes:

“No member of his family ever saw Churchill the worse for drink, although after 40 years of writing about him I did find one military staffer who helped Churchill and Eden on a wobbly walk back to the British Embassy in Teheran, after a late-night of mutual toasts with the Russians. Churchill himself liked to exaggerate his alcoholic capacity, giving rise to nonsensical myths.”

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Certainly a fighter...

In the Churchill-centred film, Into the Storm (2009), President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Len Cariou) privately recounts a dinner he was at some years prior where Churchill was drunk and boorish. Considering Churchill’s war speeches, he muses that: “He may be a drunk, he may be a warmonger, but he’s certainly a fighter.” While the words are fictitious, there is an element of truth to them given Churchill’s standing in the Roosevelt family.

Roosevelt was the distant cousin of former President Theodore Roosevelt, who had himself met Churchill at the turn of the 20th century. Churchill, who was on a tour of America for his book London to Ladysmith via Pretoria, had lunch with Theodore Roosevelt in Albany. As Roy Jenkins notes in his book Churchill: A Biography, there is no record of the meeting save for the apparent conclusion that it did not go well. Scattered over the years in Roosevelt’s correspondence are criticisms that Churchill was discourteous. Alice Longworth, Roosevelt’s daughter, called him “generally obnoxious” and said the Roosevelts were appalled by what they regarded as his rudeness and his failure to rise when a lady or elderly gentleman entered the room.

Whatever the happened, when Theodore Roosevelt represented the U.S at the funeral of King Edward VII in 1910 he made a conscious decision to avoid Churchill. He wrote to Senator Henry Cabot Lodge that, “I have refused to meet Winston Churchill…All the other public men, on both sides, I was glad to meet.”

In August 1914, Roosevelt wrote a letter to his friend, Member of Parliament Arthur Lee, stating that “I have never liked Winston Churchill,” although he went on to praise Churchill’s vigour in mobilising the British fleet at the outset of World War One. The seeded malice between these two men was to prove threatening 40 years later with Franklin and, in turn, the British war effort.

Roosevelt’s daughter confirmed as much when asked by historian Arthur Schlesinger why her father didn’t like Churchill: “Perhaps because they were so alike.” Candice Millard (author of Hero of the Empire) thinks the enmity can also be explained because:

“I actually saw a lot of similarities between [them]. Roosevelt was obviously born into great wealth, but was incredibly and inherently ambitious. He was very arrogant. He drove everybody crazy.”

Whether too much imbibing played a part in sabotaging Churchill’s reputation with the Roosevelts or not, by the time the Second World War came alcohol was most definitely one of the explanations for  President Franklin Roosevelt’s distrust of Churchill. Family’s, after all, do speak to each other and reputations tend to carry. Seldom, however, do alleged problems with alcohol nearly derail American support for a British leader.

President Roosevelt was not a blindly biased man. His own knowledge of Churchill was easily influenced by both the letters they exchanged and the accounts he received from members of his administration, particularly those of the American ambassador to the UK,  Joseph ‘Joe’ Kennedy.

Kennedy, the patriarch of the Kennedy dynasty, was appointed by Roosevelt in 1938 as ambassador. Kennedy was a staunch American isolationist and was of the divisive view in 1940 that “Democracy is finished in England.” In his cables to the U.S, his view of Churchill and the new government was lacklustre, telling one journalist that you should: “Never trust a man who is always sucking on a whisky bottle.” His intimations and reports that a drunk was at the helm of Britain’s war machine were a singularly malicious one, but one which was seemingly corroborated.

Roosevelt had sent the Assistant Secretary of State Sumner Welles on a mission to London just before the Germans attacked on 10 May. Welles’s first impression of Churchill was widely discussed in Washington. Churchill had greeted the American delegation at a private flat in the Admiralty, smoking a cigar and “drinking a whisky and soda” after having “consumed a good many whiskies” prior.

According to Welles’ account, Churchill first offered the sternly teetotal  ambassador a glass and then went on to deliver a “cascade of oratory, brilliant and always effective, interlarded with considerable wit” and declared that “we will win the war and that is the only hope for civilisation.” Roosevelt received a similar report from Adolf Berle, also an assistant secretary of state. On May 5, five days before Churchill became prime minister, Berle wrote:

“The rumour…going around here is that [Churchill] is drunk all the time. Welles says on the first two evenings he saw Churchill, he was quite drunk. I asked [Welles] whether he saw any indications of clear cut leadership [in Churchill] and Welles answered he saw none.”

In 1940, the US Cabinet discussed the situation in Europe. According to Harold Ickes, the secretary of the interior, Roosevelt was acutely aware of Churchill’s penchant for alcohol:

“The President said that he supposed that Churchill was the best man that England had even if he was drunk half of his time. Apparently, Churchill is very unreliable when under the influence of drink…At any rate, I am glad that Chamberlain is out. I had no hope in my own heart so long as this inept man was at the head of the British government.”

The impact of Churchill’s lingering reputation as a drunk should not be understated. Much of his modern regard is rooted in the fact he was able to woo Roosevelt round to joining the fight against Hitler. Not only was Roosevelt surrounded by advisors who had attested to Churchill being an alcoholic, but Churchill had infuriated President Roosevelt decades before. In a meeting with Kennedy in 1939, Roosevelt recalled:

“I disliked him [Churchill] since the time I went to England in 1917 or 1918. At a dinner I attended he acted like a stinker, lording it over us all…[he was] one of the few men in public life who had been rude to me.”

The dinner to which he referred to was at Gray’s Inn, London when Churchill was a recently appointed Minister for Munitions and Roosevelt was a visiting under-secretary for the navy. There are conflicting accounts as to the exact nature of the grievance, ranging from Churchill ignoring Roosevelt (on the same day there were a series of arms factory strikes that may have been a preoccupation) to being aggressively opinionated. 

One version in Kennedy’s papers makes the addendum that “Birkenhead had to reign him in” (referring to Churchill’s friend the Earl of Birkenhead) suggesting an altercation, too much drink or ego. No confirmation remains, but Churchill, the young government minister who had held five posts, ignoring Roosevelt the young American representative is a plausible interpretation. Churchill, when on a visit to the U.S in 1929, had even tried to meet with Franklin Roosevelt, then governor of New York. He was rebuffed and shown a letter saying the governor was unavailable.

To add insult to injury, Sir John Wheeler-Bennett, an advisor to Churchill, recalls in his memoirs, Action This Day: Working with Churchill, that the prime minister did not remember when he met Roosevelt for the ‘first’ time 23 years later on the HMS Prince of Wales at Placentia Bay, Newfoundland in August 1941. Churchill’s attention to detail and his efforts to establish a relationship with Roosevelt make the absence of an acknowledgement of their prior meeting a curious anomaly. Perhaps he believed he done nothing wrong or, worse, that he had indeed been drunk. Indeed, this time, Roosevelt was foremost on his mind.

It is a testament to Churchill’s ability to overcome Roosevelt’s preconceptions of him. The rest, as they say, is history. As Roosevelt no doubt quickly came to realise, it is not an exercise in semantics to question what the meaning of the word ‘drunk’ means to each individual. The British essayist C.P Snow encapsulated the paradox of Churchill’s drinking when he remarked, “Churchill cannot be an alcoholic because no alcoholic could drink that much.”

A remarkable constitution

Churchill was blessed with a remarkable constitution. His principal private secretary Jock Colville records Roosevelt’s own speechwriter and biographer, Robert E. Sherwood, as saying Churchill’s drinking habits were “unique” and “Olympian”. He continued that:

“Consumption of alcohol…continued at quite regular intervals through most of his waking hours…without visible effect on his [Churchill’s] health or mental processes. Anyone who suggested he became befuddled with drink obviously never had to become involved in an argument with him or some factual problem late night…”

Churchill had a titanic constitution. He almost certainly never drank in quantity without food, as Cita Stelzer confirms in her book Dinner with Churchill: Policy-Making at the Dinner Table. If there is an irony to be found in Roosevelt overcoming his initial perception of Churchill and forming a close working relationship with him, it’s to be found in Kennedy’s attempts at defamation.

Although Joe Kennedy was an ardent teetotaller, in the early 1930s he had made his fortune selling alcohol in the U.S after Prohibition had ended. In his book, When Lions Roar: The Churchills and the Kennedys, Thomas Maier charts Kennedy going to the UK with his mistress, Kay Halle, a friend of the Churchill’s, and with Roosevelt’s son, James Roosevelt. He had a business contact in Winston Churchill through Kaye, and the aim was to gain the British rights to send Scotch whisky, gin and other imported liquors for when the Prohibition era ended. Kaye, as Maier notes, impressed upon Kennedy the importance of Churchill as a political contact, which resulted in a visit to Churchill’s Chartwell home.

Where the unlikely connection thickens, as Maier discusses, is that throughout  the 1930s Churchill invested in American companies owned or related to Kennedy’s own business empire:

“The two men’s shared friendship with Bernard Baruch (later), their contacts with Kay Halle and the Roosevelts, their political ambitions for profitable relations between their two countries, and their stake in two companies involved in Kennedy’s business empire suggest a kindly alliance between them.”

Amanda Smith, in her 2001 collection of Kennedy’s letters, Hostage to Fortune, noted that Churchill “had been one of his earliest British political contacts, and had even suggested Kennedy’s name for an award celebrating freedom and peace” in 1938.

One of Kennedy’s trusted confidants, James A. Fayne, even said that Kennedy’s “greatest friend in Europe” was Winston Churchill. “Before Mr. Kennedy was appointed Ambassador, his chief world contact was highly personal though it was Churchill…and then they became oceans apart.”

Whatever the original source of the acrimony between Roosevelt and Churchill, the prime minister travelled to Washington several times after the United States entered the war, even spending the Christmas holidays at the White House with Roosevelt after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He survived his own reputation and the slander piled on top of it.

As William Manchester notes in his book The Last Lion, Churchill and his inner circle were deliberately charming to Kennedy all while knowing that he was an enemy to public morale. They even had his phone bugged. Referring Churchill as a “drunk and warmonger” has little historical resonance, while Kennedy’s contemporary reputation, by contrast, is as that of an unscrupulous political operator, bootlegger, defeatist, appeaser and alleged anti-Semite, according to biographer David Nasaw.

By the end of the summer of 1940, Churchill’s dramatic leadership abated Roosevelt’s reservations about his drinking, albeit not his doubts about taking America into another European war.

Never before had a reputation for knocking back a few ales had such a near-miss catastrophic impact on world affairs.


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.

Visit Alastair's website.

(image from the Miriam and IRA D Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, courtesy of New York Public Library)