She began her letters “My Brilliant Winston” to shape a frail and depressive boy into a man that would one day coin the phrase, calibrate the mission, and single-handedly commandeer the historic "Battle for Britain." Indeed, Winston Churchill’s life was a trajectory of events leading to his crowning achievement: the defeat of Adolf Hitler’s Germany.
He was a soldier, prisoner of war, member of parliament and statesman. Yet long before his legendary roar, Winston Churchill was a boy. “Jennie Churchill: Winston’s American Mother” explores how an American socialite and single mother with rather libertine values may have shaped the most iconic British Prime Minister of the 20th century. We recently spoke with the author in London.
Churchill was born on 30 November 1874 at his family's ancestral home, Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire. His father, Lord Randolph Churchill, is elected a Member of Parliament for Woodstock in 1873. His mother, Jennie, is the daughter of Leonard Jerome; a flamboyant and successful stock speculator known as "The King of Wall Street."
In 1876, Churchill's paternal grandfather, John Spencer-Churchill, is appointed Viceroy of Ireland, and his son Randolph becomes his private secretary in Dublin. Throughout much of the 1880s, newlyweds Randolph and Jennie are effectively estranged, and their two sons are cared for by their nanny, Elizabeth Everest, whom when she dies in 1895 Churchill writes "she had been my dearest and most intimate friend during the whole of the twenty years I had lived.”
The Churchill’s may have moved feely amongst the inner circles of the monarch, society and members of parliament, but access to the corridors of power came with a cost. In a miscalculated power play as the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Randolph opposed the navy's demands on the Treasury and threatened to resign. In one of the greatest blunders of British political history, Churchill expected his resignation to be followed by the unconditional surrender of the cabinet, and his restoration to office on his own terms. whilst instead the prime minister reacted to the resignation by accepting it. A mere 8 months in office, Lord Randolph Churchill effectively ousted himself with the distinction of being the shortest serving Chancellor of the Exchequer in British history.
Parliament, of course, was made up of two chambers. Randolph may have understood the inner-workings of the House of Lords, but it was his American wife, Jenny, who understood the Commons. She'd famously tear his speeches apart, furiously rewriting them in the early morning hours, when upon her husband's pre-mature death her focus suddenly turned to her son. The House of Lords is comprised of the British aristocracy and Randolph's eldest son is the heir apparent.
My Brilliant Winston
After two unsuccessful attempts to gain admittance to the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, Winston Churchill succeeds on his third and is accepted as a cadet in the cavalry in September 1893. His father dies in January 1895, as does his nanny Elizabeth Everest, a month after Churchill graduates from Sandhurst, absconding the two principle influencers of his life. At 21 years old, he’s effectively the eldest son of a now single mother he barely knows. Her focus on her son is shaped by the sudden and complete destruction of his father’s career shortly before his death at a day and time when politics is still a family business. Discontent with her role as the dowager, Jennie Churchill becomes the newest doyenne of the family firm.
Sebba scribbles an important sidebar into Churchill’s story. “She was a woman ahead of her time,” the author says, “in the way she accommodated her son’s peculiarities.” Instructing Winston to paint, learn languages, and most importantly to write became the tools with which Churchill not only managed the depressions he referred to as his “Mad Dog,” but these skills in particular are what temper and inform his political destiny, too.
While the British Empire achieved its largest territorial extent immediately after World War I, Britain was no longer the world's preeminent industrial or military power. Despite the final victory of the Allied Forces in WWII, the economic austerity that followed led to a decolonization movement, in which Britain granted independence to most of her territories within the empire.
That the Churchill's relationship coincided with the Gilded Age; a time of rapid economic growth in the United States, where American wages grew exponentially to those in Europe, wasn't lost on their son who single-handedly forged the "Special Relationship" between the United States and Kingdom. The political, social, diplomatic, cultural, economic, legal, environmental, religious, military and historic relations between the two countries that led the Allied Forces to victory in WWII.
The Special Relationship fostered organizations like the United Nations and NATO which combined effectively advocate for and protect democracy around the world. Having described her as having “the wine of life in her veins," it may have been Winston Churchill's dual citizenship and both parents which enabled him to intrinsically see, live and learn the insurable lessons of the love affair between British politics and American wealth. That the world's economies became interconnected following WWII meant that isolationism — national policies that avoid political and/or economic entanglements with other countries — was no longer relevant. "Money is like manure." Churchill famously said, "its only good if you spread it around." And in that statement we see the tone and tenor of them both.