CHURCHILL STYLE in Washington, D.C.
by Barry Singer
Winston Churchill visited our nation’s capital roughly a dozen times. Some trips were more memorable than others. During his first wartime visit as Prime Minister in late-December 1941, after a morning spent dictating from the tub (which he loved to do), Churchill emerged and was wrapped in a big towel by his valet, Sawyers. “He walked into his adjoining bedroom, followed by me, notebook in hand,” his traveling stenographer, Patrick Kinna, would later recall to Sir Martin Gilbert. Churchill “continued to dictate while pacing up and down the enormous room. Eventually the towel fell to the ground…Suddenly President Roosevelt entered the bedroom and saw the British Prime Minister completely naked. ‘You see, Mr. President,’ smiled Churchill, ‘I have nothing to conceal from you.'”
I recounted this very tasty (if widely repeated) Churchill tall tale in D.C. myself last weekend, as closing speaker for the Churchill Centre’s International Churchill Conference at George Washington University. An appreciative (if understandably somewhat dazed) crowd of roughly 350 steadfast Churchillians, who had savored a two-day marathon of Churchill speakers, duly saluted my efforts with sincere applause before dashing for the exits and a change of subject.
I’ve always been intrigued by Winston Churchill’s earlier, pre-World War II, Washington visits. His very first came during his first lecture tour of the U.S. in December 1900 as a 26-year-old Boer War hero. He met President McKinley and was, as he wrote to his mother, “considerably impressed.” Churchill returned to Washington in 1929 during an excursion across America as a cross-country tourist with his son, Randolph. Again he met the president – Hoover, in this case – before embarking on a tour of Civil War battlefields. Churchill was fascinated by the American Civil War and would later write a deeply knowledgeable assessment of it in his A History of the English-Speaking Peoples.
In February 1932, after recovering from his near-fatal encounter with a car while crossing Fifth Avenue in New York City, Churchill was back in Washington on another lecture tour. British Ambassador Sir Ronald Lindsay would brief him daily in Churchil’s bedroom at the British Embassy. “These two made the oddest contrast,” Churchill’s secretary Phyllis Moir later wrote. “The immensely dignified diplomat standing extremely ill at ease at the foot of Churchill’s old-fashioned four poster bed, with the Peter Pan of British politics sitting up, a cigar in his mouth, his tufts of red hair as yet uncombed, scanning the morning newspapers.”
While in Washington on this trip, Churchill discovered that his old flame, the actress Ethyl Barrymore – to whom he had once proposed marriage, and been rejected – was in town performing at the National Theatre. Churchill sent Barrymore a box of flowers backstage with a note reminding her of:
“…a young admirer who used to sup alone in Claridge’s in the glittering days of Edward VII’s London.”
The old softie.