Did Winston Churchill have bookstore publishing parties? I have yet to find any direct record that he did, which hardly means that he didn’t. Surely Churchill must have celebrated the release of each one of his books with some sort of fete.
On Wednesday evening, May 2, I celebrated the official publication of Churchill Style with a party at my place, Chartwell Booksellers, kicked off promptly at 6:00 with Champagne provided by Pol Roger – Churchill’s Champagne of choice. I believe that Pol Roger was also Churchill’s parents’ preferred bubbly, so you might say that Churchill’s own taste for it was inherited. The Pol-Roger family still take enormous pride in their historic Churchill connection. Just as Madame Odette Pol-Roger looked after Churchill’s Champagne needs, Christian Pol-Roger, the family’s reigning heir, personally saw to it that there was Pol Roger Champagne at Chartwell on this occasion, for which I thank him gratefully.
Our hors d’oeuvres were derived from a list of Churchill’s favorite foods that I assembled for Churchill Style, as reimagined by my friend Neil Kleinberg, renowned chef and owner of the Clinton Street Baking Company. Churchill’s tastes were not complex, but what Neil concocted out of smoked salmon, caviar and oysters, gruyere cheese, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, with chocolate éclairs for dessert, so dazzled our invited guests that there was literally a run on the kitchen.
Oblivious to the hysteria, I just kept on signing.
The party finale was a showstopping performance of a few of Churchill’s favorite songs by two of the finest singers I know, Mark Singer (my brother) and Darcy Dunne (Mark’s wife).
Winston Churchill loved to sing. He preferred music hall tunes, for which he had a prodigious memory apparently, and patter songs from the Savoy Operas of Gilbert and Sullivan. We opened our little song sampler with “(There’ll be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover,” which was written by two Americans, Walter Kent and Nat Burton in 1941, before America had entered the war. It was Vera Lynn’s recording of the song that made it a huge hit in England in 1942. I have only recently learned that there are, in fact, no bluebirds indigenous to Britain, and so there never have actually been any bluebirds flying over the White Cliffs of Dover. Still, the song celebrated something very real: the successful evacuation, at Churchill’s direction, of the Allied Forces from Dunkirk, France, to Dover in May 1940 and the subsequent victory of the RAF in the Battle of Britain.
On January 22, 1887, at the age of 12, Winston Churchill attended the opening night of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Ruddigore; or, The Witch’s Curse with his parents at the Savoy Theatre in London. He would go on to attend many, many Gilbert & Sullivan performances seated in the royal box at the Savoy Theatre – forever Churchill’s favorite theater.
In December 1943, just after the Teheran Conference, Churchill suffered two mild heart attacks. He was flown with his wife, Clementine, to Marrakech for three weeks of rest. Throughout the evening of New Year’s Day 1944, he listened delightedly to gramophone records of The Pirates of Penzance, part of a complete Gilbert & Sullivan set given to him that Christmas by his daughter Mary. “On the whole one of the happiest hours I have had in these hard days!” he wrote to his daughter the next day. “How sweet of you to have the impulse! How clever to have turned it into action and fact!”
We decided to let Darcy tackle the big tune from Penzance, W.S. Gilbert’s tongue twisting “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General.” As an act of feminist contrarian-casting the choice proved inspired. Darcy knocked the song out of the park. Our guests – including (here, from left to right) the distinguished historian John Lukacs, Mr. Lukacs’s son, and my own mother, were entranced.
Noel Coward and Winston Churchill had a rocky but long lasting acquaintance. Coward was a houseguest at Chartwell, and Churchill visited Coward at Firefly, his hilltop retreat in Jamaica, where he pushed Coward, an inveterate pastel painter, to try his hand at oils.
In 1930, while driving from Hanoi to Saigon, “without pen, paper, or piano, ” Coward composed a song that he sang just a short time later, “triumphantly and unaccompanied to my traveling companion on the verandah of a small jungle guest house.” It would become a signature of his cabaret act.
Churchill loved this song. Enroute to meet President Roosevelt for the first time at the Atlantic Conference in 1941 on the HMS Prince of Wales, he watched movies nightly. To fill the intervals while the reels were being changed one evening, he asked if there was a record of Noel Coward’s “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” onboard. When one was produced, Churchill sang along. He knew every word. So, too, did my brother Mark, as he demonstrated in a bravura display of post-colonial Anglophilic sass that thoroughly riveted my daughter Sara, her friends, and their American Girl dolls.
Winston Churchill spent four and a half years at Harrow School, mostly at the bottom of his class – “the unhappiest days of my life,” he later told his secretary, John Colville. In September 1940, in the heat of the Blitz, Harrow School was hit by hundreds of German incendiary bombs. One of the few things that Churchill had loved at Harrow was the tradition of Harrow songs, a trove of school hymns sung at gatherings throughout the school year. On December 18, 1940 Churchill returned to Harrow and, to his own surprise, thoroughly enjoyed himself. Old Harrow songs were sung and the Prime Minister quietly blinked back tears. The headmaster at Harrow, Arthur Paul Boissier, later was told that “on occasions when affairs looked overblack, Mr. Churchill . . . would sing an appropriate verse or two” from one of the school songs, “and then get back to business.”
We closed our program and my Churchill Style book party with “Four Years On,” a Churchill favorite, including two verses that were added specifically to honor him, the first on November 12, 1954, on the occasion of his 80th Birthday, the second sung on November 28, 1964, in honor of Churchill’s 90th, and last birthday.
The roar of approval from our guests at the rousing conclusion to “Four Years On” led inescapably to the thought: Has anyone ever done a full evening of Churchill’s favorite songs? Or, in fact, are four songs just about the perfect number.