WINSTON CHURCHILL & DETROIT… But Quick…
by Barry Singer
Winston Churchill’s assignations with Detroit appear to have been fleeting. Churchill toured the U.S. three times in his long life and on each occasion he called on Detroit (or its environs) in haste. His first brush with the region came after landing in New York aboard the Lucania on December 8, 1900 for a speaking tour arranged around his newfound celebrity as a Boer War escapee. Churchill spoke at the Waldorf Astoria, introduced by none other than Mark Twain; met President McKinley in Washington; and dined with New York Governor Teddy Roosevelt in Albany (just after Roosevelt had been elected Vice President and just before he would become President, upon McKinley’s assassination). Finally, Churchill’s peregrinations brought him to Ann Arbor on the 9th of January 1901, where he addressed students at the University of Michigan.
Afterward, Churchill submitted to an interview by a college journalist. “I was lucky enough to start with a name very well known in England,” the 26-year-old Churchill told his younger counterpart, “and as you know a name counts a great deal with us. In your country it is somewhat of a handicap to have a great father – few of your great men have had great sons.”
The interview commenced after-hours at Churchill’s hotel (“The Cook House”), across a tray that held two fresh bottles of whiskey, glasses and ice. It ended at 4:00 in the morning, with one bottle downed. Hours later, Churchill was gone.
In August 1929, after turning in his seals of office as Chancellor of the Exchequer following the ouster of Baldwin’s Conservative government, Churchill embarked on a three-month tour of the United States and Canada—“to see the country and to meet the leaders of its fortunes,” as he wrote to his American friend, the financier Bernard Baruch. He was accompanied by his son, Randolph; his brother, Jack; and Jack’s son, Johnny.
It seems that Churchill (if not his entire traveling party) visited Detroit for just the day on October 3, 1929. What did Churchill do in Detroit? No one knows; no record of his movements exists. Was he peeking in at America’s auto industry? Seems likely. For sure, he was back in Chicago with Baruch the very next morning.
Churchill definitely was in Detroit on February 5, 1932, speaking at Orchestra Hall as part of a protracted U.S. lecture tour; the one that his infamous New York City traffic accident had nearly derailed. His subject: “The World Facing Disaster.”
A special guard of a dozen detectives, a half-dozen plainclothes policemen and assorted uniformed cops escorted Churchill around Detroit that day, on State Department orders, to protect him from Indian nationalists threatening assassination for his very vocal opposition to Indian independence. Churchill’s car was stoned twice in Detroit and a bag of human excrement was thrown into the lobby of the place where he was staying. It has been suggested that Churchill stayed at The Detroit Athletic Club the night of his lecture. According to an article in The Detroit Evening Times, he arrived late on lecture day direct from Toledo . Some accounts cite him leaving Detroit immediately after his lecture. Others place him on a train to Chicago the next morning. Did Churchill indeed sleep over at The Detroit Athletic Club; or did he perhaps just freshen up there and change clothes? Like I did.
Like Churchill, I blew into Detroit last weekend and was gone within 24 hours. I landed on a grey Friday afternoon aboard a delayed Delta flight from New York and climbed into an S.U.V. parked outside Detroit Metro airport with my host at the wheel, Richard Marsh – President of Michigan’s Winston Churchill Society; his wife Mary Jo in back. Ferried straightaway to the historic Detroit Athletic Club, I formalized my appearance in the formidably elegant Mens’ Locker Room, zipped down to the Ponchartrain Room for cocktails, chatted amiably with a crowd of charming Churchillians, dined with them in the adjacent Georgian Room on a sumptuous 4-course dinner of Winston Churchill’s favorite foods (accompanied by plenty of Pol Roger champagne), addressed the assembled on the subject of Churchill Style, fielded some nifty questions from the floor, crashed at the Marsh’s magnificent Ann Arbor manse, and was on a plane back to New York by 4:00 p.m. Saturday.
Something about Churchill and Detroit makes for quick getaways. Still, I had a swell time. Absent the excrement, I’m certain Churchill did too.