October 14, 2008

Reviewed by Richard M. Langworth, Editor Finest Hour.

For a man written off in one recent book as “a violent drunk whose life was marred by scandals, divorces and ‘infirmity of purpose,”’ Sir Winston’s son Randolph has certainly done well by biographers. Already we have had Anita Leslie’s Cousin Randolph (1985), Brian Roberts’s Randolph (1984), and Kay Halle’s valedictory  The Great Unpretender (The Grand Original in the American edition). Now Randolph’s son Winston adds the most elaborate biography of all, I completing a trilogy of filial “lives” that began with Sir Winston’s two volumes of his own father (1908) and Randolph’s first two volumes of Sir Winston’s official biography (1966-67). Philip Ziegler remarked that the biography of the present author by his son “can presumably be expected in about twenty years.

Since receiving one of the last letters Randolph Churchill ever wrote, I have always been among his admirers. Yes, he drank (up to two bottles of whisky a day, his son says). Yes, he was twice divorced (although his last love, Natalie Bevan, lasted from 1957 through the end of his life because she is a singular lady who brooked no nonsense from him, thereby earning his total devotion). But “infirmity of purpose” is scarcely a charge that sticks. His six attempts to enter Parliament (he held only an uncontested seat in 1940-45) were condemned by his refusal to put up with local party humbug—but hardly infirm; his career as a highly-paid journalist was studded with scoops; his biographies of Lord Derby and Sir Winston were meritorious. And most of the “scandals” involving Randolph turned against the British press, whose owners and minions he regularly, roundly and justifiably excoriated, in and out of court.

Above all, Randolph was intensely interesting. “Aside from his heroically dismal manners, his gambling, arrogance, vicious temper, indiscretions and aggression,” Andrew Roberts says, he “was generous, patriotic, extravagant and amazingly courageous.” This combination of diverse traits justifies the now-three biographies and Kay Halle’s book of fulsome tributes.

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His son writes: “Randolph had no idea how unpleasant and offensive he could be when he was drunk. By the time he was sober he had largely forgotten or become oblivious to what had passed. When in good form, he could be the best of companions, a brilliant conversationalist, bubbling with wit and panache. A dinner hostess could be assured that whatever else might happen, the evening would not be dull if Randolph was among her guests, and in a crisis there was no friend more loyal. He was as likely to be offensive to a prime minister as a waiter; he could battle heroically for what he believed to be right at sometimes considerable cost to himself.” Thus such impressive people as Sir Martin Gilbert could testify to Randolph’s noble qualities, while Michael Foot, (who twice beat him for a seat in Parliament) could say unblushingly, “I belong to the most exclusive club in London; the friends of Randolph Churchill.”

Thus too his son could close this book so movingly: “We buried him in Bladon churchyard, beside his grandfather, and his father, whom he loved and revered so deeply. To this day the memory of him lingers on in the hearts of his friends.”

Though touching in parts and well written throughout, this filial biography is anything but hagiographic. Randolph’s son writes forcefully of the character faults that proved “a limit to what even his friends could accept.” Disappointingly, much of the basic ground was already covered in the three previous books, and there are few new photographs. What is new is a generous helping of Randolph’s and Sir Winston’s correspondence, much of it previously unpublished, which forms a poignant portrayal of his relationship with his father. This makes His Father’s Son extremely pertinent to Churchill studies.

 As Christopher Hudson wrote in his review: “If [Winston] had not been a great man, he would have been a perfect father—building a tree house, helping Randolph with his homework, counselling and encouraging, and later giving him the annual allowance on which Randolph depended, even when Winston was so broke he [tried] to sell Chartwell.” Unfortunately, Winston also spoilt his son, allowing him to hold endlessly forth in company with the leading political lights of the day—a practice which not only made Randolph a superb extemporaneous speaker, but bred a disdain for people of lesser intellect, and an all-too-ready appetite for alcohol.

Early on, Winston was under few illusions. In 1929 he wrote: “Your idle and lazy life is very offensive to me. You appear to be leading a perfectly useless existence. You do not value or profit by the opportunities Oxford offers … To these causes of dissatisfaction you add an insolence toward men and things which is rapidly affecting your position outside Oxford and is certainly not sustained by effort or achievement.” But Winston never let the sun go down upon his wrath, and when Randolph’s idleness ended in lecture tours and races for Parliament, he lent his support, even when his son’s campaigns were politically deleterious. During World War II, when Randolph served with distinction in North Africa and Yugoslavia, Winston entrusted him with sensitive tasks which he performed with skill and discretion. After the war, he willed his invaluable archive to Randolph, and to Randolph’s son; and in 1959, he bestowed the ultimate accolade by inviting Randolph to become his official biographer.

Randolph in turn honored and copied his father, as his father had his grandfather. But simultaneously, he nursed a grievance that usually surfaced whenever he was drunk. At a dinner on Onassis’s yacht in 1963, when the elder Churchill was 89, Randolph suddenly turned on his father with a stream of invective that sent Sir Winston to his cabin, pale and shaking. Onassis got rid of Randolph the next day by arranging for an invitation to interview the King of Greece. Randolph left the ship smiling, but in the launch Anthony Montague Brown found him weeping: “You didn’t think I was taken in by that plan, do you?” he said. “I do so very much love that man, but something always goes wrong between us.

This is clearly the best book about Randolph Churchill and—more important historically perhaps—about his relationship with his great father. “Randolph, Hope and Glory,” as detractors referred to him in the 1930s, emerges as a dynamic speaker, a brilliant journalist, a gallant soldier, a skilled biographer, a frustrated son, and, in the end, an honest man: as honest about himself as he was of others—not so bad a summation, after all. I think Randolph would settle for that.

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