By Tina Pendergrast Santi Flaherty
Things happen quickly when you are with a Churchill. Randolph Churchill, the great grandson of Sir Winston Churchill, zipped into New York on a Friday and vanished just as quickly on a Sunday. Invited to the “Big Apple” to present the Winston Churchill International Polo Cup on Sunday, September 19th, which was organized by the New York Churchillians of which I am a member, he was a man on a mission.
As everyone was eager to welcome Randolph to New York, I offered to give a small luncheon party in his honor at my home the day before the polo match. As I live in the Penthouse of my building which is located on Fifth Avenue, I thought that Randolph would enjoy the terrace views of the dramatic Manhattan skyline, the tree top glory of Central Park as well as the majesty of the Metropolitan Museum, which is two short blocks away from my home. Our building also has an interesting provenance as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis moved to 1040 Fifth Avenue after her time in the White House and lived here the final thirty years of her life, which led me to write a book about her. Her husband, President John Kennedy, was known to be a great fan of Sir Winston Churchill and conferred on him an honorary citizenship of the United States in 1963.
It was a beautiful, sunny New York day, with clear blue skies and quite warm — as it can be in September — a perfect day for a luncheon.
Never having entertained a Churchill before, I wondered what set of china would best reflect the Churchill legacy. Suddenly I remembered that as a young boy and into manhood, Sir Winston was a passionate butterfly collector. An avid lepidopterist, it was a hobby he returned to over and over throughout his adventurous life. I also happen to love butterflies and have a china collection in a Butterfly Garden pattern. Voila! Out I pulled the china along with a dozen frosted butterfly figurines in green, yellow, amber, blue and clear, which I spread the length of the dining table. Remembering that Clementine, later the Baroness Spencer, Churchill had a rose garden at Chartwell, I filled three of my antique Irish silver potato bowls with masses of red roses and placed them on the table as well. To remind Randolph of his homeland, I used my collection of English antique George IV silver water goblets.
My next challenge was to determine what to serve. Knowing that Randolph’s famous great grandfather, Sir Winston, had a prodigious appetite, I figured that Randolph was probably a chip off the old block. I decided the only answer was to serve extra large portions of everything including puffy crab cake appetizers, copious portions of Veal Roma with fresh garden vegetables and two large scoops of pistachio and coconut ice cream laced with dark chocolate sauce and home-baked chocolate chip cookies. We enjoyed our meal with ample glasses of Pol Roger champagne served in crystal flutes of the St. Louis pattern.
As there were an intimate seven of us at the table, including the guest of honor; we all became instant fast friends as Randolph totally charmed everyone with his wit and wisdom. Table talk was eclectic and we discussed everything from his beautiful great great American grandmother, Jenny (Jerome) Churchill, the mother of Winston and his brother Jack, to the fact that Sir Winston and Mahatma Gandhi were much better friends than most people realized. Randolph also pointed out to everyone at the table that his great grandfather was a superb horseman and a champion polo player.
One of the many highlights of the luncheon was Randolph’s reading of the remarkable and important letter that Winston Churchill wrote to his friend and mentor, General Sir Ian Hamilton. This handwritten 12-page letter gives Sir Winston’s personal account of his actions as a young 24-year-old officer in the 21st Lancers in the Battle of Omdurman. The battle was the culmination of Sir Herbert Kitchener’s re-conquest of the Sudan, which resulted in a complete Anglo-Egyptian victory over the numerous but ill-armed nationalist forces of the Mahdi, followers of a Sudanese religious movement. Sir Winston was often in great personal danger, especially during a celebrated charge by the 21st Lancers, also known as the “Saucy Devils” for their courage under fire, but came through unscathed with his typical good luck. Randolph explained that he had the good fortune to acquire the letter at a public auction in London, which is now safely resting in the Churchill Archives Centre at Churchill College in Cambridge, England.
Our luncheon lasted nearly four hours, which is a long time in a city that prides itself in doing everything in a “New York Minute.” At one point, I didn’t think the luncheon would ever end as there wasn’t a single guest who seemed to have any desire to leave the table. Eventually Randolph headed off to the leafy ‘burbs of Greenwich, Connecticut where the polo match would take place the next day.
Sunday was just as busy, particularly for Randolph as everyone wanted to shake his hand and thank him for coming to the match. There were rounds of polo, more Pol Roger champagne, and an exuberant close to the match by Randolph. Needless to say his friendly and cheerful manner won the Churchill family many new enthusiastic fans. Then off he went in a flash, flying back to London and to his family a few hours later. He emailed me the next day to thank me for the luncheon and said he was back at work at his desk on Monday morning.
Those Churchills don’t waste time. In less than 48 hours he came, he saw and he conquered!
Tina Pendergrast Santi Flaherty is an author and philanthropist. She was described by Business Week as “one of America’s top corporate women.”