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Cita Stelzer’s “Dinner with Churchill” to be Released Next Month in the UK

Here is a book that tells us what it would have been like to dine with Winston Churchill and enjoy his strategic thinking, his curiosity, his wit and his humour, not to mention the food and wine he so carefully selected. In this new book, aspects of Churchill’s personality that have never been fully described come to life.

Cita Stelzer’s DINNER WITH CHURCHILL tells the tale of an extraordinary man deploying an extraordinary method of representing his nation’s interests and, in his view, those of the English-speaking peoples. Stelzer’s book focuses on Churchill’s use of dinner parties and meals to accomplish what he believed could not always be accomplished in the more formal setting of a conference room. It describes in engaging detail some dozen dinners, and some lunches and picnics – and a few breakfasts — what was discussed, by whom, what was served and poured, who sat where, and why.

His curiosity led him to want to know, first-hand, what his negotiating partners were like; his self-confidence led him to believe that face-to-face meetings, the less formal the better, were a perfect occasion in which to deploy his skills. And his fame enabled him to bring together the best, brightest and most important players of his day. He had many dining rooms in which to shine: Downing Street, Chequers, Chartwell, Teheran, Moscow, Casablanca and aboard ships and trains. Where better to get to know an ally or opponent, where better to display his charm and breadth of knowledge than at a dinner table? Where better could Churchill rally political supporters, and plan strategy and tactics, than at a dinner?

It is a story of both successes and failures: successes in Washington and Fulton, Missouri; failure in Bermuda. In Washington the Prime Minister solidified President Franklin Roosevelt’s support for the “Europe First” strategy he had accepted after Pearl Harbor despite the fact that America had been attacked not by Germany but by Japan. Churchill flew to Washington immediately after the Pearl Harbor attack and moved into the White House. Stelzer describes the bond that was formed between the two leaders as they ate and drank together for three weeks, most often late into the night, and agreed the strategy for pursuing the war. All this in spite of President Roosevelt’s famously lethal martinis and what was then considered the worst food in White House history as the unimaginative menus Stelzer describes demonstrate.

En route to Fulton, Missouri, in 1946, Churchill deployed his personal diplomacy in pursuit of agreement from another American President, Harry S Truman. His importunings, combined with Truman’s secret information, contributed to the President’s eventual willingness to adopt policies that reflected Churchill’s definition of the postwar geopolitical situation. Dining — and playing poker — en route to Fulton in the President’s dining car proved as effective as the most stylish dinner party at Chartwell.

But in Bermuda he failed to persuade still another President to open negotiations with the Soviets to ease Cold War tensions. Stelzer details Churchill’s fruitless meeting with President Dwight D. Eisenhower at the Mid-Ocean Club in Bermuda in1953 at which the Prime Minister was unable to persuade Ike to agree to meet with the Soviet Union’s leaders. Although Churchill did cable Clementine “Food Good”. Fifty years after this meeting, a lunch commemorating the Bermuda Summit was held at the Mid-Ocean Club, one of several commemorative meals described in the book.

It is clear to Stelzer that Churchill used the informal setting of dinner parties to enhance his efforts to shape the future of Europe and the post-war world. The eminent military historian Carlo d’Este sums up Churchill’s efforts:

“Not a single moment of his day was ever wasted. When not sleeping he was working, and whether over a meal or traveling someplace, he utilized every waking moment to the fullest”.

Stelzer discovered the extent to which Churchill personally set the stage for his diplomacy by selecting menus, choosing the right mix of guests, and at times selecting the musical accompaniments to dinners — — at the Potsdam Conference for some reason ordering out Mexican music. Churchill paid particular attention to seating arrangements. When dining with generals, his own and Allied, and politicians, family and friends, it mattered to him who sat next to whom and where interpreters sat as he was interested in maximizing conversation, conversations that would benefit his wartime strategy or advance his political goals. He at times personally drew up the seating plans.

Stelzer does not confine her tale to the famous wartime conferences. In the spring of 1935, Churchill, who was then “in the wilderness”, having been out of ministerial office for six years, planned a dinner for those, like himself, who opposed the contentious India Bill then making its way through Parliament. Fifty-five MPs and Lords attended. One thank-you letter pointed out that the dinner, held a week before the forthcoming vote, had helped “not only to steady the troops for next week but to form a rallying point for our Conservative and Imperial thought.” 2 Stelzer’s book shows us the guest list, the invoice from Claridge’s, and Churchill’s attitude towards an always fraught subject – tipping.

There were also private lunches and dinners with King George VI, at which Churchill traded information with his sovereign. . Churchill established a regular lunch with the King, called his “Tuesdays”: the first such lunch was on 10 June 1940, exactly a month after he became Prime Minister. The lunches were private, just the two men, serving themselves, no servants, buffet-style from a sideboard.

During the war, the Prime Minister also invited the King for dinners in the Downing Street basement dining room, introducing him to British and American military personnel, and to other members of the Coalition Cabinet. At Churchill’s suggestion, these dinners were to be commemorated on an impressively large plaque, reproduced in the book, still set into the wall in the No. 10 basement, now used as to house the secretarial staff.

Meals were not the only dining experiences used by Churchill to score a point or two. Churchill often said he felt more comfortable with someone he knew, someone with whom he had broken bread, and not necessarily at dinner. Even a tea break could serve his purposes. Early in his career, when Minister of Munitions, Churchill faced a serious strike in a munitions factory and the striking workers had been evicted from their Glasgow homes. Churchill agreed to meet one of the strikers and suggested, according to the returned striker, “Let’s have a cup of tea and a bit of cake together. … We debated over the teacups”. 3 The issue was resolved to the mutual satisfaction of both parties.

In addition to teas there were picnics, at one of which he confided to Field Marshall Montgomery, “If only I could dine with Stalin once a week, there would be no trouble at all”.4 This picnic was held on the Normandy beaches a few days after D-Day, one of several informal picnics that Churchill held with his military commanders. Churchill relished picnics and Stelzer’s book tells us what he preferred to sing when eating out of doors.

Stelzer also writes about Churchill’s preferences in foods – clear soup is high on his list — whether when visiting Stalin in Moscow or in the trenches. She pays attention, too, to his choice of champagne — Pol Roger of course –and whisky, including his alleged over-consumption, and to his use of the cigar both as a source of pleasure and as a tool to prolong dinner parties when the conversation proved stimulating and informative. She also recounts the steps MI5 had to take to ensure that the cigars, his victory symbol, Churchill received from admirers would not blow up in the Prime Minister’s face.

Stelzer makes clear that Churchill subjected himself to the rationing rules that he himself had put in place, rationing required by supply and shipping interruptions and manpower shortages in food producing factories. Stelzer’s rationing chapter explains how the Prime Minster’s office requested extra rations from the Ministry of Food whenever he entertained guests at Downing Street or Chequers, listing the name of every guest to back up the extra ration requests. Churchill was sometimes able to supplement his rations by legal and appreciated gifts from friends whose lands produced excess food, fish and game. Churchill cared deeply about the effect of rationing on the British people and immersed himself in every detail of the plan in order to minimize government interference and to lessen the necessary shared suffering. He minuted his officials about food for poultry farmers, plovers’ eggs, and sugar for beekeepers and much else.

Any reasonable assessment must conclude that Churchill won more than he lost at dinners, picnics and teas. So here is a tale of some dinners — and other meals — at which Churchill changed history, and others at which he failed to do so. Stelzer’s book is full of many never-before-seen photos including menus, bills, invitations, seating charts and cartoons.

Article reprinted with the kind permission of Cita Stelzer and Short Books.

To be published in the UK 9 October 2011 by Short Books. US publicaiton is expected to be in early 2012. 305 pages, 64 images and photos, many of which have not been seen before, such as menus, bills of fare, Prime Ministerial minutes, dining rooms, guests lists, cartoons, several picnics, etc. 

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