In 1949, after “the best feast of conversational entertainment ever enjoyed” and an uncanny prophecy, Churchill suffered his first stroke—within an hour of removing for the first time his father’s ring from his hand. Lord Beaverbrook’s companion offers rare insights into the Churchill persona, his long friendship with “Max”—and words which bear an uncanny relevance today.
By Michael Wardell1
It was raining heavily on the French Riviera on an August morning of 1949. Sir Winston Churchill, Lord Beaverbrook, and I were sitting in the drawing room of La Capponcina, Lord Beaverbrook’s villa at Cap d’Ail, across the bay from Monte Carlo. The gramophone was playing a selection of records picked more or less at random by Lord Beaverbrook. There were the French songs of the popular fancy that summer, La Seine, Polygon, Clopin-Clopant, mixed with a new rendering of Old Folks at Home, Grieg’s Homage March, pieces from Cavalleria Rusticana, and finally the Miserere from Il Trovatore.
“Let’s have some more, Max,” said Churchill.
“What sort do you want, popular or classical?” asked Beaverbrook.
“Let’s have some beautiful music like the last,” Churchill replied.
Beaverbrook rummaged, and put on Sir Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance. He said: “This will be played in fifteen years when they carry you through the streets of London.”
Churchill was silent for a moment, then shook his head. “I don’t much care what they do to me when I’m dead. I’ve thought I would rather like to be carried in a farm wagon.”
“Nothing of the sort,” replied Beaverbrook. ‘You’ll be buried with all the pomp and circumstance that is your due. The people will insist on it. And rightly. But you might as well listen to the music while you’re alive. It’s one of the greatest things ever written.”
Churchill listened to the triumphant tones of Land of Hope and Glory. His eyes glistened as his face became heavy with emotion. “It’s a terrible thing,” he said, “to have lived to see England brought down to ruin and the Empire lost — Egypt, Burma, India — I’ve always said I could defend India against the world — all except the English … For the first time in my life I hate the other side. They are mean and wicked, wallowing in their filthy slime! Damn them!
“And what folly to slang the Americans. After all, if I were an American, and had to listen to the abuse from the socialists over here, I think I might be tempted to say that America had no more money to spend on Europe and England. America has immense resources and almost limitless powers of production; all the gold in the world, because all the world wants her products but cannot pay in kind; is protected by the atom bomb; and will spend her resources to the fullest extent in raising the standard of her own people, rather than give it to bolster up a socialist state, and then be called ‘pot-bellied financiers’ for their pains. In short, I would become an extreme isolationist.”
The room in which we were sitting occupies the central portion of the villa. It has a row of French windows on one side and a great stone fireplace at the far end over which the arms of some long-forgotten nobleman are carved, together with the motto “Ne derelictas me Domine”, “Do not forsake me, O Lord.” The words appealed to Lord Beaverbrook, who acquired them with the fireplace when he bought the house in 1939. When, as Chancellor of the University of New Brunswick, he built a wing to the library on the campus at Fredericton in memory of the Prime Ministers Bonar Law and Bennett, both of them boys of New Brunswick, he had the words carved into the stone over the entrance.
The room opens onto a wide verandah and garden, with a colonnade that frames a matchless view over the Mediterranean, usually sparkling blue in the sunlight. That day the sea was grey as the sky, and Churchill’s sombre mood just then seemed to match them both. He had come to La Capponcina for a holiday, arriving by air at Nice with a great retinue of secretaries, servants and detectives, French and English.
He had been at Strasbourg, laying the foundations of federation at the inaugural session of the Council of Europe. He had received a very warm welcome. M. Edouard Herriot, the French statesman, in formally opening the proceedings pending the election of M. Paul-Henri Spaak to the Presidency, had said of Churchill: “You will permit me to offer our common homage to one to whom every free man owes so deep a debt — my illustrious friend Winston Churchill, who has shown us to what heights human energy is capable of attaining. In many moments of deep tragedy he bore on his shoulders the whole weight of a world crying for help. From his mind sprang the movement which has brought us together here.”
This was the truth. Winston Churchill’s address to the University of Zurich on 19 September 1946, was one of the epoch-making speeches of all time. In it he launched the idea of European federation in words that could hardly have come from any other man. “I wish to speak about the tragedy of Europe, this noble continent,” he had said, “the home of all the great parent races of the Western world, the foundation of Christian faith and ethics, the origin of most of the culture, arts, philosophy and science both of ancient and modern times. If Europe were once united in the sharing of its common inheritance, there would be no limit to the happiness, prosperity and glory which its 300 million or 400 million people could enjoy. Yet it is from Europe that has sprung that series of frightful nationalistic quarrels, originated by the Teutonic nations in their rise to power, which we have seen in this twentieth century and in our own lifetime wreck the peace and mar the prospects of all mankind.
“What is the plight to which Europe has been reduced? Some of the smaller states have indeed made a good recovery, but over wide areas are a vast, quivering mass of tormented, hungry, careworn and bewildered human beings, who wait in the ruins of their cities and homes, and scan the dark horizons for the approach of some new form of tyranny or terror. Among the victors there is a babel of voices, among the vanquished the sullen silence of despair. That is all that Europeans, grouped in so many states and nations — and that is all that the German races — have got, by tearing each other to pieces and spreading havoc far and wide. Indeed, but for the fact that the great Republic across the Atlantic realized that the ruin and enslavement of Europe would involve her own fate as well, and stretched out hands of succour and guidance, the Dark Ages would have returned in all their cruelty and squalor. They may still return.”
He went on to state a remedy. “We must build a kind of United States of Europe … I am now going to say something that will astonish you. The first step in the re-creation of the European family must be a partnership between France and Germany. … There can be no revival of Europe without a spiritually great France and a spiritually great Germany. The structure of the United States of Europe will be such as to make the material strength of a single State less important. Small nations will count as much as large ones, and gain their honour by a contribution to the common cause…
“But I must give you warning, time may be short. At present there is a breathing space. The cannons have ceased firing. The fighting has stopped. But the dangers have not stopped. If we are to form a United States of Europe, we must begin now. In these present days we dwell strangely and precariously under the shield, and I will even say protection, of the atomic bomb. The atomic bomb is still only in the hands of a nation which, we know, will never use it except in the cause of right and freedom, but it may well be that in a few years this awful agency of destruction will be widespread and that the catastrophe following its use by several warring nations will not only bring to an end all that we call civilization, but may possibly disintegrate the globe itself … Therefore I say to you ‘Let Europe arise!'”
Mr. Churchill had a triumph in Zurich after his speech, and also in Berne, the Swiss capital, where he drove through the city in an open carriage, cheered by crowds of 100,000 people. Events then moved rapidly. Now, in August 1949, within three years of the Zurich speech, the Council of Europe was actually in being and was holding its first meeting at Strasbourg. But Britain’s role as an independent and kindly sponsor had changed. Britain had become an active participator. Churchill saw the need for caution. Moreover, a general election was in the offing. The Conservative Party and most of the British people were dead against any commitment that could impair British sovereignty. Churchill had behaved at Strasbourg like a reluctant suitor. “We must thoroughly explore,” he had cautioned. “To take a homely and familiar test, we may just as well see what the girl looks like before we marry her.”
Churchill, in such a humour, had come to the right house. His host had the same aversion, then as ever, to any idea of Britain becoming entangled in the political meshes of Europe. Churchill planned to spend a week with his old friend of forty years and return to Strasbourg. From the moment he arrived at the villa, it was clear that he was in a holiday mood. He insisted immediately on putting on a pair of blue bathing drawers and walking down to the sea, down a hundred steps through Beaverbrook’s enchanted garden of bougainvilleas and orange trees and roses. Arriving at length where the Mediterranean laps the rocks at the foot of the garden, Churchill literally plunged into his holiday. He wallowed like a porpoise; he blew spouts of water like a whale, and he swam round and round like a schoolboy. He turned and he twisted, and he lost his baggy blue bathing drawers. It didn’t matter, for there was no one there to see him but Beaverbrook and me and his own male retinue.
Clambering out, he was rubbed down by his manservant and wrapped in a towelled dressing gown. He started to climb the hundred steps home, stopping every little while to sit and rest and talk and refresh himself from a waiting decanter.
“I’ve bought a racehorse,” he announced.
“So I hear,” replied Beaverbrook.
“It’s going to run at Salisbury on the 24th,” said Churchill.
“Do you think it a mistake?” he asked.
“Certainly,” answered Beaverbrook.
“Why?” asked Churchill.
“The public will back it, and it won’t win,” said Beaverbrook.
“Perhaps I’d better warn them,” Churchill said, a little discouraged.
“The only way you could win would be for every other jockey to pull his horse,” Beaverbrook said as a jest, but with just a trace of the bitterness that talk of racing ever stirred in him, caused, probably, by his own experiences of racing ownership that had ended twenty years earlier. He was the despair of the English bookies because he called his horses after the rivers of New Brunswick (Miramichi, Nipisiquit, Res-tigouche, Upsalquitch, and the rest of them — jawbreakers all), and he was the despair of his trainers because he would insist, after his jockey had received his riding orders, on strolling up to him as he was walking his horse out of the paddock, and saying: “Be first if you can. If you can’t be first, be second. If you can’t be second, be third.” The inevitable result was that he lost a great many races, and retired from the turf with the conviction that everyone else on the racecourse was corrupt.
“Perhaps mine is a good horse,” Churchill said, defensively. “Christopher [Soames] bought it. He bought me some excellent shorthorns, and they’ve won prizes all over the place.”
We moved to the next stopping place. “When do you expect the election?” I asked.
“The gold’s running out,” he replied. “Another hundred million gone. I don’t see how they can last out over the autumn. There will be nothing left. Then I shall have to take over with nothing in the till … I don’t mind saying that I view the task with more foreboding now than I did ten years ago. A much more difficult task … But then, I’m 75 … (chuckle).”
Anyone who never heard Churchill chuckle cannot realize the fun that lay in that noise. It was between a chuckle and a snort, and it was apt to be followed by a sound from deep in his chest that sounded like “oomph,” repeated several times as the joke was rolling around and maturing. And his eyes would twinkle, and he would look at his companions with such liveliness and gaiety that he was a companion without compare. No one could fail to feel his own spirits rise when Churchill chuckled.
And so we made our leisurely return to the house, having started a week with Churchill that I believe must have been the best feast of conversational entertainment ever enjoyed. For Churchill was the world’s best talker, and Churchill in those days and nights was supreme, talking incessantly, his memory ranging over the whole gamut of his life’s experiences gathered in peace and war. He was never at a loss for a name or a date. He would tell a story, quote a passage of prose or of verse, a part of a speech or a snatch of song that was always word perfect — if not always tone perfect. Never was there such an outpouring of brilliant powers of talk. Beaverbrook was the best of foils for him, a listener with the gift of understanding and a friend with deep affection, rallying him from time to time, capping a story with just the flash of wit or spark of memory that stimulated the flow. It was like Moses tapping the rock. The water always flowed, and in torrents of eloquence and humour and high spirits.
Churchill departed altogether in those few days from his habits of a lifetime. He was up early in the morning, bathing in the sea after a session with his secretary at his war books, then out to paint with his ten-gallon hat and his five-man retinue carrying canvases and paints and accessories. He would paint for hours at a time, rapidly, with a zest. Luncheon and dinner were memorable, and every one of them different. He would never repeat himself, even in the way of his clowning. He was the greatest master of the spoken word, glorying in his own virtuosity, an extrovert and actor, playing the part he loved to play. It was as though he were raised to the highest pitch of his life and genius in one glorious peak of exultation before the climax.
That first night the three of us dined in the open air on the verandah. Churchill and Beaverbrook sat on one side of the table, I facing them. The evening was pleasantly cool in contrast to the heat of the day. The outline of Monte Carlo was silhouetted against the evening sky, the shore lights reflected on the smooth surface of the sea, mingling with the mirrored beams from the small boats moving silently back and forth across the bay.
Churchill gazed at the lights of Monte Carlo. “How inviting it looks! How much I’d like to go there after dinner,” he said, and paused … “But no! I musn’t! I promised Clemmie.” And he told how he had visited Monte Carlo when he was no longer Prime Minister. He cashed a cheque, quite forgetful of the foreign exchange restrictions that he himself had made. He had gambled and lost, and enjoyed every minute of it, until afterwards he had suddenly remembered he had committed a heinous offense against the laws of Britain.
Beaverbrook never gambled, and said nothing to encourage a visit to the casino.
“The Goose is back,” he observed, to change the subject, I thought.
“What Goose?” asked Churchill.
“Why, Cripps,”2 said Beaverbrook. “He’s a political goose, and he’s always wrong. He’s an excellent fellow, and works like anything. But he always makes a mess of everything. He failed in my job [Minister of Aircraft Production]. He has muddled trade and industry and finance for the Government. Perhaps we should be grateful to him. He’s certainly confounded the Socialists.”
Churchill screwed up his mouth. “He didn’t do so badly at M.A.P.,” he said ruminatively. “But the events leading up to that appointment are somewhat interesting.
“It was in 1942, and our fortunes were at a desperate ebb. Everything was against us. Burma was gone, Malaya overrun, the Prince of Wales and the Repulse were sunk, Tobruk taken, our desert conquests in North Africa lost, nothing but gloom everywhere, Dakar, Greece and Crete, Hong Kong, the Netherlands East Indies, everywhere was disaster. The Canadian losses at Dieppe were painful.
“Cripps had been acutely unhappy in Moscow, and pressed me to let him come home. As soon as he got back he started making speeches which seemed to suggest that he possessed some hidden secret of leadership. Some of his followers of the extreme left were said to be greatly taken with him. They even imagined he had something to do with bringing Russia into the war. I offered him the Ministry of Supply and he refused it except under impossible terms. I sent him to India, and he was back in the spring, his mission a failure. He was Lord Privy Seal and Leader in the House of Commons, and as such answerable in the House for our persistent disasters.
“Then one day he came to me with an ultimatum. Either I would agree to conduct the war through a triumvirate, of which Cripps was to be one member and the other named by him, or he would resign. I was fully conscious of my own weakness at that moment, and had great doubts as to whether I could withstand such a crisis.
“By this time I knew that the Anglo-American landings in Algiers would be made within a few weeks, and they were to be synchronized with the 8th Army’s El Alamein offensive. I knew that if these great enterprises failed, I was done anyway. If they succeeded, and I had faith that they would succeed, my position would be strong enough to deal with Cripps or any one else. I temporized. I asked Cripps to defer the matter until after the landing.
“While the resounding victories on both fronts were being acclaimed with the ringing of church bells, I sent for Cripps. I told him that he was not altogether satisfactory to me as Leader in the House of Commons, at the same time stressing the importance of aircraft production, where you, Max, had made such a signal contribution to the successful prosecution of the war. I sent him to M.A.P. And really, he did quite well there. The tide had turned.”
Churchill paused, frowning a little. He went on: “There never was a time after that when the final victory appeared in doubt. We passed from almost uninterrupted disaster to almost unbroken success. The tragedy was to come with the victory.
“It has been said that the demand for Unconditional Surrender delayed the end. The first I heard of it was when Roosevelt made the statement to the press conference at Casablanca. Of course I had to support him.”
The month previous Churchill had said something along the same lines in the House of Commons. Later he found that he was wrong. He had in truth agreed to the terms, if unconsciously. He made handsome amends the next year in his book, The Hinge of Fate. He wrote: “I am reminded of the professor who, in his declining hours, was asked by his devoted pupils for his final counsel. He replied, ‘Verify your quotations.'”
“It was a terrible thing,” Churchill continued, “that so large a portion of Europe was handed over to the Russians. I telegraphed to Truman proposing that British and American troops should stay on the line they had reached in the field and that withdrawal to the previously agreed occupational zone should be a formal matter at a later date when other issues had been disposed of satisfactorily. He didn’t agree. Of course, he had only been President for a week.
“It was a calamity for Europe and millions of Europeans. The British and Americans retired on a 400-mile front to a depth of 126 miles in places. By that time we knew that there was no dealing with Stalin.
“I had cabled him when Bernadotte reported Himmler’s private peace offer to Britain and America in the spring of 1945. I felt in honour bound to do so. He replied saying: ‘Knowing you I had no doubt you would act in this way.’
“That was the last kind word I ever had from Stalin.”
Next day there was a sudden storm, and the waves were crashing on the rocks at La Capponcina, causing Churchill to abandon his evening bathe there and go instead to the Summer Hotel at Monte Carlo.
I drove there with him. The hotel manager was waiting to receive him. A tent had been set up at the edge of the sea. As he entered it, Churchill took his cigar from his mouth and threw it down. A well-dressed stranger in a blue beret picked it up and pocketed it.
Churchill almost invariably carried a cigar in his hand or mouth. Sometimes he would light one, seldom smoking much of it. He had the habit I have never seen in another of binding a roll of adhesive paper [his “belly bandos” — Ed.] round the middle of the cigar before smoking it. These butts with their strange device of tape became eagerly sought relics of souvenir hunters in the South of France that summer.
We undressed and Churchill waded in, walking over the pebbles, his huge white body with his blue bathing drawers attracting a crowd of well-wishers. They gathered on the beach to watch him as he played around, turning turtles in the water. They cheered as he stepped back painfully over the pebbles to the tent. “Vive Churchill!” “Bravo!” “Well done!” they cried, and as we drove off the people cheered again and waved and smiled and gave the V sign. He replied, opening his two fingers with delight.
He talked of that as we sat down to dinner.
“It’s a very good thing, the V sign,” he said. “Everybody feels it’s a personal message to themselves. The Italians are particularly fond of it — (chuckle) — they must think they won the war.
“I’m going to Germany in the autumn,” Churchill continued. “I have little doubt that the Germans will give me a very warm reception, and will not fail to make use of the V sign.”
“I’ll bet they won’t,” said Beaverbrook. “Of course the V sign has many meanings in various parts of the world. It was originally supposed to represent the devil, with two horns. In Canada, when I was a boy, the sign had a very special significance.”
“Not only in Canada,” Churchill replied. “In England too; and no doubt in other places. But I made it respectable.”
“It’s been a godsend for the cartoonists,” Beaverbrook said. And he mentioned a Giles cartoon.
Churchill: “I can’t understand him. Low I can understand. He’s always on the other side. Australian, isn’t he? One of those parlour bolshevists. I can understand Illingworth. Giles is incomprehensible. Can anyone understand him? Does the Daily Express get any letters on the subject?”
Beaverbrook: “Giles is the new phase. The young, especially, like him. He’s an agricultural labourer.”
Churchill: “Max, there’s no especial criterion of merit in that. Of course, I agree that it is well that the lower orders can be given the opportunity to fit themselves for better things. But there is no especial merit in lowliness of itself.”
Beaverbrook: “In some respects that may be true. But for the Daily Express, there is certainly merit in being an agricultural labourer.”
“Let not ambition mock their useful toil, Their homely joys and destiny obscure; Nor grandeur hear with a disdainful smile, The short and simple annals of the poor.”
He rolled his tongue with relish around the words, speaking them in his resonant voice with his queer inimitable lisp, looking round into our faces with an infectious spirit of delight. He went on:
“Some village Hampden, that with dauntless breast
The little tyrant of his fields withstood; Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell guiltless of his country’s blood.”3
“Yes, agricultural labourers can be good and worthy men.”
Beaverbrook said: “I’ve got two chapters of the Duke of Windsor’s book on the abdication.” “Oh?” said Churchill, unconcernedly.
“Perhaps you’d like to read them?” Max asked.
“The Duke asked me to,” Churchill replied. “I’d like to read them. Are they long?”
“No, they won’t take you long,” Beaverbrook answered. “I’ll send for them, if you like.”
Churchill looked benign. “Perhaps I’d better read them after dinner,” he said. “Of course, I don’t want anything to do with them. By that I mean I don’t want any part in the book.”
“But you’re in it,” said Beaverbrook, with the sort of very straight face that hides a grin. “In it up to the neck.” (WSC had visited and counselled the King.)
Churchill’s expressive face changed and registered pain. “That’s the last thing I want,” he said hurriedly. “I think I did see him; but I really can’t remember anything about it.”
“But he can,” Beaverbrook answered. “The whole story is centred on you. And there’s your letter in which you told him he should stand on his rights, retire to Windsor Castle, pull up the drawbridge, lock the gates, and get a certificate from Lord Horder [the King’s physician] that he could not attend to any business. And don’t forget your speech to Parliament and your statement to the press. It’s all there.”
Churchill groaned. “Have you got them here?” he asked.
“Yes, to the letter. No, to the statement,” Beaverbrook replied.
“Oh dear,” sighed Churchill. “This is the last thing I want just on the eve of the general election.”
Beaverbrook: “The first draft represented you as being actuated by the ambition of forming a King’s Party government, and me by hatred of Baldwin. I told them the second was true, the first not true. I was also accused of being in a conspiracy against Mrs. Simpson and for having urged her to renounce the King.”
“This is terrible,” said Churchill, and held his head in his hands. His face was puckered with emotion like a child’s.
“When’s the thing to be published?” he asked.
“In October or November,” Beaverbrook answered. “It’s already overdue now.”
Churchill: “Of course, everyone will think I had a hand in it, leaving Strasbourg to come and stay here with you — and the Duke of Windsor coming here too. We are all in Luce’s pay.”4
“I’m not,” said Beaverbrook.
Churchill: “But you are publishing the story in the Sunday Express.”
Beaverbrook: “I don’t know what you’re complaining about. The Duke’s got the right to sell his story to Luce like everybody else (looking hard at Churchill) — and it’s a very good thing I am in it, otherwise I shouldn’t have seen the draft and altered it. You won’t come out of this new draft badly at all.”
“I remember dining with him more than a week before the abdication,” said Churchill. “He had sent Monckton5 to see me. I was only actuated by a sense of duty and loyalty to my Sovereign.” (Pause.) “I don’t care what he says providing it’s after the election.”
Beaverbrook: “I’ll speak to him, if you like. I don’t think he would delay publication, whatever I might say. He was complaining to Max6 in Paris a little while ago that the story is losing value all the time. And I think he’s right.”
Churchill: “Well, at all events I must read the story and see the Duke. He can write what he likes. If it’s wrong, I can contradict it. I can’t remember the episode, but my records will show exactly what part I took. I am ashamed of nothing. But I must say that I regard it as nothing short of lamentable that this should be done just before the election. The consequences may be disastrous.”
Beaverbrook: “I will invite them to dine tomorrow night.”
The next night the Duke and Duchess of Windsor came to dinner, bringing her aunt, Mrs. Merryman. Churchill had meanwhile made it clear that his advisers must deal with this matter from London.7 At dinner perfect harmony prevailed. The Duke, in obvious health and high spirits, said he was about to visit an Italian clinic to take a cure, not because he was ill, but because he was convinced that the cure was good for him. It involved a total abstinence from liquor and a partial abstinence from food.
Churchill shuddered at the thought. “You make a mistake, Sir,” he said, “if I may presume to offer you advice. Cures are a mistake. The human body should be allowed its quota of venoms, to attack the germs and infections that are ceaselessly making raids upon it.”
Most of the evening Churchill played gin rummy with the Duchess of Windsor, who was a skillful card player. But when she retired for the night his passion for the game was still unsated and he sat up and played for some hours with me. He talked all the while he played. Even the next night, when he admitted for the first time he was tired, he sat up playing until three o’clock. We played in pounds and settled with “I.O.U.’s.” He kept the score. “I hate adding up figures,” he said, “Do you see how much easier it is to do it this way? You have only one column instead of three [pounds, shillings, pence. — Ed.]. You add after making round numbers.”
The pace increased each day as Churchill’s enjoy¬ment seemed to spur him on, as though time were short and not one hour to be missed. Every morning he dictated new passages of his book and corrected proofs. “I lay my egg every morning,” he said. “Every day I send it to the printer. In a day or two proofs come back. I must finish four volumes by May. I may be called to another sphere (chuckle).” He referred to the likelihood of winning an election.
A crescendo was reached in the last days. Merle Oberon was staying near by, and she developed an urge to paint, and placed herself under the tutelage of the master, who was then painting the rocky seashore He was delighted to teach her and she patterned her painting on his. Every once in a while he would look at her painting and add a few brush strokes of his own. The picture when completed was excellent for a beginner and about eighty percent Churchill. He signed an inscription to commemorate the lesson.
“May I call you Merle?” he asked, and wrote Merle from Winston S. Churchill Aug. 21 1949.
The newspapers heard of this, and carried an Associated Press story reporting it.
MR. CHURCHILL TOUCHING UP
NICE AUGUST 23. Mr. Winston Churchill, who has been spending a long week-end at Lord Beaverbrook’s estate here, will leave tomorrow to return to Strasbourg to take part in the sessions of the Council of Europe.
Mr. Churchill has been spending some of his time touch¬ing up one of his paintings. He has also given some expert advice to fledgling painter Merle Oberon, the film actress. Miss Oberon has been an occasional visitor to the villa.
We lunched on the verandah Monday. We were just four, Churchill sitting in a white coat and a hat he wore “because of the wind.” His spirits soared. He talked, he recited, he sang. He gave a thrilling first-hand account of how he was captured by the Boers in the South African War, and how he escaped, and he described a young officer who played the piano and sang the music-hall songs of the day. And Churchill sang bits of them, including one about Ethel.
“I’ll be with Ethel till death’ll us part —
Unless I go courting with Flo, Flo!”
At dinner that night Lord Granard, who is bilingual and lives in Paris, gave an informed inside story of current French politics and politicians. The subject swung to the bitter irreconcilable hatreds left over from the war, the different categories of loyalty versus collaboration.
“Many more Frenchmen have been executed since the war for treason, real or imaginary, than were guillotined in the Revolution,” Granard said, and talked of Petain. “Poor Petain,” Churchill commented. “After all, he had committed no crime.”
On Tuesday night the French Minister of State for Monaco, who represented the French Government in the Principality, came with his wife to dine. He had been formerly a Minister of Finance in the French Government, and told of the French Government Lottery and of how he had tried to bring it to an end. He was unsuccessful in France. Now in Monaco he was disturbed by the Casino and ashamed of Monte Carlo’s reputation as a gambling resort. It was his hope, he said, to abolish the gambling and make Monte Carlo a cultural centre, where people would come from all parts of the world to enjoy the arts.
I watched Churchill’s eyes twinkling as he listened to this. “Mr. Minister,” he said, “I am very conscious of the natural beauties of Monte Carlo and of the grandeur of the mountains that overlook it, and of the blue of the sea and of the brightness of its colours in the sunlight. It would be an ideal place to listen to music. It could be a great centre of culture. Then he finished up with a smile, “We in England have a certain affection for the old associations of Monte Carlo.
We even had a song that we used to sing. It was very popular.” And with an extraordinarily good imitation of the old music-hall style, he started to sing — not like others do who repeat a snatch of a song and cannot remember the rest — but word for word, with a rollicking swing:
“As I walk along the Bois Boo-long
With an independent air,
You can hear the girls declare,
‘He must be a millionaire!’
You can hear them sigh and wish to die,
You can see them wink the other eye,
At the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo.”
And, having sung the chorus, he gave us the verse, word perfect so far as I could know. It was all so impromptu, so excellently done, with such high good humour, that, as we sat around the dinner table on the terrace, one felt that nobody but Churchill could have done it. And somehow it seemed that the great and glorious character that lifted him from the ranks of other men and immortalized him was focused in that moment.
I never saw two people more amazed than the Monaco minister and his wife.
That night, as always, Churchill and I sat down to gin rummy after the others had retired. When it was well past midnight, I asked if he wasn’t tired. “No,” he answered, “let’s play for a little while,” and look¬ing at his watch, “my horse Colonist is running at Salisbury today. Max thinks I am foolish to own him.
“What a wonderful man he is. His spirits never flag. Max and I were the only two in the War Cabinet who had held high office in both wars and lived through the excitement of peace over the past forty years. He and I are the only two with the background experience of ‘the big stuff’ — of the great events. Of course there was Simon.8 But that’s different.”
For a time he won. Then bad luck persisted. He turned an old twisted ring on the third finger of his right hand. “It was my father’s,” he said. “It’s never been off my finger. I’ll change my luck,” and he pulled it off and put it on a finger of the other hand. “See the ridge?” Then he held up his finger, which showed very clearly the mark of the ring.
His act impressed my superstitious fancy. I thought of another relic, his father’s gold match box which Churchill always carried reverentially, and of a strange and haunting little story he had told earlier of a fable he had conceived around it. As I remember it, Churchill was sitting in his studio at Chartwell, his home in Kent, painting a picture of his father, Lord Randolph Churchill. The original had been damaged in the war by bombing. The tattered portrait was propped up in front of him and he had been working for some hours on the new one. It was getting dusk.
Churchill stopped painting to light a cigar. He put his hand in his pocket and pulled out the old gold match box that had been his father’s and that he always carried, just as he wore the ring.
He struck a match and started to light his cigar, and, as he did so, his father spoke to him. It seemed so natural that Churchill was not in the least surprised. His father said: “I am so glad you still carry that old match box, Winston.” Churchill replied: “Yes, Papa, always.” His father talked on, referring to the 1890s, when he had been concerned over the quarrels with the Boers in South Africa, and had bitterly opposed any talk of war. “But war came,” Churchill told him, and went on to describe it. “But that’s nothing to what has happened since.” And in a few characteristic Churchillian phrases he told the essence of the history of our times, of the two world wars and of the troubled peace. His father was spellbound by the story. Then he looked around at the paintings.
“I’m glad to see you have made such a success of your painting,” he said. “I don’t mind telling you how worried I was at having to leave you so ill provided for … You know, I used to wonder sometimes whether you might have any bent for politics. I could not help thinking, listening to your story of these great events that have shaped your life, if you did not sometimes feel an urge to take an active part in them.”
Churchill was pondering, “Shall I tell him?” and started to strike another match. As it flared, the vision was gone. The old scarred picture remained.
As he played his cards that night, he talked of his father, of his own young days as a war correspondent and officer in the Fourth Hussars. I, too, was a former cavalry officer, having spent my early days in the Tenth Hussars. Churchill asked me if I had ever been in a cavalry charge. I hadn’t. Our battles in the First World War had been fought dismounted, as infantry.
“There is nothing like a charge for excitement,” he said, and described how he rode with the 21st Lancers in their charge at Omdurman. “I shot three men with my revolver,” he said — “two certainly; probably a third.”
As he talked, I thought how deep an impression his cavalry days had made on him. He could not resist using cavalry metaphors even in descriptions of the war of aircraft, tanks and rockets he had directed with such genius. I recalled a chance meeting with him in London, seven years earlier, in November 1942, just after the landings in North Africa. I had walked into the small dining-room of Buck’s Club, and Churchill was sitting at a corner table with several of the younger members of his Cabinet. He hailed me, calling me over, and I remembered his look of inexpressible delight as he told me: “The enemy is on the run, and Randolph [his son] is right up in front galloping at the head of the column.”
At one o’clock in the morning we stopped for soup and cigars. Presently we resumed playing.
At about two o’clock he complained of cramp in his right hand, the hand from which he had removed the ring. He went on playing, giving his attention to the game. At the end of it he said he had a most peculiar sensation and must go to bed. He added up the score, and wrote in a clear hand an “I.O.U.” which I still have.
We walked up the stairs. I carried his cigars. As he slowly mounted the steps he paused, turning to me who followed him. He said: “The dagger is pointing at me. I pray it may not strike. I want so much to be spared, at least to fight the election. I must lead the Conservatives back to victory. I know I am worth a million votes to them,” and, taking another step on to the landing at his bedroom door, he stopped, turned again, and said: “Perhaps two million!” He entered his room.
Those might have been his last words. And none could have been more typical.
I entirely missed the significance of his words. I did not sense he was in mortal danger. I thought he was suffering from a chill. I asked if I should give him a rub. He said no, his valet was next door if he wanted him. “I still have cramp,” he said, and described the numbness, swept his right hand up and carefully felt his hand, arm, shoulder and chest. He said: “I’ve a strange sensation I have never had before.” He was in full possession of all his faculties. I was not alarmed.
He took a pill. “My sleeper,” he said with a smile. “I’ll give you one, if you like.”
I declined, said I never touched the things. He undressed and I left him. I went downstairs to lock the door and turn out the light. As I came up, he was closing his door, standing naked. He waved his hand and said: “Goodnight.”
I myself felt very tired, from a series of late nights and unwonted action during the days. I was many years younger than Churchill, and strong as an ox. “It would be impossible,” I thought, “if he did not feel a reaction from what he has been through in the past five days.” I went to sleep.
In the morning, when I woke, I found the local doctor was with Churchill, and Lord Moran, his own physician, was on his way by air. Beaverbrook had telephoned to his son, Max Aitken, during the night, and he had made the arrangements.
Lord Moran’s diagnosis confirmed that Churchill had suffered his first stroke.
It was to be a secret to the grave. Later in the day came the news that his horse Colonist had won his race at Salisbury. By the following day the press was alerted, but not suspicious. Reporters gathered at the gate of La Capponcina and asked for news. This was to be one of the very few occasions in his life that Lord Beaverbrook decided to mislead them. A bulletin was prepared, and I was to deliver it at the gate. It stated the truth, but not the whole truth. It read: MR. CHURCHILL CONTRACTED A CHILL WHILE BATHING. LORD MORAN WAS SENT FOR AND HE SAYS THAT MR. CHURCHILL IS MUCH BETTER THIS MORNING BUT THAT HE WILL REQUIRE A FEW DAYS OF REST AND QUIET.
I discussed this with Beaverbrook. I felt the reporters were bound to question me, and that some further statements should be agreed which would conform to the pattern of the cover-story. The general lines of what I should say were agreed.
Then a secretary came running with a typed note. It read:
Please put the communique out as written and let us say nothing more for the present. During the day we shall see what the reactions are and it may well be that tomorrow some statement by Mike of the kind suggested would be very good. Today it would be premature.
The padding of feet along the stone passage caused us to raise our eyes, and to our astonishment we saw the figure of Churchill himself, risen from his bed, advancing in his white towelled dressing gown. He could not bear to lie in bed and think that we were interfering in his press relations. He had decided to direct them himself.
The bulletin was issued and now Churchill, back in bed again, wanted the newspapers. “Where are they?” he asked. “I want to see what they have to say about my horse.” Colonist II had celebrated that previous ill-fated day, 24 August, by winning his race at 6 to 4 on. Now the proud owner read the newspaper accounts with delight. “Max,” he said, as Beaverbrook came into the room, “you see that Christopher did me well after all. The horse is going to run again. There must have been a lot of money on him yesterday for him to have started at 6 to 4 on. I must warn the public not to bet on him next time.”
Beaverbrook: “But if he wins after that they will grumble more than ever.”
Churchill: “Yes. That’s the trouble. I don’t know how to get over that.”
“Let’s play some rummy,” he said, but he could not pay attention either to cards or cigar. He showed all too plainly the marks of his seizure.
“I’ve quite lost my equilibrium,” he said. “It’s a distressing, uncomfortable sensation.”
Next day his condition had greatly improved.
I feel much better today,” he said. “Quite different from yesterday. I am really very hopeful that I shall escape the consequences. The dagger struck, but this time it was not plunged in to the hilt. At least, I think not. But the warning is there, and I shall have to pay marked respect to it.
“I think I shall stay here for four or five days. Then, I don’t know about London. I think I shall go to Venice. I would like to paint with Simon Elwes. I might even go to Strasbourg.”
“That would be pretty tiring,” I said. “And so would painting in Venice, I would think.”
“I’m much better today. But Charles [his doctor, Lord Moran] is insisting on a rest.”
“You look and seem very nearly well,” I said.
“But I’m not really,” Churchill replied. “I’m a very different man to the one who was sitting playing cards with you only three nights ago. The dagger struck. I am left without energy or initiative or enterprise. I don’t ever remember spending so idle a day as this, with nothing accomplished and nothing attempted. I am changed.”
In the fifteen years and five months that were left to him, Sir Winston Churchill, though changed, accomplished much. For the next five years or so, his powers appeared to be unimpaired.
In 1951 he became Prime Minister and towered still over his contemporaries, a giant among men. He continued to create policy, to govern, to make speeches, to write books, to paint pictures. But he never, I think, fully recovered the intensity of joy and eloquence and passion and genius that rose to the heights in those summer days and nights which ended when the dagger struck him at 2 o’clock in the morning of 24 August 1949.
1 Michael Wardell, a man of high connections, entered Beaverbrook’s employ in 1926 and rose to the rank of brigadier in World War II. After the war he moved to Fredericton, New Brunswick, acquired a newspaper, The Gleaner, looked after his chiefs interests in Canada, accompanied Beaverbrook on his travels, and was at his deathbed on 9 June 1964. We approach this memoir, published in The Atlantic Advocate in February 1965, with some caution: unless he taped these conversations, which is impossible, Wardell must have had either a photographic memory or a well-filled-out diary. Nonetheless, his account is fascinating, and has the ring of truth. For example, his summary of Churchill’s “The Dream” is entirely accurate though he wrote this account a year before the story was first seen in print.
2 Richard Stafford Cripps, 1889-1952. Labour MP, 1931-50. Ambassador to Moscow, 1940-42. Minister of Aircraft Production, 1942-45. Chancellor of the Exchequer, 1947-50.
3 Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard.”
4 Mr. Henry Luce, publisher of Time and Life.
5 Sir Walter Monckton, advisor to Edward VIII, created Lord Monckton of Brenchley. Minister of Labour, 1951-55.
6 Lord Beaverbrook’s son, Sir Max Aitken.
7 In the final result, the book, A King’s Story, was published in New York in April, 1951, and in London in September, 1951. The Churchill letter was omitted. The part he played was entirely creditable to him. It had no influence on the general election. There was one in February, 1950, in which the Labour majority was reduced from 140 to seven, and the Conservatives greatly improved their position. The small majority was found by the socialists to be unworkable, and a second election was called for 22 October 1951, a month after the publication of the book in Great Britain. The Conservatives won an overall majority of eighteen seats, and Labour dropped nineteen. Mr. Churchill returned to power and government.
8 Sir John Simon, 1873-1954. Home Secretary, 1915-16, 1935-37. Liberal MP 1906-18, 1931-40. Chancellor of the Exchequer, 1937-40.