Finest Hour 129, Winter 2005-06
In Search of Jennie’s Birthplace
By David Druckman
David and Lynn Druckman live in Chicago and Tucson when they are not traveling the world, often in search of arcane Churchilliana. See David’s “South African Escape,” FH 47, “Coming to Grips with Gallipoli,” FH 90, and “Hotel Mamounia, Morocco,” FH 108.
Here is a piece of interesting trivia of curiosity to Churchillians like me: Where was Lady Randolph Churchill, née Jennie Jerome, born and raised?
Most of us know that Winston Churchill’s mother was born in Brooklyn, New York. But where? What did her home look like?
The availabe data, gleaned from articles, books, and the Internet, produces three contending Brooklyn addresses: 8 and 197 Amity Street and 426 Henry Street. During a visit to the east coast my wife Lynn and I visited all three locations, took pictures, and came away somewhat satisfied as to the true birthplace.
Let us begin with three facts on which all the references completely agree:
1. Jennie Jerome was born on 9 January 1854, when her father Leonard was 36 and her mother Clara 29. Jennie was 20 when she gave birth to a premature Winston on 30 November 1874, confirmed in a letter she wrote her mother on 9 January1888: “Do you know that it is my birthday today? 34!!! I think for the future that I will not proclaim my age.”*
Curiously, in a letter Jennie wrote to Randolph in 1883, she states that she was three years younger than 21 at Winston’s birth. In view of massive evidence to the contrary, it is safe to consider this simply the style of disguising one’s actual age, which some people still employ today.
2. Jennie was born in Brooklyn, which was not at that time part of New York City. Brooklyn, Staten Island (Richmond) and part of Queens were not incorporated into the city until 1898. (Being Brooklyn born and raised, I can testify that to locals, Manhattan is “New York” or “the city,” while Brooklyn is just “Brooklyn”—and forget about “Manhattan” or “Kings County.”) The name stems from the southern portion of the village of Breukelen—one of the six original Dutch villages that now comprise the borough.
3. All three addresses are in that part of Brooklyn called Cobble Hill, South Brooklyn, or originally Ponkiesbergh by the Dutch. Cobble Hill is bordered by Atlantic Avenue on the north and Degraw Street to the south. South Brooklyn is composed of the of Brooklyn Heights, Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, Gowanus, Red Hook, and Park Slope.
All three supposed birth house locations are within a third of a mile from the eastern waters of Upper New York Bay. The closest address was about 300 yards from the bay. This is where the South Ferry docked, carrying top-hatted commuting business gentlemen and travelers from Wall Street and Manhattan, including Leonard Jerome and his brother from work, and Clara Jerome and her four girls from shopping.
Both existing houses—197 Amity Street and 426 Henry Street—are narrow, three-story, brick brownstones, attached buildings typical of the homes in Cobble Hill, which is now a middle-class neighborhood of working people. Their construction is indistinguishable from that of the neighboring houses.
Although Leonard Jerome made and lost millions of dollars in his life, even in 1854 these were modest homes, which compare not at all with such splendid residences at the Jerome Mansion on Madison Avenue and 26th Street in Manhattan, which Jerome built in 1860.
Let us now consider the three contending addresses. With Wikipedia free encyclopedia on the internet (which is editable by anyone) stated that Jenny was born at “8 or 197 Amity Street.” But 8 Amity street no longer exists. The lowest house number we could find was 74. The former location of 8 Amity street is now the busy north lane of the present Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, primarily built in the 1950’s.
The narrow brownstone at 426 Henry Street, generally recognized as the true birthplace, bears a plaque to that effect, dedicated in 1952.
According to the south Brooklyn Network (www.southbrooklyn.net/c_hill.html). number 426was the home of Jennie’s uncle, where her parents, Leonard and Clara Jerome, lived prior to her birth. According to Anita Leslie, “Soon after this baby’s [Jennie’s] arrival the Jeromes moved to 8 Amity Street, a house with a garden.”
Other sources states that the Jeromes lived at 197 Amity Street just after Jennie’s birth and until 1860. But Clara Jerome and the girls also lived in France and Newport, Rhode Island during this period. No sources provide direct evidence that Jennie was actually born at 197.
My opinion is that the plaque is correct. Jennie was indeed born at 426 Henry Street, although shortly after the event, the Jerome family moved to 8 Amity Street, which is unfortunately no longer extant. But I did not find contemporary papers documenting her birth or infant addresses.
Interested readers are encouraged to send their thoughts to the editor.
*See Lady Randolph Churchill (New York: Scribner, 1969) by Anita Leslie, granddaughter of Jennie Jerome’s younger sister Leonie. Jennie’s birthday is also confirmed in Randolph Churchill’s Winston S. Churchill, vol. 1 and in Finest Hour 98, Spring, 1998.