Finest Hour 131, Summer 2006
By Philip and Susan Larson
ANTI-ESTABLISHMENT GADFLY AND MAN OF THE CENTURY: The intriguing story of what two magnificoes had in common.
In researching Winston Churchill’s three visits to Chicago,1 we found evidence of his fascinating relationship with a local notable, Colonel Robert R. McCormick of the Chicago Tribune. Both were strong-willed and opinionated celebrities, whose strange bonding is a captivating story.
Churchill and McCormick both had famous ancestors. McCormick’s father was a cousin of Cyrus McCormick, whose reaper revolutionized American farming during the 19th century. Churchill’s forebear, John Churchill, was a military hero; WSC’s father had been a notable political personality in the 1880s.
Both were schooled in Britain, McCormick when his father served Ambassador Todd Lincoln (Abe’s son) and later represented the 1893 Chicago Exposition in London. Churchill went to Harrow and Sandhurst. Both their parents largely relied on servants to raise their children, remaining relatively aloof.2
While Churchill excelled in polo, McCormick played cricket. In World War I both were officers in France. (McCormick forever after was called Colonel; Churchill dropped that title after returning from the front.) Both were cavalry exponents: McCormick recruited his own cavalry volunteers, his cousin Joe Patterson organizing his own artillery unit.3
McCormick’s experiences there left him with a life-long ill will towards Britain, an attitude echoed through the Tribune, which he owned and managed from 1911 until he died in 1955. The reasons have never been fully defined, but probably include his father being snubbed by then-foreign minister Lord Salisbury, his being hazed by students or masters, and his being brought up in a dysfunctional family.
Churchill’s cousin Shane Leslie, a lifelong acquaintance of McCormick, remarked of the snubbing incident “that one cup of tea [with Salisbury] in the last century could have could have changed the status of Britain in Chicago journalism in the present century.”4 About his schooling McCormick wrote: “…the brutality of one of the masters was so great that I have remembered it for sixty years. I suppose it was a degree of sadism.” This was corroborated years later by other schoolmates.5
McCormick hated British pretense, especially by those made powerful by birth not merit. Ironically, wrote his biographer, his antipathy to the English aristocracy, “whose rural customs he reenacted in the Chicago suburbs, became one of the governing passions of his life….he seemed to love the idea of England, the manly virtues.. .while loathing the insufferable pride of a people drunk with their own sense of superiority.”6 But McCormick bought his clothes and shoes in Britain, enjoyed fox hunting, and maintained an English-style country home in Wheaton, which is now Cantigny.7
A second cause of the Chicagoan’s Anglophobia was his strong nationalism. At his school, Ludgrove, “Bertie” McCormick was deemed a little excessive when he was found to sleep draped with an American flag.8 He took a firm isolationist stand before World War II, supporting the “America First” movement in which Charles Lindbergh was prominent, and criticized President Roosevelt for being pro-British. But once America was attacked, he fully supported his country.
McCormick began to take control of the Chicago Tribune the year Churchill arrived at the Admiralty, but there were already Churchill links to the newspaper. Lord Randolph Churchill wrote at least two articles for the Tribune on his 1891 trip to Africa.9 On 21 March 1898 the Tribune took notice of Winston’s first book, The Story of the Malakand Field Force, in which WSC made a prescient observation: the “fundamental cause of the native’s antagonism was the intense hatred of the Muslim priests against any advance in civilization which would assail the superstition and (naivete) on which their wealth and influence depend.”
In 1900 the Tribune syndicated Winston’s coverage of the Boer War. A year later, following WSC’s first visit to Chicago, the paper featured a front page picture entitled “Winston Spencer Churchill Who May Some Day Be Premier of England.”10
McCormick and Churchill had five encounters and a near-miss or two, but except for 1932, the details are sketchy. Their first meeting was in 1915, when McCormick interviewed Churchill in London as a Tribune war correspondent en route to the Russian Front. Later, in his book, With the Russian Army, McCormick would say of Churchill: “Next to Grand Duke Nicholas he is the most aggressive person I have ever met.”
In a 1915 Tribune article, “Lessons for America from Great Britain’s Shortcomings in this War,” McCormick began the outspoken criticism for which he was later renowned. The British Liberal government which included Churchill, he said, “sent to their death soldiers less trained and equipped than the enemy.” But he complimented Parliament “for greater patriotism and foresight then the American Congress has shown,” and let Churchill off lightly: “…still more a politician, but a patriot [he] held the great fleet mobilized, ready for the rupture. He even had the courage and patriotism to order without sanction of Parliament the supplies that would be necessary for the beginning of war.”11
They nearly met again in Chicago in October 1929, when Churchill, his brother and their sons breezed into the Drake Hotel on a transcontinental journey. Bertie was in New York on business, but he arranged for the Tribune cartoonist John McCutcheon to host a lunch with his editors and the Churchills. Also invited was the American financier Bernard Baruch, who in his private railway car accompanied Churchill to New York and the crash of the Stock Market.
In February 1932, when Churchill visited Chicago for the third and last time, McCormick hosted WSC at his residence off Lake Shore Drive at 1519 Astor Street. The details suggest a developing friendship. Bertie dispatched Captain Maxwell Corpening to pick up Churchill at Dearborn Station. Knowing that Churchill was still recuperating after being hit by a car in New York City, McCormick suggested that he might “want to take it easy,” but did offer to “stroll Lincoln Park [or] come down to the office.”12
At the Colonel’s home, Churchill was “wont to park himself in front of a certain Cezanne which he considered supremely beautiful,” and to read “Fannie Hurst, which caused him blissfully sad moments of tearful emotion.”13 The pair “couldn’t have been a happier combination,” wrote the Tribunes Fanny Butcher; but she added that “Churchill caused much gossip when he came to Chicago because he was the guest of one of Chicago’s most anti-British pillars [with] a lifelong distrust and hatred of the British.”14
McCormick hosted at least one luncheon, including such celebrities as Donald McLennan of Marsh McLennan Insurance; Robert Maynard Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago; and Illinois Supreme Court Justice Frederic Dejoung. Mayor Cermak apologized that he was sick and could not make it.15
McCormick and Churchill shared an affinity for alcohol. Bertie told his doctor, “The only man I know who can drink more liquor and hold it better than I is Winston Churchill.”16 He held court daily at a sort of executive dining area of the Tribune Building called the Overset Club. At one such session Churchill refused a scotch until the ice was removed. Foreshadowing a later complaint of Eleanor Roosevelt, McCormick’s wife Maryland said WSC “drove McCormick crazy because he would want to stay up.. .until 4.”17
A funny incident occurred when Churchill hosted the Colonel at a London dinner years later. McCormick found the elaborate wine service quite tedious, and then WSC insisted on port after dinner: “This port was laid down by my father in the last century. You would insult any British host by not drinking his port.” McCormick replied: “I don’t care whether I insult the King, Queen, and the whole British Empire—no thank you.” “Good,” Churchill agreed heartily, and diplomatically, “then we’ll proceed to whiskey and soda.”18
McCormick’s newspaper seemed to express his true feelings in 1932. Cartoonist Carey Orr offered a front page cartoon called “The Contrast,” showing a determined Churchill with a bright candle entitled “The Loyal Briton Abroad.” Below was a slouched American with muted candle, “The Apologetic American Abroad.”19 Two days before, an editorial explained: “Mr. Churchill is of exceptional interest. [His] candor, a little brusque or impatient, and his readiness to charge any bastion of official authority have found…more general sympathy with us than at home. In short, we have rather taken to Mr. Churchill a forthright Briton…seasoned statesman…what he says will profit us.” On WSC’s Anglo-American themes the editorial stated that British-American relations “must be founded…upon a self-respecting search by both peoples for policies profitable to both.”20
A Churchill-McCormick conversation is reported by Bertie’s valet-gopher, Captain Maxwell Corpening, which suggests their compatibility, though Corpening has a reputation for inaccuracy. The three were relaxing after dinner over whiskey and cigars: “For over two hours I had the privilege of listening to the most brilliant conversation I have ever heard. They discussed world affairs from religion to bird dogs….I am firmly convinced that Churchill had the quicker mind and vocabulary but the Col. was sounder and farsighted.”21
Other meetings between the two were reported but little information on these is available. In July 1933 McCormick met Churchill in London, and in July 1937 McCormick spent at least a night at Chartwell. Another meeting was planned during Churchill’s proposed 1938 lecture tour, when McCormick wrote, “We expect you to stay here for the pleasure of seeing you.”22 But WSC’s trip was canceled owing to the international situation.
Now at their friendship’s height, the two even exchanged presents: Churchill received a portable desk and the Colonel a set of Marlborough, wistfully inscribed, “Hope that the English Speaking Peoples increasingly unite their history in common.” On 18 November 1937 McCormick replied: “There was I in an armchair by the fire…the life of the Duke of Marlborough in my hands, looking forward to a voyage into the romantic and glorious past.. .and someone brings a package… Great Contemporaries History was forgotten while I met your friends and some of my acquaintances I hope the Christmas season will bring you what cheer and comfort it can in this lunatic world.”
McCormick added, “I hear encomiums of you on all sides, not the least of them being that of my driver who remarked ‘There’s no baloney about him at all’—the McCormick dugout is always ready to welcome you.” Churchill wrote back: “I think often about my pleasant stay with you in that long pilgrimage I made through the states. It was like putting into a safe harbor in the middle of a stormy voyage.”23
In 1941, McCormick testified before Congress that the British fleet would never go to the Nazis because “I have known Winston Churchill for twenty-five years—a more thoroughly honorable man never lived.”24
But McCormick’s continued vitriolic and even irrational public comments and quotations against the British, and even Churchill himself, became overwhelming during the stress of World War II, when Britain was struggling for survival. McCormick had described the Rhodes Scholarships as a program of British subversion, sending recipients back to America “to act as English cells boring from within.”25 During the height of the Battle of Britain, the publisher’s WGN radio station described Blitz damage as “more than annoying and less than decisive people whose houses have been destroyed can be moved into the unused buildings—of which there are many…”26
In March 1943 a boneheaded Tribune editorial entitled “States across the Sea” suggested admitting European countries to the United States—including the UK: “For the people of Britain particularly, statehood would have many advantages…Membership in our union would give the British an opportunity to rid themselves once and for all of the [burden] of their nobility and the aristocratic system that goes with it.”27 Adding insult to injury, the same editorial page summarily dismissed one of Churchill’s pet projects for an invasion of southern Europe: “This talk about the soft underbelly of Europe is nonsense. Nothing soft is offered in that direction.”
Broadcasting on WGN, McCormick announced on 22 April 1944: “My friend Winston Churchill suggested to the Republican Conference at Mackinac, with the approval of President Conant of Harvard, and apparently President Roosevelt, that we repeal our Declaration of Independence and re-enter the British Empire as lower class subjects of the British Crown.” Seven years later, on 23 June 1951, he quoted Churchill as having said to Roosevelt: “Together we can rule the world.”
Churchill did his best to keep relations positive. At the Quebec Conference in 1943, when asked about the newspaper’s “States Across the Sea” article, he replied: “Great Britain and the United States one? Yes, I am all for that and you mean me to run for president?”28 But a year earlier, in a secret telegram to Roosevelt regarding McCormick’s request to publish a daily paper in England, Churchill had remarked: “…no opportunity will be given to him to reproduce in England the lies and misrepresentations which are staple of the Chicago Tribunes editorial Policy.”29
Churchill must have taken pleasure in assigning the American serial rights to his 1946 book, Secret Session Speeches, to Marshall Field, publisher of the rival Chicago Sun.30 Rumors have surfaced that he did so in anticipation that it would displease McCormick, but we have not discovered any evidence on the matter.
Their last verified meeting was 22 July 1948, at a garden party at Buckingham Palace. Not surprisingly, Churchill at first avoided McCormick. But later, in the words of Richard Norton Smith, “Churchill’s natural warmth gradually thawed his resentment, until the two men were seen engaged in polite conversation.”31
Two strong-willed individuals, brought together by fate, enjoyed good times together and even had some tender moments. But in the end McCormick’s flamboyance and unreasoning prejudices ended the relationship on an unhappy note. The long association concluded primarily on the issue of country. A McCormick biographer caught a key to their relationship when he said, “they shared…a belief in ‘my country right or wrong’ and differed only in the identity of the country.”32
Chicago Tribune material copyright the Chicago Tribune Company. All rights reserved. The Larsons are cochairing our 2006 conference.
1. Finest Hour 118, Spring 2003.
2. Richard Norton Smith, The Colonel. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1997, 40.
3. Chicago Tribune, 9 April 1917.
4. Gwen Morgan & Arthur Veysey, Poor Little Rich Boy. Carpentersville, Illinois: Crossroads Communications, 1985, 8-9.
5. Colonel Robert R. McCormick Research Center of the First Division Museum at Cantigny, Wheaton, Illinois, 5Jan52, WBN Broadcast.
6. The Colonel, op. cit., 52.
7. Interview, Mrs. Robert McCormick, 3 June 1975.
8. The Colonel, op. cit., 48.
9. Chicago Tribune, 5 & 26 July 1891.
10. Chicago Tribune, 19 May 1901.
11. Chicago Tribune, 27 July 1915.
12. R.R. McCormick to WSC, 1 February 1932.
13. “Cousin Eve’s column,” Chicago Tribune, 14 February 1932.
14. Fanny Butcher, Many Lives—One Love. New York: Harper & Row, 1972, 187-88.
15. Cermak & DeYoung to McCormick, February 1932.
16. Poor Little Rich Boy, op. cit., 459-60.
17. Interview, Mrs. Robert McCormick, 3 June 1975.
18. Joseph Gies, The Colonel of Chicago. New York: Dutton, 1979, 119.
19. Chicago Tribune, 8 February 1932.
20. Chicago Tribune, 6 February 1932.
21. Letter by Captain Corpening, no date.
24. The Colonel of Chicago, op. cit., 165.
25. Ibid., 160, 458.
26. Broadcasts of WGN Radio, 1940-41.
27. Chicago Tribune, 25 April 1943.
28. Kaye Halle, Winston Churchill on America and Britain. New York: Walker, 1970, 33.
29. Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge University, Churchill Papers, 7 October 1942.
30. Ronald I. Cohen, Bibliography of the Writings of Sir Winston Churchill, London: Continuum, 2006,1:703.
31. The Colonel, op. cit., 474.
32. Poor Little Rich Boy, op. cit., 368.