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Wit and Wisdom

WIT AND WISDOM: FINEST HOUR 132, AUTUMN 2006

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WSC ON CINCINNATI

ARCHITECTURAL HISTORIAN Sue Ann Painter, who is writing a book on Cincinnati architecture, asked us to verify Churchill’s remarks about the city, and whether he stayed in the Netherland Plaza Hotel, as the hotel’s records indicate.

Winston S. Churchill, itinerant Briton in America, wrote about American cities in his article, “Land of Corn and Lobsters,” published in Collier’s, 5 August 1933, republished in The Collected Essays of Sir Winston Churchill, vol. 4 (London: Library of Imperial History, 1975, p.266):

“Cincinnati, I thought, was the most beautiful of the inland cities of the Union. From the tower of its unsurpassed hotel the city spreads far and wide its pageant of crimson, purple and gold, laced by silver streams that are great rivers.”

According to Ms. Painter’s research, “Churchill’s hotel room had a modernistic bathroom fitted with yellow tiles and streamlined fixtures that the British leader greatly admired and supposedly measured to recreate in London. The bath has been preserved and the room named the Churchill Suite.”

Chartwell’s bathrooms bear no resemblance to “streamlined fixtures,” but London might well have been where he installed similar equipment, in his pre-World War II flat at Morpeth Mansions; in the event, however, whatever was there in his time has long since been replaced.

We could find no reference to the Netherland Plaza in his letters and papers during his visit in February 1932, although only about a tenth of his letters and papers have been published. There seems little doubt, from to his description and contemporary photos, where Churchill stayed.

“POISON IN YOUR COFFEE”

We are often asked to confirm the famous reputed exchange between Churchill and Lady Astor, who in exasperation informed him that if she were married to him she would give him poison. Biographer Christopher Sykes, reports this confrontation in his Nancy Astor (New York: Harper & Row, 1972, 127):

“To this time [c. 1912] belongs a well-known story of Winston Churchill and Nancy. It sounds like an invention but is well authenticated. He and the Astors were staying with Churchill’s cousin, the Duke of Marlborough, at Blenheim Palace. Nancy and Churchill argued ferociously throughout the weekend. At breakfast one morning Nancy said to him, ‘Winston, if I was married to you, I’d put poison in your coffee.’ Winston Churchill replied: ‘Nancy, if I was married to you, I’d drink it.'”

One wonders first whether two such well-read people would have used “was” instead of “were.” But there are other reasons for questioning this alleged verbal duel, and certainly the originality of Churchill’s retort. 

Churchill’s official biographer, Sir Martin Gilbert, wrote in his book, In Search of Churchill (London: HarperCollins, 1974, 232):

“The dilemma of establishing authenticity is ever-present with Churchill, around whom everyone naturally wishes to attach their favourite story. Certainly many of the widely-circulated stories of the 1920s, which were originally attached to long-forgotten characters like William Joynson-Hicks (‘Jix’) and the First Earl of Birkenhead (‘F.E.’) are now given Churchill as their source to make them more interesting. Did Churchill ever say to Nancy Astor, ‘If I were your husband, I would drink it?’ after she had said, ‘If I were your wife I would put poison in your coffee’? I have no idea, though several old-timers suggested to me that the original of Winston in this tale was in fact F.E. (a much heavier drinker than Churchill, and a notorious acerbic wit).”

I still carry this riposte as “possible Churchill” in my developing book, Winston Churchill by Himself, but with qualifications. Fred Shapiro, editor of the Yale Book of Quotations (appearing this October) advised me that it dates back many years. Fred’s research found this joke in the Chicago Tribune of 3 January 1900: “‘If I had a husband like you,’ she said with concentrated scorn, ‘I’d give him poison!’ ‘Mad’m,’ he rejoined, looking her over with a feeble sort of smile, ‘If I had a wife like you, I’d take it.'”

It is entirely factual that Winston Churchill, with his impressive memory, was in Chicago lecturing a year after the Tribunes joke. And we might consider that it was so popular a punch-line that it was still circulating when he got there. Stored in the filing cabinet of memory, it may well have been hauled out in response to Lady Astor. But we cannot credit Churchill with having originated it. It’s in the “ripostes” section of my book as “possible Churchill, but if he said it, he was not the first.” —RML 

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