Finest Hour 145, Winter 2009-10
Glimpses – 1957: “The Greatest Man in the World”
By William B. Carey
Mr. Carey ([email protected]), a member of the Churchill Centre since 2002, is an attorney in Berkley Springs, West Virginia.
It is sometimes said that in the late Fifties an American schoolgirl posted a letter addressed only to “The Greatest Man in the World,” and that the U.S. Post Office and Royal Mail delivered it to 28 Hyde Park Gate, London. In 1957, a twenty-year-old student taking a course called “Civilisation Française” at the Sorbonne in Paris, I certainly shared her sentiment. Foreign study was unusual then, but my wonderful mother had agreed to pay the bill.
Halfway through the two-month course I decided to take a break from French Civilization and go to England for a few days. It was my first visit.
Arrived in London, it entered in my head, for reasons I can’t recall, that I wanted to meet “The Greatest Man in the World.” He was eighty-three then, retired from his second term as Prime Minister but still in Parliament. The newspapers reported his occasional comings and goings.
I learned that he lived at Hyde Park Gate, a short distance from Hyde Park itself. With camera in hand, I arrived at the red brick house on a quiet summer afternoon.
There was no sign of activity. A man was working in his garden across the street, however, and I walked over to chat with him. He confirmed that the house opposite was Churchill’s. His young sons, he told me, sometimes made loud noises, and Churchill would complain. Later I learned that the neighbor was the sculptor Jacob Epstein, whose busts of Churchill would one day adorn the White House and Windsor Castle.
As I was talking with Epstein, a big black car pulled up to No. 28. A chauffeur got out and was knocking on the front door as I ran across the street. When the door opened, the chauffeur and I were greeted by a man in a vest, who I later learned was Detective Sergeant Edmund Murray, Churchill’s bodyguard. He knew who the chauffeur was, but obviously hadn’t a clue who I was.
Needing a quick explanation, I blurted out the first thing that came to my head: that I hoped to take a picture of Sir Winston. The man turned and spoke to someone behind him, just inside the house, and I heard the famous voice, deep and resonant, wondering what the hold-up was.
It was just a few feet from the door of the house to the door of the car. To go from one to the other, Sir Winston had to pass me. He paused at the door, looked at me, and growled, “All right, take it.” I snapped a shot and tried to make conversation, but he wasn’t interested. When he was about to enter the car, I asked if he would pose for a photograph with me.
Churchill refused. “You seem like a very nice young man,” he said, “but I don’t know you and you might be someone terribly disreputable.” He got into the car and I murmured “Thank you, sir” as the door closed.
The car drove off. Back across the street, Epstein observed that he was probably going to Parliament.
A few months later, back in the U.S., I mailed a copy of my photo to Churchill and asked him to autograph it. His private secretary, Anthony Montague Browne, replied that it was Sir Winston’s rule not to sign photographs unless there was “a strong personal connection. I am sorry to send you a disappointing reply, but Sir Winston hopes you will excuse and understand his position.”
It a cheeky thing to do, but I considered it fortunate that he even stopped for a photograph. I remember being struck by how blue his eyes were, and all the history they had seen. It was, I’m sure, a typical encounter between Churchill in his later days and the admiring public that continued to look upon him with a rare affection.
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