Finest Hour 145, Winter 2009-10
New Edition of a Classic Work
Becoming Winston Churchill, by Michael McMenamin and Curt Zoller. New paperback edition, Enigma Books, illus., 300 pp., $19. member price $15.20.
By Celia Sandys
Ms. Sandys is Sir Winston’s granddaughter. Her review is from this edition’s foreword.
When I first read this book, essentially a dual biography of my grandfather as a young man and his mentor Bourke Cockran, I realized at once it was breaking new ground in covering my grandfather’s life. But while I enjoyed it, I did not know how it would be received by scholars.
Well, the verdict is in. Sir Martin Gilbert says the book is “fascinating: a tour de force that brings light and life to one of the great early influences on Winston Churchill.” Churchill Archives Director Allen Packwood calls it “A magnificent and an illuminating study of a largely forgotten relationship.”
Read it and you’ll understand why Finest Hour called it “The most important new book about Winston Churchill…one you’ll come back to again and again for its extraordinary insights into Churchill’s genius.”
The use of brief fictional passages to introduce each of the fourteen chapters is unusual, but it works. It brings to life details about Cockran’s littleknown, remarkable life and career. Hailed in his time as America’s greatest orator, he was a friend and adviser to two presidents, Democrat Grover Cleveland and Republican Theodore Roosevelt. The latter was his neighbour on Long Island’s “Gold Coast.”
Seven fictional passages are written from young Winston’s point of view, six from Cockran’s, and one from Churchill’s mother in a chapter where she is preparing for the 1895 dinner party where she met Cockran—the first step in a chain of events which was to change her son’s life. Sources for these fictional narratives are well referenced in the chapter notes.
The authors mention Churchill’s well-known adventures from 1895 to 1900 only in passing, focusing instead on the time and effort he spent during this period educating himself for a career in politics, and as a writer determined to make a name for himself.
The entire Churchill-Cockran correspondence is reproduced. Most poignant is a long letter from WSC to Cockran on 30 November 1899, while Winston was a prisoner of the Boers. It concludes: “I am 25 today—it is terrible to think how little time remains!”
How little indeed. My grandfather lived until he was ninety!
This book covers in more detail than other biographies Winston’s romances as a young man and the three beautiful young women to whom he reputedly proposed marriage, prior to meeting the fourth and most beautiful of all, Clementine Hozier, who said “yes.” I was struck by Winston’s first love Pamela Plowden. He once told his mother that he didn’t think he could be happy with any other woman. They were unofficially engaged but, under parental pressure, she married another.
Pamela and Winston nevertheless remained close friends for life. (“Your Pamela” is how Clementine Churchill referred to her.) Early in their romance, in 1897, WSC told her he’d destroyed all her letters, presumably in an effort to encourage her to be open about her feelings for him. After each of their marriages, the two continued to correspond episodically, including a letter Pamela wrote Winston in October, 1950, reminding him that he had proposed to her fifty years ago to the day.
We know this only because Winston wrote a sweet letter back, telling her “how much I cherish yr signal across the years, from the days when I was a freak.…but there was one who saw some qualities, & it is to you that I am most deeply grateful…Fifty years!” Fortunately for history, Pamela saved Winston’s letters. But my grandfather, who otherwise saved nearly everything he received or wrote, was true to his youthful promise: although he usually kept everything, no letters from Pamela to him survive.
I hope you enjoy reading Becoming Winston Churchill in this affordable paperback. I did. After all, it’s difficult to resist a book whose first line is: “It began with a love story.”
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