Finest Hour 149, Winter 2010-11
Cover Story – When the Twain Met: Winston Churchill and Samuel Clemens
By Christopher SchWarz
Mr. Schwarz attended the 2006 Churchill Institute at Ashland University. He has taught history at Niles West High School, Skokie, Illinois, for twenty years, and designed the school’s semester-long course on World War II. His article on Italo Balbo, Mussolini’s second-in-command, appeared in Chicago magazine in August 2008.
Amid the endless accounts of noted personalities who crossed paths with Winston Churchill, one of the best-known anecdotes involves his brief encounter with Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City at the turn of the 20th century. In future years Churchill would fondly remember Twain’s “noble air.”1 The meeting was a bit more contentious and uncomfortable than he later let on. Though they shared the same birthday, November 30th, their experiences over the previous year had much to do with their initial uneasiness with each other.
Churchill, the young war correspondent and sometime soldier, had risen to prominence in 1900, following his daring escape during the Boer War and subsequent election to Parliament on the crest of his fame. In an effort to secure his financial future and bankroll his political career, Churchill toured England that autumn, and then took on a grueling speaking tour of North America that would last into the new year.
Winston’s mother, Lady Randolph Churchill, did her best to introduce him to the right people in America. One, five years before, was her friend Bourke Cockran; now in 1900, Jennie interceded again:
She particularly enjoyed meeting visiting American authors and repeated with glee a story about her friend Mark Twain. At a London gathering he asked Mrs. J. Comyns-Carr, “You are an American, aren’t you?” Mrs. Carr explained that she was of English stock and had been brought up in Italy. “Ah, that’s it,” Twain answered. “It’s your complexity of back-ground that makes you seem American. We are rather a mixture, of course. But I can pay you no higher compliment than to mistake you for a countryman of mine.”2
During his travels, the man who would become the quintessential Englishman of the 20th century met his American counterpart from the 19th. While Twain was one of Churchill’s childhood heroes, the meeting would not go as well as the starry-eyed young Briton had hoped. When they met in 1900, their physical differences could not have appeared more stark. Twain, in the waning years of a nearly-five-decade writing career, possessed a universally recognized shock of white hair and was quite possibly the most famous man on the planet. Churchill, just beginning a political career that would last more than sixty years and win him global fame, was much younger, with already thinning hair and a some-what frail appearance. One report described him as “a very fair man of the purely English type. His face denotes a highly strung temperament and the broad brow considerable mental capacity.”3 He looked more like an ivory tower professor than a daring escape artist, soldier, front-line war correspondent and newly minted hero of the British Empire. Their differences, though, extended far beyond appearance.
At sixty-five, Twain was enjoying a resurgence of celebrity. He had just returned from a nine-year self-imposed exile in Europe, financially and emotionally fit and secure in his reputation. The only thing that really irritated him was what he saw as the burgeoning empire of the United States. He was embarked on an anti-imperialist crusade that would occupy the last ten years of his life. Nor would the foreign policy of his homeland be the sole focus of his vitriol: he was quite willing to lambaste other imperialist nations as well.
In the weeks leading up to the banquet he declared, “I am a Boxer!,” supporting the Chinese in the Boxer Rebellion, and expressed sympathy for South African natives rather than Boers or Englishman embroiled in the war there.4
On December 9th, Churchill held a press conference at Everett House, New York City, and Mark Twain himself showed up to ask the questions. Churchill wasted no time in disarming his interlocutor:
Twain: “It has been related that a Dutch maiden fell in love with you and assisted you to flee. You have said that it was the hand of Providence. Which is true?”
Churchill: “It is sometimes the same thing.”
Twain: “How long do you think the war in South Africa will last?”
Churchill: “The war is over now. The Boers are whipped, but do not know it… Gradually, as the conflicting elements become reconciled, a system of autonomous government must be introduced, until at last the colonies become as independent of the British Crown as Canada. The Boer is a splendid fighter and the coolest man under fire I have ever seen. He is what you might call a ‘low-pressure’ fighter. He never gets excited, and as long as he thinks he is going to win he will stay at his post.”5
Overwhelmed by the star power of the newly-re-turned Mark Twain, unfazed by his fierce anti-imperialist rhetoric and probably coaxed by Lady Randolph, the literati of New York invited him to introduce the new hero of the British Empire at his first speech, four days later at the Waldorf Astoria. To some it must have seemed like inviting William Jennings Bryan to introduce William McKinley.
Churchill, just turned twenty-six, was a proud citizen of the most powerful country in the world. He hoped his visit to New York would be as exciting as his first, five years earlier, on the eve of his coverage of the Cuban rebellion against Spain. While he had reason to think that his lectures would be well-received—he’d been a smash across Great Britain and was half-American by birth—he appeared nervous as he waited to give his well-rehearsed speech to the New York audience. Given the events of the past few days, he had cause for worry.
Churchill was aware that he did not have the unanimous support of the committee hosting his appearance. The New York Times had reported that anti-imperialists on the committee openly opposed inviting him. Some, including the mayor of New York and the president of Princeton University, went so far as to request that their names not appear in the program. When Churchill’s tour agent failed to remove their names it caused a stir on the eve of the lecture.6
The possibility of a hostile reception must have crossed his mind as he sat on the dais. And yet he was touched by the presence of Twain, whose Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn had enthralled him as a boy: “I was thrilled by this famous companion of my youth. He was now very old and snow-white, and combined with a noble air a most delightful style of conversation.”7
While Churchill knew that he did not have the unanimous support of the committee, he was possibly unaware of Twain’s very public campaign against colonization. He soon learned the truth. Twain began with a searing critique of British and U.S. policy abroad, but he changed tack at the end, introducing the young Winston with panache:
I think that England sinned when she got herself into a war in South Africa which she could have avoided, just as we have sinned in getting into a similar war in the Philippines. Mr. Churchill by his father is an Englishman, by his mother he is an American, no doubt a blend that makes the perfect man. England and America; we are kin. And now that we are also kin in sin, there is nothing more to be desired. The harmony is perfect, like Mr. Churchill himself, whom I now have the honor to present to you.8
Clearly Churchill knew he was not in England now! But he soon warmed to his task, and “held the attention of his listeners by a clear recital of some of the most striking episodes of the struggle between Boer and Briton,” according to the Times:
He showed nervousness at first, but soon forgot himself in his subject, and held the attention of his listeners….A touch of humor, introduced half unconsciously, lightened up the lecture considerably. He took his audience from the armored train near Estcourt to the POW compound in Pretoria, from the railroad line at Resana Garcia to the hero’s welcome at Durban. He took them and he held them.9
Already a practiced debater, Churchill had the ability to defuse pro-Boer and anti-British feelings. During his lectures in America, he often showed a magic lantern slide of a Boer commando. When, frequently, his audience responded with applause, Churchill would say: “You are quite right to applaud him; he is the most formidable fighting man in the world—one of the heroes of history.”10
When Churchill finished, Twain took the podium again. The New York Times reported:
“I take it for granted [Twain said] that I have the permission of this audience to thank the lecturer for his discourse, and to thank him heartily that, while he has extolled British valor, he has not withheld praise from Boer valor.” A flushed and happy Winston replied with becoming humility: “It is my chief duty to thank the chairman for coming here to give my lecture an importance and a dignity which it could not have otherwise obtained.”11
While newspapers reported the New York reception as “cordial,” Churchill gamely debated Twain in a private conversation. Biographer William Manchester writes that Churchill “growled” a retort,12 but Churchill himself did not recall the exchange the same way:
Of course we argued about the war. After some interchanges I found myself beaten back to the citadel “My country right or wrong.” “Ah,” said the old gentleman, “When the poor country is fighting for its life, I agree. But this was not your case.” I think however I did not displease him; for he was good enough at my request to sign every one of the thirty volumes of his works for my benefit; and in the first volume he inscribed the following maxim intended, I daresay, to convey a gentle admonition: “To do good is noble; to teach others to do good is nobler, and no trouble.”13
Perhaps when Churchill wrote this thirty years later, he was waxing nostalgic; or perhaps he’d been hardened by years of House of Commons debate. At the time, however, their meeting seems to have been polite at best, with no sign of a deeper bond developing between them. It was the kind of meeting that diplomats like to describe as “a frank exchange of views.”
Churchill’s tour through the U.S. would continue into January 1901. He would describe his audiences as “cool and critical” but also “good natured,” and they listened to him in “quiet tolerance.”14 He had more cordial receptions in Canada afterward, and returned to England in late winter satisfied with his performances and earnings, ready to begin his career as a Member of Parliament. In the meantime, Mark Twain turned his full attention to anti-imperialist polemics.
Perhaps the impact of the meeting on Churchill can best be seen in his swiftly-changing attitudes about the Boer War. WSC’s maiden speech in Parliament, just a few months after his tour, was on British policy in South Africa, in which he advocated a conciliatory approach to the Boers. In 1904, as he contemplated bolting the Conservatives for the Liberal party, he railed against British imperial policy and called the war “a public disaster.”15 Had he heard that speech, Twain would likely have led the applause for the now-renegade Conservative.
The two men never met again and last year marked the centenary of Twain’s death. But Churchill did not forget the great novelist. As Martin Gilbert reveals in the official biography, Churchill joined the International Mark Twain Society in 1929, and suggested that Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper be one of the “Great Stories Retold” which he and his secretary, Eddie Marsh, were preparing for the press.16
Twain’s work was always in Churchill’s mind. In 1932, when his second appearance on an interrupted lecture tour brought him to Twain’s longtime home of Hartford, Connecticut, WSC declared the city “the centre of the great Mark Twain literature that has flowed out and is still flowing over all the English-speaking peoples around the entire globe.”17
In “Everybody’s Language,” a 1935 essay on Charlie Chaplin (FH 142), Churchill wrote of how Chaplin, like himself, had a parent who died young, adding: “Mark Twain, left fatherless at twelve, had substantially the same experience. He would never have written Huckleberry Finn had life been kinder in his youth.”18
Nineteen thirty-seven found Churchill proposing Mark Twain among the personages for a sequel to his book of character studies, Great Contemporaries.19 That same year, the Twain Society’s founder, Cyril Clemens, a descendant of the novelist, presciently wrote Churchill: “Your Marlborough is so magnificent that we feel it deserves the Nobel Prize in Literature.”20 In due course, Marlborough would play a powerful role in qualifying Churchill for that award.
Finally, on 25 October 1943, Churchill wrote Clemens from Downing Street:
I am writing to express my thanks to the International Mark Twain Society for their Gold Medal, which has been handed to me by Mr. Philip Guedalla. It will serve to keep fresh my memory of a great American, who showed me much kindness when I visited New York as a young man by taking the Chair at my first public lecture and by autographing copies of his works, which still form a valued part of my library.21
In truth, both Churchill and Twain had much more in common in their world view than they realized during their brief, awkward encounter. Perhaps if they were both in the twilight of their careers at the time they met, and had enjoyed a talk late into the evening (among the favorite pastimes of both), they might have become friends rather than passing acquaintances.
And that would have been just fine with Mark Twain. At the Pilgrims Society in London, one of the many receptions that marked his final visit to England in 1907, he said: “…praise is well, compliment is well, but affection—that is the last and final and most precious reward that any man can win.”22
Winston Churchill would have liked that.
1. Winston S. Churchill, My Early Life (London: Thornton Butterworth, 1930), 375.
2. Ralph Martin, Jennie: Lady Randolph Churchill, 2 vols. (London: Cassell, 1971), vol. 2, The Dramatic Years 1896-1921, 234.
3. Robert Pilpel, Churchill in America 1894-1961: An Affectionate Portrait (New York, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1976), 40.
4. Ron Powers, Mark Twain: A Life (New York: Free Press, 2005), 604.
5. “Fighters Must Act for Themselves,” Press Conference, Everett House, New York, in Robert Rhodes James, ed., Winston S. Churchill: His Complete Speeches 1897-1963, 8 vols. (New York: Bowker, 1974), I: 62.
6. “How Lieut. Churchill Escaped from the Boers,” The New York Times, 13 December 1900. Randolph S. Churchill, ed., Winston S. Churchill, Companion Volume I Part 2 1896-1900 (London: Heinemann, 1967), 1221.
7. Churchill, My Early Life, 375-76.
8. Randolph S. Churchill, Winston S. Churchill, vol. 1 Youth 1874-1900 (London: Heinemann, 1966), 542-43.
9. Pilpel, Churchill in America, 40.
10. Ted Morgan. Churchill: The Rise to Failure 1874-1915 (London: Jonathan Cape, 1983) 154-55.
11. The New York Times, 13 December 1900; Pilpel, Churchill in America, 40.
12. William Manchester, The Last Lion: Winston Churchill, Visions of Glory, 1874-1932 (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1983) 332.
13. Churchill, My Early Life, 375-76.
15. Manchester, Visions of Glory, 363.
16. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, Companion Volume V, Part 2: Documents, The Wilderness Years 1929-1935 (London: Heinemann, 1981), 500.
17. Ibid., 398, note 1.
18. Winston S. Churchill: “Everybody’s Language,” Collier’s, 26 October 1935, reprinted in The Collected Essays of Sir Winston Churchill, 4 vols. (London: Library of Imperial History, 1975), vol. 3, Churchill and People, 247; and in Finest Hour 142, Spring 2009, 22-26.
19. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, Companion Volume 5, Part 3: Documents: The Coming of War 1936-1939 (London: Heinemann, 1982), 381.
20. Ibid., 776.
21. Ibid., note 1.
22. “Guest of the Pilgrims,” The Times, London, 26 June 1907.
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