Gretchen Rubin ([email protected]), author of Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill (FH 121), quotes Harold Nicolson, an official censor at the Ministry of Information, on the sinking of the German battleship Bismarck on 27 May 1941. From Nicolson’s June 10th diary: “We complain that there are no photographs of the sinking of the Bismarck. Tripp [an officer representing the Admiralty] says that the official photographer was in the Suffolk and that the Suffolk was too far away. We say, ‘But why didn’t one of our reconnaissance machines fly over the ship and take photographs?’ He replies, ‘Well you see, you must see, well upon my word, well after all, an Englishman would not like to take snapshots of a fine vessel sinking.’ Is he right? I felt abashed when he said it. I think he is right.”
Ms. Rubin adds: “I love this story so much (could you tell I got a little choked up, when reading it?). It reminds me that in my own life, I should always try to live up to the highest ideals of my country.”
Cynics would say the sinking, a necessary act of war, would today attract the media like magpies, hovering around to record the human misery (particularly if it were one of our own ships). Our thanks to Suzanne Sigman for bringing this to our attention.
Michael Shelden’s Churchill biography,Young Titan (reviewed, page 51) is better than its accompanying promo articles. No sooner was London media buzzing with faintly supported speculation that young Violet Asquith attempted suicide after Churchill decided to marry Clementine (FH 158: 6) than another article appeared: “He caroused with West End call girls and proposed to THREE society beauties—who turned him down.”
The society beauties were Pamela Plowden, Muriel Wilson and the actress Ethel Barrymore. But the most rakish thing WSC seems to have done was to shower Barrymore with “armfuls of flowers” and show up at Claridge’s “each night” after her West End play ended, where he would “insist she have dinner with him.”
The carousing with call girls is based on an 83-year-old story of Churchill as a Sandhurst cadet, standing up for the showgirls of the Empire Theatre when “prudes on the prowl” attempted to erect barriers sheltering their lair from more upright society. Churchill himself reported this in My Early Life in 1930. As the barriers fell, he made what was apparently his first public speech: “Ladies of the Empire! I stand for Liberty!”
As for the orgy, Churchill and Lord Rosebery once dated a pair of “Gaiety Girls,” and each took one home. Alas, Winston’s date later told Rosebery he’d “done nothing but talk into the small hours on the subject of himself”—which jibes with numerous other reports of him, but falls a little short of cavorting.
Mr. Shelden also argues that WSC was a dandy: “Everywhere he went he wore a glossy top hat, starched wing collar and frock coat. His accessories included a walking stick and watchchain—even silk underwear!” This merely describes the standard dress of the typical Edwardian Member of Parliament—except for the silk underwear, which WSC explained to Clementine Churchill: “I have a very sensitive cuticle.”
If young WSC were a dandy, it escaped the notice of the Tailor and Cutter, which in 1908 described his wedding outfit as “neither fish, flesh, nor fowl…one of the greatest failures as a wedding garment we have ever seen, giving the wearer a sort of glorified coachman appearance.”
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