Finest Hour 164, Special Edition, September 2014
By Richard M. Langworth
For our last cover I chose a still life I knew she would love, anxious to send her a copy. Instead I find myself sitting down to record the loss of the person who, next to my wife, was the most significant in my life as a writer. We cherish memories of her boundless acts of generosity, which changed our lives forever.
We met in 1983 at the Churchill Hotel, London, on the first of eleven Churchill Tours, many of which she attended. She had a reputation as a determined guardian of the flame, and I wondered if she would view a “Churchill society” as gratuitous or frivolous. No: Lady Soames (“call me Mary”) was entirely approachable and grateful for our work. She was soon a familiar voice on the telephone, as interested in our doings as any doting aunt.
Two years later she and Lord Soames attended the second tour’s dinner for Anthony Montague Browne, her father’s last private secretary (FH 50), held at the Pinafore Room, Savoy Hotel, meeting place of The Other Club. Speaking first, Mary said it was a priceless opportunity to declare what the whole family owed to Anthony: “Until my father drew his last breath, Anthony was practically never absent from his side.” As for us:
Christopher is going to say a proper thank-you for having us—aren’t you, darling? But what a joy it is to be with you again. I do appreciate being asked to your lovely parties, and being kept up to date about the work of the Society. All of us in the family find this profoundly moving: that there is such a Society, which exists to keep my father’s memory green, and may I also say, accurate….
—25 SEPTEMBER 1985
It hardly seems possible for anyone so engaged, but for thirty years she was always there for us, full of understanding, advice and wisdom, often playing editor, taking the time to “get it right”—and to deliver the occasional deserved rebuke. She was so… essential. It is quite impossible for me to imagine carrying on without her.
Her critiques diminished as I learned to avoid mischaracterizations of, or presumptuous notions about, her father. In a 1991 conference at Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, an entertainer impersonating Thomas Jefferson made the mistake of suggesting that Sir Winston was too fond of alcohol. “My dear Mr. Jefferson,” Mary said firmly, “you have no way of knowing that, and since I as his daughter never saw him the worse for drink, I think you should avoid idle speculation.” Mr. Jefferson left early.
In 1992 she was our guest and met our family at Putney House. Our ten-year-old son, not used to English forms, delighted her by calling her “Mrs. Soames.” My aging father had become withdrawn and depressed; we feared he might have nothing to say. But like the aged Sir Winston, reviving with the stimulus of a kind friend, the years fell away and he astonished us with scintillating conversation. When she left, he lapsed back into silence.
We bundled her into the car and drove 225 miles to Hyde Park to open an exhibit of her father’s paintings. As we reached the Roosevelt Library she said, “Well driven—the President was a much scarier driver.” Then she added, almost an afterthought: “It is forty-nine years to the day, August 15th, 1943, that I was last here with Papa.” Opening the exhibit, she recalled that after the Casablanca Conference her father and the President drove a long way across the desert to Marrakesh, where the President was hoisted into a tower….There they sat, two great allies and friends, watching the sun setting over the Atlas Mountains. The next morning my father played truant from the war and painted his only wartime picture [“Tower of Katoubia Mosque,” FH 124 cover] giving it to the President in remembrance of that sunset. To come back to Hyde Park and to find an exhibition of his pictures really puts a crown on it. —15 AUGUST 1992
Three years later she was with us at a Boston conference, chaired by Barbara Langworth. We had stellar speakers: William Buckley, William Manchester, Arthur Schlesinger—and Lady Soames. Afterward we drove her to New Hampshire in our vintage Cadillac for an extended holiday which took us to Dartmouth and the papers of Winston Churchill, the American novelist, where she read her father’s 1899 original: “Mr. Winston Churchill presents his compliments to Mr. Winston Churchill, and begs to draw his attention to a matter which concerns them both….”
I so enjoyed visiting Dartmouth, with that rich treasure trove and the charming pale figure of a librarian; swanning around in your lusciously velvety ruby red Cadillac and seeing lovely New England sights and scenes—those dear little red squirrels—and your parting gift of scrummy hickory-cured real American bacon. Your home is also your “mill,” like Chartwell was for my father, which at once is a great advantage but also harder to take a break from. I always come away from you having learned something more about my beloved wonderful father….
—5 NOVEMBER 1995
Which reminds me of…cigars. To celebrate Boston, Barbara had bought me a box of very special Partagas cigars. Mary and I smoked the box in five days, competing with each other, as she did with her father, to grow the longer ash. She always won!
There were amusing local encounters. At a country bistro known for “home cookin’” but no frills, Mary ordered a hamburger from Rosie, a stolid New England waitress who stood no nonsense. Mary was not ready for the long list of American options: Fries? Yes, please. Relish? Yes, thank you. Mustard?…sure. Ketchup, onions, pickles?…of course. Rosie stood back, hands on hips: “Do you want this on a plate, or do you want it on the floor?” Mary roared. I quipped, “Some day, Rosie, I’ll tell you who you said that to.” “Oh dear,” she said, “was I bad?” No, not really.
Mary was in Williamsburg, Virginia, for the 1998 conference, just after playing a quiet, decisive role in my receipt of a CBE. When I joked that the letters stood for “Colleagues’ Bloomin’ Efforts,” she sniffed: “It wasn’t that easy, you know!”) She and Celia Sandys were without escorts, so we played unofficial hosts, and drove them to see the restoration at Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in America.
Thank you so much for not only the Jamestown expedition but also for “cherishing” both Celia and me in so many ways, wh[ich] greatly added to our ease and enjoyment. But do you really want and mean to retire as president of the Churchill Centre? I want to talk to you about this—please brood upon it. How pleased everyone is by the CBE. I am overjoyed. —15 NOVEMBER 1998
There followed a lengthy exchange about my stepping down as president and leaving the Churchill book business—to both of which she was stoutly opposed. (I prevailed…eventually.) Six months later she was at our Maine bungalow, “Blenheim Cottage,” following the celebrated launch of USS Winston S. Churchill at Bath Iron Works. The Centre’s Board of Governors held a memorable dinner for her at our local inn, along with Secretary and Mrs. Weinberger and Winston and Luce Churchill.
Mary wanted to buy reading glasses for one of her daughters—so we took her to Walmart! Instant buzz arose as she entered, wearing her USS Churchill cap with “Lady Soames” embroidered on the back. Everyone had seen her on the local news the night before. Most people just smiled shyly. But occasionally one walked up and told her how they loved her father—including our roofer, who knocked on our door, determined to cadge an autograph. To them all, she was kindness itself.
I have quite fallen in love with darling Blenheim Cottage, tucked away in that safe and calm corner of Tenant’s Harbour, with its beautiful peaceful view…it was so sweet of you to whisk me away at the end of that unforgettable day, 17th April, and carry me up there….The Churchill Centre party at the East Wind Inn was so agreeable, and everybody was glowing from the day’s events, followed for me by three utterly blissful days “at Blenheim,” sitting around in the sunshine, monitoring ducks and cormorants and the come and go of boats…the Farnsworth Museum with such variety and scope of the Wyeth family’s amazing talent, then Barbara’s “mystery tour” to see the grey house which encapsulates the style and atmosphere of Andrew Wyeth’s work. —4 MAY 1999
We’d give anything to have those three days back.
The years fled. We sold our houses and built anew in Moultonborough; she was invested a Lady of the Garter by HM The Queen (FH 129). By 2005 we well aware that at eighty-three, the Quebec Churchill Conference might be one of her last abroad. “Do come,” we said, “We’ll drive you down to N.H. amid the autumn colo(u)rs and get you to Boston for your flight home.”
She came. Everyone wanted to shake her hand; clusters of people trailed in her wake. As usual she took a rather more detached view than some of our conference scholars. We were seated together when one professor suggested that Second Quebec in 1944 had produced “nothing of significance.” She leaned over and gave me a very earthy synonym for “rubbish.”
At Close Reach she was one of our first houseguests, up mornings in her dressing gown, sipping coffee, sampling Barbara’s stellar breakfasts—helping us plan every day of the 2006 Churchill Tour of England. We were an easy drive from the Mount Washington Hotel, site of the 1944 Bretton Woods Conference, where we booked dinner. I asked if the hotel might arrange a private tour for Sir Winston’s daughter. “How soon?” they asked.
“Now listen,” I said on the way, “the hotel believes your father stayed there in 1906. Of course it was the ‘other’ Winston Churchill, but don’t spoil their fun.” “Certainly not,” she said primly. Immediately upon meeting the PR lady she said: “I understand you think my Papa was here in 1906. I’m sorry, dear, that is just not possible.” I groaned. She grinned.
The staff bought us a bottle of dinner wine and promised to change their official history to the American Churchill. Mary thought it “an amazing hotel,” and allowed that if he had got there, he’d have liked it fine.
She returned home anxious to see her dog “Prune” and her dear private secretary Nonie Chapman. Quickly came the usual long letter in her “own paw,” expressing thanks we didn’t deserve, because it was she whom we needed to thank, for giving us such delight for so long. As always, she wrote words she knew would please us.
I love the so-special and made-for-you home on the shores of that magical lake, and your boating/sailing life to come. Each day passed so pleasantly it all seemed so unrushed, and yet we seem to have accomplished a lot…the lovely lake cruise on the M/V Mount Washington. Dearest Barbara, you really are a star-at-the-stove (much relished by your greedy and always hungry friend)…Now back to work! Monday saw the return of my dog—and, more importantly, Nonie!
—13 OCTOBER 2005
Our correspondence tapered off over the next few years. She had email now, but moreover, she was working flat-out on A Daughter’s Tale, no easy job for someone nearing ninety. Sadly, she was not the dynamo she had been. We knew and tried not to trouble her with our small affairs. In one conversation she sounded almost apologetic that she had not admonished me for some slip we let through that misrepresented her father. We sent her flowers each birthday, and long before the holiday her Christmas card was always first to arrive.
I can’t emphasize this more: it was Mary Soames who taught Finest Hour its editorial credo—never to proclaim what her father would do today; strive to “keep the memory green and the record accurate.” It was she who taught me that what really matters is friendship, that there is no point to die bearing a grudge. She was our guiding light—the person Barbara and I strove to please with every issue, every tour, every event.
The cover I hoped she would enjoy was not done in time. We were honored for so long to have known such a companion. Her love of congenial surroundings and company, of fine cigars and good food and Pol Roger, gave one a feeling of empathy almost tangible. We always wished the hour of parting would never come.
It came, as it must.
She was and is in the pantheon of great women, intellectual giants, artistic muses, but moreover with a perfect sense of what it is to be a friend. It was a stroke of fortune to have had our lives so enriched.
Goodbye, my dear,
There still is much to say,
My tongue and pen,
so wont to fly,
Have of a sudden both run dry.
I’ll not forget
Too near to heaven
Did everything comply!
But destiny is set
As are the stars on high.
Goodbye, my dear, Goodbye!
—“Valediction,” Sarah Churchill, 1974