An exhibition of Churchilliana in New York has reminded Americans why they took the great man to their hearts – and kept him there.
By Andrew Roberts
THE TELEGRAPH, 4 August 2012—Americans love Sir Winston Churchill. That much has been obvious since even before 1963, when President Kennedy gave him the only honorary US citizenship ever awarded to a living person. Yet, in the half-century since then, that admiration and affection hasn’t abated; he is one of the only non‑Americans to have a US warship named after him, and as many books are published about him in America as in Britain. Indeed, the only bookshop in the world dedicated solely to selling his books, articles and memorabilia is the splendid Chartwell Books on Madison Avenue and 52nd Street in Manhattan. As Churchill’s mother, Jennie Jerome, was born in Brooklyn, Americans understandably regard Churchill’s extraordinary life as an almost semi-detached telling of their own national story.
So when the prestigious Morgan Library and Museum in New York decided to stage an exhibition entitled Churchill: The Power of Words, which would include the cream of the America-related items in the Churchill Archives at Churchill College, Cambridge, they knew that it would be popular.
What has astounded them – and me, despite my being a special curator of the exhibition – is quite what a stir has been created in Midtown. The crowds have exceeded all expectations, with record numbers visiting the exhibition, even in the normally quiet summer months. More than 30,000 people in the first six weeks – at least 50 per cent higher than the library’s initial expectations.
The concept behind the exhibition was an original one; to show how Churchill crafted language for his political and world-historical ends. It concentrates on his intimate relationship with the English tongue, and traces the way that, from his schooldays right through to his retirement from the premiership in 1955, he developed his own sublime style of writing and speaking.
“Our aim was to present Churchill in his own words,” says Allen Packwood, the co‑curator of the exhibition and director of the Churchill Archives in Cambridge. “To let visitors hear his voice. To let them read his wartime speeches and see how they were constructed. We wanted to show the blood, toil, tears and sweat that went into his compositions. Because those words mattered. They had a profound effect on Britain, on Europe and on the United States.”
They still do have a profound effect on people who go to the exhibition, many of whom are moved to tears by it. “It’s been thrilling to witness the unprecedented emotional engagement and visceral response of many visitors,” says Declan Kiely of the Morgan Library, “some of whom emerge openly weeping after listening to Churchill’s speeches.”
The most powerful insight that this exhibition gives is into the sheer hard work that Churchill put into his writing and speaking. Here was a man who could not write or say a boring sentence, but the reason was – as these documents show time and again – that he would rework and revise with a perfectionist’s commitment until he got it absolutely right.
The result was ultimately sublime, of course, but it was not without an extraordinary amount of time spent continually rewriting until he was happy with the cadences, rhythms and meaning of his words. He respected the power of words, and this exhibition shows just how much effort he put into making them live in his readers’ and listeners’ minds.
Among the exhibits are the notes for the speech that Churchill made in the House of Commons on September 11 1940, two days after the start of the Blitz, in which he said that Adolf Hitler “hopes by killing large numbers of civilians, and women and children, that he will terrorise and cow the people of this mighty imperial city… Little does he know the spirit of the British nation.”
Americans who see these notes, full of annotations and alterations made by Churchill himself, have been powerfully struck by the conjunction of that particular date in the iconic year 1940 and the message that Churchill was conveying about the use of terror tactics against a great city.
It is rare that a few sheets of paper from an archive that were typed out seven decades ago can evoke such strong emotions from normally hard-bitten New Yorkers, but it is happening here day after day. I must admit that I feel a catch in my throat whenever I see those notes, knowing that they contain one of the most eloquent roars of defiance that valour ever directed against evil.
As one enters the exhibition, one first sees Churchill’s 1953 Nobel Prize for Literature on one side, comprising a gorgeously illustrated book and a large gold medal, and on the other the grant of his honorary citizenship (courtesy of Chartwell Manor in Kent, Churchill’s country house), along with the American passport in his name that he never had the opportunity to use.
Thereafter, the large room is packed with fascinating objects – a painting of Antibes by Churchill; his secretary’s silent typewriter, protected by rubber so that the clattering of the keys would not break his train of thought; a poem by Longfellow signed by both Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt; a heavily annotated page from the galley proofs of Churchill’s first book, The Malakand Field Force, showing his extensive handwritten revisions – before one gets to the notes of his great wartime speeches.
There, too, is George VI’s moving letter on the death of Roosevelt, and an article that Churchill wrote on the art of oratory (rather presumptuously, having only delivered one public speech in his life thus far).
And a funny letter written by Otto C Pickhardt, Churchill’s doctor, after he was nearly killed by a car on Fifth Avenue, between 76th and 77th Street, in December 1931, which reads: “This is to certify that the post-accident convalescence of Hon Winston S Churchill necessitates the use of alcoholic spirits especially at mealtimes.” This at a time when America was in the grip of Prohibition. “The quantity is naturally indefinite but the minimum requirements would be 250 cubic centimeters.” (Dr Pickhardt presumably meant centilitres, but that’s still a third of a bottle.)
There are hand-coloured charts showing the sinkings of British merchant shipping by U-boats during the Second World War – a tool, along with his words, to try to influence the American administration – and the original draft of a telegram urging the Irish premier, Eamon de Valera, to join the struggle against Nazi Germany the day after Pearl Harbour: “Now is your chance. Now or never. A nation once again.”
British visitors to the exhibition – of whom there have been many – particularly appreciate the opportunity to see at least 65 items that are usually kept in the Churchill Archives’ strongrooms, because there are no facilities for permanent exhibitions there. It might seem counter-intuitive to go to see British documents in New York, but until they can be put on public display in Cambridge, it is actually the best way to view them.
With Mitt Romney promising to ask for the Churchill bust to be returned to the Oval Office, from where it was unceremoniously expelled by President Obama in his first week in office, it is clear that the popularity and reputation of the Greatest Briton is alive and well in America. Is it because people crave courageous, eloquent leadership in difficult times? Or maybe it is a simple extension of the classic American Anglophilia we saw with the royal wedding and Jubilee and are seeing with the Olympics.
‘Churchill: The Power of Words’ is at the Morgan Library, New York, until September 23, 2012.
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