October 14, 2008

By The Lady Diana Cooper, 1892-1986
Published in Finest Hour 83

Famed for her beauty and the “durable fire” of her marriage to Alfred Duff Cooper, First Viscount Norwich, Lady Diana Cooper was early admitted to a delightful friendship with Winston and Clementine Churchill. Few write better of the happiness they shared.

FROM the solemn moment when the world knew that Winston Churchill had breathed his last, a roll of honour of some seventeenth-century poet elusively haunted me. To lay it I asked friends, poets, and publishers, even All Souls College. All remembered it, but none could place the lines that say:

O that Sir Philip Sidney should be dead
O that Sir Walter Raleigh should be dead.

Many another glorious name is listed, and now we can add:

2024 International Churchill Conference

Join us for the 41st International Churchill Conference. London | October 2024
O that Sir Winston Churchill should be dead.
He above all these is not to be moumed. He lived his last years imprisoned by age, and now that the iron gates of life are opened, his spirit soars to the liberty he lived for. Nothing survives – not marble nor gilded monuments at Westminster Abbey, not even pyramids enclosing pharaohs. Only legend remains, and Sir Winston’s legend is as secure as that of any hero who fought and triumphed over evil. His fame will last when records are effaced, till legends become fables, and fables histories.

No man deserved his laurels more wholly. He left us the example of his prowess, the books that record his great times; and more than these he gave us courage.

Some years ago I wrote for my own records what I remembered about Winston Churchill over fifty years, and among these notes comes a facet of his life that in the elegies and paeans of today may not be emphasized. I mean his life with his wife and the part she played in balancing his lion’s heart. My contribution scarcely expressed solemnity, but the account of his domestic side cries out to be heard. I quote:

“Winston Churchill, the greatest man ever fathered by England or mothered by America, Winston who in our most dread days armed us with a superhuman courage and endurance that we might respond to his words and actions, victoriously chose his wife with love, wisdom, and intuition.

“Many great men have done as much. Caesar’s Calpurnia, we are told, was above suspicion. Nothing is known of her beauty, and we cannot guess at her temptations. Josephine, chosen by Napoleon in his youth for love, was a better wife than the princess who bore him a son. Martha Washington was surely good, and Eleanor Roosevelt too. Disraeli married out of cold sense rather than sentiment, and teamed to love his wife tenderly. Mrs. Gladstone was adored by William, for whom she would hide in her bodice cakes and goodies from party tables. Among Prime Ministers I have personally known, Mr. Asquith chose (or was he chosen by?) a Christian dynamo who loved him till his end and after. Lord Baldwin could not sustain life after his wife’s death. There was Tolstoy’s marriage of unadulterated and increasing misery, yet who but Sofya Andreevna could he have found to bear him thirteen little Russians and copy War and Peace seven times with her own hand? A wise choice indeed.

“Winston Churchill, not in his earliest youth, chose most wisely and most well. His bride could have figured in a Homeric story. She was statue-like, and one expected to see her carrying an agate lamp. Her large, lightest of blue-green eyes, her chiseled nose and elegantly upheld head suggested a goddess of the infant world. Blood coursed through the marble, flushing it with animation, warmth, sometimes rising to passionate heat in partisanship of a cause. Calm she also had, with a well-balanced judgment of people and situations – consistent and reliable. She often knew the sheep from the goats better than Winston did. ‘Clemmie sits behind me on the platform, shaking her beautiful head in disagreement with some new and pregnant point I am developing,’ I remember his saying, with pride in her stable Liberalism, after some Tory meeting. Her devotion never subjected her to becoming a doormat or to taking the easier way with her high-powered Hercules.”

I, personally, did not know the Churchills when they married, though they were household words since I first remember adult talk. I saw Clemmie’s tall, slim figure for the first time in 1910, swathed in black weeds, together with another strangely beautiful young woman, passing silently, as I was myself, before the bier of King Edward VII in Westminster Hall. I asked who were these Attic women and was told they were Winston Churchill’s wife and his sister-in-law, Lady Owendeline Churchill (later mother to Clarissa Eden). I can never forget their veiled beauty. I did not know how the Churchills lived or where. Later I knew there were children; that a little girl by dying had plunged her mother into deep grief which left a permanent scar. Neither Randolph, an Olympian-looking boy, nor the two older daughters did I set eyes upon till they were grown up, and Mary, the youngest, was still a child when, in the Thirties, I came more intimately into the home life of Chartwell.

I was continually meeting Winston at small parties of friends – perfect companions and audiences for his histrionics, his eloquence, and his quips; or at bigger, more formal dinners, where he would sit, a little hunched, distrait or perhaps just self-sufficient, between two ladies trembling with shyness and glowing with the vain hope of pleasing or impressing. Whenever I saw him and his wife together in country houses, pompous or bohemian, they appeared a shining epitome of successful marriage.

Serene, radiant, and selfless, Clemmie put her husband above her children, her interests, and the whole world. She had been frugally brought up – not, I think, much butter on the bread, and the slice was often eaten in Dieppe, the onetime refuge of the indigent – but her mother, Lady Blanche Hozier, saw that her education was surely founded. Their standards of tenue can never have been relaxed; no dirty windows or crumpled tablecloths; the dress’s hem washed and ironed on coming home from the party, in readiness for the next night’s dance. The story is told that Lady Blanche, suspecting one sunny afternoon that Winston would propose marriage, saw to it that her daughter was dressed in her freshest muslin, and an order given that there was to be no sitting down till her hand was pledged. I imagine him drawing her to some romantic stile, rock, or rustic seat, and Clemmie obediently insisting on standing. Manners and grace, order and good taste must have been considered essential, for these virtues showed brightly before these desperate years of spacious, servantless houses, when attics, stairs, and cellars, out- houses and dirt traps harass the exhausted householder. These virtues were vital, for Chartwell was a large house, impeccably run, where the master’s enterprises took the shape of earthworks and waterworks; where the staff must include a posse of secretaries to cope with stacks of reference books, red boxes, manuscripts of books to be; where the studios and passages bore piled pyramids of canvases; where midnight oil forever burned.

In wartime, difficulties increased apace, perhaps a little less, materially, for the exalted. Winston was always a fastidious eater, and Clemmie and her famous cook, Mrs. Landemare, had to cater for moods of hunger or of fractious fatigue and cheerfully reorganize meals ordered for six at eight o’clock into meals for twenty at ten-thirty. Yet the wheels revolved sweetly, and there was time and space for pause and relaxation, for children and games. I can see Clemmie, between the wars, on the tennis court whacking very professional backhanders, alert beneath a green eye-shade, or strengthening, during the summer months in her bedroom, those muscles most needed for christiania turns on Alpine heights. I can see her in the war, energy undiminished, great in her own right. Her housewifery gave her limited time for public work; I remember knitting my mealtime through to make oiled sweaters for sailors at Clemmie’s wish and she organized a big campaign for gifts to Russia and made a fine success of her visit there early in 1945.

Of all the heroes, of Hector, of Lysander, and of Caesar, Clemmie’s paragon was probably the easiest to live beside. At least my eyes saw him as most docile to her rule. I never heard Winston nagged. All great men are more childish than good women, and there must have been, behind the scenes, some Mrs. Caudle lectures, some of the scolding that a nanny gives her charge for childishness, showing off, overexcitement, obstinacy, or sulks, some promise extracted that such behaviour would not happen again. I can hear his Prime Minister’s professed penitence, the vow made and never kept by the incorrigible schoolboy.

One of his dearest associates tells me that those who were closest to this extraordinary man through the fearful war were struck by the contrast between Winston at work and Winston, the family man, at play. They might spend a whole afternoon listening to him as the great statesman, propounding plans on which the lives of millions of men and the world’s future would depend, and a few minutes later they would see him at the dinner table, a benevolent old codger, twinkling with humour, treated as a naughty child by his wife, and mercilessly teased by his daughters.

Life at Chartwell before the war was that of England’s “Little Man” on a titanic scale. Clipping the privet hedge became laying bricks for outhouses and walls; digging a ha-ha against stray sheep turned to vast earthworks and take dredgings. The dressing gown and slippers were there (embroidered with Oriental dragons), and so was the tobacco puffed through a select cigar. So was the Irish stew and treacle tart, the garden’s first green peas and gooseberries, the open table around which crowded the family and guests from without – a retainer or so, some Dominion Prime Minister, a scientist from Harvard, and the inevitable and cherished cronies.

The pets were ever present, as in all our houses the dog of the day, the spoiled cat, ducks and swans to be fed, and later, the companion of his age, the arch budgerigar, perched on his shoulder or on his glass’s edge. Winston’s feeling for animals was passionate. I have watched him mobilize tired notables at a house party to seek a lost poodle in twilight, and he once held up a meeting of urgency to wait for a vet’s verdict.

There came a time in the war when Winston, aged sixty-five, found the free countries around him gagged and fettered, and all his fortitude was called upon. In those days Clemmie’s burden became colossal. Five hours’ sleep at night and an hour’s siesta were all that this restless phenomenon allowed himself for rest. What other wife could have restrained herself from urging him to bed? But she learned in their finest hour to know the moment for self-effacement and the moment to take charge.

Once, when he was anxious to see Monsieur Paul Reynaud in France, his colleagues and the flying men tried to dissuade him from a flight that would have to be through danger and tempest. Clemmie was besought by an apprehensive friend to influence her husband against taking this risk. “Are the R.A.F. flying today?” she asked. “Yes, but on essential operations only.” “Well, Winston says that his mission is an essential operation,” was all the satisfaction he got from this Trojan woman. The Prime Minister went – and returned.

The task would have been too heavy for most women to carry. It has always been my temptation to put myself in other people’s shoes: even into a horse’s shoes as he strains before the heavy dray; into a ballerina’s points as she feels age weigh upon her spring; into Cinderella’s slippers as she danced till midnight; into the jackboot that kicks; into the Tommy’s boots that tramp; into the magic seven-leaguers. With experience of age I have learned to control this habit of sympathy which deforms truth. In war days I.often put myself into Clemmie’s shoes, and as often felt how they pinched and rubbed till I kicked them off, heroic soles and all, and begged my husband to rest and be careful. Fortunately, Clemmie was a mortal of another day.

Again, in 1943, after Winston had fallen ill at Carthage, Clemmie flew out to nurse him and arrange a convalescing Christmas at Marrakesh without his family. In 1944 Christmas wore a brighter look. On its eve the children were already assembled at Chequers. A special Christmas tree, a present from President Roosevelt, stood ready for lighting, and the grandchildren, all agog with anticipation, were frustrated by a telegram from Athens bringing the disturbing news that the situation there was critical and that the small party of English troops, sent to Greece to cow Communism, was having a perilous time. Winston characteristically decided to leave London by air that very night. Did Clemmie protest? Did she tell him he was being cruel to the children and spoiling everything for everyone? Did she beg for postponement till after the Christmas dinner, till after lunch, at least till after the giving of presents and kisses? I doubt it. She had become a friend of sacrifice. So Winston flew away that night, managed to scotch a Communist coup d’etat, and Greece remained free. I think that is what the reports told us. I hope they told the Greeks.

It must have been a hard time for a wife to sustain robustly an ungrateful country’s dismissal of its saviour at the first post-war election. Winston was very affected – indeed, stunned. “I’m told it’s a blessing in disguise,” he said to me in Paris. “If it is, it’s very completely disguised.”

Death places his icy democratic hand on kings, heroes, and paupers, and in 1965 the free world and the enslaved registered with mourning or contempt the passing of Winston Churchill. Stones were graven, elegies voiced from platforms and pulpits, the muffled drums rolled, the arms were reversed, the hatchments put up, the last post sounded. The world’s sympathy was automatically expressed for the widow, but little was said about his married life, because it was too happy to be heard of. His epitaph might be:

One who never turned his back but marched breast forward,
Never doubted clouds would break,
Never dreamed, though right were worsted, wrong would triumph,
Held we fall to rise, are baffled to fight better,
Sleep to wake.


A tribute, join us




Get the Churchill Bulletin delivered to your inbox once a month.