Churchill the Drunk. Or: Fasten Seatbelts on Bar Stools

Churchill the Drunk. Or: Fasten Seatbelts on Bar Stools

“Drunk­en Weltan­schau­ung: Churchill tries to find luck in drink, but the bot­tle dis­torts the view.” (Der Stürmer, Nurem­berg, 26 Feb­ru­ary 1942)

Nazi pro­pa­gan­dists, polit­i­cal rivals and mod­ern-day revi­sion­ists often labeled Churchill a drunk. The accu­sa­tion draws recur­rent inter­est. Michael McMenamin’s detailed arti­cle, “The Myth of Churchill and Alco­hol,” gen­er­ates more com­ment and debate than near­ly any oth­er by the Hills­dale Churchill Project.

I rec­om­mend this piece, and the live­ly debate under it—a jol­ly tour through the under­brush of innu­en­do, facts, assump­tions, and fake his­to­ry. Click here and let the fun begin.

Some read­ers sim­ply refuse to accept the evi­dence attest­ing that Churchill enjoyed alco­hol and had a high capac­i­ty for it, but was not a drunk.  We trou­bled Mr. McMe­namin so often to answer their claims that I’ve late­ly tak­en to reply­ing on his behalf. Read­ers may find the lat­est exchange amusing….

Q: Churchill’s alcohol consumption….

Reli­able sources tell us that Churchill gave up “undi­lut­ed” spir­its and brandy for a year to win a bet with Lord Rother­mere. Since, accord­ing to all the sources, he nev­er drank undi­lut­ed spir­its any­way, that wasn’t much of an achieve­ment. (See, e.g., Andrew Roberts, Churchill: Walk­ing with Des­tiny, p.395 note, for terms of the bet.)

In The Diaries of Sir Robert Bruce Lock­hart 1915-1938, WSC is drunk on at least four occa­sions (pp. 113, 186, 198, 352). The obses­sion of mem­oirists and fans with prov­ing he was nev­er drunk or was drunk once in 90 years, etc. is weird. A few observations:

1. I agree that by the usu­al­ly accept­ed expert def­i­n­i­tions WSC was not an alco­holic, but he did seem to have a psy­cho­log­i­cal depen­dence. 2. Can one find a sin­gle day, even in the ency­clo­pe­dic work of Mar­tin Gilbert, when WSC drank no alco­hol? 3. Can one think of any oth­er sol­id or liq­uid sub­stance that a healthy per­son can’t skip for even one day? 4. “Alco­holic” has for long been such a pejo­ra­tive term. What’s wrong with just say­ing that WSC loved to drink var­i­ous forms of alco­hol, espe­cial­ly Cham­pagne, but almost nev­er seemed to observers to be intox­i­cat­ed” and leav­ing it at that? Skip the psy­chi­atric ref­er­ence books, jig­gers, def­i­n­i­tions of “dilut­ed,” or how old he was before he gave up rid­ing horses….

Q: Churchill’s books: written by others?

A slight com­plaint: Yes, Churchill pro­duced a large num­ber of books, but the belief that he “wrote” them is inac­cu­rate. It’s rather like prais­ing The Late Queen for her speech­es, when her role was not to write them but to read them. For many of WSC’s most famous books he had not only a research assis­tant but teams of research assis­tants. The method includ­ed their writ­ing drafts and his giv­ing those drafts the inim­itable Churchill touch. That is one rea­son the books are so long.

A: On alcohol

The asser­tion that Churchill nev­er drank undi­lut­ed spir­its is denied by Andrew Roberts’ note, espe­cial­ly the part you left out: “So tonight is my last sip of brandy.” Lock­hart’s diaries are hard­ly con­vinc­ing. Page 113: “Win­ston drunk but uncon­vinced” in an argu­ment about Empire Free Trade. Page 186: “Winston…slightly the worse for drink.” (Slight­ly?) Page 198: “Win­ston, I imag­ine, is going the same way” (as the alco­holic F.E. Smith). Page 352: “Although Win­ston has a bet with Rother­mere not to touch spir­its, he drank loads of beer and then after lun­cheon five large glass­es of port. (No, the bet was to abstain from undi­lut­ed spir­its. What are “loads”? How large is a port glass?)

Churchill did have an aston­ish­ing capac­i­ty, and most his­to­ri­ans grant him a decid­ed pref­er­ence for lubri­ca­tion. But Lock­hart is no more reli­able than oth­ers from Alan Brooke to Bessie Brad­dock, who attrib­uted to alco­hol a Churchill who worked and harangued 18 hours a day and was often exhaust­ed…. Yet appar­ent­ly not drunk enough to debate Empire Free Trade—or to spark Lockhart’s imagination.

A: On books

Com­par­ing Churchill’s books to The Queen’s Speech­es at the State Open­ing of Par­lia­ment is not only irrel­e­vant but dis­re­spect­ful to Her Late Majesty. Sov­er­eigns have read speech­es pre­pared by the gov­ern­ment since 1852. Churchill wrote large por­tions of his ear­ly works in long­hand (e.g. The Riv­er War, The World Cri­sis), researched Marl­bor­ough with the help of one assis­tant and A His­to­ry of the Eng­lish-Speak­ing Peo­ples with a hand­ful. Dr. David Reynolds estab­lished that, while the far more com­plex Sec­ond World War employed a team of researchers, WSC signed off on every word, drove his pub­lish­ers to apoplexy with proof revi­sions, and con­tin­ued to make tex­tu­al cor­rec­tions to lat­er edi­tions through 1956. Not bad for an 80-year-old drunk.

As to the length of his vol­umes, Churchill also put out abridged and cheap edi­tions for those unable to digest the com­plete text. Giv­en your prob­lem with length, we cor­dial­ly rec­om­mend his one-vol­ume abridgments.


Booze is the only answer: further reading

“Was Churchill an Alco­holic?” (2009)

“The Alco­hol Ques­tion (Again)? (2011)

“Memo to Peg­gy Noo­nan and the WSJ: Churchill as Not a Drunk”  (2018)

“Drunk and Ugly: The Peren­ni­al Ques­tion,” (2022)

Michael McMe­namin, “The Myth of Churchill and Alco­hol,” (2018)

One thought on “Churchill the Drunk. Or: Fasten Seatbelts on Bar Stools

  1. Churchill’s views on alco­hol changed with age
    “ A sin­gle glass of cham­pagne imparts a feel­ing of exhil­a­ra­tion. The nerves are braced; the imag­i­na­tion is agree­ably stirred; the wits become more nim­ble. A bot­tle pro­duces a con­trary effect. Excess caus­es a comatose insen­si­bil­i­ty. So it is with war; and the qual­i­ty of both is best dis­cov­ered by sipping.”
    I have been brought and trained to have the utmost con­tempt for peo­ple who got drunk— except on very excep­tion­al occa­sions and a few anniversaries.”
    “I could not live long with­out cham­pagne. In vic­to­ry I deserve it. In defeat I need it.”

    But none of those state­ments con­tra­dicts the oth­ers. -RML

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