Girlfriends: Was Winston Churchill a Young Bacchanal?
Girlfriends and West End carousing
(Update from 2013.) Michael Shelden, author of Young Titan, set London media buzzing with speculation that young Violet Asquith attempted suicide after Churchill decided to marry Clementine Hozier. (An upcoming Q&A to be discussed by the Hillsdale College Churchill Project.)
Not only that, reported the Daily Mail, “He caroused with West End call girls and proposed to THREE society beauties—who turned him down.” (Some girlfriends! Capitalization theirs.)
The society girlfriends were Pamela Plowden, Muriel Wilson and the actress Ethel Barrymore. But the most raffish thing Mr. Shelden reported Churchill doing is showering Miss Barrymore with “armfuls of flowers.” He also showed up at Claridge’s each night after her West End play ended, where he would “insist she have dinner with him.”
The rest of the Mail‘s lurid headline—“He caroused with West End call girls”—concerns a story Churchill himself first told. As a Sandhurst cadet, he stood up for London showgirls at the Empire Theatre when “prudes on the prowl” attempted to erect barriers sheltering their promenades from more upright society. Churchill reported this in My Early Life (1930). As the barriers fell, he made what was apparently his first speech ever: “Ladies of the Empire! I stand for Liberty!”
Stretching the sources
The “carousing story” was apparently caused by Mr. Shelden’s note that Churchill and Lord Rosebery once dated a pair of “Gaiety Girls.” Each of them 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.” This sounds familiar from reports by his actual girlfriends. (Clementine Hozier said the same.) It jibes with many descriptions of young Winston’s encounters with women.
Mr. Shelden’s very well done book reports, “Everywhere he went he wore a glossy top hat, starched wing collar and frock coat. His accessories included a walking stick and watch chain.” He even wore silk underwear. This was the standard dress of most Edwardian Members of Parliament. I’m not sure if they all wore silk underwear…. But as Winston explained to his young wife, who complained about the cost: “I have a very sensitive cuticle.”
Read the book, but take the media—as always—with a grain of salt.