“Too Easy to Be Good”: The Churchill Marriage and Lady Castlerosse

“Too Easy to Be Good”: The Churchill Marriage and Lady Castlerosse

My arti­cle, “The Churchill Mar­riage and Lady Castlerosse” was first pub­lished by The Amer­i­can Spec­ta­tor on 13 March 2018.

“Here Firm, Though All Be Drifting” —WSC

It’s all over the Inter­net, so it must be true. Not only did Win­ston Churchill oppose women’s rights, gas tribes­men, starve Indi­ans, fire­bomb Dres­den, nurse anti-Semi­tism and wish to nuke Moscow. He even cheat­ed on his wife—in a four-year affair with Doris Delev­ingne, Vis­count­ess Castlerosse.

So declare the authors of “Sir John Colville, Churchillian Net­works, and the ‘Castlerosse Affair’”unre­served­ly repeat­ed by British tele­vi­sion, mul­ti­ple media, even a uni­ver­si­ty: (“Win­ston Churchill’s affair revealed by for­got­ten tes­ti­mo­ny.”)

All these fables—every one demol­ished by seri­ous inquiry—are com­mon­place today. As Sec­re­tary of State Cordell Hull observed: “A lie will gal­lop halfway round the world before the truth has time to pull its breech­es on.”

Why is “Churchill’s Secret Affair” (the tele­vi­sion title) impor­tant? Who cares? It mat­ters because the Churchill mar­riage was admirable and his­tor­i­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant. Win­ston Churchill would have saved lib­er­ty with­out his wife Clemen­tine, if not quite as effec­tive­ly. Shucks, call­ing him a mass mur­der­er is easy. But if you’re going to besmirch his mar­riage, you need to present facts.

Castlerosse or Elliott?

“The Castlerosse Affair” declares that Churchill’s phi­lan­der­ing, “hid­den until now, was some­thing in the nature of a bomb­shell.” It was nei­ther hid­den nor a bomb­shell. Rumors of it have been around nine­ty years—with con­flict­ing dates and two dif­fer­ent women.

Head­ed for the links with Max­ine Ellioitt, 1913. (Hills­dale Col­lege Press)

Late in his life I came to know Hen­ry Thynne, 6th Mar­quess of Bath, a Churchill admir­er and col­lec­tor. He told me that Sir Win­ston, famous­ly loy­al to Clemen­tine, had “strayed only once”—with the Amer­i­can actress Max­ine Elliott. Elliott was a life­long friend, whom Churchill vis­it­ed at her Riv­iera vil­la, Chateau d’Horizon, in the 1930s. She was then in her sev­en­ties, but Lord Bath placed the affair twen­ty years before that. He could offer no proof, save his own cir­cle of friends. Was there any­one beside Max­ine? I asked him. “Not that I ever heard of.”

Iron­i­cal­ly, Doris, Lady Castlerosse, was also a friend of Elliott’s. Indeed, accord­ing to the authors, her affair with Churchill took place in 1933-36, at Chateau d’Horizon.

Gos­sip about l’amour between Churchill and Castlerosse actu­al­ly began five years ear­li­er. The rumor’s ephemer­al nature is sug­gest­ed by the first alleged encounter—at the Paris Ritz in 1928. Four years lat­er Doris, a noto­ri­ous cour­te­san, appar­ent­ly did sleep with Churchill’s son Ran­dolph. The sto­ry goes that when her hus­band rang him say­ing, “I hear you are liv­ing with my wife,” Ran­dolph replied: “Yes, I am; and it’s more than you have the cour­tesy to do.”

The only source for that quote is John Pearson’s Citadel of the Heart, a scathing tell-all about the Churchill fam­i­ly. Yet even Pear­son, who omit­ted no scan­dal, dis­missed the idea of a Castlerosse affair with Randolph’s father: “As with so many rumours of this sort, it is unprov­able either way.”

Sir John Colville

Now the Castlerosse sto­ry is back, with an appar­ent­ly sol­id source: Churchill’s long­time pri­vate sec­re­tary. In a 1985 inter­view with the Churchill Archives Cen­tre, Sir John “Jock” Colville dis­closed the “evi­dence,” which we are told no-one pre­vi­ous­ly lis­tened to. (This is inac­cu­rate; oth­er his­to­ri­ans had heard it, but dis­missed it as unprovable.)

Colville said he was hav­ing tea with Win­ston and Clemen­tine when lit­er­ary assis­tant Denis Kel­ly approached with what Colville said were love let­ters from Castlerosse. “Clemen­tine read the cor­re­spon­dence and went pale,” the arti­cle states. “She had nev­er pre­vi­ous­ly thought that Win­ston had been unfaithful….she was fright­ful­ly anx­ious about it for months….Colville, in response, tried to play it down….” (Actu­al­ly, Colville says he told her, “I bet he didn’t,” in effect con­tra­dict­ing himself.)

All this begs a rather obvi­ous ques­tion: What was Sir Winston’s reac­tion? After all, Colville says, he was right there. Did he admit his sin and ask for­give­ness? Hot­ly deny it? Would a man revealed to his wife as a phi­lan­der­er say noth­ing? Nei­ther Colville nor the authors tell us.

* * *

In the 1980s I had sev­er­al con­ver­sa­tions with Jock Colville, whom I loved and respect­ed as a “keep­er of the flame.” I do not pre­tend they were of any great impor­tance, but we did dis­cuss Lord Bath’s belief in Churchill’s affair with Max­ine Elliott. Sir John labeled this ridicu­lous. He did not refer to Castlerosse. Of course, that is hard­ly dispositive.

More­over, Colville did not even meet Churchill until 1940, years after the sup­posed indis­cre­tions. The best “The Castlerosse Affair” can offer is that “he believed it” and “would not have made the alle­ga­tion light­ly.” In my expe­ri­ence he was not above repeat­ing chat­ter among his social set. Before the Kel­ly episode, that is the only way he could have heard about it.

And that is how every­body heard about it. The tele­vi­sion pro­gram is replete with fam­i­ly tit­tle-tat­tle: “It was known….a tra­di­tion in our family….my moth­er told me.” Decades ago, biog­ra­ph­er George Mal­colm Thom­son spec­u­lat­ed that the cou­ple “may have enjoyed a ‘roman­tic friend­ship.’” In 2016 (well before the cur­rent arti­cle) Lyn­dsy Spence, Castlerosse’s biog­ra­ph­er, cit­ed “much repeat­ed gos­sip,” cit­ing Pear­son. “On the face of it,” the authors state, “Pearson’s and Spence’s claims do not look well sup­port­ed.” But Pear­son did not make the claim—he denied it. Still they insist that “Colville’s claim of an affair was, at least, plausible.”

Denis Kelly

The only real evi­dence Colville offered was the Kel­ly episode, but “The Castlerosse Affair” doesn’t tell us what Kel­ly thought. As it hap­pens, he thought a great deal.

I knew Denis Kel­ly well, cor­re­spond­ed with him, and pub­lished an imag­i­na­tive arti­cle of his about con­vers­ing with the ghost of Sir Win­ston. He was a dear man, a gift­ed bar­ris­ter. In 1947-57 he’d worked at Chartwell, Churchill’s home, sort­ing out the muni­ment room for his offi­cial biography—“to make Cos­mos out of Chaos,” as Churchill put it.

Like Colville, Kel­ly laughed off the Max­ine Elliott sto­ry, say­ing it wasn’t the boss he’d known. “Of course,” he said hon­est­ly, “that was long before my time.” To the best of his belief, Sir Win­ston had nev­er been unfaith­ful (Churchill Archive Cen­tre, file CHOH 1/DEKE). If, per Colville, he had hand­ed Lady Churchill “love let­ters,” he there­fore had no inkling of their content—which sounds noth­ing like the Denis Kel­ly I knew. 

Documentary evidence?

Sur­viv­ing Churchill-Castlerosse cor­re­spon­dence can­not be described as “love let­ters.” Most of it com­pris­es the bread and but­ter notes peo­ple wrote in those days—how nice to see you, will you be back next sea­son, you were “a ray of sun­shine around the swim­ming pool.” At the same time, Churchill was writ­ing lov­ing­ly to his wife, describ­ing his days at Maxine’s and every­one present, includ­ing Castlerosse—not the let­ters of a cheater.

“The Castlerosse Affair” tries to make the most of them any­way. In 1937, Doris wrote Churchill: “I should like to see you. I am not dan­ger­ous any­more.” This, we are told, “could be read as an indi­ca­tion that the affair was now over, and that Doris did not mean to try to revive it.” She was refer­ring to her divorce, but it could equal­ly be read that she was over a case of ’flu. In it she pro­vides Win­ston with her Lon­don tele­phone. This has to be the first time in his­to­ry of affairs that the phi­lan­der­er did not have his mistress’s phone number.

Churchill’s por­trait, “Lady Castlerosse,” cir­ca 1930. This was paint­ed in Clementine’s pres­ence. It was among the paint­ings Lady Churchill set out for pub­lic dis­play by the Nation­al Trust at Chartwell, where it still hangs. (Churchill Her­itage Ltd., reprint­ed by kind permission)

The authors say Colville “implied” that the real­ly incrim­i­nat­ing “love let­ters” were destroyed, “pre­sum­ably by Clemen­tine.” True, she was not above destroy­ing offen­sive material—for exam­ple, she burned the appalling por­trait pre­sent­ed by Par­lia­ment on Sir Winston’s eight­i­eth birth­day. I guess she over­looked the “I am not dan­ger­ous” let­ter. But let’s assume she destroyed the rest. Why then did she include a Churchill por­trait of Doris Castlerosse among the paint­ings she set out for dis­play at Chartwell by the Nation­al Trust after Sir Winston’s death? (It’s still there.)

* * *

We are told that the lovestruck Churchill paint­ed Doris four times, and that she owned two. His­to­ri­an Andrew Roberts writes that he also paint­ed Sir Wal­ter Sickert’s and Sir John Lavery’s wives, Arthur Balfour’s niece, his sis­ter-in-law, his sec­re­tary, his wife’s cousin, and Lady Kit­ty Som­er­set: “There is no sug­ges­tion he was sleep­ing with any of them. Mean­while, he paint­ed his wife Clemen­tine three times.”

Ah, but none of those paint­ings were as sul­try as that of a recum­bent Doris, wear­ing shorts, which is sup­posed to be reveal­ing. Every­body wore shorts on the Riv­iera in the 1930s. Yet on tele­vi­sion a roy­al biog­ra­ph­er says: “She’s lying down, so they’re halfway there.” Can these peo­ple be serious?

* * *

In 1942, years after the appar­ent affair appar­ent­ly end­ed, Doris was in New York, appeal­ing to Churchill to help her return to Lon­don. This he did. He often per­formed kind­ness­es for friends, but this, we are told, was cru­cial: It “could be tak­en to imply that Doris tried to black­mail Churchill with the por­traits.” Fur­ther­more, Churchill alleged­ly tried to get the paint­ings back.

After Lady Castlerosse died in Decem­ber 1942, the paint­ings “end­ed up for a time” with news­pa­per mag­nate Lord Beaver­brook. The tele­vi­sion show calls him “Churchill’s polit­i­cal fix­er.” More pre­cise­ly he was a some­time friend and part-time neme­sis. After the war, they returned to her fam­i­ly. Which again proves nothing.

Where is the “sul­try” paint­ing today? To my amuse­ment, I tracked it to Lon­gleat, home of the late 6th Mar­quess, who told me the Max­ine Elliot sto­ry. There is humor­ous irony in the wrig­gles and wind­ings of this shag­gy dog story.

Retaliatory sex?

“The Castlerosse Affair” also sug­gests that Clemen­tine her­self was unfaith­ful. “On the long cruise which she took with­out Win­ston in 1935, Clemen­tine ‘fell roman­ti­cal­ly in love’ with one of her fel­low voy­agers, Ter­ence Philip. Where­as it seems doubt­ful that she was react­ing to knowl­edge of an affair between Win­ston and Doris, the episode could be tak­en as indica­tive of a cool­ness in the Churchill mar­riage at this time.” It cer­tain­ly does seem doubtful—if she knew about it in 1935, she could not have “gone pale” when con­front­ed by the “love let­ters” two decades later.

In the tele­vi­sion pro­gram a Clemen­tine biog­ra­ph­er claims that their “mar­riage was on the rocks” at the time. (It omits to note the same biographer’s denials of both Clementine’s and Winston’s affairs.) Real­i­ty check: Ter­ence Philip was a per­son­able, social­ly use­ful art deal­er, often entrust­ed to accom­pa­ny unescort­ed women. Lady Soames, Clementine’s daugh­ter and best biog­ra­ph­er, told me her moth­er nev­er gave rea­son to believe Philip was more than Clementine’s affec­tion­ate companion.

“Too easy to be good”

At the time of the “Castlerosse affair,” when Churchill was des­per­ate­ly warn­ing of the Nazi threat, the French Ambas­sador sug­gest­ed that Britain and France join with Hitler in a war against Euro­pean com­mu­nism. Churchill’s reply to that ill-con­sid­ered pro­pos­al pre­cise­ly applies to this far­ra­go of innu­en­do: “Too easy to be good.”

Clemen­tine and Win­ston Churchill at Ter­ri­to­r­i­al Army maneu­vers, 1910. (Hills­dale Col­lege Press)

Why do we con­tin­u­al­ly encounter char­ac­ter assaults on fig­ures most of the world reveres? It stems from a skewed vision of the egal­i­tar­i­an prin­ci­ple, the the­o­ry that there are no great fig­ures, we are all the same. The schol­ar Har­ry Jaf­fa cit­ed a pub­lic appetite for books and arti­cles “which den­i­grate nobil­i­ty or ide­al­ism. Pol­i­tics as a voca­tion is today in bad repute. Young peo­ple are led to believe that to suc­ceed is to prove one­self a clever or lucky scoundrel. The detrac­tion of the great has become a pas­sion for those who can­not suf­fer great­ness, and will not have it believed.”

The sin­gle remark of an old col­league, hon­or­able though he was, is con­tra­dict­ed by oth­er old col­leagues, the actions of Churchill’s wife and friends, lack of facts, and plain com­mon sense. The Churchill mar­riage remains undi­min­ished, as it should: a trib­ute to a his­toric part­ner­ship. As Churchill was wont to remark of his fifty-sev­en-year union: “Here firm, though all be drifting.”

2 thoughts on ““Too Easy to Be Good”: The Churchill Marriage and Lady Castlerosse

  1. Thank you for post­ing this. I was in con­tact with the research assis­tant for Churchill’s Secret Affair (orig­i­nal­ly titled Churchill’s Secret Mis­tress) and I have to say I found the over­all research to be shod­dy. I offered insight­ful anec­dotes regard­ing the ‘affair’ (which I dis­missed) but that doesn’t make good TV, does it? You might find my blog use­ful: https://themitfordsociety.wordpress.com/2018/03/05/churchills-secret-affair-or-how-the-evidence-was-misrepresented/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

RML Books

Richard Langworth’s Most Popular Books & eBooks

Links on this page may earn commissions.