“Winston S. Churchill”: The Triumphant Story of the Official Biography

“Winston S. Churchill”: The Triumphant Story of the Official Biography

This his­to­ry of the Offi­cial Biog­ra­phy was first pub­lished in Finest Hour 190, Fourth Quar­ter 2020

“We go back a long way,” Hills­dale Col­lege Pres­i­dent Lar­ry Arnn recent­ly remind­ed me. “I knew Dal New­field.” He real­ized that would invoke a fond mem­o­ry. A few still remem­ber the man respon­si­ble for where some of us are today.

Dal­ton New­field was a Sacra­men­to army vet­er­an who had admired Win­ston Churchill since he saw him live dur­ing World War II. In 1970, I shrank away from Finest Hour after the first eleven issues. I was clear­ing the decks for an auto­mo­tive writ­ing career in New York City. Dal res­cued the thin lit­tle newslet­ter of the “Win­ston S. Churchill Study Unit” and pro­duced 22 issues. His first cov­er was mem­o­rable: a repli­ca of The Times front page for 30 Novem­ber 1874. In the upper left cor­ner, each copy was marked with a hand-applied red dot. It was an announce­ment: “Born at Blenheim Palace, of The Lady Ran­dolph Churchill, a son….”

The Newfield era

Official Biography
Dal New­field at his retire­ment par­ty, Sacra­men­to, 1981.

Dal’s increas­ing­ly inter­est­ing edi­tions extend­ed far beyond the orig­i­nal scope of stamp col­lect­ing. We nev­er had more than $300 in the bank, but he found a friend­ly print­er. Here he begged or bor­rowed what we then called “half-tones”—photos to liv­en it up. We couldn’t afford type­set­ting, so he typed each issue on a car­bon rib­bon Selec­tric. Run­ning out of space, he’d con­tin­ue arti­cles up and down the mar­gins. It was a hap­py, eclec­tic lit­tle news-sheet, brim­ming with Churchilliana.

“Look,” New­field said ear­ly on: “Stamps are fine, but they don’t do jus­tice to this grand char­ac­ter. We need a broad­er approach. You came up aces with the title Finest Hour. Now let’s rename the orga­ni­za­tion.” I sug­gest­ed “Inter­na­tion­al Churchill Soci­ety.” It seemed like a good idea at the time.

High among Dal’s pri­or­i­ties was Sir Winston’s deep lit­er­ary her­itage. He pro­duced many arti­cles about Churchill’s books and books about him, espe­cial­ly Win­ston S.. Churchill, the Offi­cial Biog­ra­phy. (Actu­al­ly there was noth­ing “offi­cial” about it, except that it was based on Churchill’s archive. But the biog­ra­phers were nev­er asked to fol­low a par­tic­u­lar line.) Mar­tin Gilbert had just suc­ceed­ed first author Ran­dolph Churchill, who had pub­lished sev­en vol­umes. I invit­ed Ran­dolph to be our first hon­orary mem­ber, two weeks before he died in 1968. Mar­tin, a stamp col­lec­tor, remem­bered when my let­ter arrived.

Books, books and more books

Books were Newfield’s forte—he was the world’s first Churchill spe­cial­ist book­seller. He worked to get mem­ber dis­counts on Martin’s first vol­ume, The Chal­lenge of War 1914-1916. By 1975, when Mar­tin pub­lished the “com­pan­ion” or doc­u­ment vol­umes to that work, the book busi­ness was tak­ing all Dal’s spare time. He gave up edit­ing, and Finest Hour van­ished. Mean­while he was sell­ing me books and reignit­ing my Churchill com­pul­sion. In 1981 he sly­ly sug­gest­ed: “You’re free­lanc­ing now, so why not revive FH? There’s enough in the trea­sury for one issue, and I have a pret­ty good pro­mo list.”

He sure did. One of our first sub­scribers was U.S. Sec­re­tary of Defense Cas­par Wein­berg­er. We returned his check and made him an hon­orary mem­ber. “That way,” Dal said, “he can nev­er get away.” I lat­er came to know this fine man per­son­al­ly. He was the first of many intro­duc­tions to “the good and the great” through the mag­ic name of Churchill.

Alas only a few months lat­er, Dal­ton New­field sud­den­ly died, leav­ing his many friends bereft. One of those was a schol­ar named Lar­ry Arnn. They had met in the late 1970s, when Lar­ry was Mar­tin Gilbert’s chief of research, while study­ing at the Lon­don School of Eco­nom­ics and Oxford.

The Official Biography falters

Official Biographay
Sir Mar­tin Gilbert at Chartwell, 2006. HIs mem­o­ry and devo­tion live on in his books, and in the hearts of his freinds.

Lar­ry had joined Mar­tin in 1977, after pub­li­ca­tion of bio­graph­ic Vol­ume 5, Prophet of Truth 1922-1939. Mar­tin and his staff devel­oped the doc­u­ment vol­umes for Prophet of Truth. Work­ing with them was a Lan­cashire girl named Pen­ny, the future Mrs. Arnn. They left for the States in 1980, and the third and last of the Vol­ume 5 doc­u­ments did not appear until 1983.

Mar­tin and his team were fas­tid­i­ous, and would not be rushed. They inter­viewed any­one who knew Churchill, vac­u­um­ing every archive and resource. Orig­i­nal­ly Ran­dolph had envi­sioned five vol­umes of biog­ra­phy and ten of doc­u­ments, but the job was explod­ing. At 1106 pages, Prophet of Truth was near­ly dou­ble the size of the first nar­ra­tive vol­ume. At 4592 pages, its accom­pa­ny­ing doc­u­ments near­ly quadru­pled the page count for the “com­pan­ions” to Vol­ume I.

Mar­tin Gilbert was not inde­pen­dent­ly wealthy, his pay for the biog­ra­phy low. Often he would set it aside to take on oth­er assign­ments. Like Sir Win­ston him­self, he was “liv­ing from mouth to hand.” The Offi­cial Biog­ra­phy was repeat­ed­ly delayed. The last three nar­ra­tive vol­umes were done by 1988, but of their accom­pa­ny­ing doc­u­ments, there was no sign. After the last bio­graph­ic vol­ume the pub­lish­ers, Heine­mann and Houghton Mif­flin, lost inter­est. They saw the job as essen­tial­ly fin­ished; the slow-sell­ing doc­u­ments were unprof­itable. Yet from a schol­ar­ly stand­point, they were the heart of the work.

Stepping up

Here was where the seeds Dal New­field plant­ed took root. Born among two-dozen stamp col­lec­tors, the Churchill Soci­ety by the mid-1980s had acquired some seri­ous vision­ar­ies. “If you want to do some­thing last­ing,” they said, “find a way to pub­lish things com­mer­cial pub­lish­ers won’t touch.” In 1986, launch­ing the Churchill Lit­er­ary Foun­da­tion, we set out to do just that.

It began small, with a book­let by the afore­said Cas­par Wein­berg­er. Through it we raised sup­port for more. By 1992 we’d pro­duced ten spe­cial­ized pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing Churchill’s The Dream and his Chartwell Bul­letins, even a series of fifty-year cal­en­dars (1940-90, and so on). The last spe­cial pub­li­ca­tion, The Churchill Com­pan­ion (2013) brought the total to twen­ty-four. The Foun­da­tion (part of the Churchill Cen­tre after 1995) worked with pub­lish­ers to reis­sue long out-of-print books. In short order we saw the Malakand Field Force, Savro­la, The Boer War, the six-vol­ume World Cri­sis. I even pub­lished one myself—India, Churchill’s rare book of speech­es. But the ques­tion remained: how to fin­ish the Offi­cial Biog­ra­phy?

Wendy Reves and the War Papers

Official Biography
Wendy Reves, Dal­las Churchill Con­fer­ence, 1987, our speak­er Grace Ham­blin at right. She spon­sored the three “War Papers” vol­umes which kick-start­ed the mori­bund project in 1992. (Author’s col­lec­tion)

For­tune then smiled in the per­son of Wendy Reves, viva­cious wid­ow of Emery Reves, Sir Winston’s lit­er­ary agent. The devot­ed Reveses had host­ed WSC in his old age at their Riv­iera vil­la, “La Pausa.” Emery died in 1981 but Wendy still lived there. I met Wendy at the Hotel Pierre in New York in 1986. There was no mis­tak­ing the for­mer fash­ion mod­el: smart­ly dressed, dark glass­es, trade­mark head­band. She became an enthu­si­as­tic sup­port­er.

In 1990 we began seek­ing to restart the doc­u­ment vol­umes. They had end­ed in 1939—tantalizingly, the eve of Churchill’s finest hour. To cov­er 1940-65, Mar­tin Gilbert said, would require at least six more. We passed his thoughts to Wendy—she always referred to him in French as Mon­sieur Geel-bear. “How much will it take?” she asked. We told her. She said, “When can he start?”

Thus fol­lowed three huge doc­u­ment vol­umes, The Churchill War Papers, cov­er­ing Sep­tem­ber 1939 through Decem­ber 1941. The pub­lish­er was W.W. Nor­ton. Heine­mann in Lon­don tagged along, pop­ping their logo on the spine and sell­ing their ver­sion at twice Norton’s price, pleas­ing nobody.

Martin’s out­put, vast and won­der­ful as it was, didn’t please the spon­sor. The first two vol­umes arrived in quick suc­ces­sion in 1993 and 1994. Then Mar­tin became side­tracked again, and we didn’t see the third until 2000. Wendy had faith­ful­ly kept her bar­gain, pay­ing the bills for each (main­ly sec­re­tar­i­al and research staff). But the six-year delay exhaust­ed her patience. “I’m done,” she declared. I recall that Mar­tin him­self didn’t great­ly object. I think he was fair­ly exhaust­ed, too.

Larry Arnn raises the Tattered Flag

Official Biography
Pres­i­dent Lar­ry Arnn at a Hills­dale Col­lege cer­e­mo­ny.

Now what? Unbe­known to us, anoth­er cham­pi­on was in the field who would fin­ish the job. Hap­pi­ly, it was some­body we knew and trust­ed, a man who has nev­er let us down. So it was that Lar­ry Arnn, by now pres­i­dent of Hills­dale Col­lege in Michi­gan, set out to fin­ish the longest biog­ra­phy in his­to­ry. In so doing, as Churchill said, he raised “a tat­tered flag found lying on a strick­en field.”

The task ahead was daunt­ing. Raw mate­r­i­al for the remain­ing doc­u­ment vol­umes was main­ly assem­bled. It com­prised thou­sands of papers cov­er­ing 1943-65. Indeed Mar­tin Gilbert had com­piled a “wodge” of doc­u­ments for almost every day of Churchill’s life. But all had to be edit­ed into a coher­ent whole. Sources need­ed to be checked, cross-ref­er­ences list­ed, rejects weed­ed out, addi­tions pon­dered, facts ver­i­fied. A com­pre­hen­sive index and foot­notes were need­ed, includ­ing thumb­nail biogra­phies of every per­son men­tioned. And Mar­tin wasn’t get­ting any younger.

The rescue

So Hills­dale Col­lege arranged to buy the Gilbert Papers, to work out rights and per­mis­sions, and to pub­lish the volumes—not with an out­side pub­lish­er but through Hills­dale Col­lege Press. Mar­tin Gilbert would remain edi­tor, with this pro­vi­so: “If for any rea­son you are unable to fin­ish it, we will.”

Dave Tur­rell, my for­mer asso­ciate edi­tor at FH, recalled the  “heart-stop­ping moment” when we real­ized Dr. Arnn’s full plan: “Not only would Hills­dale pro­duce the remain­ing sev­en doc­u­ments of the Offi­cial Biog­ra­phy. It would first go back to the begin­ning, reis­su­ing all twen­ty-four pre­vi­ous vol­umes in a uni­form edi­tion, mod­est­ly priced with­in everyone’s pock­et­book. Those of us wait­ing for new mate­r­i­al would have to wait awhile longer. It was frus­trat­ing, but in hind­sight it was the cor­rect deci­sion. It inci­den­tal­ly broke the hearts of sec­ond­hand book­sellers around the world. The Churchill Doc­u­ments 11-13 sold for $60 each, com­pared to thou­sands for the old Com­pan­ion Vol­umes to Vol­ume 5.

In 2006, forty years after they had first appeared, Hills­dale reis­sued Vol­ume 1, Youth 1874-1896 and its two vol­umes of doc­u­ments. It wasn’t until 2013 that new ground opened with The Churchill Doc­u­ments Vol­ume 17, Test­ing Times, 1942. Dear Mar­tin Gilbert died in 2015, leav­ing the majes­tic lega­cy of eighty-eight books on Churchill, Jew­ish and 20th Cen­tu­ry his­to­ry and a glob­al fol­low­ing. He lived to see all his past vol­umes back in print, and one new vol­ume too. Test­ing Times bore his name as edi­tor. All six vol­umes pub­lished since his death car­ry his and Lar­ry Arnn’s bylines.

“History lived and made in real time”

Official Biography
Hills­dale first trod “new ground” with doc­u­ment vol­ume 17, “Test­ing Times 1942,” shown here with Mar­tin Gilbert’s “wodges” from which its 1652 pages were dis­tilled. (Hills­dale Col­lege Press)

Care­ful atten­tion to detail makes these books invalu­able. Start with pag­i­na­tion: each reprint car­ries the same page num­bers as the orig­i­nals. So cita­tions are always the same, regard­less of edi­tion. The schol­ar­ly end­notes were large­ly the work of Hillsdale’s Churchill Fel­lows: stu­dents engaged in Churchill class­es or research, under the super­vi­sion of Dr. Arnn and Research Direc­tor Soren Geiger. My own role was to read the man­u­scripts, query­ing points, pro­vid­ing new ref­er­ences, or pos­si­ble addi­tion­al mate­r­i­al.

The index­ing is exhaus­tive, far deep­er than the ear­li­er vol­umes. Index­er Sheila Ryan won the Amer­i­can Soci­ety for Index­ing Excel­lence 2019 Award for The Churchill Doc­u­ments 21, The Shad­ows of Vic­to­ry, Jan­u­ary-July 1945. E-book ver­sions of the eight nar­ra­tive vol­umes are avail­able, and elec­tron­ic doc­u­ment vol­umes are forth­com­ing.

A expanding endeavor

Scores of schol­ars have tes­ti­fied to the his­toric val­ue of all this labor. “We will nev­er again have so thor­ough a record of any statesman’s deci­sion-mak­ing, so vast and con­se­quen­tial,” wrote Eliot Cohen. “Accom­pa­nied by a full appa­ra­tus of foot­notes iden­ti­fy­ing per­sons men­tioned, cor­rect­ing dates, and clar­i­fy­ing obscure ref­er­ences, the doc­u­ment vol­umes con­tain an extra­or­di­nary array of mate­ri­als: offi­cial mem­o­ran­da, cor­re­spon­dence, speech­es, diary entries by friends (and ene­mies), reports, instruc­tions, rec­ol­lec­tions, and even din­ner lists.” They also have a use beyond research, Dave Tur­rell added: “They can also be read in their own right. Not only do they tell their own sto­ry, but the voic­es we eaves­drop on increase our under­stand­ing. They read as a radio play, where we get to hear his­to­ry being lived and made in real-time.”

Pub­lish­ing the world’s longest biog­ra­phy would be enough for many, but it didn’t stop there. Simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, Dr. Arnn start­ed the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project to exploit and apply the lessons of Churchill’s rich, inspir­ing life. “The study of states­man­ship,” he says, “is cen­tral to Hillsdale’s mis­sion, which includes cul­ti­vat­ing the moral and spir­i­tu­al val­ues. The clas­sics teach that we can best under­stand the art of states­man­ship by study­ing those who have a rep­u­ta­tion for it. One sees pru­dence, the virtue of the states­man, most clear­ly through the words and actions of those who pur­sued jus­tice in the midst of the obsta­cles and neces­si­ties of polit­i­cal life.”

End of the beginning

What bet­ter mod­el for teach­ing states­man­ship? “Churchill’s career was long, the facts so well record­ed, the qual­i­ty so very high. It spanned the largest wars, the great­est depres­sion, the worst tyran­nies, and the most rapid advance­ment of tech­nol­o­gy and there­fore of human pow­er. As he faced these crises, Churchill wrote with pro­fuse detail and with great abil­i­ty about his doings, there­by leav­ing one of the rich­est records of human under­tak­ing.” Its legal struc­ture ensures that the Churchill Project will con­tin­ue long after all of us are gone. For that rea­son I joined the team in 2014. Work­ing with Hillsdale’s bright young stu­dents is a priv­i­lege and an inspi­ra­tion. A cen­ter for Churchill Stud­ies is some­thing I dreamed about for 40 years. Dal­ton New­field dreamed about it too.

“A right under­stand­ing of Churchill’s record” requires deep resources. Along with the Gilbert Papers, the Project acquired the Ronald Cohen col­lec­tion of Churchill essays, fore­words and contributions—Sections “B” through “G” of his Bib­li­og­ra­phy. Ron him­self donat­ed his col­lec­tion of record­ings, the authen­tic voice of Churchill, now being dig­i­tal­ized for online access. The Col­lege has received or is in line for oth­er col­lec­tions of Churchill books, arti­facts and papers, my own includ­ed.

These mate­ri­als com­bine to teach states­man­ship through the best teacher of mod­ern times. The method includes nation­al con­fer­ences, sym­posia, schol­ar­ships, online cours­es and an endowed fac­ul­ty chair. A steady flow of new pub­li­ca­tions will fol­low. One is an elec­tron­ic ver­sion of the Cohen Bib­li­og­ra­phy. We hope to do more pub­lish­ing of orig­i­nal texts, obscure writ­ings not seen since first pub­li­ca­tion. Most recent­ly, the Project mar­shaled a bat­tery of schol­ars to defend Churchill’s good name from an out­burst of defama­tion. Suit­able, I think, for a col­lege whose mot­to reads, “Pur­su­ing truth and defend­ing lib­er­ty since 1844.”

“Ambassadors of Providence”

Through these endeav­ors, Hills­dale is build­ing an insti­tu­tion for Churchill research, schol­ar­ship, and learn­ing. You may also sub­scribe, with 60,000 oth­ers, to bul­letins on new arti­cles, research papers and video resources, and announce­ments of free online cours­es and events. For details vis­it winstonchurchill.hillsdale.edu or email this writer.

The offi­cial biog­ra­phy is done, the work goes on, the sub­ject is ever­green. “Great men are the ambas­sadors of Prov­i­dence sent to reveal to their fel­low men their unknown selves,” said Pres­i­dent Calvin Coolidge. “To them is grant­ed the pow­er to call forth the best there is in those who come under their influ­ence.” Here in Win­ston Churchill, we have the sto­ry of one man, it is true; but a man who shows us what we are, all of us, at our best.

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