Churchill’s Common Touch (3)

Churchill’s Common Touch (3)

con­tin­ued from part 2…

Part 3: Ser­vants and Staff

Ron Golding (behind WSC sporting his "outsize air force moustache") with Churchill to receive the Freedom of Edinburgh, 27 April 1946.
Scot­land Yard Detec­tive Ron Gold­ing (behind WSC sport­ing his “out­size air force mous­tache”) with Churchill to receive the Free­dom of the City of Edin­burgh, 27 April 1946.

Win­ston Churchill was a Vic­to­ri­an, with most of the atti­tudes of his class and time toward the com­mon folk. “Ser­vants exist to save one trou­ble,” he told his wife in 1928, “and sh[oul]d nev­er be allowed to dis­turb one’s inner peace.”

Once before World War II he arrived in a vio­lent rain­storm at his friend Max­ine Elliott’s Chateau d’Horizon in the South of France. “My dear Max­ine,” he said as she ush­ered him in, “do you realise I have come all the way from Lon­don with­out my man?” Nev­er lost for words, Elliott replied: “Win­ston, how ter­ri­bly brave of you.” (Quo­ta­tions from Churchill by Him­self.)

“When any­one came to his staff,” his his 1946-47 Scot­land Yard body­guard Ronald Gold­ing told me,

Churchill treat­ed them much as one of the fam­i­ly. We all know how plain­ly we speak to one’s spouse or chil­dren: no dis­cour­tesy is intend­ed but there are no frills. This is how Churchill treat­ed his staff. He just told them what he expect­ed. His plain speak­ing ruf­fled some, but he was not being rude. It was just his way of get­ting the max­i­mum done in the min­i­mum of time. He worked his staff to the lim­it of endurance. When they reached the break­ing point he became sym­pa­thet­ic and solic­i­tous. They were grat­i­fied, and so con­tin­ued beyond the lim­it of endurance!

Staffers who knew him only briefly and not well, like the Amer­i­can Phyl­lis Moir, who was his sec­re­tary on his U.S. lec­ture tour in 1931-32 and had the chutz­pah to write a book about it, com­plained of his gruff man­ner. They were mis­tak­ing his sin­gle-mind­ed inten­si­ty on the job at hand, whether it was com­pil­ing a gra­cious thank-you let­ter to a host or a major speech on Anglo-Amer­i­can relations.

William Man­ches­ter famous­ly said that while Churchill’s “ear­ly reac­tions were often emo­tion­al, and even unwor­thy of him, they were usu­al­ly suc­ceed­ed by rea­son and gen­eros­i­ty.” This extend­ed to ser­vants and staffers. When Churchill stopped to real­ize he was being too hard on some­one, he would find a way to express his regret—but nev­er directly.

Eliz­a­beth Lay­ton (lat­er Nel), a sec­re­tary dur­ing the war who wrote an excel­lent mem­oir, recalled how she once had a very bad cold and was snivel­ing when he sent for her and was very demand­ing. He dic­tat­ed a brief mes­sage and then took it from her: “That’s most beau­ti­ful­ly typed,” he told her. He thought she was snivel­ing because of his impa­tience before­hand. Short­ly after she went to work for him, Eliz­a­beth told me, she burst into tears fol­low­ing his rude crit­i­cism of her typ­ing. “Good heav­ens, you mustn’t mind me,” Churchill told her. “We’re all toads beneath the har­row, you know.”

Ronald Gold­ing remem­bered an occa­sion at the Lon­don Churchill home at Hyde Park Gate, when vis­it­ing dig­ni­taries arrived to bestow one of WSC’s many Free­doms of Cities:

After the cer­e­mo­ny, a glass of sher­ry and speech­es, Mr. Churchill said, “Green­shields, bring the cig­ars.” The but­ler went away and came back with a cig­ar box, hand­ing them around. The civic dig­ni­taries light­ed up, as did Mr. Churchill. He took one puff, hes­i­tat­ed, then fixed a stony stare at Green­shields: “Not these, you damn fool!” Churchill said in a stage whis­per. Poor Green­shields! The but­ler had made the mis­take of hand­ing round Mr. Churchill’s best cigars.

Lat­er, Churchill com­pli­ment­ed Green­shields on the ele­gance of his manner!

 

con­tin­ued in part 4…

One thought on “Churchill’s Common Touch (3)

  1. These com­ments seem to strike home. I think Churchill’s per­son­al­i­ty was so big it offend­ed some peo­ple. And like a for­mer mil­i­tary man or a strict school mas­ter he want­ed order. But these inter­ac­tions and reports are the ones I was refer­ring too.

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