Famed for her beauty and the “durable fire” of her marriage to Alfred Duff Cooper, First Viscount Norwich, The Lady Diana Cooper was early admitted to friendship with Winston and Clementine Churchill. A stunning beauty and an accomplished actress, she was a glittering writer. Her trilogy of memoirs is redolent of that vanished England the Coopers and Churchills loved. Her books are worth seeking out: The Light of Common Day, Trumpets from the Steep and The Rainbow Comes and Goes (1958-60).
In another age, when even Churchill’s marriage is questioned by the ignorant, Lady Diana offers words worth remembering. Few who knew Clementine and Winston spoke better of it. Little was said about it in their time, she writes,“because it was too happy to be heard of.” Her essay corrected that lapse. It first appeared after Sir Winston’s death in The Atlantic. Lady Diana ‘s son, Lord Norwich, had not seen it and was pleased at the discovery. I have inserted her charming picture of a Chartwell weekend from her first volume of memoirs. —RML
Lady Diana writes…
From the solemn moment when the world knew that Winston Churchill had breathed his last, a roll of honour of some 17th-century poet elusively haunted me. To lay it I asked friends, poets, and publishers, even All Souls College. All remembered it, but none could place the lines that say: “O that Sir Philip Sidney should be dead….O that Sir Walter Raleigh should be dead.”’ Many another glorious name is listed, and now we can add: O that Sir Winston Churchill should be dead. No man deserved his laurels more wholly. He left us the example of his prowess, the books that record his great times; and more than these he left us courage.
Some years ago I wrote for my own records what I remembered about him over fifty years, and among these notes comes a facet of his life that in the elegies and paeans of today may not be emphasized. I mean his life with his wife and the part she played in balancing his lion’s heart. For Winston, who in our most dread days armed us with a superhuman courage and endurance, victoriously chose his wife with love, wisdom, and intuition.
Among prime ministers I have personally known, Mr. Asquith chose (or was he chosen by?) a Christian dynamo who loved him till his end and after. Lord Baldwin could not sustain life after his wife’s death. There was Tolstoy’s marriage of unadulterated and increasing misery. Yet who but Sofya Andreevna could he have found to bear him thirteen little Russians and copy War and Peace seven times with her own hand? A wise choice indeed. Disraeli married out of cold sense rather than sentiment, and learned to love his wife tenderly. Mrs. Gladstone was adored by William, for whom she would hide in her bodice cakes and goodies from party tables.
Clementine Churchill could have figured in a Homeric story. She was statue-like, and one expected to see her carrying an agate lamp. Her large, lightest of blue-green eyes, her chiseled nose and elegantly upheld head suggested a goddess of the infant world. Blood coursed through the marble, flushing it with animation, warmth, sometimes rising to passionate heat in partisanship of a cause. Calm she also had, with a well-balanced judgment of people and situations—consistent and reliable. She often knew the sheep from the goats better than Winston did. “Clemmie sits behind me on the platform, shaking her beautiful head in disagreement with some new and pregnant point I am developing,” I remember his saying, with pride in her stable Liberalism, after some Tory meeting. Her devotion never subjected her to becoming a doormat, or to taking the easier way with her high-powered Hercules.
Personally I did not know the Churchills when they married, though they were household words since I first remember adult talk. Later I knew there were children; that a little girl by dying had plunged her mother into deep grief which left a permanent scar. Neither Randolph, an Olympian-looking boy, nor the two older daughters did I set eyes upon till they were grown up. Mary, the youngest, was still a child when, in the Thirties, I came more intimately into the home life of Chartwell.
Life at Chartwell before the war was that of England’s “Little Man” on a titanic scale. I remember particularly a weekend spent mostly in Winston’s swimming pool. Forty winks in the afternoon and then (unexpectedly) bathing at seven in pouring rain, intensely cold with a grey half-light of approaching night, yet curiously enough very enjoyable in its oddness. Freda Ward, Winston, Duff, Clementine, Randolph and a child, in fact the whole party, were splashing about with gleeful screams in this sad crepuscule. The secret was that the bath was heated, and it was Winston’s delightful toy.
Twenty-four hours later he called for Inches, the butler, and said: “Tell Allen to have a lot more coal on. I want the thing full blast.”’ Inches returned to say that Allen was out for the day. “Then tell Arthur I want it full blast,”’ but it was Arthur’s day out as well, so the darling old schoolboy went surreptitiously and stoked it himself for half an hour, coming in on the verge of apoplexy. Again we all had to bathe in the afternoon.
Manners and grace…
Serene, radiant, and selfless, Clementine put her husband above her children, her interests, and the whole world. Manners and grace, order and good taste must have been considered essential, for these virtues showed brightly. And the virtues were vital, for Chartwell was large. Enterprises took the shape of earthworks and waterworks. The staff must include a posse of secretaries to cope with stacks of reference books, red boxes, manuscripts of books to be. Studios and passages bore piled pyramids of canvases. Midnight oil forever burned.
Of all the heroes, of Hector, of Lysander, and of Caesar, Clementine’s paragon was probably the easiest to live beside. At least my eyes saw him as most docile to her rule. I never heard Winston nagged. All great men are more childish than good women, and there must have been, behind the scenes, some Mrs. Caudle lectures, some of the scolding that a nanny gives her charge for childishness, showing off, overexcitement, obstinacy, or sulks, some promise extracted that such behaviour would not happen again.
I can hear his prime minister’s professed penitence, the vow made and never kept by the incorrigible schoolboy. One of his dearest associates tells me that those who were closest to this extraordinary man through the fearful war were struck by the contrast between Winston at work and Winston, the family man, at play. They might spend a whole afternoon listening to him as the great statesman, propounding plans on which the lives of millions of men and the world’s future would depend, and a few minutes later they would see him at the dinner table, a benevolent old codger, twinkling with humour, treated as a naughty child by his wife, and mercilessly teased by his daughters.
“Nor less we praise in sterner days…”
In wartime, away from Chartwell, difficulties increased apace. There came a time in the war when Winston, aged sixty-five, found the free countries around him gagged and fettered, and all his fortitude was called upon. In those days Clementine’s burden became colossal. Five hours’ sleep at night and an hour’s siesta were all that this restless phenomenon allowed himself. What other wife could have restrained herself from urging him to bed? But she learned in their finest hour to know the moment for self-effacement and the moment to take charge.
Once, he was anxious to see M. Paul Reynaud in France. His colleagues and the flying men tried to dissuade him from a flight through danger and tempest. Clementine was besought by an apprehensive friend to influence her husband against taking this risk. “Are the RAF flying today?” she asked. “Yes, but on essential operations only.” “Well, Winston says that his mission is an essential operation.” That was all the satisfaction he got from this Trojan woman. The Prime Minister went—and returned.
* * *
The task would have been too heavy for most women to carry. It has always been my temptation to put myself in other people’s shoes: into a ballerina’s points as she feels age weight upon her spring; into Cinderella’s slippers as she dances till midnight; inside the jackboot that kicks; into the Tommy’s boots that tramp. With experience of age I have learned to control this habit of sympathy which deforms truth. In war days I often put myself into Clemmie’s shoes, and as often felt how they pinched and rubbed till I kicked them off, heroic soles and all, and begged my husband to rest and be careful. Fortunately, Clementine was a mortal of another clay.
By 1944, Christmas wore a brighter look. On its eve the children were already assembled at Chequers. A special Christmas tree, a present from President Roosevelt, stood ready for lighting. The grandchildren, all agog with anticipation, were frustrated by a telegram from Athens. It brought the disturbing news that the situation there was critical. Winston characteristically decided to leave London by air that very night.
Did Clementine protest? Did she tell him he was being cruel to the children and spoiling everything for everyone? Beg for postponement till after the Christmas dinner, till after lunch, at least till after the giving of presents and kisses? I doubt it. She had become a friend of sacrifice. So Winston flew away that night, managed to scotch a communist coup d’etat, and Greece remained free. That is what the reports told us. I hope they told the Greeks.
Death places his icy democratic hand on kings, heroes, and paupers, and in 1965 the free world and the enslaved registered with mourning or contempt the passing of Winston Churchill. Stones were graven, elegies voiced from platforms and pulpits, the muffled drums rolled, the arms were reversed, the hatchments put up, the Last Post sounded. The expressed sympathy for the widow, but said little about his married life, because it was too happy to be heard of. His epitaph might be from Robert Browning:
One who never turned his back but marched breast forward,
Never doubted clouds would break,
Never dreamed, though right were worsted, wrong would triumph,
“Held we fall to rise, are baffled to fight better,
Sleep to wake.