Fake Churchill Quotes: Lady Astor and Other Women Nemeses

Fake Churchill Quotes: Lady Astor and Other Women Nemeses

Pure nonsense

Mak­ing the rounds again is an off-col­or piece of “Churchillian Drift.” Years ago, colum­nist Jon­ah Gold­berg greet­ed its last appear­ance by call­ing it “A Thorny Porn-y Issue.” Porn-y maybe, Thorny not. Win­ston Churchill nev­er said any­thing like it.

For con­nois­seurs of made-up Churchill quo­ta­tions, here’s the alleged exchange. Sir Win­ston says to a woman at a social event: “Madam, would you sleep with me for five mil­lion pounds?” The lady stam­mers: “My good­ness, Mr. Churchill. Well, I suppose….”

Churchill inter­rupts: “Would you sleep with me for a fiv­er?” She responds hot­ly: “What kind of woman do you think I am?!” Churchill replies: “Madam, we’ve already estab­lished that. Now we are hag­gling about the price.” Amus­ing, but no cig­ar. There is no attri­bu­tion to WSC.

The Astor collection

Nan­cy Witch­er Lang­horne, Vis­count­ess Astor CH MP (1879-1964) was the first woman to take a seat as a Mem­ber of Par­lia­ment. She and Churchill sparred fre­quent­ly, not with­out a cer­tain thin­ly dis­guised affec­tion. They liked to stir each oth­er up.

Harold Nicol­son (gen­er­al­ly reli­able) report­ed that in 1919, when Lady Astor arrived in the House of Com­mons, Churchill told her: “I feel you have come into my bath­room and I have only a sponge with which to defend myself.” Nicol­son does not record her response, but I’m sure it was fine. She gave as good as she got.

Far more famous is Churchill’s fic­ti­tious encounter with Lady Astor at Blenheim or the Astor man­sion Clive­don: “If I were mar­ried to you,” says Nan­cy, “I’d put poi­son in your cof­fee.” The response—”If I were mar­ried to you, I’d drink it”—almost cer­tain­ly was by Churchill’s friend F.E. Smith, Lord Birken­head, who was much faster off the cuff. This has not pre­vent­ed it work­ing its way into spu­ri­ous quo­ta­tion books—and, of course, the Internet.

A few genuine encounters

Of course it’s true that WSC put down anoth­er woman MP, the redoubtable Edith Sum­mer­skill (Lab., Ful­ham West). On 8 Decem­ber 1944, Churchill was extolling the “ordi­nary man” who had gone off to fight for King and coun­try. “He is the foun­da­tion of democ­ra­cy,” WSC intoned. “And it is also essen­tial to this foun­da­tion that this man…”

Sum­mer­skill inter­rupt­ed: “And woman, Mr. Speak­er….And woman!”

Churchill con­tin­ued: “I beg par­don. There is always the stock answer that man embraces woman, unless the con­trary appears in the context.”

This bril­liant riposte lacks the fun in print that it must have had when actu­al­ly deliv­ered, espe­cial­ly with Churchill’s famous lisp: “embrash­es woman…”

“You’re drunk” … “You’re ugly”

The most famous gen­uine barb is of course in the exchange with Bessie Brad­dock MP (Lab., Liv­er­pool Exchange) in 1946 (click here). His daugh­ter Lady Soames had her doubts: “Pre­pos­ter­ous. Papa always treat­ed women with Vic­to­ri­an gal­lantry.” She final­ly bought it when I pro­duced an eye-wit­ness. Body­guard Ronald Gold­ing was stand­ing next to a tired and tot­tery (but not drunk) Churchill at the time. He vouched for it word for word.

Brad­dock was an excep­tion, and film starts bowled him over. “Papa was so daz­zled by Vivien Leigh, star of Gone with the Wind, that he became tongue-tied,” Lady Soames con­tin­ued. “When he met Mer­le Oberon on a beach in the South of France after the war, he turned som­er­saults in the water.” Off-col­or jests were not in his make-up.

Like his life­long friend Hilaire Bel­loc, Churchill nev­er looked on women as intel­lec­tu­al infe­ri­ors. That view, Bel­loc said, “was held only by young, unmar­ried men. The rest of us, as we grow old­er, come to look on the intel­li­gence of women first with rev­er­ence, then with stu­por, and final­ly with terror.”

I don’t know about stu­por and ter­ror, but the first was true of Win­ston Churchill.

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