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.