Churchill, Leslie Howard, Vivien Leigh and “Gone With the Wind”

Churchill, Leslie Howard, Vivien Leigh and “Gone With the Wind”

“I am a long­time Gone With the Wind col­lec­tor and researcher, and give pre­sen­ta­tions at GWtW events. I’ve also been the GWtW Answer Lady on sev­er­al web­sites. Did Churchill and Roo­sevelt read Gone With the Wind? some­one asked. It seems that FDR read quite a bit of the nov­el, but I couldn’t come up with any­thing about Churchill. I hope you don’t mind me toss­ing you this ques­tion. Maybe you’ve run across a men­tion of it. I assume that Churchill did see the film as FDR did on 26 Decem­ber 1939, after the movie opened in Wash­ing­ton. Gone With the Wind opened in Lon­don on 18 April 1940.”  —K.M., Roy­al Oak, Michi­gan

On the con­trary, your ques­tion sent me on an inter­est­ing dive through the archives to learn about a com­pelling sto­ry and one of my favorite nov­els.

Leslie Howard as Ash­ley Wilkes, cropped screen­shot. (MGM/Wikimedia Com­mons)

Leslie Howard’s Misfortune

Before we get start­ed, a side note: Leslie Howard, who played Ash­ley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind, had a busi­ness man­ag­er, Alfred Chen­halls, who close­ly resem­bled Churchill, affect­ing sim­i­lar cloth­ing and a hom­burg hat.

Ger­man spies in Lis­bon, observ­ing Chen­halls and Howard board­ing a flight to Lon­don, mis­took them for Churchill and his body­guard. They informed the Luft­waffe, who shot down the plane. Poor Ash­ley Wilkes, ever the los­er.

Churchill found this tale of mis­tak­en iden­ti­ty both ridicu­lous and telling. “The bru­tal­i­ty of the Ger­mans was only matched by the stu­pid­i­ty of their agents,” he wrote in his war mem­oirs.

About Gone With the Wind

Wind
The First Edi­tion, 1936. (Wiki­me­dia Com­mons)

In the late 1930s every­body was read­ing GWtW, from my moth­er (I have her copy) to Neville Cham­ber­lain. (His biog­ra­ph­er, Kei­th Feil­ing, wrote that Cham­ber­lain was “tak­ing delight” in it dur­ing the Czech cri­sis in 1938.)

Win­ston Churchill was read­ing it as he wrote the Amer­i­can Civ­il War chap­ters of his His­to­ry of the Eng­lish-Speak­ing Peo­ples (not pub­lished until after the war). Thanks to Mar­tin Gilbert’s biog­ra­phy we know quite a lot…

Win­ston S. Churchill to Brigadier-Gen­er­al Sir James Edmonds, a Civ­il War author­i­ty (Churchill Papers: 8/626), 24 March 1939:

When one comes to look at it en bloc, the Con­fed­er­ates nev­er had any chance at all. It was only a ques­tion of the North get­ting under way and the amount of time required to destroy, if nec­es­sary, every liv­ing soul in the Con­fed­er­ate states. The dra­mat­ic point is the won­der­ful resis­tance which they made…. Have you read Gone With the Wind? It is a ter­rif­ic book.

It would be inter­est­ing to re-read Churchill’s Civ­il War chap­ters in A His­to­ry of the Eng­lish-Speak­ing Peo­ples in the knowl­edge that he was read­ing Gone With the Wind as he wrote. Nor­man Rose stat­ed:

A His­to­ry of the Eng­lish-Speak­ing Peo­ples is gen­er­al­ly acknowl­edged to be the least sat­is­fac­to­ry of [Churchill’s] books. It reads as a kind of pas­tiche that pro­claims his “sec­u­lar [Whig] faith,” its finest sec­tion (writ­ten as he read Gone With The Wind) telling the sto­ry of the Amer­i­can Civ­il War….[but] the fact that Churchill was not a trained his­to­ri­an had its mer­its. As every schol­ar knows, in research it is nec­es­sary to be dogged in pur­suit of sources, but also ruth­less in sens­ing when to stop and to start writ­ing. —Nor­man Rose, Churchill: An Unruly Life (New York: Simon & Schus­ter, 1994), 211

The Film

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Vivien Leigh as Scar­lett O’Hara, cropped screen­shot from the trail­er. (MGM/Wikimedia Com­mons)

The 1939 film ver­sion also impressed Churchill. From the John Colville diary (Colville Papers) 15 Decem­ber 1940, Ditch­ley Park, Oxford:

We saw Gone With the Wind which last­ed till 2.00 a.m. I thought the pho­tog­ra­phy superb. The PM said he was “pul­verised by the strength of their feel­ings and emo­tions.” —Mar­tin Gilbert, The Churchill Doc­u­ments, Vol. 15, Nev­er Sur­ren­der, May 1940-Decem­ber 1940 (Hills­dale Col­lege Press, 2011), 1241.

Sir Mar­tin Gilbert adds:

On Sun­day Decem­ber 15, at Che­quers, after watch­ing the film Gone With The Wind, he had sat from two until three in the morn­ing dis­cussing the cam­paign in North Africa with Eden. As they talked, the total num­ber of Ital­ian pris­on­ers of war cap­tured by Wavell’s army reached 35,000. —Mar­tin Gilbert, Win­ston S. Churchill, Vol. 6, Finest Hour 1939-1941 (Hills­dale Col­lege Press, 2011), 946.

The first time Churchill met Vivien Leigh he was ren­dered speech­less by her beau­ty. This stemmed not only from her role as Scar­lett O’Hara, but as Nelson’s “Lady Hamil­ton” (“That Hamil­ton Woman”)—beyond doubt his favorite film. Fol­low­ing that film, she mar­ried Lau­rence Olivi­er, whom Churchill had known since the 1920s. The Oliviers and Churchills were guests of each oth­er. Alas we can only imag­ine their din­ner table con­ver­sa­tion.

Gone With the Wind in Churchill’s Pre-Munich speech…

Mar­garet Mitchell’s won­der­ful title inspired Churchill to use it twice. The march toward Munich in 1938 saw his first, high­ly effec­tive appli­ca­tion:

For five years I have talked to the House on these matters—not with very great suc­cess. I have watched this famous island descend­ing incon­ti­nent­ly, feck­less­ly, the stair­way which leads to a dark gulf. It is a fine broad stair­way at the begin­ning, but after a bit the car­pet ends. A lit­tle far­ther on there are only flag­stones, and a lit­tle far­ther on still these break beneath your feet….

If mor­tal cat­a­stro­phe should over­take the British Nation and the British Empire, his­to­ri­ans a thou­sand years hence will still be baf­fled by the mys­tery of our affairs. They will nev­er under­stand how it was that a vic­to­ri­ous nation, with every­thing in hand, suf­fered them­selves to be brought low, and to cast away all that they had gained by mea­sure­less sac­ri­fice and absolute vic­to­ry —gone with the wind! —Win­ston S. Churchill, Arms and the Covenant (Lon­don: Har­rap, 1938), 465: “The Danube Basin,” House of Com­mons, 4 March 1938.

In his memoirs of the Second World War…

…he summed up the results of Appease­ment:

Look back and see what we had suc­ces­sive­ly accept­ed or thrown away: a Ger­many dis­armed by solemn treaty; a Ger­many rearmed in vio­la­tion of a solemn treaty; air supe­ri­or­i­ty or even air par­i­ty cast away; the Rhineland forcibly occu­pied and the Siegfried Line built or build­ing; the Berlin-Rome Axis estab­lished; Aus­tria devoured and digest­ed by the Reich; Czecho­slo­va­kia desert­ed and ruined by the Munich Pact, its fortress line in Ger­man hands, its mighty arse­nal of Sko­da hence­for­ward mak­ing muni­tions for the Ger­man armies…

…Pres­i­dent Roosevelt’s effort to sta­bilise or bring to a head the Euro­pean sit­u­a­tion by the inter­ven­tion of the Unit­ed States waved aside with one hand, and Sovi­et Russia’s undoubt­ed will­ing­ness to join the West­ern Pow­ers and go all lengths to save Czecho­slo­va­kia ignored on the oth­er; the ser­vices of thir­ty-five Czech divi­sions against the still unripened Ger­many Army cast away, when Great Britain could her­self sup­ply only two to strength­en the front in France; all gone with the wind. —Win­ston S. Churchill, The Sec­ond World War, vol. 2, Their Finest Hour (Lon­don: Cas­sell, 1949), 271

Postscript

WindMin­nie Churchill, Sir Winston’s grand-daugh­ter-in-law, hav­ing read the above, offers anoth­er Churchill con­nec­tion to Gone With the Wind, or at least Rhett But­ler = Clark Gable. Here is Gable on bend­ed knee with the then-Min­nie d’Erglanger, on a date in Jamaica. “He was a com­plete gen­tle­man.”

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