… has died at 85. From his celestial perch, he is probably wondering about this little tribute. He was convinced, I heard, that he had given “mortal affront” by his impersonations of Sir Winton Churchill. Or, in my case, by publishing a book of Churchill quotes, many of which he mangled, some of which he made up. I guess in later life, he thought we’d written him off. Not quite.
Humes was born in Pennsylvania to Samuel Hamilton Humes and Elenor Kathryn Graham. He was descended from early settlers of Virginia and Tennessee. His emigrant ancestor was Thomas Humes (1768-1816), born in Castle Hume, Fermanagh, Ireland. He was a descendant of Irish nobility and Scottish royalty. His great-great-grandfather’s law partner invited Lincoln to speak at Gettysburg in 1863.
Ipso facto, Humes was what we used to call a “blue blood.” His progeny carried on the tradition. His daughter matriculated at the famous St Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire. On her first day, one of her more left-leaning teachers asked new students their politics. Miss Humes replied: “I’m a monarchist.” Congrats and high fives all round. They thought she’d said “Marxist.”
Meeting Sir Winston
We met over shared admiration of Sir Winston Churchill, whom Jamie had actually met as a boy of 19. It was 27 May 1953. Churchill was serving his second (well, technically his third) term as Prime Minister. He had just spoken at Westminster Hall on the upcoming Coronation of Her Majesty The Queen. Humes was enrolled at Stowe School in Buckinghamshire, on an English-Speaking Union scholarship.
They met outside a lift (elevator). “Sir,” spoke up the precocious schoolboy: “What should I study?” The great man regarded him: “Young man, study history. In history lie all the secrets of statecraft.” Back at Stowe, Humes took down his dorm room poster of Boston Red Sox colossus Ted Williams and replaced it with a poster of Winston Spencer Churchill.
Humes studied Law at The George Washington University and became a presidential speechwriter, beginning with Eisenhower. In 1968, his encyclopedic knowledge of American history attracted notice of the Nixon campaign. He wrote speeches for Presidents Nixon and Ford as well. He met his late wife Dianne when she was on Vice-President Nixon’s staff in the late 1950s.
Jamie Humes left us with a passel of memories, not all of them comfortable. We caught him puffing a big cigar in defiance of the rules at Churchill conferences, even before the age of No-Smoking-At-All. This caused a young doofus from The New Republic to brand us all as cigar-smoking Winston wannabees. Especially when he heard Humes impersonate Sir Winston.
That was not something I ever enjoyed. Jamie just dolled up the image, playing a caricature. With great exceptions—Robert Hardy, Gary Oldman—impersonators overplay the role and overdo the props. We had to warn him never to perform in front of Lady Soames—notoriously the hardest audience of all!
He was sometimes a presence, and not always a welcome one, at more scholarly Churchill activities. An important symposium in Washington, with distinguished scholars, convened for dinner, and we couldn’t stop Humes from holding forth. When he referred to Lady Rhodes James as “an English rose,” her husband, the prickly Sir Robert, asked, “Who is that dreadful man?”
White House tales
At other times he regaled us with the most outrageous, yet almost believable, White House stories. In 1974 after Nixon resigned in disgrace, Humes remembered paying a visit to the exiled President at San Clemente.
I walked the foggy coastal path toward the house. Suddenly, RICHARD NIXON loomed up out of the mist! He was all alone, wearing his jacket with the Presidential seal. His shoulders sagged. He looked at me and said: “I’m sorry I let you down.” I drove to the nearest bar and downed three double scotches….
That’s nothing, compared to my favorite Humes White House tale…
In high dudgeon, President Nixon’s Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman summoned Jamie to his office. “You think you’re pretty damn smart, don’t you?”
Readers, I won’t tell you what Humes was trying to do. If Bob Haldeman could figure it out, you can.
We lived in interesting times
If James Humes didn’t leave his mark on the moon, he certainly left it on the planet opposite. He spent five years 1999-2004 as emeritus professor of language and leadership at the University of Southern Colorado, now Colorado State University Pueblo, lecturing, haranguing, discoursing. He liked to teach how the meanings of words change over time. When Sir Christopher Wren completed St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1675, Queen Catherine declared: “Wren, I find your cathedral awful, terrible, and amusing.” What she meant, Humes explained, was “awe-inspiring, tremendous, and amazing.”
In later years he spoke in a high-pitched, raspy voice, about Churchill, about Reagan, about Lincoln—so very impressively about Lincoln. Were his lectures any good? Just listen to “The Inside Story of the Gettysburg Address.” (Click here and start at minute 5). The question answers itself.
He was a jolly companion, a maddening distraction, a larger than life presence. A friend adds: “Don’t forget entertaining, lusciously irreverent, and generally audacious.” And—this above all—he was a connoisseur and admirer of Old Excellence. Rest in Peace, my friend.
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Donations in James Humes’s memory may be sent to the English-Speaking Union, 144 East 39th Street, New York, New York 10016.
3 thoughts on “James Humes 1934-2020: Irrepressible Admirer of Old Excellence”
Jamie Humes was a scholar and a romantic at heart. He is missed.
I had the singular good fortune to take two speechwriting classes with him in graduate school. To this day he remains the most superlative instruction in public speaking and public communication I have ever received. His memory is a blessing.
Belated thanks for this wonderful tribute. I was very fortunate in the late-1980s to take instruction from Mr. Humes. His instructions were: 1) speak or write for impact, and 2) when doing an introduction, don’t recite the speaker’s resume….but tell the audience why they ought to want to hear the speaker. Mr. Humes made a significant impact on me, and I regret my failure to ever properly thank him.
Thank-you. I remember, and try to follow, his wise advice about introductions. He had many virtues. —RML