“American Jennie” and Other Books on Lady Randolph Churchill

“American Jennie” and Other Books on Lady Randolph Churchill

A read­er requests rec­om­men­da­tions for good books about Sir Winston’s moth­er, Lady Ran­dolph Churchill (1854-1921). The most round­ed and thor­ough­ly sourced is Anne Sebba’s Amer­i­can Jen­nie (2007). Bar­bara Lang­worth pub­lished a thor­ough review and analy­sis of Jennie’s many accom­plish­ments, below. Scroll to the end for a Bib­li­og­ra­phy and com­men­tary on oth­er books about Lady Ran­dolph. RML

Barbara F. Langworth: The Right Parent Survived

Jen­nie Churchill: Winston’s Amer­i­can Moth­er, by Anne Seb­ba (Lon­don, Mur­ray, 2007).  Amer­i­can Jen­nie: The Remark­able Life of Lady Ran­dolph Churchill), (New York: Nor­ton, 2007). 

JennieIt may seem a new sto­ry to many read­ers, since the pre­vi­ous biogra­phies of Lady Ran­dolph Churchill date back up to eight decades. Jen­nie pub­lished her own mem­oirs in 1908. Read­ers famil­iar with the Churchill saga wish to know if this lat­est book offers any­thing new. To some extent it does. Seb­ba writes well, access­es the lat­est sources, and punc­tures some myths.

Jennie’s influ­ence in Winston’s life was con­sid­er­able. She edu­cat­ed him, spent more time with him than most real­ize, and advanced his career as a writer and war cor­re­spon­dent. Much beloved, she died at 67.

In the 1990s we twice vis­it­ed Sir Winston’s nephew, Pere­grine Churchill, and his wife Yvonne, at their home in Hamp­shire. There we dis­cussed the cur­rent raft of Jen­nie gos­sip. A lot of “neglect­ed Win­ston” chat­ter was going round. Pere­grine snort­ed at all that. He pulled out a box of Jennie’s diaries and let­ters to Win­ston, and began read­ing aloud. “Played all after­noon with Win­ston…” It was touch­ing to hear her own words—hardly those of an uncar­ing, dis­tant mother.

Anne Sebba’s book pulls togeth­er facts, dis­cus­sions and con­tro­ver­sy from pre­vi­ous books, adds new let­ters, and dis­cuss­es recent Jen­nie his­to­ri­og­ra­phy, pro­duc­ing informed con­clu­sions about this ethe­re­al, allur­ing being.

A fabled persona

There is a round­ed mur­al of Jen­nie and her sis­ters, Amer­i­can girls in search of titles, who met British aris­to­crats in search of mon­ey. She was one of the most stun­ning women of her time, a “pro­fes­sion­al beau­ty.” (Vic­to­ri­ans would col­lect pho­tographs of love­ly women.) Edu­cat­ed in France, she regaled Lon­don society.

Anne Seb­ba por­trays Jen­nie as sexy, inno­v­a­tive and lit­er­ate, her flirt­ing per­sona irre­sistible to men. She was a con­cert pianist, artist, play­wright, inte­ri­or dec­o­ra­tor. edi­tor and author. (I had erro­neous­ly sup­posed that a famous sketch of Jen­nie by Singer Sar­gent was for a lat­er por­trait. Appar­ent­ly it was done for the cov­er of a piano con­cert pro­gram she gave for char­i­ty.) Her rich life is the stuff of an out­stand­ing sev­en-hour biog­ra­phy (see below).

The book men­tions Jennie’s con­tro­ver­sies, skirt­ing con­clu­sions when there are none to make. It is a near-cer­tain­ty that Lord Ran­dolph Churchill died of some­thing besides syphilis—a brain tumor is the lead­ing pos­si­bil­i­ty. (See John Math­er, “In Search of Lord Ran­dolph Churchill’s Pur­port­ed Syphilis.”) Indis­putably, he was diag­nosed with syphilis. So Sebba’s take is prac­ti­cal: He was told he had it. He believed he had it. His wife and son thought he had it. All their actions were based on the sup­po­si­tion that he did have it. Ergo, he might as well have had it.

This avoids a con­clu­sion but does not chal­lenge the truth in the way that vin­dic­tive or igno­rant writ­ers do, by refer­ring, say, to “Winston’s syphilitic father” and mov­ing on. As Dr. Math­er has shown, Randolph’s mal­a­dy was mis­di­ag­nosed from the start. Sebba’s the­sis is not dar­ing and her med­ical evi­dence incon­clu­sive, but it is a safe posi­tion to take.

Is this fun for you?

Best book on the broth­ers, by Celia and John Lee.

Imag­ine what young Jen­nie must have felt. You meet this fan­tas­tic fel­low. The sparks are potent, mar­riage is cer­tain. Both sets of par­ents resist, but give in. Your first-born comes quick­ly. You then learn that your politi­cian-hus­band is a flawed genius. At first bril­liant and respect­ed, Ran­dolph excels in bait­ing the oppo­si­tion. Self-willed and vin­dic­tive, he is with­al not a very nice man. He quar­rels with the Prince of Wales, “a great per­son­age” in his son’s biog­ra­phy. That is not wise. A few years into your mar­riage, you find your­self ostra­cized from polite soci­ety. You end up in Ire­land, in a kind of lux­u­ri­ous exile.

Anoth­er son, Jack, is born in Dublin, and spec­u­la­tion is rife. Is he Randolph’s son? Argu­ing strong­ly in favor of Jack’s legit­i­ma­cy is his close resem­blance to his grand­fa­ther, the 7th Duke of Marl­bor­ough. Argu­ing against is that he looks and acts noth­ing like his broth­er Win­ston. Why is this impor­tant? Sure­ly what mat­ters is that Win­ston and Jack were devot­ed to each oth­er, enjoy­ing a fond and close-knit fam­i­ly life.

Back in Eng­land, you’re told that Ran­dolph has a sex­u­al­ly trans­mit­ted dis­ease. You do much of his polit­i­cal cam­paign­ing, since he is per­pet­u­al­ly ill. A few years pass and (dis­eased or not) he reach­es one of the high­est offices in the land, a step below prime minister—only to cast him­self from the lad­der in an ill-con­sid­ered res­ig­na­tion, nev­er to rise again, and to spend the rest of his life “dying by inch­es in pub­lic.” Not only that, he is hard­ly ever home, and when he is has a vio­lent tem­per. Is this fun for you?

Jennie revelations

Unsur­pris­ing­ly Jen­nie had numer­ous admirers—and lovers, whose num­ber is hot­ly dis­put­ed by his­to­ri­ans and seek­ers of the pruri­ent. The author dis­cuss­es Jennie’s one seri­ous romance, with Karl, Count Kin­sky, while she was still mar­ried. As Ran­dolph neared death in 1894, she learned that Kin­sky had become engaged—he need­ed the finances and prog­e­ny. She had hoped he would wait until Ran­dolph had died (though there had been talk of divorce). Anne Seb­ba asks: what would have been the con­se­quences for Win­ston? Sup­pose Jen­nie had mar­ried Kin­sky, and put her ener­gies into that rela­tion­ship, instead of devot­ing her­self to her son? Her efforts to advance his youth­ful career are well documented.

Giv­en extant lit­er­a­ture, it is encour­ag­ing to find new mate­r­i­al in this book. One rev­e­la­tion was that Jen­nie had a seri­ous ill­ness and almost died in 1892. She had severe abdom­i­nal pains and was diag­nosed with peri­toni­tis and per­haps a tumor or cyst. Mirac­u­lous­ly, it healed on its own. Think of the after­math if Jen­nie had not been there to launch Win­ston on his career.

At the time of pub­li­ca­tion there was an intrigu­ing pub­lic­i­ty-rumor that Jen­nie had a snake tat­too on her wrist. There is a well-known pho­to of Jen­nie hold­ing Pere­grine. Her arms are bare, no sign of a tat­too. Nor is there on any oth­er pho­to I have exam­ined. The author duly dis­played a snake on her arm in at least one of her book sign­ings. I’m sure she meant it as a trib­ute, but it’s like Mar­tin Gilbert at  a book sign­ing wear­ing a siren suit and homburg.

Salacious speculation

It is a shame that the pub­lic­i­ty sur­round­ing this biog­ra­phy focused so hard on the sala­cious. How many men did Jen­nie sleep with? Did Lord Ran­dolph die of syphilis? Who was Jack Churchill’s father? Fly­speck issues obscur­ing what real­ly mat­ters is a fea­ture of our age. What mat­ters is that Jen­nie Churchill was a notable woman at a time when woman were main­ly con­sid­ered to be tro­phies, con­cu­bines or breeders.

She slept with men, though the num­ber is vast­ly exag­ger­at­ed. But while oth­ers of her class indulged in primp­ing and frip­peries, she raised the states­man of the cen­tu­ry, pro­duced a lit­er­ary mag­a­zine, dis­played mul­ti­ple tal­ents, raised mon­ey for char­i­ties, wrote lit­er­ate mem­oirs, aid­ed troops on the scene of bat­tle, and set new stan­dards in dress and man­ners. Anne Seb­ba sug­gests per­cep­tive­ly that while Ran­dolph lived, he stood in the way of Winston’s aspi­ra­tions. His death in 1895 was as cru­cial for Win­ston as the oth­er things that hap­pened that fate­ful year. 

Jen­nie didn’t have the vote and didn’t want it. Yet she knew pol­i­tics inside out, and prob­a­bly influ­enced more votes than many in Par­lia­ment. If she were alive and sen­tient today, she could eas­i­ly gain elec­tive office. Her influ­ence on her son, her efforts to launch him on his twin careers of writ­ing and pol­i­tics, far exceed­ed those of the father Win­ston held awe. For Win­ston Churchill, the right par­ent survived.

The author

Bar­bara Lang­worth was pub­lish­er of Finest Hour from 1982 to 2014 and con­tributed twen­ty install­ments of “Recipes from Num­ber 10 for the mod­ern kitchen.” She is the author of “Churchill and Polo” (2018), appear­ing in two parts for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project.

The Jennie bibliography

Mrs. George Corn­wal­lis-West, The Rem­i­nis­cences of Lady Ran­dolph Churchill. Lon­don: Edward Arnold, 1908. A charm­ing mem­oir, but dis­creet and cir­cum­spect. Vic­to­ri­an soci­ety as seen by a participant.

Kraus, René, Young Lady Ran­dolph, New York: Put­nam, 1943. A capa­ble biog­ra­phy by a jour­ney­man writer, who also pro­duced a wartime biog­ra­phy of Win­ston and the men around him.

Leslie, Ani­ta. Jen­nie: The Life of Lady Ran­dolph Churchill, Lon­don: Hutchin­son, 1960. A com­pe­tent biog­ra­phy by a mem­ber of the fam­i­ly who stands for no non­sense or sala­cious rumors.

Ralph Mar­tin, Jen­nie: The Life of Lady Ran­dolph (2 vols.). New York: Pren­tice Hall, 1969-71. Wide­ly acclaimed at the time, but with­drawn in Britain after Pere­grine Churchill object­ed to its char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of him as a bas­tard son.

Pere­grine Churchill & Julian Mitchell, Jen­nie: A Por­trait with Let­ters. Lon­don: Collins, 1974. Writ­ten main­ly to dis­pel Martin’s reflec­tions on Jennie’s alleged rep­u­ta­tion, well backed by let­ters from Lady Randolph’s own archives.

Charles High­am, Dark Lady: Win­ston Churchill’s moth­er and Her World. Lon­don: Vir­gin, 2006. “Dis­ap­point­ing, per­plex­ing and decid­ed­ly odd…a soup bowl of scan­dals and a for­est of fam­i­ly trees.” —Finest Hour 135

Anne Seb­ba, Jen­nie Churchill: Winston’s Amer­i­can Moth­er. Lon­don, Mur­ray, 2007)  Amer­i­can Jen­nie: The Remark­able Life of Lady Ran­dolph Churchill), (New York: Nor­ton, 2007).

Video and related books

Playlist: 2018 Jen­nie, Lady Ran­dolph Churchill, episode 1

ITV and Thames Tele­vi­sion, “The Life and Loves of Lady Ran­dolph Churchill.” Lee Remick received a  Gold­en Globe Award and the BAFTA TV Award for Best Actress for her role as Jen­nie in this bril­liant, sev­en-part tele­vi­sion doc­u­men­tary. Ronald Pick­up played Lord Ran­dolph and War­ren Clarke was young Winston.

Celia and John Lee, Win­ston and Jack: The Churchill Broth­ers. Lon­don: Celia Lee, 2007. The only work on the long fil­ial rela­tion­ship, with much on Jen­nie, by accom­plished researchers rely­ing on Churchill fam­i­ly archives.

Richard M. Lang­worth, “Jennie’s Indis­cre­tions, Jack’s Parent­age,” Chap­ter 2 in Win­ston Churchill, Myth and Real­i­ty: What He Actu­al­ly Did and Said. Jef­fer­son, N.C.: McFar­land, 2017. Oth­er chap­ters dis­cuss the myths of Jennie’s Iro­quois ances­tors, young Winston’s edu­ca­tion, and Lord Randolph’s illness.



4 thoughts on ““American Jennie” and Other Books on Lady Randolph Churchill

  1. Jack, that was a mem­o­rable bot­tle of Dutch gin, I think you will have a hard time improv­ing on it. For Amer­i­can Jen­nie just click on the under­lined link in the arti­cle for the Ama­zon loca­tion. Celia and John Lee’s Win­ston and Jackis out of print and very expen­sive, but see bookfinder.com for the array of offers. All best to Chris Harmon.

  2. I enjoyed your arti­cle very much. Is the book Amer­i­can Jen­nie now avail­able? Also Win­ston and Jack? Life seems too short to be able to read all that I want to read. When I gave you that Dutch bot­tle a few years ago, I messed up, in the sense that I start­ed at the end of this fine drink selec­tion. I hope to get the oppor­tu­ni­ty to pass on the one that you sure will enjoy. This epi­dem­ic will last for ever. This sum­mer we are to host the first Churchillian I ever met, Chris Har­mon, but noth­ing is guar­an­teed these days.

  3. Robert Hardy may be unique in fea­tur­ing as three dif­fer­ent peo­ple in Churchill films, though not so many years apart as Ronald Pick­up. He was well matched in age each time. In “Young Win­ston” (1972) Hardy at 47 played the sadis­tic head­mas­ter Rev. Her­bert Sneyd-Kin­ner­s­ley. (He was 34 when young WSC fell into his clutch­es in 1882.) In “The Gath­er­ing Storm” (1974) aged 49, Robert was aged close to Ribben­trop, who was 45 when he encoun­tered Churchill (1938). “The Wilder­ness Years” (1981) begins around 1932, when Churchill was 58; Robert was then 56. Not in the same genre, but I imme­di­ate­ly rec­og­nized Robert Shaw (Lord Ran­dolph in “Young Win­ston”) as James Bond’s would-be assas­sin Don­ald Grant in “From Rus­sia with Love” (1963), and lat­er as shark-hunter Quint in “Jaws” (1975).

  4. On the still of the Lee Remick “Jen­nie” TV series, I seemed to recog­nise “Neville Cham­ber­lain” from the 2018 film “Dark­est Hour” on the Youtube still show­ing Lord Ran­dolph Churchill. I checked, and yes, it is Ronald Pick­up—the same actor. How odd that the same actor should have played both, over 40 years apart! This remind­ed me of Robert Hardy, who played von Ribben­trop to Richard Burton’s Churchill in “The Gath­er­ing Storm” and Churchill him­self in “The Wilder­ness Years.”

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