Q: Churchill’s Kiss: A Cheeky Affair
I found myself using an alleged Churchill witticism I have long known, but could not find in your book, Churchill’s Wit: The Definitive Collection (2009). As I have it, Churchill was preparing to meet Marshal Stalin, and a diplomatic advisor said, “He will probably expect to kiss you on both cheeks.” “Oh, that’s all right,” said Churchill, “as long as he doesn’t want to be kissed on all four.” Can you verify this one?
My own main area of scholarly research is Samuel Johnson, another subject often misattributed. Good quote collections more than just the quotation and its source. Your book with comprehensive coverage and thorough sourcing is impressive. That is the real guarantee of the ideas, wit or imagination of the quoted person, but of their ongoing presence in the cultural memory. —P.T., New Zealand
A: De Gaulle not Stalin
Your query sent me on a troll of my hard drive, I couldn’t imagine how I left the kiss gag out! But I did. Not only in Churchill’s Wit, but in the unabridged original Churchill by Himself, from which Churchill’s Wit was derived.
However, the kiss quote above is inaccurate, and stems from something Churchill said about Charles de Gaulle, not Joseph Stalin:
“All right, all right. I’ll be good. I’ll be sweet. I ‘ll kiss him on both cheeks—or all four if you’d prefer it.”
The kiss crack was related by a highly reliable source, Elizabeth Layton Nel, one of Churchill’s principal wartime secretaries. Her charming 1958 memoir, Winston Churchill by His Wartime Secretary, was recently reprinted in electronic and print editions. She was a dear lady and a faithful recounter of her experiences. She first told me the story in 1988.
October 1942: At Chequers, the Prime Minister’s country residence, Churchill was preparing to receive the prickly Frenchman. There was a quandary over what to tell the General of “Torch,” the invasion of North Africa, scheduled to begin November 8th. Only a few months before, the Allies had been badly rebuffed in an abortive raid on the channel port of Dieppe. There was some suspicion that de Gaulle’s Free French had somehow leaked advance knowledge of the raid. The Germans had been alerted by French double agents that the British were showing interest in the area.
As Mrs. Nel recalled, Churchill opposed informing de Gaulle of “Torch” until afterward. His advisors warned him to be diplomatic. Hence the Prime Minister’s generous offer to kiss the General on all four cheeks if necessary.
Churchill on Johnson
Researching the quotations of Samuel Johnson work must be more challenging than than Churchill, since the latter left such copious archives. Incidentally, I found this in Keith Alldritt, Churchill the Writer: His Life as a Man of Letters (1992):
Writing to his wife Clementine, while off researching [Marlborough], Churchill again applied to Marlborough the word ‘sublime’, so current a word for the eighteenth-century prose stylists whom he so admired, Edmund Burke and Samuel Johnson.