Mary Soames Centenary 1922-2022: A Remembrance by a Friend

Mary Soames Centenary 1922-2022: A Remembrance by a Friend

The Lady Soames LG, DBE

Mary Soames died at 91 eight years ago. This piece from 2014 is repub­lished on her 100th birthday—notwithstanding that we can hear her words: “Real­ly, you’re going way over the top. It’s sil­ly to make a fuss.” Nev­er mind, we are going to make a fuss.

Bar­bara and I knew her since 1983, when she attend­ed our first Churchill Tour, at the Churchill Hotel in Lon­don. She soon became Patron of the old Churchill Cen­tre, replac­ing Lord Mount­bat­ten, who was killed in 1979. From that time for­ward, she was our con­stant cor­re­spon­dent, com­pan­ion at con­fer­ences and tours, some­time house guest, friend­ly advi­sor, deci­sive men­tor and per­son­al friend. There is no one out­side our own fam­i­ly whom we loved more. Her loss removed one of the things that made life worth living.

I am pleased when any Churchill writer refus­es to guess what Mary’s father would do nowa­days. That is what we call the Soames Com­mand­ment. “We don’t know, do we?” she would often say. When­ev­er some­one declared what Sir Win­ston would about this or that mod­ern issue, she would inter­rupt: ”How do you know?”

Peter Hitchens right­ly wrote, after the death of The Queen: “Please for­give me if I do not join in by recount­ing my feel­ings. I grew up in a world where feel­ings were some­thing you gen­er­al­ly kept to your­self’.” I tried to fol­low his advice in my trib­ute to Her Majesty. But Mary Soames was a per­son­al friend. You can read in depth about her life and career in her books and on Wikipedia. So please for­give the feel­ings. I have, how­ev­er, delet­ed per­son­al cor­re­spon­dence from the orig­i­nal article.

Critic and mentor

That Churchill Tour was the first of many which she would attend. She had a rep­u­ta­tion as a deter­mined guardian of the flame, and I won­dered if she would view a com­mu­ni­ty of Churchillians as friv­o­lous. No. Lady Soames (“call me Mary”) was eas­i­ly approach­able, and praised our work. She was soon a famil­iar voice on the tele­phone, as inter­est­ed in our small doings as any dot­ing aunt.

On 25 Sep­tem­ber 1985, she and Lord Soames attend­ed the sec­ond tour’s din­ner for Sir Antho­ny Mon­tague Browne. Intro­duc­ing him, Mary said it was a price­less oppor­tu­ni­ty to declare what the whole fam­i­ly owed to her father’s last pri­vate sec­re­tary: “Until my father drew his last breath, Antho­ny was prac­ti­cal­ly nev­er absent from his side.”

William F. Buck­ley, Jr. recall­ing her father’s speech­es with Lady Soames, Inter­na­tion­al Churchill Con­fer­ence, Boston, Novem­ber 1995. (Pho­to: Bob LaPree)

It hard­ly seems pos­si­ble for any­one so engaged, but for thir­ty years she was always there for me as edi­tor of Finest Hour. She radi­at­ed under­stand­ing, advice and wis­dom, often as a proof­read­er, spend­ing time to “get it right”—and to deliv­er the occa­sion­al deserved rebuke. She was so…essen­tial. It was quite impos­si­ble for me to imag­ine car­ry­ing on with­out her. And I didn’t.

Her rebukes dimin­ished when I learned to avoid pre­sum­ing to know things about her father that I couldn’t pos­si­bly pos­sess. Woe betide any­one who made that mis­take! In a con­fer­ence at Colo­nial Williams­burg, Vir­ginia, an enter­tain­er imper­son­at­ing Thomas Jef­fer­son made the mis­take of sug­gest­ing that WSC was too fond of alco­hol. Mary rose. “My dear Mr. Jef­fer­son,” she said, “you have no way of know­ing that, and since I as his daugh­ter nev­er saw him the worse for drink, I think you should avoid idle speculation.”

Hopkinton to Hyde Park

In August 1992 she was a guest at our home in Hop­kin­ton, New Hamp­shire, where she met our son and my par­ents. My aging father had begun with­draw­ing into him­self, and we feared he might have noth­ing to say. But like the elder­ly Sir Win­ston, reviv­ing with the stim­u­lus of friends, he respond­ed to Mary. The years fell away, and he aston­ished us with scin­til­lat­ing con­ver­sa­tion and vivid mem­o­ries. After she left, he lapsed back into silence.

We bun­dled her into the car and drove to Hyde Park to open an exhib­it of her father’s paint­ings. As we reached the Roo­sevelt Library she said, “Well driven—the Pres­i­dent was a much scari­er dri­ver.” Then she added, almost as an after­thought: “It is 49 years to the day, August 15th, 1943, that I was last here with Papa. To come back to Hyde Park and to find an exhi­bi­tion of his pic­tures real­ly puts a crown on it.”

Savor­ing a Mon­te­cristo: she could grow an ash longer than any­one save her father. (Cig­ar Aficionado)

Three years lat­er she was with us at a Boston Churchill con­fer­ence chaired by Bar­bara Lang­worth. Back then we had con­se­quen­tial speak­ers who knew their Churchill: William F. Buck­ley, William Man­ches­ter, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and Lady Soames.

After­ward we drove her to New Hamp­shire for an extend­ed hol­i­day. That took us to Dart­mouth, and the papers of Win­ston Churchill, the Amer­i­can nov­el­ist. There she read her father’s 1899 let­ter: “Mr. Win­ston Churchill presents his com­pli­ments to Mr. Win­ston Churchill, and begs to draw his atten­tion to a mat­ter which con­cerns them both….”

That vis­it reminds me of…cigars! To cel­e­brate Boston, Bar­bara bought me a box of very spe­cial Parta­gas cig­ars. Mary and I smoked the box in five days, com­pet­ing with each oth­er, as she used to with her father, to grow the longer ash. She always won.

New England, Virginia and back

There were amus­ing local encoun­ters. At a neigh­bor­hood bistro known for coun­try cook­ing but no frills, Mary ordered a ham­burg­er. Our wait­ress was Rosie, a stol­id local who stood no non­sense. Mary was not ready for the long list of Amer­i­can options: “Fries?… Yes, please. Rel­ish?… Yes, thank you. Mus­tard?… Sure. Ketchup, onions, pick­les?… Yes. Final­ly Rosie  stood back, hands on hips. “Do you want this on a plate, or do you want it on the floor?” Mary roared. I quipped, “Some day, Rosie, I’ll tell you who you said that to.” “Oh dear,” she said, “was I bad?” No, not really.

Williams­burg Churchill Con­fer­ence with Ruth Plump­ton, Celia Sandys, and Churchill Soci­ety Pres­i­dent John Plump­ton. (Pho­to by the author)

Mary was in Williams­burg for the 1998 Churchill con­fer­ence. She and Celia Sandys were with­out escorts, so we played unof­fi­cial hosts, and drove them to see Jamestown, the first per­ma­nent Eng­lish set­tle­ment in Amer­i­ca. Her thanks “in her own paw” duly arrived from Lon­don: Thank you so much for not only the Jamestown expe­di­tion but also for cher­ish­ing both Celia and me in so many ways, wh[ich] great­ly added to our ease and enjoyment.”

Six months lat­er she was at our Maine bun­ga­low for a rest fol­low­ing the much-cel­e­brat­ed launch of USS Win­ston S. Churchill at Bath Iron Works. We held a mem­o­rable din­ner for her at a local inn, along with Sec­re­tary and Mrs. Wein­berg­er and Win­ston and Luce Churchill.

Mary want­ed to buy read­ing glass­es for one of her daugh­ters, so we took her to…Walmart! Instant buzz arose as she entered, wear­ing her USS Win­ston S. Churchill cap with “Lady Soames” embroi­dered on the back. Every­one had seen her on the news. Peo­ple smiled at her shy­ly. Occa­sion­al­ly some­one walked right up and told her how they loved her father. Lat­er our roofer knocked on our door, deter­mined to cadge an auto­graph. To them all, she was kind­ness itself.

Last visit

With Dou­glas Rus­sell, author of “Win­ston Churchill, Sol­dier,” Van­cou­ver, 2007.

The years fled. We sold our hous­es and built a new home in Moul­ton­bor­ough. She was invest­ed a Lady of the Garter by HM The Queen in 2005. She was now 83, not trav­el­ing so much, but we asked her to our Que­bec Churchill con­fer­ence. “Do come,” we said, “We’ll dri­ve you down to N.H. amid the autumn colours and get you to Boston for your flight home.”

She did. Every­one want­ed to shake her hand; clus­ters of peo­ple fol­lowed in her wake. As usu­al she took a rather more philo­soph­ic view than some of our con­fer­ence schol­ars. We were seat­ed togeth­er when one pro­fes­sor sug­gest­ed that Sec­ond Que­bec in 1944 had pro­duced noth­ing of sig­nif­i­cance. She leaned over and gave me a very earthy syn­onym for “rub­bish.”

She was the first guest in our new house, up each morn­ing in her dress­ing gown, sip­ping cof­fee, sam­pling Barbara’s stel­lar break­fasts, and help­ing us plan every day of the 2006 Churchill Tour of Eng­land. We were an easy dri­ve from the Mount Wash­ing­ton Hotel, site of the 1944 Bret­ton Woods Con­fer­ence, where we booked din­ner. I asked if the hotel might arrange a pri­vate tour for Sir Win­ston Churchill’s daugh­ter. “When?” came the answer.

“I’m sorry, dear….”

“Now lis­ten,” I said on the dri­ve up. “The hotel is con­vinced that your father stayed there in 1906. Of course it was the ‘oth­er’ Win­ston Churchill, but don’t spoil their fun.” “Cer­tain­ly not,” she said primly.

Imme­di­ate­ly upon meet­ing the hotel man­ag­er she said: “I under­stand you think my Papa was here in 1906. I’m sor­ry, dear, that is just not pos­si­ble.” I groaned. She grinned. The staff bought us a bot­tle of wine for din­ner and promised to change their offi­cial his­to­ry to the Amer­i­can Churchill. Mary thought it “an amaz­ing hotel,” and allowed that if he had got there, her father would have been “eas­i­ly sat­is­fied with the best of everything.”

She returned home anx­ious to see her lit­tle dog “Prune” and her dear pri­vate sec­re­tary Non­ie Chap­man. Quick­ly came the usu­al long hand­writ­ten let­ter of thanks we didn’t deserve, because it was she whom we need­ed to thank, for giv­ing us such delight for so long.

Our cor­re­spon­dence tapered off over the next few years. She had email now, but more­over, she was work­ing flat-out on A Daughter’s Tale, no easy job for some­one near­ing 90. Sad­ly, she was not the dynamo she had been. We knew and tried not to trou­ble her with our small affairs. In one con­ver­sa­tion she sound­ed almost apolo­getic that she had not admon­ished me for some slip we let through that mis­rep­re­sent­ed her father.

Ave Atque Vale

At a lun­cheon host­ed at the home of Celia Sandys, Ninth Churchill Tour, 1999. (Pho­to by the author)

I can’t empha­size this more: it was Mary Soames who taught us the most impor­tant rules any Churchill schol­ar must fol­low: nev­er to assume what her father would do today; and strive to “keep the mem­o­ry green and the record accu­rate.” She also taught us magnanimity—that what real­ly mat­ters is friend­ship, that there is no point to die bear­ing a grudge. She was our guid­ing light—the per­son we sought to please with words in print on behalf of her great father.

Like many oth­ers she touched in her life, we were hon­ored for so long to have known such a com­pan­ion. Her love of con­ge­nial sur­round­ings and com­pa­ny, of fine cig­ars and good food and Pol Roger, gave one a feel­ing of empa­thy almost tan­gi­ble, and we always wished the hour of part­ing would nev­er come. It came, as it must. It was a stroke of for­tune to have had our lives so enriched.

I should like to end this cen­te­nary trib­ute with the words of my friend Lar­ry Arnn, Pres­i­dent of Hills­dale Col­lege, for 40 years a “toil­er in the vine­yard,” in Mar­tin Gilbert’s phrase: “She knew how to be the daugh­ter of a great man,” Dr. Arnn wrote. “She did this by being a good per­son.” To that I would only add that in doing so, she achieved great­ness herself.

3 thoughts on “Mary Soames Centenary 1922-2022: A Remembrance by a Friend

  1. Great arti­cle. Mary Soames was tru­ly a class act. I’m thrilled to own a copy of Churchill’s Marl­bor­ough, signed by his daugh­ter. I love and respect that she dis­cour­ages spec­u­la­tion as to what her father would have made of things today, since he’s not around to sub­stan­ti­ate any such notions. She’s quite right, despite fre­quent judge­ments as to what would float Churchill’s boat or make him turn in his grave. Three great women, Mary Soames, Mar­garet Thatch­er and Queen Eliz­a­beth II, were out­stand­ing and inspir­ing char­ac­ters. They all dis­played traits pos­sessed and prized by WSC, and all three looked up to him. Churchill received some crit­i­cism for being “sex­ist,” but the women around him very much admired him. My impres­sion from all I have read is that in fact he was a charm­ing gen­tle­man who tru­ly cham­pi­oned women. So, at the risk of break­ing the Mary Soames Com­mand­ment, I will spec­u­late that Churchill would be thrilled to see such lead­er­ship, wis­dom and strength from the great British females! Let’s just hope Liz Truss, the Her Late Majesty’s final PM, can in time forge a rep­u­ta­tion to match her predecessors.

  2. You’re on a roll, my friend. Anoth­er touch­ing trib­ute. What a love­ly and inter­est­ing woman Mary Soames was. And she was a lady long before she became a Lady.

    I inter­act­ed with her a cou­ple of times. In March 1999 in DC she was doing a sign­ing of “The Per­son­al Let­ters of Win­ston and Clemen­tine Churchill.” I bought copies for my moth­er and me. As I approached the sign­ing table she looked up from behind a large glass of wine and said with a wicked sparkle: “Two copies—lucky me!” I proud­ly own a pho­to of us seat­ed togeth­er as she signed the books.

    In 2008 I met up with your Churchill Tour in Dundee, on the cen­te­nary of Churchill’s adop­tion as their MP. At the meal that evening, you placed me on Mary’s left. There I was, raised in a York­shire ham­let, seat­ed with a lady who had sat down to din­ner with Roo­sevelt, Stal­in and Tru­man, who called Win­ston Churchill “Papa,” try­ing to think of some­thing to say. But I sur­vived and, what’s more, had her sign my menu and kept her place card. A high spot of my life, from the days of the old Churchill Cen­tre. Keep the writ­ing com­ing and let’s pray we do not need too many trib­utes in the days to come. We are los­ing our finest.

  3. By the Lord Har­ry, Richard, you’ve done it again! What a mag­nif­i­cent trib­ute to a won­der­ful woman. The sec­ond trib­ute to a stel­lar Eng­lish woman in 10 days. I was lucky to meet Mary a few times and she was a won­der­ful­ly sen­si­ble woman who held ALL the best virtues. Tru­ly, the daugh­ter of two very spe­cial parents.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

RML Books

Richard Langworth’s Most Popular Books & eBooks

Links on this page may earn commissions.