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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.