Readers reacted kindly to my essay on Alistair Cooke. I venture to add some private Churchillian moments at the Mount Washington Hotel at Bretton Woods. I sent these to still-living participants, who urged I publish them—with strategic edits to protect the innocent.
“I’ve been using microphones before you were born”
Commander Larry Kryske USN was our toastmaster for the 1988 Mount Washington Churchill dinners. I remember particularly his naval declaration after dinner: “The smoking lamp is lighted.” (How odd that sounds now! In my experience, group smoking stopped almost dead around 1990.) Larry sends this amusing memory of that night, 27 August:
During his address, Sir Alistair appeared to be having trouble with the mic. As toastmaster, I was sitting next to him at the head table and noticed the volume knob was turned way too low. As I reached over to adjust it, he said, “Don’t touch that. I’ve been using microphones before you were born.”
In those days, as you notice from the old photo, we had snooty head tables. The record audience of 400 stood as we very important poohbahs marched in. My friend Bill Ives was following the late John Edison, a distinguished Canadian—whose braces broke. So Bill had to walk close behind him holding his trousers up until we sat down. (To both their credits, nobody noticed, and the word didn’t escape until John embarrassingly confessed while seeking a new pair of braces, i.e., suspenders.)
Alistair and “The Scream”
I loved and admired Alistair Cooke. Politically (though it wasn’t too apparent) he was a liberal Democrat until late in life, when he grew more conservative. But on our last visit in December 2003, another election was looming, and he was keen about Vermont Governor Howard Dean. Alistair thought he was a sure-thing nominee against President Bush the Younger. Almost exactly a month later, Dean committed political harakiri by giving the famous “scream” after the Iowa Caucuses. Alas, Alistair died in March, so I never found out if he changed his mind about Governor Dean.
Not the President….
That Churchill conference was a two-night affair, so the question arose: Whom would we get for the other night? Thanks to former Ambassador to Canada Paul Robinson, we almost got the President. Ronald Reagan was a great admirer of Alistair Cooke, and it never occurred to us to wonder: He wouldn’t spare us two nights, so then what? Would AC have introduced him? But we didn’t worry about those things. If you get the President of the United States, you work around it.
The White House appointments staff tried hard to arrange it. I still have President Reagan’s letter sending his regrets. As we later learned, it was lucky for us. The Secret Service cased the Mount Washington ballroom. They said they’d need a finished partition for RR to walk to his seat unobserved. Its construction, along with travel and accommodation for agents, would be on us. We had about $300 in the bank, so we breathed a sigh of relief.
…but the Governor
Our speaker was then-New Hampshire Governor John H. Sununu, who gave a nice address, under the gun by having to follow Alistair Cooke. He was proud that New Hampshire had made Churchill an honorary citizen before the USA. I asked him what it’s like running a state with (still) no income or sales tax. “You can’t take your eyes off he ledger for a day,” he said. “If you do, you’ll lose your shirt.”
Governor Sununu has a Churchill-like, ecumenical sense of political humor. He was thanked by Ambassador Robinson, a stalwart Republican. The 1988 presidential election was on, so Paul blithely proceeded to endorse Vice-President George H.W. Bush. Canada’s federal election was coming up too, and our audience included many from north of the border. Paul peered out at them. “As for Canadians present, I don’t have to say I hope you’ll all vote Conservative on behalf of my dear friend Brian Mulroney.”
The Governor remarked, not quite sotto voce: “There goes the 5000-mile undefended border.”
It was all in good fun though I’m sure I heard from every Democrat, Liberal and NDP supporter at the Mount Washington that night.
Mary at the Mount
Our last and best Mount Washington memory involves Sir Winston’s daughter, Lady Soames. By 2005 we knew that at 83, the Quebec Churchill Conference might be her last abroad. “Do come,” we said. “We’ll drive you down to New Hampshire amid the autumn colo(u)rs and get you to Boston for your flight home.”
She came. In Quebec, everyone wanted to shake her hand. Clusters of people trailed in her wake. As usual she took a rather more detached view than some of our conference speakers. We were seated together when Professor Warren Kimball suggested that the Second Quebec Conference in 1944 produced “nothing of significance.” She leaned over and gave me a very earthy synonym for “rubbish.” I told Warren later, and he has dined out on it ever since.
Here in New Hampshire she was one of our first houseguests, up early in her dressing gown, sipping coffee. Over Barbara’s stellar breakfasts, she helped plan every day of the 2006 Churchill Tour of England, our next-to-last. We are an easy drive from the Mount Washington, so we booked dinner there. I asked the hotel if they might arrange a private tour for Winston Churchill’s daughter. “How soon?” they replied.
* * *
On the way up I suggested diplomatic strategy: “The Mount Washington believes your father stayed there in 1906. Of course it was the ‘other’ Winston Churchill, the American novelist. But don’t spoil their fun.” “Certainly not,” she said primly.
Immediately upon meeting the Mount Washington’s manager, Lady Soames spoke up. “I understand you think my Papa was here in 1906. I’m sorry, dear, that is just not possible. That was, you know, the American Churchill. I’m told he was running for Congress at the time. I believe he lost.”
I groaned. She grinned.
The Mount Washington bought us a bottle of wine but made me pay for dinner, which I thought a bit chintzy. They did promise to change their official history to name the American Churchill as a visitor. (I wonder if they ever did?) Mary Soames thought it “an amazing hotel.” If her father actually had visited, she said, he’d have liked it fine. She returned home anxious to see her dog Prune and her dear private secretary Nonie Chapman. Quickly came the usual long letter in her “own paw,” expressing thanks we didn’t deserve. It was she whom we needed to thank, for giving us such delight for so many years.