Present at the Creation: Randolph Churchill and the Official Biography (1)

Present at the Creation: Randolph Churchill and the Official Biography (1)

“Ran­dolph Churchill: Present at the Cre­ation,” is tak­en from a lec­ture aboard the Regent Sev­en Seas Explor­er on the 2019 Hills­dale Col­lege Cruise around Britain, 8 June 2019.

Most every­body has an inkling of who Win­ston Churchill was. But how many know of his son Ran­dolph? How many British school­child­ren do you think have heard of him? Do they know that Arthur Conan Doyle cre­at­ed Sher­lock Holmes, who some think was a real per­son? They should, Sir Arthur was a great writer. Like Ran­dolph Churchill, who found­ed the longest biog­ra­phy ever writ­ten. In the words of Dean Ache­son, he was “present at the creation.”

In his auto­bi­og­ra­phy Ran­dolph wrote, “I was born in Lon­don on 18 May 1911 at 33 Eccle­ston Square, of poor but hon­est par­ents. Born with­in sound of Bow Bells, I was a Cock­ney and, until I was forty, was des­tined to spend more than half my life in London.”

He was writ­ten off recent­ly as “a vio­lent drunk marred by scan­dals, divorces and infir­mi­ty of pur­pose.” In 1953 he was called a “paid hack.” He sued for libel, won, and pub­lished a book about it, What I Said about the Press. What he said about the press is inter­est­ing. He said they all had the same opin­ions, mouthed the same lines, and nev­er crit­i­cized each oth­er, because as he put it, “Dog don’t eat dog.” Does that sound familiar?

Randolph Churchill as writer

Randolph ChurchillkPaid hack and infir­mi­ty of pur­pose are not charges that stick. Randolph’s career in jour­nal­ism last­ed thir­ty-six years. He wrote hun­dreds of arti­cles, edit­ed sev­en vol­umes of his father’s speech­es, and pub­lished fif­teen books, includ­ing the first sev­en nar­ra­tive and doc­u­ment vol­umes of Win­ston S. Churchill, the offi­cial biography.

After the cruise, we cel­e­brat­ed Hills­dale College’s com­ple­tion of what Ran­dolph began long ago. He always called it “The Great Work.” If he were here, he would ask, “What took you so long?”

Ran­dolph planned five nar­ra­tive and per­haps ten doc­u­ment (“com­pan­ion”) vol­umes. Sir Mar­tin Gilbert, who joined his staff in 1962 and lat­er suc­ceed­ed him, found much more material—“lovely grub,” Ran­dolph called it. Sir Mar­tin pub­lished eigh­teen vol­umes through his death in 2015. Hills­dale Col­lege Press began repub­lish­ing all pri­or vol­umes in 2006 and has now added six new doc­u­ment vol­umes edit­ed by Lar­ry Arnn, who long ago was Martin’s research assistant.

Ran­dolph Churchill was the sub­ject of four books. The first was col­lec­tion of trib­utes, The Young Unpre­tender (The Grand Orig­i­nal in USA), com­piled by Kay Halle, the Wash­ing­ton socialite most respon­si­ble for advanc­ing Sir Winston’s hon­orary U.S. cit­i­zen­ship. It’s the kind of book you’d wish your friends would write about you. He is the sub­ject of three biogra­phies. The best is His Father’s Son, by Randolph’s son Win­ston, in 1996..

Breaking bad

Randolph Churchill
Son and father, cir­ca 1922.

Ran­dolph was what we par­ents describe as a hand­ful. He went through sev­er­al nan­nies, and was trou­ble­some at San­droyd School in Wilt­shire, where he was sent in 1917. At home he was ram­bunc­tious. Dur­ing a vis­it to Chartwell by Churchill’s friend Bernard “Bar­ney” Baruch, Ran­dolph, aged about 12, posi­tioned a gramo­phone in an upper sto­ry win­dow. As Baruch stepped from his car, Ran­dolph let fly with a record­ing about a pop­u­lar car­toon char­ac­ter, “Bar­ney Google, with the Goo-Goo Goo­gly Eyes.”

Baruch laughed, but Randolph’s father stormed up to his room, removed the offend­ing plat­ter, and broke it across his knee.

A friend wrote: “If [Win­ston] had not been a great man, he would have been a per­fect father—building a tree house, help­ing Ran­dolph with his home­work, coun­sel­ing and encour­ag­ing.” Win­ston spoiled him by invit­ing him to polit­i­cal din­ners with the lead­ing fig­ures of the day. After din­ner, Win­ston would hold up his famous cig­ar for silence while Ran­dolph held forth.

Ran­dolph thus became a superb extem­po­ra­ne­ous speak­er, quick­er off the cuff than his father. But there was a down-side. He learned to drink hard, in the com­pa­ny of famous cronies like F.E. Smith, Lord Birken­head. Much to his par­ents’ con­ster­na­tion, he was drink­ing dou­ble brandies at the age of 18. His father nev­er drank spir­its neat, but Ran­dolph nev­er prac­ticed such moderation.

His out­spo­ken, sar­cas­tic and often boor­ish man­ner alien­at­ed his moth­er, and their rela­tions were often frosty. Clemen­tine Churchill lived for Win­ston and Win­ston was full-time work. Once she rep­ri­mand­ed Ran­dolph for tak­ing a fan­cy to an old­er woman. He shot back, “I don’t care…She’s mater­nal and you’re not.” What few appre­ci­at­ed, his cousin Ani­ta Leslie wrote, was “Randolph’s crav­ing for affec­tion. He had to hide his sen­si­tiv­i­ty, not real­iz­ing either that oth­ers could be as sen­si­tive as he.”

“Randolph, Hope and Glory”

At Eton, Ran­dolph wrote, “I was lazy and unsuccessful…and unpop­u­lar.” At Oxford in 1929, he took lit­tle inter­est in stud­ies. His father warned: “Your idle and lazy life is very offen­sive to me. You appear to be lead­ing a per­fect­ly use­less exis­tence…. do not val­ue or prof­it by the oppor­tu­ni­ties Oxford offers…. You add an inso­lence toward men and things which is rapid­ly affect­ing your posi­tion out­side Oxford and is cer­tain­ly not sus­tained by effort or achieve­ment.” This is a remark­able par­al­lel to the demor­al­iz­ing let­ter Winston’s father wrote him around the same age, warn­ing that he was in dan­ger of becom­ing a “social wastrel.”

Ran­dolph apol­o­gized, promised to do bet­ter, and cam­paigned for his father in the May 1929 elec­tion. The Con­ser­v­a­tives lost and Win­ston began his decade in the polit­i­cal wilder­ness. That sum­mer Win­ston, his broth­er Jack and their sons Ran­dolph and John­ny toured North Amer­i­ca. There Ran­dolph met more of the good and the great. Their Hol­ly­wood hosts includ­ed Char­lie Chap­lin, William Ran­dolph Hearst and his mis­tress Mar­i­on Davies, Louis B. May­er and Spencer Tracy.

In Octo­ber 1930 Ran­dolph quit Oxford and began a lec­ture tour of Amer­i­ca, hop­ing to recoup his deplet­ed finances. He began writ­ing for the press and was appar­ent­ly the first British jour­nal­ist to warn about Hitler in print. In Munich in 1932, he tried to arrange for his father to meet Hitler—size up the ene­my, so to speak. But that inter­est­ing prospect didn’t come off.

Aiming (very) high

Randolph Churchill
Can­di­date for Wavertree, 1935.

Pre­dict­ing in print that he would make a for­tune and become prime min­is­ter, Ran­dolph ran for Par­lia­ment as an inde­pen­dent Con­ser­v­a­tive in Wavertree, Liv­er­pool in 1935. This embar­rassed his father, for Ran­dolph split the Tory vote and hand­ed a safe seat to Labour. But Win­ston rarely let the sun go down upon his wrath, and when Randolph’s idle­ness end­ed in lec­tures, writ­ing and more polit­i­cal cam­paigns, he lent encouragement.

Ran­dolph was rebuffed twice more before get­ting in for Pre­ston, Lan­cashire. Because of the wartime polit­i­cal truce he was unop­posed, but in the 1945 elec­tion he lost deci­sive­ly. After the war he was twice beat­en by Labour’s Michael Foot, while prac­tic­ing his father’s cel­e­brat­ed col­le­gial­i­ty. The two can­di­dates would fling invec­tive at each oth­er in pub­lic, then meet for a drink after­wards. Foot lat­er told Mar­tin Gilbert, “You and I belong to the most exclu­sive club in Lon­don: the friends of Ran­dolph Churchill.”

Lady friends

With his good looks and affec­tion, Ran­dolph had many romances. He almost mar­ried Kay Halle, a life­long friend who nev­er doubt­ed her deci­sion to refuse him. His 1939 mar­riage to Pamela Dig­by, lat­er Har­ri­man, was a fail­ure from their wed­ding night, when Ran­dolph floored her by read­ing aloud from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He hoped to pro­duce an heir before the war took him, and in 1940 Pamela gave birth to their only child, duly named Winston.

Randolph Churchill
Natal­ie Bevan and Ran­dolph Churchill at Stour with Orlan­do the spaniel and Cap­tain Boy­cott the pug, cir­ca 1960. (See Part 2.)

Few of his lady friends could han­dle him, but those who did, like Natal­ie Bevan, the last and great­est love of his life, were indis­pens­able to him. Like Kay Halle, Mrs. Bevan nev­er mar­ried him or lived with him, but they were very close in lat­er years. Mar­tin Gilbert wrote: “It was Natal­ie who, on so many occa­sions, raised both our spir­its and his; or, in rais­ing his, raised ours.”

I well remem­ber the Lon­don launch of Martin’s last nar­ra­tive vol­ume of the offi­cial biog­ra­phy, in 1988. There was Natal­ie Bevan, still beau­ti­ful at 79, qui­et­ly enjoy­ing Martin’s, and Randolph’s, triumph.

Second World War

World War II found Ran­dolph in North Africa, per­form­ing sen­si­tive intel­li­gence assign­ments with skill and dis­cre­tion. Like his father he was absolute­ly fear­less. Anx­ious for com­bat, he talked his way into Fitzroy Maclean’s British mis­sion to Tito. He para­chut­ed into Nazi-occu­pied Yugoslavia, where his exploits were heralded.

In 1944 Randolph’s father met Tito in Naples, say­ing he was sor­ry he sor­ry he was too old to land by para­chute; oth­er­wise he would have been fight­ing with Tito’s par­ti­sans. Tito replied: “But you have sent us your son.” Tears glit­tered in Churchill’s eyes. He always declared a “deep ani­mal love” for Ran­dolph, while adding sad­ly: “every time we meet we seem to have a bloody row.”

Con­tin­ued in Part 2: Ran­dolph Postwar

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