Present at the Creation: Randolph Churchill and the Official Biography (2)

Present at the Creation: Randolph Churchill and the Official Biography (2)

“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. Con­tin­ued from Part 1.

Randolph Churchill Postwar

Randolph Churchill
New York, 1966: Ran­dolph with Jacque­line Kennedy, JFK Jr. and RSC’s daugh­ter Ara­bel­la. In Part 3 of this post is Jacqueline’s touch­ing remem­brance of Ran­dolph.  (Wiki­me­dia Com­mons)

Out of the Army and Par­lia­ment in 1945, and divorced from Pamela in 1946, Ran­dolph Churchill led a “ram­pag­ing exis­tence,” his sis­ter Mary wrote. “He always had lances to break, and hares to start.” He was loy­al and affec­tion­ate, but he “would pick an argu­ment with a chair.”

In 1948 he mar­ried June Osborne and fathered his sec­ond child, Ara­bel­la. The long-suf­fer­ing June left  him in 1961.

He com­bined gen­er­ous devo­tion to those he loved with an acid tongue and pen for those he didn’t. Many of the lat­ter, I think, rich­ly deserved what they got. But his pub­lic per­sona was based on the acid.

In the mid-1950s, surgery revealed that a tumor on his lung was benign. His life­long friend, Eve­lyn Waugh, burst into the bar at White’s Club: “Have you heard the news? They’ve cut out the only part of Ran­dolph that is not malig­nant!” Ran­dolph respond­ed by send­ing the devout Catholic Waugh an East­er card, wish­ing him a “Hap­py Res­ur­rec­tion.” They remained devot­ed to each oth­er.

Character and Quality

Randolph Churchill
Ran­dolph at his desk, wartime, when still MP for Pre­ston (Impe­r­i­al War Museum/Wikimedia)

His polit­i­cal career fiz­zled in part because he was unwill­ing to put up with local com­mit­tee hum­bug. Thus he nev­er gained the longed-for safe seat, where he could fight at his father’s side. In truth the Con­ser­v­a­tives resent­ed him. Before the war he’d bat­tled their offi­cial can­di­dates, split­ting the vote and cost­ing seats. Tory resent­ment at Winston’s rebel­lions was tem­pered by his wartime lead­er­ship, though it nev­er real­ly van­ished. With Ran­dolph they had no rea­son to hide their dis­like, and after war they nev­er for­got. It was a great loss, because his debat­ing skills were for­mi­da­ble.

Ran­dolph despised injus­tice. Land­ing in Johan­nes­burg in the Apartheid days, he was hand­ed an immi­gra­tion form ask­ing him to state his race. “Damned cheek!” he exclaimed, and began writ­ing furi­ous­ly, embell­ish­ing the myth of Indi­an blood in Churchill veins:

Race: human. But if, as I imag­ine is the case, the object of this enquiry is to deter­mine whether I have coloured blood in my veins, I am most hap­py to be able to inform you that I do, indeed, so have. This is derived from one of my most revered ances­tors, the Indi­an Princess Poc­a­hon­tas, of whom you may not have heard, but who was mar­ried to a Jamestown set­tler named John Rolfe.

Then he gai­ly burned his press card, while a lit­tle girl watched fas­ci­nat­ed.

Some­one said that Randolph’s main fea­ture was “gen­eros­i­ty rather than hon­esty.” I feel sure he was both. Writ­ing the biog­ra­phy, Sir Mar­tin recalled, Ran­dolph would con­stant­ly tell his staff, “I am inter­est­ed only in the truth.” Blunt­ness brought him con­stant dis­putes with oth­ers less truth­ful. But no one can say that hon­esty wasn’t one of his great qual­i­ties.

At Stour: The Beast of Bergholt

In 1955 Ran­dolph pur­chased Stour House in East Bergholt, Suf­folk, in the heart of Con­sta­ble Coun­try. On the ter­race wall, Ran­dolph affixed a plaque quot­ing Con­sta­ble: “I am come to a deter­mi­na­tion to make no idle vis­its this sum­mer, nor give up any time to com­mon­place peo­ple. I shall return to Bergholt.” Mar­tin Gilbert won­dered:

Were we, Randolph’s researchers, “ghosts” and “paid hacks,” among the “com­mon­place peo­ple” when storms raged? We cer­tain­ly felt as much. In Sep­tem­ber 1964 all four researchers (Michael Wolff, Andrew Kerr, George Thay­er and myself ) and the four sec­re­taries on the pay­roll at the time, received a col­lec­tive exhor­ta­tion, one of Randolph’s (and his father’s) favourite vers­es:

The heights of great men reached and kept,

Were not attained by sud­den flight,

But they, while their com­pan­ions slept,

Were toil­ing upwards in the night.

His­to­ry was for him a feast, full of deli­cious morsels. And so … it became for me. Randolph’s per­son­al­i­ty, with its exhor­ta­tions and eccen­tric­i­ties, kept the team on its toes.

Once a telegram arrived in which the address was giv­en not as East Bergholt but Beast Bergholt. Ran­dolph imme­di­ate­ly announced with a broad grin that he was now “the Beast of Bergholt.” On anoth­er occa­sion he said, “I am an explo­sion that leaves the house still stand­ing.” Sad­ly, the beast was the side of him most peo­ple saw.

Randolph Exploding

He hon­ored and copied his father but nursed uneasy griev­ances that sur­faced when he was drunk. In the late Fifties, at din­ner on the Onas­sis yacht in the Aegean, he sud­den­ly turned on his aged father with a stream of invec­tive that sent Sir Win­ston to his cab­in, pale and shak­ing. Onas­sis got rid of Ran­dolph the next day by arrang­ing for him to inter­view the King of Greece. He left the ship smil­ing, but in the launch, Churchill’s pri­vate sec­re­tary Antho­ny Mon­tague Browne found him weep­ing. “You didn’t think I was tak­en in by that plan, do you?” he said. “I do so very much love that man, but some­thing always goes wrong between us.”

Alas, his son wrote, “Ran­dolph had no idea how unpleas­ant and offen­sive he could be when he was drunk. By the time he was sober he had large­ly for­got­ten or become obliv­i­ous to what had passed.”

* * *

At Stour one evening the guest was the edi­tor of the Dai­ly Tele­graph, Don­ald McLach­lan. Ran­dolph was excit­ed because the Tele­graph would be seri­al­iz­ing the biog­ra­phy. But in the 1930s, McLach­lan had been a sub-edi­tor of The Times. It was “an act of faith” at Stour to denounce The Times for hid­ing the truth about Nazi Ger­many. Ran­dolph was carv­ing the roast when McLach­lan revealed inad­ver­tent­ly that it was he who had cut the Times’s Berlin despatch­es. Alarmed, Mar­tin Gilbert glanced at Ran­dolph:

Sud­den­ly he turned towards the table, bran­dish­ing the carv­ing knife, shak­ing and trem­bling, and explod­ed with a bel­low of fury: “Shits like you should have been shot by my father in 1940.” The stress on “shits” and “shot” was fear­some to hear. Then he lunged towards the edi­tor, who had to dodge round the table, until Ran­dolph hurled the carv­ing knife on to the floor and strode out of the room. We nev­er saw him again that night. In the morn­ing McLach­lan left the house. [He stayed the night?]

Randolph Defending

Randolph Churchill
John Pro­fu­mo, 1938. In May 1940 he vot­ed against Cham­ber­lain, putting Churchill in office. Ran­dolph nev­er for­got his sup­port. (Wiki­me­dia Com­mons)

When in good form, Randolph’s son con­tin­ued,  “he could be the best of com­pan­ions, a bril­liant con­ver­sa­tion­al­ist, bub­bling with wit and panache. A din­ner host­ess could be assured that what­ev­er else might hap­pen, the evening would not be dull if Ran­dolph was among her guests, and in a cri­sis, there was no friend more loy­al.”

In 1961 Harold Macmil­lan’s Min­is­ter of War, John Pro­fu­mo, resigned amidst a sex scan­dal. Britain’s tabloids pounced and the Pro­fu­mos were besieged by paparazzi. In strictest secre­cy, Ran­dolph offered Stour as a refuge.

Mar­tin Gilbert showed me Randolph’s writ­ten instruc­tions, head­ed OPERATION SANCTUARY and marked SECRET. Ran­dolph would vacate the premis­es and the Pro­fu­mos would arrive unob­served. He did not iden­ti­fy them, refer­ring only to “OGs” (Our Guests).

If any reporters fol­lowed, “admis­sion to the house or gar­den will be denied.” If they refused to leave the police would be called, “dur­ing which time OGs will retire upstairs. We will not stand any rot.”

Sir Mar­tin con­sid­ered Randolph’s ges­ture “one of real affec­tion and good­ness.” He knew that, “as a young MP, Pro­fu­mo had been one of the Con­ser­v­a­tive Mem­bers who vot­ed against Neville Cham­ber­lain on 8 May 1940, mak­ing pos­si­ble Churchill’s pre­mier­ship two days lat­er.”

Con­tin­ued in Part 3: “Ran­dolph Churchill and the ‘Great Work'”

2 thoughts on “Present at the Creation: Randolph Churchill and the Official Biography (2)

  1. Good ques­tion, which I relayed to David Lough, author of No More Cham­pagne, an excel­lent book on the Churchill finances. Mr. Lough replies: “Chartwell or the Lit­er­ary trust (both names for the same Trust) bought Stour for him and gave him reg­u­lar gifts (as it did also to the oth­er chil­dren, to be fair). Clemen­tine Churchill was the main mover in push­ing her co-trustees to buy him a place away from Chartwell. It had been orig­i­nal­ly intend­ed that he would inher­it the Chartwell Farm­house and some land, but she thought he would prove an impos­si­ble neigh­bour for the Nation­al Trust!” Of course, in those days, costs and over­head were a lot low­er in Suf­folk than today, when it is valu­able real estate. Even so, Sir Mar­tin Gilbert told me, Ran­dolph was fre­quent­ly chased by cred­i­tors: the butch­er, the bak­er, etc….

  2. Paul McShea writes: Thank you for your series on Ran­dolph Churchill. The pho­to­graph from Part 2 show­ing the back of Stour is the first that I have seen. My ques­tion is: how did Ran­dolph afford to live, in the grand style, at Stour? I know he was an accom­plished jour­nal­ist and writer, but nowhere near the lev­el of demand of his father, nor I am sure in the same pay scale.

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