Present at the Creation: Randolph Churchill and the Official Biography (3)

Present at the Creation: Randolph Churchill and the Official Biography (3)

“Ran­dolph Churchill: Present at the Cre­ation,” is from a lec­ture aboard the Regent Sev­en Seas Explor­er on the 2019 Hills­dale Col­lege Cruise around Britain, 8 June 2019. Con­clud­ed from Part 2.

“The Great Work” —Randolph S.C.

After the war, Churchill willed his archive to Ran­dolph. In 1959, impressed by his son’s  biog­ra­phy of Lord Der­by, he invit­ed Ran­dolph to be his biog­ra­ph­er. Ran­dolph devot­ed him­self to the job, know­ing by then that he had wrecked his body, that the process of dis­in­te­gra­tion was advanced. Could he fin­ish in time? Ran­dolph wondered.

He housed the archives in a fire­proof strong room at Stour, his home in Suf­folk. His team of assis­tants, whom he called his “Young Gen­tle­men,” would research the papers and have them typed in trip­li­cate. Then they would read the typed ver­sion to him, stand­ing at an upright desk which had once belonged to Dis­raeli. As they read, he would fire ques­tions which they would jot down in the mar­gin to be answered later.

“Young Gentlemen”

Randolph Churchill
His father’s son: Ran­dolph Churchill (right) with Vera Weiz­mann and Levi Eshkol at the ded­i­ca­tion of Churchill Audi­to­ri­um at the Tech­nion (Israeli Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy), Haifa, 27 Octo­ber 1955. (Wiki­me­dia Commons)

In 1962 young Mar­tin Gilbert came to Stour with a let­ter of intro­duc­tion from Lady Diana Coop­er: “Dar­ling Randy, Here is Mar­tin Gilbert, an inter­est­ing research­ing his­to­ri­an young man, who loves Duff and hates the Coro­ner. He is full of zeal to set his­to­ry right. Do see him.” The Coro­ner in her let­ter was Neville Cham­ber­lain. Mar­tin Gilbert remembered:

It was at Stour, and under Randolph’s gaze, that I learned much about his­to­ry, and even more about Churchill. The method of work was rig­or­ous. “I hope, dear boy, you will be a bit­ter ender?” he once asked me.” My work sent me back to Oxford in 1967, but I absorbed a great deal….

I learned at Stour that his­to­ry was con­cerned with char­ac­ter and human­i­ty, as well as with facts and achievements….Research at Stour was as far from any dry-as-dust archive or ivory tow­er as one could imag­ine. [The ques­tions led me] into a realm I had hard­ly vis­it­ed dur­ing my under­grad­u­ate years at Oxford, the per­son­al­i­ties, gov­ern­ments and wars of late Vic­to­ri­an Eng­land. After each hour or so of read­ing, I was expect­ed to dis­ap­pear, bury my head in the ref­er­ence books, and emerge with all the answers in place. Some­times I hard­ly knew the mean­ing of the ques­tions, let alone how to tack­le them.


Work occurred all the time: at break­fast, after lunch, before din­ner, late evening, the wee hours. Ran­dolph, Mar­tin wrote, nev­er tired of ask­ing ques­tions and demand­ing answers. “Why have you tak­en so long, dear boy?” was a fre­quent com­plaint, “even when it seemed to me that I had been extreme­ly quick. I did my best, but often floun­dered. Michael Wolff, whose task was to ensure that vol­ume one of the biog­ra­phy, from Churchill’s birth in 1874 to his escape from a Boer pris­on­er-of-war camp in 1900, was ready for the print­er with­in two years, was often as exas­per­at­ed as Ran­dolph by my lack of knowledge.”

A fine his­to­ri­an in his own right, Michael Wolff lat­er wrote a stun­ning fore­word to Churchill’s Col­lect­ed Essays, a now-rare, four vol­ume col­lec­tion of arti­cles not repub­lished in his books. The Essays are among the least known of Churchill writ­ings. Com­bined with many oth­er for­got­ten essays in the Ronald Cohen Col­lec­tion at Hills­dale Col­lege, they form an almost unknown part of Churchill’s canon which will prove invalu­able for future scholars.

Rigors of research

Anoth­er of Mar­tin Gilbert’s tasks at Stour was to pre­pare bio­graph­i­cal notes for every­one men­tioned in Churchill’s let­ters. This meant: those he wrote to, those he mentioned—anyone referred to by name or the office they held. “Ran­dolph want­ed accu­ra­cy and detail: at least four or five lines for every per­son, how­ev­er obscure….

Every day’s work at Stour was an explo­ration for me. Dur­ing my three days each week in Oxford doing my own research­es on the roots of appease­ment [The Appeasers, Martin’s first book], I began to wel­come the moment when I would be on my way back to Stour, and to the bio­graph­i­cal queries. Slow­ly at first, it seemed to me—and to Ran­dolph far too slowly—I began to mas­ter the world of ref­er­ence books. How cross Ran­dolph could be, in those ear­ly days, when I revealed ignorance….

With­in a few months Mar­tin learned how to fol­low up the thinnest clue. “Every frag­ment about a per­son could be put with anoth­er frag­ment and built up into three or four lines of detail, if one knew where to look.” He found help­ful libraries and insti­tu­tions and answered many obscure or dif­fi­cult queries through correspondence.

Randolph: a personal remembrance

I envy Martin’s expe­ri­ence. Alas two or three let­ters from Ran­dolph Churchill are all of which I can boast. In May 1968, swept away in part by his vol­umes, I found­ed the Churchill Study Unit, devot­ed to col­lec­tors of Churchill com­mem­o­ra­tive stamps. I wrote to him at Stour, ask­ing if he could help iden­ti­fy the more puz­zling postal images. He replied instant­ly. “I regret to record I know noth­ing about stamps, but I shall be pleased to assist in any way.”

Mar­tin, a stamp col­lec­tor, said he remem­bered my letter’s arrival, and Randolph’s inter­est. It was a very small ges­ture. He didn’t even have to answer. Alas, two weeks lat­er, Ran­dolph was dead. My encounter led to a friend­ship with his son, Win­ston who took his place as our first hon­orary mem­ber. Like Mar­tin, he was devot­ed to Ran­dolph as a men­tor and inspiration.

Randolph Churchill
Mar­tin Gilbert at Stour, 2006, his first vis­it since Randolph’s death, where he joined our penul­ti­mate Churchill Tour of Eng­land. (Pho­to by Bar­bara Langworth)

In 2006, host­ing a Churchill Tour of Eng­land, Bar­bara and I brought our par­ty to Stour by kind invi­ta­tion of its own­ers, Paul and Birte Kel­ly. Mar­tin Gilbert joined us, his first vis­it since Ran­dolph had died. Tears stream­ing down his face, he reliv­ed his mem­o­ries. “Gone, alas, like our youth, too soon.”

Life at Stour

One sees Stour as a quin­tes­sen­tial­ly Eng­lish coun­try house, the fur­nish­ings tra­di­tion­al, com­fort­able, a bit frowzy at the edges. Cap­tain Boy­cott, the spoiled pug, was nev­er ful­ly house­bro­ken… Lady Diana Coop­er, mag­nif­i­cent­ly gowned, occu­pies the sofa of an evening, sniffs vague­ly at the cush­ions. Ran­dolph pro­vides guests with the best fare—“a notable soup”— though he him­self has long lost inter­est in eat­ing. The gar­dens are lov­ing­ly tended—sometimes too lov­ing­ly. (Ran­dolph once applied so much fer­til­iz­er that the grass turned black.) The gar­den strong room is stacked high with Churchill’s archive. Here Ran­dolph directs oth­er searchers for the truth, leav­ing the key in the door and the vis­i­tor alone.

Many have won­dered how Mar­tin Gilbert last­ed so long with this mer­cu­r­ial char­ac­ter. Part of it had to be that Ran­dolph was intense­ly inter­est­ing. “Aside from his hero­ical­ly dis­mal man­ners, his gam­bling, arro­gance, vicious tem­per, indis­cre­tions, and aggres­sion,” Andrew Roberts wrote, he “was gen­er­ous, patri­ot­ic, extrav­a­gant and amaz­ing­ly courageous.”

“Randolph’s Day”

Kay Halle’s book, The Young Unpre­tender, offers many fine por­traits of Ran­dolph. I think the best is by Jacque­line Kennedy Onas­sis. She recalled 9 April 1963, “the spring day after rain,” when Pres­i­dent Kennedy pro­claimed Sir Win­ston an hon­orary Amer­i­can citizen.

“We met in Jack’s office,” she wrote. “Ran­dolph was ashen, his voice a whis­per. “All that this cer­e­mo­ny means to the two prin­ci­pals,” I thought, “is the gift they wish it to be to Randolph’s father—and they are both so ner­vous it will be a disaster.”

Jack spoke first but I couldn’t lis­ten. Then the pre­sen­ta­tion. Ran­dolph stepped for­ward to respond: ‘Mr. Pres­i­dent.’ His voice was strong. He spoke on, with almost the voice of Win­ston Churchill. He sent his words across the after­noon, that most bril­liant, lov­ing son—speaking for his father. Always for his father. But that after­noon the world stopped and looked at Ran­dolph. And many saw what they had missed….I will for­ev­er remem­ber that as Randolph’s Day.

There weren’t many days left. Randolph’s doc­tor told him that more hard liquor would kill him in six months. He stopped cold, but it wasn’t enough. On the evening of 5 June 1968, he heard they had the man who shot Robert F. Kennedy. “Good, good,” he replied, “but have they caught he fel­low who’s done me in?”

Ran­dolph and Bob­by both died the next day, June 6th. Fill­ing out Randolph’s death cer­tifi­cate, his doc­tor didn’t how to state the cause: “With Ran­dolph the answer is: every­thing. He’s worn out every organ in his body at the same time.”

His son wrote: “We buried him in Bladon church­yard, beside his grand­fa­ther, and his father, whom he loved and revered so deeply. To this day the mem­o­ry of him lingers on in the hearts of his friends.”

“Despite everything…”

Randolph ChurchillSince receiv­ing his let­ters, I have always been among Randolph’s admirers—and yes, in Mar­tin Gilbert’s words, “despite every­thing.” True, he drank—up to two bot­tles of whisky a day, his son said. True, he divorced twice; there were many romances out­side the sanc­ti­ty of mar­riage. His last, with Natal­ie Bevan, last­ed from 1957 to the end of his life. But she was a sin­gu­lar woman who brooked no non­sense from him, there­by earn­ing his utter devotion.

He achieved near­ly 5000 pages on his father’s ear­ly life—captivating pages, struc­tured per­fect­ly. That was Randolph’s con­tri­bu­tion. Pro­fes­sor Antoine Capet wrote: “What strikes me as extra­or­di­nary is that the Hills­dale vol­umes have (very appro­pri­ate­ly) kept the type of doc­u­ment head­ings ini­ti­at­ed by Ran­dolph over 50 years ago—and the same pag­i­na­tion in the reprint­ed volumes.”

“Ran­dolph, Hope and Glo­ry,” as detrac­tors referred to him, emerges as a dynam­ic speak­er, a bril­liant jour­nal­ist, a gal­lant sol­dier, a skilled biog­ra­ph­er, a frus­trat­ed son, and, in the end, an hon­est man, as hon­est about him­self as he was of oth­ers. Not so bad a eulo­gy, after all. I think he would set­tle for that.

His ene­mies con­demned him for insen­si­tiv­i­ty, arro­gance and ego­tism. Every great fig­ure who ever lived was at times insen­si­tive, arro­gant and ego­tis­tic. Their great­ness was that they gave far more than they took for them­selves. By this mea­sure Ran­dolph Churchill was great. Those who knew him best missed him the most. His epi­taph might be the words he wrote of his father’s friend, Bren­dan Brack­en:

Despite the ups and downs I had with him over 35 years, I have no hes­i­ta­tion or lack of breath in this vale­dic­to­ry fan­fare: “You were always on the good side. You loved truth and hon­our. You hat­ed cru­el­ty and injus­tice. Fare thee well, my gift­ed, true and many-sided friend.”







One thought on “Present at the Creation: Randolph Churchill and the Official Biography (3)

  1. Your excel­lent arti­cle men­tions Eve­lyn Waugh in pass­ing but not his very close asso­ci­a­tion with Ran­dolph dur­ing and oon after WW2, as revealed in Waugh’s pub­lished Diaries and Auto­bi­og­ra­phy. Ran­dolph and Waugh trained togeth­er as Com­man­dos in Scot­land, and then sol­diered togeth­er in North Africa and Yugoslavia.

    Ran­dolph-Waugh repar­tee is world famous, notably Waugh’s announce­ment (to the bar at White’s, after Randolph’s oper­a­tion for a benign tumor: “Leave it to mod­ern med­ical sci­ence to cut out of Ran­dolph the only bit that was not malig­nant.” RSC, amused as always, sent the devout Catholic Waugh an East­er card, wish­ing him a “Hap­py Res­ur­rec­tion.” Sir Fitzroy Maclean, who served with them both in Yugoslavia, told me many oth­er anec­dotes, most­ly unprint­able. Hop­ing to get Ran­dolph to stop dom­i­nat­ing the con­ver­sa­tion, they bet him that he couldn’t read the Bible through with­out say­ing a word. Ran­dolph didn’t get through Gen­e­sis before exclaim­ing, “God–isn’t God a s—!” (My remem­brance of Fitzroy is here.) -RML

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