Winston Churchill and Emery Reves: Correspondence, 1937-1964

Winston Churchill and Emery Reves: Correspondence, 1937-1964

Win­ston Churchill and Emery Reves: Cor­re­spon­dence, 1937-1964, edit­ed by Sir Mar­tin Gilbert. Austin: Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas Press, 1997, 415 pages, Ama­zon $8.95. This updat­ed review was first pub­lished by the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project.

Emery Reves, from the ground up

Admir­ers of Sir Mar­tin Gilbert were pleased and touched to see his chron­i­cle appear, now over twen­ty years ago. But few expect­ed it would amount to much more than a use­ful research tool. We were wrong, and quick­ly real­ized why Sir Mar­tin and Wendy Reves were so keen to get it published.


The Churchill-Reves Cor­re­spon­dence is mar­velous read­ing for stu­dents of Churchill. It shows how an unknown Hun­gar­i­an came to be the great man’s lit­er­ary “dif­fuser.” (Reves him­self eschewed the title of “agent.” He described him­self as “Sales Depart­ment for the Pro­duc­tion Chief.”)

Reves used Churchill’s screed like a palimpsest, spread­ing it to the far reach­es of Europe, the Empire-Com­mon­wealth and North Amer­i­ca. Then, as Hitler’s influ­ence spread, his out­lets began to close: neu­tral coun­tries dread­ed the Führer’s wrath. Twice Reves escaped Nazi clutch­es. Oper­at­ing from abroad, he earned Churchill mil­lions for his war mem­oirs, his His­to­ry of the Eng­lish Speak­ing Peo­ples, and old­er titles as far back as Savro­la. Lat­er on, Emery and Wendy became Sir Winston’s hosts when kind­ly breezes brought him to the Riviera.

Reves start­ed on a shoe­string, sell­ing Churchill’s 1930s arti­cles (most of them read­able today in Step by Step) around Europe. He charged as lit­tle as £1 to news­pa­pers in poor­er nations. By 1939 he’d built an impres­sive busi­ness, pro­duc­ing £50,000 a year in today’s money.

Churchill in those days was polit­i­cal­ly very incor­rect. Reves got him on the front pages of thir­ty news­pa­pers, 750 dif­fer­ent out­lets per year, with fif­teen to twen­ty mil­lion read­ers in twen­ty-five lan­guages. (I soon learned that Sap­nis, the Lat­vian edi­tion of Churchill’s short sto­ry The Dream, which I pre­sent­ed to Lat­vian Pres­i­dent Gun­tis Ulma­n­is, was not the first Lat­vian trans­la­tion. Reves was pub­lish­ing Churchill arti­cles in Lat­vian as ear­ly as 1937.)

Cooperation Publishing

Imre Révész (his father had adapt­ed the sur­name from Rosen­baum) was born in Hun­gary in 1904, stud­ied in Berlin and earned a degree in eco­nom­ics from Zurich Uni­ver­si­ty. In Berlin in the late Twen­ties he orga­nized Coop­er­a­tion Pub­lish­ing, a unique orga­ni­za­tion. His goal was to pub­lish works of Euro­pean states­men in oth­er coun­tries: Britons in Ger­many, French­men in Italy, and so on.

Shun­ning Nazis, Fas­cists and Com­mu­nists, Révész pro­mot­ed writ­ers who stood for lib­er­ty and free­dom. After Hitler came to pow­er, he was drummed out of Ger­many with only the clothes on his back. He moved to Paris, where he rep­re­sent­ed Britain’s lead­ing states­men: Churchill, Eden, Attlee and Her­bert Samuel.

When France fell in 1940 Révész fled to Lon­don, los­ing his for­tune but not his deter­mi­na­tion. Angli­ciz­ing his name to Reves, he soon set up shop in New York where Churchill and Eden helped him to emi­grate. After the war, he was instru­men­tal in plac­ing Churchill’s writ­ings to the widest pos­si­ble audience.

“Gentlemen and players”

A tena­cious sales­man and nego­tia­tor, Reves was gen­tle and gen­er­ous toward the states­man he respect­ed more than any­one. In the Thir­ties he waived com­mis­sions to place arti­cles with for­eign pub­lish­ers Churchill had con­tact­ed ear­li­er. He was nev­er put off by the “gen­tle­men and play­ers” rela­tion­ship that marked their ear­ly encoun­ters, when Churchill kept him at arm’s length. Dur­ing the war, the PM refused to grant Reves favors, think­ing it might set a bad prece­dent. He denied Reves’s offers to help dis­trib­ute Britain’s mes­sage of defi­ance in neu­tral coun­tries. Though he passed the pro­pos­als to Duff Coop­er at the Pro­pa­gan­da Min­istry, Churchill care­ful­ly not­ed that he was “not wed­ded” to them.

In their ear­ly let­ters WSC is always “Mr. Churchill” and the Hun­gar­i­an “My dear Reves.” Sir Win­ston didn’t call him “Emery” until he began to hol­i­day at Reves’s Vil­la La Pausa in 1956. Yet in a 1946 meet­ing, when Reves told him how his moth­er had been cru­el­ly mur­dered by the Nazis, Churchill wept in bit­ter grief.

Their busi­ness rela­tion­ship reflect­ed the expe­ri­ence of many around Churchill. The boss expect­ed his “famil­iars” to be on call con­stant­ly, whether con­ve­nient or not. They repaid him with devotion.

Churchill’s summons

The most dra­mat­ic account in this book, in fact, starts with a per­plexed Reves try­ing des­per­ate­ly to meet Churchill’s order; on one day’s notice, he dropped every­thing and sailed with Lord Cam­rose to Amer­i­ca. The mis­sion: to nego­ti­ate book and ser­i­al rights to Churchill’s mem­oirs, The Sec­ond World War.

Mar­tin Gilbert’s con­nect­ing edi­to­r­i­al con­tri­bu­tions explain. Emery Reves is in Paris when the com­mand arrives out of the blue. Sail with Cam­rose from Southamp­ton at 1pm tomor­row on the Queen Eliz­a­beth. Before you go, stop at Chartwell for a brief­ing. Now, please!

Fog sur­rounds Le Bour­get airport—no com­mer­cial flights. “Can’t you get a pri­vate plane?” Churchill says impa­tient­ly. Reves finds a rick­ety two-seater. He sits in dread for twen­ty min­utes, until the pilot is denied take-off “because my motor gives off sparks.” Tena­cious­ly, he gets to Croy­don the next morn­ing, too late to stop at Chartwell. Churchill sends a car that speeds him to Southamp­ton. He thinks he’ll miss the ship! But he has gained a vital hour because Britain has just set its clocks back. The old Churchill luck.

Reves is the last pas­sen­ger on the sold-out Queen’s maid­en voy­age. Churchill has pro­cured his cab­in by impor­tun­ing Cunard’s chair­man. Reves looks up Lord Camrose—who has no idea why Emery is there! Reves cables Churchill to please explain. Churchill replies: “I am sure you will do an excel­lent job, but you must be very con­fi­den­tial and you must real­ize that you do not actu­al­ly rep­re­sent me.” Such con­fu­sion would flum­mox less­er men. But by the end of the voy­age, Emery has made friends with Lord Cam­rose, and they divide the workload.

“Please wake Harry”

They decide that Cam­rose will deal with news­pa­pers, Reves (“unof­fi­cial­ly”) with mag­a­zines. Reves helps steer nego­ti­a­tions away from the bad deals and toward the best. The best is Hen­ry Luce of Life, whom Cam­rose doesn’t wish to see. Luce, he sniffs, “hasn’t replied to my letter.”

Learn­ing that Luce is in New York, Emery rings his friend, the redoubtable Claire Boothe, Luce’s wife. “Har­ry” is in bed, exhaust­ed after a two-night flight from Chi­na. Reves tells her his mis­sion is urgent. He  rush­es to a cab, presents him­self at the Wal­dorf Tow­ers and asks Claire: “Please wake Harry.”

Sleepy and angry, Luce appears in his dress­ing gown: “You are the fifth or sixth or sev­enth agent who comes to me say­ing he rep­re­sents Churchill,” he grum­bled. “Now who is his representative?”

“All I can tell you,” Reves says, “is that in forty-eight hours [the war mem­oirs seri­al­iza­tion] will be decid­ed. You can talk to me today or tomor­row, but after tomor­row you won’t get it.”

Luce gets it. Reves sends Cam­rose, to sign the deal as “offi­cial” rep­re­sen­ta­tive. Cam­rose reports: “They made a very good offer….$1,400,000 for the Amer­i­can ser­i­al and book rights….”

Reves replies, “Lord Camrose—No! The  Amer­i­can ser­i­al rights—yes—but not the book rights! You must stop it.” Reves has friends at Houghton Mifflin—and they are good for a quar­ter mil­lion for the book rights in addi­tion to Luce’s $1.4 mil­lion for serialization.

Nei­ther Cam­rose nor Reves charge Churchill for their ser­vices. “He did it to get the British [ser­i­al] rights for the Dai­ly Tele­graph,” Emery says. “I did it to get the for­eign rights for me. But we both act­ed on prin­ci­ple.” Reves pros­pered on the usufruct he had earned. But he might have done it for noth­ing for his hero, the Chief of Production.

Precious lessons

We can learn much from this book, guid­ed by the per­cep­tive and sen­si­tive Mar­tin Gilbert, who always pro­vides just the right sup­port­ing com­men­tary. Exam­ple: Sarah Churchill’s note when her father is beset by crit­ics of his mem­oirs. These are words every writer should heed: “Dar­ling Papa…Don’t lis­ten to too many critics—Each crit­ic crit­i­cis­es from a per­son­al angle. The work is yours—from deep with­in you—and its suc­cess depends on it flow­ing from you in an unin­ter­rupt­ed stream.”

From Emery Reves him­self, after the unex­pect­ed end of his brief inti­ma­cy with Churchill, comes anoth­er piece of wis­dom for any­one who, lied about, is tempt­ed to deal in lies:

Dur­ing my long life I devel­oped the capac­i­ty to end a big cry in laugh­ter and today I can only smile at the past two years. How child­ish and unnec­es­sary all those intrigues were, how easy it would have been to main­tain our beau­ti­ful rela­tion­ship and to add to it any­thing that might have attract­ed you…. Should we not be able to defeat the intrigues that so unnec­es­sar­i­ly sep­a­rat­ed us, then I am anx­ious to pre­serve the mem­o­ries of our asso­ci­a­tion dur­ing the years 1955-58. After all, what does one keep in life as time pass­es? A cer­tain num­ber of mem­o­ries…. I do not know what mem­o­ries you have of those years, but mine are unforgettable.

It is a trib­ute to this book, and those who saw it into print, that a mem­o­ry of two unfor­get­table spir­its is so elo­quent­ly presented.

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