Obituaries for Churchill’s wartime secretary Patrick Kinna report that he saw a naked Churchill greet Franklin Roosevelt at the White House, saying he had “nothing to hide from the President.” Conrad Black in Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom has Churchill denying he ever appeared to the President completely undressed. My guess is that the obituary writers are reading more into Kinna’s story about “nothing to hide” than was actually there. Do you know the full story? —M.T.
A story like this is very susceptible to being embellished or obfuscated through countless recitals by intimates (and friends of intimates) over the years. The most likely interpretation is that Churchill made some offhand remark, but was not stark naked when the President arrived in his room. (Remember, FDR entered his bedroom; Churchill’s ever-present valet would have handed him a towel as he climbed out of the tub in the adjoining bathroom.)
I use this tale to demonstrate the vararies of quote attribution in the preface to Churchill by Himself:
To rely on [the Internet] for proof of a Churchill quotation is perilous. It is full of supposed quotations he either never said, or repeated from some prior speaker. The test of any quotation, on the Internet or elsewhere, is whether it is accompanied by attribution. If not, it may be pure invention—or words put in Churchill’s mouth to make it more interesting.
Take for example WSC’s celebrated line to Roosevelt, emerging naked from his bath: “The Prime Minister of Great Britain has nothing to hide from the President of the United States.” Can it be believed? As nothing very momentous hinges on the issue, and given the imprudence of imputing untruth to WSC’s bodyguard Walter Thompson (who first quoted it), and with considerable attribution, I concluded that it can.
Harry Hopkins, FDR’s adviser, repeated his version of this remark (using “conceal” instead of “hide”) often enough to raise at least a presumption in favour of its veracity. As against such considerations is the testimony of Churchill himself. Hopkins’ biographer Robert Sherwood once screwed up the courage to ask Churchill point blank whether the story was true or false. WSC said it was “nonsense,” that he “never received the President without at least a bath towel wrapped around him.”
As to the declaration itself, Churchill added: “I could not possibly have made such a statement as that. The President himself would have been well aware that it was not strictly true.” Yet Churchill later told King George VI that he was “the only man in the world to have received the head of a nation naked.” (Chapter 33, Ripostes…Naked encounter.)
Truth, however, is elusive, and what is most important in this unportentous incident is that whatever the actual facts, the reported words are consistent with Winston Churchill’s personality. More significantly, they are consistent with the extraordinary lack of ceremony that characterised the relationship of Churchill and Roosevelt: the collegial way they worked together, despite many disagreements.