Sonia Purnell, Clementine:
The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill
Biographies of political spouses run the risk of being overwhelmed by the politician once he or she enters the scene. Sonia Purnell’s Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill, by far the most comprehensive biography to date of Winston Churchill’s wife Clementine, does not quite succumb to that risk. But Purnell, a freelance British journalist and historian, provides a fresh look at the familiar ups and downs in Winston’s career, recounting them from Clementine’s perspective, from the time the couple first met in 1904 and married in 1908 through Winston’s death in 1965. Although comprehensive in its cradle-to-grave coverage of Clementine herself, the book shines in its treatment of the couple during World War II. When Winston became Britain’s wartime Prime Minister in 1940, Clementine functioned as her husband’s closest advisor. She was, Purnell writes, Winston’s “ultimate authority, his conscience and the nearest he had to a direct line to the people.” Without Clementine sharing his burden, “it is difficult if not impossible to imagine [Winston] becoming the single-minded giant who led Britain, against almost impossible odds, to victory over tyranny” (p.391).
But if World War II was the couple’s own “finest hour,” to borrow from Winston’s famous speech to Parliament in June 1940, many of the qualities that enabled them to survive and thrive during that trial can be traced to the testing they received during World War I. War, it seems, served as the force that bound their marriage together. We know a great deal about the workings of that marriage because the couple spent an extraordinary amount of time apart from one another. They corresponded regularly when separated, and even communicated frequently in writing when they were together under the same roof. By one count, the couple sent about 1,700 letters, notes and telegrams back and forth over the course of nearly six decades of courtship and marriage, many of which survive.
The Churchills’ correspondence and the other portions of the record that Purnell has skillfully pieced together reveal a marriage that had its share of difficult moments, bending but never breaking. Both spouses had volatile and frequently volcanic personalities. Although her husband was known for his bouts of depression, referred to informally as “Black Dog,” Clementine had an actual case of clinically diagnosed depression, and more than her fair share of mood swings and temperamental outbursts. Further, both spouses were surprisingly indifferent parents, more devoted to each other than to their children. Clementine, tormented that Winston might abandon her as her father had abandoned her mother, clearly placed Winston’s needs over those of her children. Yet, on more than one occasion she seems to have contemplated leaving the marriage. Nonetheless, over the course of 57 years, the marital glue held.
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Clementine, born in 1885, had an unorthodox upbringing. Her mother, Lady Blanche Hozier, of aristocratic origin but limited means, was trapped in a bad marriage to Colonel Henry Hozier, who left his wife and children during Clementine’s early childhood. To this day, historians debate whether Hozier was indeed Clementine’s biological father, and the matter is unlikely ever to be settled conclusively. Clementine’s two sisters, Kitty and Nellie, may have been her half sisters – their paternity has not been conclusively established either. After Colonel Hozier’s departure, the three girls lived a peripatetic life with Lady Blanche, who took her children frequently to Northern France and allowed herself to be pursued by a wide number of suitors. Kitty seemed to be her mother’s favorite among the three daughters, but she died a month before her 17th birthday and her mother “was never the same again” (p.21). Lady Blanche never provided Clementine with a steady, loving childhood, a loss which likely affected Clementine’s subsequent relationships with her own children.
Clementine was first introduced to rising political star Winston Churchill at a society ball in the summer of 1904, when she was 18 and he was 29. She was far from impressed with the “notorious publicity seeker” (p.29) who had recently defected from the Conservative Party to join the upstart Liberal Party over his opposition to a Conservative proposal to impose protective tariffs on goods imported into Britain. Inexplicably, the usually gregarious and supremely self-confident young man clammed up, unable to make the requisite small talk. The next encounter occurred four years later, in 1908, when Clementine happened to be seated next to Winston at a dinner party. This time, Clementine “found his idealism and brilliance liberating” (p.31). Winston was impressed that Clementine, herself more mature at age 22, knew “far more about life than the ladies of cosseting privilege he normally met, and she was well educated, sharing his love of France and its culture” (p.31). After a courtship conventionally aristocratic, if short, the couple married later that year (the courtship, marriage and Winston’s early political years, from 1900 to 1915, are the subject matter of Michael Seldin’s Young Titan, reviewed here in May 2015).
The marriage was “never destined to be smooth” (p.54), Purnell writes. The man Clementine married was “demanding, selfish and rash” (p.54), emotionally needy, lacking in empathy, and a workaholic with a tendency to bully. But Clementine could be “rigid and unforgiving” (p.4) and brought an “explosive temper” to the marriage, where the “slightest setback, such as cold soup or a late delivery, could send her into a fury” (p.53). Plagued throughout life by a pattern of “severe listlessness alternating with near-hysterical outbursts” (p.148), Clementine, not Winston, had the couple’s only case of clinically diagnosed depression. Throughout their first three decades of marriage, the couple was united in the goal of making Winston Prime Minister. But they pursued this goal at no small cost to their offspring.
Between 1909 and 1922, the couple had five children, four daughters and one son. Daughter Marigold, born in 1918, died at an early age. The four surviving offspring — Diana, b.1909; Randolph, b.1911; Sarah, b.1914; and Mary, b.1922 – “saw little of either parent, even by the standards of British upper-class families of the period” (p.184). Winston outwardly adored his children. He gave them silly nicknames and, when available, enjoyed playing games and roughhousing with them. But he was only infrequently available. Clementine in this account seemed to lack even this level of intimacy. She was distant and not particularly warm with any of her children, and also frequently absent, either traveling with her husband or away on recurring travel and adventures on her own.
Randolph, Diana and Sarah went on to lead turbulent adult lives. Randolph drank heavily, gambled frequently and acquired a reputation for boorish behavior. One of the book’s most surprising – indeed stunning – episodes occurred during his 1939 marriage to Pamela Digby, later Pamela Harrington. It was not a good marriage. Randolph was abusive in many ways, physically and otherwise. In their troubled marriage, Randolph’s parents plainly sided with their daughter-in-law over their son. After war broke out, with Randolph serving in the army and the couple living apart, Pamela pursued affairs with several leading figures from the United States, including famed journalist Edward R. Murrow and wealthy businessman Averill Harriman, whom she later married.
In Purnell’s account, both Winston, by then Britain’s wartime Prime Minister, and Clementine encouraged these romantic liaisons for their intelligence gathering potential in furtherance of the war effort. Pamela “fast became one of the most important intelligence brokers in the war” (p.275). She provided information to her parents-in-law on “what the Americans were thinking” (p.274) and boosted Britain’s case for more American assistance. Randolph never forgave his parents for condoning the liaisons, and it is not difficult to understand why. Randolph died of a heart attack in 1968, at age 57.
Randolph’s sisters Diana and Sarah also struggled through adult life. Diana had two bad marriages and suffered repeatedly from nervous breakdowns. She likely took her own life from an overdose of barbiturates in 1963, at age 54. Sarah had a moderately successful acting career, but was plagued throughout much of her adult life by alcohol abuse, “drinking herself to her grave by slow stages” (p.387). She married three times. Her termination of an affair with American Ambassador John Winant likely contributed to his suicide in 1947. With Sarah on the brink of filing for divorce from her second husband, he too committed suicide. Sarah died in 1982, five years after Clementine, at age 68.
Only the youngest Churchill, Mary, “always the perfect daughter” (p.387), achieved something akin to normalcy as an adult. She married but once, had five children, served in numerous public organizations, and wrote the first (and seemingly only other) biography of her mother. In the 1960s, she was quoted as saying that, based on her own childhood experience, she “made a conscious decision to put my children first because I did feel something had been. . . yes, missing at home” (p.359). Alone among the Churchill children, Mary lived to an old age, dying in 2014 at age 92.
Purnell documents several points between the two wars, and after World War II, when Clementine appeared to be on the brink of exiting the marriage. Bitter rows between the parents over Randolph’s behavior as a young adult led in the 1930s to hints that the Churchills’ “ever more regular separations might become permanent” (p.196). After the war, perfect daughter Marry sought to mediate the couple’s differences. Worried that her parents’ marriage again seemed on the verge of falling apart, Mary acknowledged her mother’s “occasional yearning for ‘the quieter more banal happiness of being married to an ordinary man’” (p.354).
Another sign of the marriage’s sometimes fragile character came in the 1930s, when Clementine, traveling without her husband on a four-month cruise of the East Indies, fell under the charms of Terence Philip, an art dealer with a reputation for “passing flirtations” (p.203). Phillip was “tall, rich, suave, an authority on art and unburdened by driving ambition – unlike Winston, in fact, in almost every respect” (p.201). It is unclear whether Clementine’s relationship with Phillip was adulterous. Phillip was “thought not to be that interested in women sexually. . . Nevertheless his open and ardent admiration shook Clementine to her core” (p.203-04). Purnell also describes an incident where Winston was invited to take tea with his cousin’s fiancée, only to learn upon arrival at her apartment that the barely clad woman had a purpose other than tea in mind for his visit. Upon discovering that purpose, Winston “insisted he had left immediately” and recounted the incident to Clementine, who “appears to have been surprisingly relaxed about the encounter” (p.132).
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Purnell neatly weaves these soap opera details of the Churchill family into the familiar story of Winston pursuing his political ambitions and the less familiar story of Clementine playing an indispensable role in that pursuit. Shortly after the couple’s marriage, Winston became Home Secretary, charged with keeping internal order in the country. In 1911, he was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty, head of Britain’s Royal Navy, and held this position when Britain found itself at war in 1914. In this capacity, he oversaw the failed 1915 attack on Ottoman Turkey at the Dardanelles straights, a calamitous failure for which Winston became the scapegoat, “held liable for one of the bloodiest British military failures in history” (p.81). Purnell suggests that Winston’s marriage saved him from self-destruction at the time of this grim setback. Only Clementine “could repeatedly tell him why he was deemed untrustworthy and why he had made so many enemies”(p.118).
With Clementine’s support, Winston slowly crept back into politics. He lost his seat as a Liberal Member of Parliament in 1922. At a time when the Liberal Party was fading into irrelevance, he rejoined the Conservative Party in 1924, becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer. In that capacity, he oversaw Britain’s return in 1926 to the gold standard, another decision that proved disastrous for him politically, resulting in deflation and unemployment and leading to the General Strike of 1926. With the defeat of the Conservative government in 1929, Winston was out of politics and entered what he later termed his “Wilderness Years.” In the 1920s, he had earned a reputation as somewhat of a crank, railing incessantly about the Bolshevik menace to Europe. In the 1930s, he shifted his rhetorical target to Germany and the threat that Adolph Hitler’s Nazi party posed, which the public perceived initially as little more than another example of his crankiness. But in May 1940, Winston became his country’s Prime Minister, charged with leading the war against Nazi Germany which had broken out the previous September. Winston and Clementine’s “true life’s work” then began, and she “would barely leave his side again until it was done” (p.234).
By the time Winston became Prime Minister, Clementine was already an “amalgam of special advisor, lobbyist and spin doctor” — or, as David Lloyd George put it, an “expert at ‘managing’ Winston” (p.94). At each juncture in Winston’s career, Clementine developed an “astute judgment of the characters involved, the goals that were achievable and the dangers to be anticipated” (p.57). She closely reviewed drafts of Winston’s speeches and coached him on effective delivery techniques. Campaigning for his seat in Parliament bored Winston, and he frequently sent Clementine to rouse his constituents as elections approached. In a time before political optics and images were given over to full-time professionals, Clementine was Winston’s optics specialist. With her “surer grasp of the importance of public image” (p.3), she frequently raised questions that the more impulsive Winston hadn’t fully thought through about how a course of action would look to the voters or be perceived internationally.
During World War II, Clementine assumed an unprecedented role as Winston’s aide. It is unlikely, Purnell contends, that “any other prime ministerial spouse in British history has been so involved in government business, or wielded such personal power – albeit entirely behind the scenes. She did not duplicate what Winston was doing, or cross it; she complemented it and he gave her free rein to do so” (p.246-47). When Winston was in Teheran in December 1943 meeting with Roosevelt and Stalin, for instance, Clementine was busy putting out fires and easing tensions within Winston’s cabinet. At the same time, she “reviewed reports on parliamentary debates, read the most secret telegrams, kept [Opposition leader and Deputy Prime Minister] Clement Attlee informed of the prime minister’s progress, dealt with constituency matters, and sent back to Winston digests of public reaction to the war “(p.314).
Yet, paradoxically, Winston and Clementine did not see eye-to-eye on many of issues of their time, with Clementine’s instincts conspicuously more liberal than those of her husband. Despite her aristocratic background and lofty position as a politician’s’wife, Clementine was unusually adept at establishing links and relations with average citizens. Her relatively impoverished childhood and limited work experience while unmarried “fostered in Clementine an instinctive sympathy for the worker’s point of view” (p.103). Even before World War I, she was a fervent advocate of women’s voting rights, “just the first of many issues on which she would part ways with her husband’s more conservative political views” (p.56). Later she would champion co-education at Cambridge University’s Churchill College and abolition of the death penalty.
During World War II, Clementine frequently visited injured military personnel and otherwise sought out everyday citizens to encourage them to continue to support the war effort. She also prevailed upon her husband to create opportunities for women to serve in auxiliary military roles. Winston was “initially unenthusiastic at the idea . . . but Clementine persevered and he became one of the first to appreciate that the country could not win through the sacrifice of its menfolk alone” (p.241).
A tale within the tale of World War II is Clementine’s relationship with American First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. The two met on several occasions during the war. Clementine did not care for Eleanor’s husband Franklin, who had taken the unpardonable liberty of calling her “Clemmie,” a “privilege normally reserved for the most deserving and long-serving friends” (p.310); and there was no love lost between Winston and Eleanor. Eleanor felt Winston “romanticized war” (p.281), while Winston found Eleanor to be a busybody “who did not conform to [his] ideas of an ‘attractive’ woman” (p.285). Nonetheless, the two women “enjoyed each other’s company” (p.296). They were of a similar age and upper class backgrounds, and each had endured a difficult childhood. Both demonstrated uncommon concern for the poor and their countries’ least favored citizens. Each lost a child as a young mother, and had children who struggled through adult life. Purnell notes that the four Roosevelt sons racked up 18 marriages between them, while Clementine’s four children blundered through a mere eight.
But the Roosevelts were living almost entirely separate lives during World War II, with Eleanor reduced to the role of a second-tier political advisor, in the dark on most of the key war issues that her husband was dealing with. She sometimes criticized or questioned her husband’s decisions or policies in a newspaper column she wrote. Such public airing of differences between Clementine and Winston was unthinkable for either spouse. As Purnell notes, Clementine “never even hinted publicly about her private disagreements with Winston. But then [unlike Franklin Roosevelt] he kept nothing from her” (p.306).
Roosevelt died in April 1945, less than a month prior to the end of Europe’s most devastating war. A few short months later, Winston, himself in poor health, saw his Conservative party voted out of office, as Clement Atlee and his Labour Party won a general election in July 1945. Improbably, Winston returned at age 77 as Prime Minister to lead the Conservatives from 1951 to 1955, his final and generally unsatisfactory years as government leader. He remained a Member of Parliament until the October 1964 general election, and died just months later in January 1965.
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Purnell ends her substantive chapters with Winston’s death, covering Clementine’s final years as a widow, up to her death in 1977 at age 92, in an “Epilogue.” This was a period of “almost ethereal calm” (p.387) for her. With Randolph’s death in 1968, she had outlived three of her five children. Her husband’s towering reputation across the globe was secure and, as Purnell puts it, “if her light was fading, so be it” (p.388). Purnell’s thoroughly researched and highly readable work constitutes a major step in assuring that Clementine’s light continues to shine.
Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
May 4, 2017