Churchill at the White House

"After my husband's death, I was lunching one day with Mr. and Mrs. Churchill at their home in London, and sitting by me, he suddenly turned to me and said, 'You never have really approved of me, have you?'"

I have to confess that I was frightened of Mr. Churchill. So often I was his hostess or he was my host and we sat next to each other, but each time I felt inadequate to interest him. I was solicitous for his comfort, but I was always glad when he departed, for I knew that my husband would need a rest, since he had carried his usual hours of work in addition to the unusual ones Mr. Churchill preferred.

The thing that bothered me most was the unconscionable hours the Prime Minister could work through the night. One story he was kind enough not to tell, which the officer in question told himself, was as follows: At 2 a.m. the Prime Minister by himself went to the Map Room. The watch officer, who thought all was over for the night, had turned off the overhead lights and was sleeping on a cot. The guards at the door admitted the Prime Minister, and he turned on the lights and went about examining the maps. Suddenly the watch officer awoke and jumped to his feet to attend him. "Taut watch you keep here, son," said the Prime Minister, as he went on with his study of the exhibits. This story is told in William Rigdon's book White House Sailor, and I quote it as a characteristic story, because it shows one of the things expected in the White House when the Prime Minister would wander around in the late hours, sometimes accompanied by Harry Hopkins, sometimes on his own.

On the occasion when Mr. Churchill came to Hyde Park in the summer of 1943, I had to say to him at dinner one night that I was sorry I was leaving before the end of his visit, as I had planned to take a trip which my husband thought might be helpful. He was surprised and inquired where I was going. When my husband told him that I was starting alone to go to a number of islands in the Pacific and to Australia and New Zealand, he turned suddenly and looked at my husband, sternly saying, "Did you say she was going alone?" My husband replied, yes, but of course I would be watched over all along the line. Whereupon Mr. Churchill said, "I will notify my people all along the line to look after her."

This was not reassuring to me. I knew I was expected in Australia and New Zealand and would be greeted officially, since my husband felt too few prominent people had visited these countries where the Japanese menace was so close. He felt it would be a compliment to them if he sent his wife, who had just returned from a visit to London a few months before, and could tell them a little about their own King and Queen and the work of the women in the war in England. I do not think Mr. Churchill understood Franklin's calm assurance that I was quite able to take care of myself, and that I much preferred not having someone else to look after me. As it turned out, Mr. Churchill did notify people all along the line, and whenever I was on a British island, the governor-general was always most kind and entertained me with lavish hospitality.

At Hyde Park I remember Mr. Churchill's walking around and trying to decide whether the small goldfish which he enjoyed watching at his own place might be transplanted and become a source of pleasure for the President's leisure moments. I tried to explain to him that while my husband loved to fish, I was not quite sure that he would enjoy contemplating fish swimming around for long periods of time. I thought that perhaps Mr. Churchill was a less ardent fisherman than my husband but was more willing to spend time watching their habits. He even looked at our swimming pool and was quite evidently thinking that it might be much better to devote it to his goldfish than to the many children who splashed around in the water. I think Mr. Churchill really enjoyed contemplating nature. My husband enjoyed watching birds and the habits of birds, and he would get up at ungodly hours to do this, but I can't remember that he ever invited Mr. Churchill to go on one of these trips. Perhaps he felt that the hours were not what Mr. Churchill would enjoy.

I remember dining with Mr. Churchill in London when I was there at the Queen's invitation in the autumn of 1942 to make a study of the women in war. The blackout rules were carefully observed, and that night Secretary Morgenthau, who happened to be in London, called for me to take me to No. 10 Downing Street. He had a flashlight, and for one moment lit it to look at the pavement. Immediately, a bobby sprang out to take it out of his hand and tell him that one was not allowed to shine a light at night. It was so hard for us, accustomed to the security of our own country, to realize what it meant to live so very close to danger every moment, and yet we gathered for a dinner which went on exactly as though there had been no menace. To be sure, rationing was very strict, and we could not have the things to eat which one could usually find on an Englishman's table. I was glad when I spent a night at the Prime Minister's home in the country to feel that the bacon that appeared on the table in the morning was the result of some restrictions which we in the United States voluntarily underwent to help furnish our Allies with something they could not otherwise have had.

On that visit in the country, I remember seeing Mr. Churchill sitting with his grandson on the floor, and someone told me the story which has been so often repeated, that a lady seeing these two together remarked, "Winston, how wonderfully your grandson resembles you!", and Mr. Churchill looked up and said, "You are quite wrong. I resemble every baby." It was only then that I realized how true this was, for his smooth skin was as soft and unwrinkled as a baby's. His cheeks were full, he looked like a baby; but he could also look very stern and forceful!

One night at dinner at 10 Downing Street, I made the mistake of saying something which he did not approve of about our relationship with Franco's Spain. He at once took me to task, and I was afraid that we would have an awkward situation as a result, but Mrs. Churchill, always tactful, said, "We will leave the gentlemen alone now and go into the drawing room and wait for them." The awkward moment was saved.

Mrs. Churchill herself accompanied me, at the Prime Minister's request, on a trip where the final stop for the day was in Dover. Only a day or so before, the Waves headquarters had been bombed, and we were shown the damage; and a little incident as we walked along the street made me realize how even children become accustomed to the danger which surrounds them. There was that day, as so often happens in England, a heavy fog over the Channel, and there was for the time being no fear of bombing. As the children played in the streets they could hear the sound of planes, and they stopped and said, "Not Jerry's—one of ours." How wise these children had become!

On that trip Mr. Churchill showed me with care the rooms he planned for my husband to occupy when he eventually went to visit England as Churchill always hoped he would. I was shown how secure they could be made, how safe, and I realized how much thought had gone into all these preparations.

Mr. Churchill happened to be with us when the defeat of the British armies came at El Alamein. It was one of the blackest days for Great Britain, and when I saw Mr. Churchill he looked ashen white, but the spirit of the fighter was undiminished. He walked into my husband's room and wanted to know how soon we could furnish the necessary armored tanks for counterattack. It never occurred to him that the British forces could be really beaten. It was a setback which might be serious, but it must be met and overcome. I do not think I ever admired anyone's courage quite so much as then. What gallantry he showed in meeting this most dangerous and difficult moment in Africa!

I have always particularly enjoyed one thing that my husband said at a press conference on the afternoon of December 23, 1941, probably the first one that he and the Prime Minister ever held together. It had taken a long time for the press to be allowed in; so my husband began by telling them how sorry he was, and he said: "I was telling the Prime Minister the job was to prevent the wolf from coming in here in sheep's clothing." Later on he explained that next day he told the Prime Minister that the American press were wolves when compared with the British press, whom he considered lambs. This was followed by a remark which I think highly characteristic: My husband said that Sir Winston was quite willing to take on a conference because "we have one characteristic in common. We like new experiences in life." I think this was characteristic of both men. Both men liked to explore new people, new places, new things.

When my husband's statue was erected in Grosvenor Square, Mr. Churchill disapproved of its being done standing. He wanted it in a sitting position and said so in no uncertain terms. The sculptor and Sir Campbell Stuart, who was in charge of the committee that raised the money for the Pilgrim Society, agreed on the statue as it is now, but I do not think Mr. Churchill was ever reconciled.

After my husband's death, I was lunching one day with Mr. and Mrs. Churchill at their home in London, and sitting by me, he suddenly turned to me and said, "You never have really approved of me, have you?" I was a little taken aback, because it would never have occurred to me to say I had not approved of Mr. Churchill. He seemed to me someone above approval or disapproval by an unimportant person like myself. I hesitated a moment and finally said, "I don't think I ever disapproved, sir," but I think he remained convinced that there were things he and I did not agree upon, and perhaps there were a number!

I was to lunch with him once more in London, at a later period, when he had begun to fail a little. His hearing was not quite so good, but he was still a very determined man. Most people remember him best as he was when he made his speech which stirred the British people and stirred the American people too. He said: "we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender." The pride of race and of the Englishman who represented an empire on which the sun never set rang in every word of that speech. He could put into words the feeling of his own people about the defense of their island, and his speeches gave reassurance not only to the people of Great Britain, but to the people of the United States.

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