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?'"

My first introduction to Mr. Churchill was when my husband announced to me one day at the White House that we would be having some guests visit us, that one of the sitting rooms on the second floor must be made into an office for them and arranged so that maps could be hung all the way around the room. He told me that I could not know who was coming, nor how many, but I must be prepared to have them stay over Christmas, to be included in everything we did, and to have an adequate number of Christmas presents. He added as an afterthought that I must see to it that we had good champagne and brandy in the house and plenty of whiskey.

All this sounded very mysterious, but since we had just been plunged into the war I was prepared for any amount of secrecy and what seemed to me idiotic restrictions. Everyone who went into the White House, including myself, had to be fingerprinted, and any reluctance to undergo this rather soiling process (I had always looked upon fingerprinting as something connected with a crime) was completely wiped out because I was given no choice. I was simply told that this was the case. Packages, no matter who had sent them or where they had come from, had to be fluoroscoped before they were delivered to us. Therefore, when my husband announced that I must be prepared to have visitors without knowing who they were, I accepted the fact without question and set about the preparations.

There had been many very difficult visitors in the White House before, and I knew that the staff was equal to any demands that might be made on it, but it was not until my guests really arrived that I knew quite what those demands would be.

I was told who the visitors were when they were actually driving to the White House, and I realized that my husband was very deeply grateful for the fact that Mr. Churchill had taken a long and dangerous trip overseas to cement our relationships and arrange for closer cooperation now that we were actually in the war and facing the enemy with our Allies, Great Britain and France.

I was glad Mr. Churchill had come, but I seemed to be an automaton in those days, registering neither fear nor joy but just accepting what had to be.

What was known as the Monroe Room, a rather formal sitting room on the second floor, was arranged as Mr. Churchill's map room. Only the people whom he was to have constantly around him were housed in the White House—his aide, Commander Thompson, and his secretary, Mr. Martin. The others went to the embassy. I soon became familiar with Mr. Churchill's desires. There must be a tray in his room with a plentiful supply of all the drinkables that were needed. His breakfast went up by nine o'clock, but Mr. Churchill did not get up till eleven. Much work, however, was done before he dressed. From eleven till after lunch he worked with my husband or on his own affairs, but after lunch he retired to his room and slept until about five o'clock. From then on he was ready for the real work of the day, much of which was done after dinner.

My husband was not given to sitting up late at night after dinner as a rule, but during Mr. Churchill's visits he stayed up, and I am sure he was deeply interested at all times, for they seemed from the very first not only to have a good understanding of each other and an ability to work together easily, but also to enjoy each other's company. They both loved history, both loved the navy, and while I think Mr. Churchill had a more catholic interest in literature, they had some particular literary interests in common.

For instance, on one occasion I drove down in the car with them to Shangri-La. This was a retreat which had been set up for my husband for weekends in the warm weather when he could not go far away. We drove through the town of Frederick, Maryland, and Franklin pointed to a window and said it was the window from which Barbara Fritchie had hung the Union colors. Mr. Churchill then recited the whole of the Barbara Fritchie poem. My husband and I looked at each other, for each of us could have quoted a few lines, but the whole was quite beyond us! Franklin happened to be fond of Edward Lear's Nonsense Rhymes, and I can remember Mr. Churchill capping every rhyme my husband quoted. How long they could have gone on, I don't know, but fortunately a turn in the road brought an end to this particular amusement.

Mr. Churchill and his party were delightful Christmas guests, and they accepted with very good grace their inclusion in our family celebration when they must have missed their own. They were accustomed to war sacrifices, and this rated as a war sacrifice.

Christmas Day with us usually started, as far as I was concerned, the night before. I filled all the stockings before going to midnight service, and on my return they were all hung in my husband's bedroom. The first thing I did on Christmas morning was to arise as early as possible and close the windows in my husband's bedroom so that it would be warm before the children came in. We would then go to get my mother-in-law to join us so that she could watch the children open their stockings. She would have a stocking also, though her interest in it was slight. The youngsters sat on my husband's bed, and he helped them take out their toys. I managed to get them all a drink of orange juice, but we rarely got them to breakfast before 9:30. Then the older members of the family would finish their own personal tree, which was on the second floor of the White House, and I would arrange all the packages on different chairs for every member of the household, or under the tree. Lunch was usually a very quiet meal.

We opened our presents Christmas afternoon. My husband was so interested always in watching everybody else that of course he could never get through his large pile of presents. Sometimes for days after Christmas any spare moments we had after dinner would be devoted to opening up his presents.

Mr. Churchill came other times after that on official missions to the White House, and Mrs. Churchill came too. After Quebec, where we had all met, he and his daughter Mary came to stay for a few days at Hyde Park with my husband.

Cigars Mr. Churchill brought himself, but the drinks and the food we always tried to remember to have according to his liking. Like all Englishmen he was very fond of beef in every form. I don't remember what his special dishes were that he liked, but I don't think he was at all finicky. Things had to be well cooked and nicely served, and he often spoke of the difference in our country where we did not have the strict rationing which they had in Great Britain. There they could have game and poultry, but little else. It was agreed, as a rule, that we would not serve too much of the only types of food which were available in his own country at that time.

Sir Winston did not believe in suffering where it was not necessary to do so as far as food was concerned. Something hot, something cold, two kinds of fresh fruit, a tumbler of orange juice, and a pot of weak tea were suggested for his breakfast tray. For "something hot" he was given eggs, bacon or ham, and toast. "Something cold" was translated into two kinds of cold meat with English mustard and two kinds of fruit plus a tumbler of sherry.

It was astonishing to me that anyone could smoke so much and drink so much and keep perfectly well. I actually do not remember that in those days Mr. Churchill ever had an indisposition while he was with us. Yet the trips that he took were strenuous ones, and often when he was here he worked long hours in spite of his periods of rest. In addition, he often took trips to other parts of the country to see things he felt it essential to know about.

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.