Chapter Excerpt

Warlord
A Life of Winston Churchill at War, 1874-1945

Chapter One

Toy Soldiers

The toy soldiers turned the current of my life.
—Churchill

He rather resembles a naughty, little sandy-haired bulldog, and seems backward except for complicated games with toy soldiers.
—Clara Jerome, Churchill's grandmother

It was only fitting that Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was born "amid velvet muffs, fur coats and plumed hats" in the early morning hours of Saint Andrew's Day, November 30, 1874, at Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire, the ancestral home of the Marlboroughs. According to his parents his arrival in a temporary cloakroom adjacent to the grand ballroom was unexpected. As the newest descendant of one of the icons of British history, Winston Churchill began life in a hurry, a trait he would never relinquish.

His cousin and close friend Shane Leslie once noted that his birth seems to have been hastened by a gala event at Blenheim that night, the annual Saint Andrew's Ball, in which his mother, Jennie, participated with her customary ardor. "His previous and perhaps presumptuous arrival [his mother] alluded to as Winston's effort to make his first speec. . . . and historians will suppose that the band struck up martial music for his entry." In fact his birth was probably accelerated both by the fact that his mother had not only fallen during a shooting party six days earlier but had taken a rather jarring ride in a pony carriage that afternoon and was dancing enthusiastically when her labor pains began. His parents had intended that his birth take place in their London home in Mayfair, but, as he would throughout his long and tumultuous life, Winston Churchill could be counted upon to do the unexpected.

An announcement in The Times three days later read: "On the 30th Nov, at Blenheim Palace, the Lady Randolph Churchill, prematurely, of a son."

Not only is the declaration by his parents that he was born some two months prematurely highly dubious, but in that day it would have been a medical miracle had he even survived. Hardly anyone in the Churchill family's immediate circle of friends fell for the ruse. Churchill himself seems not to have believed it, once noting with evident amusement, "Although present on the occasion, I have no clear recollection of the events leading up to it."

Churchill's parents have been unflatteringly described as "remote and tantalizingly glamorous. Randolph's glittering, bulging eyes and oversize whiskers hiding a small, intense face caused him to resemble a tenacious miniature Schnauzer, while darling ‘Mummy' was another spectacle altogether." Indeed the descendants of the first and only notable Marlborough "were a thoroughly disreputable family, in debt, had scandalous relationships with women, and were incredibly rude to people, with only smatterings of respectability." Randolph and Jennie Churchill were exceptions; they captivated English political and social circles. "Neither Randolph nor Jennie needed to out-dazzle each other," noted Shane Leslie. "They both shone of their own light unlike the usual conjugal pairs who reflected each other like the moon and the sun."

Few who met her ever forgot Churchill's mother, Jennie Jerome, a vivacious, raven-haired American. She was one of the best known and most fascinating young women of Victorian England, for her great beauty, joie de vivre, and marriage to one of Parliament's rising stars, and as a woman of considerable repute, with a legion of lovers. She was the product of a traditional silver-spoon, upper-class upbringing that included a finishing school in Paris, where she met her future husband. Jennie was one of three daughters of a formerly ultrawealthy New York financier, cofounder of the famed Jockey Club, and onetime owner of the New York Times, Leonard Jerome, who had lately fallen on hard times as a result of the stock market collapse of 1873. The Jerome sisters, Jennie, Leonie, and Clara, were once described by a contemporary wit as, respectively, "the Beautiful, the Witty and the Good."

Jennie Jerome Churchill's admiring nephew Shane Leslie has described her as: "a magnificent type whose fierce yet faithful character [was] so utterly fearless towards those she loved, so scornful of those she disliked."

As a parent Jennie left a great deal to be desired. She typified the upper-class women of her age for whom parenting did not rank high on their scale of priorities. Life in Victorian England as the wife of Lord Randolph Churchill was meant to be one of hedonistic pleasure, whether in the bedrooms of her lovers or the endless round of social events, parties, hunts, and attendance at high-profile racing events at Ascot and the annual regatta at Henley.

Notes Shane Leslie, "Destiny had not slipped her into the world to play with Princes or to tread the Primrose path of politics. She had been furnished with some virile qualities of steel in her veins. . . . Men she could consider and treat as they generally treated women. There was the pantheres. . . . in her temper—otherwise it would have been impossible for her to fulfill her only real destiny and duty which was to breed Winston." Herbert Henry Asquith's second wife, Margot Tennant, did not know who Jennie was when she first encountered her in 1887 at a race meeting. "She had a forehead like a panther's and great wild eyes that looked through you. . . . Had Lady Randolph Churchill been like her face, she could have governed the world."

Jennie was a woman of great contradictions who possessed far more than mere beauty. She disdained the Victorian dictates of humility and a woman's place in society. Her single-mindedness (which she passed to her two sons) was reflected in her commanding nature. After her boys were grown her causes ranged from founding a magazine to work aiding the wounded in South Africa during the Boer War.

Warlord
A Life of Winston Churchill at War, 1874-1945
. Copyright © by Carlo D'Este. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Excerpted from Warlord: A Life of Winston Churchill at War, 1874-1945 by Carlo D'Este
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