The story I remember is that Churchill didn’t want any statue of himself because he didn’t want pigeons mucking up his head. But there is a statue near Parliament in London, and I heard that the head is electrified to keep the birds off. I have no idea whether any of this is true, and it hardly matters. What does matter is that his memory stay alive, and stories can do that.
And we will need these stories more now, as the man Winston Churchill really was slips inevitably out of living memory.
The recent celebration of the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landing showed the Greatest Generation dying off at a fast clip. One soldier who didn’t land on the beach also just died: the Lady Soames, a Dame of the British Empire and Ladies Companion of the Garter, Britain’s highest chivalric order. She was also known as Mary, Churchill’s daughter.
She did what others could not to keep the memory of Churchill alive well into the future. A tiny part of her efforts was realized at Levenger, in the form of books written by and about Churchill, and lovingly published by our small publishing arm.
Levenger Press editor Mim Harrison recounts her meeting with this last living family member of the man who, as Kennedy said, “mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.”
Lady Soames was busy writing her memoir that would be published, in 2012, as A Daughter’s Tale, when I met her on March 15, 2005. Levenger had published an illustrated edition of Winston Churchill’s essay, Painting as a Pastime, in 2002, and Lady Soames had graciously agreed to write the foreword to it, even though she barely knew who Levenger was.
Faxes were still popular then, and Lady Soames’s neatly typed manuscript had sprung forth from the Levenger fax machine one day. She had not only written a loving tribute to her father as a painter; she had also signed the piece at the end, deliberately and boldly: Mary Soames, with an inked flourish beneath it. It meant that we could reproduce her signature in our book. That was Christmas enough for me that year.
We followed our first Levenger Press book on Churchill with another, much larger one: the edition by Minnie Churchill and David Coombs that showcases all of his paintings, which number over 500. Minnie, for whom Lady Soames was Aunt Mary, had been instrumental in Levenger’s being the publisher of both books, and it was she who had generously arranged that I meet Lady Soames. Aunt Mary thought I should see some of the paintings contained in Levenger’s books.
The daughter who went to war
Her home near London’s Embassy Row had the feel of a charming cottage. As Minnie, Simon and I walked past the black wrought-iron gate that had been left open, I looked up to a second-floor window and saw a room filled with bookcases. It was where Lady Soames was writing her memoir, taking care to corroborate stories for fear of, as she put it, “colliding” facts.
Lady Soames was 82 at the time but looked much younger, and anything but frail. Some of that was her voice—low and deliberate, lacking the lisp of her father’s, but a strong and distinctive voice nonetheless.
“Come sit by the fire and have some Champagne,” she said in greeting. As we walked through the foyer, I spied a big red leather box tucked casually beneath a small table. Scuffed and ripped and faded, it might have been any family catchall box, but of course it wasn’t. It was Winston Churchill’s dispatch box that he had used during World War II, his name lettered on top in gold foil.
In the living room Lady Soames’s scoop-me-up-size dog, Trish, was trying to hide on the loveseat near a pillow that spelled out the home’s pecking order: My dog isn’t spoilt. She has me well trained.
Never mind that Trish’s mistress had enlisted in the British army as soon as women were allowed to, at age 19, and had shot down enemy bombs during the war. It was Mary, the youngest of Winston and Clementine Churchill’s children, who accompanied her father to North Africa for his meeting with FDR, and to Quebec when he helped to plan Operation Overlord—what became known to the world as D-Day.
Not surprisingly, the walls of Lady Soames’s home were a canvas for many of the oils her father had painted. “Papa painted snow so well, even though he hated it,” she remarked, stressing the second syllable of Papa.
Churchill didn’t begin to paint until he was 40, and he approached it with something akin to ebullience, describing it in Painting as a Pastime as a “joy ride in a paint-box,” for which “audacity is the only ticket.”
But there was a certain humility as well. Churchill seldom signed his paintings and when he submitted them to juried shows, he kept his identity secret. His paintings showed well.
There were more of her father’s paintings upstairs, and so Lady Soames took us up into her bedroom, where among the oils was the first one her father had given her. It hung above her bed, as if her father were watching over her.
(Later, Minnie told me how rare it was that anyone saw what I just had. “There are family members who’ve never seen Aunt Mary’s bedroom,” she said.)
Up we went again, to the third story of Lady Soames’s house, to see more of her father’s artwork. Then it was off to an Italian restaurant, a neighborhood place where they knew Lady Soames well.
The War Rooms
I was too excited about the evening to recall what I ate, or even if I did, but I do remember the conversation about how good the Queen looked when she had come to the opening of the new wing adjacent to the Churchill War Rooms just a week or so prior. Churchill was Prime Minister when a young Elizabeth assumed the throne in 1952.
“Have you seen the new museum?” Lady Soames asked me. I told her I hadn’t yet but hoped to during my stay in London.
The opening had focused some of the media attention on Lady Soames. She described it with a wry wit that made it clear she was her father’s daughter. “I’m old, you know,” she said with a mischievous smile, “practically extinct, like the dodo bird.” Reporters were figuring this might be their last chance to interview Churchill’s last surviving child. It wasn’t, fortunately, but they were wise to seize the opportunity. Even though, as Lady Soames said to much laughter, not all the interviews were “worth getting your hair done for.”
The next morning, early, I got a call from Minnie. If I could be at the Churchill War Rooms for ten o’clock that morning, the director would give me a private tour. I assured Minnie that she didn’t have to make such a special arrangement for me. She laughed and said, “Oh yes I do. Aunt Mary said so.”
Before we left Lady Soames’s house for the restaurant, she asked me about the book that Levenger was about to publish, The Dream. A brief essay that Churchill wrote in 1947, shortly after the Allied victory that Churchill had been so instrumental in, the story recounts a dream Churchill had of his long-dead father, Randolph Churchill, returning to see him.
Winston had spent the early part of his life seeking but never winning his father’s approval. Randolph died in 1895 when Winston was 20, well before he would make his indelible mark on history.
Lady Soames told me she had once asked her father, when he was in his late eighties, what he regretted, if anything. “I thought it would be not receiving the VC,” she said, referring to the Victoria Cross medal for valor. But that wasn’t it at all.
What her father regretted most was that his own father had not lived long enough to see him make something of himself.
Unlike his father, Winston Churchill was a loving and doting parent to his children. His daughter Mary made her own mark on history, honoring her father in death as she adored him in life. The way only a devoted daughter can.