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Obituary: Yvonne Spencer Churchill 1924-2010

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By Celia Lee

Mrs. Peregrine Spencer-Churchill (Yvonne) as she preferred to be known, died peacefully and with dignity just before half past midnight on 14th December 2010, in a private room at the Chelsea & Westminster Hospital, off the Fulham Road, London. Members of the Churchill family, including her beloved Mrs. Minnie S. Churchill and Mr. Simon Bird, the Honourable Celia Sandys, her niece Sally, the Lady Ashburton, Mrs. Jennie (Churchill) Repard and her children, her full-time carer, Sally Jones, her nephew Mr. Guillaume Jehanin, her late brother's son, who came over from France, her devoted lawyer of many years, Mr. Robert Sykes, Celia and John Lee, and her circle of dedicated friends who visited her at home on a regular basis, kept up a vigil by her bedside.

Her closest friend and confidant from the "Fairdown days" was the Honourable Iris Dawney, former Lady-in-waiting to the Princess Margaret, who was a regular visitor to Yvonne's home for many years.
My connection with Yvonne and her late husband Peregrine was one of strangers being introduced on a glorious, sunny day, in July 2001, by Basia Hamilton the portrait painter and artist.

I had just published JEAN, LADY HAMILTON (1861-1941) - A SOLDIER'S WIFE, the biography of the wife of General Sir Ian Hamilton who was Basia's husband's Ian's great uncle. The Spectator had given my book a rave review spread over two pages and nominated it book of the week. Yvonne and Peregrine had seen the article and asked Basia about me and we lunched with Peregrine and Yvonne at their country home "Fairdown" in Hampshire.

For some time Peregrine had wanted to write a book about the Churchills which gave his father, Major John Strange Spencer-Churchill (Jack), his rightful place in the family history. Yvonne asked me to write the book but I turned it down at that time. Peregrine was at this time in his late 80s and began writing the book with John and I helping him. He died suddenly the following year, and at Yvonne's request I took over, but his writings were lost when his computer hard disc was cleaned down to be sold without his manuscript having been printed out.

Yvonne gave me full access to the letters and papers of Lord and Lady Randolph Spencer-Churchill, Jack and Goonie, and Peregrine's papers. I began from scratch and spent five years researching the papers. Yvonne moved to London later that year into a flat just round the corner from Lennox Gardens and we saw each other on a regular basis.

Peregrine's death was an enormous loss to her but the thought of the book gave her something to live for. For nearly nine years we practically lived out of each other's pockets. Hardly a week went by without contact and we even telephoned each other when I was on holiday.

Yvonne Jehanin's own story is one of a young girl, aged only 15 years, when the Second World War broke out in 1939. Yvonne was French, the daughter of a lawyer, living in Paris, when the Nazi marched in and took over. She worked as a teacher teaching French including to English people living in Paris.

It is not entirely clear how or why, but Yvonne took a job, working for Peregrine Churchill and his new wife, Patricia neé Somerville-Marsh, who he married in 1954. They had a house in Dorset and a flat in London in Lennox Gardens, in the exclusive "Sloane Ranger" area where Diana Spencer had a bachelor flat in the 1980s, before she married Prince Charles. Yvonne told me laughingly: "I was their (Peregrine's and Patricia's) au pair girl." She said she taught them French and took care of their horses and they could all ride.

This happy trio was soon broken up when Patricia, who had been married before and was aged about 40, was diagnosed terminally ill with cancer. Yvonne took on the role of nurse, and nursed her through her illness until she died. Yvonne then returned to Paris and resumed teaching.

One day Peregrine, who owned his own engineering company, set out to a business meeting in Paris. Having been delayed travelling, he arrived in the City late at night. He had not booked himself into a hotel and could not get in any place for the night. The only address he knew in the whole of Paris was Yvonne's. He turned up at her flat in a taxi around midnight and asked her if he could sleep on the sofa. When Yvonne got up the next morning Peregrine had already gone to his meeting.

He arrived back that evening and by way of thanking her for her kindness invited her out to dinner. Yvonne got dressed up and she was a fine looking woman in her day, standing about 5 feet 8 inches in her stockings, with a perfect figure. She was very much an intellectual with an active interest in everything of value.

They dined together and love blossomed, despite the eleven year disparity in their ages, Peregrine having been born in 1913, and Yvonne in 1924.

He invited Yvonne to England and the courtship continued, and they were married in the Brompton Oratory near Lennox Gardens on 22nd December 1957.

When Peregrine died suddenly in 2002 of a heart attack, Yvonne was insistent that the book must be written as a tribute to his memory so I obliged with my husband John Lee as co-author coming in towards the end to analyse the army careers of Winston and Jack Churchill. Yvonne lived every day for that piece of history to be written and she was most helpful to me. Peregrine adored her, they had the happiest of marriages, and she was devoted to his memory. There was a large drawing of him ever on the wall by the artist John Merton. Yvonne would look up at it and say: "Peregrine was unique".

Yvonne never met her parents-in-law Jack and Goonie, Goonie having died of lung cancer in 1941, and Jack of a tumour at his heart in 1947. But she knew Winston quite well and she could tell a story or two about him. She said that when he became famous as Prime Minister following the Second World War and recognised as a world leader, he used to sit in his study and ring the bell for his butler to come and prepare his cigar. When Jack was alive he used to say to him: "Get up and get it yourself", which story Peregrine had told her. Yvonne was very fond of Winston's wife Clementine, affectionately referred to as "Aunt Clemmie". After Winston's death in 1965, Peregrine and Yvonne spent their Christmases with Aunt Clemmie and Minnie and young Winston and their children.

For Christmas 2007, we published a high quality version of our study of the Churchill family titled: WINSTON & JACK THE CHURCHILL BROTHERS, especially for Yvonne and the Churchill family. There was a packed, private book launch of about 300 people, and we were sponsored by Pol Roger, courtesy of Danielle and Christian Pol Roger and Mr.Bill Gunn at their company in England. His Grace the 11th Duke of Marlborough travelled from Blenheim Palace as guest of honour. Mary, The Lady Soames LG DBE, gave the main address. Dr. John H. Mather, who is an expert on Lord Randolph's health jetted in especially from the US as one of the speakers. For Yvonne it was a night to remember, and Peregrine's spirit could now rest in peace.

Yvonne's ashes are to be interred in the grave with Jack's and Peregrine's in the historic churchyard of St.Martin's, Bladon, Oxfordshire in January 2011. She was 86 years old past in May. They are buried next to Lord and Lady Randolph and Winston and Clemmie.

If I were asked to write Yvonne's epitaph in a single line, for this woman with a mind of her own, it would be as the title of the famous ballad by Frank Sinatra: "I did it my way".


Donations to Médecins Sans Frontières and Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital c/o J.H. Kenyon, 49 Marloes Road, W8 6LA.