Churchill wasn’t only interested in writing history, biography and autobiography (with the odd dabbling in fiction and counterfactual fantasy). During his ‘wilderness years’, in the 1930s, Churchill took on the profitable (for him) role as screenwriter and adviser to the Hungarian-born film director Alexander Korda in Hollywood. He even acted as adviser and coach to a potential actor in what was a doomed early film adaptation of T. E. Lawrence’s Revolt in the Desert (Korda had bought the film rights to both this and Seven Pillars of Wisdom, later selling the film rights to Sam Spiegel and the director David Lean who went on to make the award-winning Lawrence of Arabia). Throughout his life, Churchill always read the latest fiction and non-fiction – and not just history. He counted among his friends and acquaintances literary figures of the day such as Somerset Maugham, Gertrude Bell and T. E. Lawrence (‘Lawrence of Arabia’). He’d worked closely with the latter in a professional capacity, while Colonial Secretary in the 1920s – he was just the sort of adventurer that appealed to Churchill – but he also admired his writing. While Churchill shared an interest in the science fiction – although not necessarily the politics – of H. G. Wells, Aldous Huxley and Jules Verne, he didn’t tend to hold back on expressing his opinions of other writers of the day, particularly if their politics didn’t accord with his.
Initially rather dubious about flying (he first went up in a plane out of a sense of duty), Churchill soon became passionate about it. He took instruction from Commander Spenser Grey, Lieutenant Jack Snedden and Richard Bell Davies (who was later to win the Victorian Cross at the Dardanelles) and made practice flights at the Royal Naval Flying School, Eastchurch Aerodrome in Kent. He was keen to get his pilot’s licence and needed to notch up the necessary hours.
A few weeks before his eighth birthday, in 1882, Churchill – like many other children of his class and background – was sent away to boarding school. It was at his second school in Brighton (after two unhappy years at St George’s, Ascot where ‘floggings’ were common) that he learnt things that interested him; not just French and history, but riding a horse and swimming. Both riding and swimming were to feature heavily in his life. At Harrow he represented his house at swimming competitions, but it was at fencing that he excelled. In 1889, Churchill wrote to his ‘Darling Mummy’ asking her to allow him to take up fencing. Churchill went on to become an accomplished fencer and even became Public Schools Fencing Champion in 1892.
‘… I think it would be so much better for me to learn something which would be useful to me in the army, as well as affording me exercise and amusement.’
Churchill to his mother, Lady Randolph, 5, October 1889
Travel suited Churchill’s restive nature. While he took great pleasure in the house and grounds at Chartwell with his family and his animals, and always enjoyed returning there, he did relish breaks away from England and holidays in the sun. He travelled widely throughout his life; in his early years, as a soldier and war correspondent and then later, for political purposes or for holidays, to the US and to the Continent.
Here he would stay at smart hotels or the chateaux or villas of rich friends, socialites and associates, or on yachts. Between 1958 and 1963, Churchill was the guest of Greek millionaire shipowner Aristotle Onassis on his yacht in the Eastern Mediterranean, where he painted, swam and generally relaxed and recharged his batteries.
Throughout his life, Churchill exhibited a peculiarly individual sense of style, with a love of military uniforms, specially designed zip-up ‘siren suits’ (so called because they could be put on quickly when the air raid sirens sounded), his bow ties and his famous V for Victory hand gestures. Churchill was always drawn to fine clothes. In his younger days, he wore frock coats, trousers and vests as part of his Parliamentary wardrobe, and his suits and overcoats were made by the best tailors in London.
As early as 1905, Churchill visited Poole & Co in Savile Row and he returned frequently in the years following, although later in his career a cutter was usually sent to Chartwell to measure Churchill at home. He eventually stopped ordering his suits from them – the expense became too great and he ended up owing them a considerable sum of money – but to celebrate the centenary of Churchill’s first order with them, Henry Poole & Co revived the chalk-striped flannel of the suit they made for him around 1936. See more on the Henry Poole website.
In fact, Churchill was more than ready for retirement. Only a year after his resignation, days before his eighty-second birthday, he finally admitted that he was not the man he was; he could not be Prime Minister now. Only a week after his last cabinet meeting, he and Clemmie went on holiday to Syracuse.
I am not the man I was. I could not be Prime Minister now.
Churchill to Lord Moran, 26 November 1956 (cited in Langworth Churchill: In His Own Words)
Even though he was not the man he was, and despite his failing health, Churchill began his ‘retirement’ with some of his old vigour and energy. For an elderly man, he was remarkably resilient and determined. He embarked on holidays, painting tours and new writing projects.
Churchill’s fondness for cigars was born during his time in Havana, Cuba, in 1885, along with a lifetime habit of siestas. Just before his twenty-first birthday, Churchill went on a semi-official expedition there and witnessed the fighting between the Spanish government soldiers and guerilla fighters at Arroyo Blanco. He was to continue smoking cigars throughout his life. Like his drinking, Churchill’s consumption of cigars was not as prodigious as it seemed. He tended to chew on cigars, puffing the smoke out rather than inhaling, often discarding them half-smoked. It is said that when Field Marshall Viscount Montgomery told him, ‘I neither drink nor smoke and am a hundred per cent fit’, Churchill famously replied ‘I drink and smoke and I am two hundred per cent fit’.
For Churchill, dining was about more than good food, fine French champagne and a robust Havana cigar. He used dining as an art to both to display his conversational talents and to engage in political debate. During the WWII, he presided over dinners at key conferences, using them to exert his considerable conversational skills to attempt to persuade his allies, Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin, to fight the war according to his strategic vision. Churchill used dining and the dinner table to do what could not always be done at the conference table.
Throughout his life, he relished his food and ate out often, spending considerable amounts of money on fine meals at hotels and restaurants. He liked traditional English dishes like roast beef and Yorkshire pudding as well as French haute cuisine. He enjoyed shellfish more than fish – he particularly enjoyed raw oysters – and Stilton cheese more than sweet desserts (‘pudding’), but he could easily be persuaded to have both when the opportunity arose! He insisted that ‘puddings’ be expressive. His family heard him announce on more than one occasion, ‘Take away this pudding – It has no theme!’
[My ideal of a good dinner] is to discuss good food, and, after this good food has been discussed, to discuss a good topic – with myself the chief conversationalist.
Churchill, 1925, “Ephesian” [Roberts C. Bechhofer] in Winston Churchill (cited in Langworth, Churchill: In His Own Words)
Churchill was fond of alcohol and fuelled the perception that he had great capacity for it. He never felt that there was ever any need to apologise for his drinking or to explain it, despite some (including both Hitler and Goebbels) accusing him of drinking to excess. He clearly had the constitution for it.
Whatever else they may say of me as a soldier, at least nobody can say I have ever failed to display a meet and proper appreciation of the virtues of alcohol.
Churchill, 1916, Belgium; in Taylor: Winston Churchill: An Informal Study in Greatness
Although Churchill enjoyed travelling and holidays, he was happiest at Chartwell. Purchased in 1922, much against Clementine’s wishes, it was dilapidated and in very poor repair and Churchill dedicated much of his energy – and funds – to renovating and developing the house and grounds. He ended up doing much of the smaller building work himself, taking on the construction of a dam, a swimming pool (which proved very costly to heat), brick walls around the vegetable garden and creating a butterfly house out of a former larder, as well as re-tiling a cottage in Chartwell’s grounds.
Churchill loved animals, large and small. He had always loved horses – he took part in the last great cavalry charge at Omdurman as a soldier in the 21st Lancers, played polo and, in later life, owned broodmares and racehorses – but he also enjoyed having cats and dogs at his side – and oftentimes even on his bed – while at Chartwell.
Churchill surrounded himself with a veritable menagerie of animals, including sheep, goats, pigs, cattle, guinea pigs, hens, ducks, swans and goldfish and, of course, cats and dogs (notably two brown poodles, Rufus I and Rufus II). In 1926 during an economy drive – Chartwell and its staff were expensive to run – many of the animals were sold, but he couldn’t bear to part with his prized Middle White pigs.
Much of the 1930s was devoted to travel and writing. Some of the former was for pleasure; Churchill had always relished travelling and enjoyed his time away from Britain. He spent many months on the continent – at expensive hotels, at the chateaux of friends and acquaintances, always with his easel and paints at hand.
Churchill used these long periods abroad, in the sunshine and among those who respected him, to recharge his batteries and restore his energy. His favourite holiday destination was the French Riviera, where he enjoyed the hospitality of wealthy American hostesses like Maxine Elliott and Consuelo Balsan, all of whom had genuine affection for Churchill and played host to him in their villas, providing him with much-needed relaxation.
Churchill was a man of many interests. He took a keen interest in the development of both silent movies and ‘talking pictures’ and turned the dining room at Chartwell into a cinema room so that we could watch movies in the comfort of his own home. He often stayed up late into the night, particularly during the Second World War, relaxing from the tensions of the day. He particularly enjoyed the film Lady Hamilton (That Hamilton Woman in the US), Alexander Korda’s 1941 patriotic epic starring Laurence Olivier, as Nelson, and Vivien Leigh as Lady Hamilton.
It’s said he watched it seventeen times!
The American novelist was, in fact, famous earlier and much better known that his British counterpart; his novel Richard Carvel (1899) sold around two million copies. Later novels, The Crisis (1901) and The Crossing (1904) were also very popular. The two are still occasionally confused, mostly by sellers of second-hand books (having ‘Churchill’ as the author of books with similar titles – The Crisis and The World Crisis – doesn’t help).
Interestingly, both Churchills shared a lot in common; both had political careers, both were noted amateur painters, both attended military colleges and served (during the same period) as officers in the armed forces (the American Churchill was in the navy).
Although he was given presents of more cigars than he could ever smoke, Churchill also spent a considerable amount of money on Havana cigars.
Among his suppliers were James J. Fox. Purveyors of fine specialist cigars to Churchill and others, including Oscar Wilde and British and European royalty, James J. Fox have been trading for over 225 years from 19 St James’s Street, London. See the Freddie Fox Museum, with Churchill’s ledger of account at the shop, the chair he sat in while selecting his favourite cigars and other memorabilia.