by Michael Richards
Any discussion of this subject absent John H. Mather MD, who has spent a decade researching Churchill’s medical history, will be only that – a discussion. But here is a summary of what we know and why we know it.
Most historians reject the commonly held belief that Churchill was an abuser of alcohol. Perhaps “abuser” is a too broad a word. Professor Warren Kimball of Rutgers, editor of the WSC-FDR correspondence and several erudite books on the two leaders, maintains that Churchill was not an alcoholic -“no alcoholic could drink that much!”- but “alcohol dependent,” citing his occasional glass of hock with his breakfast(!) and his heavy imbibing at mealtimes. A doctor attending him after he was knocked down by a car New York in 1931, Otto C. Pickhardt, actually issued a medical note that Churchill’s convalescence “necessitates the use of alcoholic spirits especially at mealtimes,” specifying 250 cc per day as the minimum (FH 101:51). Still, if he were truly dependent, it seems he would have had a hard time winning his 1936 bet with Rothermere that he could abstain from hard spirits for a year (FH 108:24) – which apparently he did.
The story of what his daughter calls the “Papa Cocktail” (a smidgen of Johnnie Walker covering the bottom of a tumbler, which was then filled with water and sipped throughout the morning), is confirmed by so many observers that it could hardly be untrue. WSC’s observation that he learned this habit as a young man in India and South Africa (in My Early Life) appears to be literally true: the water being unfit to drink, one had to add whisky and, “by dint of careful application I learned to like it.” The concoction he grew to like was, Jock Colville said, more akin to mouthwash than a highball. It barely qualifies as “scotch and water.”
Where he did put away copious amounts of alcohol was at meals (see for example A.L. Rowse’s description of his lunchtime visit to Chartwell, FH 81:9). Perhaps this was Churchill’s secret to sobriety and health. (Dr. Mather, speaking in Boston recently, reported that WSC’s blood pressure was 140/80 well into his eighties, asking his rather younger audience if they would mind numbers like those.) Churchill did not nurse a bottle, as an alcoholic would, and occasionally remarked to those who took whisky neat, “you are not likely to live a long life if you drink it like that,” or words to that effect. Drinking at meals may be less deleterious than drinking at random, but in any case no colleague who can be taken seriously ever reports seeing Churchill the worse for drink. Thus WSC’s famous quip, “I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.”
Judging the degree of his “dependence” is obfuscated by his own contradictory remarks. On the one hand he amused himself by allowing people to think he had a bottomless capacity. (There was his famous declaration to the King of Saudi Arabia that his absolute rule of life required drinking before, during and after meals.) At the same time in his writings you catch indications that he knew his limit: the drinking stories with the Russians were exaggerated, he wrote in The Second World War (“I was properly brought up”). Elsewhere he remarked, “my father taught me to have the utmost contempt for people who get drunk.” He remarked that a glass of Champagne lifts the spirits, sharpens the wits, but “a bottle produces the opposite effect.” When encountered by Bessie Braddock MP with the famous “you’re drunk” remark in 1946, his bodyguard, Ron Golding, was with him at the time, insisted that Churchill was not drunk, just tired and wobbly – hence his famous, devastating response. It would appear that his affinity to the bottle was at least partly a prop – like his cigars, which were often allowed to go out, rarely smoked beyond a third, and usually discarded after being well-chewed. Nevertheless he had a formidable capacity.
For Churchill’s remarks on Champagne, scotch, and alcohol in general, see Finest Hour 86.