When Winston Churchill met Charlie Chaplin in Hollywood in 1929, Churchill wrote a letter to his wife Clementine describing Chaplin as a “Bolshy,” short for Bolshevik! Despite his politics, Churchill appreciated the comedian’s charm: “He may be a “Bolshy in politics,” Churchill wrote, but he is “delightful in conversation.”
The current exhibit up at The Morgan Library & Museum in NYC lets us see the man behind the words; his childhood behavior, his talented youthful drawings, his careful and often witty edits, occasionally in red ink, on manuscripts and typescripts. Correcting an account that said that Churchill first visited America in a baby carriage, Churchill wrote, “My first visit was in December 1895, when I was already too big for any baby carriage.” In fact, he was then 21 years old.
There are many surprises in the show. For starters, Churchill’s report card from St. George’s School, a boarding school that he attended from the age of eight, includes the headmaster’s description of him as “very bad” and “a constant trouble to everybody. He is always in some scrape or other.” Despite his unruly behavior, the headmaster conceded, though, that Churchill had “very good abilities, especially in history.”
Churchill understood the power of revision and his edits are often substantial – not only subtle changes of words, but revisions of an argument, as well. In a letter to his mother about his only work of fiction, the novel Savrola, he wrote: “It is in the rough and must be expanded.” An edited manuscript page for The World Crisis, Churchill’s history of the First World War published in 1927, includes an entire passage that he crossed out to tone down his pro-American sentiments. The passage refers to Churchill’s opposition to America’s return to isolationism after the First World War.
Throughout the exhibit, though, it is Churchill’s own voice, highlighting speeches made between October 1938, when Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia and December 1941, when the Japanese invaded Pearl Harbor and the United States fully entered World War II, that mesmerizes us. The words of journalist Edward R. Murrow – painted on one wall – hold true: "He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle,” Murrow said, and we can hear that when we listen to his broadcasts (the words simultaneously being typed on a screen).
In a radio address from October, 1938, Churchill said: “they (the dictators) are afraid of words and thoughts: words spoken abroad, thoughts stirring at home – all the more powerful because forbidden – terrify them!” Three years later, during Christmas 1941 when he was visiting President FDR, he broadcast an address from the White House: “This is a strange Christmas Eve. Almost the whole world is locked in deadly struggle. Armed with the most terrible weapons which science can devise, the nations advance upon each other….” Although his close friend Bernard Baruch sent him a West Union cablegram that read, “My home open to all grandchildren if trouble comes,” Churchill declined, preferring that his two young grandchildren, Julian and Edwina Sandys, remain in England.
Personal touches add to our understanding of Churchill, the orator and the statesman. We see his black Remington noiseless typewriter. “Looks like something I used to have,” said a woman next to me who was peering into the case. There are souvenirs from his travels including a plastic-nibbed Esterbrook pen with the inscription: “The President, The White House.” There is a framed oil on canvas, “The Coast on the Antibes Peninsula,” painted by Churchill, described in the wall text as a “typical Churchillan landscape.”
Churchill was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953 and the medal and the compelling words of the citation are included in the show: “For his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.”
Half-American by birth—his mother, Jennie Jerome who became Lady Randolph Churchill, was born in Brooklyn, New York—Churchill was awarded an Honorary United States Citizenship by President John F. Kennedy just two years before his death in 1965. It is a poignant touch that his American passport, on loan from the Churchill Archives Centre at Churchill College, University of Cambridge, is finally making its triumphant homecoming in this exhibit.
Churchill: The Power of Words exhibit at The Morgan Library & Museum runs June 8-September 23, 2012.