Saturday, January 24, 2015

Winston Churchill, with an aside about a nemesis from Danville

Today is the 50th anniversary of Winston Churchill's death.  He remains the most transcendent hero of recent British history and this anniversary is being commemorated on new stamps and a new 5 pound coin. There will be some type of celebration on the River Thames this coming week.

Earlier this week we watched the 2002 HBO movie "The Gathering Storm" with Albert Finney and Vanessa Redgrave.  For interesting history well done with solid acting, it was worth the time and was good entertainment.  The film is based on the book of the same name written by Churchill, a book that was the first of his six book series "The Second World War".  This set of books is viewed as the primary catalyst for his receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953.

"The Gathering Storm" covers Churchill during the 1930's when, while still in Parliament, he was out of any position of real power.  His many prominent stints in government previously had been marred by a series of mistakes, most notably his plan as head of the Admiralty to assault Gallipoli in WWI, which was a catastrophe.  In his role in the House of Commons in the 1930's he was viewed much of the time as an annoying windbag, as he constantly raised the issue of Nazi Germany and its rearmament as compared to England's diminished level of military spending and constant negotiations in hopes of avoiding another war, with most of Parliament being in full support of that approach. By 1938, with Churchill's constant research of Nazi activities and his emphasis on the Nazi's as a cult believing in Aryan supremacy, some in Parliament began to listen and when war was declared in 1940 he was once again made head of the Admiralty, and eight months later was Prime Minister.

In a completely odd twist for this comment, it brings to mind his famous feud with Lady Astor, the first seated female member of Parliament and a native of hometown Danville, Virginia who was known there as Nancy Langhorne.  During a stay in England after a divorce from a poor first marriage, she met and married Waldorf Astor, an American born aristocrat whose family moved back to their ancestral home in England when he was 12.  By ancestry he became a member of the House of Lords when his father died. Nancy Astor ran for his local House of Commons seat in 1919 and surprisingly won.

Her hostile relationship with Winston Churchill was well known and, if there were a Page Six(New York Post) of that era, their interactions would have been regularly featured.  The most famous and well known was the comment by Lady Astor to Churchill that "If I were your wife I would poison your coffee", to which he replied, "And if I were your husband, I would drink it."  In another often told interaction Churchill asked, "What disguise should I wear so that no one can recognize me at the Astor family's stupid masquerade ball?" to which she replied, "Why don't you come sober, Prime Minister."  On another encounter Lady Astor said to him at a party, "You are disgustingly drunk", to which he replied, "My dear you are ugly, disgustingly ugly, but tomorrow I will be sober and you will still be disgustingly ugly."  She was in fact quite attractive, and her sister was the original Gibson Girl, a celebrity in her own right.

Enough of that, but it was Lady Astor's unpredictable wit, charm, and style that kept her in the headlines for many years, as her accomplishments in government were meager.  Her most notable accomplishment was to get a bill passed in Parliament that raised the drinking age in pubs from 14 to 18, and in England that was indeed notable.  Reflecting possibly her Danville background from that era, she was anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, anti-Communist, and racist, not vociferously so but for the most part but those were her biases.  In fact, as is typical for her upbringing, she was generally gracious to all and among friends she made exceptions. There is a curious trove of correspondence between Astor and the Catholic U.S. Ambassador Joseph Kennedy in which they, with little restraint, shared their anti-Semitic views.  At the same time she uncharacteristically became close friends with Margaret McMillan, a well known and staunch English socialist and education reformer who established an organization to promote and finance nursery schools for children's early education that Lady Astor supported with her work and her money.

Her behavior became somewhat more unpredictable and unproductive in Parliament over time, and in 1945 she was persuaded to resign, ironically at the same time that Churchill lost his bid for another term as Prime Minister despite his masterful WWII role.  Reading Astor's Wikipedia biography is an interesting few minutes for those with further interest.

As often happens when writing ends, preparations for dinner need to be made on this snowy afternoon. Fortunately we are well stocked with food, films, newspapers, and books.


Anonymous JRaper said...

All Danville natives should know this much detail about Lady Astor... but many don't, I suspect. Thanks, John.

9:38 AM  

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