When Diana Churchill was born in July 1909, the first of Winston’s five children, David Lloyd George asked with unaccustomed triteness if she was pretty. “The prettiest child ever seen,” the proud father said. Lloyd George nodded: “Like her mother, I suppose.” The sublimely egotistical Churchill would not stand for that. “No. She is the image of me.”
It is hard to imagine a worse fate for a child than to be born to such parents as the Churchills, not because they were cruel, but because they were giants who dwelled among giants. Routine houseguests listed in this book about the lives of their four daughters included Charlie Chaplin, TE Lawrence and the Mitfords, together with everybody who was anybody in power.
The worst that can be said of Clementine, Winston’s wife, is that she was an even more detached mother than most of her generation. While pregnant in 1918, she stayed with a childless general’s wife who revealed her unhappiness. Mrs Churchill comforted the unhappy woman by promising that, if she herself had twins, her friend could have one of the babies. She may not have been joking.
Randolph, born in 1911, was indulged by his father and friends as a crown prince. When moneybags Sir Ernest Cassel came to stay, he tipped the boy £5, brushing off Diana with £1. Nobody was much surprised that Randolph grew up to behave with a boorishness worthy of Prince Andrew, with an added infusion of alcohol. In 1939 he married 19-year-old Pamela Digby. During Randolph’s absence on active service she took up with an American grandee, Averell Harriman, who became her second husband. In later life this famous sexpot was dubbed “a world expert on rich men’s ceilings”.
When Diana was 23 she married the alcoholic son of the South African diamond tycoon Abe Bailey, an alliance that lasted just two years. She later wed the handsome, ambitious and pretty nasty Duncan Sandys, who rose high in the Tory party as a Churchill son-in-law, but parted from Diana in 1957. She killed herself with a drug overdose six years later.
It is hard to imagine a worse fate for a child than to be born to such parents as the Churchills, not because they were cruel, but because they were giants who dwelled among giants.
Sarah, born in 1914, was perhaps the most tragic of all. She cherished acting ambitions and in 1935 became one of CB Cochran’s stage hoofers, before falling in love with Vic Oliver, a Vienna-born comedian 16 years older than her. “Common as dirt,” Winston observed of his detested son-in-law.
Her marriage to Oliver lasted nine years. After several more romantic false starts, she conducted a long affair with the US wartime ambassador in London, Gil Winant, which it suited her parents not to notice. Winant shot himself in 1947. Sarah, who had flashes of stage and screen success, took up with a dashing photographer named Antony Beauchamp, who killed himself in 1957, aged 39. Five years later she married Lord Audley, said to be the love of her life, who swiftly died of a cerebral haemorrhage, at 49. Sarah stumbled on until 1982, increasingly prey to drink, which had also helped kill Randolph in 1968.
If this catalogue of mortality sounds ghastly, think what it must have been like to have lived it. The parents had already endured the death from septicemia in 1921 of their adored Marigold, when not yet three. Among the others, while Randolph (“I never realised God was such a shit!”) was indubitably vicious, Diana and Sarah were victims, questing desperately for a fulfillment that eluded them.
And, of course, there was yet one more. Mary, “Baby Bud”, was born in 1922 and was thus so distant in age from her siblings that she grew up almost as an only child. Good, sweet, sensible Mary, with her love of animals and unique closeness to her mother, became Winston’s perfect daughter.
In the war she joined the unfashionable Auxiliary Territorial Service and ended up commanding an anti-aircraft gun battery in Hyde Park. She accompanied her father on some of his great wartime journeys and got on with Franklin Roosevelt better than did her mother, who was outraged by the president’s presumption in addressing her as “Clemmie”. Mrs Churchill became even crosser when he whispered that it would be “wonderful” if a romance developed between his son Elliott and her daughter Sarah. This provoked the icy response: “I have to point out to you that they are both married to other people!”
Mary Churchill got on with Franklin Roosevelt better than did her mother, who was outraged by the president’s presumption in addressing her as “Clemmie.”
Mary was inevitably much courted, and was once expected to marry Prince Charles of Belgium. Then in 1946, at the British embassy in Paris, she met the exuberant Coldstream Guards officer Christopher Soames, and fell in love.
The last line of Churchill’s best book, My Early Life, records that in 1908 “I married and lived happily ever after”. Mary often said the same. Christopher died of cancer in 1987, aged only 66, but thereafter Baroness Soames, who lived until 2014, became the image of everything fine about her family. She cries out for a biography of her own.
Rachel Trethewey’s book is old-fashioned in its Woman’s Own-like kindness. She either does not know, or chooses to omit, many things about her subjects, including some nasty bits. But no account of such people as these can fail to grip. The message of the girls’ experience is that children should be thankful to have obscure parents. Extreme fame is a kiss of death, which afflicted too many of those around the Greatest Englishman.
Sir Max Hastings is the author of several works of history, a columnist for The Times of London, and a former editor for The Telegraph