The Art of Being Winston Churchill
New York: Abrams, 2012
Hardcover. 240 p. ISBN 978-0810996434. $24.95
Reviewed by Antoine Capet
Université de Rouen
Barry Singer, the very active founder (1983) and proprietor of Chartwell Booksellers in New York City, has come up with a novel idea, publishing a short, but substantial illustrated life of Churchill in which the biographical matter proper is interspersed with “boxes” which throw light on the numerous fads and habits of the great man. Historians and specialists of Churchill’s long political life will not probably learn anything in their chosen field—and if their interest in this extraordinary character stops there, the book is not for them.
For those of us who are fascinated by his idiosyncrasies, however, Churchill Style is a delight to read. It covers a wide range of topics, with regular boxes on Autos, Books, Cigars, Dining, Fashion, Friendship, Home[s], Imbibing and Pastimes, giving anecdotes and details on each of the selected topics at various stages in Churchill’s life. Thus the first box, on Home, contains much material on Churchill’s early homes which is not well known—most people can tell that he was born at Blenheim Palace, the seat of the Dukes of Marlborough, but few I believe would be able to tell that he spent three years in Ireland, from the age of two, because his father, Randolph Churchill, was acting as secretary for his own father, the Duke of Marlborough, then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland . In its own way, therefore, the box complements the main biographical narrative—it is not only there for “light relief”.
The last box is on Fashion, and it is perfectly representative of one of the main strengths of the book in that it contains a superb display, in full colour, of some of Churchill’s favourite hats—the key tells it all: “Clockwise: Gray top hat; straw panama; dark brown homburg; black John Bull hat; gray homburg with feather—all by Scott & Co. of Old Bond Street, Picadilly—and a tan Stetson” . This is almost as good as visiting the Churchill Museum in London’s Cabinet War Rooms—and the excellent colour photography is one up on the offerings of most conventional biographies, with their central sections of old, not very sharp black-and-white pictures. Singer has them—or at least many of them—of course, but then who else gives the famous Spy (Leslie Ward) caricature of 1900 in its original colours, as it appeared in Vanity Fair?
Arguably, Churchill Style has to be read by aficionados in conjunction with Michael Paterson’s Winston Churchill : The Photobiography (London: David & Charles, 2006), Douglas Hall’s The Book of Churchilliana (London: New Cavendish Books, 2002), which gives additional information on the famous slippers embroidered WSC in gold braid, and Cita Stelzer’s recent Dinner with Churchill : Policy-Making at the Dinner Table (London: Short Books, 2011), which obviously has more than Singer on “Dining”. Another unique feature of Churchill Style is that an Appendix gives a list, with old and new photographs, of Churchill’s favourite haunts and suppliers in London which have survived and can be visited and patronised today. Unfortunately, the hatters, Scott & Co., seem to have closed down—but Turnbull & Asser (Bespoke Tailors), who supplied him with his signature polka dot bow ties (one of course is shown in a colour photograph in the book—I was disappointed to see that it came with an elastic band: I would have thought Churchill’s valets knew how to do the proper knot) are still at their Jermyn Street address, duly given, with the telephone, email and website details . The favourite haunts include the luxury hotels in which he occasionally stayed and often ate, and the clubs of which he was a member, again with full address and contact details .
His many animals do not have separate boxes: they are included in Home, with photographs of rare documents, like a perfectly legible typed letter by Harrods offering Churchill first refusal on “a consignment of very rare Golden Orfe” for his fish pond at Chartwell and tempting him by indicating that “these Orfe of such unusual colouring are the first to enter the country” . The text of the letter was of course already available, as it is given in Sir Martin Gilbert’s third Companion Volume to volume 5 (1922-1939) of the Official Biography—the first document of his section on “September 1938”—but seeing it on the original Harrods notepaper adds a “period flavour” which will be appreciated by most readers. A fine colour photograph of Churchill “feeding the golden orfe, Chartwell, 1950”, wearing the “gray homburg with feather” featured on p. 213, unfortunately does not enable us to determine whether these are the “very rare Golden Orfe” in question— though they appear to be golden in the literal sense, not the unusual “red, white and blue” (the Union Flag colours, of course) mentioned in Harrods’ offer . We also have an uncommon (undated) photograph of his beloved black swans in the lake at Chartwell .
Chartwell itself features in many pictures, either as the main subject in its own right, from an early photograph of “Chartwell as Churchill first saw it”, in 1921  to the building restored to its full glory in 1947 , after being left in a semi-derelict state with its overgrown garden in 1942 —or as a background to many photographs of the family and friends or Churchill alone in the grounds or in his study. These range from the very familiar (the celebrated mise-en-scène of the tea party with Walter Sickert in August 1927 , or the scene with Einstein in the rose garden in 1933 ) to the uncommon, notably Winston (at his easel) and Clementine in the wooded areas of the grounds in February 1939, while the superb full-page colour plate of “Churchill’s desktop as reconstituted today at Chartwell”  deserves a special mention. Outside Chartwell, I was especially intrigued by the little-known photograph (at least far less familiar than the contemporary group scene on the doorsteps of Chartwell, which Chaplin inserted in his own memoirs) with Charlie Chaplin on the opening night of City Lights in London in February 1931 , the only pity being that none of the other people present are identified—and I was not able to recognise any.
“Imbibing” and “Cigars” live up to the reader’s expectations, conveniently collecting many amusing anecdotes which are dispersed in memoirs and personal testimonies. The best one must be the possibility (seriously envisaged by those in charge of Churchill’s protection) of gifts of cigars by wartime admirers being poisoned, as initially recounted with great wit by Allan Packwood of the Churchill Archives Centre, Churchill College, Cambridge, in Finest Hour #106, and excellently summed up here . The boxes with the most uncommon information, however, must be those on “Autos”, from his “French-made Mors motorcar” (a marque which only keen amateurs of vintage cars must remember today) in the early 1900s  to the Land Rover “acquired to chauffeur him around the property [Chartwell]” in the 1950s .
Naturally, owing to the author’s special interest in Churchill’s books, the covers of the rare first editions of his early writings are shown in full colour—but my favourite one has to be the cover of a Canadian pamphlet of December 1940, Their Finest Hour, which showed Churchill surrounded by his famous phrases of 1940. People interested in the history of Churchill editions will be intrigued to learn that it was soon withdrawn because of “copyright conflicts”(1), and it is a pity that Singer is not more explicit: quarrels over the rights for Churchill’s papers are very much part of the Churchill saga, as made clear by David Reynolds in his In Command of History : Churchill fighting and writing the Second World War (London: Allen Lane, 2004).
Now, in spite of its importance and impact, this work is not mentioned in the Bibliography: Singer’s clearly-stated choice was to include only the publications actually quoted in his text. This is of course perfectly justifiable—but the novice reader must be warned that his Bibliography cannot therefore be considered as containing the standard books on the various aspects of Churchill’s career and personality. None of those published in the last decade are there, except for Sir Martin Gilbert’s Churchill and the Jews (2007), and Singer does not mention Curt Zoller’s magnum opus.
The worst feature of the book is undoubtedly the system adopted for the endnotes. Endnotes are in themselves far less “user-friendly” than immediately visible footnotes. But Singer (or his publishers?) go one better (or worse) in that the existence of an endnote is not even signalled in the text. To take a concrete example, I wondered about the source for the information—hitherto unknown to me—that the Churchills called the cat which they found at No. 10 when Chamberlain vacated the premises “Munich Mouser” . I hoped there would be note—and Yes, there is one. But it took “forever” to find it! For two reasons: both, it seems, designedly intended to infuriate the reader. The first is that the notes are grouped by chapter number—and the chapter of the “Munich Mouser” passage in only indicated at the top of the page as “Bulldog”: so you have to thumb back to the first page of the chapter entitled “Bulldog” to find its number. It is in fact Chapter 8. But then comes the other irksome aspect of the detective work: incredibly, the page numbers of the text are not indicated—so that you have to read through all the notes pertaining to Chapter 8 until you find the passage you are looking for. The source for “Munich Mouser” seems to be Quentin Reynolds (1964), though the phrasing of the note leaves an ambiguity.
This is a pity, because the book is beautifully produced, with an attractive lay-out, printed in inks of different colour on fine semi-glossy paper, ideal for the colour plates. The text proper must have benefited from very careful proof-reading, as not a single typo was detected. Such is not the case for the keys to the illustrations, however: two horrid (at least in the eyes of a European) howlers appear on the same page: “Lille, Belgium” and “Cologne, France” .
Still, it would be extremely unfair to end on this negative note, since the book has a lot to offer, as was hopefully made clear above. Being very reasonably priced, it would make an ideal gift to budding and confirmed Churchillians alike—and even in these times of budget cuts everywhere, University and other libraries will find it affordable. Unreservedly recommended.
(1) Singer is himself familiar with these questions. As he tells us in a radio interview, I used 3,872 words of Winston Churchill’s in the book. And that cost me £950, which is roughly 40 cents a word.
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