“Mr. Churchill, if I was your wife I’d poison your tea.”– Lady Astor
“Madame, if I was your husband I’d drink it.” – Winston Churchill
No one knows if that exchange is true, but it is true that Nancy Astor and Winston Churchill had their differences. It is also true that they were both famous for their wit — reportedly he once asked her what disguise he should wear to a masquerade ball and she replied, “Why don’t you come sober?”
And it is true that they both served in the House of Commons. Indeed, this week (Nov. 28) in 1919 Lady Nancy Astor became the first woman ever to sit in that august chamber, having run for, and won, the seat her husband vacated to claim his inherited seat in the House of Lords. This was even more remarkable because Astor was American born.
She moved to England after divorcing her first husband, then met and married Walter Astor, whose political and social connections thrust her into the limelight of English society. At their country estate in Clivedon the Astors entertained frequently and attracted a following that became known as the “Clivedon set,” which increased their influence both socially and politically.
In Parliament, Lady Astor made women’s rights her main cause, but she was also rabidly anti-Catholic and anti-Communist, which distorted her view of the Nazis as they rose to power in the 1930s. Although she had criticized the Nazis — once joking that Hitler looked too much like Charlie Chaplin to be taken seriously — she supported Germany’s decision to re-arm even though doing so violated the WWI-ending Treaty of Versailles, because, as she put it, Germany was surrounded by Catholic countries. And like many in England, she saw Germany as a bulwark against the Communist Soviet Union.
She also was passionately opposed to Britain being dragged into another world war, which led her to support many of the appeasement policies that British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain adopted. That put her at odds with the most vocal critic of appeasement, Winston Churchill.
Once World War II began she recanted many of her positions, but like most appeasers she was treated with suspicion, and as she aged her skills declined, her political views were ignored and her famous wit deserted her. Still, she kept getting elected by her constituency, remaining in Parliament until 1945.
Which brings us to the question you are probably asking. Did Lady Astor and Churchill have the following exchange?
“Winston Churchill, you’re drunk!”
“Well, Lady Astor, you’re ugly! And I shall be sober tomorrow.”
No they did not. For one thing, Churchill’s reputation as a heavy drinker is highly exaggerated. For another, Lady Astor was actually quite attractive.