Winston Spencer Churchill, my “Man of the 20th Century,” was born this week (Nov. 30) in 1874 in his family’s ancestral home, Blenheim Palace. Let me note that the British people, whom he led to victory in World War II, share my opinion of him. Some years back they voted him the greatest Englishman of all time.
The key to his greatness was his brilliant writing skills and oratory, but also his vast knowledge of history and his unmatched capacity for hard work. Also contributing to his legend was, of course, his unmatched capacity for hard play. Churchill’s reputation as a cigar-smoking, hard-drinking bon vivant with a huge appetite for good food and an unquenchable thirst for the finest champagnes and brandies is well known, if somewhat exaggerated. Still, a typical day at Chartwell, Churchill’s country home, was anything but ordinary.
He usually rose from bed at 8 a.m., having spent several hours dictating the pages of whatever book he was working on at the time — from The World Crisis, his multi-volume account of World War I and the years leading up to it; to Marlborough: His Life and Times, his magisterial biography of his great ancestor, the First Duke of Marlborough; to The Gathering Storm, the first of his multi-volume history of World War II.
After breakfast he would read the newspapers while sipping the day’s first brandy-and-soda and smoking his first cigar. He would then do more dictation before heading outside to work in his garden, or paint (he was a talented amateur painter), or lay bricks, a favorite pastime.
Lunch often included an array of famous guests, from world leaders to renowned artists. At one time Charlie Chaplin was a frequent guest, as was T.E. “Lawrence of Arabia” Lawrence. Lunch was always hearty and the champagne plentiful.
After lunch came Churchill’s afternoon nap, followed by more outside work, until dinner, when — the food again plentiful and the champagne, brandy and cigars ever present — Churchill and his guests would be up past midnight discussing politics, the arts, history and philosophy. The great man usually had the floor.
And oftentimes, even after a late dinner, Churchill would retire to his room, not to sleep, but to again dictate. Both during and after WWII Churchill often dictated drafts of his speeches, articles and correspondence to his overworked secretaries until the wee hours of the morning, another brandy in his hand and another cigar trailing smoke behind him as he paced the room. His secretaries, it should be noted, adored him.
Churchill was larger than life, especially when one considers that in 1946 – 1950, when the day described above was not atypical, Churchill would approach and then pass his 75th birthday.