Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Churchill's Last Years

I recently discovered at my favorite used bookstore, a little volume called "Churchill's Last Years" by Roy Howells, published in 1965, the year of Churchill's death. Howells was Sir Winston's personal attendant during the last seven years of his life. It is such an interesting and revealing portrait of the great man's character. All of the characteristics we associate with Churchill, his temper, irascibility, charm and wit are, if anything, amplified by the challenges of old age. We see how depth of character, even in its least exemplary moments, can sustain us through the process of aging that we all must go through.

More books have been written about Churchill in a short time than perhaps any other figure. I've read many of them, but this is, in many ways, one of my favorites, because it gives an unusual take on a subject whose life has been explored exhaustively from birth to death. Here I learned many details about his life at the Churchill country home at Chartwell and at their town house in London at Hyde Park Gate, about who his close friends were, what his daily routines consisted of and how he coped with everything from minor domestic problems to serious health episodes.

Still very active in his late eighties, Winston enjoyed trips to the Mediterranean and the Caribbean, gambling at Monte Carlo, vacationing on Aristotle Onassis's luxurious yacht, visiting the House of Commons and painting prolifically. On the Riviera he was visited by  Charles de Gaulle, Greta Garbo, the author Somerset Maugham and Prince Rainier and Princess Grace. There is no question his voyages on the luxury yacht Christina in the company of a wide variety of luminaries were among Churchill's favorite pastimes. Onassis and his wife Maria Callas went to great lengths to provide everything the great man might conceivably wish for, from fine brandies and cigars to private showings of the latest films. The yacht contained gold bath taps made in the form of dolphins. It had its own small hospital, air conditioning, a mosaic dance floor that converted to a swimming pool at the touch of a button. At the center of the salon was one of Sir Winston's landscapes. The best steel bands in the Caribbean played specially for the former Prime Minister.

For excursions ashore Winston was provided with his own picnic basket containing whisky, soda and ice and perhaps a bit of expensive caviar, forbidden by his doctors. The ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn and her husband were among favored guests with Mr. and Mrs. Churchill. Winston went ashore at Gibraltar where he fed the apes on the Rock. During the war he was responsible for having the animals smuggled in as their numbers were diminishing. The belief was that when the apes left the Rock, so too would the British. He visited with the Yugoslavian leader, President Tito, who came out to the yacht for lunch. On the island of Crete, he went ashore and toured about, no doubt contemplating the fierce battle that took place there in 1941 between German paratroops and the British defenders.

One of the things I found most astonishing was how devoted people all around the world were to Churchill even twenty years after the war. He was the most famous man in the world, the savior of western civilization, the embodiment of the spirit of the Commonwealth. Everywhere he went, hundreds lined up to catch a glimpse as he entered a hotel or restaurant, took a stroll or tried to set up his easel in a private spot to paint. When he broke his leg from a fall and had to be whisked off to hospital and then to London on a special plane, police guards on motorcycle stopped traffic to ensure his passage. When he went to see his daughter Sarah, an actress, perform as Peter Pan in the Scala Theater, there was always a stir as he entered, sometimes causing a delay before the performance could begin. He was presented with awards wherever he went, as often as officials could get him to sit still long enough to receive them. He flew to Paris to receive the Cross of the Liberation from General de Gaulle who declared it was for his "decisive contribution to saving the freedom of the world."

Winston's many foibles are illuminated in depth in this book. He went to bed in the early morning hours and slept, or at least remained in bed till noon or later. Each morning he had breakfast in bed, usually consisting of steak, bacon and eggs and occasionally fresh salmon, while his favorite pet, Toby, a large green parakeet was allowed to fly about the room and peck at whatever happened to be on his master's plate. He drank prodigious amounts of alcohol of nearly every variety throughout the day and smoked as many as a dozen huge cigars. Perhaps because of these habits, he brushed his teeth three times a day taking a good fifteen minutes over each brushing. He was a fastidious dresser, much enamored of formal uniforms for various occasions from meeting the Queen to attending Commons. However, his nightgowns and sleeping attire were famously odd and he could be utterly indifferent if he had a sudden need to rush out into the hall from his bath to whether or not he happened to have any clothes on.

Churchill was a character, writ large. Perhaps it's not a requirement for great leaders to also be great characters, but Winston certainly broke the mold when he set foot on the world stage.

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