There have been so many books about Winston Churchill, one the most formidable politicians and beloved statesmen of the 20th Century, that looking for unexplored territory in his biographical landscape is a tough job. Winston S. Churchill, KG, OM, CH, TD, PC, DL, FRS, Hon. RA: Author of over forty books and at least two screenplays, the subject of at least 100 books, and America’s favorite Englishman from the 1940’s to his passing in 1965, indeed was declared an Honorary Citizen of the United States by President Kennedy in 1963.
Though he lived enough for several men’s lifetimes as a soldier, historian, artist, and writer – winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953 for his numerous published works, including a six-volume history The Second World War, it is his position at the forefront of politics for over fifty years as an orator and statesman that make him such a rich subject of examination.
Politics is the process of convincing others to do things that you want them to do, whether they realize it or not. Reasoning and compromise are the tools used to elicit the sympathy for your position, and logic to explain to the others that it’s in their best interests to agree with you. Churchill apparently was such a master at convincing, cajoling and bargaining that his power to do so seemed almost mystical to some observers. “How did he do that?...He’s too old, he’s too liberal, he’s too conservative, he drinks to excess and eats way too well to sympathize with the common man…”
In 'Dinner with Churchill: policy making at the dinner table', Cita Stelzer has explored one alcove of the vast mansion that represents Churchill’s persuasive powers. In an entertaining but still serious literary reportage, Stelzer seizes on the fact that Churchill’s expertise as a politician stemmed from his belief in face-to-face conversation, and that his meticulously planned dinner parties, at home, or even picnics near the battlefront, were not only the stage for his brilliant conversational talents, but opportunities to acquire information via gossip and off-the-record diplomatic discussions.
As a researcher at Churchill College in Cambridge, Stelzer has the advantage of virtually complete access to the memoranda and ephemera (menus and invoices for various dinners) generated by Churchill and his various government and personal staff. While it’s fun to read the menu for a state dinner given for Churchill by President Roosevelt, it’s the human aspect of Churchill’s personal food and drink preferences, often given equal weight in this book to his political and policy efforts, that make it interesting.
Churchill was not always warmly welcomed in Washington, although still respected. Before the U.S. entry into the Second World War, he had occasionally been thought of as a beggar, hat in hand, asking for help in defending Britain against the ongoing Nazi attack. But when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Churchill could at last convince Congress and the President to join Britain and France in the conflict.
“As always, Churchill believed he could be most effective in a face-to-face meeting. Once ensconced in the White House, he would argue for the joint overall strategy – Europe First – he was convinced would win the war.”
Always a master at keeping many plates spinning, as he sailed to the U.S. aboard the Duke of York a week after Pearl Harbor, he found time to cable Joseph Stalin a happy birthday message. The thirteen dinners and many of the lunches served by the White House while Churchill basically lived there from December 1941 to January 1942 did not especially cater to English tastes or the likes of Prime Minister Churchill. FDR apparently liked creamed soups, grilled tomatoes, and impossibly complex and robust cocktails, and even though Churchill was not adverse to a stiff drink, “the proportions of FDR’s martinis were said to be ‘unfortunate.’”
In one of numerous asides set in boxes throughout the text, Stelzer mentions that FDR “…loved sauerkraut and pigs knuckles and had that dish served to Churchill, who politely asked what they were. When told, Churchill, on his best behavior, only responded . . . that they were ‘very good but sort of slimy.’”
Churchill’s supposed excessive alcohol intake is refuted somewhat, at least to the point that it’s demonstrated that he was well aware of the properties of good champagne and whisky when administered under the right circumstances. In an age before there were microphones and cameras in everyone’s pocket and an electronic outlet for information trivial or important, a good drink, a cigar, and stimulating conversation among political adversaries was invaluable during times of crisis, when a well-informed decision could mean life or death.
The Big Three (Russia, Britain, and the U.S.), anticipating victory in February 1945, met at Yalta as guests of Joseph Stalin. Why Yalta, when it was so difficult for an ailing Roosevelt and incredibly busy Churchill to trek to a former Tsarist palace on the Black Sea? Well, Stalin refused to fly, or leave Soviet-controlled territory. Apparently he also took advantage of his convenient location to ship enormous amounts of fresh fruit, vegetables, meats and beverages, and arrive days ahead of time to arrange for the security and well-being of his visitors. And likely install eavesdropping devices as well. The amount of food served at lavish dinners hosted by Stalin made some of the American and British officers cringe at the thought that most Russian peasants were suffering from deep deprivations as a result of the war.
Stelzer collects several memoranda by British staff complaining of the excessive number of “silly toasts” offered Russian officers during the course of the evening – “twenty courses, forty-five toasts.” FDR took care not to drink after each toast and only symbolically raise his glass. “Churchill combined caution with capacity, developed over a lifetime, to hold his alcohol. U.S. Secretary of State Edward Stettinius Jr. noted “Stalin would drink half a glass of vodka, and, when he thought no one was watching, surreptitiously pour water into his glass. I also noticed he seemed to prefer American to Russian cigarettes.”
In all, Stelzer presents another facet of a man she clearly admires, if for nothing else, his resiliency in the face of enormous odds, not the least of which was the clam chowder at the White House.
Reviewed by Chicagoan Tony Papaleo