“The Splendid And The Vile” focuses “on Churchill’s first year as prime minister, May 10, 1940 to May 10, 1941, which coincided with the German air campaign as it evolved from sporadic, seemingly aimless air raids to a full-on assault against the city of London.” The book “is a more intimate account that delves into how Churchill and his circle went about surviving on a daily basis; the dark moments and the light, the romantic entanglements and debacles…” This limited history is simply splendid (and not at all vile).
Winston Churchill was 65 years old when he became prime minster, having previously served as a top naval officer. The book, of course, addresses the history of World War II during his first year, the blitz and England’s war strategy. But the book also paints a picture of familial relationships, governmental relationships and personality quirks of all involved. And those personality quirks include Goebbels, Goring and other Nazis, who are not painted as the pictures of mental health!
Churchill’s son, Randolph, was a chronic gambler, drinker and womanizer, in constant debt and at risk of embarrassing his famous father. “Randolph…was awash in debt, persistently demonstrating a gift not just for spending money, but also for losing it gambling, at which his ineptitude was legendary; he also drank too much and had a propensity, once drunk, for making scenes and thereby posing what his mother, Clementine…saw as a continual risk that one day he would cause irrevocable embarrassment to the family.” Randolph married Pamela Digby when he was 28 and she was 19 years old. One year later she was pregnant with their son, ultimately named Winston Churchill, Jr. Pamela and Randolph’s marriage fell apart and Pamela became famous for many romantic entanglements with many different famous men.
Churchill’s daughter, Mary, was 17 years old at the start of Churchill’s reign. She kept a diary and a lot of the book comes from Mary’s diary. Her diary tells about her father’s stresses and family issues. Perhaps more interestingly, her diary tells of the vibrant social scene in London while the bombs are falling. During one particularly horrible bombing in London, Mary and her friends were at a debutante ball at the Grosvenor House Hotel. “Mary could just make out the muffled sounds of anti-aircraft bursts and exploding bombs…the ball continued without pause. At length, the dance at the Grosvenor House Hotel subsided and the all clear sounded…Mary, with her mother’s permission, set out with friends…to continue the fun. They headed toward the Café de Paris…As the cars carrying Mary’s party neared the club, they found their approach blocked by bomb debris, ambulances and fire engines…Among Mary’s group, the pressing question became, If they couldn’t reach the Café de Paris, where then should they try instead?”
In addition to details about family, the book describes some of Churchill’s inner circle. First, John (“Jock”) Colville. Colville was assigned to Churchill as a private secretary. At first, Colville was not so sure about Churchill, but as the year moved forward he learned to respect and admire him. Colville was with Churchill all the time, be it family or country, and kept a detailed diary about everything that happened. In addition to describing war strategy and interpersonal relationships among the family and government officials, the diary also touches upon Colville’s loves and disappointments.
One of the most important figures in Churchill’s wartime government was Churchill’s “longtime friend and occasional antagonist Max Aitken—Lord Beaverbrook—a man who drew controversy the way steeples draw lightning.” Churchill made Beaverbrook his minister of aircraft production, responsible for increasing aircraft production. Beaverbrook enjoyed being provocative and loved gossip. His appointment was controversial but he succeeded in increasing production significantly. Throughout the course of his service he resigned 14 times!
Another important figure was Churchill’s personal scientific advisor, Frederick Lindemann, known as the Prof. “It was the Prof’s job to assess the world with scientific objectivity.” Lindemann too was a complex and controversial figure.
And then there is Winston Churchill himself. At the start of the book, Churchill and Clementine had been married 32 years. They had 4 children and a fifth who died at the age of 2 years and 9 months. Churchill was eccentric, taking two baths a day, working from his bed, dancing and gleeful at times and moody and reflective at other times. “But one of Churchill’s great strengths was perspective, which gave him the ability to place discrete events into boxes, so that bad humor could in a heartbeat turn to mirth.”
Churchill was a great orator and could uplift morale during the darkest days. When a radio speech went off poorly, it was because “Churchill had insisted on reading the speech with a cigar clenched in his mouth.”
The thing that becomes very clear throughout the book is that Churchill was fearless. During bombings he would run to the roof of the building where he could watch or he would walk through the streets in the aftermath.
One of the most interesting parts of the book is the manner in which Churchill tries to convince Franklin Delano Roosevelt to help and enter the war. The chess game between the two, and FDR’s difficulties with Congress, are fascinating. FDR sent Harry Hopkins to England to assess the situation. Hopkins fell in love with England and the Churchill family loved Hopkins. Next came William Averill Harrison who, although initially skeptical of Churchill, learned to respect him and likewise favored assisting. The correspondence between Churchill and Roosevelt is brilliant and of course Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor was the final nail!
The best description of Churchill comes from a government employee who witnessed Churchill speak to a group of dispirited people whose homes had been destroyed by bombs. “…the mood of the crowd abruptly changed…Morale rose immediately …it typified ‘the uniquely unpredictable magic that was Churchill—his ability to transform ‘the despondent misery of disaster into a grimly certain stepping stone to ultimate victory.”
At the very end the author offers a brief history of what happened to most of the key players in the book. The book is simply wonderful. Even though you know the outcome (I certainly hope you do!), it reads like fiction. If you follow my blog you know that I do not read a lot of nonfiction. But this one is a must read. You can reserve The Splendid And The Vile at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.