Winston Churchill as Politician and Journalist: ‘He Made the News by Writing It’

Winston Churchill (Bettmann-Corbis/AP Images)

A while back, Anglophenia took a look at museum exhibits in London, but one of the most interesting British-centered museum shows happens to be in the U.S. right now.

The Morgan Library in New York City is currently presenting a show about the great statesman, writer and, as we refer to him around here, one of the coolest Brits in historyWinston Churchill.

The exhibit, Churchill: The Power of Words, focuses on writing, letters and speeches. The show celebrates Churchill’s verbal and oratorical skills, as they reveal his personality and the source of his influence.

On display are Churchill’s Nobel award and citation – remember, England’s most famous political figure won the literature, not the peace, prize. You’ll also get to see Churchill’s own typewriter and quill pen.

Churchill’s typewriter: the keys to his success? (Paul Hechinger)

For those who enjoy looking at the school report cards of the famous – and who doesn’t? – there’s the report card from St. George’s School in Ascot, the boarding school which young Winston attended between 1882 and 1884.

“How I hated this school and what a life of anxiety I lived there for more than two years,” he wrote to his mother, in a letter also in the exhibit.

Apparently, the feelings were mutual.

Among the comments he received at St. George’s:

“Conduct has been exceedingly bad. He is not to be trusted to do any one thing.”

“Is a constant trouble to everybody and is always in some scrape or other.”

“Very disrespectful.”

“He cannot be trusted to behave himself anywhere.”

Churchill’s report card (The Chartwell Trust)

On the other hand, the headmaster acknowledged, “he has very good abilities” and, even as a young boy was recognized to be “very good” in history.

Churchill made several trips to the U.S., but only one to the West Coast, and that was in 1929, after his Conservative party had suffered a major electoral defeat. Part of his mission, it seems, was to solidify support among British expats, to whom he refers in one letter as “Californians [sic] swells.”

In the same letter, to his wife Clementine, written from Barstow – Churchill in Barstow, certainly an incongruous image – he notes that the correspondence is in his own hand: “I will write you a few of the things it is wiser not to dictate.”

Among the things Churchill felt it was perhaps wiser not to dictate were his impressions of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, who put Churchill up at his opulent estate near San Simeon. The letter is in fact written on stationary from Hearst’s manor, with an engraved picture of the Casa del Monte, the guest house Churchill stayed in.

Churchill’s description reads like a Hollywood pitch for Citizen Kane, the now classic movie based on Hearst that Orson Welles made a decade later:

“Hearst was most interesting to meet + I got to like him – a grave simple child with no doubt a nasty temper – playing with the most costly toys. A vast income always overspent; Ceaseless building & collecting not v[er]y discriminatingly works of art: two magnificent establishments, two charming wives; complete indifference to public opinion, a strong liberal & democratic outlook, a 15 million daily circulation…”

Letter to ‘My Darling Clementine’ dated Sept. 29, 1929 (Churchill Archives Centre)

Churchill also met his fellow countryman, Charlie Chaplin, and although the two men were on opposite sides of the political spectrum, they got along instantly:

“We made g[rea]t friend with Charlie Chaplin. You could not help but like him. The boys were fascinated by him. He is a marvelous comedian bolshy in politics and delightful in conversations. He acted his new film for us in a wonderful way  It is to be his g[rea]t attempt to prove that the silent drama or pantomime is superior to the new talkies. Certainly if pathos & wit still count for anything it is out to win an easy victory.”

Chaplin was in the midst of making City Lights, struggling to construct a largely silent movie against the tidal wave of motion picture sound. As a critic, Churchill was prescient as well. For Chaplin, City Lights was indeed a victory, though not an easy one – Chaplin labored over the film for almost three years.

Chaplin and Hearst were famous figures of the first magnitude, but Churchill was far from unknown. More than three decades earlier, he had made a name for himself by creating a hybrid military and journalistic career that helped to finance his lifestyle and publicize his exploits. He had already been on a lecture tour of the U.S. in 1900.

Allen Packwood, the director of Cambridge University’s Churchill Archives Centre, says that Churchill at times chose to emphasize that he was a man of action rather than a man of words, but argues that “in truth the two developed side by side and fed off one another.” As a young man, Packwood writes, “Churchill developed the dual system that was to serve him so well throughout his political life; of being both a leading participant in events, and a leading commentator and chronicler of those same events. He made the news by writing it, while also ensuring that he made the headlines.”

Winston Churchill’s pen. (Paul Hechinger)