THE DARKEST HOURS
‘Darkest Hour’ and the Torture of Being Winston Churchill’s Son
No one could have revered his father more, and nobody suffered more in the shadow of a Great Man than Randolph Churchill.
Thanks to Gary Oldman’s astonishing reincarnation of Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour there is a new round of debate about the true character of this monumental figure. But there is somebody missing from the picture, somebody who knew Churchill with a painful and unique intimacy: his only son, Randolph.
Can you imagine what it was like to grow up within the heat field of this furnace of a father? Of realizing long before you reach puberty the size of the phenomenon you will be expected to live up to? Could you bear the terror of feeling unconditional love for a man who will every day expect to see something a lot more demanding than love: an echo of his own genius and the illustrious bloodline that stretched back centuries?
In his lifetime Randolph Churchill frequently behaved like a wounded, boorish and insolent failure. He was a seething vessel of contradictions – rampant womanizer, misogynist, abuser of servants, courageous soldier, shrewd journalist, bombastic columnist, hater of humbug, a cheat and a drunk – and, to his father, always implacably loyal.
His father knew all this about his son. Winston Churchill himself suffered “black dog” depression, drank like a fish, and knew well the gnawing doubts of being the political outcast, the wild man to whom nobody listened. He loved Randolph back, tolerated his outrages, understood that Randolph, for all his courage and energy and ambition, was not in any sense his equal or heir.
Randolph was 52 when I met him. He had long given up any hope of political success. Winston had appointed him his official biographer. A vast cache of Churchill’s personal papers was being catalogued and sifted by a small team of researchers at Randolph’s country house, Stour, under his direction. He visited London very rarely. Like his father, Randolph’s working routine disregarded the normal circadian rhythms. He would work through successive nights and sleep during the day.
I was leading the Insight investigative reporting team at the London Sunday Times as we covered the unraveling of the Tory government led by Harold Macmillan. One afternoon I got a phone call, out of the blue, from Randolph. He wanted to compliment the team for our coverage but insisted that we did not really grasp the plot that was unfolding within the Tory party to remove Macmillan.
It was clear that Randolph thought I needed a rapid education in political mendacity and he summoned me to Stour so that I should “get the real low down” – Randolph was prone to using gangster-like American slang.
That visit would begin a friendship than lasted until Randolph died in 1968. It was an extraordinary break of luck for me. No journalist could ask for a more bountiful source – when it came to political intelligence Randolph leaked like a perforated garden hose, on the understanding that he would always be anonymous. At the same time, I got more than a political education. I witnessed, up close, the torture and the worship involved in being the son of the Great Man.
Stour was in the small village of East Bergholt, looking over a Suffolk vale so naturally idyllic that it had been a favorite of the great landscape painter Constable. In a different age the house would have been grand enough for a village squire but Randolph had turned it into a combination of a university campus research center and gentleman’s club where a flow of visitors, mostly politicians, came to gossip indiscreetly, dine and drink well.
What made him such a valuable source went way beyond what he gathered at his dining table, though that was richly productive. He had an astonishing range of contacts he could call by phone including, in the first months that I knew him, President Kennedy.
Randolph had known Kennedy at the time his father Joseph served as the U.S. ambassador in London and his calls to the White House were frequent and conducted on the terms of “Jack” and “Randolph.” Kennedy’s assassination later that year terminated his direct line to the White House but not to Robert Kennedy. British ambassadors in Washington were often annoyed that Randolph’s journalism pre-empted their own reports to London.
His personal life had been turbulent. But after two failed marriages and numerous affairs he cuckolded a neighboring landowner in East Bergholt and, in his mistress Natalie, found a companion who remained important to him for the rest of his life.
It was Natalie who collected visitors at the East Bergholt railway station and Natalie who advised me on how to deal with Randolph’s aberrant side, including not to object when he openly cheated at croquet, a game played on a lawn groomed solely for the purpose. Until then it had never occurred to me that a game that involved knocking a ball through a hoop with a mallet, rather than being governed by Victorian rules and decorum, could bring out the most vicious traits in people.
Natalie had to cope with a lot. It was hard to keep staff because there was a limit to their endurance of Randolph’s temper. One day she discovered that the cook had departed in the night and, as revenge for her suffering had switched off the refrigerator, ruining Randolph’s favorite dessert, home-made cherry ice cream.
At dinner Natalie remained serene when I asked Randolph what he thought the influence of women was in politics and he replied:
“It can be quite influential…so long as it’s exercised in country houses, at the dining table, in the boudoir and the bedroom. But I believe with Dr. Johnson, ‘a woman talking is like a dog walking on its hind legs. It is not done well, sir, but one marvels that it’s done at all.’”
But it was the long nights that followed that had the drama. If he had a good working day and a good dinner Randolph would begin to live directly through his father’s life in performances that no actor – not even Gary Oldman – could hope to match. The letters and documents reviewed during the day coalesced into an assembly of ghosts.
He was a natural mimic of his father’s voice, and of others around him. Narrating a critical episode from the past he would grab an epigram – “a camel is a horse designed by a committee” – and become Winston Churchill as he snarled, cajoled and consoled, using all the exploitive verbal powers that made him the master of any situation.
Winston Churchill was then in the last years of his life, still occasionally turning up in the House of Commons slumped on a bench like an exhausted mammoth, not hearing much but glowering as though he did and, apparently, displeased. It was painful for Randolph to see. So he saw as little as possible of his father in that condition while, in his head, his father remained the giant that he could never match.
The most cruel thing ever said of him was by Noel Coward, playwright and wit: “One thing you can say about Randolph is that he remains utterly unspoiled by failure.”
A life of trial by father began in earnest in May 1932, in a ritual passage from youth to manhood that amounted to a form of intellectual hazing.
To mark his 21st birthday Winston gave a dinner for him at Claridges, the swankest hotel in Mayfair, under the title of “Fathers and Sons.” The idea was that Randolph, along with a few of his contemporaries, would attend with their fathers, all powerful men, a combination of politicians and newspaper proprietors. To prove their mettle (and their heritage) each was to make a speech – this before an audience of some of the country’s finest orators.
Randolph had the looks of a golden-haired matinee idol. He was the only one who stood to speak without notes and without having prepared.
Such reckless confidence was typical, and the result was not good. One reporter noted that he had “all the energy and brains of the Churchills, lacking only as yet coherence of ideas.” Winston said the same thing with a more vivid metaphor: Randolph was a fine machine-gun “and it was to be hoped he would accumulate a big dump of ammunition and learn to hit the target.”
If this stung Randolph he never admitted it. Within a few weeks he went to Berlin as a reporter for a Sunday newspaper, nine months before Hitler came to power. Showing great (and unfashionable) prescience he wrote: “The success of the Nazi party sooner or later means war.” His reporting was always better than his oratory.
The war demonstrated both his courage and his wildness. It united him with a man with whom he had a lifelong love-hate relationship, someone who, when he first met him at Oxford university he described as “this extraordinary and formidable little man” - Evelyn Waugh. At Oxford they were both famously debauched. Waugh turned the experience into the stuff of great novels, most notably in Brideshead Revisited.
In 1944 the pair were bizarrely thrown together in a special forces unit that operated in Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia, fighting alongside Communist partisans. The result was a combination of valor, tragedy and farce. The mission began disastrously when the airplane delivering them to the war zone crashed, killing several people including Randolph’s personal batman. Waugh was burned and Randolph was lame in both legs.
After being taken to Italy for treatment they returned. Randolph, as a major, was in command. Thrown into close quarters with him, Waugh despaired in his diary: “He is not a good companion for a long period, but the conclusion is always the same – that no one else would have chosen me, nor would anyone else have accepted him. We are both at the end of our tether…”
After the war they frequently feuded, but the relationship seemed to mellow by the time Randolph moved to East Bergholt, when, both as country landowners, they shared a passion for gardening in regular correspondence. Randolph loved Suffolk, one of those counties that seems to represent the English landscape so perfectly that it is almost pornographic.
In 1964 Randolph published a memoir of his early life. It was excerpted in the Sunday Times and I interviewed him for the paper to give context to the book. I knew him well enough by then to press him about what it had been like to be the son of a man who, by then, was acknowledged as the greatest living Englishman and possibly the greatest Englishman ever.
His first reply was frivolous: “Well, I suppose the country usually finds it’s an inconvenience except in a major war having a Churchill around and to have two barging around at the same time I suppose is felt to be doubly inconvenient.”
I was amused, but not satisfied, so I made the question more specific: “Did you find it very difficult to assert some kind of separate personality from your father’s, although you in fact believed in the same ideals?”
This time he was more candid: “Well, yes, I suppose that was partly my trouble really. Much as I revered and reverenced him I wanted to have a show of my own. So, struggling to establish my own individuality and personality I often said and wrote rather reckless things, which I suppose if I hadn’t felt this frustration I would have tempered down. I went along with my father all the way, but I was always looking for opportunities to establish an individual position, and it’s very hard to do so, obviously, when you’re living under the shadow of the great oak tree – the small sapling, so to speak, so close to the parent tree, doesn’t receive enough sunshine.”
In enduring that burden Randolph had punished himself physically. He was chain-smoking up to 100 cigarettes through each day and night and for 20 years had been drinking at least two bottles of whisky a day, not counting the fine wines and champagne that passed around the table at dinner.
In 1964 doctors removed a tumor from one lung, suspecting cancer but the tumor proved to be benign. Hearing this, Waugh told friends, “How typical a triumph of modern science to find the one part of Randolph which was not malignant and to remove it.” Randolph took that in good spirit, but he had only four more years to live.
He died of a heart attack, in his sleep, at the age of 57, at Stour.