I’ll never let go of my “we shall never surrender” speech. Once a favored parenting shtick for persuading my children to do their homework, I realize its greater significance.
The world knows the solemnity of these words spoken by Winston Churchill in his defiant stance against Nazi Germany. Admittedly however, I am frustrated by the unacknowledged contributions of his wife Clementine, whose critical role in our global freedom is largely faceless. As we look to one of this year’s celebrated Oscar-nominated movies for Best Picture, Darkest Hour (image above), I am patiently waiting for the day when Clementine Churchill’s true significance will light up movie screens.
It’s time to reframe the way we see Clementine Churchill. Director Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour focuses on the political drama that unfolds in Britain’s Parliament in 1940. Gary Oldman’s performance is mesmerizing as is the cinematography and costuming. The film is undeniably masterful, as it crafts shadowy scenes that highlight the war of words leading up to Winston’s famous speech. But what about the backstory to this speech? How did Winston get to this pivotal place in history?
Several books like Sonia Purnell’s Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill speak to Clementine’s influence. She helped instill the winning qualities critical for Winston’s pinnacle as the man of the hour. We see a small sliver of Clementine’s influence in actress Kristin Thomas’ engaging portrayal of her in this year’s Oscar-nominated movie.
Yet, it continues to unnerve me to see how this film, like history, largely ignores Winston’s “Clemmie”.
Because Purnell’s book draws on deeper research and interviews, it provides a very personal and timely opportunity for re-examining Clementine’s role and relationship with Winston. The couple were married in 1908, when Clementine was just twenty-three years of age and thirteen years younger than Winston. Winston’s hope, when he fell in love with Clementine, was that he could do justice to her great intelligent and physical beauty.
Winston’s Career Advancements Under Her Watchful Eye
Clementine made sure that he did by providing a wonderful counterfoil to Winston’s lumbering public persona. Standing six inches taller than him, Clementine wooed the public with her elegance, impeccable dress and infectious laugh. This helped Winston early in his career but even he could never have expected just what a powerful asset she would become.
Clementine shaped Winston’s political career well beyond his pedigree and immediate persona. As the grandson of the 7th Duke of Marlborough and son to an English politician and socialite American mother, she added favorable political clout for Winston in a ways he could never have done on his own. This went beyond the air of glamour she garnered in the newspapers.
A great example emerged during their first years of marriage. Winston had gained some notoriety as a book writer and war correspondent. However, Clementine urged him to serve in the war in order to win the admiration of the public. It would be immensely valuable in running for office, and it later saved him from complete disaster when a few of his leadership campaigns failed horribly. The most notable disasters were his fledgling World War I Gallipoli Campaign and the flailing economic policies he introduced while serving as Secretary of State under Prime Minister David Lloyd George.
As Winston’s political career evolved, so did Clementine’s watchful eye. Naturally shy, Clementine started to take a greater interest in British politics, myopically following dozens of news bulletins and taking it upon herself to rewrite Winston’s speeches. She buffered his gruff and seemingly unsympathetic public leanings, providing honest feedback about his missteps regardless of Winston’s resistance and initial scorn.
But change he did. When Winston refused to listen to Clementine’s assessments of his “sarcastic and overbearing manner”, Clemmie took to writing him daily letters. She warned his behavior would alienate him from his political peers. When he practiced her advice about kindness, he admitted it served him much better in his diplomatic negotiations.
Winston’s Most Trusted Advisor
Winston came to depend on his devoted wife as an accurate gauge of the public’s temperament and the effect of Britain’s politics and foreign policies. She became his most trusted advisor and saved his life at a suffragette rally in 1909. When a woman attacked Winston with a whip and tried to knock him off the train platform and into an oncoming train, it was Clementine who jumped out from behind a stack of luggage to pull him to safety while a group of men stood “frozen in shock”.
She repeated this kind of quick action over and over again in Winston’s political career. Clementine would often sit for long hours in Parliament, surveying the signals in the Strangers’ Gallery of the Commons in Westminster (photo below). She surmised the government was ignoring the public’s growing frustration over the war and used her insight to push Winston at every opportunity to build his reputation as a visionary.
When Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain soberly admitted Winston’s predictions about the Nazi threat had come true, Clementine saw how the house got behind him with a ‘temper for war’. Britain’s war declaration in 1939 helped Churchill regain his office as Lord of the Admiralty and solidified his place in Chamberlain’s War Cabinet.
With this inside footing, Clementine once again rallied for private and public support of Winston. She coordinated elaborate series of meetings and sessions in their Chambers home, engaging the services of twenty household staff. This helped to forge critical alliances for Winston, including his friendship with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Without American troops, Winston knew he could not win the war.
Clementine Befriends Eleanor Roosevelt and Speaks Out
While President Roosevelt publicly denied any interest in the war, in private he began to meet with Winston. Clementine befriended his wife, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, which helped to further establish a deeper connection to America. President Roosevelt know Winston might be the one man who could successfully resist Hitler’s assault. But it didn’t hurt that Clementine also used her own diplomatic channels and networking skills that she had learned from Eleanor.
Thanks to a growing friendship between Eleanor and Clementine, Clementine gained the courage to speak at political rallies to boost public morale at home. Clementine watched Eleanor receive standing ovations everywhere she went and how she talked to people in chatty, informal ways. Clementine took note when her friend traveled under very dangerous conditions just to see the U.S. troops stationed abroad.
Clementine spent hours working at the Red Cross and made very public displays of personal solidarity. She even wrapped her hair in a paisley scarf with rollers underneath as a show of solidarity because weekly visits to the hair dresser would be extravagant when families were suffering.
In 1943, Clementine traveled with Winston to attend the Quebec Conference where allied leaders gathered to discuss strategy. There she spoke with Eleanor before traveling on to Washington for her first press conference. The U.S. press hailed her witty, direct and daring speech, not to mention her incredibly attractive engaging dimples.
Many historians today would agree that Clementine’s tireless work with Winston forged one of the greatest political partnerships of all time. Winston’s marriage was transformative and provided a platform for Clementine to share her convictions while unifying Britain in the Second World War. While the office of First Lady doesn’t receive the same attention as it does in America, the myriad of photos attesting to their partnership reinforces Clementine partnership in rescuing her country during its darkest hour. I challenge anyone who hears the old cliché “behind every great man is a woman” to think twice. Ask yourself where power originates.