At Churchill Museum, Sharing Private Views of a Public Man
By Glenn Frankel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 10, 2005
LONDON, Feb. 9 -- "We are all worms," Winston Churchill once said, "but I do believe that I am a glowworm."
He was a man of destiny, the living symbol of the free world, the indomitable bulldog who defied the Nazi war machine at the height of its evil power. But what was Winston Churchill really like? Elizabeth Nel, one of his secretaries during some of the most dire moments of World War II, wants to set the record straight.
"He was difficult, he was impatient, he was demanding -- but never impossible," she recalled Wednesday at the preview of a new museum here dedicated to Britain's great wartime leader. Nel, who was 23 when she went to work for Churchill in 1941, says he never betrayed a moment's doubt, even in the darkest hour.
"Nineteen forty-two was a terrible year," she said. Convoys were sunk, bombers shot down, Singapore and Tobruk fell. No matter. "He never flinched. He just stayed absolutely firm. Whatever he felt in himself nobody knew."
The keepers of the Churchill Museum invited the press in Wednesday to show off their multimedia exhibit. But what was more intriguing was the opportunity to talk to some of those who worked for Churchill and saw him up close and real. They paint a portrait of a man who was both grandiose and self-deprecating, who possessed the odd double vision to see himself as history's favored child and its hapless victim.
He could be imperious, and he could be kind. Nel recalled Churchill dressing her down for some small clerical error. She had a cold that day and dabbed discreetly at her nose with a handkerchief.
"He thought I was crying," she said. "And he looked at me and said, 'Oh you mustn't mind me. We're all toads beneath the harrow.' "
The museum is the first in Britain to be billed as dedicated to Churchill's life. It is an ultramodern affair, packed with interactive features, film and photo displays, and dozens of artifacts such as his christening gown, the imposing black door of No. 10 Downing Street, his black felt top hat and cigars, even his "siren suit" -- the custom-made velvet overalls he wore when he had to take cover in an air raid shelter.
It opens near the 60th anniversary of the Allied triumph in World War II and just after the 40th anniversary of Churchill's death in January 1965, at age 90. Queen Elizabeth II, who attended his state funeral, will preside over the museum's official opening on Thursday.
The museum is in the basement of the Treasury building alongside the Cabinet War Rooms, the evocative and claustrophobic underground chambers where Churchill and his ministers met almost daily to conduct the war. (There's a small bedroom for the prime minister, but Churchill hated to be underground and slept there only three times, the curators acknowledge.) The war rooms get more than 300,000 visitors a year, and most of those from overseas are from the United States, said Robert Crawford, director general of the Imperial War Museum, which owns and operates the new museum.
As the museum makes clear, Churchill's life wasn't all about his Finest Hour in opposing Hitler. There was constant adversity. The man spent much of his political career as a lonely and disliked figure.
"At the end of 1938, my grandfather could count on the fingers of one hand his close friends and allies in Parliament," said Winston Spencer Churchill at Wednesday's preview. "He was reviled by all of the great and the good of that day."
Churchill recalled that one book about his grandfather's career before 1939 was titled "Winston Churchill: A Study in Failure."
"That was before Adolf rode to the rescue," the grandson said.
As everyone recalls, it was Churchill who rode to Britain's rescue in 1940 -- the right man at the right moment with the right spirit, and the oratory to match. But it's easy to forget the bitter moment in July 1945 when, after he led them to glorious victory, the British people rewarded Churchill by unceremoniously dumping him and giving a landslide electoral victory to the opposition Labor Party.
"It brought home to him the chanciness of history," said Cambridge University historian David Reynolds. "Here one moment he's on top of the world; the next he's out on his ear."
Churchill did not attempt to hide his bitterness. "I was kicked out," he wrote.
"My dear," his wife, Clementine, told him, "perhaps it's a blessing in disguise."
His reply: "It's certainly very effectively disguised."
Jane Williams went to work for him in 1950 when, at age 75, he was plotting his return to power even while finishing the last two volumes of his six-book memoir of World War II.
Like Nel, she recalled his outbursts when someone got something wrong.
"Usually it was a practical matter -- for instance, I'd left out a page in a draft," she said. "He would explode."
"He never swore. He used to say, 'God's pajamas!' And he never apologized. I would have been horrified if he did apologize. I knew by the end of the day when he went to bed that it was forgotten and it would never be mentioned again."
Churchill was exhilarated to be back in office after his Conservative Party won the 1951 election, she recalled. And despite his age, she felt he was completely in control until 1953, when he suffered a stroke.
"It came suddenly. It never got into the press -- they said he had a bad cold."
"He was very incapacitated," Williams recalled. "He could hardly speak. He couldn't raise his hand to eat."
Six months later, he gave the leadership speech to his party's annual conference, and later attended a summit with President Dwight D. Eisenhower in Bermuda. But he was never the same. In 1955, he stepped down as prime minister.
Nel remembers his bizarre working hours. He would rise before 8 a.m., she said, sit up in bed in his multicolored silk dressing gown and begin to attend to the black box full of papers left the previous evening by his private secretary. She or another secretary would sit nearby at a typewriter. "One had to be ready to type down quickly and accurately with no spelling mistakes. If he had somebody coming to visit him, he would get up perhaps around 11 a.m., have his bath and get dressed. But mostly he would stay in bed until 1."
"One never, ever initiated a conversation," she said. "If asked something, one did one's best to answer. But one didn't comment."
Williams had another observation: "He did always have a very weak whiskey by his bed from breakfast time on. And at lunchtime, half a bottle of champagne and two brandies, the same at dinner, and he would always have that whiskey. But during the five years I was with him, I never saw him the worse for drink."