Today a forgotten figure, Bourke Cockran was acclaimed during his lifetime as America's greatest orator. He was also the lover of Jenny Churchill - Winston's mother - after the death of Lord Randolph. And, for twelve years (1895 to 1906), he was the young Winston's mentor. Until now, the story of the extraordinary and crucial relationship between them has not been told. At one level, the story is about politics, exploring the ways the young Churchill adopted Cockran's political and economic views - on democracy, capitalism, the Gold Standard, Free Trade, Socialism: issues that Churchill was to make his own. On another level, the story is biographical, chronicling the meetings between the men, and reproducing - for the first time in full - their private correspondence. It is the story of Churchill growing up. On yet another level, it is historical, vividly evoking the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, when Churchill was often in the thick of the action - fighting at the Khyber Pass in India or escaping from a Boer camp in Pretoria (and becoming a household name as a consequence) - all the while keeping up his correspondence with Cockran. The drama of such events is part of the book's irresistible appeal.
The book is written with a dramatic flair, bringing out the personalities of the two men. Each section begins, like a historical novel, with a recreation of a crucial moment in their lives. The general narrative is chronologically structured, with a powerful momentum, tracing the two men's growing intimacy over the years and interweaving their letters and meetings with the historical events in which they were involved. The story began in 1895 in New York, where Cockran took the young Winston under his wing. The following years, marked by turmoil in Cuba and Ireland, included the 1896 Presidential election, the great public debate about the gold standard and Cockran's private insistence to Churchill that principle must always be placed over party (something Churchill was to remember later when he crossed the floor of the House). 1899 saw Churchill's involvement in the Boer War, and his dramatic escape from a Boer prison camp, followed by his election to Parliament, visits to Cockran in America and, between 1901 and 1906, hard political fighting over the crucial issue of free trade, over which Churchill eventually left the Conservatives to join the Liberal party. The final years of Churchill and Cockran's friendship were dramatised by a number of public events - the American occupation of the Philippines, the victory of the Liberal Party in the British General Election, the First World War, about which they continued to correspond - but dominated by private ones: Cockran's remarriage, the death of Churchill's mother, and Churchill's own marriage. Throughout, the two men remained close, and, to the end, Cockran's influence on Churchill was unique and profound.