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The Importance of Dinners
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"As Churchill's life unfolds, it becomes an unending succession of meals with bigwigs."
"Food in diplomacy can be a lubricant."
Dinner parties were an important means by which Churchill rewarded friends, won over rivals and gathered information on all subjects, from diplomatic secrets to social gossip. He also hugely enjoyed them. His meals had the advantage over most other more formally scheduled encounters of being easily extended, even into the early hours of the morning, the time of day when Churchill would gather strength while others were flagging. His daughter, Mary, reports that "mealtimes tended to prolong themselves far into the afternoon or evening", with luncheons lasting until half past three or even four o'clock, and dinners going on "endlessly" after the ladies had withdrawn, to the increasing annoyance of her hostess-mother.
After Churchill became Prime Minister in May 1940, these extended dinners were more than ever an important part of the day's work. At Chequers, the country house used by British prime ministers, a typical Churchillian evening during the war would run:
From eight-thirty until nine we had drinks with Mrs. Churchill and perhaps one or two of the daughters were there. Then we went into dinner. Dinner was from nine until just after ten. Then the ladies left the room and the most amusing part of the evening started as Winston held forth in his own inimitable manner until about ten-thirty to ten forty-five. Then we would go up and join the ladies ... and marched up to the library where he ran a cinema film. About half past midnight we'd come down for a nightcap with the ladies. Finally at about 12:45 or 1 a.m. we'd go up to the main room where we used to meet. We would sit down and he would say, "Now, down to business". And then he worked there until two, or three or four in the morning.
Other guests were "Sometimes a chief of staff ... sometimes a Cabinet minister, sometimes a visiting foreigner".
From his earliest days Churchill was able to captivate his dinner companions. Violet Bonham Carter, the daughter of H.H. Asquith, later a Liberal Prime Minister, dined with the leading figures of the day. In 1906 the nineteen-year-old found herself seated next to the 31-year-old Churchill and was:
spellbound ... I was transfixed, transported into a new element ... There was nothing false, inflated, artificial in his eloquence. It was his natural idiom. His world was built and fashioned in heroic lines. He spoke its language.
John Maynard Keynes, a man not easily impressed with the eloquence and intelligence of others, wrote to his mother in September 1940, contrasting Churchill with a First World War Prime Minister, David Lloyd George:
Last night I went to my Other Club and was put next to Winston, so I had some two or three hours' conversation with him and listening to him. I found him in absolutely perfect condition, extremely well, serene, full of normal human feelings and completely uninflated. Perhaps this moment is the height of his power and glory, but I have never seen anyone less infected with dictatorial airs or hubris. There was not the faintest trace of the insolence which LL.G., for example, so quickly acquired.
Harold Macmillan, many years later to be Prime Minister, recalled the dinner meetings with Churchill, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, and young Conservative backbenchers in the late 1920s:
All the rest of us would sit around, sometimes late into the night, smoking, drinking, and arguing and of course listening. The flow of Churchill's rhetoric once it got under way was irresistible. Nevertheless, he quite happily allowed rival themes to be put forward.
One guest, at a family lunch, reported that the Prime Minister "gave a short lecture on the various invaders of Russia, especially Charles XII". Churchill undoubtedly inherited and absorbed from his mother, Lady Randolph Churchill, his skills as a brilliant conversationalist and dinner party organiser. His mother organised a dinner party so that Winston could meet Ivor Novello whose song "Keep the Home Fires Burning" Churchill admired. She, like her son, planned dinners to include both good conversation and beautiful surroundings.
Churchill also displayed his talent for the theatrical, using the dinner table and its settings as props. James Lees-Milne, the noted diarist, dined at Chartwell in 1928 and remembered that:
One evening we remained at that round table till after midnight. The table cloth had long ago been removed. Mr. Churchill spent a blissful two hours demonstrating with decanters and wine glasses how the Battle of Jutland was fought. It was a thrilling experience. He got worked up like a schoolboy, making barking noises in imitation of gunfire and blowing cigar smoke across the battle scene in imitation of gun smoke.
Churchill's interest in recreating battlefield tactics extended to the American Civil War. One biographer noted that Churchill "using salt shakers, cutlery, and brandy goblets ... can re-enact any battle in that war, from Bull Run to Five Forks".
The greatest tribute to Churchill's ability to enthrall in company comes from as renowned a conversationalist as Franklin Roosevelt, the man whom the historian Andrew Roberts describes as being, like Churchill, "stratospherically self-confident". On the occasion of a dinner for Churchill, the Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King, and others during Churchill's December 1941 visit to the White House, the President "willingly turned the show over to Star Boarder Winston Churchill, leaned back and listened to the leader of another fighting people carry the conversational ball".
But Churchill was interested in more than merely the exercise of his rhetoric and the airing of his ideas at the dinner table: he was perpetually in search of information, and used lunches and dinners to pick the brains not only of political allies and opponents, but also of specialists and academics, including many not necessarily in tune with his own views.
During the First World War, when Churchill was Minister of Munitions, his office on the Western Front was at Chateau Verchocq in north-west France. In August 1918 he was there with his brother Jack, Sir Maurice Bonham Carter and several political and military figures. Churchill's pilot, Lieutenant Gilbert Hall, reports:
In the evening we all assembled in the dining room for a meal ... At that first meal Mr. Churchill sat at the head of the table and acted as host. Food was not too plentiful in the fourth year of the war and the first course was a plain and wholesome Shepherd's pie. Mr. Churchill, with characteristic brio, referred to it as "minced meat under a glorious cloud of mashed potatoes", and it tasted all the better for that.
Churchill energetically quizzed the group on a wide range of topics, including how to get tanks, "the new surprise weapon", across rivers, and attitudes on the home front towards the progress of the war. More than ten years later, Churchill played host to Harold Laski, called by his biographers "everyone's favourite socialist ... the enduring conscience of the British left", among a company that included an admiral, several other naval officers and a young civil servant. Churchill had an opportunity to note how well (or poorly) the naval men handled a debate Laski initiated on "the meaning of maritime rights"; and to learn from the civil servant something about Radclyffe Hall, the author of the just published lesbian novel, The Well of Loneliness. R. A. Butler ("Rab"), President of the Board of Education during the war years, contended that dinner parties were a good source of information which he could not get sitting in his office. "Wives talk ...".
Joseph E. Davies, when serving as American Ambassador to the Soviet Union, dined with the Churchills in their London apartment in May 1937 and recorded in his diary:
He plied me with questions ... He ... wants to know the facts ... He asked about the strength of the Soviet industry and the army ... He impressed me as a great man.
At these lunches and dinners, Churchill acquired and improved relationships that would stand him in good stead at some later point in his career. Even the dinner he organised at Claridge's in 1932 to celebrate his son Randolph's "coming of age" included what one guest described in his note of thanks as "Men who have made history and others who will no doubt figure equally prominently in the future". Another commented: "It will be a very long time — if ever — before I find myself in a gathering of people such as these ..." The bill from Claridge's came to £135 16 shillings and 8 pence. The dinner was on 16 June, the hotel billed Churchill on 17 June and was paid promptly on 22 June.
Churchill also used dinner parties to advance his financial interests. In 1929 he visited the media mogul William Randolph Hearst, who arranged a lunch for 200 guests at the MGM bungalow of his mistress, Marion Davies, in Churchill's honour and a lunch for 60 at the exclusive Montmartre Restaurant in Los Angeles. This resulted in several remunerative journalistic assignments.
Financial wizard Bernie Baruch, whose advice Churchill often sought about money matters, and who later became an important adviser to President Roosevelt, was another important dinner companion. When Baruch visited Britain in 1933, Churchill organised a dinner in his honour at Claridge's – dress to be white tie and tails – carefully choosing between the two "specimen" menus offered and selecting as accompaniment his favourite Pol Roger, of which six magnums were consumed by Churchill, Baruch and their eighteen guests. He also asked Baruch for sufficient advance notice so that he could be certain to gather an interesting group. "As much trouble should go to considering the guests" as considering the food at dinner parties, agreed Woodrow Wyatt, Labour Member of Parliament elected in 1945 (later Lord Wyatt).
Churchill was sensitive to the needs of his guests, in this case Baruch's need for privacy. So when The New York Times requested permission to photograph the guests on the night, Churchill refused.
In the early 1930s, Churchill wrote a letter to The Times protesting at the habit that was then developing of taking photographs at banquets while people were eating. He felt strongly that this was an intrusion, and that photographs should be taken only at the start of the formal proceedings.
Protecting his guests' privacy was just one example of Churchill's careful discharge of his duties as host. One guest described him as a "meticulous host. He would watch everyone all the time to see whether or not they wanted anything". Another commented:
It is a marvel how much time he gives to his guests ... He is an exceedingly kind and generous host, providing unlimited champagne, cigars and brandy.
And still another, Anthony Montague Browne, described Churchill "as a generous and entertaining host and dinners with him always fun and gastronomically agreeable".
Joan Bright, who throughout the Second World War organised overseas travel for Churchill and the Chiefs of Staff, said he had lovely manners.
Churchill was certainly aware that his talents were shown to best advantage on a carefully set stage. In 1929 he wrote to his wife from Santa Barbara, California, where he had been visiting Hearst:
I am v. glad you are taking Venetia's [Montagu] house for the session. Do not hesitate to engage one or two extra servants. Now that we are in opposition we must gather colleagues and MPs together a little at luncheon & dinner. Also I have now a few business people who are of importance. We ought to be able to have luncheons of 8–10 often & dinners of the same size about twice a week. You shd have a staff equal to this.
In 1922 Churchill had bought Chartwell, a country house in the county of Kent, within easy driving distance of London. It required a considerable amount of renovation, which he supervised, and some of which he carried out "with the same meticulous obsession he gave to his speeches". Perhaps aware of the effect of the low ceiling in the dining room, to which he paid particular attention, Churchill specified floor length windows and doors on three sides of the almost square room to give it an open feeling. He directed to his wife a Dissertation on Dining Room Chairs:
The Dining Room chair has certain marked requisites. First, it should be comfortable and give support to the body when sitting up straight; it should certainly have arms which are an enormous comfort when sitting at meals ... One does not want the Dining Room chair spreading itself, or its legs, or its arms as if it were a plant ... this enables the chairs to be put close together if need be, which is often more sociable ...
The fun goes on. His wife answered that she had "digested his Dissertation".
Today, under the care of the National Trust, Chartwell remains much as it was during Churchill's time, with white-flowered chintz on comfortable armchairs around a great round table in the dining room: round to ease conversation and create a sense of equality, no opposing sides, nor corners, no one below the salt.
Attention to detail remained the order of the day at Chartwell even after its completion. For a garden party on Saturday 21 July 1934, the marquee was to be lined in olive green and lemon, and to accommodate some 250 guests, "all sitting at one time" according to the caterer's notes. The menu was predictably lavish, and equally predictably, the musical selections reflected Churchill's preference for Gilbert and Sullivan – selections from HMS Pinafore, The Gondoliers, and Iolanthe. And a bit of Clementine caution – insurance against rain, with the pay out a function of the amount of rainfall: reportedly 30% of the insured amount for .5 inches of rain, up to 100% if .15 inches fell. It did not rain.
Nothing was more important to Churchill than the seating arrangements at his dinners, as we shall see when describing the Big Three dinners in Teheran, Yalta and Potsdam. He personally undertook this chore, which other politicians usually left to diplomatic wives or officials, reflecting yet another lesson learned from his mother, the widely acclaimed society hostess. She carefully seated strangers and, often, people who were not friendly, next to each other at her dinner parties, calling them the "dinner of deadly enemies". Churchill said of his mother that "In my interest she left no wire unpulled, no stone unturned and no cutlet uncooked." As a young man, he once sent her a letter of New Year's wishes, with a sketch of her holding a menu.
President Eisenhower, interviewed years later, remarked on the great attention Churchill paid to correct placement at dinners. He said Churchill always put him on his right at the table, explaining: "anybody who held a commission from two countries outranked anyone who had a commission from one". Only once did this change. Churchill rang him to explain that he would have to sit on his left as
My old friend Field Marshal Smuts is to dinner with us this evening. Won't you give up your place on my right and take a place on my left?
Detailed attention extended to costs. Churchill quite regularly questioned bills received from Claridge's and the Savoy, but was always careful to reward staff at such venues, for example adding £3 to the bills for his dinner for Baruch and again for a dinner for sixteen at Claridge's on 30 January 1935, for which the manager thanked Churchill profusely.
In one letter, Churchill thanks the Savoy Hotel manager for sending back his opera hat which he had left at the hotel. He then complains that the charge included a full bottle of port, whereas only one half was consumed, and requests the details on the charges for cigars and cigarettes. The manager responds fully, giving details of the expenses: no cigarettes were consumed and the bill was adjusted, but the eight cigars, two of which were taken away by Churchill's son, are listed and named.
The missing port is explained:
Martinez Port was as usual charged for by the bottle out of which five glasses were consumed. The remainder, that is to say more than half the bottle, is being kept at the bar for Mr. Churchill's use next time we are honoured with his patronage.
The letter then specifies that:
Two Half Cider Cups were ordered and served. As to the Whiskey, when the bottle was returned to the bar it was found that nine measures had been consumed. The 7/6d Liqueurs is for the Brandy which Mr. A. Eden had.
Note that at these functions the whisky bottles were left on the table for guests to serve themselves.
Excerpted from Dinner With Churchill by Cita Stelzer. Copyright © 2012 Cita Stelzer. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Introduction Andrew Roberts xi
Chapter 1 The Importance of Dinners 15
Chapter 2 Meeting off Newfoundland August 1941 41
Chapter 3 Christmas in the White House December 1941-January 1942 58
Chapter 4 Dinners in Moscow August 1942 85
Chapter 5 Adana January 1943 95
Chapter 6 Teheran November 1943 100
Chapter 7 Yalta February 1945 114
Chapter 8 Meeting at Potsdam July 1945 133
Chapter 9 From Fulton to Bermuda: The Limits of Dinner-table Diplomacy 155
Chapter 10 Food 169
Chapter 11 Champagne, Whisky and Brandy 184
Chapter 12 Cigars 206
Chapter 13 Rationing 218
Picture Credits 315
Posted February 8, 2013
A extremely entertaining book full of anecdotes covering the details of Churchill's endeavors to influence the political leaders of World War II over expansive dinners for which he personally selected the menus
Churchill truly believed that he was most persuasive while wining and dining important guests.
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Posted March 14, 2014
Posted September 25, 2014
No text was provided for this review.