For a reader, getting one’s arms around Winston S. Churchill is like trying to hug a mountain. He was a colossus, a phenomenon.
Churchill strode across the world from the time he was commissioned in his regiment, the Queen’s Own Royal Hussars, in 1895 to his death in 1965. He was a force in history, in journalism, in politics and in fun, which he brought to everyday life.
This has made reading comprehensive books on Churchill daunting. The great work is his official multi-volume biography by Martin Gilbert and the fact-crammed one by Roy Jenkins, a British politician and biographer. The former is too big and the latter so detailed about the operations of the House of Commons that readers are turned off. William Manchester's biography of Churchill was more novel-like and, as a colleague of mine once said, “lighter on British minutiae.”
It is the smaller books that are a joy for readers, who treasure taking their Churchillian history in delectable bites. Martin Gilbert realized this when he wrote “In Search of Churchill,” which is a book about how he wrote the official biography, and one of the most revealing books on Churchill.
To enjoy Churchill, to cherish the foibles and the towering achievements of the incontestably great man, read around Churchill. There are many wonderful books in this cannon, for example “Churchill and Ireland” by Mary Bromage.
So in this way of approaching a big subject obliquely, it is a joy to read Cita Stelzer’s “Dinner with Churchill” a superbly researched and told story of Churchill’s passion for dinner parties and his belief that in the convivial atmosphere of the well-lubricated social event, minds could be changed and information gained.
Stelzer has added a shining star to the firmament of Churchill biography: the idea alone is brilliant. What a marvelous concept to write not about Churchill’s great struggles, but rather about the dinners that he used as a tool of statecraft in the time leading up to and through World War II. Churchill not only believed in dinner parties as a tool to advance his causes, such as trying in Tehran and at Yalta to save Poland from Stalin, but also as riotously enjoyable occasions.
Churchill loved to talk, to stimulate ideas and disclosures through his own verbal bravado and so to gain intelligence. He also just liked to eat and to drink, and to celebrate the dinner party as a high art form. He ate a lot and had strong opinions about what should be served. He also drank a lot; maybe not as much as he liked people to believe he drank, but he always had a drink going. Usually he drank champagne or Scotch, starting at breakfast, and this was supplemented with fine wines, port and brandy at dinner.
For me, the interesting thing about Churchill’s drinking was how he put it to use rather than being used by it. If he had been indifferent to its effects, one would assume that he would have drunk tea all day. By making jokes about his own consumption, Churchill was able to put his guests at ease and loosen their tongues.
Stelzer, who has pursued previously unpublished diaries and spoken to those who were at some of his dinners, believes that Churchill’s drinking is overstated and that he remained very much in control. Martin Gilbert reports on how after long, well-lubricated dinners Churchill would retire and write for two hours. Although there have been many drunken writers, very few could write under the influence. Very few can pour out the golden words after the golden liquid.
Be that as it may, Stelzer has captured all the elements of Churchill: his energy, his resilience, his attention to detail, his endless enthusiasm, his humanity, his joy, his baroque speech, his love of the British people, his sometimes petulance and occasional childishness.
The reader is awed by how much fun Churchill could have had while prosecuting the greatest war yet raised.
This is a wonderful book because if you know nothing about Churchill, you will love it; if you know a lot about Churchill, you will love it more. Through the dinners, Stelzer has served up a man in full. — For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate
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