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Winston Churchill's Last Surviving Daughter Was the Grandest of Grand Dames

Gareth Cattermole/Getty

Following the death of Sir Winston Churchill in January 1965, there were contrasting verdicts from two near-contemporary English writers. In his English History 1914-1945, the last volume in the old Oxford History of England, A.J.P. Taylor described Churchill in a biographical footnote, ending with the five-word sentence, “The saviour of his country.” But a very different note was struck by Evelyn Waugh in a letter to his friend Ann Fleming (wife of Ian, the James Bond novelist): “He is not a man for whom I ever had esteem. Always in the wrong, always surrounded by crooks, a most unsuccessful father.”

In today’s American climate of Churchill-worship, those words must seem astonishing, and only Waugh could have said that Churchill was “always” in the wrong, although he was certainly wrong a good deal of the time, while there were enough dubious people in his entourage to give some colour to “crooks.” But it’s the last words which are stingingly painful even now. Churchill truly was an unsuccessful father—with one shining exception. She was Mary Churchill, Lady Soames, who died on the last day of May at 91. Not only was she the last surviving child of Winston and Clementine Churchill, she was also the only one who had grown up safe and sound, to live a long and fulfilled life.

When I first met Mary in the 1970s, she was in a state of transition, from motherhood to authorship. It would be impertinent to call her a friend, but I stayed with the Soameses at their house in Hampshire thanks to my friendship with their daughter Emma, a sparky young journalist and gal about town who has since had an admirable career as a magazine editor. Mary’s husband Christopher Soames was also in his own state of transition, awaiting what proved to be a short-lived political comeback. Having devoted her life to her family, Mary was about to embark on a second spring, as a writer, beginning with a really excellent biography of her mother, distinguished not only by affectionate and intimate knowledge but by unusual candor. Many a book about Churchill has been called “A Study in Greatness” or somesuch; the story of his family might be called “The Human Price of Greatness.”

In September 1922, the birth of Mary was a joyful consolation for the Churchills. This was just before the political debacle in which the Lloyd George government fell, precipitating the election in which Churchill himself was ejected by the voters of Dundee after he had undergone an appendectomy, leaving him, as he famously said, without a ministry, a parliamentary seat, a party, or an appendix. He had also been without a much loved child. Churchill and Clementine Hozier had married in 1908 when he was a thrusting 34-year-old Cabinet minister in a Liberal government. Clementine was also a Liberal, and at heart remained one all her life, even after Churchill returned to the Tory fold. 

Their first three children were Diana, born in 1909, Randolph in 1911, and Sarah in 1914. In 1918, they had another daughter, Marigold. Her death from septicemia in 1921 when she was not yet three drove Clementine almost mad with grief, but the tragedy brought the Churchills closer together, and Mary was the result, the Benjamin of the family. She had a happy childhood of nannies, ponies, and skiing holidays, based at Chartwell in Kent with its magnificent views. Only later did Mary realise that Churchill had bought Chartwell behind the back of Clementine, who was appalled at the expense of it and never quite forgave him.

For Mary, the 1930s meant a lively adolescence, but for her father this was the decade which he somewhat absurdly called his “wilderness years,” meaning that he was out of office from 1929 to 1939, entirely by his own choice. Chartwell became the centre of his life whether Clementine liked it or not, a word-factory where he and his assistants churned out great quantities of lucrative books and journalism. Family life was another matter. Churchill relished the lines “Let us now praise famous men” from “Ecclesiasticus,” and especially the verse “Rich men furnished with ability, living peaceably in their habitations.” In The Gathering Storm, the highly tendentious first volume of The Second World War, he echoed this: “Thus I never had a dull or idle moment from morning till midnight, and with my happy family around me dwelt at peace within my habitation.”

He was no mean exponent of rewritten history, and this was an example. So far from “happy,” the Churchills were, as another writer once put it, unhappy in their own way. All three of the elder children went wrong, all of them had failed marriages, all of them were undone by drink, with Diana the most tragic of all, taking her life in 1963 when Churchill, sad to say, was in steep decline but still just capable of taking in the awful news. And Randolph was a one-man disaster. In her delightful recent memoir A Daughter’s Tale, Mary describes the endless rows between father and son at Chartwell, the screaming and banging of doors.

Not quite seventeen when the war began in September 1939 and her father was recalled as First Lord of the Admiralty, she had an adventurous time, and her memoir gives a vivid description of a young woman’s life in London during the Blitz. Diana joined the women’s naval service, Sarah the air force equivalent, and Randolph the 4th Hussars, his father’s old regiment, but it was Mary who had the “good war,” as the English say. She joined the ATS, the women’s army service, in which another young woman, Princess Elizabeth—now our queen—was serving as a motor mechanic. In 1943 Mary went as an aide-de-camp to her father to the Quebec conference, and again to Potsdam in 1945 (by the way, now that she has gone, how many people, if any, are there left who met Roosevelt, Truman and Stalin?). But in between she commanded an anti-aircraft battery.

In 1947 Mary went to stay in Paris with Duff Cooper, then the British ambassador, and his wife Lady Diana. There Mary met the assistant military attaché Captain Christopher Soames of the Coldstream Guards. Clementine had misgivings about him, but they were married nonetheless. Soames was elected an MP in 1950 and became his father-in-law’s parliamentary aide and closest confidant. In fact he was one of half a dozen men who ran the country in the summer of 1953 when Churchill was incapacitated by a stroke and the news was, incredible as it now seems, kept secret by a conspiracy of press proprietors.

By now, Mary was a devoted wife, as her mother had been, and an equally devoted mother to three sons and two daughters. That had not been so true of Clementine. Randolph used to blame the huge foul-up of his life not on his father, for all his sometimes monstrous egocentricity, but on his mother. Children shouldn’t always be trusted in such matters, but Mary admitted that Clementine, highly intelligent and highly strung, was emotionally reserved and had “no real understanding of the childish mind or outlook.” 

In 1966 Christopher Soames lost his parliamentary seat but two years later Harold Wilson, the Labour prime minister, imaginatively sent him as ambassador to Paris, where he was a success, and so was Mary. Clementine spoke excellent French, a contrast indeed to her husband, and so did the Soameses. And Mary, also in common with her mother, actually liked Charles de Gaulle, which helped. It was on their return to England that Mary began to blossom, undertaking the life story of her mother, who died in 1977. She was diffident at first—I remember her asking my advice about the choice of a couple of words—but the book was a triumph on publication in 1979, lauded by professional historians and winning an important literary prize.

This coincided with an about-turn in the fortunes of Lord Soames, as Christopher now was. When told that a man was a good patriot, the Emperor Franz Josef asked, “But is he a patriot for me?” Margaret Thatcher sometimes invoked “Winston” (as she called him to the family’s private distaste), but she was no Churchillian for the Churchills. In 1975, as newly elected as Conservative leader, Mrs. Thatcher met a past governor of California who was visiting Europe while he thought about a presidential run. At that meeting with Ronald Reagan, Winston Churchill was present—that is, “little Winston,” as his grandparents called him, born in 1940 to Randolph and his young bride who soon left him and, as Pamela Harriman, went on to an astounding career as the last great courtesan, Washington hostess, and American ambassador in Paris.

Her son’s career was less glorious. Little Winston was dropped from her front-bench team by Thatcher before she won the 1979 election, and never held office. Nor did Mary’s son Nicholas, who became an MP in 1983, and had no promotion until after Thatcher’s departure. As for Christopher Soames, Thatcher made him Leader of the House of the Lords and also Governor of Southern Rhodesia, where he supervised the negotiations that turned a white-minority-governed country into independent black-majority Zimbabwe.

Here was a supreme irony. In 1942 Churchill said that he had not become His Majesty’s first minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire, and as the postwar Labour government began the process of decolonization, he railed at this abject “scuttle,” a word with which the House of Commons became wearily familiar. Now it fell to his son-in-law to preside over the last stage of that liquidation, or the final scuttle. Mary befriended Robert and Sally Mugabe, or thought she had, and she felt the subsequent murderous violence of the new regime to be a personal betrayal.

On his return to England, Soames’s political career was soon over. He was dismissed by Thatcher in 1981 as part of her purge of the patrician old guard—and anyone who doubted that this was a form of class war had only to hear what the protagonists said. Soames complained that he wouldn’t have sacked his gamekeeper in the way Thatcher sacked him, while she later drily said that he had reacted as if a housemaid had fired him. After publishing the not very satisfactory first two volumes of the official life of Churchill—Mary’s life of their mother is a decidedly better book—Randolph had drunk himself to death in 1968. Sarah died in 1982 and Christopher died of cancer at only 66 in 1987. 

And so for more than a quarter-century that left Mary in a special position as the grandest of grandes dames and the last of her generation, showered with honours and bathed in esteem. But it’s not so much those last years I think of as the war—the war as it will always be for our generation born after it, and of Mary serving her country dutifully as anyone, captured in two marvellous photographs. In one she is showing her father, the leader and savior of his country, her guns firing real live shells at real live German bombers, and in the other she lies recumbent and smiling in front of the girls of her battery.

“Sentimentality about ‘the greatest generation’ is a besetting temptation,” I wrote when reviewing A Daughter’s Tale in the New York Review of Books. “But damn it all, they were wonderful, and we who came after have not lived up to them.” I repeat: they were, and we haven’t.