The Private Churchills

They may not have always been entirely happy, but they were never bored. Early in the courtship of Winston Churchill and Clementine Hozier, the future prime minister was staying at a country house that caught fire. Terrified about Churchill's safety, Clementine was relieved at word he had survived, and wired him. His boisterous reply: "The fire was great fun & we all enjoyed it thoroughly... It is a strange thing to be locked in deadly grapple with that cruel element. I had no conception--except from reading--of the power and majesty of a great conflagration. Whole rooms sprang into flame as by enchantment. Chairs & tables burnt up like matches. Floors collapsed & ceilings crashed down. The roof descended in a molten shower."

There it all was, even in the beginning: her generous concern, and his delight in danger. There would be many more conflagrations in their 56 years together, from Gallipoli to the Blitz. Theirs was one of the great marriages of the 20th century, their personal lives inextricably bound up with war and peace, and those hours early in World War II when things could have gone either way: Hitler's, or ours. The Churchills' youngest and last surviving child, Mary Soames, has done a singular service in editing the couple's personal correspondence, Winston and Clementine: The Personal Letters of the Churchills (702 pages. Houghton Mifflin. $35; it is published in Britain under the title "Speaking for Themselves"). The result is an invaluable historical record that is also fascinating reading--a delightful tour through the lives of two remarkable people who shaped the way we live now.

They met at a ball in London in 1904; Winston was 29, Clementine 19. It was an inauspicious start: Churchill was tongue-tied, and Clementine danced off with another beau. Four years later their paths crossed again, and they exchanged the first of the 1,700 letters, notes, telegrams and memoranda that would pass between them from 1908 until 1964, just before Churchill's death. They adored each other, but there were, as in any marriage, rough spots: "Winston was a loving husband," writes Soames, "but his self-centeredness, combined with his total commitment to politics, did not make him a very companionable one." They were not rich; Churchill supported his family from book to book and article to article. In December 1931 he was nearly killed when a car struck him on Fifth Avenue in New York; still, he refused to cancel a paid speaking tour, soldiering on just six weeks later. These were low moments, but Clementine bucked him up through countless rises and falls: "It is all waiting for you when the right moment comes."

It came in 1940: France had fallen, and Britain stood alone; in May, Churchill was summoned to form a government. The only extant letter from that year offers a glimpse at the personal toll of those terrible days. "I hope you will forgive me if I tell you something I think you ought to know," Clementine wrote on June 27, 1940. "One of the men in your entourage (a devoted friend) has been to me & told me there is a danger of your being generally disliked by your colleagues & subordinates because of your rough sarcastic & overbearing manner... with this terrific power you must combine urbanity, kindness and if possible Olympic calm." There is a touching postscript: Clementine drew a tiny animal, and noted, "I wrote this at Chequers last Sunday, tore it up, but here it is now."

Churchill was deeply dependent on his wife's counsel, and freely acknowledged it. On their 40th wedding anniversary, he wrote a note thanking her "for making my life & any work I have done possible, and for giving me so much happiness in a world of accident & storm." Reading their letters is a reminder not just of headier days but of the human moments that had everything to do with how history turned out.