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Fresh look at Churchill goes back 11 generations

We can't seem to get enough of Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill.

With his easy and inviting smile, his ready quip and his flashing "V" for victory, Winston Churchill, some would say, was created by the gods specifically to lead the best of Western civilization in its darkest hour of the 20th century.

Most historians agree there would have been no American-led liberation of Europe without the stubborn intransigence of the stoic Brits. And the backbone of that superhuman effort was embodied in the person of Churchill.

So who was this obstreperous leader who hated Adolf Hitler and Nazism before its menace was unveiled, who charmed Franklin Roosevelt, and who distrusted Joseph Stalin from the start? Who was this man who so clearly saw the world in terms of good and evil, friend and foe?

Authors have been struggling to answer that question for 65 years now, and likely will be seeking the answer for as long as English in some form or another still is being spoken and written.

British author Mary Lovell, who specializes in the biographies of the rich and famous, has adopted a fresh approach to the topic. "The Churchills" is ostensibly the story of the extraordinary dynastic family that traces its roots from the 17th century union of John Churchill and Sarah Jennings. The Spencer line entered the family early on, at a time when the American colonists still were pledging their loyalty to the crown.

Eleven generations of Spencer-Churchills? That's an awful lot to bite off in 600 pages.

But within a few pages of the preface, the reader realizes that the central character of this drama is to be Winston Churchill, sitting, cigar and brandy in hand, at the center of a moving galaxy of parents, uncles, a brother, countless cousins and their multiple wives and husbands, his beloved Clementine Hozier and their troubled children.

One of the earliest descriptions of Winston comes from his father, Randolph, a celebrated 19th century parliamentarian who died of "general paralysis of the brain," better known as syphilis. He wrote of his young son:

[Winston] has little claim to cleverness, to knowledge or any capacity for settled work. He has a great talent for show-off exaggeration and make-believe.

Some would argue Winston never outgrew those characteristics. He just mastered how to use them to great advantage.

Hardly out of his teens, Winston was off to the Boer War where he was captured, imprisoned, escaped and became a London media hero. In 1901, he won a seat in Parliament, taking up where his father left off as an outspoken member of the House of Commons.

It was 400 pages later when it dawned on this reader that on the day Churchill entered public life, William McKinley was president of the United States, and on the day he attended his last session of Parliament, Lyndon Johnson was in the White House.

That's 64 years of parliamentary debate, high government office and three times prime minister. But never mistake this man of the people, walking the smoldering Dockside during the Blitz, for a commoner. Despite his constant struggle with debt until late in life when his pen made him wealthy, Winston Churchill was no poor English boy. He was English nobility through and through.

His uncle was the 8th duke of Marlborough. His mother, the daughter of a wealthy New York financier, was a confidante of the Prince of Wales, later the king, if not one of his many lovers. His father was in line to become prime minister. His mother-in-law was a countess.

Winston played as a child in Buckingham Palace. As a youngster, he met Bismarck at a European spa. Throughout his life, he had the run of Blenheim Palace where his cousin and lifelong friend "Sunny," the 9th duke of Marlborough, would be married for a time to one of Winston's future confidantes, Consuelo Vanderbilt, heir to the Vanderbilt fortune.

Author Lovell is not the typical scholarly historian. Her research is thorough and her work is documented and based on diaries, letters, the Churchills' published writings and personal interviews. But the primary aim of this social history is to entertain. To this end, she is not always successful. In the first hundred pages, she is forced to introduce us to multiple scores of characters, many with two or three names.

But the reader is rewarded later with the realization that this huge cast is the base, the very soil from which Winston sprung. He came from a long line of cranky, bombastic, headstrong Churchills. He was not the first Churchill -- nor the last -- to display signs of manic-depression.

In fact, during the exciting World War II years, while Winston obsessed with the threats of Nazism and fascism, and later Russian Communism, we see him never far from the troubles of a new generation of Churchills, who struggled with the old demons of alcoholism, gambling, divorce and mental instability.

Actress daughter Sarah sobered up in jail cells on two continents; later, daughter Diana received shock therapy and eventually took her own life. Son Randolph considered paying one's considerable gambling debts "an awful waste of money."

The family's only stability seemed to be Winston and Clementine. "I married and lived happily ever afterward," Winston said.

Don't look for much on the Churchill-Roosevelt friendship in this book. Lovell mentions it only in passing. There is much more on the wartime affairs between Winston's daughter-in-law Pam and high-profile Americans Averell Harriman and Edward R. Murrow.

Lovell can't pass up a bit of juicy gossip. Late in Winston's life, she describes a Churchill Caribbean cruise with Ari Onassis and his wife Tina:

The Churchills and their hosts "got on well because Clementine especially liked Tina. But not long after this trip, Onassis and Tina would part after Tina boarded the [yacht] Christina unexpectedly and discovered Onassis and his most famous mistress, soprano Maria Callas [together] in the saloon beneath an El Greco."

Lovell certainly does succeed in taking a fresh look at Winston Churchill and his surroundings. It makes one wonder how he ever found the time and energy to win a war and save Western civilization.

Edward Cuddihy is a retired News managing editor.


The Churchills: In Love and War

By Mary S. Lovell


624 pages, $35