“He has a great talent for show-off, exaggeration and make-believe.”— Lord Randolph Churchill, in an August 1893 letter to his mother, the dowager Duchess of Marlborough, on his 18-year-old son Winston, quoted in Peter Clarke, Mr. Churchill’s Profession: Statesman, Orator, Writer (2013)
Like most fans of Sir Winston Churchill—particularly readers of the first volume of William Manchester’s vivid biography, The Last Lion—I had been aware of his emotionally fraught relationship with his father, Lord Randolph Churchill. But it was not until reading the reminiscence of the British Prime Minister’s death on this date 50 years ago—and of the extraordinary state funeral which followed—by granddaughter Celia Sandys, in today’s Wall Street Journal, that it struck me that Winston died 70 years to the day after his father passed away.
Winston's death, amid sorrowing family members, was greeted with acclaim for one of the most important figures of the 20th century, a savior of the world from complete takeover by totalitarianism. There was general acceptance among family and admirers that, after 90 years and the ample fulfillment of his promise, he could go in peace.
Randolph’s death in January 1895 was entirely different, occurring at the London home of his mother, prolonged and punctuated by cries so terrible that his sister-in-law likened it to that of “some wild animal.” Instead of leaving a world that remembered him as a historic figure, Randolph departed amid baffled whispers about what had happened to a politician of protean gifts who had died at only age 45. His wife, the now-middle-aged American-born beauty, Jennie Jerome, was thrown into confusion by caring for a husband who showed increasing signs of irritability and, finally, madness.
For years, the consensus seemed to be that Randolph died of syphilis, contracted under circumstances gossiped about but impossible to determine. More recently, Dr. John Mather has speculated that Randolph may instead have been afflicted with “a tumor deep in the left side of his brain.”
What is indisputable is Randolph’s impact on Winston’s life. The father, who eviscerated opponents on the floor of Parliament with a formidable intellect and rapier-like wit, treated his son similarly. His manner, that of a frenetically busy, overworked Victorian public figure, created more distance than warmth from a youngster who badly craved his attention. “I cannot think why you did not come to see me in Brighton,” Winston wrote when he learned his father had not bothered to see him at school, despite being nearby. “I was very disappointed, but I suppose you were too busy to come.”
Winston’s struggles in his early schools, St. George’s, Brighton, and Harrow, left Randolph distinctly unimpressed, as today’s quote indicates. The father took little notice of Winston’s fine grades in English and history, paying more attention to the subpar marks in Latin, French and mathematics that drove his overall standing to near the bottom of his class. It took him three tries to make the military college Sandhurst, and even then he had to settle for the cavalry rather than the branch that Randolph wanted, the infantry.
By the time Winston graduated with honors from Harrow, a year after his father wrote dismissively about him, Randolph was too far gone mentally to appreciate the strides his son had made. In another sense, however, he was right: Winston was a “show-off.” He could not have dazzled listeners in Parliament without being one, at least to some extent.
He would have been more than justified in resenting his father for the rest of his life, but whatever he was told about his father’s medical condition (in all likelihood, a syphilis diagnosis) led Winston to pity him instead. His biography, Lord Randolph Churchill, published 11 years after his father’s agonizing death, written to vindicate a man already rumored to have died of a shameful disease, should have been enough evidence of filial devotion to a man who really didn’t warrant it.
But Winston was not through living up to the life and career of this man who, well before his death, had confounded friends and enemies alike because of his wayward judgment. (Randolph’s 1886 resignation as Chancellor of the Exchequer—the British equivalent of Secretary of the Treasury-- was a fatal political mistake.) His own career can be read not merely as an attempt to prove that his father was wrong about him, but also that he could somehow fulfill Randolph’s aborted promise by reaching heights unreached by his father.
Three years after his own death, Winston would be joined in Bladon churchyard by his son, also named Randolph. The second Randolph possessed much of his grandfather’s brilliance, but also a mixture of traits that dismayed even those who loved him: “gambling, arrogance, vicious temper, indiscretions and aggression,” joined with other characteristics more likely to be deemed positively Churchillian: “generous, patriotic, extravagant and amazingly courageous,” in the words of historian Andrew Roberts.