As the proprietor of Chartwell Booksellers – my tiny Churchill-centric bookshop in New York City – for almost thirty years now, I have handled and, at least fleetingly, read just about every book ever written by and about Winston Churchill.
Certainly, it never occurred to me that I might have anything new to say on the subject. Then, one day, I found myself staring at a photograph of Churchill that I liked immensely – for the expression on his face, for the angle of the hat on his head, for the elegant splay of his manicured fingers and the curl of smoke from the cigar that those fingers clasped, for the lumpy, belted siren suit that Churchill slouched in, and the eyeglasses he’d haphazardly stuffed into a half-open breast pocket.
That’s when it hit me. No-one had ever written a book about Churchill’s style: the grand, gracious, slightly musty, insouciantly original manner with which he had dressed, drunk, eaten, smoked, painted, holidayed and in every possible sense lived away from politics.
And so, a Churchill book – one more Churchill book – was born. It was written surprisingly quickly. So much had accumulated in my head about the man and his ways, the details just tumbled out, abetted by the vast paper trail in the Churchill Archives at Churchill College, Cambridge, and the possessions stashed in and about Chartwell, Churchill’s former home in Kent – the twin repositories for all that Churchill had saved over the years; which is to say, just about everything.
There were the voluminous bills for Churchill’s favorite champagne, Pol Roger, and his affectionate correspondence with the vineyard’s doyenne, Madame Odette Pol-Roger. There were the cigar bills from seemingly every tobacconist ever to have hung out a shingle in London over the last century. There were Churchill’s siren suits themselves – the all-purpose zip-up garments he had himself designed and had made to order (by Turnbull & Asser, no less) in a variety of fabrics, including one of russet red velvet.
What tickled me as I wrote the book, and what thrills me now as it reaches publication, is the knowledge that there really is no end here. Every day in my shop I have learned something new about the old boy. This applies exponentially to his lifestyle, which touched so many leisure realms with such an intensity of existence.
Just a month or so ago, I received an email out of the blue from the son of Winston Churchill’s former bodyguard, Edmund Murray. Sergeant Murray had become Churchill’s Special Detective in 1955, after serving in the Foreign Legion and the London Metropolitan Police. He’d remained on active Churchill duty until Churchill’s death in 1965. Most intriguingly, for Churchill, I think, Murray was an accomplished amateur painter. “You have had a most interesting life,” Churchill told Murray, when first interviewing him for the job. “And I hear you even paint in oils.”
Murray was at Churchill’s side on many of his painting forays, lugging Churchill’s palette and easel, snapping photographs of the landscape scenes that Churchill later projected on a wall with a magic lantern machine to complete paintings in his studio at Chartwell. When Murray had his work rejected by the Royal Academy, Churchill consoled him: “You know, your paintings are so much better than mine, but yours are judged on their merit.”
Now, years after Edmund Murray’s passing, here was an email from his son, Bill. The Murray family had decided they were ready to part with a pendant that Winston Churchill had given to Bill’s father (and mother, Beryl), Bill Murray wrote to me.
On page 211 of Churchill Style I had written the following:
On July 13, 1955, Churchill sent silver V-signs to 113 former members of his staff at 10 Downing Street and Chequers, including the cleaners, electricians, telephonists, messengers, and carpenters, as well as his prewar and wartime secretariat.
That was all I knew when I wrote those words but it was enough. What a wonderful touch, I’d thought, after stumbling over this bit of information in Churchill’s Official biography by Sir Martin Gilbert. What a perfect example of Churchill style; just two months after his retirement as Prime Minister, Winston Churchill had gifted pretty much everyone he’d ever come in contact with at 10 Downing Street – from the highest to the lowest – with silver V-sign pendants designed and executed according to Churchill’s instructions by Cartier in London.
There was no photograph to refer to, however. No-one that I could find had ever seen one of these pendants. Certainly I never had.
And then, weeks before the publication of Churchill Style, Bill Murray materialized.
I was delighted. And inspired. I decided to create a Churchill Style website: ChurchillStyle.com, an online companion to the book that will allow me to share everything I continue to turn up about Winston Churchill’s deeply personal private world and the grand manner with which he inhabited it. Like Churchill style itself, the site will hopefully go on and on, until the subject is exhausted – or, at least, until I am.
Chartwell Booksellers in NYC is hosting the book launch event for Churchill Style this Wednesday, May 2nd. The launch is a celebration of all things Churchill, featuring his favorite music, food and drink! RSVP here if you would like to attend.
Barry Singer has been the proprietor of Chartwell Booksellers in New York City, the only bookshop devoted to the works of Churchill, for more than 25 years. Singer is also a New York Times notable author and a regular contributor to the New York Times Arts & Leisure section, among many others.
Churchill Style: The Art of Being Winston Churchill (Abrams Image, 2012) is available now where books are sold.