Winston Churchill in Richmond

What happened when the British Bulldog came to town.

Actor John Lithgow’s portrayal of the mercurial Winston Churchill in “The Crown” landed him an Emmy a few months ago. And Gary Oldman plays the former prime minister of the United Kingdom in “Darkest Hour,” generating Oscar buzz for his performance.

More than 50 years since Churchill’s death in January 1965, intrigue continues to follow the cigar-chomping, brandy-sipping renaissance man — hailed by many historians as the greatest political figure of the 20th century.

But few Virginians are aware that Churchill was fascinated by America’s Civil War. In October 1929, he followed the story to Richmond, using the Executive Mansion as his base of operations while he toured local battlefields as background for books and articles.

Churchill’s brief stay nearly drove his hostess, Virginia first lady Anne Beverley “Sittie” Byrd, the wife of Gov. Harry F. Byrd, to distraction.

“Harry, don’t you ever invite that man back,” she commanded, as the famous Englishman’s car wound its way out of Capitol Square. Churchill was bound for Fredericksburg and more slogging through thickets and open battlefields where North and South had clashed so bloodily some 75 years before.

In May 1929, the energetic Churchill, 54, suddenly found himself out of political power and with a rare chunk of time on his hands with the parliamentary defeat of the Conservative government. He lost his position as Chancellor of the Exchequer, and not unimportantly, the salary that came with it.

Churchill was well known however, internationally for his other accomplishments: as a soldier, war correspondent, member of Parliament, historian and cabinet minister.

Seeking to generate some income, Churchill decided to step up his writing, a skill for which he also was widely recognized. His new projects included a biography of John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, an ancestor, as well as a series of 10 newspaper articles for London’s Daily Telegraph that would chronicle his North American trip.

The 1929 stay with Sittie and Harry Byrd came near the end of Churchill’s nearly three-month, mostly-for-pleasure transcontinental journey, which took his party westward across Canada then back to the U.S. East Coast.

His American literary agent welcomed the proposed U.S. visit, figuring it would bolster readership of future books. And Churchill wrote in anticipation, “It’s fun to get away from England and feel one has no responsibilities for her exceedingly tiresome and embarrassing affairs.”

In planning his carefully choreographed itinerary, Churchill turned to Bernard Baruch, an American friend and prominent figure in financial circles worldwide. Baruch suggested not only important figures in politics, business and entertainment with whom Churchill might hobnob, but also people who might underwrite the travel expenses.

Because Baruch was traveling in Europe in the spring of 1929, he and Churchill consulted regularly on the logistics of the autumn excursion, especially those willing to foot the bill. Mary Churchill Soames wrote that her father was good at “combining pleasure with profit.”

Churchill also was a high-maintenance traveler, infamous for his expensive tastes. During his military service as an officer in the First World War, when stationed in the field he demanded a private bathtub, large towels, food boxes from Fortnum and Mason and quantities of ham, corned beef, Stilton cheese, cream, sardines, and dried peaches — not to mention brandy and other liqueurs.

Baruch contacted deep-pocketed potential hosts such as Charles Schwab, chairman of Bethlehem Steel, whom Churchill had met in 1914 in the early days of World War I; California-based newspaper mogul, William Randolph Hearst; and the Pittsburgh banker, art collector U.S. Treasury secretary Andrew Mellon.

To accompany him, Churchill took his son Randolph, a spoiled and precocious 18-year-old; his brother Jack, a down-to-earth stockbroker; and Jack’s happy-go-lucky son, John, 20, who excelled in swimming, diving and acrobatics as well as being a budding artist. Churchill’s wife, Clementine, stayed behind to recover from an illness.

The two younger men had been close friends since childhood and shared living quarters at Oxford where they were students in 1929. For Churchill, it had been 30 years since he’d visited North America and he wanted his son and nephew to share his excitement with its people and cultures.

Travel was essential, he wrote: “One must have time to feel a country and nibble at some of the grass.” He thought it’d be useful for the boys to see “the mighty [North American] lands at a period in their lives when the proportion of things are established in the mind.”

In early August the party sailed from England to Quebec City via the Empress of Australia, a ship that saw service in the First World War and recently had been retrofitted to accommodate 1,400 passengers. The Churchills were among those 400 on board occupying first class quarters.

“Jack and I have large cabins with big double beds and private bathrooms,” Churchill wrote his wife in one of his frequent and descriptive letters. “There is a fine parlor with an observation room at the end and a large dining room which I use as an office.”

Upon disembarking in Canada, the Churchill men boarded a Canadian Pacific Railroad train to which Charles Schwab’s private rail car, the Mont Royal, was attached. In exchange for Schwab’s and the railroad’s largesse, Churchill agreed to give four speeches to mostly business groups at various established points while he crossed the vast Canadian landscape.

Churchill was intrigued by major oil operations, gas industries and other industrial installations he observed and visited. He hoped that a major goal for the trip would be to meet “leaders of its [the continent’s] fortune,” and he was not disappointed. Throughout the trip, he remained in good spirits, chatting up everyone, whether rich or of modest means.

Teenaged Randolph, on the other hand, wrote in his diary of being bored and missing his circle of posh college swells back in England. But he was considered dazzlingly handsome, highly opinionated, and a fierce partisan of his father. From all reports this made him a hit with the ladies he met during the trip. Men more often found him “abominable, arrogant and rude.” Cousin John, by contrast, was considered cherubic, yet “having a trace of the satyr in his smile.”

As the comfortable Canadian Pacific train and Schwab’s personal car reached Vancouver on the Canadian west coast, Winston inquired as to whether the railroad might continue on to his destinations in the United States. For numerous reasons, including the illegality of the railroads offering free rides, this wasn’t possible.

The Churchills transferred to a public railroad for the trip through Washington and Oregon en route to San Francisco. And luxurious, it apparently wasn’t: “I am lying on the top berth of our compartment,” Randolph wrote in his diary. “Papa is unpacking and swearing down below. We miss the Mount Royal.”
In San Francisco the party was received by prominent banker William Crocker, who provided an excellent introduction to California. But the next stop impressed even Churchill, who was born to luxury in the 186-room Blenheim Palace — the only private English home allowed to use “palace” that isn’t connected to the royals.

It was San Simeon, the country, Pacific-front estate of publisher Hearst and his wife, Millicent. They enjoyed the stupendous accommodations for a week.

After leaving the Bay area, the party traveled to Los Angeles, where it lodged in a hotel and was introduced to Hollywood royalty. Churchill and his companions visited Charlie Chaplin on the set of “City Lights.” The two men reportedly got along famously. Chaplin must have had a connection with great men because upon the movie’s release two years later, Albert Einstein sought Chaplin out and they also became friends.

During their Los Angeles stay, the party also was entertained lavishly and warmly by Marion Davies, Hearst’s mistress and an actress with operatic aspirations. A decade later art imitated life when Orson Wells wrote, produced, directed and starred in “Citizen Kane.” The script depicted Hearst, his newspaper empire, his castlelike home, and his relationship with the wannabe diva. Churchill wrote to Clementine extolling the hospitality and his fondness for “both of Mr. Hearst’s wives.”

Leaving Southern California, the Brits snaked their way across the United States, stopping at the Grand Canyon. Somewhere along the way they were joined by Charles William Slingsby Duncombe, or Lord Feversham. The 22-year-old had become both a protégé and advisor to Winston. And despite his pedigree, high social status and relative youth, he was socially conscious and keenly interested in reforming the British probation system — and to a lesser degree, the penal system. These issues were of great interest to Churchill as well.

After a stop in Chicago it was on to New York. Randolph and Johnny sailed back to England for the start of the school year. Churchill spent a number of days trading American stocks from a financial distict office that his patron, Baruch, had set up for him.

On the evening Oct. 18, the same night he was planning to continue southward from Manhattan to Richmond, Churchill again was lavishly feted by Millicent Hearst, this time in the family’s upper West Side apartment on Riverside Drive. Among the guests were such A-list names as Astors, Vanderbilts and Nasts. After dinner the high-steppers were entertained by Rudy Vallee, the era’s most popular male singer.

It’s not surprising that Churchill missed his train. He caught a later connection and settled into a sleeper car for the all-night ride to the former Confederate capital. This stop would be considerably more low-key than the Big Apple.

Churchill’s guide to Virginia was another of his acquaintances from World War I, Cary T. Grayson, a Navy physician and admiral. A resident of Culpeper, Grayson had attended three presidents — Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson. He had accompanied the latter, who was in failing health, to Paris after World War I for peace talks at Versailles. It was there that he and Churchill struck up a friendship.

Dr. Grayson drove himself to Richmond in plenty of time to meet Churchill at the Broad Street train station the next morning — which is now the Science Museum of Virginia. Meanwhile, because Churchill had left New York late, the schedule was thrown off considerably at the Virginia Executive Mansion.

It was decided that rather than check in there, Churchill would leave directly from the terminal to his first stop of Civil War touring. The carefully planned, late luncheon scheduled for 2:30 at the mansion was scrapped — which probably didn’t sit well with Virginia’s first lady.

Churchill stepped from his private railcar at 11:30 a.m. into the perfect autumn sunshine wearing a brown suit, green golfing shirt, black bow tie and black hat. The News Leader reported that he looked “youthful and enthusiastic.”

In addition to Grayson, the greeting party included Eppa Hunton, president of the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad, and John Stewart Bryan, publisher of the Richmond News Leader. Alongside Bryan was one of his trophy journalists, Douglas Southall Freeman, editor of the editorial page. Freeman would be Churchill’s guide to Civil War sites and battlefields. Later that evening Bryan held a formal dinner for 22 guests in Churchill’s honor at Laburnum, his family’s handsome country place near Ginter Park, which is now part of the Veritas school campus.

Freeman, for whom a Henrico County high school is named, was practiced at playing guide to visiting luminaries. In 1921 he showed Field Marshall Ferdinand Foch, commander of the Allied Forces in World War I, around town, including making stops for a wreath-laying at the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue and further afield at Civil War battlefields.

In 1923 Freeman waltzed British Prime Minister Lloyd George on a similar tour. Since those visits, however, Freeman had made considerable progress on an ambitious, multivolume biography of the life of Lee. In other words, he was well primed for Churchill, no slouch himself when it came to Civil War knowledge. Freeman and Churchill shared something else, too — the same New York publisher, Charles A. Scribner & Son.

The first stop was at the Battle Abby on Boulevard, now the Virginia Historical Society. Churchill reportedly was impressed by the four “Seasons of the Confederacy” murals by Charles Hoffbauer. The party visited the State Capitol to see the spot in the old House of Delegates chamber where Lee had accepted command of the Army of Northern Virginia. Next they stopped by the Confederate Museum which at the time occupied the White House of the Confederacy. Churchill was moved by the threadbare or torn Confederate battle flags he saw there.

The motorcade then sped to eastern Hanover and Henrico counties to visit sites of the Seven Days Battles — Malvern Hill, Mechanicsville and Gaines Mill. Churchill listened intently while Freeman described the bloody encounters of 1862 when Union Gen. George McClellan was closing in on Richmond but had his 80,000 men driven back by Lee, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and James “Jeb” Stuart. Freeman was impressed at how much Churchill knew.

At the time of his visit, Churchill had begun to research and write what would be his literary major opus, “A History of the English-Speaking Peoples.” In the multivolume work he included considerable space in the “Great Democracies” section to the Civil War. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for this work.

Later in the afternoon, the touring party paid a call at Westover plantation in Charles City County and its owner, Mrs. Richard Crane. The ancestral home of the Byrds had been a staging ground for McClellan in the days during the Seven Days campaign. And Crane’s husband had been the first U.S. diplomat assigned to Czechoslovakia and was an acquaintance of Churchill. It was a “brilliant tea,” the visitor wrote.

Churchill finally reached the Executive Mansion in the early evening, tired but exhilarated by what he’d seen.

While certainly neither as showy nor as large as other places he’d stayed since arriving in North America, the Executive Mansion possesses an understated dignity. Today it is the nation’s oldest governor’s mansion still in use as a residence.

Built in 1812, it was looking sharp at the time of Churchill’s visit after undergoing an extensive redecoration in 1926, the first year of Harry Byrd’s administration. A devastating fire on New Year’s Day of that year resulted from a Christmas tree being ignited by a sparkler waved around by Billy Trinkle, the governor’s son.

Although there was some discussion of moving the official residence to Richmond’s suburban West End, Harry Byrd — whose family history parallels that of the commonwealth — opted for a restoration. Among other improvements was the transformation of the former kitchen, a separate building, into a guesthouse. The governor’s mother was enounced there. The redecoration had been overseen by Elsie Cobb Wilson, a fancy New York decorator.

Churchill, soon after being shown his guest room on the mansion’s second floor, apparently stripped down to his underwear and wandered about before dressing for the formal dinner at the Bryans’. Harry Byrd Jr., the governor’s 14-year-old son who was living there, later recalled his mother’s displeasure at their half-dressed guest. That’s perhaps reflected in the paucity of photographs of the visit.

There also was the issue of Churchill’s need to imbibe throughout the day.

Churchill’s trip coincided with the Prohibition years, and Byrd was a strict teetotaler, even years later refusing to serve alcohol at his daughter’s wedding reception. Nonetheless, it seems that someone was dispatched from the mansion to Shockoe Bottom to rustle up some hooch. And the sophisticated Bryan, who had famously stashed away booze at Laburnum, answered the call and sent excellent Scotch whisky to the mansion for the prominent guests’ consumption.

Churchill still wasn’t dressed for dinner when he descended the stairs to the mansion’s broad entrance hall in search of a newspaper. A number of Byrd kinfolk had arrived for the ride over to the Bryan estate. When Churchill spotted formally dressed R. Gray Williams, a prominent lawyer and cousin of the first lady in the hallway, he assumed he was a butler — or maybe not, considering Churchill’s often arch antics. He instructed him to fetch him a newspaper. Harry Jr. accompanied his cousin to the nearby Hotel Richmond, now the Barbara Johns Building, at Grace and Ninth streets. Churchill tipped Williams a quarter — a coin the attorney pocketed as a souvenir.

Young Byrd also recalled that at one meal, maybe at breakfast Oct. 20, Churchill requested mustard to apply to his serving of Virginia ham. After Sittie Byrd sent word to the kitchen, the response was that there was none. She laughed it off, suggesting to her guests that they could run out to the store. Churchill stood his ground, and Harry Jr. was again called into action: He bolted to a nearby grocer.

Later that morning Dr. Grayson’s car came around, and Churchill bid farewell to his Richmond hosts. He was driven to Fredericksburg to tour the battlefields and arrived in Washington later that evening. He visited President Herbert Hoover at the White House and soon moved on to New York for 10 days.

While Churchill was accessing his considerable earnings from investments he’d made while in North America, the bottom of the market fell out. Churchill was on Wall Street on Black Friday, Oct. 29. His losses were considerable.

The next day he sailed for England on the Berengaria, of the Cunard line.

Churchill’s account of his trip to the Old Dominion was published in London’s Daily Telegraph in December 1929. It was one of the 10 articles about his sojourn to which he’d committed.

In “Old Battlefields of Virginia,” he was sympathetic but not particularly praiseworthy of what he had seen and experienced.

“Virginia had been beaten down, trampled upon, disinherited, impoverished and ridden asunder, and flung aside while Northern wealth and power and prosperity strode into Empire!” he wrote. “And yet it had to be. Hardly even the adherents of the lost cause wished it otherwise.”

In 1940 Churchill started the first of two terms as prime minister and once again was inspired by the can-do spirit of the United States when the Franklin Roosevelt administration came to Great Britain’s aid in defeating the Axis powers.

Shortly after the war, on March 8, 1946, Churchill made a triumphant return to Richmond’s Broad Street Station. This time he was accompanied by his wife, Clementine, and supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, and his wife, Mamie.

Thousands of admiring Virginians lined the streets in the rain as the motorcade made its way down Monument Avenue, past the statues of the Confederate generals whom Churchill so admired.

At the Capitol he addressed a joint session of the Virginia General Assembly. It was one of only a few speeches to U.S. audiences that the great prime minister delivered on American soil. S


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