Lady Mary Soames
Boston — It's dangerous as well as bad mannered to try and fit people into categories. But it's hard to resist when it comes to Lady Mary Soames, Sir Winston Churchill's daughter. She is such a good example of the best upper-class Englishwoman.
Imagine the kind of aristocrat-who-lives-next-door (or the aristocrat you'd like to have living next door) and Lady Soames would be a perfect choice. She has those fadeless English good looks that depend on bone structure, a pink and white complexion, quiet assurance, and an expression that suggests that if she got the chance she would do you a good turn.
Talking to her in Boston recently, I found she has changed very little since she surprised me and some of my friends with a good turn nearly 40 years ago. I was one of a contingent of British servicewomen arriving from France in the middle of the night, hungry and tired. Dawn was still a long way off, and breakfast seemed highly unlikely. But it was there, ready for us, served by a spic, span, and calm officer. An officer waiting on privates? No, not just an officer, but the prime minister's daughter.
''We were awfully impressed,'' I told Lady Soames here. ''You obviously weren't just the prime minister's daughter putting on an act. You were really working.''
She laughed, ''What a lovely thing to meet you after all those years,'' she said. ''I hope the breakfast was up to standard.''
All the same, the notion that she might have been suspected of not pulling her weight obviously made her uncomfortable.
''Several people have asked me what the disadvantages were of being my father's daughter, which I find an awfully tiresome question. I always have said I loved my parents and thought they were wonderful and I admired them, all that side was so happy.
''But when I was in the Army, one did experience people who were over nice to one because of who one was.''
On the other hand, ''I used to dread going to a new unit because I knew I was going to meet the sort of watchful atmosphere of 'Is she going to try not to do night duty?'
''But they very soon saw that one was prepared to scrub floors and do one's bit. Then one was accepted more naturally.
''Very extraordinary experience to have had, wasn't it, those days?''
Libaries are full of books written about the official side of Sir Winston Churchill's life. Lady Soames has written two that reveal the human side of him and his family. Her first book is ''Clementine Churchill: The Biography of a Marriage'' (Boston: Houghton Mifflin. $16.95). It is a well-researched, footnoted, indexed account that also manages to tell a moving love story - the account of Winston Churchill's tender and reciprocated love for his wife, Clementine.
''It all comes out in their letters. I couldn't have done it without those extraordinary letters, which really tell the story, and which tell their relationship better than any outside person could do it.''
Lady Soames's new book is ''Family Album: A Personal Selection from Four Generations of Churchills'' (Boston: Houghton Mifflin. $22.95). It's not a volume of splendid arty photographs - it isn't meant to be. But it is a fascinating collection of personal snapshots, official photographs, and old newspaper ones - a blend of history, footnotes to history, nostalgia. ''I thought it was worth doing,'' she said. ''I was made a bit hesitant by feeling that people would think, oh gosh, another Churchill book. But I am looking through a different pair of spectacles. There have been pictorial accounts, but they're all looking - quite rightly - at my father's great public career. But I'm looking at it from a different angle and that this might appeal to people.''
Particularly appealing to me is the glimpse of the man who made blood, toil, sweat, and tears sound like a special treat, explaining why everyone loved Britain's first giant panda so much. Ming satisfied, he said in 1938, the world's ''need for cuddlability.''
''It must have been moving.''
''Very. And rather sad sometimes - the jigsaw puzzle has sad bits in it. But it made me think too.''
Obviously, she explained, the public, if it's interested in famous people's families at all, concentrates on ''the thrills and spills.'' That distorts the picture. But that distortion becomes the picture even the family comes to accept. So looking back at the record ''reassured me very much. I had tended perhaps to remember the sadnesses and the failures, but we had our laughs and things . . . and it suddenly brought it all back very richly.''
Nevertheless they ''drive me mad - the wealth of inaccuracy and awful apocryphal stories. I grind my teeth.''
I asked her if she wanted to deny any in particular, but, ''No,'' she said, ''Somebody once said when I was in a great rage about some trivial point, 'Well now, if you write and make a great scene about that one, they'll just think, because you haven't made a scene about the others, they're true.' You know, a lot of it's amiably meant. You just have to bow your head and hope that the good currency will drive out the bad.''
I asked about the controversial portrait by Graham Sutherland which the House of Commons had presented to Sir Winston on his 80th birthday. It depicted him, Lady Churchill felt, as a ''gross and cruel monster'' and ''wounded him deeply.'' So she took the step that shook the art world and destroyed it.
But that story, Lady Soames said, was true. She did burn it. And though ''all sorts of artistic highbrow people had a fit, most people thought 'good on her,' really. I know that I might have wanted to do it, but wouldn't have had the guts. Although I never minded (the portrait) much.''
To me the truly distressing rumor was one about Sir Winston's radio speeches - those tide-turning trumpet calls that rallied the nation against ''the Narzees'': They were delivered by a mimic, it has been said. Churchill didn't make them.
''Of course, he did. Of course he did,'' said Lady Soames, blue eyes flashing. ''It's totally untrue, and it deeply upsets me. What happened was that it's a prerogative of Parliament to be the first to hear statements of major importance. Even quite junior ministers would get frightfully hauled over the coals if they were to dream of making a statement to the press before they had made a statement in Parliament.
''Therefore, with quite a number of my father's speeches, he made them in the House of Commons and then remade them either exactly as they were or sometimes he incorporated them into a broadcast which didn't contain different views, but may have had a change of wanted emphasis.''
I asked if she thought Sir Winston would have been equally successful on television.
''I'd have thought that he'd have been a natural for it, because he was essentially a relaxed, forthright person. I think he'd have just gone through that screen into the living room.''
Perhaps, I said, television, with its too-revealing eye, was responsible for the present dearth of world leaders.
''I do think it is partly, but the hour brings forth the man. (The desperate period in World War II) was an hour when people wanted to listen to one leader and the man was there. Perhaps it wouldn't be healthy if that sort of atmosphere went on. The minute the war was over, it very briskly reverted. It's no good bemoaning that sort of thing.''
When I suggested that he was swept out of office in the post-war landslide because the Army were afraid of losing the measure of social equality the war had brought them, she said she thought ''it was more a wish to go forward than a fear of going back. It was a number of things. I don't think anybody foresaw the scale of that extraordinary majority. In fact, my mother was one of the few people close to my father who really envisaged that it might happen. She's always had strong liberal views and read the News Chronicle a lot. The News Chronicle was, I think, the only paper in Great Britain that published the Gallup Poll. The Gallup Poll consistently showed a small lead for the Labour Party. Which I think then was tremendously magnified by the service votes.''
The servicemen, she pointed out, ''were never canvassed so the service vote was totally unknown. Actually it'll never happen again. It was a unique election.
I told Lady Soames that I had seen Sir Winston the morning after Birmingham had suffered a particularly severe air raid.He was there, as always, in the thick of things. A fortuituous traffic jam stranded our car a few yards from his.
''I was surprised,'' I told Lady Soames. ''He seemed so fragile and so small.''
There was a long pause.
But he wasn't small, she said.
''I'm sort of hopeless, never knowing any statistics about my family. And if you asked me how many cigars my father smoked every day, which I'm sure you won't, I won't know. And I don't know how tall he was or how heavy he was. . . . You don't look at people you're living with in that sort of statistical way.'' But he wasn't small.
''Perhaps he seemed small,'' I ventured, ''because we thought he was a giant - mentally and physically.
There was another, even longer, pause.
''I think that's very moving that you thought he was small. . . .''