A biographical impossibility

FLIPPING slowly through the contents of the manila folder on the table before me, I came upon several old Western Unions and the faded carbons - the sender's copies - of others. It took a moment for the telegrams' significance to sink in. Then it hit: Bourke Cockran was not in London on June 28, 1921. Anita Leslie had lied; or, at least, her memory had failed her. A tiny current of elation, even triumph, went through me. I leaned back in my chair and looked around the room. Its deep silence was broken only by the whisper of pages being turned by the two or three others present. Oblivious to my excitement, they went on about their quiet tasks. Yet I thought that, were they to know of my feelings, they would share them; for, as fellow researchers, they too were in pursuit of that sudden intake of breath that comes when, brushing aside the dust of time, one unearths a shard of historical truth.

This epiphany took place in a restricted archive in the New York Public Library. I had permission to examine certain files in a room to which one is admitted by a librarian with a key, who then brings the files enumerated on a request form.

The folders in front of me held some of the personal papers of W. Bourke Cockran (1854-1923), a leading New York City lawyer, Tammany Hall insider, United States congressman, and one of the renowned orators of his time. My interest in Cockran stemmed from his friendship with Winston Churchill.

Cockran met Churchill in 1895 when the latter was a 20-year-old cavalry subaltern passing through New York on his way to Cuba. The meeting was arranged by Lady Randolph Churchill, Winston's mother, who had met Cockran in Paris.

Bourke Cockran became Churchill's first adult friend. The Irish-born American, two decades older than Churchill, perceived the young Englishman's budding talents and became a kind of overseas mentor during Winston's early years in Parliament. The men corresponded for more than 20 years. After Cockran's death, Churchill acknowledged the older man's influence. He quoted Cockran in his famous ``Iron Curtain'' speech at Fulton, Mo., in 1946.

I had come to the library to read the Cockran-Churchill correspondence. But I spent several days browsing through the rest of Cockran's papers.

These did not include either his most intimate communications with his wives (there were three) and closest friends, or the formal correspondence and other documents related to his law practice. Instead, they consisted mostly of those semipersonal, semibusiness documents that make up the bulk of life's paper trail: nonprivate letters; social and speaking invitations; speech drafts; receipts; invoices, newspaper clippings; and, as mentioned, telegrams.

In aggregate, this paper mosaic - each piece alone of little or no significance - formed a vivid pattern disclosing an active and varied life. I could trace the wide circle of Cockran's acquaintances, follow his movements (he traveled widely) and track his office and domestic arrangements. This was all great fun, but it paled before the importance of those telegrams. Some background:

In my research on the Churchill-Cockran connection, I had delved into a biography of Lady Randolph Churchill - the somewhat notorious Jennie - by Anita Leslie, the granddaughter of Jennie's youngest sister, Leonie. Leslie was also Cockran's niece: Her mother, Marjorie, and Cockran's third wife, Ann, were sisters.

The book includes a long and rather rhapsodic account of Jennie's Paris encounter with Bourke Cockran in the spring of 1895. Both were recently widowed, and Leslie writes that they were virtually inseparable for a number of weeks. That they became friends is clear, and over the years Jennie consulted Cockran for business and personal advice. But Leslie goes further, implying that a strong and intimate attachment formed, an attachment that survived both partners' remarriages.

THIS picture of a special and enduring intimacy is reinforced by Leslie's report that Cockran was in London when Jennie died in June, 1921. ``It was Bourke,'' she writes, ``who drove Leonie to 8 Westbourne Street, where her sister was still breathing.'' Later that week, she adds, ``Bourke Cockran took me and my brother Jack to choose what gifts we wished in Harrods toy department. No governess accompanied us, so we had the pleasure of this dear uncle to ourselves, but he seemed distracted.''

The scene is touching; but it's untrue. Cockran's wife was in London to be with her pregnant sister, but he had stayed behind. On June 13, Ann and Marjorie's father died in Vermont, and Cockran wired his wife with the news. Marjorie gave birth on June 28, and on June 30 Ann Cockran telegraphed her husband: ``Jennie died at same time child born....'' The same day Cockran replied: ``Marjorie news most encouraging. Jennie's death very saddening. Telegraphed Winston [and] Leonie.''

So there it was. Questions about the relationship between Cockran and Lady Randolph Churchill remain; but whatever it was, Bourke Cockran was neither at nor anywhere near Jennie's bedside when she died. As a historical fact, of course, this is just a grain of sand. Yet I felt a deep pleasure that the truth was known - if only to me - and that the evidence existed to correct a misstatement by an author whose inclination to romance had outweighed her responsibility to history.

I felt that, in a tiny way, I had set Bourke Cockran free.

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