At one time or another, many of us are spoiled, whiny, and ungrateful brats. If our parents are fortunate, maturity – for us, not for them – brings sweet relief. Pity, then, Winston Churchill’s poor mother.
Not that the American-born widow Lady Randolph was actually poor. She was actually quite wealthy in the late 1890s, and her elder son knew it. Tired of surviving on the edge with barely enough money to buy a polo pony, he demanded that she make his allowance mandatory. “I have also been extravagant,” he admitted, “but my extravagances are a very small matter beside yours.”
Churchill, then in his mid-20s, had a point: According to him, his mother’s new ball gown cost twice as much as his horse. He also had a lot of bluster, gall, and self-regard. No wonder he became a politician.
But Churchill became something else too: a brilliant and beloved world leader, a British lion who made the right decisions in the right place at the right time. His rise is all the more stunning when you consider the unwise choices he’d earlier made in public and – as we’re now learning – in private.
As new book reveals, Churchill was a big and careless spender throughout his life, endlessly hustling for loans and deals to support his pricey and princely habits. “What an extraordinary boy you are regarding your business affairs,” his mother wrote him when he was just 22. Little did she know.
As author David Lough puts it, Churchill “ran up huge personal debts, gambled heavily, lost large amounts on the stock exchange, avoided tax with great success and paid his bills reluctantly.”
He also, if only temporarily and only in a tiny fashion, tried to cut back. Hence the title of Lough’s fascinating financial history: No More Champagne: Churchill and His Money.
The Churchill budget for alcohol was indeed cut at one point, as were his legendary cigars – but not entirely. Some things were sacrilege in the high-toned, high-class world of the Churchills. Luxuries, even these unhealthy ones, could be trimmed but not eliminated. There were expectations to be met, after all, amid the upper crust of British society.
Lough’s wealth of detail about Churchill’s money – sprawling over 545 pages – can be overwhelming. But his extensive research and perceptive insight offer a fascinating window into the alternate universe in which the various Churchills lived.
After World War I, the Edwardian elite found the world to be positively horrific, as one duchess recalled, what with all the taxes, pricey shops, and spoiled children. Worst of all: the dreadfully high cost of the help. But, as the duchess noted, “we all continued to live with what now seems a vast quantity of servants. If one had a servant at all one did not even pull a curtain or open the front door when the bell rang.”
There was shameless entitlement too. “We will have to pay our bills more regularly now that we are substantial, shan’t we?” wondered Churchill’s wife Clementine after they came into some money. Then she asked for a share.
And so, in the book’s crowning irony, it came to pass that Churchill would be named chancellor of the exchequer. Or, to translate to American English, the secretary of the treasury. It didn’t take long for him to need a emergency loan. Not for the country, but for him.
After he helped to save the world during World War II, the second half of the 20th century brought financial relief. Churchill made money in expected ways (by writing) and unexpected ways (by painting and investing in movies). He also found financial health by embracing Britain’s relations across the pond, believing – as Lough puts it – that “America remained a testing ground for a new way of life.”
A book about Churchill’s money troubles is especially timely this fall when the presidential campaign features Donald Trump, a billionaire who’s downplayed his father’s “small” $1 million loan; Hillary Clinton, who’s mocked for describing herself as “dead broke” after the White House; and Marco Rubio, a politician of modest means who’s being scrutinized over his own questionable financial choices.
As Churchill’s story reveals, money matters provide hints into potential for leadership but they aren’t conclusive. Past performance, as they say, is just one indicator of future results.
As Churchill himself described the US amid the Great Depression, “no one could doubt that this financial disaster ... is only a passing episode in the march of a valiant and serviceable people who by fierce experiment are hewing new paths for man, and showing to all nations much that they should attempt and much that they should avoid.”
With a few adjustments to the wording, he could have been describing himself: extraordinary, admirable and a cautionary tale, all in one package.
Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, is president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.