- Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
No book about Winston Churchill and his policy making summits around the dinner table would be complete without the possibly true but never confirmed quotation from the woman who called out the Prime Minister on his drinking and his retort. Cita Stelzer has included it in her delightful “Dinner With Churchill: Policy-Making at The Dinner Table” (Pegasus Books, 336 pages, 40 in-text photographs, notes, brief bios of participants, bibliography, index, $26.95, publication date Jan. 16).
On page 191 the author presents us with Bessie Braddock’s accusation: “Winston, you are drunk,” to which Churchill is alleged to have responded: “Bessie, you are ugly. But tomorrow I shall be sober.”
Actually Churchill watered down his Johnnie Walker Black Label, Stelzer writes — noting that some sources say Red Label — so much that some fellow imbibers say it had the kick of mouthwash. Churchill was born in 1874 and lived until 1965. He was 90 when he died, so the reports of his food and alcohol consumption must have been — like the reports of Mark Twain’s death — somewhat exaggerated.
Stelzer paints a picture of Sir Winston S. Churchill that I’m sure the amateur painter in him would have admired, with the added advantage of showing admirers of Churchill a side that has not been detailed before. With fascinating new insights into the food he ate, the champagne he loved — Pol Roger — and the important guests he charmed, this delectable volume is a sumptuous and intellectual treat.
A friend once said of Churchill “He is a man of simple tastes; he is quite easily satisfied with the best of everything.” After all, he was born in Blemheim Palace to an English father, Lord Randolph Churchill, and an American mother, the beautiful Jennie Jerome of Cobble Hill, Brooklyn.
But dinners for Churchill were about more than good food, excellent champagnes and Havana cigars. No five-cent White Owls, which an accommodating but clueless American bought for him when his supply ran out! “Everything” included the opportunity to use the dinner table both as a stage on which to display his brilliant conversational talents, and an intimate setting in which to glean gossip and diplomatic insights, and to argue for the many policies he espoused over a long life.
In this riveting, informative and entertaining book, Stelzer draws on previously untapped material, diaries of guests, and a wide variety of other
sources to tell of some of the key dinners at which Churchill presided before, during and after World War II– including the important conferences at which he used his considerable skills to attempt to persuade his allies, Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin, to fight the war according to his strategic vision.
If you’re looking for insights on Churchill’s global views, you won’t find them in this book. It’s mostly about menus, Churchill’s preferences (he hated creamy soups, preferring clear ones) and similar subjects.
In an interview entitled “Why I wrote Dinner with Churchill: Policy-Making at the Dinner Table”, Stelzer explains why she picked this particular aspect of Churchill to write about:
In the course of many years spent reading biographies of and books about Winston Churchill I realized that I had learned little about how this man planned the meals at which he had accomplished so much. After all, most of the deals that were struck at the famous international conferences held during WWII were made at or facilitated by dinners at which the leaders were more relaxed than at formal sessions.
So I began digging into the Churchill Archives at Churchill College, Cambridge. Not only did I find menus for the more famous dinners with Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, and Stalin. But there were details of Churchill careful setting of the stages for dinners with his generals, political friends and foes, leading academics and a host of other interesting people. In addition, I found bills for dinners at Claridges, the Ritz and The Savoy, with guests lists, amended wine selections, letters from Churchill and his staff complaining about over-billing, letters from Churchill thanking friends for the gifts of foods and wines, all in the Archives as set out in my book.
About the Author
A freelance journalist and a Research Associate at the Hudson Institute, Cita Stelzer previously worked for former NYC Mayor John Lindsay, and former NY Governor Hugh Carey. She is currently a researcher at Churchill College, Cambridge, England, and a member of the Board of the Churchill Centre and Trustee of Wigmore Hall.