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Mary Soames, 1922-2014

Jun 16, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 38 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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The Scrapbook notes, with sadness, the death last week in London of 91-year-old Mary Soames, the youngest and last surviving child of Sir Winston Churchill. From her time as a very young woman in the Auxiliary Territorial Service (the British equivalent of the WAC), where she assisted her father at his various wartime conferences, through her career as the wife of a prominent politician, mother, biographer, benefactor, and resource for historians, Lady Soames led a long and productive life. And by all accounts, a happy one as well. 

Mary Soames

Which is worth noting. For while Mary Soames was the last to die of the 12 (adult) children of World War II’s Big Three—Churchill, Joseph Stalin, and Franklin D. Roosevelt—she might well be the only one among that ill-fated dozen who lived a life largely devoid of personal drama and heartbreak. Her three siblings were plagued by alcoholism, marital problems, and stormy relations with both their parents. And all died relatively prematurely, one by suicide.

Not surprisingly, Stalin’s three children led blighted lives as well. The most famous (daughter Svetlana) was mentally unstable; and of Stalin’s two sons, one died of alcoholism at 40 and the other was killed (or might have killed himself) in a German POW camp. The elder Stalin refused all offers to exchange his son for a German general held prisoner in the Soviet Union: “I will not trade a marshal for a lieutenant,” he reportedly said.

Of course, the Churchill and Roosevelt children were not actively mistreated by their fathers, in the way Stalin’s offspring were; but parent-child relations in the Roosevelt and Churchill households were famously distant and, in some cases, dysfunctional. Among FDR’s five surviving children there were a grand total of 19 marriages.

What this tells us is nothing new: In many cases, the children of historical figures have a tough time in life. Sometimes it’s a matter of the parent’s natural malevolence (Stalin) and sometimes it’s a byproduct of the father’s steep ambition (Churchill, FDR). In any case, growing up in proximity to legendary people, or witnessing historic events, can be a mixed blessing—especially if it’s complicated by family relations. A child of a distracted president or prime minister or, especially, a dictator can’t walk away so easily from problems; the very qualities that make public figures historic—ego, ambition, devotion to power—are seldom consistent with serene family life.

For whatever reason, Mary Soames was comparatively fortunate, or so it would seem. She was the youngest by several years of Churchill’s children, and there is a theory that she was a “consolation baby,” conceived and born after the tragic death of a 3-year-old sister. Perhaps, for that reason, she was lavished with parental affection; perhaps, as the last of the line, she felt no pressure to compete or succeed. In any case, it led to a happy ending. As her eldest son: “She was not just a wonderful mother to whom we were all devoted, but the head and heart of our family after our father died, and will be greatly missed.”

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