The Magazine

Winston’s Table Talk

Churchill and the art of delicious conversation.

Dec 3, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 12 • By TRACY LEE SIMMONS
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It was Lord Birkenhead who said that Winston Churchill, a friend of decades’ standing, was a man always “easily satisfied with the best.” This sharp declaration could cut in sundry ways, of course, and Churchill’s friends could have as much sport with him as his enemies did: It was Birkenhead who also said that “Winston has devoted the best years of his life to preparing his impromptu speeches.” Cutting, indeed—but one senses more than a few drops of affection dripping from these ladlings of wit. They were amused attempts to bring greatness down to where we commoners could see and understand it.

Some characters of history’s drama cannot readily be summed up. Little wonder, then, that we’re eager to get at them through back doors, through muddy facts from their biographies rather than straightforward accounts of their achievements. They feel more like one of us that way.

Cita Stelzer, journalist and Reader at Cambridge, has opted to help us understand one side of Winston Churchill’s greatness by demonstrating his buoyant use of the dinner table as a means of vigorous coaxing and high-spirited entertainment. For Churchill was a natural deipnosophist, a master of table conversation—and had he not been, the history of our times might have been vastly different. Andrew Roberts writes, in a helpful introduction:

His great gifts of conviviality, intelligence, humor, memory, anecdotal ability, wit, hospitality, and—not least—alcoholic hard-headedness, all helped him to charm and ultimately persuade all but his most intellectually prosaic of guests.

Cita Stelzer shows us how he did it. And since “intellectually prosaic” most kindly describes the type of company Churchill would find in today’s political circles, Dinner with Churchill serves up more than a nicely documented study of the past. It’s a record of manners and mores that have passed away in a world in which the smart set isn’t so smart, or even identifiable, anymore, but is instead a menagerie of policy wonks and verbally fumbling hucksters. This was a period when men in power, even some of the most despicable of them, could read real books and furnish their minds with ideas older than yesterday’s headlines.

And nobody of this robust time quite combined Churchill’s qualities of intellectual amplitude and social flair. From early on he was a spirited raconteur and shone brightly in conversation, especially when dining with the beau monde. In 1906, Violet Bonham Carter, daughter of the future prime minister H. H. Asquith, sat “spellbound” at dinner next to the 32-year-old Churchill:

I was transfixed, transported into a new element. There was nothing false, inflated, artificial in his eloquence. It was his natural idiom. His world was built and fashioned in heroic lines. He spoke its language.

Nor did the light dim over the years to come. John Maynard Keynes dined with Churchill four months after he became prime minister, during some of the most anxious and distressing days of the war, and found him “extremely well, serene, full of normal human feelings and completely un-inflated. Perhaps this moment is the height of his power and glory, but I have never seen anyone less infected with dictatorial airs or hubris.” Churchill might have been a creature of his time and class, a brilliant man in a (fairly) brilliant milieu, but he struck his contemporaries as exceptional. 

“Diplomacy,” Churchill once said, “is the art of telling plain truths without giving offense.” And where better to exercise this delicate juggling act than over meals, when nerves tend to be less taut? The dinner table had always been a venue of choice for a gourmand like Churchill; yet he also came to believe that the act of dining together made for equanimity and good feeling among opponents as well as allies. He was not the first statesman to practice dinner diplomacy, but he sought to make it an artform and a basis for amity among rivals. Nothing engendered sympathy more predictably than breaking bread (along with smoking and drinking, in the days before both became semi--criminal practices). 

Stelzer spends the greater share of this book trekking us along Churchill’s frigid and sultry routes in pursuit of aid in war and postwar settlements. From his first official meeting with President Roosevelt, off the coast of Newfoundland in August 1941, to his three-week post-Pearl Harbor sojourn at the White House, to Moscow, Adana, Tehran, Yalta, Potsdam, and, finally, to Fulton, Missouri, and Bermuda for his (unsuccessful) meeting with President Eisenhower, Churchill chugged from one dinner to another. He artfully formed the menus and judiciously chose the wines and champagnes when he was the host—and endured tactless or tasteless choices by others when he was not. Once, having discovered that he had run out of cigars, his American hosts scrounged up some White Owls on which Churchill took two puffs, and politely declined the rest. 

We learn many of the diverting, if less consequential, facts that are always welcome to readers of history. For instance, we learn how Eleanor Roosevelt found herself less than pleased with a guest of such a high nuisance quotient as Churchill, who moved himself into the White House, bossed the staff to accommodate his numerous whims, and tirelessly talked a flagging FDR into late, brandy-soaked nights. This caused the frustrated first lady to drop hints—of diminishing subtlety—to knock it off and go to bed. Also, when Churchill visited Stalin the following summer in Moscow, he noted the “totalitarian lavishness” of his rooms and feasts while most of the population beyond the walls of his dacha were starving.

Most tantalizingly, however, Stelzer includes all the menus she could find, most of them reproduced in facsimile from table cards, which give us a clear picture of, say, what the Big Three ate at Tehran: Persian soup, boiled salmon trout from the Caspian, turkey, cheese soufflé, and a bizarre showpiece called “Persian lantern ice.” Fancy enough, but not as elaborate as it might have been. Churchill claimed to enjoy only “plain English” fare, though his diet could have been a good deal more plain than it was. He had a few constants: He preferred more simple (and undercooked) meat dishes, and rarely compromised on soups, all of which had to be clear, nothing cream-based. (The true test of a cook, he thought, was skill at soupmaking.) And all his meals were accompanied by gallons of champagne, wine, Scotch, and brandy.

With Churchill and drink, we move from history to legend. “You can’t make a speech on ice water,” he is supposed to have said. The scantest research reveals that Churchill kept alcohol streaming in his system every hour of every day. One Roose-velt aide said that while the prime minister stayed at the White House, Churchill’s “consumption of alcohol continued at quite regular intervals through most of his waking hours,” though, it was added, “without visible effect.” Churchill did begin drinking whisky in the morning, from a glass hugely diluted with water or soda—what one secretary recalled was practically a “mouthwash”—though he saved his serious drinking for dinnertimes and after, and almost always with company. 

There is no evidence that Churchill’s prodigious drinking impaired his capacity to work. The Canadian prime minister wrote in his diary that dinner wine, for instance, had an effect on Churchill purely of “quickening his intellect and intensifying his facility of expression,” an observation confirmed by almost all witnesses. Alcohol enhanced, not diminished, his companionship. What we call “social drinking” was a prime cause and condition of fellowship for Winston Churchill—it was the forge of bonds among civilized people. Churchill famously said that he took more out of alcohol than alcohol took out of him—and anyway, his drinking seemed to create an image he wished to sustain, happy to allow others to believe that he drank more than he did. 

His drinking provided occasions of mirth. When he joined Franklin Roose-velt for their conference at Casablanca, Churchill wrote a letter of distress at finding the place less than hospitable: “Dinner at [FDR’s villa] (dry, alas!) with the Sultan. .  .  . After dinner, recovery from the effects of the above.” Perhaps he saw the value of posing a counter-image to the teetotalism of Hitler, whom A. J. Liebling called the “archetype of the abstemious man. When the other krauts saw him drink water in the Beer Hall they should have known he was not to be trusted.”

Tracy Lee Simmons, who teaches honors humanities at Lynchburg College, is writing a book about Thomas Jefferson.