Had his longevity equaled his other outsized achievements, Winston Churchill would have marked his 140th birthday this week. Although he’s known as one of the great statesmen of the 20th century—an essential man at the right time who orchestrated Britain’s survival against the Nazi menace—an important part of his life is less well-known. Moreover, it might just be the most poignant part of his story for a generation that is trying hard to balance its life’s work with its families’ needs.
The short version: Churchill and his wife were, at times, so bad at their work-life balance that their young daughter died as an indirect result.
I am not an historian, just someone who likes to read a lot and whose interests often skew toward nonfiction and great challenges, both modern and classic. I was probably a college freshman when I first worked my way through The Last Lion by William Manchester, which runs 992 pages and is only Book One of a three-part Churchill biography. (Manchester died before he finished Book Three, but a journalist and fan of his work named Paul Reid finished the last book from his notes.)
By the late 1920s, Churchill was in his forties, and although he was already famous in Britain, he seemed to sense his future—a long period of political exile. In short, he was viewed as an eccentric alarmist, trying to convince his countrymen that despite the horrendous toll of World War I, they should retool and plan for another major war with Germany. As Manchester described the early years of this period:
If Manchester gets things right, the role that Churchill most cherished at this point in his life was that of husband and father.
“Though no longer in Parliament, he was always busy, always doing something. He had abandoned a second attempt to master flying after a postwar crash at Crydon—dusting himself off, he presided at a dinner honoring General Pershing two hours later, although [one observer] noted in his diary, ‘Winston’s forehead was scratched and his legs were black and blue.’ … As a private citizen he followed public affairs as closely as he had in the cabinet, and he was in the public eye almost as often, rebuking the French … criticizing the Harding administration … unveiling statues of wartime leaders. … He wrote, corrected galleys, and painted. Anything from his pen commanded an instant audience.”
If Manchester gets things right, however, the role that Churchill most cherished at this point in his life was that of husband and father. He and his wife had two children, and they welcomed a baby daughter named Marigold on November 15, 1918, four days after the end of World War I. Churchill, who had been a battalion commander in France, came home to her, was enamored, and gave her a paternal nickname: “the Duckadilly.”
Less than three years later, however, Churchill was caught up with his career. After “a hard winter of hacking coughs and sore throats” in which “Marigold had fallen ill twice,” he rented a cottage for his family in the town of Broadstairs on the southeastern coast of England. However, an engagement in Scotland required Churchill’s attention for several weeks, and the plan he and Clementine came up with seems ridiculous by the standards of a century later. He and his wife would travel immediately to their destination, entrusting their 10-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter to take the train and follow them later. Meantime, they would leave their 2-year-old alone “with a young French governess,” for a month or two.
You can imagine what happened. Marigold’s illness came back; the French governess was too nervous to report what had happened to her parents, and when she sent a telegraph several weeks after the child had become ill—yes, weeks—it was almost too late. “By the time her mother reached her bedside, the Duckadilly’s condition was grave,” according to Manchester; Clementine in turn “telegraphed Winston (yes, not until then), who arrived on the next train from London.”
The child died with her parents at her side. Clementine “shrieked in agony, like an animal in mortal pain,” Manchester wrote. “On Saturday they buried Marigold in London’s Kensal Green cemetery. Press photographers arrived, but Winston appealed to them to leave, and they did.”
One of the problems (or opportunities) with reading history casually is that it’s easy either to forget the context within which decisions are made—or else sometimes to forgive them entirely. Clearly, the Churchills as parents are an extreme example, but I can imagine lesser parallels in my own life. Heck, I started writing this article while on a Thanksgiving break visiting my wife’s family in New Hampshire. Balancing work and life has always been a difficult challenge, and I can envision the Churchills going through the same kinds of mental gymnastics many of us probably do. They loved their children and wanted the best for them, which meant providing for them and setting a great example. Part of this example meant working hard whenever and wherever you were needed, which often took the Churchills away from their children.
Times were different, of course. I know a lot of parents now who wouldn’t let their 12-year-old travel to a corner store on his own, never mind take a train journey alone across Great Britain. Churchill himself had rarely ever spoken with his own father, and his mother had been gone for long periods of time, leaving him to be raised by boarding schools and governesses. However, I’ll just say it: I can’t imagine any parent I’ve ever known who would be willing to leave a sick 2-year-old with a strange governess for weeks at a time—let alone without being able to contact them every day and see how they’re doing.
In writing this article (and in also scouring my father-in-law’s bookshelf), I came across a copy of Eisenhower at War, a 1986 biography of General Dwight Eisenhower, written by his grandson David, the person for whom Camp David is named. Among the surprising things I learned: Eisenhower similarly lost a child about the same age as Marigold, also in 1921—a loss which the future president described many years later as “the greatest disappointment and disaster of my life, the one I have never been able to forget completely.”
In Eisenhower’s case, the competing demands of career and home life may also have played a role, although perhaps in a more understandable way. He and his wife Mamie became the proud parents of a son named Doud (after Mamie’s maiden name) in 1917, whose early years coincided with periods of great absence by his father due to Eisenhower’s military career. First, he was away training soldiers and trying desperately to get to France before the end of World War I; later he led an expedition across the United States as part of a military mission to assess the state of the nation’s fledgling network of roads.
Reunited finally at Fort Meade, Maryland, the young parents hired a 16-year-old maid to help with household chores. Unfortunately—and you can imagine how it never occurred to the Eisenhowers to check something like this—the young girl had just recovered from scarlet fever before going to work for them, and young Doud apparently contracted the disease from her. He died quickly, on Jan. 2, 1921.
It was “the most shattering moment of their lives, one that almost destroyed their marriage,” according to a U.S. government website account. “Both the inner-directed guilt and the projected feelings of blame placed a strain on their marriage. So did the equally inevitable sense of loss, the grief that could not be comforted, the feeling that all the joy had gone out of life. ‘For a long time, it was as if a shining light had gone out in Ike’s life,’ Mamie said later. ‘Throughout all the years that followed, the memory of those bleak days was a deep inner pain that never seemed to diminish much.’”
© U.S. Army photo
Two decades later, Churchill and Eisenhower were working hand-in-hand, of course, as U.K. prime minister and the top U.S. general in Europe. I’m left wondering if they ever realized the sorrowful experience they shared—and if they would have changed history if they could. Did those earlier lessons and heartaches somehow affect their personal outcomes, leading nations and ultimately saving millions?
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