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How my husband and I met Winston Churchill

 


2224 Seminole Avenue
Detroit, 14, Michigan

December 9, 1948

Dear Folks:

We now have three down with chicken pox - Billy, David and Margaret. At the moment David is the worse. I keep dousing him in hot water saturated with baking soda for temporary relief. Margaret has only a few spots. She may get more tomorrow, however, since I only noticed them on her yesterday evening. Billy has gone through the worst of his. They still itch a bit, but he isn’t so out of sorts - or so gray looking.

I do want to write you about our BIG MOMENT, before the excitement wears off. I am sure Gret has told you some of the details. But the meeting with Mr. Churchill is probably the most important thing that has happened to us, barring only our wedding day. And I do want you to know a little about it.

The more we hear from others the more we realize how lucky we were to see Churchill at all, let alone have thirty minutes with him - while eight members of the steel committee waited outside in the small office to discuss the nationalization of steel with him. And to think that WE came home with an at least partial promise that if he comes to the United States he will make very effort to come to Detroit and speak here.

I do want to emphasized that all this is FOR FAMILY CONSUMPTION ONLY. Please don’t tell ANYBODY else. PLEASE!

I think that I might preface my tale with the remark that I feel that my extra year at Columbia and my experience as a newpaperwoman were at least partial factors between success and failure in our enterprise. For if I learned one thing in all that it was that if you use your head and your imagination properly you can do almost anything you really want to do on earth.

We left the Ritz Hotel at 5:10 P.M. in a Chrysler loaned by the Chrysler head in Britain. It was driven by his personal chauffeur, a smart old Britisher name Cruttenden. I might say that Cruttenden didn’t ask any questions, but he was all with us, throughout the whole enterprise. He knew what we were going for, and he wished us luck as he let us out in the courtyard outside the Ladies Galley Entrance of the House of Lords. (The House of Commons is still being repaired for the terrific bomb damage.)

It was dusk, and the piles of masonry and tools looked quite movie-ish as we hobbled across the big old stones to a doorway that looked as if it might be open. It was sort of a back door, but in England you get used to going into important buildings by back doors, for the bombs hit just about everything everywhere.

We wandered up some back steps, along long corridors, through stacks of books and up staircases of assorted and gradually increasing importance until we were at the same main-entrance areaway where the bobbies had stopped us cold about a week before.

When I think back on that first try I get quite a laugh. For we had our sights set on shaking hands with Mr. Churchill and no more at that stage of the game. We had been told by everybody - including the know-all Brendan Bracken - that there was NO possibility of Churchill’s coming to America for a long, long time. Bracken said he couldn’t come for two years.

Miss Sturdee, the pretty, lady-like young woman who is Mr. Churchill’s “senior Secretary” had told us on that day she would try to work us in for a hand-shaking between the “Question Hour” in the House of Commons and the time Mr. Churchill left to go up to Harrow, his old school, where he makes an annual occasion of joining in singing the school songs with the boys.

Bill Dallas pulled us out of the fire on that one. He strongly urged us to send a note in to Miss Sturdee the moment we arrived, so she would know where to find us.
To make a long, heart-breaking episode short, Miss Sturdee didn’t go to Parliament that day with Mr. C., our note wound up in the hands of a very nice, but very firm young Scotland-Yarder, and we went off in a taxi after having waited for nearly three hours and missing Mr. C. altogether.

We were both sick. Also Mad. “To heck with this Marshall Plan stuff”, I blew off to Bill. “The least they could do would be to let us know he couldn’t see us.”
We sat in the gloom for a couple of minutes, rolling from side to side in the rattletrap old taxi. “For two cents I’d go right to 28 Hyde Park Gate and tell this Miss Sturdee off,” I exploded.

“ The least they could do is throw us out, “ Bill remarked, half in fun, half seriously.

“ Let’s go!” he snapped to in a moment or two. He pulled back the sliding glass plate that separated us from the driver and told him to take us to 28 Hyde Park Gate instead of the Ritz.

Then we settled back in our long deep seats for the ten to fifteen minuted drive along Hyde Park to the little sort of side street that is Hyde Park Gate.

A harassed-looking grey-haired maid answered. “May we see Miss Sturdee, please?” I asked.

“ Have you an appointment?” she inquired.

“ No,” we told her honestly.

“ Who shall I say is calling?” she went on politely.

“ Mr. and Mrs. William McGaughey of Detroit, Michigan,” we answered, both of us secretly highly amused at how simple it all was, but how much nerve we had.

“ If you’ll just have a seat in there,” she said, leading into a pleasant, small, chintz-decorated sitting room with a charming portrait we recognized as Churchill’s mother (American) on the wall, “I’ll tell Miss Sturdee you’re here.”

We sat down and looked around, taking in the modern chinese lamp and a few other small art objects around the room. As we sat, we could hear a pleasant English voice saying something about Danny Kaye. (Danny Kaye was then in London. His face was plastered all over the boarded up bomb pits and buildings under repair.)

One young woman fluttered in - and then went out again. And pretty soon one of the nicest looking young Englishwomen you can imagine appeared.

“ My goodness, are you Miss Sturdee?” I laughed.

“ Yes,” she laughed right back. “What did you expect?”

“ Well, to tell you the truth I suppose we expected someone much older,” we told her.

“ I supposed ‘senior secretary’ is a bit mis-leading,” Miss Sturdee who was dressed very simply in an elegant hand-knit purple dress and a single strand of pearls, said thoughtfully. “I just happen to have moved up to senior secretary because I am oldest in point of service. Actually I am only one of four. Mr. Churchill has four secretaries.”

“ I’m so sorry I didn’t get to the House of Commons this afternoon,” she apologized, seeming to take it as the natural thing that we had come to the house - which was a help to us. “I just had so much work to do - and so much came up during the day that I didn’t go.”

“ We felt that we shouldn’t leave without making every effort we could to at least see Mr. Churchill,” Bill said. “Even if it is only to tell him what a high regard the automobile industry leaders have for him.”

“ I am quite sure Mr. Churchill would like very much to see you,” Miss Sturdee said. “It’s only that it happens to be a very busy day for him.”

She smiled - almost indulgently. “He wouldn’t miss going up to Harrow for the world. Isn’t it lovely? He goes there ever year. He never missed a year singing with all the little boys.”

She asked how we had enjoyed the House of Commons. We told her that we had waited and waited - along with miscellaneous New Zealanders, Danes and others who had “Members’ Galley” seats from their (?) embassies, as we had from ours.

“ To tell the truth, it was quite dull, when we finally got (?) Bill said. “Somebody was reading a paper and there were ... (?) ... new members present.”

“ You should see it when Mr. Churchill is speaking!” she said, her face lighting up with admiration.

“ I’ll never forget the first time I heard him speak,” she went on. “He was standing here,” she indicated with her hand, “and all the little socialists - really nasty little people - were sitting in front of him going ‘Boo! Boo! Boo!”

I asked her if she had seen the little figurines of Churchill being sold on Picadilly. She asked what they looked like. I told her they were about six inches high and they had the stooped shoulders and the exaggerated paunch and great big black shiny shoes.

She said, no, she hadn’t seen them, that she had seen the Toby jugs and ash trays and so on, but not the figures. “They sound wonderful,” she commented.

I then told her of my experience in trying to buy one. I had walked down Picadilly Arcade and seen one in a window - the only item in the window. I walked in and found the place was an engineer’s office - not a shop. I apologized and told the very nice-looking middle-aged Britisher who got up from behind the desk to greet me that I just wondered if it were for sale.

“ No, it isn’t,” he said. “But I LOVE you for asking!”

He turned and summoned a younger man who was apparently his son. “Robby”, he said, “see if you can help this lady find another of the Churchill figures.”
“ Robby” and I then went out and wandered along Picadilly inquiring at several places until we came to Page and Shaw’s. There was one in the window. The price was “one and ten”. (about five dollars) “The nerve!” Robby remarked. “We only paid fifteen shilling!” “Father could have sold a thousand on his last trip to Norway”, he added.

From there we launched into the business part of our discussion, which I wont’ repeat, but I could easily see that we were making progress we hadn’t dreamed of making.
After a while Miss Sturdee seemed to have reached the conclusion that we should at least see Mr. Churchill. “I don’t know exactly what I can do,” she told us. “I can see how important this is, however, and I will see if there is any way at all we can arrange a meeting.”

“ After he gets back from Harrow, there is a delegation from the Finnish Parliament to see him. He is supposed to see them at 7:30 - but he won’t be on time. He never is. That means dinner will have to be kept in the warming oven. There is no telling when he will eat.”

“ Mr. Churchill is a very great man,” she turned to us - as if she knew (?) she should convince us. “Everybody is after him all the time. The President of Turkey wants him to come to Turkey. Mr. Smuts wants him to come to South Africa. And he has had invitations from more than forty English cities to speak on various occasions just this fall.”

“ And you know he isn’t a young man. It is really very wearing.”

“ But I will see what we can do,” she repeated. “I am sure Mr. Churchill would like very much to see you.”

When we shook hands to tell her goodbye her hands were cold - as mine get when I have been worked up considerably sometimes. She repeated the fact that she now realized how important our mission was and she would let us hear from her shortly.

We both knew for sure, then, that if anything on earth could be done to help us, she would do it. For she had told us Mr. Churchill would like to come to America, that he wouldn’t fly, that he loved “the Queens” (.... It’s such a holiday feeling ...)

As we left, Miss Sturdee introduced us to Lord Inverchapel, who was just coming in. (He was ambassador to the U.S. until recently.) We took his taxi, as a matter of fact. We drove back to the hotel in high fettle and got dressed for dinner.

While we were dressing I had an idea. “You know what we ought to do?” I asked Bill. “We ought to send that little figure to Miss Sturdee. And we ought to send it by messenger - tonight. Just in time for dinner.”

Bill agreed that it was a wonderful idea. So I quickly wrapped it up and telephoned the desk to ask for a messenger. Then we went to the Savoy for dinner “among the international set.” (It was international, too, complete to an Indian from the East in full regalia.)

The next day we were on pins and needles. I should say we were on a full bomb disposal dump. Bill had a lunch date with Leonard Williams, the very high-brow Packard representative in England. He had to be at the American club at one, so I told him I’d have lunch in the room and stay there. I was just settling down to lunch, as a matter of fact, when Miss Sturdee called.

She started off by thanking us for the figure. She said it was wonderful - and asked if we didn’t want it back for our children. (I had told her I’d bought it for them.) I told her I wouldn’t think of taking it back - that if I worked for Mr. Churchill I would want one - and I thought she should have one. After a few more pleasant remarks she threw in, almost casually, “If you could possibly delay your going until Wednesday, Mr. Churchill could see Mr. McGaughey at 5:45 on Wednesday in his big room at the House of Commons.”

I didn’t try to hide my excitement. “That’s simply wonderful, Miss Sturdee, I told her. “I just can’t tell you how grateful we are.”

“ I felt that it was important enough to you that you might want to postpone your departure,” she said - in such a way that I knew she meant we might open up our discussions once more with Mr. Churchill. Then she added, “And, Mrs. McGaughey, if you would care to come along perhaps we could talk together in the small room while Mr. McGaughey saw Mr. Churchill alone if he wished.”

I told her I would leave that entirely up to her, that of course I’d love to come along, that 135,000,000 other Americans would have jumped at the chance, but that I didn’t want to jeopardize anything in the smallest way.

She repeated the invitation to come along, indicated that if nothing else, she would like to talk with me again - which was very nice of her.

Well, time went by. We spent a wonderful week-end “down” in Sussex on the 400-acre country place of the William Dallases. (The main house was built in 1657. The woods they own are the woods which harbored the 1,000 Canadian soldiers who went on the Dieppe raid ... only 300 of whom came back.) We came back to town on Sunday night, had a car and chauffeur for a one-day tour of London Tower, the St. Paul’s area (everything but the church is demolished) and so on. Bill was the guest of honor at a lunch given by Brendan Bracken at his Financial Times - attended by his top editorial staff members. I had lunch with Gwynne Barker, the brilliant young woman who represents our Collier’s magazine in England. We did a little shopping ... and Wednesday finally came.

We got to the House of Lords considerably earlier than 5:45. We wanted to be in plenty of time. We climbed the various flights of stairs, walked down the endless corridors and finally found a bobbie who told us where Mr. Churchill’s chambers were.

In a few minutes - after we’d sat down gingerly in the small room’s two stairs- a hurried looking Englishman came in with a brief case full of papers. “I guess these will be safe here,” he said, deposited them on a small rear desk. Then another younger Englishman came in with another brief case full of papers.

The latter stayed. He seemed very curious about us - as we were about him. He told us, shortly, that he was the conservative party’s economist. In the midst of our conversation, the bobbie came in and told us - for he knew how excited we were, I’m sure - “Mr. Churchill is just coming into the courtyard.”

So we all snapped to. Our conversation, which had rapidly reached the jovial stage, quickly receded into formality.

Pretty soon the lights snapped on in the big room behind us and the door was quietly closed.

In no time at all Miss Sturdee came quietly out of that door. “Mr. McGaughey, Mr. Churchill will see you now,” she said.

My heart was pounding at that point. I couldn’t have carried on a conversation for that moment if my life depended on it. I pretended, of course, to be casual. But I noticed that even the economist - who must have seen Mr. Churchill rather regularly - was rather tongue-tied, too.

My sense of humor caught up with me on that. It was a good thing it did, for the door behind me opened and the first thing I knew - there was Mr. Winston Churchill, squatty little, grey-looking bald-headed Mr. Churchill - who looked almost unbearably old and tired - standing right behind me.

“ Won’t you join us, Mrs. McGaughey?, “ he asked me. I almost jumped up. “Why, Mr. Churchill!”, I cried. “I’d love to.”

That was the funniest feeling - standing there looking down at that little heavy-set man I’d seen in the newsreels and on Life Magazine and on all the posters in London streets.

He led the way into the inner room - a very large one, with a long table that reminded me of the table in Bill’s board of directors’ room - only it’s very modern, and Churchill’s room is all dark, old oak.

He indicated a chair next to Bill’s and sat down himself at the head of the table.

Bill said, as we sat down afterwards, “Well, Mr. Churchill, we didn’t bring you any papers to read.”

“ I don’t want any more,” Mr. Churchill half grunted and half grumbled, with a twinkle in his eyes.

The first feeling I had was almost of pity. He looked so old and so gray and so tired. And so fat, too - for the rolls of fat almost buried his eyes. It was only when he stretched the muscles upwards that you would get the full impact of those bright blue eyes.

He opened the subject up shortly. I”I would like to emphasize,” he said, “that I’m not making any commitments. I am merely doing a little more thinking on the subject. But am I to remain under the impression that your offer is still open?”

“ It certainly is,” Bill told him.

“ Well, it will be impossible for me to go to America this year. Too many important things have to be attended to in this country. But Mr. Bernard Baruch, a great friend of mine, has visited me here and he has invited me to visit him in March. And Toronto University has extended an invitation to me to give me an honorary degree - an invitation I would like very much to accept.”

“ This speech - at this banquet - how long would it have to be?”

“ Any length you would care to make it,” Bill told him.

He grunted, indicating, we guessed, that he wished for Bill to be more specific. So Bill then amplified. “I would say, Mr.Churchill, that a speech 30 to 40 minutes in length would be about right - if that met with your approval.”

“ Oh, yes, the radio ...” Mr. Churchill sensed the timing was aimed at radio.

“ And who would attend such a banquet?”, he went on.

“ Leaders from the steel, the automotive, the rubber, the petroleum and other industries, Mr. Churchill,” Bill said. “Men from the educational and governmental and military fields - if you wished them.” (Later on we remembered Bill had omitted Labor. Bill said he wondered at the time whether Mr. C. wanted Labor or not - and decided against including it at that moment, that detail could be filled in later.)

“ I don’t fly,” Mr. Churchill said - bearing out what Miss Sturdee had told us. “And the Queens take seven days ... that’s a lot of time.” (I later couldn’t remember for sure that he said seven, but I thought he had.)

“ Mr. Churchill,” I said, “Believe me, if they could speed up the Queens they would.”

"And this speech, would it be in New York or Washington or where?” he wanted to know.

“ In Detroit, Mr. Churchill,” Bill said. “Detroit is the great production center of the country. It is a town where there is a great percentage of foreign-born, where a speech by you could do a great deal to help cement Anglo-American relations.”

“ Some very important people have been in touch with me in connection with this invitation,” Mr. Churchill said. “Who were they?”

Mr. Hoffman, Mr. Churchill. And Mr. Hoover - ex-President Hoover. He said he would communicate with you. I don’t know whether he did or not, but he said he would.

And Mr. Douglas ... Ambassador Douglas. And Mr. Chenery.”

“ Who?”, Mr. Churchill asked.

“ Mr. Chenery of Collier’s.” Mr. C. smiled faintly. (We never could figure out why, but we had heard that Mr. Chenery had once pulled him out of some trouble.)

There was a moment’s pause, so I hastened to add - for I felt he would like to have included some of the Truman crowed, in view of the way the elections had landslided, “And Mr. Lovett of the State Department, Mr. Churchill. I think you might like to know that he was very interested in your coming.”

“ And Mr. Harriman,” Bill added.

“ Averill?” Mr. Churchill smiled again. “I thought he was running a railroad.”

There was another moment - and then Bill added once more, “and Mr. Vandenberg - our senior senator from Michigan, Arthur Vandenberg.”

Mr. Churchill nodded and said, “I have great admiration for Arthur Vandenberg.”

“ What did you think of your elections?” Mr. Churchill wanted to know. We both felt he was sounding us out - and we didn’t now exactly how the wind blew. Bill decided to answer honestly.

“ Personally, I was quite disappointed.”

“ A lot of people were disappointed,” Mr. Churchill said.

” I never meddle in American politics. But I have been very happy over the way America is behaving.”

“ I was glad when F.D.R. was re-elected. I wanted him to be re-elected. And I think Mr. Truman’s party treated him very badly. Much as I like Eisenhower - I know and like Ike very well - I was shamed of the way that business was handled.”

“ Now Mr. Truman’s got REAL power,” he emphasized.

After a moment he added, “What your country needs now is continuity.”

He got back to the subject at hand.

“ If I should come to America I wouldn’t want you to provide any entertainment for me. Mr. Baruch will take care of that.”

“ People always try to be very kind,” he amplified. “They try to kill me with kindness sometimes.”

He sank back in his chair a bit and looked even older and tireder. “In these few years I have left there are a few things I must do,” he said.

“ When I wake up in the morning I look at my calendar and hope there is very little on it.”

“ My memoirs ... I must finish them. I must go to southern France in December.”

I looked at him as he talked and I couldn’t help, for a moment, wishing we could spare the old man. The half hour we were taking was costing him, I knew.

After a little while Bill said, “What shall we do then? Shall we keep in touch with Miss Sturdee?”

“ Yes,” he told us. “Miss Sturdee will know how things develop. You may keep in touch with her.”

Miss Sturdee came to the big oak door shortly after that. We knew it was time to leave. And as we filed out we realized how much time we had taken. For the room was full of the most important people in England. It was like walking past a newsreel. First, there was Anthony Eden. Then several others, including Sir Oliver Littleton. (We figured out he was the economist.) Then came Brendan Bracken.

Bill held out his hand. “I’d like you to meet Mrs. McGaughey,” he said. I don’t remember what he said at all. I was too excited. But I do remember a very pleasant look on a tall, sturdy man’s face. And I remember thinking he ought to use some kind of hair tonic to keep down his unruly blonde, wavy hair.
Miss Sturdee followed us out into the elevator corridor. I had the comfortable feeling that she was almost as anxious as we were.

“ I just can’t tell you how grateful we are,” I repeated.

“ I felt that it was perhaps important enough for you to stay over,” she said.

She asked if we had gotten down to particulars. We told her he had said to keep in touch with her. She seemed very interested in the financial arrangements and opened up the subject in a very nice way. “And the figure you mentioned - it was two to three thousand, wasn’t it?”

“ Oh, no,” we said. “It was twenty-five thousand dollars. Plus traveling expenses.”

She didn’t say so, but we could tell she thought that was a lot of money. So did we.

“ And if he comes, I hope you’ll come, too,” I told her.

“ By the way, I have something for you,” I added, pulling out one of our last year’s Christmas cards with the kids’ pictures on them. “I should have send it with the little figure, but I didn’t think of it.”

“ Are these your children?” she asked with evident interest. “And that wonderful dog - is he yours?”

We talked for a few seconds more and started to walk down. She almost insisted on walking with us. “If we found our way up, we can certainly find it down,” we told her. “We borrowed a car for the occasion - and it’s waiting in the courtyard.”

So we went on down- and back to Cruttenden. He took us back to the Ritz without asking us any questions. From there we went to the very fancy Cot D’Or for dinner - after we’d sat down and written a brief resume of the conditions and put them into writing.

We were rewarded. The next day, in a note delivered “By Hand” from Miss Sturdee, she promised to let us know if Mr. Churchill should come to America “as I feel sure he would like to do.” She also said she hoped our delay didn’t cause us any inconvenience, that she felt our visit had been “fruitful”.
It was a wonderful letter. I hope to have it framed when Bill is through with his board of directors.

And that is the story of how - thanks to you for letting Gret come up to take over my regular responsibilities - we got to see and talk with Winston Churchill, the Man of Our age.

Love,

(Joan)

Note: My father, William McGaughey, was then the director of public relations for the Automobile Manufacturers Association, the trade association for U.S. automobile manufacturers. His mission was to try to persuade Winston Churchill to come to the United States to address a gathering of industry officials to commemorate the 100 millionth vehicle produced in the country. In the end, Winston Churchill did not come. However, he did send a handwritten note to my parents thanking them for the Christmas card given Miss (Jo) Sturdee. The letter was mailed from north Africa. In the summer of 1951, Miss Sturdee took me (Bill) and Andy McGaughey on a tour of the House of Commons and to Blenheim palace, Winston Churchill’s ancestral home. I believe she later came to Detroit and toured Greenfield Village and the River Rouge Ford plant. Besides being a good writer, my mother had a gift for making friends.

 

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