Jennie Churchill

Mary S. Lovell wrote an incredible biography of The Churchills as a whole. It ably covered Sunny and Winston and Randolph and Clemmie and Winston’s kids and Consuela but it was Jennie that I wanted to know more about.

(Lovell also wrote an equally fantastic book about The Mitford sisters that is absolutely worth reading)

I accidentally found myself in the library again last week and came across Anne Sebba’s Jennie Churchill: Winston’s American Mother. I’d read Sebba’s That Woman about Wallis Warfield Simpson and really liked it so I was confident that her handling of Jennie’s story would be just as good.

Jennie Churchill, like Wallis after her, was a bit of a controversial figure in her time. It wasn’t until much later, years after her death in fact, when her son became The Winston Churchill, that she underwent a kind of makeover, to show her to be some kind of saintly mother who believed in and loved her son above all else. After all,

In 1921 [when Jennie died] the scale of Winston’s importance could only be guessed at by most. He himself feared that his career might already be over. It took another thirty years before he was hailed as ‘The Greatest Briton’. Jennie already knew it.


Jennie Jerome was beautiful, clever and rich. Her father, Leonard, had a gift of making money but he was equally adept at losing large amounts of it. Eventually his wife Clara and their daughters, Clara, Jennie and Leonie, decamped to Paris where the cost of living was lower. It was also easier for upstart Americans to be admitted into the right society in Paris – society was so much stricter in England.

Still, eventually the Jeromes found themselves at Crewe, which is where Jennie met Randolph Churchill, second son of the Duke of Marlborough. By now we’re all familiar with the scores of rich American women that married into the British aristocracy as an attempt to finance and save their properties. But when Jennie met Randolph, this wasn’t yet common; Jennie was actually one of the first to do it.

This book is only 331 pages but Jennie (and Randolph and Winston) lived a LIFE. So a lot went on. In an effort to pique your interest but not have your eyes glaze over from details, here are some of the more interesting points:

  • Jennie was married three times. First to Randolph, with whom she had two children. The second and third times to men MUCH younger than her. One was said to have been the handsomest man of his generation (although to look at his picture, of a balding man with a moustache who looks at least 15 years older than his age, we have very different standards of beauty now)
  • She is said to have had around 200 lovers. Sebba doesn’t think it was that high but for a woman of her generation she definitely had more than the average. Probably at least 30, including Prince Albert Edward, later King Edward VII.
  • She was always poor. Her father ended up losing all his money and from then the Jerome sisters have to kind of shift for themselves. Not so easy when you think about the confines society placed on women at the time. And yet, they still managed to go to Paris, to go to house parties for fancy dress, to rent incredible homes that were fully staffed…
  • She was an incredibly horrible mother to Winston and Jack when they were kids. In later years, yes she became devoted to her boys, especially Winston. But when they were small and needed the attentions of their mother, when Winston was having the sh*t beaten out of him by his teachers at school and BEGGED for a visit or a letter, she completely ignored them.
  • She travelled all around the world. She organized for a hospital ship to go to South Africa during the Boer War and ended up going on it to help out. And when her husband, Randolph, was dying in 1894, she went on a round the world trip with him.
  • Before she died she had her leg amputated above the knee. She loved high heels and was wearing a pair when she hurried into dinner and slipped and fell down some stairs. It was quite a bad fracture and two weeks later, although the swelling had gone down, her skin had gone black from gangrene. She hemorrhaged to death as a result of the amputation.

Oh yes, Jennie Jerome was quite the woman. I appreciate that Sebba looked at her as her own woman, not as the wife of Randolph or the mother of Winston, despite the title. She lived and loved on her own terms and I suspect that she was really quite ok with the way her life turned out.


The Churchills

A few years ago I was abusing the generosity of the library, taking out 6-8 books a week. I wasn’t working at the time, and despite searching for work most of the time, I found I still had a lot of time on my hands. One of the best books that I read during that time was Mary S. Lovell’s The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family.

If you’ve been around here for a little while, you will know that among my favourite books to read are biographies about women. The Mitfords were a family of SIX sisters (and one brother who was killed in World War II) who all went on to create havoc in the early parts of the Twentieth Century. One was in love with Hitler, one married a rather famous Fascist leader (Oswald Moseley), one became the Duchess of Devonshire and they all dabbled in writing.

It was a fantastic, gossipy, informative read.

I recently picked up The Churchills: In Love and War. I’d been wanting to read it for a long time but finally took the plunge when I found it in paperback recently. I think I was about a third into it when I realized that this Mary S. Lovell was the same one that wrote the book about the Mitfords. Terrible, I know.

Well Lovell did it again. She managed to create a compulsively readable biography of an entire family. While Winston Churchill definitely looms large in this one, Lovell devotes equal time to the lives of his other relatives. Did you know that his cousin, the 9th Duke of Marlborough, married a Vanderbilt? Their marriage was a disaster. Churchill’s mother Jennie, was also an American, thought to be the first of the “Dollar Princesses” who were married to English lords so that their fortunes could keep the families afloat (think Cora Crawley on Downton Abbey).

Winston’s father Randolph contracted syphilis at some point and thereafter refused to have sexual relations with his wife. It ended up killing him, and his wife, Jennie, married 2 more times to much younger men. While there were a lot of unhappy Churchill marriages, it seems that Winston and Clementine actually cared for each other very deeply. It was a fairly unconventional marriage by modern standards (they took a lot of separate vacations) but it seemed to work for them.

Reading about a family like the Churchills is like reading about the Kennedys. You know about the big events, but the smaller every day stuff is all new to you. There was actually quite a bit of overlap with the Mitfords (related to the Churchills through Clementine) and the Kennedys also come up a few times (Winston’s daughter-in-law Pam was good friends with Kathleen ‘Kick’ Kennedy and was actually invited to fly with Kathleen and her new husband on the day that they died in a plane crash).

For someone that had such an appreciation for history and especially his own family history, it must have been somewhat gratifying to find out that Churchill died 70 years almost to the hour that his own father had died.

Lovell’s thorough research and incredible skill at wading through all of the stories and characters to come up with a streamlined story of this famous family is unparalleled. For me, she joins the ranks of Robert K. Massie and Julia P. Gelardi as one of my favourite biographers.