TERRE HAUTE —
Broken. Humiliated. Discarded. Finished.
Few of us think of Winston Churchill in such bleak terms. Our history classes etched Churchill into our memories as the British leader who refused to submit to Hitler. The lion who inspired his countrymen to relentlessly fight the Nazis and prevail in World War II. The jowly, cigar-chomping, top-hatted prime minister who told Englishmen to brace themselves for war so that “if the British Empire and its commonwealth lasts for a thousand years, men will say, ‘This was their finest hour.’”
Indeed, that was Churchill. At age 65, the venerable Gibraltar of a man that Great Britain leaned upon in its greatest crisis.
That scene opens the new biography, “Young Titan: The Making of Winston Churchill,” written by Indiana State University professor Michael Shelden. The year is 1940. Churchill walks through the rubble of the House of Parliament in shell-shocked London, wreaked by the deadly Luftwaffe bombing campaign. Smoke fills the English air, along with talk of surrender. Churchill erases such defeatism, vowing to battle the Adolph Hitler regime to the death.
That Churchill motivated the Brits. That Churchill motivates millions worldwide, still.
Yet, as Shelden emphasized in an interview earlier this month, “That Churchill you know at 65 didn’t just show up out of nowhere.”
In reality, Churchill had risen from his own personal ashes at that moment. Like his nation, Churchill, too, was once laid low, spiritually wounded, ready to wave the white flag on his life.
That Churchill was 40. His glorious, phenomenal days of youth — as writer, 19th-century war hero, aristocrat, world traveler, romantic and brash liberal in Parliament — had crumbled around him. As leader of the British Navy in 1915, Churchill bore the blame for a catastrophic military miscalculation in the Battle of Gallipoli, regarded as one of the worst debacles for the Allies in World War I. His name was mud. As Shelden writes in “Young Titan,” Churchill’s rising star was extinguished. Destined to become prime minister, Churchill was deflated by Gallipoli and “found himself a humble major in the trenches.”
The downward spiral sent Churchill into his “wilderness years” between the two world wars.
“His wife said she never saw him lower than that,” Shelden said.
It’s easier for Average Joes and Janes to relate to that Churchill. “Most of us at 40 have a point where we kind of assess our lives,” Shelden said over lunch in an ISU campus restaurant.
“Young Titan” is the English professor’s fifth biography of a major figure, including Mark Twain and George Orwell. The latter earned Shelden a spot as a Pulitzer Prize finalist. This book, though, clearly energizes Shelden. He passionately explained the relevance and impact of Churchill’s comeback from a midlife crisis until the restaurant’s lunchtime crowd dwindled to two and the hour of Shelden’s next class neared. His research took him to places few Churchill scholars explore, including a 550-mile drive through the United Kingdom to a castle on a cliff in Scotland. The daughter of the prime minister, smitten with the dashing young Churchill, threw herself off that ledge in despair after Winston professed his love for his future wife, Clementine. They were two of four youthful, prominent beauties courted by the 26-year-old Churchill, including American actress Ethel Barrymore.
Churchill, a ladies man. Who knew?
Shelden did, after 2 1/2 years of combing libraries, interviewing people Churchill encountered, and reading forgotten letters. “You don’t follow the normal track,” Shelden said of his preparation for writing. “Instead of going through the front door, you come in through the bathroom window. You want to get the stuff that is overlooked.”
That includes 14 formative years of Churchill’s life, from his entry into Parliament in 1901 to his humbling resignation as failed leader of the British navy — the crux of Shelden’s book. Churchill was born into affluence. He was the son of an influential politician, Lord Randolph Churchill, and an American socialite, Jennie Jerome. Winston could call the Duke of Marlborough his cousin. Groomed for greatness, as Shelden writes, Churchill ignored the tradition of young members of Parliament of functioning quietly, leaving public commentary to elder British statesmen. Just weeks after taking his seat in the governing body, Churchill delivered his maiden speech.
“Churchill just stands up and starts giving a lecture,” Shelden said, amazement in his voice.
That Churchill went dormant at 40, but re-emerged amid those ruins in London at 65.
Churchill drew on that swagger and determination of a “Young Titan” when his country needed an answer to Hitler. The lessons of his recovery from personal defeat helped, too. That’s why “wisdom” and “Churchill” are virtually synonymous decades after his death in 1965. Few high school commencements unfold without a Churchill quotation. He is inarguably one of the most important figures of the 20th century.
“It really was a case where, if Churchill hadn’t existed, the outcome of the world would be very different,” Shelden said.
Larger than life, historically. Yet, Churchill’s fall from those heady days of youth to fortysomething desperation showed his humanity. As with most adults, the emotional trophies and shrapnel of the past altered Churchill’s steps later. As Shelden writes, “Professional and personal disappointments schooled him in the virtue of patience and the dangers of overconfidence. In his friendships, he came to treasure loyalty and to be wary of betrayal.”
He was a liberal and then a conservative. He was born into aristocracy, but became an early champion of women’s suffrage and what became Social Security. He lived as both a star and an outcast, even ousted as prime minister after Britain and the Allies defeated Hitler and the Axis powers.
One of Shelden’s favorite Churchill quotes addresses the role of government. But in a way, the quotation also summarizes the task Churchill himself faced when touring the ruins of a ravaged nation looking for a leader … someone to convince them all was not lost.
“There are some things which a government must do,” Churchill said, “not because the government would do them well, but because nobody else would do them at all.”
That Churchill changed our world.
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or email@example.com.