Churchill's Secret Mistress?

26th March 2018 in Archives Centre

Channel 4's Post-Truth Documentary, by Dr Piers Brendon.

Dr Piers Brendon

Channel 4’s recent documentary Churchill’s Secret Mistress asserts but does not establish, that the great man had an affair with Doris, the wife of reprobate journalist Viscount Castlerosse (and great-aunt of the current super-model Cara Delevingne), during the mid-1930s. The evidence that two well-qualified historians, Warren Dockter and Richard Toye, produce to make the case for this adultery is flimsy and circumstantial whereas Churchill gave a lifelong demonstration of his faithful devotion to his wife Clementine. Yet at a time when the media face a barrage of accusations about fake news and should, therefore, be ultra-scrupulous in standing up their stories, Channel 4 was apparently more interested in making a splash than in broadcasting an even-handed programme.

I can say this because, having been Keeper of the Churchill Archives Centre in Cambridge and written much about Churchill and the inter-war period, I was asked to give an interview for the documentary. In it, I explained my reasons for disbelieving in the alleged liaison. The experienced producer, Richard Sanders, pronounced the interview great. Dockter reckoned it was the best he had done, giving essential balance to the film. One of the cameramen even remarked that I had converted him. But Channel 4 maintained that the case for Churchill’s infidelity was so compelling that there was no room for dissent. So my interview was cut, to the embarrassment of Sanders and the chagrin of Dockter, both of whom got in touch with me to apologise. My response was that a documentary which presents debatable claims as unchallenged statements of fact is wide open to criticism.

Essentially the film rests on two pieces of testimony. The first is a 1985 tape-recording in which Jock Colville, one of Churchill’s war-time private secretaries, asserted that he had “certainly had an affair” — a contention repeated as if to dispel doubt, several times during the programme. The second is a family tradition expounded by Doris Castlerosse’s niece, based on confidences shared with her relations at the time, that Doris did indeed become Churchill’s mistress. This is backed up by other points that are deemed suggestive. At the louche and luxurious Riviera villa belonging to Maxine Elliott, ludicrously described in the film as a 'mystery actress', Churchill painted three portraits of Doris, all “lovingly crafted” according to the commentary — as though he otherwise simply dashed off daubs. One of them, depicting Doris lying on a sofa in what is purportedly a voluptuous (but could simply be an indolent) pose, he gave to her. It further emerges that Churchill was very angry when a press photographer snapped him while painting in Doris’s presence, that she sent the servants away when he came to call on her in London and that he helped to secure her a flight home from America in 1942, shortly before she died of an overdose of drugs in the Dorchester hotel.

All this evidence is second-hand and most of it is threadbare. Jock Colville did not come to know Churchill until 1940 and by 1985, two years before his death, he was notoriously vague. If Colville’s words had been broadcast in full they would have shown that he couldn’t remember Doris Castlerosse’s name, got muddled about other details, and told a most implausible story about how Clementine supposedly found out about her husband’s “little fling”. Of course, it is impossible to prove a negative, to show conclusively that Colville was mistaken about a matter which anyway, in the great scheme of things, is not of huge moment. But it is probable, to say the least, that he got it wrong. Perhaps he was half-recalling a rumour (presumably emanating from Doris) heard in his youth and later repeated in, for example, William Manchester’s biography of Churchill. Or he may have been confusing Winston with his son Randolph, one of many who did have an affair with Doris (which would surely have deterred his father from following suit even if he had been so inclined). Colville may even have been transposing Churchill’s outrageous latter-day flirtation with his wife Meg, about which Clementine wrote with some amusement.

The film depicts Doris as a strikingly beautiful middle-class girl who slept her way into high society. Fair enough, but no mention is made of the fact that she was a wholly unreliable witness, one who by her own confession was given to making 'absurd misstatements'. Doris relied on attracting wealthy lovers (one of them an American lesbian) to fund her wild extravagances and she was clearly not above adding to her allure as a femme fatale by whispering that the famously monogamous Churchill was one of her conquests. The few missives that passed between them are amiable but innocuous, including her remark, made much of in the film, that she was not 'dangerous anymore' — which probably just meant that she had given up trying to seduce him. At his easel, Churchill was always infuriated by interruptions, which almost certainly accounts for his berating the intrusive photographer.  Sending servants away was more likely to draw attention to any amour than to hide it.  The film’s final suggestion that Doris might have blackmailed Churchill by threatening to publicise his portrait of her is unsubstantiated and preposterous.

Winston Churchill was anything but a prude. He was as much a Regency figure as a Victorian. His first public speech was a denunciation of a purity campaigner called Mrs Ormiston Chant, who had erected screens outside London’s Empire music hall designed to segregate theatre-goers from street-walkers, screens which he and fellow Sandhurst cadets tore down. Here is evidence to suggest that Churchill did not come a virgin to the altar and that he always remained susceptible to female beauty. He took a robust view of the sexual peccadilloes of Lloyd George and others. Among men his talk could be ribald and, while idealising unsullied maidens, he enjoyed the company of women of experience. Looking around as such "soiled doves" during a birthday party given to him by his cousin Venetia Montagu in the early 1930s, he declared that this was the sort of company he would like to meet in heaven: "Stained perhaps – stained but positive. Not those flaccid sea-anemones of virtue who can hardly wobble an antenna in the waters of negativity.”

However, Churchill was no libertine — unlike his father, whose death from syphilis he must have seen as an awful warning. Rather, Winston was a romantic who memorably wrote that he married Clementine in 1908 and “lived happily ever after”. Theirs was a love match and such was her youthful passion for him that she could shyly express it only in French. In a sense, all their letters to each other were love letters. Inevitably, two such powerful personalities with differing preoccupations had terrific rows, which sometimes put their marriage under strain. Clementine was so highly strung that her husband’s last private secretary went so far as to say that she lived on the edge of a nervous breakdown. But Winston never let the sun go down on his wrath. Nor did he permit anything to mar the heroic idyll that he took his existence to be. His attitude was best summed up in 1909 when Clementine evidently accused him of unfaithfulness. He wrote to her:

We do not live in a world of small intrigues, but of serious and important affairs. I could not conceive myself forming any other attachment than that to which I have fastened the happiness of my life here below… You ought to trust me for I do not love & will never love any woman in the world but you… Your sweetness & beauty have cast a glory upon my life.

None of this appears in the Channel 4 documentary, which also ignores other telling episodes. In May 1915 Admiral Jackie Fisher told Clementine, for half-crazed reasons of his own, that Winston had not gone to France on war business but was frolicking in Paris with a mistress. She responded brusquely, “Be quiet, you silly old man” and ordered him out of her house. Subsequently, Churchill resisted the advances of the dissolute Daisy Fellowes, who allegedly offered herself to him naked on a tiger-skin rug — an adventure about which Clementine came to laugh. Clementine’s own “romantic friendship” with suave art dealer Terence Philip, which took place during a far eastern cruise on Lord Moyne’s yacht in 1935, is used in the film to suggest that she was heading for a divorce. What is not said is that Philip was apparently gay, that Clementine always put morality before emotion, and that the Churchills’ letters remained full of tender expressions of love.

Churchills in the Bahamas (1935) (CSCT 5/7/6)
Churchills in the Bahamas (1935) (CSCT 5/7/6).

They were such an uxorious couple, indeed, that Punch christened them the Birdikins. Lord Beaverbrook, who knew everybody’s secrets and was not averse to betraying them, testified to their constancy.  On the tape, Colville acknowledged that Winston did not pursue other women and asserted that he was not highly-sexed, though this was hardly something about which he had first-hand information. Certainly, Churchill possessed no talent for intrigue or dissimulation: Stanley Baldwin said that when Winston was up to mischief he resembled a cat stealing out of a dairy. Moreover, he channelled most of his phenomenal energies into politics and writing. His success in these spheres was attributable in no small measure to his exclusive and chivalric devotion to Clementine. Another private secretary, John Martin, wrote: “Above all, Churchill was sustained in storm and stress because his life was rooted in such a happy marriage.”

Thanks to today’s social media, dramatic falsehood flies increasingly high while prosaic truth limps all too slowly behind. Demonstrable lies masquerade as alternative facts. Spurious assertions attain virtual reality. The traditional canons of verification go by the board. The wells of knowledge are muddied and the springs of information are polluted. Citing the pros but ignoring the cons, Churchill’s Secret Affair is a symptom of this modern malaise. Channel 4 has committed the professional communicator’s cardinal sin of not allowing inconvenient facts and arguments to get in the way of a good story.

— Dr Piers Brendon, former Keeper of the Churchill Archives Centre.

View Piers' profile


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