Christmas 1941: With world at war, Churchill joins FDR for Washington Yule

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There was tension in the house. Guests were on the way for the holiday -- but the husband hadn't told his wife who they were. So in the days just before Christmas 70 years ago, the two had an argument.

This wasn't your average household tiff. The year was 1941, the argument occurred in the White House, the combatants were Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the guests were British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his party.

"You should have told me. Why didn't you tell me?" Mrs. Roosevelt complained. "I can't find [the housekeeper] Mrs. Nesbitt anywhere. If only I had known."

The conversation, overheard by White House butler Alonzo Fields, was recounted by Pulitzer Prize-winning author and biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin in her book, "No Ordinary Time."

"She was so angry that he hadn't told her, even though he had known for a couple weeks," Ms. Goodwin said in an interview. "It's an astonishing thing. Especially these guests.

"It shows," Ms. Goodwin continued, "how much simpler life was in the White House then."

Simple, yet dangerous. Japan's surprise attack on Pearl Harbor less than three weeks earlier had thrust America into a world at war, and Churchill was determined that the United States should not focus its attention on the Pacific while Germany brutalized Europe.

So, with the half-hearted blessing of Roosevelt -- who expressed concerns about the timing -- Churchill made a clandestine 10-day trip across the Atlantic. Mrs. Roosevelt, who was in California when the meeting was set, learned of Churchill's visit only hours before his arrival.

Roosevelt tried to calm his wife, then turned to the butler in the doorway.

"Fields," he said, "at 8 tonight we have to have dinner ready for 20. Mr. Churchill and his party are coming to stay with us for a few days."

The visit would last far longer than a few days, but on Christmas, Churchill, the Roosevelts and the rest of the White House party sat down to oysters, clear soup, turkey, chestnut dressing with giblet gravy, beans and cauliflower, and sweet potato casserole.

Ms. Goodwin said it's likely Mrs. Roosevelt's ire was about more than just the inconvenience of additional place settings, worries about whether there was enough deerfoot sausage, plum pudding and ice cream, and the upheaval resulting from moving furniture on the second floor.

Now, she was out of the loop.

"She had an enormous voice in the home front," Ms. Goodwin said, "but once foreign policy became his main concern, it did separate the two from one another. She wasn't sharing with him the way she did during the early days of the New Deal. I'm sure that her angry response was also about that separation."

In the Dec. 20, 1941, edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Raymond Z. Henle, the newspaper's Washington correspondent, hinted to readers that a meeting of world leaders was in the works and went so far as to mention that Churchill had been absent from Britain's House of Commons for several days.

But the visit remained a secret until Churchill arrived Dec. 22.

"With Churchill at the White House, Washington became literally the wartime capital of the world," Mr. Henle wrote. "It is the first time in history that the heads of two mighty nations at war have met in the White House to discuss methods of crushing a common enemy."

A Post-Gazette editorial reflected the respect and optimism of most Americans of the day.

"Churchill is a welcome visitor," it said. "For a year and a half, during which he has led Britain from the deep depression of Dunkirk to within sight of ultimate victory, this country has watched and cheered his course. Out of the Washington conferences, it is certain, there will come the unity, not only of purpose but of action, which is best calculated to bring the war to a successful end in the least possible time."

The Post-Gazette was not alone in its adulation of Churchill. When the prime minister and the president held a joint news conference the evening of Dec. 23, more than 200 reporters from around the world crowded the room.

Post-Gazette staff writer W.H. Mylander, who was there, recounted to readers the moment Roosevelt, seated next to Churchill, invited him to take questions: "'Can't see him,' shouted somebody from the rear. Grinning, the prime minister not only stood up, but nimbly mounted a chair. What had been polite applause broke into cheers. He then sat down again amid the popping flash bulbs of the one photographer permitted in the room. The questioning began.

"There was sincerity in every syllable as Mr. Churchill expressed his relief that the lonely months of 1940 are over, with the United States now standing by Britain's side, just as he sat beside its president. His 'Thank God' was piously fervent."

Mr. Mylander, working in the age before television cameras, also took the time to describe the man for readers.

"He almost -- not quite, perhaps, but almost -- out-Roosevelted Mr. Roosevelt in charm, wit and adroitness," he wrote. "He looked like his picture -- thickset, head hunched down into his shoulders, a cherubic, pinkish-red face that breaks into an impish smile which belies the strain he must be under. He puffed on a cigar which seemed almost as long as Mr. Roosevelt's cigarette and its four-inch holder."

Mr. Mylander concluded, "You have the feeling, watching and listening to him, that he would be a grand dinner guest. Common as an old shoe, but a brainy conversationalist and phrase-maker you could listen to all night without getting weary."

That was exactly what Mrs. Roosevelt feared. In the autobiography she wrote after her husband's death, she told of how Churchill "stayed up talking, drinking brandy and smoking cigars until 2 or 3 a.m."

"My husband was not given to sitting up late at night after dinner as a rule, but during Mr. Churchill's visits he stayed up, and I am sure he was deeply interested at all times," she said. "I have to confess that I was frightened of Mr. Churchill. ... I was solicitous for his comfort, but I was always glad when he departed, for I knew that my husband would need a rest, since he had carried his usual hours of work in addition to the unusual ones Mr. Churchill preferred."

The Roosevelts' son, Elliott, later recalled, "Mother would just fume and go in and out of the room making hints about bed, and still Churchill would sit there."

When Mrs. Roosevelt told FDR she was concerned about all the drinking, her husband told her not to worry because it wasn't his side of the family that had a drinking problem. By all accounts, the only drinking problem Churchill had was when his exacting demands were not met.

On the day of his arrival, he told Mr. Fields, the White House butler, how to keep him happy. The menu is recorded in Cita Stelzer's "Dinner With Churchill": "I must have a tumbler of sherry in my room before breakfast, a couple of glasses of scotch and soda before lunch, and French Champagne and 90-year-old brandy before I go to sleep at night."

"Churchill had a consistent appreciation of good conversation and late-night drinking," said Pittsburgh native David McCullough, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer and historian. "It's one of the reasons they started using Blair House as a place for guests to stay, because [Mrs. Roosevelt] was sick and tired of him wandering around upstairs in the White House with his pajamas on or less."

The "less" is taken from a famous anecdote of an incident that occurred during Churchill's stay. The prime minister had emerged from a bath and was pacing around his second-floor bedroom while dictating to his stenographer, Patrick Kinna, when there was a knock at the door.

Churchill called out, "Come in," to which the door opened and the president rolled in. Shocked to see the prime minister naked, FDR went to leave, but Churchill bid him stay. "You see, Mr. President, I have nothing to hide from you," he said.

Richard Langworth, author of "Churchill by Himself" and founder of The Churchill Centre in Washington, D.C., said the incident sounded like something Churchill would do, but it also might have been embellished through retellings over the years.

"It's one of those stories that people love telling and probably keep making better over time," Ms. Goodwin said. "Churchill later said it never happened, but it's just too good to have not happened. It's hard to imagine that it was made up out of whole cloth."

Mr. McCullough, in his book "In the Dark Streets Shineth: A 1941 Christmas Eve Story," tells of Churchill joining Roosevelt on a White House balcony for the ceremonial lighting of the National Christmas Tree. The two men also addressed a crowd of 20,000 on the White House lawn and a nationwide radio audience.

"Our strongest weapon in this war is that conviction of the dignity and brotherhood of man which Christmas Day signifies," Roosevelt said.

Churchill, likewise, was mindful of the dramatic moment -- but poignantly comfortable far from home.

"I spend this anniversary and festival far from my country, far from my family, yet I cannot truthfully say that I feel far from home. Whether it be the ties of blood on my mother's side, or the friendships I have developed over her over many years of active life, or the commanding sentiment of comradeship in the common cause of great peoples who speak the same language, who kneel at the same altars, and to a very large extent, pursue the same ideals."

The prime minister went on to say:

"This is a strange Christmas Eve. Almost the whole world is locked in deadly struggle, and, with the most terrible weapons which science can devise, the nations advance upon each other."

Still, he said, it was entirely appropriate to pause to celebrate Christmas.

"Let the children have their night of fun and laughter," he said. "Let the gifts of Father Christmas delight their play. Let us grown-ups share to the full in their unstinted pleasures before we turn again to the stern task and formidable years that lie before us, resolved that, by our sacrifice and daring, these same children shall not be robbed of their inheritance or denied their right to live in a free and decent world."

The next morning, Churchill and Roosevelt, surrounded by security men, attended a Christmas service at a nearby Methodist church.

During the service, the hymn "O Little Town of Bethlehem," written 75 years earlier by a Philadelphia pastor, was sung. Mr. McCullough said Churchill, who had never heard the carol before, fell in love with it and joined Roosevelt and the rest of the congregation in joyously singing it. The lyric, "The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight," particularly resonated.

Later that day, the Christmas dinner became a State Dinner. The Roosevelts' four sons were away, already in the service, and their daughter was in Seattle. They were joined at their holiday table by Churchill, the prince and princess of Norway, the British ambassador and his wife, and other British officials.

"Mr. Churchill and his party were delightful Christmas guests," Mrs. Roosevelt recalled years later, "and they accepted with very good grace their inclusion in our family celebration when they must have missed their own."

Churchill addressed a joint session of Congress on Dec. 26, delivering a speech that won over his staunchest critics. He would spend two more weeks in the United States, most of it at the White House, making plans with Roosevelt for the war.

"We live here as a big family in the greatest intimacy and formality," Churchill said in a telegram home to Labour Party leader Clement Attlee, "and I have formed the very highest regard and admiration for the president."

Mr. McCullough said Christmas 1941 at the White House was special, not only because of its historical accomplishment in setting the Allies on a course to win World War II.

"These two men also were human beings, moved by the emotions of the Christmas season, moved by the Christmas carols being sung by the people on the lawn," Mr. McCullough said.

"It's important to remember that while the present moment may be seem dark, may seem like a test of our courage, that particular Christmas was as dark a time as the free world ever experienced. And yet they lit the tree and sang the carols."

Dan Majors: or 412-263-1456. First Published December 25, 2011 5:00 AM


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