A few months after Winston Churchill took office as prime minister, the German military began an eight month-long bombing campaign on the United Kingdom which became known as the Blitz. The bombing, which lasted for 57 consecutive days and nights, killed 45,000 Britons. What was life like for the people who experienced the Blitz? My guest today zoomed in on this question by looking at the lives of Winston Churchill and his inner circle during this precarious year of the war.
His name is Erik Larson, and in his latest book The Splendid and the Vile, he shows readers how the Blitz could be absolutely terrifying, unexpectedly normal, and strangely beautiful at the same time, and does so by profiling how Churchill, as well as his family members and advisers, handled both the unexpected horrors of war and the predictable pickles of interpersonal drama. We begin our conversation discussing the extent of the Blitz, and then spend the rest of our conversation discussing key members in what Churchill called his “sacred circle.” We learn how Churchill’s wife Clementine supported her husband during the Blitz, how his son Randolph created trouble with his gambling and affairs, how his teenage daughter Mary managed to keep doing typically adolescent activities even while bombs fell on England, and how his advisors contributed to his leadership. These characters offer a great lesson in how life goes on even in the midst of a crisis, and how one can be fearless even in the face of a threat.
If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.
- Why Erik decided to focus on the Blitz for this book and what sets it apart from other Churchill biographies
- The strange way life carried on during those 57 days
- Where the name “The Splendid and the Vile” came from
- Clementine’s role in the Blitz
- The drama that Randolph Churchill brought to Winston’s life during WWII
- The numerous ways Churchill’s inner circle helped him in this time period
- Why Mary Churchill was Erik’s favorite character
- The numerous intersections between Churchill’s private life and the war efforts
- Learning the art of fearlessness
- The tremendous front-facing leadership of Churchill
- What Erik hopes this book provides for the reader
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- My interview with Candace Millard about the making of Winston Churchill
- Churchill’s Charge to Young Men
- The Winston Churchill Guide to Public Speaking
- The Churchill School of Adulthood
- The Last Lion trilogy by William Manchester and Paul Reid
- The Blitz
- Mary Churchill
- Jock Colville
- The Fringes of Power by Colville
- Lord Beaverbrook
- Averell Harriman
- My interview with Andrew Roberts about Churchill
- My interview with Roberts about leadership during war
- Dresden bombings
Connect With Erik
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. A few months after Winston Churchill took office as Prime Minister, the German military began an eight month long bombing campaign on the United Kingdom which became known as the Blitz. The bombing, which lasted for 57 consecutive days and nights over London, killed 45,000 Britons. What was life like for the people who experienced the Blitz? My guest today zoomed in on this question by looking at the lives of Winston Churchill and his inner circle during this precarious year of the war. His name is Erik Larson and in his latest book The Splendid And The Vile he shows readers how the Blitz could be absolutely terrifying, unexpectedly normal and strangely beautiful at the same time.
And he does so by profiling how Churchill, as well as his family members and advisors, handled both the unexpected horrors of war and the predictable pickles of interpersonal drama. We begin our conversation discussing the extent of the Blitz and then spend the rest of our conversation discussing key members in what Churchill call his Sacred Circle. We learn how Churchill’s wife, Clementine, supported her husband during the Blitz, how his son, Randolph, created trouble with his gambling and affairs, how his teenage daughter, Mary, managed to keep doing typically adolescent activities, even while bombs fell on London, and how his advisors contributed to his leadership. These characters offer a great lesson in how life goes on even in the midst of a crisis and how one can be fearless even in the face of a threat. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/larson.
Alright, Erik Larson, welcome to the show.
Erik Larson: Thank you very much.
Brett McKay: So you got a new book out, The Splendid And The Vile.
Erik Larson: Yes, indeed.
Brett McKay: “A saga of Churchill, Family and Defiance During the Blitz.” There’s been a lot of biographies written about Churchill. I think he’s one of the most written about human beings from the 20th century. What were you aiming to accomplish by focusing on the Blitz?
Erik Larson: The thing that drew me to the story is not so much Churchill, not so much the Blitz, not so much World War II, but what happened was that I had been living in Seattle and my wife and I moved to Manhattan. And when we moved to Manhattan I had this epiphany about the nature of 9/11. In Seattle, like millions of people around the world, we watched the Twin Towers collapse in real time, but it was a very different thing when I got to New York. I realized these people had seen the smoke, smelled it, heard sirens, the whole deal, but above all they had that sense of violation of their personal city, of their home city. And I started thinking, “How on earth, if this 9/11 threw us for such a loop, and the city in particular, how did people survive the bombing of London when it was 57 consecutive nights of bombs, and then six more months of intensifying raids at somewhat longer intervals but still very intense bombing attacks? How do you survive that?”
I started thinking I could get at that by maybe writing a book about a typical London family. And then I thought, “Wait a minute. Why not the quintessential London family?” Churchill and his family, his youngest living daughter Mary, his son-in-law Randolph, and so forth, and his own advisors. Take a look at exactly how they got through that year. Which is what makes this very different than other things that have been done thus far.
Brett McKay: And that’s one of things you mention in the source section of your book, is that you purposely went to look for those frivolous stories that often get thrown out or maybe just mentioned in passing in other Churchill biographies. And I’m glad you did ’cause I remember reading those things, those little stories in other biographies, and I always thought, “I wish they would go… There’s more there and I want them to go there.”
Erik Larson: Yeah. It’s not so much that I look for the frivolous stories, but that I look for… I like to think of it more as context is everything, right? And there tends to be with Churchill a tendency toward hagiography, making him seem like he alone won World War II, when of course that’s not at all the case. And I wanted to look at how he went about his days during this period and how his advisors and family did. And necessarily in terms of context, that means getting into some of the little stories like we all have. Even in the midst of the crisis of 9/11, we still had to take our kids to school and we had all that. So Churchill was no different. So I did really try to hunt for those things that would shed light on what life was really like day by day.
Brett McKay: So before we get into Churchill and his inner circle during the Blitz, let’s talk about the Blitz itself. ‘Cause one of things that I think you did a really good job with this book is conveying how terrifying, how catastrophic the Blitz was, but also how weirdly normal it became. So let’s give listeners a bird’s eye view of the Blitz. You mentioned 56 nights…
Erik Larson: 57 consecutive nights of bombing after… Well, so again, context. So one of the things that I was a little bit surprised at in my own research, I knew a little bit about the Blitz and the bombing and the Battle of Britain and so forth, what I didn’t realize was there was this long, slow ramp-up essentially from when Churchill became prime minister to the point when the first bombers attacked, made their first deliberate attack on London. And it was just kind of slow, and I think fairly suspenseful accretion of Hitler doing one thing, Churchill being defiant, one thing leading to another, and only then did the bombers come to London on September 7th, 1940. Until then, Hitler explicitly forbade the Luftwaffe from making any attacks on central London… Deliberate attacks on central London. There had been an accidental attack on August 24th.
So there was this long, slow run-up, which I found very, very interesting and very sort of spooky, actually. But then comes the Blitz, September 7th, 1940. The first bombers arrived that afternoon at tea-time. It’s a beautiful day. Warm, in the ’90s, people are… The stores are full in Piccadilly. And suddenly these bombers arrive and start dropping incendiary bombs and high explosives on the city of London. It was incredibly… Incredibly shocking and terrifying. The bombing continued night after night after night for 57 consecutive nights. As this happened, people did begin to adjust in some very interesting ways. And that’s part of the story is how they began to adjust.
And for example, for Mary Churchill, who is my favorite character in the book, she’s 17 at the start of the action, she turns 18. Life is still full of parties, hanging out with RAF pilots, dances… There was this annual Queen Charlotte’s ball, which is sort of the debutante ball, which that year was held in an underground ballroom, and it goes on anyway. It goes on anyway. Bombs are falling as this ball is under way. That’s how people did sort of normalize the day.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I mean, business kept going on, and it was just so interesting to see that that they managed. What do you think was going on there? Was it Churchill’s leadership, his rhetoric? Or was it just… That’s just human nature. You somehow manage to adjust to even crazy, craziness.
Erik Larson: Yeah, well, I think it’s a mix of all things. I mean, 57 consecutive nights of bombing, what are you gonna do? Stay at a high state of terror for 57 straight nights? People brought their own abilities to adjust to the program, but it didn’t hurt that Churchill… It actually helped immensely that Churchill, as leaders, true leaders should, that Churchill was out there trying to provide solace when he could, trying to show the people at all opportunities how courageous he was in hopes of transferring some of that courage to them. And I think it all went into the mix where people began to normalize their lives. It helped also that the Luftwaffe decided that daytime raids were just too costly ’cause the RAF was really pummeling them on daytime raids. Bombers were slow… Much slower than the RAF, who had Hurricanes and Spitfires.
So the Germans abandoned daylight raids, which really helped, because then during the day, people led relatively normal lives. They came to work, they commuted to work, they left… They left early enough to get home before the blackout. They brought their gas masks to work just in case, it was that kind of thing. So that helped also. If you have… If you were pretty certain, relatively certain, or you could be relatively certain that during the day the bombers would not come, that kind of helped level out the day. However, the flip side of that was the equal certainty that they would come that night almost for sure during that first period.
Brett McKay: One of the things you did, you went to diaries written during this time, and I thought one of the interesting stories you pull out of that, like love making, affairs actually picked up during the Blitz ’cause people would use the Blitz as an excuse to like, “Oh, well, I was gone, I was taking cover.”
Erik Larson: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, you think about that, bombs are falling and it’s terrifying and you gotta live your life. And what have you got to lose? So people were having affairs. It seemed to be like everybody was having an affair. There was a lot of sex going on and that was one of the things that I found kind of delightful too in the research.
Brett McKay: So how many Britons ended up being killed during the Blitz?
Erik Larson: Okay, so you’re taxing my always faulty short-term memory, but I believe by the time the Blitz ended, the 1940-41 period, I think the number killed was 47,000. The number seriously injured was another 50,000, so…
Brett McKay: Yeah, and as you talked about, the destruction, it was… You could have one block completely just annihilated, but the block over, fine.
Erik Larson: Well, yeah, yeah. Because of the nature of… The nature of, the inaccurate nature of bombing and the character of some weapons. For example, the Germans… The Luftwaffe used what were refered to as parachute mines, which were very large, basically explosive pallets that were dropped by parachute into a neighborhood. If one of those landed in your neighborhood and went off, you had no neighborhood, it would just destroy that complete area. Similarly, the Germans had a bomb, 4,000 pound bomb, 13 feet long, which they named Satan. And if that landed in your neighborhood, you also lost your neighborhood. But then the reality was two blocks away, you could drive down a street that looked like there had not been a war yet.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Well, let’s talk about the title of the book, The Splendid and the Vile. Where did that come from?
Erik Larson: So The Splendid and the Vile comes from a diary entry by a key character in the book, John Colville, who was one of Churchill’s private secretaries. He had a number of those, all young men who were very hard-working and they were really sort of more or less almost like assistant Prime Ministers, really. John Colville was one of the hardest working, one of the most interesting, because he kept a daily diary. He should not have kept that diary, it was a violation of the National Secrets Act, but he kept a daily diary. And one night he, he writes about this in his diary, one night during a particularly severe raid, he was looking out the window watching this from a bedroom, as one does apparently. And so he’s watching this raid, and he was struck by the beauty of the bombs and the search lights and guns firing and so forth and he writes this beautiful, beautiful entry in his diary which ends with how this was such a… This was a juxtaposition of, he called it “natural splendor and human vileness.” And as soon as I read that entry, I thought, “Yeah, this is gonna be my title, The Splendid and the Vile,” and it stayed ever since. I had to fight for it a little bit, but…
Brett McKay: Right. No, I’m glad you fought, it is such a great title ’cause that really does encapsulate war. And sometimes we forget that the Latin word for war, “bellum,” it’s also “bella,” beautiful.
Erik Larson: It’s true, it’s true.
Brett McKay: Yeah, it’s weird. So let’s talk about this inner circle that Churchill used and he actually refered to it as secret circle, it was sort of his…
Erik Larson: Yes.
Brett McKay: These are the people that buoyed him up during this time. And we’ll talk about John Colville here in a bit, but let’s talk about the ones closest to him in his… One that played a big role in this book was his wife Clementine, who was a character. I think she doesn’t get the attention that she probably deserves…
Erik Larson: I think I said they’re all characters in this book.
Brett McKay: Yeah, they are.
Erik Larson: Anyway, but yes.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about Clementine, what…
Erik Larson: She was a very interesting, compelling, compelling woman. Yeah.
Brett McKay: What was her role in the Blitz and then during this first year?
Erik Larson: In this first year, she really did decide that what her job was going to be was to support Churchill. That was going to be her job. And she is sort of threaded through the narrative, not as much as Mary, but she’s threaded through the narrative as supporting him. But also she’s a very… She’s a very independent person. She had her own bedroom and she did not care that much, honestly, for most of Churchill’s friends and then she would prefer some of these nights just not to be around when he had his parties. But she was very interesting in this in a couple of ways.
For one, there was a point where Churchill in her view was starting to become even more inconsiderate than usual. He had a really inconsiderate rude side, and his employees were starting to chafe at this. And Clementine writes in this letter, where she says, “You are not as nice as you used to be,” and advises him on how he should be behaving and so forth. Which is very good, sort of a nice, nice break on him getting completely off the planet with his irascibility and so forth. But there’s also a point where she goes and visits all the shelters. Not all the shelters, but a number of public shelters which were a mess. She just ventures in… Clementine Churchill ventures in and captures Dickensian detail about how awful these places were. That was very cool.
Brett McKay: And she was a big part of the reforms that happened in the shelters?
Erik Larson: Yes. Yes, she was. She was a very… She was a big part of advising Churchill on the reforms that he accepted her views, yes.
Brett McKay: And so some of those other things they talked about, they just wanted people to be comfortable so they made sure they got their tea.
Erik Larson: Well, the tea was an interesting thing, yeah, Well, tea runs through the whole book also because tea was everything, tea was England. But one of the characters, Frederick Lindemann, Churchill’s science advisor, ordinarily a cold fish, but in one memorandum to Churchill, he tried to get the government to reconsider a decrease in the amount of tea available under the rationing program. And it was a very interesting memorandum, because he makes the point that tea was crucial to the underclasses in terms of it was their only luxury and how important it was to maintain at least that. And so that was kind of a very warmhearted, interesting memorandum.
Brett McKay: So you talk about one of the goals of your book is to explore what family life was like during the Blitz. And so besides managing a country during a siege, there was family drama going on with the Churchills. And a source of that, a big source of the drama was his son Randolph. Tell us about Randolph Churchill.
Erik Larson: Yeah, so Randolph… Randolph Churchill was kind of a, I guess the term would be a wastrel. He was a very bright guy, very handsome guy, but he was a very heavy drinker, and he was a spendthrift and an inept gambler who lost a lot of money, And he was married to a young woman, Pamela Digby, but she took his name so it’s Pamela Digby Churchill. And their relationship was fine at first. When the action begins they’ve been only married for about a year. And she loved him, he may or may not have loved her, I think he did, but he also was a philanderer. On the day that she gives birth to their child, Winston Junior, he is in bed with somebody else’s wife. He was a really difficult character, he was really sort of outrageously outspoken, annoying, difficult character.
Brett McKay: Well, I think Churchill once said that he loves Randolph, just doesn’t like him.
Erik Larson: Yeah, that’s right.
Brett McKay: Yeah. And he was doing this throughout the war. There’d be something, well, Randolph’s got these gambling debts and that Pamela had… Is this the point where Pamela stopped telling the Churchills about the gambling debts that Randolph was accruing?
Erik Larson: So yeah, at one point the debts were accumulating to the point where they were really in hard straits. They got a bail-out at one point from Churchill, but he said this better be the end of it, and that was not the end of it. So there’s one moment where Pamela’s in Harrods, the famous department store, and her credit, line of credit with the store was suddenly withdrawn because of excess debts by Randolph and this was a tremendous humiliation. She flees the store in tears, and their marriage through the book begins to wobble and degrade and eventually to explode.
Brett McKay: Well, we’ll talk about the explosion here in a bit ’cause it was an interesting dynamic between the Churchills and Pamela. Well, let’s go back to John Colville. So this is a personal secretary. He was keeping diaries during the whole entire time, he didn’t have to, he wasn’t supposed to do that. What was so captivating about his story? What do you think his story tells about that you’re trying to convey in the book?
Erik Larson: Well, the most important thing about John Colville is that his diary. Well, there’s a number of things about John Colville, but really his diary was the best insight into the daily functioning of 10 Downing Street during this 1940-41 period. He should not have been keeping the diary. It was essentially illegal, it was a violation of national security laws, but he kept it anyway.
But the thing I felt about John Colville, I’m obviously not the first person to use that diary, not the first to refer to him. He makes a cameo, I believe, in the TV series The Crown, but I felt that John Colville really needed to be… Sort of wanted to step forward and become a more full-bodied character in a work of history about Churchill. Nobody has done that, really, until now. And so to me, I wanted to know more about what his life was like; it’s one thing to be a secretary, a private secretary in Churchill’s office, but what else was going on?
So at one point I went in to take a look at his diary in the… The actual diary at the Churchill Archive Centre in Cambridge. There’s the published version, The Fringes of Power, which is very good, very accurate, very true to the original diary. But in that he made a reference to the fact that the things he cut out were… He cut out trivialities, trivialities. So I was interested in those trivialities, so I set about trying to find out, well, what did he cut. And it’s very evident when you go through the two diaries, but I don’t think anybody else has bothered to do that, honestly, and I found that the things he cut out were certainly not trivialities at the time. He was in love, he was in love, and this is what sort of defined his emotional concerns in those days. He was in love with this young woman, Gay Margison, and obsessed with her, really, and she was not returning the favor. So this runs through the book as well, and again, context to me is everything.
Brett McKay: Yeah, it’s one of those… Again, it shows how life went on even during…
Erik Larson: Yes, life went on, exactly.
Brett McKay: And what I also liked about Colville is at the beginning when he started working with Churchill, he wasn’t really sure about him. But then as his relationship with Churchill progresses, he starts deeply admiring…
Erik Larson: Yes, yes, and it’s important to know that Colville, prior to this, he was a private secretary for Neville Chamberlain, and Neville Chamberlain was a very different kind of guy. Neville Chamberlain was sort of a more austere character, his nickname was the Coroner, or the Old Umbrella. And then suddenly this dynamo Churchill comes in and Colville ends up working for him, and Colville really liked and was loyal to Chamberlain. And he was like, “Ah, yes, this is gonna be… ” No, he felt this was gonna be a difficult thing to have Churchill there as Prime Minister. But over time he came to see the thing that the world eventually came to see, which is that Churchill was quite a brilliant leader in this period, he was the man for the hour. You can criticize Churchill for a lot of things. His early 20th century sort of depredations as a classic imperialist in Africa and so forth, and his post World War II actions in Kenya and India and so forth, but in this period he was the man of the hour, and Colville came to recognize that.
Brett McKay: How did Churchill rely on Colville? Were you able to see that, that he leaned on Colville at all?
Erik Larson: Well, he leaned on all of his private secretaries, because believe me, without them he could not have done what he did. These guys worked their tails off.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Give me, like, an idea. They were working from, like, 6:00 sometimes until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning.
Erik Larson: They worked until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, and whoever was on duty was the point man for all this, and they were… They would… They were helping him gather memoranda, helping him… His other secretaries took dictation for speeches and so forth, but Colville and the others were responsible for putting the stuff in shape, for getting things published in the appropriate places, for talking to other ministers. These poor guys just… They had no lives. But, and again, Churchill could be incredibly rude, he could be overbearing, he could be very much boorish. But he had this other side to him that was so very warm and fun, and that’s… No matter how hard these guys worked, they loved him, and they would not have traded that whole period for anything.
Brett McKay: So that was an interesting thing, so Churchill never apologized.
Erik Larson: He never apologized.
Brett McKay: He never said, “I’m sorry,” but he would do things after a blow-up that would convey, “I’m sorry, we’re still good.”
Erik Larson: He never apologized, he never apologized but he somehow managed to communicate through whatever signal of the moment seemed appropriate that all was forgiven. Like Beaverbrook says at one point that when this happened with Churchill that he might then after the initial anger had subsided, he might then in a moment put his hand on Beaverbrook’s wrist just gently, and that was the signal that all is good, it’s a momentary blow-up, it’s over.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about Lord Beaverbrook, ’cause this is another character. What was his role during this first year?
Erik Larson: Beaverbrook’s role during this first year was really very important. Now, Beaverbrook and Churchill had been friends off and on throughout the years, but mostly friends, and now at this point were friends again. And as soon as Churchill becomes Prime Minister on May 10, 1940 he makes Beaverbrook his Minister of Aircraft Production. Very important job. Beaverbrook is, at this point, he’s a newspaper magnate. He publishes newspapers, he doesn’t really know much about manufacturing hard things, but Churchill recognizes in him this galvanizing energy that’s gonna be necessary to step up production of fighter aircraft. Which Churchill rightly recognized from the get-go, was going to be the crucial ingredient in trying to hold off any effort to invade England by Hitler.
And that threat of invasion at this time was a very concrete thing. There were concerns that Hitler, the German Air Force and Army could invade the next day, on any given day. That one day you’d be sitting there in Hyde Park and 100 paratroopers would descend around the Serpentine in the park. It was a very real possibility. But Churchill recognized that the way to stop that, the way to deny the Luftwaffe air superiority, which is what they would have needed if they were going to try to invade, if the Germans were to try to invade England, he recognized that fighters were the only way to do that. Did not have enough fighters, appoints Beaverbrook Minister of Aircraft Production.
Beaverbrook works what amounts to an act of magic over time, radically steps up production of Spitfires and Hurricanes. Not as radically as he would like to think, but he radically stepped up production and really sort of saved the day. At the same time, he was an irascible, potentially cantankerous, cataclysmically energetic guy. Demanding, peevish, toddler-ish. In the course of the 1940-41 he resigns 14 times, mainly to get attention from Churchill. But Churchill knew him, he knew his man, he knew that Max… And Max was his real name, the Lord Beaverbrook was styled. Lord Beaverbrook, Max Aitken was his real name. He knew that Max was gonna be a problem. He knew he was gonna be problem. But that’s what he wanted, he wanted him to be a problem, he wanted him to sow conflict because he wanted aircraft production juiced up as much was possible.
Brett McKay: And he gossiped like a church lady.
Erik Larson: He what?
Brett McKay: He’s a gossip, he loved to gossip about what was going on. He loved to have dirt on people.
Erik Larson: Beaverbrook loved, as I talk about in the book, he loved to collect secrets. Secrets. He loved to collect other people’s secrets. He liked knowing the things that were in people’s closets and then manipulating those people if he could. He was a real talent in that respect. And that didn’t hurt either, in terms of… Well, it hurt some people, but it didn’t hurt in terms of getting things done.
Brett McKay: Well, this happened… Pamela, Randolph’s wife, eventually went to Beaverbrook for the debt problem that she was having.
Erik Larson: Well, yeah, yeah. When Pamela realized that the debts that she thought had been paid off by Churchill, but that were actually not fully paid off ’cause there were other debts in the pipeline, which is horrifying to her, she went to Beaverbrook and told him the story and wanted to get help with the debt. And in the process, put herself into the sway of his world in a very interesting way. And in the end, he did help her, but it was sort of a devil’s bargain.
Brett McKay: Right. Randolph even told her, “Don’t ever go to Beaverbrook.”
Erik Larson: Randolph had told her before, “Don’t ever let yourself get under Beaverbrook’s control.”
Brett McKay: To give some context too, some of the things that surprised me, I think whenever I imagine people from a long time ago, I always imagine they’re in their 30s or their 40s. Pamela was only 21 when this was going on, so I couldn’t imagine being 21 years old, new baby, and you’ve got hundreds, what today would amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt.
Erik Larson: Right. Yeah. And she seemed much older than her years. She was 21, but she was very flirtatious, very easy way with people, and a sexually knowing person. Very much, I would say, coveted by men, and knew what she had, and was very willing to use that to help her get her way. So she was a very dynamic character. And when their marriage began to fail, which it did quite spectacularly, and once she recognized that she was on her own, she took very concerted steps to carve her own way.
Brett McKay: And one of the ways she did that, one of the people that entered into the Churchill secret circle was an American, Harriman.
Erik Larson: Yes, Averell Harriman.
Brett McKay: What was his story? What was his role there?
Erik Larson: Averell Harriman was a businessman from America. He was actually the founder of Sun Valley, the resort in Idaho. Founded that to try to get increased rail travel for his family railroad in the winter time. Harriman was an immensely attractive man, tall, very handsome, very, very athletic. He was sent by Roosevelt, President Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, to London to administer the so-called Lend-Lease Program after it had finally been passed, which was a long saga in itself. Nominally, his mission was to determine who got what aid, and how they got it, and what was done with it and so forth. But really, he was sent by Roosevelt to kind of report on what was really happening with Churchill and with the war, and to send back reports about what was really, really happening.
But it turns out that, yes, he had that mission, but then Churchill recognized that he was Roosevelt’s emissary. He set about really bringing him into his inner circle. It’s almost like the courtship of a woman, brought him into his innermost circle to try to, by proxy win Roosevelt’s intervention ultimately in the war. He hoped that Roosevelt would intervene and of course, Pearl Harbor comes along and he does. But Harriman also, again, he was a very, very attractive guy, and at one party, he meets Pamela Churchill, who at this point is convinced that her… Has decided her marriage is done. And during an air raid, they go down to his apartment which is deemed to be safer. It’s in this hotel called The Dorchester and one thing leads to another, and dot, dot, dot. [chuckle]
Brett McKay: And did the Churchills know about it, the affair?
Erik Larson: I believe the Churchills did know about it. Not immediately, but they did know about it. I don’t think anybody really seriously doubts that they did, but they did not make a big thing about the affair. When later, Randolph got really annoyed when he found out about the affair, that his parents had been sort of wittingly supporting a cuckold. Cuckolding him in the Churchill family, so…
Brett McKay: Do you think he was… Did he do what Randolph accused him? Did Churchill kind of use Pamela as a political connection or…
Erik Larson: Oh, I’m sure he did once he realized that… He was very, very good at this courtship of America. It’s like an ace fly fisherman using every single technique he could to just sort of reel Roosevelt closer and closer and closer, and when he found out, and I have no doubt that he found out that Pamela and Harriman were having an affair, I’m sure he was delighted. This was like “we’re all in the family,” especially now.
Brett McKay: Well, I think Churchill was used to that sort of thing. His mother was, how would you say? She did that, she was unfaithful. She was known as a, I don’t know, courtesan basically.
Erik Larson: Yeah. Well, basically, in this time, everybody was unfaithful. That’s one of the things that comes through in my work. Actually, it almost doesn’t matter what era I’m looking at. There’s a lot more sex going on than you would ever imagine.
Brett McKay: Right. And sort of the happy ending with that, if you can call it a happy, it’s kind of happy ending with Pamela and Harriman. They eventually, they go their separate ways. They stayed married to their respective spouses. But then…
Erik Larson: Well, she eventually divorces Randolph.
Brett McKay: Yeah, she divorces Randolph.
Erik Larson: Fairly early on.
Brett McKay: But decades later, they end up getting married.
Erik Larson: Well, that’s true. It’s very sort of, it’s kind of a romantic story. Romantic also in the sense that Harriman did stay with his wife despite the revelation of this affair, and they actually grew closer and closer over the years and when his wife died, decades after the war, Harriman was absolutely crushed. And at one point, though, he is invited to a party at Katharine Graham’s house, the owner of The Washington Post, reconnects with Pamela, and the next thing you know, they’re married. This long saga has come full circle and they’re husband and wife.
Brett McKay: So you mentioned Mary, Mary Churchill was your favorite character. Why was she your favorite character?
Erik Larson: Mary was my favorite character because, well, first of all, she’s brand new in terms of Churchill scholarship. When I was granted, thankfully, permission to look at her diary by her daughter, I was one of two scholars who had been given that opportunity. I don’t know who the other scholar was, but Mary has not been heavily written about in any work on Churchill until now. And what I really liked about her was that she was, again, context, she was this very charming, smart, pretty, very intelligent, 17 year-old whose life followed a very interesting arc in this time. She was a very compelling counterpoint to what was going on in the world.
She loved her father and she commented on the action day by day in her own, in this daily diary. And it was really a wonderful insight, not just into what was actually happening on the broader world stage, but also what was happening in her life, for context, snogging in the hayloft with the RAF pilots, that kind of thing, the RAF pilots at a nearby base, bomber pilots and these are young guys in there 20s, 19, 20, 21, 22. They knew Mary was at Chequers, the prime ministerial estate in the country outside London. They knew Mary was there, they knew her friends were there, and they would engage in a process that she refers to repeatedly in her diary as beating up, which is when the bombers would fly over at treetop level and just buzz the girls. They were thrilled, they loved this.
Brett McKay: And as you read her diaries, life going on for her too, and she got proposed to, and you’d see the agony of whether to accept or not, the tension between her and her mother about whether to accept or not.
Erik Larson: So she follows a very interesting arc through the book. I don’t wanna necessarily give away exactly what happens, but suffice it to say that one reason… This book takes place in that first year of his prime ministership, premiership. May 10, 1940 to May 10, 1941. But it was not that year per se that drew me. This is not a book about the first year of the Prime Minister. This is a book that I did because the action happens to match conveniently that first year. On May 10, 1941, three different narrative threads all converge and end on that day, which almost never happens in the world of historical writing, and one of those was her particular saga.
Brett McKay: What I find interesting about Mary, when I’ve read about her, seems like out of all the Churchill children, she was the most well-adjusted. She didn’t have the personal drama like a Randolph or even her older… I think she had an older sister as well.
Erik Larson: Yes. Yeah, she had two sisters, Diana and Sarah.
Brett McKay: What do you think went on, though? Why did the other Churchill’s children kinda end up, have these personal problems and Mary didn’t?
Erik Larson: I don’t know. I didn’t spend a lot of time, obviously, looking into the other sisters. I wanted to focus on a few important characters, but three, four, five times a charm. I mean, she was the youngest, and was doted upon by her parents. I don’t know, maybe that’s part of it.
Brett McKay: So you mentioned Chequers, that was the Prime Minister estate in the country, outside of London, and that seemed to play a pivotal role. That’s where Churchill would convene his inner circle.
Erik Larson: Yes.
Brett McKay: And not only, I mean, they continued to work there, but they also blew off steam there. What were some of the stories, a few of your favorite stories from Chequers that really show, that really convey that inner circle?
Erik Larson: So Chequers really did become kind of a character in the book. I was fascinated by Chequers, fascinated by how Churchill used it. Chequers was this lovely old house on some sprawling grounds outside London, that had been donated to the government by a very generous guy. And the rule for the house was supposed to be that prime ministers were not supposed to do any work there. It’s supposed to be a place where you just recharge mentally, psychically. The idea being that maybe the house would help improve the governorship, government of, the governing of Britain. And then Churchill comes along. Churchill is like… He’s not gonna not work. He lived for work.
You know, every weekend this place is filled with guests. And I think my favorite story about Chequers is when one night, he had these dinner parties with all these dignitaries and people from abroad, and whatever. There was a lot of booze and a lot of fun. And after one of these, Churchill in the Great Hall at Chequers, he puts on the gramophone to play military music, and then he proceeds to begin doing a series of, very seriously for him, bayonet drills using his Mannlicher rifle with a bayonet attached to the end. But the thing is, he’s wearing at this point his pale blue siren suit, which honestly makes him look like a pale blue easter egg, you know. The siren suit was this one-piece jump suit he had designed so that it could be pulled on at a moment’s notice.
Brett McKay: So he’s wearing that, but he’s also wearing his gold dragon silk dressing gown. So here he is at Chequers with this rifle pursuing these bayonet drills, you know, down the Great Hall of Chequers with all his guests gathered around just in hysterics. Because here’s the Prime Minister of England doing this thing in this purple, in this light blue, in this light blue jump suit, you know, it’s tremendous
I love those stories. I think you mentioned, at one point you said that Churchill never stopped being a boy.
Erik Larson: Churchill… Yeah, I really feel like he never stopped being a boy and that was part of his charm, part of what made his private secretaries tolerate that sort of intense work schedule.
Brett McKay: So another thing you do throughout the book is make these cuts to German leaders when they’re sort of, their thought process during this. What were you hoping to convey with those cuts?
Erik Larson: I thought it was very important to get the German input, because it’s important to know what they were thinking about as all this unfolded, because the British as the Luftwaffe began attacking, first attacking in sort of in a way that really sort of mystified the RAF. The British were having trouble understanding exactly what the Luftwaffe was trying to do. And I felt it was important then to understand what the Luftwaffe was trying to do, not just as a way of saying, okay, this is how they saw it, this is what they were actually, this is what Hermann Göring, head of the Luftwaffe, was actually trying to do at this point.
But it was important also to in terms of suspense because if you know that they’re planning, okay, the next giant raid on a city in England, then you know, of course, that the British don’t know or maybe have a sense that something’s coming through their intelligence network, that’s suspense, that’s suspense, you wanna find out what happens. You know this is gonna happen because the Germans are talking about it, the British don’t, and that’s one of the essences of crafting suspense.
Brett McKay: I also liked how you conveyed, sometimes like this surprise by the Germans at how defiant the British were. They just thought that they would just roll over.
Erik Larson: Yep.
Brett McKay: But they never did and they were always there. They’re trying to figure out how to spin this.
Erik Larson: Yep.
Brett McKay: Constantly.
Erik Larson: The Germans really did think that the British would cave after this punishing aerial attack. They were stunned each time that Churchill would not give in. And Churchill did not give in. Churchill just grew more and more defiant, which in turn annoyed the Germans no end, especially Hitler. And it was ultimately his intransigent defiance that led Hitler to finally approve the bombing of central London, the bombing of civilian parts of cities, which Hitler previously had banned. He had explicitly said you cannot, to Hermann Göring, you cannot bomb London, you cannot bomb central London. Because Churchill… Because Hitler did not want to so galvanize the British people and Churchill that they would not consider coming to the peace table. And Churchill was absolutely defiant. There’s no way he was going to do that, right? And so one thing leads to another and then Churchill… Then Hitler finally says, finally authorizes attacks on London and massive attacks on London, you know. And now the strategy has changed to try to bring Churchill to the peace table by just sheer brutality. And once again it fails, but this is what was now happening.
Brett McKay: And that’s what eventually led to the Dresden bombings, too. Hitler wanted brutality.
Erik Larson: Well, tit-for-tat, tit-for-tat, you know. What preceded the September 7, 1940, the first deliberate raid on central London, the first, the night that is typically credited as being the start of the Blitz. What preceded that was a raid on August 24th, 1940 when bombs did fall on central London. Nobody in London understood at that point, though, that this was an accident. This was from a, for lack of a better, I mean, I don’t wanna use the German terminology, a German bomber squadron that had gotten lost and had dropped bombs on central London. This was a jarring, shocking thing, incredibly shocking, but it also gave Churchill moral justification now to start bombing Berlin.
That was what he decided, that’s what he wanted to do, he was waiting for moral justification to do that. Then comes September 7, 1940, and these tit-for-tat bombing raids, you know, Luftwaffe against British cities, RAF against German cities, just continues to intensify through the war until, yes, the major campaigns against German cities like Dresden and so forth, that order of magnitude, worse actually than what the Luftwaffe did to London.
Brett McKay: And there’s some other great stories from out of the German side that… I mean, that’s what I love about this story because there’s so many different little stories. And then one of ’em, my favorite, we’re not gonna talk about it too much, but it’s like this renegade Nazi officer, who goes rogue to try to broker a peace.
Erik Larson: Right, right.
Brett McKay: Which is a lot of fun. What do you hope readers walk away with after they finish this book? What do you want them to…
Erik Larson: My feeling is, my goal always with my books first of all, is to invite readers to sink deeply into the past, and experience it as if almost they were there. To try to have a visceral experience and maybe emerge from the book later feeling like maybe they have a better appreciation of history, or even feeling somewhat somewhat changed. But I think also, I didn’t intend this, really at the beginning. I started this book about five, conception, maybe five years ago, four-and-a-half years ago. But really I think what the book provides is a refuge for people who… I think it reminds people of what real leadership looked like at a time when that reminder is very handy, ’cause we don’t have a lot of it right now. So I think that that’s what the book I think could serve as, could be valuable for people.
Brett McKay: And one thing I took away from this, and I don’t know if this was one of your intentions, but that maybe I’m capable of doing what they did too, right? Even in the face of adversity like that, we can still continue to build a life.
Erik Larson: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, there is that, of course, the idea that… I always think of Churchill as having taught people the art of being fearless. And I do feel that in some ways, not courage per se, but fearlessness, of being able to venture into a situation that is… Everything tells you is not the situation you should be venturing into. And to venture in there without fear, I do feel that that can be… Is kind of a learned experience, and you learn by observing others. And one of the things that Churchill was very, very good at, he understood the power of symbolic acts. He understood the power of visiting bombed out neighborhoods. He understood the power of… Instead of cowering in a shelter when an air raid happened, he more often than not, would climb to the nearest roof and watch that air raid. And it became known, of course, that he did that. So the art of fearlessness can be taught. And when you’re in your darkest hours, and you think about how these guys got through this whole thing, of how they did it, I think that could help you too.
Brett McKay: Well, Erik, is there some place people can go to learn more about the book and your work? You got a website?
Erik Larson: Yeah, I have a website, eriklarsonbooks.com. And I’ve neglected it badly for the last three weeks of book touring. But that’s gonna change, so that’s good. But more than anything I’d just say, “Read it”.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. We’ll put a link to it on the show notes. Erik Larson, thanks for this time, it’s been a pleasure.
Erik Larson: Thank you very much. I very much enjoyed it.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Erik Larson. He is the author of the book, The Splendid and the Vile. It’s available on amazon.com and book stores everywhere. You can find out more information about the book and his work at, eriklarsonbooks.com. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/larson, where you can find links to resources, where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Check out our website at artofmanliness.com, where you can find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything. We’ve got a whole series about Winston Churchill on there. Go check it out. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate it if you’d take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher, it helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member, if you think they’d get something out of it.
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