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A Gentleman of History

In war or peace, Winston Churchill's cigars were never far from his hand.
Peter Welsh
From the Print Edition:
Linda Evangelista, Autumn 95

(continued from page 1)

Churchill had received cigar cutters over the years as gifts and kept one of them, a cigar piercer, attached to his watch chain. But he did not use any of the cutters he owned on his cigars. He preferred to moisten the end of the cigar and poke a hole through it with one of the extra-long wooden matches he had specially imported in large cartons from Canada. He would then blow through the cigar from the other end to make sure it would draw. Finally, he would light it, sometimes with the candle that he kept nearby in case the cigar went out.

Churchill also had a favorite ashtray; it was made of silver and shaped like a pagoda with a little trough at the top to hold his cigar. This ashtray, a gift from a friend, was always at Churchill's side and was even packed into a special little suitcase so he could take it along wherever he traveled. "There was always a certain ritual with the silver ashtray whenever he was away from home," writes Howells. "On the Riviera it was ceremoniously handed over to the head waiter of his private dining-room each day before lunch, and then returned with great decorum after dinner."

While he was apparently very careful about tending to the unlit end of his cigars with his bellybandos, Churchill was much less careful about tending to the lit end of his cigars. Moir writes, "Hostesses invariably complained that wherever he went he left behind him a trail of cigar ash on their valuable carpets." If he dropped cigar ash on his hostesses' carpets, he also frequently dropped ash on himself. Moir says that the two images of Churchill which remained most prominent in her mind after leaving his employment were of Churchill pacing a room while composing a speech and of Churchill "sunk deep in the depths of a huge armchair, a little mound of silver-gray cigar ash piled on his well rounded midriff."

He not only frequently dropped ash on his clothes, but he also had a tendency to burn his clothing. "Sir Winston's suits," writes Howells, "were constantly going in for repair because of holes caused by cigar burns. He used to burn his suits this way when he became too engrossed in reading; the cigar would droop slightly and catch the lapel." Indeed, the problem became sufficiently great, according to Edmund Murray, who was Churchill's bodyguard for a time, that Churchill's wife, Clementine, designed a kind of a bib for him to wear in bed to help prevent him from burning his silk pajamas.

Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was born in 1874 to an American mother, Lady Randolph Churchill (nee Jennie Jerome), and an English father, Lord Randolph Churchill, a famous Victorian member of Parliament. Referring to the dual nationality of his parentage in a 1941 speech to a Joint Session of the United States Congress, Churchill quipped to his audience: "I cannot help reflecting that if my father had been American and my mother British, instead of the other way round, I might have got here on my own."

When Churchill was 13, he enrolled in the Harrow School, perhaps the most prestigious school in England after Eton. He was undistinguished as a student. Indeed, he was last in his class for much of his time at Harrow. This meant at least two things: He did not study Latin and Greek but instead mastered the use of the English language; and he did not go on to a university but instead went to the Royal Military College, Sandhurst--England's West Point--where he was trained as a cavalry officer.

His early school record notwithstanding, Churchill was a man of prodigious genius and accomplishment. He was one of history's greatest statesmen, and he may be the greatest orator of the twentieth century. He was a decorated soldier who saw action in four wars. He was a Nobel prize-winning writer of history, an acclaimed novelist and a skilled polo player. He was an accomplished painter as well as a licensed craftsman. He was an epicure, a connoisseur of the finest wines and cigars and a consummate gentleman.

And his accomplishments started early. By the time he turned 26, Churchill had seen action in three of England's imperial wars and had been decorated for valor in battle. He had been taken prisoner of war and had escaped from captivity. He had written no less than four highly praised histories of three of the wars he had experienced: The Malakand Field Force, The River War, London to Ladysmith via Pretoria and Ian Hamilton's March. He also had written a novel called Savrola about a fictitious statesman and master orator. In addition to these and other remarkable accomplishments, Churchill, at 25, was elected a member of Parliament.

After his "private rehearsal" in Cuba, Churchill was to perform most magnificently as a young soldier and reporter in three of England's colonial wars--first in India, next in the Sudan and finally in South Africa. Indeed, he performed perhaps too brilliantly at times. It was Churchill's ambition to manifest unconcern with the hazards of combat, and he was exceedingly daring on the battlefield. "I am more ambitious for a reputation for personal courage," he wrote to his mother from India, "than [for] anything else in the world." At times, Churchill positively seemed to enjoy the perils of war. "The game amuses me--dangerous though it is--and I shall stay as long as I can," he wrote in another letter. And, in The Malakand Field Force, he proclaimed, "Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result."

Concerned about sentiments such as these and about the tales she was receiving from him and others of his extraordinary exploits in battle, Churchill's mother wrote to him to express her anxiety. Churchill soon wrote back to allay any fears she might have had about his dying on the battlefield: "I am so conceited, I do not believe the Gods would create so potent a being as myself for so prosaic an ending."


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Comments   3 comment(s)

jose acosta — galena pk , texas, usa,  —  December 21, 2012 2:42pm ET

excellent editorial.


jose acosta — galena pk , texas, usa,  —  March 18, 2013 10:29am ET

Thank you for the recent copy you sent to my home I had an active paid for account but some how I never heard from you guys again after a couple on months were sent to me,can you possibly look into this and let me know what happened to my subscription??


David Savona March 18, 2013 10:49am ET

For help with your Cigar Aficionado subscription, please call: 800-365-4929.


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