I admit to an unhealthy fascination with Winston Churchill. It is perhaps refreshing to root for a conservative who was a liberal. By liberal I mean the English variety circa 1885 – a rich aristocrat who actually visited the horrible conditions in the farming villages or the factories within his holdings, then determined to improve conditions through empowerment.
Churchill, the archetype Tory (the nickname of the Conservative Party in Britain) now, was in fact considered for most of his career an unstable volcano. From the disaster at Gallipoli, the bungled Norwegian operation in 1940, to the unforgivable sin of crossing the floor in the House of Commons to join the opposition Liberals from 1906 to 1922 he was to many Tories a “rank adventurer”. But all of this history obscures much of the most interesting parts of Churchill.
And you do not have to book a flight to Blighty to immerse yourself in his lifestyle and conversation. On E52nd in the arcade of the Park Avenue Plaza Building between Madison and Park is Chartwell Booksellers named after Churchill’s famous country house in Kent. The bookstore is loaded with Churchill displays of hats, walking sticks, ties, decanters, signed pictures, slippers with a W, Churchill’s landscape paintings, and a famous red siren suit. And as Churchill spilled out across the drawing rooms of London Chartwell Booksellers spills out into the halls of the Park Avenue’s arcade with more displays.
Val and I were in New York and Chartwell in September. I try when I am there never to buy or even look at a regular Churchill book. There are first editions of his fiction, essays, and history. There are hard to find biographies and very narrow studies of Churchill and the events around him that would never drive a large printing.
The first book I bought served a distinct purpose for me – something to read in the twenty minutes on the plane I cannot use my IPad when taking off and landing. The Definitive Wit of Winston Churchill is literally a two hundred page rendition of Churchill zingers spoken across two centuries. Talk about changing my entire mood about air travel:
I remember when I was a child, being taken to the celebrated Barnum’s circus, which contained an exhibition of freaks and monstrosities, but the exhibit … which I most desired to see was the one described as “The Boneless Wonder”. My parents judged that that spectacle would be too revolting and demoralizing for my youthful eyes, and I have waited fifty years to see the Boneless Wonder [Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald] sitting on the Treasury Bench.
The laugh from that one caused the flight attendant to repeat the no electronic device warning.
You do not have to be into politicians or wars to enjoy Chartwell. It is really more about Churchill’s art of living. Churchill Style captures all it. His routine was unique – slept late, worked in bed with a whiskey till late morning, bathed as a child in a tub with toys, ate, worked, sipped more whiskey, till an afternoon nap, followed by champagne, dinner, and more work until late into the night. Churchill liked polo, whiskey, cigars, the English country house, painting, building, and an extravagant wardrobe. But he was more than a toff lording over his village. He liked gardening, bricklaying, irrigation, and creating things through his own physical effort. It is a story of the art of being Churchill and that art’s intimate impact on history.
My last purchase is pretty rough on Americans. Churchill’s Generals makes the point I so often struggle to write about effectively. The United States is indispensable to the victory of freedom and democracy, but it is not exceptional. Having led Britain through the two years that America slept through World War II, Churchill relentlessly promoted, demoted, fired, and reassigned his generals until they got it right. And from that vantage point of merit over form, Churchill was able to shine a light on American failings. It is a reminder that the United States is only exceptional as part of an alliance of credible competents. Perhaps a fading dream given NATO’s decline.
If you get an hour in Mid-Town, check out Chartwell Booksellers. And if your partner wants a different kind of style check out the world’s coolest costume jewelry store, Gale Grant, just back down Madison toward 51st on the east side of the street.