The Vile and the Fluffy

Ben Yagoda
4 min readAug 21, 2020

Churchill would wander the halls wearing a red dressing gown, a helmet, and slippers with pom-poms. He was also given to wearing his sky-blue ‘siren suit,’ a one-piece outfit of his own design that could be pulled on at a moment’s notice. His staff called it his “rompers.” — The Splendid and the Vile, by Erik Larson

Photograph by Yousuf Karash

Aware that his phone call with Roosevelt that evening would be critical to the war’s progress, and knowing he did his best thinking in the tub, Churchill had his afternoon valet, Clarence Witherspoon (known affectionately as “Wizza”), draw a bath at the customary 41.5 degrees Celsius (106 Fahrenheit). He summoned a stenographer, a typist, and his private secretary to the bathroom so that any insights wouldn’t go unrecorded; Wizza was there as well, following the movements of the PM’s cigar with an ashtray that Churchill had acquired while serving in the Boer War in South Africa. (Among the other notables involved in the war were Mahatma Gandhi and Harry “Breaker” Morant, later the subject of a film starring Edward Woodward.)

By the time he emerged dripping wet and began to towel off, Churchill had dictated five letters, two memoranda, and a note to his wife, Clementine, apologizing for having mistaken her the night before for Lady Montagu-Ffister. (He didn’t mention that by the time he made the error, he had consumed seven of what would be the evening’s total of nine whiskey and sodas.) He donned his pom-pom slippers, his helmet, and his favorite bougainvillea-pattern dressing gown and proceeded into the antechamber.

Churchill’s consumption of alcohol was a source of wonder among his staff. Before one working dinner, Jocko Henderson bet Fudgsicle Pegsworth two shillings ($5.01 today) that by the end of the evening the old man would be so “trousered” (drunk) that he would, unbidden, sing an a capella version of “Makin’ Whoopee,” his favorite song, which he customarily performed with buck-and-wing dance moves. Churchill got wind of the wager and was incensed. He rang (“called,” in American parlance) Viscount Gloucestershire (pronounced “So-hoo-kee”) and demanded that both men’s tea rations be reduced by half.

Before the Roosevelt call, there was a meeting of Churchill’s top ministers and advisers. A guest attendee was Wyatt Whyte-Greville, an Oxford physicist involved in advanced radar research. (Behind his back, Whyte-Greville was referred to as “Spaniel” because his ears were so long that they would tickle his cheeks and he would periodically have to brush them aside.) He began his remarks by saying, “I’m pleased to have the opportunity to present this report, Mr. Prime Minister” — only to be interrupted by Churchill covering his ears and emitting a stream of loud nonsense sounds. Lord Beaverbrook — whose nickname, for unknown reasons, was “Mike” — chuckled knowingly, aware that among Churchill’s numerous idiosyncrasies was an abhorrence of the sound of the letter “P.”

Churchill’s outburst was partially explained by his distraction over the behavior of his son, Randolph, who had refused a commission in the Army because he thought it would interfere with his practical jokes. Just the week before, Randolph had phoned the Daily Express pretending to be his father, and regaled the subeditor who answered the phone with a long dirty joke in Cockney dialect, the punchline of which was, “ ’Ello! — you should have seen the other ‘alf!”

After the meeting, Churchill changed into a new helmet, his siren suit, and Peter Rabbit-themed slippers and placed the call to FDR. His main purpose was to ask for a loan of £500,000 ($73 trillion today) and press the point that Britain was in desperate need of naval support. But partway through the call, he inadvertently swallowed his cigar, and when he exclaimed “We need ships,” the president thought he said, “We need blimps” and replied, “Whatever.” It would prove to be a dangerous misunderstanding.

That evening, Churchill’s daughter Mary (known as “Marmot” to the family) was at the estate of her friend Carolyn Hillsborough, about to engage in a “snogging session” with three “special friends,” RAF flyers on leave from the nearby base. As she would confide to her diary, “It was a glorious evening and I couldn’t bear for it to end. But I worry about papa.”

At that moment, Churchill was entering his £2,000 ($76,314 today) Mercedez-Benz and embarking on the 15.7 mile drive to the prime minister’s country residence, Chequers. Through a mixup, his secretary, typist, stenographer and the family Irish setter, fondly called “Blancmange,” had all been directed to accompany him. As a result, the secretary and Blancmange had to sit on the typist’s and stenographer’s laps, respectively.

Two weeks later, the American blimps would arrive and blacken London’s skies.

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Ben Yagoda

Author, "The B Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song. " www.benyagoda.com. Linktree https://linktr.ee/benyagoda