Churchill’s Secret Affair or How the Evidence was Misrepresented

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My book, NOT the subject of ‘Churchill’s Secret Affair’.

As an historian and biographer there is an invisible code of ethics I adhere to. One must never portray anything (by anything I mean letters, diaries, tape recordings, and so forth) out of context. One must investigate whatever one is told by their interview subjects. One must never sensationalise their subject, unless of course the subject was sensational. And one must never cash in on a lie. Those are the rules that I obey.

The point of my writing this blog post is to draw attention to my work on Doris Delevingne, otherwise known as Lady Castlerosse, and the long-standing rumours that she had an affair with Winston Churchill. Now, I am not saying she did not sleep with the great statesman, but I dismiss any notion that the two carried on together for four years. In light of a recent Channel 4 documentary, entitled Churchill’s Secret Affair, I must refer to their press release. Revealed, Uncovered, Exposed, and so forth, were the words used to lure the press in. Quite often a press release is harmless enough, in today’s society it’s done for click bait purposes, and usually, at the bottom of the very last paragraph, the truth is revealed. Or at least a glaring question mark is implanted as a way of enforcing a point that is open to speculation. I want to draw attention to Menace Films’s (the production company) evidence that was aired on Channel 4. The letters between Doris Delevingne/Castlerosse and Winston Churchill have not been hidden, and as many historians and biographers can attest, the letters along with Jock Colleville’s tape-recording disclosing the affair have been common knowledge for years. The tape has also been listened to by many historians, and is available for researchers to access.

The letters used in the Channel 4 documentary were taken out of context. For example, Doris writes to Churchill: ‘I am not at all dangerous any more’ (The Sir Winston Churchill Archive Trust, CHAR 1/299/77) and Channel 4 suggests it meant she did not want to resume their sexual affair. The truth was, had Channel 4 ‘revealed’ the letter in its entirety it would have disclosed that she was going through a divorce and her husband, Valentine Castlerosse, was naming her male friends and escorts as potential co-respondents. The letters, some lengthy and some mere scribbles, display not a woman trying to entrap a man, but of a woman desperately trying to keep Churchill as a friendly ally. Her husband, Valentine, was close to Lord Beaverbrook, and as Channel 4 stated, Beaverbrook was equally close to Churchill. In her writing to Churchill, offering to help with his wayward children and inviting Clementine to supper, she is being cordial and attempting to keep a dialogue going.

Speaking of dinner, Channel 4 failed to ‘expose’ the truth behind Doris’s parties. Far from friendly supper parties, there was a motive: Beaverbrook was paying her to act as a society spy, and to host parties and report on her friends (see Parliamentary Archives, BBK-C-19 Castlerosse Letters). Churchill perhaps knew of this, and would a politician such as Churchill risk his reputation at a time when he was striving to become prime minister? Through the correspondence they both shared there are somewhat icy periods, when Doris slips up and inconveniences Churchill, or at least drags him into her world filled with drama and scandal (see Sir Winston Churchill Archive Trust, CHAR 2/246). The main source of which was her meddling in the Churchill children’s affairs and her failed marriage to Valentine. When Doris began her lesbian fling with Margot Hoffman her husband reacted by banning her from the royal enclosure at Ascot. What does Doris do? She writes to Churchill to ask for help, as she’d like to go to the races. He responds by forwarding her letter on to Beaverbrook, and Doris resorts to writing a grovelling apology (Parliamentary Archives, BBK-C-19, Castlerosse Letters).

Is this the work of a woman who could have potentially blackmailed Churchill to achieve anything she wanted? I think not. On another note, on the eve of WWII she writes to Churchill, to ask if it is wise she continue on with the renovation of her Venetian palazzo. This is not a woman who had her eye on keeping the prime minister in line and blackmailing him for money and special favours, this was a woman who acts entirely in her own self-interests. She was a good friend to many, but she made no secret of her motives.

When Doris travelled to America she threw herself into establishing New York connections. A significant friend during that period was Johnny Galliher, a male version of Doris, who had a knack for getting money out of people. He seemed to be her go-to escort until he enlisted in the United States Navy. In 1941 she was very much alone in New York and she offered her services to the war effort, namely by selling badges in aid of the USO and working at a milk bar for the British War Relief. The work was hard and the hours were long and Doris had no interest in continuing. She seems to have been depressed around this time and desperate to return home. John Foster, the first secretary and legal adviser to the British Embassy informed her that Beaverbrook would be visiting America. She writes to Beaverbrook promising to do ‘any work they [War Effort] give me’ (Parliamentary Archives, BB-K-D 518) if only she can go home. He ignores her letter. Channel 4 suggested he was too busy with the War Effort to respond. I think he ignored her because whenever he was involved in Doris’s affairs it cost him a fortune and he was forever sorting out her mess. With an ocean between them, Doris was essentially out of sight, out of mind, and, most importantly, Beaverbrook was not out of pocket.

So, Doris changed her tactics. She went to stay with Winston Guest, the Godson of Winston Churchill, and it was he who informed her of Churchill’s visit to Washington. She telephoned Churchill and then wrote him a letter, detailing her ill-health and homesickness. Whatever occurred in-between is anyone’s guess, but Churchill suffered a mild heart attack, and Doris’s letter was snaffled by President Roosevelt’s adviser, Harry Hopkins (see: Harry Hopkins archive, FDRL, box 136 ‘Churchill and family’). However, what transpired was that Churchill listened to her plea of ill-health, ‘if I need a doctor’s note to prove it I can send one immediately’ (Harry Hopkins archive, FDRL, box 136 ‘Churchill and family’) and she writes that she planned to go to Bermuda or Nassau but could not because of her visitor’s visa which had a no entry permit. Why would Doris go to the trouble to prove her ill-health if she could have easily blackmailed Churchill? Anyway, she also asked to whom in the State Department she could send her ‘five papers’, in the event he would not or could not help her. This letter was unsuccessful and Doris remained trapped in America.

In 1942 Churchill secured Doris a ticket on a Clipper plane. The gesture appeared out of the blue, and there has been speculation as to why he did it. Was she going to sell his paintings of her? Or make much out of their friendship? Channel 4 breathlessly relayed that Churchill painted her three times, once reclining on a sofa. Sir John Lavery painted her twice. Does that mean they, too, had a torrid affair? And speaking of Churchill and the strings he pulled for his nearest and dearest during wartime, he also secured Enid Furness a passage home from Occupied France via Lisbon. My theory is Churchill recalled how Beaverbrook paid her to ‘spy’ on her friends and report to him, not so he could use it in his newspapers but to give him control over people. Daphne Weymouth is proof of that (see The Mistress of Mayfair, p.88, for his handling of Daphne Weymouth’s private and compromising footage). It is a cliché to say that desperate people do desperate things, and Doris had exhausted all of her contacts in order to return home. Either way, she did return to London, to the empty promises of Valentine Castlerosse, who said he would remarry her. He had inherited his father’s Earldom of Kenmare, and although attracted by the idea of becoming of a countess, Doris craved familiarity and security. It is interesting to note that Valentine had written a damning article on Randolph Churchill, Winston’s son and love interest of Doris (while we’re on the subject of salacious gossip, she also slept with Randolph’s cousin, Tom Mitford), and in 1927 he also wrote an equally damaging piece on Stanley Baldwin, which infuriated Churchill and prompted Beaverbrook to go into damage control (see: The Sir Winston Churchill Archive Trust, CHAR 2/153). So rather than pin the blame onto Doris, perhaps it was Valentine who was prepared to blackmail Churchill? He had a similar set-up with Evan Morgan, Viscount Tredegar, who practised witchcraft amongst other taboo things and Valentine bribed him in exchange for not writing about him (source: Tredegar historian William Cross). Thus, it was Valentine who first lured Doris back to London, and then dropped her when he realised how old and haggard she had become. He would marry Enid Furness, an Australian wine heiress and serial widow. Please click here to read my article on Enid.

But what of Doris’s homecoming? She continued to self-medicate with the sleeping pills she had acquired in New York, a cold comfort during the nightly air raids over London. There was no war work for her to do, and no friendships to reconcile. A promise of silk stockings, make-up and scent did little to turn the heads of her friends, and many accused her of behaving badly, and of deserting Britain during its hour of need. Many had overlooked her good qualities as a friend and confidante. When Maxine Elliot was deathly ill it was Doris who travelled to Wales to bring Maxine to London, and installed her in an eighth-floor flat with round-the-clock care (See: The Sir Winston Churchill Archive Trust, Char 1/272). Perhaps, now in her own hour of need, Doris expected her friends to do the same. She telephoned a bookmaker friend and asked to borrow £500 and was rebuffed. ‘If I can’t borrow £500 from an old friend when I need it, then it really is time I left this vale of tears,’ she reputedly said. A messenger arrived with £200 from the bookmaker and having received no answer from Doris, the door was forced open and she was discovered in bed, unconscious. She died a few days later.

The painting that Channel 4 referred to and which they, not in so many words, accused Beaverbrook of stealing, or at least hiding, was indeed a portrait by Churchill. Two paintings, to be exact. Why did he take them? My theory is that Beaverbrook was accustomed to sorting out Doris and Valentine’s affairs, financially and domestically, and he took hold of her possessions after her death. Note: Valentine died a short time later. Doris’s brother, Dudley Delevingne, wrote and asked for the paintings to be returned, and Beaverbrook was happy to oblige (see: Parliamentary Archives, BBK-C-19 Castlerosse Letters). Had the paintings been a threat would a man as powerful and connected as Beaverbrook not have destroyed it?

Either way, as I say in my book, The Mistress of Mayfair, a life like Doris’s could only end in riches or in tears. Of all the rich and powerful men she implored for help, it was Churchill who came through. That counts for something, doesn’t it?

The Mistress of Mayfair: Men, Money and the Marriage of Doris Delevingne is published by The History Press

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