Cash for ca­chet on the air­head trail

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - He­len El­liott

JEN­NIE Jerome ( 1854- 1921) was pretty, rich and driven. She was born in the US but hunted down a Bri­tish aris­to­crat, Ran­dolph Churchill, and speed­ily mar­ried him. Sex­u­ally ad­ven­tur­ous, she had, pos­si­bly, hun­dreds of lovers dur­ing and af­ter her mar­riage. Her known lovers in­cluded three kings. Af­ter Churchill died she re­mar­ried twice, both times to men as young as her sons.

She had two sons with Ran­dolph, the elder be­ing Win­ston Churchill. And that, folks, is about all you need to know about the for­mer Jen­nie Jerome.

Anne Sebba, her bi­og­ra­pher ( Enid Bag­nold; Laura Ash­ley; Mother Teresa), doesn’t agree. She’s writ­ten al­most 400 pages about her.

Sebba is ex­tremely de­fen­sive about her sub­ject and her con­clud­ing chap­ter re­veals why she thinks it was worth giv­ing sev­eral years of her life to this spec­tac­u­larly vac­u­ous so­cialite who died al­most a cen­tury ago. One rea­son: she was Churchill’s mother.

‘‘ It is she who, cru­cially, first en­abled her son to be­lieve in his pow­ers of per­sua­sion as he wrote to her heart­break­ingly from school,’’ Sebba writes.

Sebba’s un­usual psy­cho­log­i­cal read­ing in­fers that dump­ing your seven- year- old in a school where the head­mas­ter adored beat­ing his lit­tle charges so vi­o­lently that they lost con­trol of their bow­els, then not both­er­ing to visit for months on end de­spite heart­break­ingly beg­ging let­ters, is the ne plus ul­tra of that sweet old­fash­ioned thing: char­ac­ter build­ing. Sebba’s rea­son­ing, as un­usual as her psy­chol­ogy, is that Jen­nie’s moth­er­ing built the char­ac­ter that was to save the world from Adolf Hitler.

She’s right. Win­ston is the most in­ter­est­ing thing about Jen­nie. Not that Jen­nie saw this un­til it was al­most too late. As noted by her daugh­ter- in- law, the pu­ri­tan­i­cal but per­cep­tive Clem­mie, Jen­nie didn’t re­alise Win­ston ex­isted un­til he started mak­ing a name for him­self. Clem­mie didn’t like Jen­nie. You won’t ei­ther.

Jen­nie Jerome was one of the first of the Amer­i­can heiresses who rushed to marry into Euro­pean aris­toc­racy when the old world needed the new world’s cash and the new world needed the old world’s ca­chet. In 1874, the year she mar­ried Ran­dolph Churchill, Henry James had be­gun writ­ing about the Amer­i­can heiress with Christina Light in Rod­er­ick Hud­son. He fi­nessed her pro­gres­sively through Daisy Miller, Is­abel Archer, Milly Theale and Mag­gie Verver.

Edith Whar­ton also made the sub­ject hers. Both James and Whar­ton knew Jen­nie and it is dif­fi­cult not to be­lieve that her flam­boy­ant life in­spired their fiction, al­though most of their char­ac­ters had rather more re­fine­ment than Jen­nie. Cer­tainly more moral re­fine­ment; Jen­nie’s self­ish­ness was cou­turier, her be­hav­iour nar­cis­sism sans fron­tiers.

The so­ci­ety women were the celebri­ties of their time. They set the stan­dard for dress, taste, dec­o­ra­tion and be­hav­iour. One of the dif­fi­cul­ties of this fre­net­i­cally de­tailed book is that Sebba sug­gests that be­cause Jen­nie smoked, wore Ja­panese clothes when en­ter­tain­ing ( mean­ing she didn’t wear corsets as any de­cent wo­man would), pos­si­bly had a ser­pent tat­tooed on her wrist and was sex­u­ally in­de­pen­dent, she was a great ex­am­ple of in­di­vid­u­al­ity and free­dom.

Yes, well, Jen­nie was a daddy’s girl, a girl who al­ways knew she was ‘‘ spe­shall’’. Spe­cial­ness never en­cour­ages a wider em­pa­thy with oth­ers and Jen­nie de­spised the suf­fragettes, re­garded men as her per­sonal bankers via their bed­rooms and saw other women as be­friend­able ac­cord­ing to their so­cial use­ful­ness. ( When her private let­ters are not about her lack of cash they are about get­ting to know the right peo­ple who may be use­ful later.)

She did get along with her two sis­ters but didn’t have much time for her mother, a ret­i­cent, loyal wo­man who lived qui­etly in Paris while her hus­band, the manic ( or dy­namic?) Leonard lived in New York. Jen­nie spent her life cry­ing poor and spent money so in­sanely that nei­ther son went to univer­sity be­cause not only did she con­sume half their in­her­i­tances from their dead fa­ther but they had to make a liv­ing to sup­port their mother. When her sons were mar­ried and sup­port­ing her, she would go on trips to Paris, have dresses made by Worth for her­self and bring pret- a- porter baubles back as gifts to her two daugh­ters- in- law. They were not amused. But what could you do with a wo­man who con­fessed on her 60th birth­day that it was un­bear­able no longer be­ing the most beau­ti­ful wo­man in the room? Sebba tries to make a case for Jen­nie but she of­ten ap­pears to be writ­ing against her­self. Cer­tainly Jen­nie had an at­trac­tive en­ergy and op­ti­mism and a for­ti­tude that made her ap­peal­ing to be with, but her cal­lous­ness in re­gard to ev­ery­one else in the world leaks through ev­ery de­tail.

Win­ston, at 12, is writ­ing to her sternly point­ing out the im­moral­ity of dis­miss­ing his beloved nanny Ever­est be­cause Jen­nie wants to save some money. De­spite his plead­ing, Ever­est, Churchill’s beloved mother sub­sti­tute, the one he called Woom, was un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously dis­missed by Jenny. Win­ston and his younger brother Jack tried to give her bits of money from their child­ish al­lowances.

Yet Sebba has writ­ten a per­cip­i­ent book. If you care to slog your way through it — skip­ping is manda­tory — you’ll see the bril­liant, if deeply buried, scheme be­hind it all. It is a cau­tion­ary tale fac­ing off against the weight of celebrity cul­ture. Jen­nie was just smooth­ing the path for Paris, Lind­say and Ni­coles. And Win­ston? The world should give thanks to nanny Ever­est.

He­len El­liott is a Melbourne- based reviewer.

Pro­to­typ­i­cal heiress: Jen­nie Churchill with her elder son, fu­ture prime min­is­ter Win­ston Churchill

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.