Cash for cachet on the airhead trail
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