Passionate Mothers, Powerful Sons

The Lives of Jennie Jerome Churchill and Sara Delano Roosevelt


A captivating dual biography of two famous women whose sons would change the course of the 20th century—by award-winning historian Charlotte Gray.

Born into upper-class America in the same year, 1854, Sara Delano (later to become the mother of Franklin Delano Roosevelt) and Jennie Jerome (later to become the mother of Winston Churchill) refused to settle into predictable, sheltered lives as little-known wives to prominent men. Instead, both women concentrated much of their energies on enabling their sons to reach the epicenter of political power on two continents.

In the mid-19th century, the British Empire was at its height, France’s Second Empire flourished, and the industrial vigor of the United States of America was catapulting the republic towards the Gilded Age. Sara and Jennie, raised with privilege but subject to the constraints of women’s roles at the time, learned how to take control of their destinies—Sara in the prosperous Hudson Valley, and Jennie in the glittering world of Imperial London.

Yet their personalities and choices were dramatically different. A vivacious extrovert, Jennie married Lord Randolph Churchill, a rising politician and scion of a noble British family. Her deft social and political maneuverings helped not only her mercurial husband but, once she was widowed, her ambitious son, Winston. By contrast, deeply conventional Sara Delano married a man as old as her father. But once widowed, she made Franklin, her only child, the focus of her existence. Thanks in large part to her financial support and to her guidance, Franklin acquired the skills he needed to become a successful politician.

Set against one hundred years of history, Passionate Mothers, Powerful Sons is a study in loyalty and resilience. Gray argues that Jennie and Sara are too often presented as lesser figures in the backdrop of history rather than as two remarkable individuals who were key in shaping the characters of the sons who adored them and in preparing them for leadership on the world stage.

Impeccably researched and filled with intriguing social insights, Passionate Mothers, Powerful Sons breathes new life into Sara and Jennie, offering a fascinating and fulsome portrait of how leaders are not just born but made.

About the author(s)

Charlotte Gray is one of Canada’s best-known writers and the author of twelve acclaimed books of literary nonfiction, including The Promise of Canada. Her bestseller The Massey Murder: A Maid, Her Master, and the Trial That Shocked a Country won the Toronto Book Award, the Heritage Toronto Book Award, the Canadian Authors Association Lela Common Award for Canadian History, and the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Nonfiction Crime Book. It was shortlisted for the RBC Taylor Prize, the Ottawa Book Award for Nonfiction, and the Evergreen Award, and it was longlisted for the British Columbia National Award for Canadian Nonfiction. An adaptation of her bestseller Gold Diggers: Striking It Rich in the Klondike was broadcast as a television miniseries. An adjunct research professor in the department of history at Carleton University, Charlotte has received numerous awards, including the Pierre Berton Award for distinguished achievement in popularizing Canadian history. She is a Member of the Order of Canada and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. Visit her at


“Gray has managed to do the virtually impossible, and that is to say something new and perceptive about Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. With her usual keen eye for the telling detail and her sympathy for her subjects, she argues for the importance of the statesmen’s relationships with their two very different but forceful mothers.”
Margaret MacMillan, New York Times bestselling author of Paris 1919 and War

“This is a spectacular book, brilliantly and magnetically written. It’s a story about the passionate love of two remarkable mothers and their two remarkable sons, but it’s also transcendently about all mothers and their sons.”
—Rosalie Abella, former Canadian Supreme Court justice and professor of law at Harvard Law School

“Entirely original and brilliant. Gray weaves together the parallel lives 
of Sara Roosevelt and Jennie Churchill, as wives as well as mothers, and explores their fascinatingly dissimilar guidance of their famous sons’ futures. Fresh, original, superbly researched, and immensely readable.” 
—Ronald Cohen, C.M., MBE, author of the three-volume Bibliography of the Writings of Sir Winston Churchill

“Charlotte Gray has put two truly remarkable women in the spotlight. Brilliantly conceived and wonderfully written, their lives and times are illuminated as never before.” 
—Bob Rae, diplomat and author of What’s Happened to Politics?

 “Fascinating, engaging, and thought-provoking insight into the lives and influence of two women whose impact on the course of world events has all too often been reviewed from the male gaze.”
—Eliza Reid, First Lady of Iceland and author of Secrets of the Sprakkar

“A compassionate and vivid double portrait of Jennie Jerome and Sara Delano...Gray strikes an expert balance between the big picture and intimate glimpses of each woman. It’s an enlightening study of two mothers’ crucial influence upon sons who would make history.”
—Publishers Weekly

“An engaging dual biography…Gray convincingly portray[s] her subjects as ambitious, astute, and determined. A sympathetic portrait of formidable women.”
—Kirkus Reviews

“Gray’s impeccable research and insightful look into social constraints of the time bring these women to life, highlighting the often overlooked ways Jennie and Sara shaped not only their own destinies but those of their sons. Perfect for literary nonfiction, history, women’s-history, and biography readers.”

“If Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt had an idle moment when they met in 1941 to hammer out the Atlantic Charter, they might have talked about Roosevelt’s stamp-collecting or Churchill’s painting. It is perhaps less likely they chatted about one big thing they actually had in common: Strong, intelligent American mothers, widowed young, who provided them with plenty of runway for political takeoff….Through detailed historical research and scenic retellings, Gray makes a persuasive case that Franklin and Winston depended on their mothers’ devotion, influence and money. Had they been born a century later, one can imagine Jennie as a supermodel-turned-Hollywood producer and Sara as a Fortune 500 CEO. Instead, Gray tells us, they funneled their prodigious energies into their statesmen sons, both of whom were profoundly impacted by their fascinating and formidable mothers.”

"Ingeniously conceived and elegantly executed."
—Air Mail

"Gray’s most important accomplishment is to show that Jennie Churchill and Sara Roosevelt were far more than just mothers of history-making sons"
—NY Journal of Books

"An able corrective to the notion that great men are self-made…A compelling view to the life stories of two mothers who influenced the world through their sons.”
—Washington Independent Review of Books

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