Town & Country (UK)
OUT & ABOUT TOWN
Rachel Trethewey on the overshadowed lives of Winston Churchill’s daughters
Churchill’s daughters emerge from the shadows, Chanel crafts a glittering tribute to Venice, Jenny Packham unpicks the threads of her life and Barbara Pym finally gets the praise she deserves
It was as a letter that started it all. While I was researching a project at the Churchill archives at Cambridge University, I came across a missive from Sarah Churchill to her famous father that was so intimate and informal, instantly wanted to know more about their relationship. I began to delve deeper, and I realised that no one had ever written a biography of the wartime leader’s children.
All three of Winston and Clementine’s daughters had lives that were as full of drama, passion and tragedy as their cousins, the Mitfords – and they were much closer to the centre of power. Drawing on previously unpublished family letters, The Churchill Girls is the first group biography of Diana, Sarah and Mary Churchill; it also provides a new perspective on the legendary statesman as a loving father and family man.
The girls were raised at the idyllic Chartwell in Kent, where a broad range of guests, from Charlie Chaplin to Lawrence of Arabia, were regularly received. Sarah and Mary were eyewitnesses at some of the most important events in world history, individually accompanying their father to the military conferences at Tehran, Yalta and Potsdam and socialising with Roosevelt, Stalin and de Gaulle. In the postwar years, the women carved out lives of their own. Diana and Mary married Conservative politicians, while Sarah – nicknamed ‘the mule’ for her obstinate rejection of convention – eloped to America with the comedian Vic Oliver, hotly trailed by her brother Randolph, who was sent by her father in a vain attempt to prevent the marriage. She pursued an acting career there that saw her dancing with Fred Astaire in the 1951 film Royal Wedding. Yet despite the glamour and the proximity to power, the sisters faced their fair share of tragedy: another sibling, Marigold, died of septicaemia when she was three; Sarah became an alcoholic after the tragic suicides of two of the men she loved; and Diana struggled with mental-health problems. Living in their famous father’s shadow often proved problematic, too. They led thrilling lives in extraordinary times but, as their darker moments show, the Churchill legacy could often be a doubleedged sword. ‘The Churchill Girls’ by Rachel Trethewey (£20, the History Press) is published on 4 March.