A Christmas guest to remember

By George F. Will Published:

WASHINGTON -- Imagine how tiresome it would be to have, at Christmas, a houseguest of whom your spouse disapproves and who you have met only twice before, the first time 23 years ago (annoyingly, your guest does not remember the meeting), the second time four months ago, for a few hours, out of town, on business. Imagine that the houseguest invites himself to your home, stays almost three weeks and one morning early on during his stay he summons your butler (you dont have one? pity) and issues the following ukase:

Now, Fields, we had a lovely dinner last night but I have a few orders for you. We want to leave here as friends, right? So I need you to listen. One, I dont like talking outside my quarters; two, I hate whistling in the corridors; and three, I must have a tumbler of sherry in my room before breakfast, a couple of glasses of scotch and soda before lunch and French champagne and 90-year old brandy before I go to sleep at night.

Furthermore, this Guest from Hell declares that for breakfast he requires hot eggs, bacon or ham and toast and two kinds of cold meats with English mustard and two kinds of fruit plus a tumbler of sherry. You would be forgiven for asking your guest if he had been born in a palace.

He who so firmly addressed President Franklin Roosevelts butler Alonzo Fields 64 Christmases ago was, in fact, born in Blenheim Palace, Englands gift to the first Duke of Marlborough. And if no whistling and lots of sherry and whisky would help the dukes great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson, Winston Churchill, function, stop whistling and pour liberally. There is a war to win.

The story of this December 1941 visit is told by two Canadians, David Bercuson and Holger Herwig, in an entertaining book with an idiotic subtitle, One Christmas in Washington: The Secret Meeting Between Roosevelt and Churchill that Changed the World. Secret meeting? It was about as secret as a circus, featuring a press conference with FDR and a speech to a joint session of Congress in which Churchill said: I cannot help reflecting that if my father had been American and my mother British, instead of the other way round, I might have got here on my own. But the meeting did change the world by constructing the machinery of cooperation that led to the defeat of the Axis.

How ancient it now seems, 1941. The city of Washington had 15,000 outdoor privies. German U-boats sank 432 ships in the Atlantic. In August FDR could deceive everyone, including the Secret Service, for a really secret meeting with Churchill -- their only previous meeting had been at a London dinner in 1918 -- at Placentia Bay, Newfoundland. In the days after Pearl Harbor, some of the antiaircraft guns on the White House were wooden fakes -- real ones were scarce. On his voyage, sometimes through 40-foot waves, to his Christmas visit with FDR, Churchill watched American movies, including Santa Fe Trail, starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland and Ronald Reagan.

FDR greeted Churchill in Washington in a black limousine the Treasury Department had confiscated from a tax evader named Al Capone. Churchill met here with Adm. Ernest King, commander in chief of the U.S. fleet, who had served in the Spanish-American War, and with Gen. Henry Hap Arnold, the head of the Army Air Forces, who in 1911 received flight training in Dayton, Ohio, from the Wright brothers.

What could have been the most important event of Churchills almost three weeks in America was not known until his doctor published his memoirs in 1966: Churchill suffered a heart attack while straining to open a stuck window in his White House bedroom. Had it been fatal, that could have changed the world.

Eleanor Roosevelt disapproved of Churchill the imperialist, but on Christmas Day 1941 she, he and the president attended Washingtons Foundry Methodist Church, the second iteration of a church founded by Henry Foxall, who in 1812 vowed that he would build a church as a thanksgiving offering if the British did not destroy his cannon foundry when they took Washington and burned the White House.

Christmas Day was the birthday of Gen. Sir John Dill, chief of the Imperial General Staff, so a cake was found and adorned with a set of American and British flags which, Dill discovered when he removed them, were made in Japan. This occasioned laughter, at a time when that, like much else, was scarce.

2005, Washington Post Writers Group

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