"The Splendid and the Vile"

Many a library shelf sags due to the countless, stout books touting Winston Churchill’s World War II leadership. So, don’t bother to write one more? Fortunately for readers, journalist Erik Larson did not feel that way because he has written a captivating, distinctive history of Churchill’s first year as Prime Minister of Great Britain, from May 1940 to May 1941.

Churchill received the support of the British people in quick order largely due to a speech he gave on June 4, 1940, in which he proclaimed, “We shall fight in the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” Then, away from the microphone and under his breath, he said to a nearby colleague, “And… we will fight them with the butt end of broken bottles, because that’s bloody well all we’ve got.”

Churchill realized that “only the industrial might and manpower of America would ensure the final eradication of Hitler and national Socialism.” But in June 1940 when the Prime Minister gave the now famous speech, Britain stood alone against Hitler. Great Britain had no allies while the German Luftwaffe bombed the island for a month, killing 45,000 Britons and destroying one million homes.

As Churchill was commanding the British forces, he was also working behind the scenes to persuade U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to enter the war. Larson describes the German bombing campaign on London with movielike detail and concurrently depicts the innermost domestic drama taking place at 10 Downing Street, at Chequers, the Prime Minister’s country home; and, when the moon is brightest and the bomb threat greatest, at Ditchley, the prime minister’s wartime residence because Churchill is dealing with numerous family problems.

He is deeply in debt, as is his son Randolph, who has “a gift not just for spending money but also for losing and gambling, at which his ineptitude was legendary.” Churchill has issues with his wife Clementine, their daughters Sarah, Diana and the youngest, Mary who parties the nights away and vehemently resists her parent’s wartime protectiveness. He is also dismayed by Randolph’s tortuous marriage to his beautiful but unhappy wife Pamela and her illicit affair with U.S. special envoy to Europe, Averell Harriman.

Other key figures portrayed in the alluring narrative are physics professor Frederick Lindemann, the Prime Minister’s science advisor; Lord Beaverbrook, Churchill’s trusted friend and confidant; and John Colville, private secretary to the Prime Minister.

What makes “The Splendid and the Vile” a welcome addition to the canon of Churchill biographies is the plethora of new sources including recently released declassified files, intelligence reports and personal journals, all previously unknown information. In addition, Larson reports from diaries written by common citizens at the government’s directive to gauge public morale during the blitz.

Churchill’s amusing idiosyncrasies are on display including his lavish personal spending, his habit of taking two baths a day, his proclivity for pink silk underwear, as well as his lack of embarrassment when getting out of the tub and walking around the bedroom naked while consulting with wartime advisors.

The book has a fast, energetic pace; Larson’s writing is electrifying. Set aside plenty of time to read this book and to savor the in-depth, multilayered, intimate exploration of one year in the life of Winston Churchill and those close to him.