Churchill's humorous retorts are memorable

Published Sep. 16, 1993|Updated Oct. 10, 2005

My middle name happens to be Churchill. So naturally people assume I was named in honor of Winston Churchill.

The truth is, I was named after my late uncle, Churchill Dunn of Petersburg, Va. Uncle "Church" (as we called him) was named after an Episcopal minister from the same town.

Despite this lack of family kinship, I grew up fascinated by Sir Winston Churchill. The man had many accomplishments. But to me, one of Churchill's most endearing qualities was his wonderful sense of humor _ especially his famous quick wit.

Sharing a dinner table with Winston Churchill was no ordinary event. There's the time the colorful Nancy Astor visited Blenheim Palace, the Churchill family home. During the evening meal, Astor and Churchill became embroiled in a spirited debate about women's rights and other liberal causes that Lady Astor embraced with ferocious zeal. Churchill dissented on every point.

In exasperation, Lady Astor exclaimed, "Winston, if I were married to you., I'd put poison in your coffee!" To which Churchill replied, "And if you were my wife, I'd drink it."

Then, of course, there was the dinner party at which Winston and a female member of Parliament got into a verbal tussle and the woman finally snarled, "Mr. Churchill, you are drunk!"

"And you, madam," responded Churchill, "are ugly. But I shall be sober tomorrow."

Churchill had a large household with heavy expenses. When he was out of government, he supplemented his income by lecturing and writing. "I live from mouth to hand," he used to say.

Speaking of writing, one editor had the actual temerity to correct a Churchillian sentence on the grounds that the offending sentence should not have ended with a preposition. Churchill responded with his own hand-written note: "This is the sort of English up with which I will not put."

It always was a mistake to try to get the last word with Winston. George Bernard Shaw once sent Churchill a note with an invitation to see Shaw's opening night performance of Saint Joan. The playwright enclosed two tickets, "One for yourself and one for a friend _ if you have one."

Expressing sorrow at not being able to attend, Churchill wrote back and asked for tickets for the second night _ "if there is one."

Charlie Chaplin was an occasional guest at the Churchill home where the actor would entertain the family with pantomime and mimicry. Churchill once asked him if he had selected his next role. "Yes," Chaplin replied, "Jesus Christ." Without missing beat, Churchill asked, "Have you cleared the rights?"

Churchill was not modest. His idea of a good evening included a fine meal and discussion "with myself as chief conversationalist."

One time Churchill and a male servant got into a quarrel. Eventually, they made up and Churchill sheepishly said to the offending servant: "You were very rude to me, you know." The servant replied: "Yes, but you were rude too." Churchill responded: "Yes, but I am a great man."

Churchill was, of course, a celebrated orator. As a speaker, he knew how to use humor to get attention. On one occasion he threw the House of Commons into pandemonium by beginning a speech: "I rise to commit an irregularity. The intervention I make is without precedent, and the reason for that intervention is also without precedent, and the fact that the reason for my intervention is without precedent is the reason why I must ask for a precedent for my intervention."

Evaluating a speech by a fellow member of Parliament, Churchill once said: "He spoke without a note and almost without a point." Another time he wryly observed: "Too often the strong, silent man is silent because he has nothing to say."

It was perilous to assume that Churchill had fallen asleep merely because the old man's eyes were closed and his breathing heavy. A member of Parliament from the other side once complained loudly: "Must you fall asleep when I am speaking?" To which Winston replied: "No, it is purely voluntary."

Churchill could be tough on his political opponents. He called Ramsey MacDonald "the boneless wonder," the "greatest living master of falling without hurting himself," and the man who has "the gift of compressing the largest number of words into the smallest amount of thought."

Regarding MacDonald's tenure as prime minister, Churchill on one occasion rose in the House of Commons and announced: "History will say that the right honorable gentleman was wrong in this matter." Pausing, he added, "I know it will, because I shall write the history."

When asked what should be done if Stanley Baldwin, three-time prime minister from 1923 to 1937, should die in office, Churchill quickly replied, "Embalm, bury, and cremate. Take no chances!"

Once when Churchill was visiting the White House, President Roosevelt wheeled himself into Winston's bedroom without knocking and caught Churchill standing stark naked in the middle of the room. Churchill was not flustered at all and simply quipped, "You see, Mr. President, we British have nothing to hide."

On Churchill's 80th birthday, a young photographer told Churchill he'd like to photograph him on his 100th birthday. "I don't see why not, young man," replied Churchill. "You look reasonably fit to me."

Winston Churchill could find a chuckle in almost any situation. Even during the depressing war years, Churchill used humor to boost morale and keep the British people smiling. Sir Winston Churchill reminded us how good it is to laugh.

Thomas Churchill Dunn is a St. Petersburg attorney. Guest columnists write their own views on subjects they choose, which are not necessarily the opinions of this newspaper.