Today I want to tell you about Jennie Jerome Churchill, who was the American mother of our extremely British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. She was born in Brooklyn, New York on this day in 1854. Jennie Jerome was the daughter of Leonard Jerome a stock market speculator who made and lost several fortunes. In the 1860s, the family lived in a mansion on Madison Avenue, New York that boasted a breakfast room that could accommodate seventy people, a six hundred seat theatre and a gilded ballroom with champagne and cologne fountains. Even the stables had stained glass windows. What I’m trying to get across is that the Jeromes seemed to be extremely wealthy.
The family were never really accepted amongst New York’s elite, despite their wealth, and in 1867, Jennie, along with her mother and two sisters moved to Paris. There, they had a high old time with the European aristocracy up until the Franco-Prussian war. They left the city just before the Siege of Paris in 1870. The Siege of Paris was definitely not brilliant, people had to eat cats and dogs, rats, even the animals at the zoo. Gustave Doré who I wrote about a few days ago, although I didn’t mention it then, was in Paris during the siege and made many sketches of what he saw.
Meanwhile, the Jeromes escaped to England and, as friends of the deposed emperor Napoleon III, they made a lot of influential friends. It was at a sailing regatta, in Cowes on the Isle of Wight in 1873, that she met Lord Randolph Churchill who she married the following year. They were introduced by the Prince of Wales, who later became King Edward VII. Jennie was, as you can see, an very beautiful woman. She was also extremely lively and outgoing. A refreshing contrast to stuffy English aristocracy. She was the first of a wave of women from wealthy American families who married titled Englishmen. Some praised them for their vitality as well as the wealth that they brought with them. Others found them tasteless and showy. The Jerome family’s wealth was then, rather in decline and she perhaps did not bring as much money with her to the marriage as the Churchills were hoping for, but she did bring a lot of energy and ambition.
Jennie and Randolph do genuinely seem to have married for love, or at least infatuation, rather than for either money of titles. Their eldest son, Winston, was born a little over seven months after their wedding. Because of this there has been much speculation that she was already pregnant when they married. But it is also possible that, due to a riding accident, she just had the sort of body that was not inclined to carry a baby to term. Her other son, John, also seems to have been born prematurely. Jennie was not a doting mother, women of her social standing rarely were, instead she threw herself into furthering her husband’s political career. She electioneered on his behalf, attended meetings and debates and also deployed her excellent skills as a hostess. She entertained not only her husband’s colleagues, but people of any political persuasion and sometimes people whose political affiliations generally kept them apart. It was something she called a ‘dinner of deadly enemies’. She knew that people would feel socially obliged to put their differences aside for the evening. In this way, she was able to get people to begin communicating who had not spoken for years.
Neither Jenny nor Randolph seem to have been faithful to one another. Some number Jennie’s extramarital relationships somewhere in the region of two hundred. Among them were Austro-Hungarian ambassador and winner of the Grand National, Karl Kinsky, Count Herbert von Bismark, son of the German chancellor and the Prince of Wales. It’s quite likely that she conducted at least some of her affairs in the full knowledge of her husband and she used her connections to influence his political standing. Randolph became increasingly ill and erratic during their marriage, which may have been the result of either a brain tumour of tertiary syphilis depending on whom you believe.
In 1894 they set off on a round the world voyage very much against the advice of his doctors. They took with them, a lead-lined coffin in case he died on the way. It was during this voyage that Jennie is said to have got herself a tattoo. It seems she was impressed with the ones the sailors had, and had someone do her a snake, swallowing it’s own tail, around her wrist. It isn’t evident in any of her photographs. So while I can’t confirm that it’s true, it’s nice to think she’s definitely the sort of person who might have had one.
They were forced to turn back from their trip at Cairo and Randolph died the following year. Jennie turned her attention to her son Winston’s political ambitions and was a great deal of help to him too. She lost none of her lust for life though. She seems to have taken up with the Prince of Wales again for several years. There are surviving notes from him inviting himself to tea and asking her to wear her ‘Geisha dress.’ Also, she was one of many women, all ex-lovers of the Prince, who were present at his coronation. They all sat in a special pew together, which was referred to as ‘The Loose Box’. In 1900 she remarried, her new husband, a captain in the Scots Guards was almost the same age as her eldest son. They stayed together until 1912 and divorced in 1914. In 1918, she married again, this time to member of the British Civil Service who was actually three years younger than Winston. She was sixty-seven and he was forty-four. She had this to say of their marriage: “He has a future and I have a past, so we should be all right.” Jennie died in 1921 following an accident when she slipped and fell downstairs whilst wearing new high heels. She was sixty-seven.