Rachel Trethewey: The hopes and heartaches of the Churchill girls

Winston’s daughters Diana, Sarah and Mary witnessed some of history’s most defining moments, says Rachel Trethewey. Yet surprisingly little was known about their own passions, tragedies and achievements… until now.

When 33-year-old Winston Churchill married Clementine Hozier on 12 September 1908, it was the most important political marriage of the decade. They both believed Winston was a man with a destiny, and thought the same ‘bright stars’ shone for their children – Diana, Randolph, Sarah, Marigold and Mary.

Second-born Randolph was the longed-for son and heir, treated as crown prince by his father, whose political rise and fall has hitherto been the story of the next generation of Churchills. But Winston’s little-known daughters were remarkable in their own way – perhaps even more so than the son whose star fell in a self-destructive blaze.

Clementine laid down the rules – she was fond but strict, with high expectations, a sharp tongue and a degree of over-protectiveness. This stemmed from her own childhood, when her beloved sister Kitty died, and was exacerbated when the Churchills’ third daughter, Marigold, died from septicaemia when she was just two years old.

Clementine, Mary and Sarah Churchill
Clementine after her investiture as a Dame, with Mary (left) and Sarah, 1946. Image: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images

Winston was the more openly affectionate parent. Childlike himself, he adored playing ‘gorilla’ with his children, hiding in the bushes and chasing them around the garden. He encouraged and always saw the best in them; in return, his daughters hero-worshipped him. They went on to live lives of passion, drama and devastation, but were ultimately overshadowed by their famous father.

Now it’s time for their stories to be heard…

Diana: A Churchill in crisis

Diana Churchill
Diana Churchill. Image: Mary Evans Picture Library

Diana was a sensitive, shy little girl, who grew into a vulnerable young woman with a delicate ego. Her self-esteem was undermined by her acute awareness of her mother’s perfectionism: Diana felt she did not measure up to Clementine’s exacting standards.

As a young woman, Diana never quite found her niche. She married twice – the first time, aged 23, to John Milner Bailey, the son of a diamond tycoon. It lasted less than two years, owing – it was rumoured – to his heavy drinking.

She thought she had found her calling when she married her second husband, Duncan Sandys, in September 1935. She was photographed for Tatler a year later, cradling Julian – the Churchills’ first grandchild – feeling she had finally lived up to her parents’ expectations.

During the war she felt she played her part as a Churchill, doing welfare work at the Women’s Royal Naval Service’s headquarters. But after the war the cracks began to appear. Duncan was often away with his role at the European Movement and there were persistent rumours of his infidelity.

By 1953 matters had reached crisis point: Diana was suffering from mental-health problems. Tensions that had festered beneath the surface for years now erupted and Diana was treated by the well-known psychiatrist Dr Carl Lambert, the ‘society shrink’. Under Lambert’s care, Diana went into a London nursing home. All her family wanted to help, but it was hard to know what to do. Her father sent a sympathetic note, telling her that he was thinking of her and sending his love. Even in her darkest hours, she was thoughtful – thanking her parents for all they had done and apologising for being a nuisance.

Winston and Diana Churchill
Winston with Diana and her husband Duncan Sandys at the christening of their daughter Celia, 1943. Image: The Print Collector/Alamy Stock Photo

Just as she was recovering, Winston had a severe stroke and the grief sent her spiralling downwards. Dr Lambert suggested that she should become a patient at the Crichton Royal, a pioneering psychiatric hospital in Scotland, where she underwent insulin shock therapy. It was physically and mentally gruelling, but as usual she put on a brave face for everyone else’s sake. Her father did his best to help, sharing with her his own experience of ‘black dog’, his term for depression, when he was Home Secretary four decades earlier – although her problems were more extreme than either of her parents’.

However, from 1957, matters improved. Diana separated from Duncan and finally found a vocation which drew on her experiences and channelled her nurturing, compassionate side.

Because she understood mental-health problems so well, she became involved in the Samaritans. Quietly and unobtrusively, she worked often five days a week with Reverend Chad Varah, head of the Samaritans. She was regularly on call to talk to people who telephoned in a distressed state. Rather than be known as her father’s daughter, while doing her voluntary work she used her middle name and was called ‘Mrs Spencer’. She helped hundreds of people and found that she had a gift for it.

During the two years she worked for the organisation, Diana’s family thought that she was much happier. Her relationship with her mother improved, but on 19 October 1963, she shocked everyone by taking an overdose of sleeping tablets. At the funeral, her cousin Anita Leslie described her as ‘the kindest, most gallant and touching person’.

Sarah: The glamorous heartbreaker

Sarah Churchill
Sarah Churchill. Image: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy Stock Photo

With her Titian hair, large eyes and svelte figure, Sarah had great beauty and the Churchillian charm – and her father’s single-mindedness. All too often, she was led by passion, turning to men to save her – but she always chose the wrong one. ‘Indeed,’ she wrote later, ‘I have sometimes thought that I was trying to marry my father.’

Aged 21, Sarah attended the De Vos School of Dancing. She was intoxicated by the theatre lifestyle – and with the Austrian-American comedian Vic Oliver. Her parents were displeased: this was partly snobbery, partly dislike and partly the 18-year age gap. Vic went back to America while her parents attempted to talk her out of the connection.

The more her parents opposed the relationship, the more Sarah found it appealing. Telling Clementine she was going to London to visit the hairdresser, Sarah took the boat train to Southampton and on 14 September 1936, set off for America.

She and Vic married on Christmas Eve 1936, returning to England in the new year, but blazing rows ensued when she refused to give up her career as an actress: by now she had become a celebrity in her own right in both England and America. Vic was jealous, controlling and unkind.

Then the war changed everything. As an American citizen – and one of Jewish descent – Vic was expected to return home. Should Sarah go with her husband or remain in the UK? For a daddy’s girl, the decision was non-negotiable.

By 1941, Sarah and Vic had separated, and Sarah joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. But yet again, her career was more successful than her love life. During the war, she started an affair with the charming American Ambassador Gil Winant, who was unhappily married and wanted a future with her.

But Sarah no longer felt the same – yet again, her aspirations were different. She left him and headed to Italy in a bid to become a film star and escape her tangled love life. There, she fell for another married, older man, the Italian film director Mario Soldati, even though she wrote to Winston that she had a ‘powerful instinct to be alone and free’. But worse was to come. Bankrupt and deeply unhappy about his postwar political life, Gil shot himself. As their affair had been a secret, Sarah could not even grieve openly.

Not a woman to be alone for long, she fell in love with the photographer Antony Beauchamp when he photographed her for the cover of Life magazine. They married on holiday in October 1949. With their glamour and the Churchill name, Antony and Sarah were popular in Hollywood, throwing huge parties. Meanwhile, Sarah achieved a girlhood dream when she was cast as love interest to Fred Astaire in Royal Wedding, but, disappointingly, she found him ‘a little gnome… and very, very shy’.

Sarah Churchill and Fred Astaire
Sarah with co-star Fred Astaire in Royal Wedding, 1951. Image: MGM/Kobal/REX/Shuttersto​ck

Sadly her marriage was unhappy, and she felt the ‘desperate sense of yet another failure’. She was painfully aware of her father’s disapproval: whether it was snobbery because Antony was a photographer, or that he just did not like Sarah’s boyfriends, Winston treated him with the same disdain he had shown Vic. As their marriage deteriorated, Antony wrote to Winston, ‘You have an overwhelming influence upon [Sarah], and I can do nothing if you stand against me.’ More than anything, Sarah wanted to please her parents. In 1957, she resolved to tell Antony she wanted a divorce, but at seven the next morning, Clementine rang Sarah to tell her Antony had taken his own life.

Increasingly unhappy, Sarah turned to drink. Like the tragic heroines she played on stage, she could not overcome her fatal flaw, and was unable to maintain sobriety. In July 1961, she was arrested for being drunk and disorderly, and sent to the hospital section of Holloway Prison.

Upon her recovery, she moved to Spain, where she met Lord Henry Audley, the love of her life. They were both artistic and had much in common. In April 1962, they married in the ballroom of the Rock Hotel, Gibraltar. But happiness was short-lived: Henry was partially paralysed by a stroke and only a year later died from a cerebral haemorrhage. Sarah was heartbroken. When she returned to England, Winston took her hand and said, ‘We must close ranks and march on.’ The one man to never let her down.

Mary: The courageous gunner girl

Mary Churchill
Mary Churchill. Image: Mary Evans Picture Library

Mary’s childhood was very different to that of her siblings. She grew up in the security of Chartwell Manor – the country home the Churchills bought in 1922 – under the watchful eye of her nanny, Moppet. Clementine was careful to build a better relationship with her youngest daughter than the ones she had with the two elder girls and, as the baby of the family, Mary was often home alone with Winston while the older children were at school and Clementine away on frequent holidays. ‘To have been my father’s child,’ she once said, ‘was an enrichment… beyond compare.’

Mary would bounce into Winston’s room to join him for breakfast in bed, and they went on jaunts to London Zoo. The two developed a strong bond through their love of animals: when Mary’s pug fell ill, Winston found time to write him a poem. They shared a sense of humour and a willingness to openly express their emotions.

Mary repaid Winston with devotion – both personal and political. She developed an overpowering belief in public service, had a glittering war career and, unlike her sisters, seriously thought about a career in politics.

Winston and Mary Churchill
Winston with Mary and her pug at home in Kent, 1932. Image: Mary Evans Picture Library

In the early days of war, Mary still went to dinners and dances at the Savoy, Dorchester and Café de Paris, but volunteered in a forces canteen at Victoria Station – where she chatted so much, she was moved behind the tea urn. When she overhead her father talking about anti-aircraft services and the acute shortage of men to crew the guns, she signed up and in September 1941, aged 19, took up a position as ‘a gunner girl’.

Determined to succeed on her own merits, she mucked in, although the press flocked to take photos of her drinking tea and emptying dustbins. After her training, she was posted to a gun site near Enfield, in charge of a barrack of 32 girls, and then later to 481 Battery in Hyde Park. Winston liked having her nearby and wrote proudly to Randolph: ‘Sometimes I go to Mary’s battery and hear the child ordering the guns to fire.’

She also travelled with Winston, both as company and to keep an eye on his health after he suffered a suspected heart attack (it turned out not to be a heart attack) in 1941, and in August 1943 accompanied him to America to meet President Roosevelt. Winston was always her first priority: on VE Day she was abroad but flew home at once to be with her father. When she arrived, Winston was wearing his dressing gown with only his cat for company, causing her to write, ‘It seems a little sad that at this hour of triumph my father was virtually alone.’

Mary and Winston Churchill
Mary and Winston at the christening of her son Jeremy, 1952. Image: Keystone Press/Alamy Stock Photo

Mary showed herself to be her father’s daughter, rising to the challenge of making unscheduled speeches with Churchillian eloquence – demonstrating that she could have been a politician in her own right. Of the three girls, she was the one most suited to following in her father’s footsteps. She had charm, developed political experience and passion and had a desire for public service.

But her traditional view of women’s roles meant she married a politician rather than becoming one herself. Fortunately, she chose wisely. It was love at first sight when she and Christopher Soames met in 1946. He offered her ‘his heart and an English life’ near her beloved parents. So, like her mother before her, Mary was signing up to be part of a powerful political partnership. Her fiancé told her not to talk of just his political career; from now on it would be ‘OUR life – OUR career’.

It was a happy marriage, and they had five children: Nicholas, Emma, Jeremy, Charlotte and Rupert. The Soameses lived at the bottom of the garden at Chartwell, and every summer, Winston would sit with a cigar, watching the grandchildren splash in the swimming pool.

Mary was always the calm centre of the family, providing comfort to Winston and Clementine in their final years. She was their last surviving daughter. After Sarah’s death in the 1980s, she wrote that she felt like ‘the last of the Mohicans’.

This is an edited extract from The Churchill Girls: The Story of Winston’s Daughters by Rachel Trethewey, which will be published by History Press on 4 March, price £20. To order a copy for £17.60 with free p&p until 7 March, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193.