by Isabelle Welch
Churchill was (and still is, for that matter) notorious for his acerbic wit; however, Boris Johnson says in his biography, The Churchill Factor, the great man never uttered some of his most famous, acclaimed witticisms.
Numerous Churchill mis-quotes "cling to him like burrs" because they are so easy to believe as having come from Churchill's mouth. There are so many true stories about Churchill's behavior, that skilled forgers have opportunistically added to the list in the knowledge that it can be hard sometimes to distinguish between the two.
At a reception in Canada, when Churchill was sitting next to a Methodist bishop, a young waitress offered the men sherry. Churchill took a glass, but the bishop said: "Young lady, I would rather commit adultery than take an intoxicating beverage." Churchill said to the waitress: "Come back lassie, I didn't know we had a choice!" Except that he did not say it, according to Johnson. It is one of many one-liners wrongly attributed to the wartime leader. It feels less like a true story about Churchill, and more like some after-dinner anecdote pinned on Churchill in the hope of making it all the more amusing.
When Nancy Astor, Britain's first female MP, told Sir Winston Churchill that "If I were your wife I would put poison in your coffee", Churchill famously replied "Nancy, if I were your husband I would drink it." Unfortunately, this is yet another misconception. The put-down first appeared in an American column forty years before Churchill's supposed exchange with Mrs. Astor. Johnson asks: "Did the young Churchill somehow spot it on his trip to America and squirrel it away for use on Nancy Astor?” I doubt it. "Did someone simply recycle the joke and decide that to be properly funny it needed to be put plausibly in the mouths of some famous people? Much more likely.”
Johnson also strikes off Churchill's supposed banter with the playwright, George Bernard Shaw. Shaw supposedly sent him two tickets for the opening night of one of his plays with the message that he should "bring a friend, if you have one". Churchill is said to have replied that he could not make the first night, but would come on the second night "if there is one". Both Shaw and Churchill denied the exchange ever happened, in letters found by another Churchill scholar.
Thankfully, plenty of the greatly adored Churchill jests are demonstrably true. Churchill really did meet Bessie Braddock, a Labour MP and Tory-hater, who told him: "Winston, you are drunk." "Madam," he replied, “you are ugly, but I will be sober in the morning." The truth of this caustic retort was confirmed by Churchill’s bodyguard.
Churchill's granddaughter verified another example of her grandfather’s gags. He had relayed an occasion on a US lecture tour when was served a buffet lunch of cold chicken. "May I have some breast?" he asked his hostess."Mr. Churchill," she replied, "In this country we ask for white meat or dark meat." The following day Churchill sent her an orchid, with the message: "I would be obliged if you would pin this on your white meat."
Johnson is also convinced of the veracity of one particular amusing story. Churchill was in the lavatory in the House of Commons and his secretary knocked on the door and said: "Excuse me Prime Minister, but the Lord Privy Seal wishes to speak to you. After a pause Churchill replied: Tell His Lordship: I'm sealed on the Privy and can only deal with one shit at a time”
One of our greatest wartime leaders was known for military prowess and strategic brilliance, but part of the legend of Churchill was his ability to maintain a searing sense of humor through both his personal and political struggles- an attribute that I am sure we could all benefit from.