Today, when there are so many American women adorning high places and filling more or less leading roles in British society, it is difficult to realize that only a little more than a quarter of a century ago there was a strong movement afoot, among certain leaders of that society, to exclude their fair transatlantic cousins from London drawing rooms. As to the oft-recurring Anglo-American marriage, while there are yet many people who look askance upon any sort of an international alliance, that prejudice that frowned so ominously upon it some years ago has wonderfully abated on both sides of the water. The Queen herself recently confessed that she had regarded it at one time as rather a hazardous experiment, but realizing that, with her broad education and elastic temperament, the American girl adapts herself to a new environment with a facility which would scarcely be possible to the less flexible English girl, Her Majesty’s apprehensions have been gradually allayed.
One of the first American women before whom these later day barriers of social prejudice gave way was Miss Jennie Jerome, of New York. As the wife of Lord Randolph Churchill, and ably championed by his mother the Duchess of Marlborough, she penetrated the innermost recesses of British society, opening the way more than any other woman to the position her countrywomen occupy there at the end of the century, and holding herself a place second to that of no other American woman in Europe.
The admiration she attracted as a young girl, the wonderful part she played in the life of her husband and is at present playing in the lives of her sons, the unusual influence she has undeniably exercised in English politics, the intimate contact into which the events of her life have from time to time thrown her with the crowned heads of Europe, the Czar of Russia, the Emperor of Germany, and the Queen of England, have all tended to give her a unique place in the history of the latter days of the Victorian era. In England there is no woman below the royal family whose name and personality are so generally known as Lady Randolph Churchill’s.
Her prominent identification with the Primrose League has carried her fame into the colonies and into India. Many people in Russia and Germany follow her career with keen interest, the press of both countries bringing her frequently before the public, and even in self-centered France the women of the aristocracy, in imitation of her political achievements, have from time to time essayed to “jouer la Lady Randolph Churchill.”
She is the eldest of three daughters of the late Mr. Leonard Jerome, and was born in Brooklyn, on the 9th of January, 1854. There and in New York she passed her early childhood.
Her mother was a woman of independent fortune and her father an enterprising and successful man of affairs. He was the founder, in New York, of the Jockey Club, and his name figures conspicuously in the annals of the turf of both England and America, he having been one of its active patrons in the former country, whose racing system he introduced into America.
His family migrated to Paris when his eldest daughter was in her eleventh year, and there his children grew up and were educated. Miss Jennie Jerome’s artistic and musical gifts were carefully trained, and she has been considered ever since she made her entree into English society as one of its most accomplished pianists. Her name appears frequently on the programs of concerts given in behalf of charity, and is always a powerful drawing card, for she plays with a clearness and delicacy of touch rarely attained by an amateur.
France was at the height of its glories under the second empire when the Jeromes took up their residence in Paris. The court, presided over by one of the most beautiful women who ever wore a diadem, was characterized by almost unprecedented magnificence. Paris then, as now, led the world in all matters of personal adornment, and one feature in that regime of luxuriant display, inaugurated by the Empress, is still felt today in every quarter of the globe where women make any pretence of following fashions in dress. She never permitted any woman to appear twice in her presence in the same gown. As a result, there dates from her brief era of leadership an extravagance in woman’s dress that was before undreamed of, and which has had the effect of raising the details of a toilet from a subordinate to a ruling position among women in fashionable life, with a loss of much that gave a truer beauty to existence under a system when the sparkle of a woman’s mind was of greater value than the flash of her jewels.
Mrs. Jerome, a woman of wealth and taste, easily acquired a position of distinction in the fashionable life of the French capital at that time. Her eldest daughter meanwhile grew up with a reputation for great beauty, her fame increasing as the unusual gifts of her bright mind unfolded themselves. She was one of that group of clever and beautiful young girls with whom the Emperor and Empress from time to time surrounded the little Prince Imperial, and she participated at Compiegne in the memorable celebration of one of the few birthday anniversaries which fate accorded him,
The Franco-Prussian war drove the Jeromes across the channel. They tarried in England during the days that marked the fall of the empire and the uprising of the Communards with their awful deeds of devastation. The summer of 1873 they passed at Cowes.
Miss Jennie Jerome was then in her twentieth year, tall, slender, with a thoughtful countenance denoting both talent and character in its broad brow and square chin. Her mouth was grave and sweet, while her great dark eyes, that are yet the most striking feature of her face, her purple black hair, and her clear olive skin gave her a distinctive place among the blonde daughters of England. Always a striking figure in their midst, the contrast was perhaps never more marked than upon the occasion of the marriage of Princess Louise of Wales to the Earl of Fife, when the blonde type of the British women was so much in evidence in the demi-toilettes commanded by the Queen, and when Lady Randolph Churchill’s brunette coloring was so well set off by her yellow satin gown, with a diamond star twinkling above her brow against her black hair.
Though the nomadic tendency of Americans frequently leads them abroad, where they mingle for awhile in the life of various European capitals, there were fewer American women at that time forming a permanent part of foreign society, and one so gifted mentally and physically as was Miss Jerome soon became a noted figure. She attracted everywhere the most evident admiration, never impairing the effect her appearance produced by the least manifestation of vanity.
To the Isle of Wight also that summer there be took himself a young English nobleman, the second son of the sixth Duke of Marlborough. But three years out of college, where he had not been distinguished as a student, but rather for the irresistible attractiveness of his personality and for the enjoyment he extracted from existence, there was little in Lord Randolph Churchill’s life in the summer of 1873 that foreshadowed the greatness he was destined to attain. Restless, ambitious, full of energy, with no specific object upon which to expend it, he hesitated between a diplomatic and a military career, and meanwhile, since taking his degree in 1871, he had travelled over the whole of Europe.
He was already an idol to his mother, towards whom he ever showed that thoughtfulness that is the acme of gallantry. He had much of her dash and spirit, and she entered sympathetically into all the events of his life; he on his side never failing to report to her immediately, either in person or by message, all his successes. When he met Jennie Jerome, and for the first time the future assumed a tangible and very beautiful form, he confided in his mother and at once solicited her interest in the young American girl.
To Miss Jerome’s mother, however Lord Randolph Churchill, a younger son, with no particularly bright prospects in life, did not appeal as a desirable match. She returned to Paris with her daughters. Lord Randolph followed, and there at the British Embassy, in January, 1874, he was married to Miss Jerome.
With an ambition and talent equal to his own, she entered completely into his desire to make for himself a place of distinction in life. The dissolution of Parliament early in the year of his marriage offered the opportunity for a political career. He began at home, in the borough of Woodstock, in which Blenheim Palace, where he had been born twenty-five years before, is situated, and secured his election to a seat in the House of Commons without being asked any questions as to his political creed, which, it was taken for granted, was identical with that of his family.
Like his wife’s father, he took an active interest in matters pertaining to the turf, owning several famous race horses and capturing during the course of his life some notable prizes. His first speech in Parliament was to call the attention of the first Commissioner of Public Works to the hard and dusty condition of Rotten Row, and to ask that it be put in better shape, without delay, for both horses and their riders.
During the first six almost silent years of his Parliamentary career, while he was studying the men and measures he subsequently arraigned with so much brilliancy, his young wife was adapting herself to the social life of his country, whose events are as well established as those of its political life. In a dutiful way which gives it a dignity not possible in a country whose social usages admit of more caprice, every one lives up to the well appointed order in which, beginning with the first drawing room in the early spring, the various functions of each season follow one another.
While there may be more refreshment and enthusiasm in the novelty which American society admits of, it lacks that stability that emanates from the very sameness with which one English year follows in the footsteps of another, and that sense of ancient respectability which rises from the consciousness of participating in the same pleasures from youth to old age in which one’s fathers similarly participated in their time.
Lady Randolph Churchill easily overcame the prejudices which existed in the minds of some English women against all American women. Young as she was, there was a commanding quality in her very presence which vanquished that narrowness that harbors petty dislike on a basis of nationality.
Both of her sisters married in England, one to Moreton Frewen and the other to the only son of Sir John Leslie, Bart., of Glaslough Monaghan.
Her two sons were born, the first, Winston Spencer Churchill, on the 30th of November, 1874, and the younger, John Winston Churchill, in February, 1880.
Between the duties of her home and those of a social nature, which her position in the world entailed upon her, the first period of her life in England passed. From i88q, however, dated the dramatic period of Lord Randolph Churchill’s career, in which his wife bore so conspicuous a part. He rose to the leadership of that small section of the House known as the “Fourth Party,” which, coming forward as an evidence of the vigor yet possessed by the Conservatives, succeeded in June, 1885, in overthrowing the Gladstonian ministry. He was frequently compared to Disraeli, and many people prophesied for him a similar career.
In 1883, in connection with Sir H. Drummond Wolf, Lord Randolph Churchill founded, in the interests of the Conservative party, that powerful organization, the Primrose League. In a membership today of over one and a half million, with Knights, Dames, and Associates, Lady Randolph Churchill stands number twelve upon its rolls. The kingdom and empire of Great Britain are dotted with its Habitations.
With its development there began a new phase of Lady Churchill’s life. She became from that moment thoroughly an Englishwoman, identifying herself closely with her husband’s public life and interests, aiding him not only with the popularity she had already attained, but with the remarkable sagacity she displayed in reference to all political questions. With the qualities that rendered her more charming as a woman she combined those most valuable in a man. Ambitious, intrepid, discreet, she was yet graceful, tactful, wise, and witty. She became at once a force among the members of the League, and, besides being much in demand at the social events at its various Habitations, she endeavored continually to impress upon its members the influence each might exercise in behalf of “that party which is pledged to support all that is dear to England, Religion, Law, Order, and Unity of the Empire.”
In her character of Dame of the Primrose League she has participated in so many electioneering contests that she is almost as well known in England as any man in public life. When her husband, in 1885, attacked the seat held by Mr. John Bright for Birmingham, seconded by the Duchess of Marlborough, she canvassed the constituency for him. Never before had women gone thus among the workingmen of Birmingham, entering the factories as well as their homes, and addressing them both collectively and individually. Though they made much havoc in the ranks of Radicalism and greatly diminished his votes, they did not succeed in defeating “the tribune of the people.”
Lady Churchill is a rousing speaker, and, with her great beauty and magnetism, evoked immense enthusiasm, her carriage being frequently surrounded and followed for some distance by cheering crowds. In South Paddington her efforts told with better effect. Lord Churchill securing the election in that district.
With the accession to office of Lord Salisbury’s government. Lord Churchill went into the Cabinet as Secretary of State for India, the real head of affairs of the far-away empire where the power is represented by a governor-general. During his brief tenure of that office his wife was decorated with the imperial order of the Crown of India, which has so recently been bestowed upon another American woman in the person of the present governor-general’s wife.
Lord Churchill stood at this time at the very head of his party, and when a few months after resigning the office as Secretary of State for India he again went into the Cabinet as Chancellor of the Exchequer and leader of the House of Commons, being at the time but thirty-seven years of age, there seemed opening to him a future of almost unprecedented brilliancy. More than ever was it said that he was treading in the footsteps of Lord Beaconsfield, to whom he had been so often compared, and the Prime Ministership seemed almost within his reach. His name was on every tongue, and when he appeared in public places accompanied by his wife, whose tall, slender figure and clear eyed, interested face were as well known as his own, he was frequently greeted with outbursts of applause. When she drove in Hyde Park her carriage was frequently followed, and she was pointed out with the most enthusiastic admiration.
Not only in England, but accompanying her husband to Russia and Germany, she excited in both of those countries a similar sentiment, there being among the people an eager desire to see the beautiful American who was so much admired by the court circles.
Attractive as she was under all circumstances, she never more admirably reflected the fine qualities of her character than on that day when her husband rose amidst the absolute silence of the House of Commons to give his reasons for withdrawing from the Cabinet. Absorbed in him, she followed intently his every word and gesture, though aware beforehand of every syllable he would utter. With perfect self-control she revealed nothing either of regret, disappointment, or any sentiment upon which a guess at his plans for the future might be hazarded.
Socially her life ran in much the same channel. So great was her beauty and so many were her talents that, though her husband gradually withdrew from public life, she was continually in the public eye, being constantly in demand to open fairs, distribute prizes, and take part in concerts. In March, 1888, she went to Clydebank to christen the “City of New York,” at that time one of the most remarkable vessels that had been built. During the following summer she opened an electrical exhibit at Birmingham, and a few days later conferred the annual awards at Malvern College, her husband accompanying her and making addresses upon both occasions. About this time also she made her first appearance as a literata in an article on the social life of Russia, based on the observations she had made while in St. Petersburg with her husband. Well informed, keenly observant, clever, and witty, she entered the lists without handicap, and her position today in the world of letters is at least unique. The most costly quarterly in existence, now entering upon its second year, is owned and edited by her.
In 1891, when he was but forty-two years old, Lord Randolph Churchill came suddenly face to face with the beginning of the end of his remarkable and crowded life. The utter physical collapse that followed, terminating in death in January, 1895, threw light upon much that had seemed inexplicable in the latter days of his public career.
Accompanied by his wife, he journeyed around the world in quest of the health which he was destined never to find. They passed through New York, Lady Churchill’s first home, but made no stay, hastening across the continent to San Francisco. In Egypt, realizing how futile had been the long days and nights of travel and exile, he begged to be taken home to pass there the last few hours that yet remained to him.
From all who saw them they evoked pity and admiration, pity for the man, stricken and doomed, in the very prime of his days and with the highest place among the statesmen of his time almost within his grasp, and admiration for the wife who, aglow with beauty, spirit, and ambition, manifested for him during those months of tragic gloom, in which his life closed, all the devotion and admiration which the most successful moments of his life, when he stood on the very pinnacle of fame, had called forth from her gratified heart.
The untimely disappearance from the world of a man whose magnetic nature had made him a leader of men and an idol of all classes of society appealed powerfully to public feeling. The tolling of the funeral bell from St. George’s, in Hanover Square, a little after noon on the 24th of January, 1895, announced his death.
Though she took no part in the doings of the world for some time after her husband’s death. Lady Randolph Churchill did not drop from its memory, nor is she in any degree less interesting today than she was as the wife of an eminent statesman. Her musical gifts and tastes gradually drew her from the seclusion of her early widowhood, and she reappeared in public first at concerts and at the opera, still dressing in black.
Her social graces and talents make her the genius of many house parties, where individual gifts and accomplishments show to best advantage and are most in demand. In the tableaux and burlesque given at Blenheim Palace in January, 1898, to raise money for the Restoration Fund of St. Mary Magdalene’s church at Woodstock, she appeared as a lady journalist, portraying the character with a realism that manifested an accurate knowledge of the original. She was also a guest at Chatsworth House during a recent visit of the Prince and Princess of Wales, taking part there in the private theatricals which were part of the entertainment offered to their Royal Highnesses.
To her sons she is a congenial spirit, being interested in the things that interest them, particularly in yachting, horses, and the various racing events of each year. It is owing largely, no doubt, to her love of an active out-of-door life that her figure yet retains much of the slenderness and suppleness of young womanhood. She stands and walks with all the grace of a girl, and is one of the most noted skaters in England.
Not only into their recreations, but into the serious side of her sons’ lives, she enters with that earnestness which made her so inseparable a part of her husband’s life.
In the summer of 1899 the elder of her sons, Mr. Winston Churchill, made his first effort for a seat in Parliament. Oldham, in Lancashire, the scene of his endeavors, has two Parliamentary seats, which both became vacant at the same time. Though they had been filled by Conservatives, the result of the balloting in 1899 showed that the cotton spinners, who form a large class of the voters of the borough, were tired of Conservative rule, for both Liberal candidates came in with heavy majorities.
Towards the end of the campaign Lady Randolph Churchill went vigorously and enthusiastically to her son’s assistance. “The Liberal candidates being married,” she said, “have an advantage.” Though she won him many votes and greatly reduced the opposition, as she had done in the days of the Birmingham contest, when her husband attacked Bright’s seat, the result was inevitable, and both mother and son accepted it with the grace and spirit of thoroughbred woman and manhood.
There is an anecdote frequently related of Lady Churchill’s ready wit, called forth by a situation which arose during the electioneering campaign, in which she was taking an active interest, of Mr. Burdett-Coutts, husband of the old Baroness Burdett-Coutts, who was at the time over eighty years of age. An old voter upon whom Lady Churchill called, and who seemed ready enough to cast his vote for Mr. Burdett-Coutts, took occasion, however, to relate to her, with much relish, the price which the beautiful Duchess of Devonshire had paid a butcher for his vote in the days of the famous Pitt and Fox contest, permitting him to kiss her lovely cheek. He concluded his narration with a direct intimation that he would consider a similar reward as fair payment for his own vote.
“Very well,” replied Lady Churchill, smiling a gracious compliance, “I will book your vote on those terms, but you must remember that I am working for Mr. Burdett-Coutts, and I must, therefore, refer you for payment to the Baroness.”
In June, 1899, the first number of Lady Churchill’s quarterly, the Anglo-Saxon Review, which had been for several months the subject of much conjecture and speculation, appeared.
“Have you heard of the wonderful new magazine
Lady Randolph’s to edit with help from the Queen?
It’s a guinea a number too little by half.
For the crowned heads of Europe are all on the staff,’
ran the opening lines of perhaps the cleverest of the many verses and paragraphs her new venture called forth.
Its contributions included papers from Lord Roseberry and Whitelaw Reid, a poem from Swinburne, with stories from Henry James, Gilbert Parker, and Sir Frank Sweetenham, and a drama from John Oliver Hobbes. Among the illustrations were a picture of the Queen, as frontispiece, and a reproduction of Gilbert Stewart’s portrait of Washington. The binding was in keeping with the contents, and was of dark blue morocco, richly tooled in gold, with the royal coat of arms in the centre, surmounted by the crown of England, with supporters, a reproduction of a cover designed in the seventeenth century by the court binder, Abraham Bateman. It sold, as have the subsequent editions, for a guinea a number, and was, as the enterprising editress said in her preface, a volume “worthy to be taken up into that Valhalla of printed things, the library.”
At the outbreak of the war in the Transvaal in 1899 Lady Randolph Churchill gave another evidence of her public spirit and enterprise which identified her once again with her native country. As chairman of the committee of the American hospital ship “Maine,” she took an active part in the direction and equipment of one of the finest ambulance ships in the service. The ship itself was loaned by the Atlantic Transport Company, and named in memory of the ill fated American battleship “Maine.” The contributions for its equipment were made by Americans on both sides of the ocean. Among the American women living in England who actively interested themselves in the matter were Mrs. Joseph Chamberlain, Mrs. Arthur Paget, Mrs. Bradley-Martin, and both of Lady Randolph Churchill’s sisters.
An appeal, issued on the 27th of October, for thirty thousand pounds met with a speedy response, and in the course of a few weeks the American hospital ship “Maine,” flying the flag that was a gift from the Queen, and with accommodations for two hundred sick or wounded soldiers, carrying its corps of surgeons and nurses and Lady Randolph Churchill herself, was on its way to Durban.
Though it was as the wife of Lord Randolph Churchill and through her close identification with his interests that Lady Churchill first came prominently before the world, it is undoubtedly her own personality that has made for her the place she holds there today.
On the 28th of July, 1900, Lady Randolph Churchill became the wife of Mr. George Cornwallis West. Though marriages of women to men many years their junior are by no means rare in British society, the rumor of this engagement, which had been afloat for quite a year, excited an unusual amount of comment and criticism. The ceremony was performed at St. Paul’s Church, Knightsbridge, the Duke of Marlborough leading Lady Churchill to the altar. Though widows of titled men in England may upon entering into a second marriage retain the name and title acquired through their former marriage. Lady Randolph Churchill settled the much discussed question as to whether she would retain hers by her decision to be known as Mrs. George Cornwallis West.
Not yet in middle life, and with two sons to be launched upon their careers, in which she has already foreshadowed what her part may be, the world may still expect to hear much of her, for there is a bracing and vigorous quality in her individuality that renders her interesting and inspiring to many classes and many countries. She has been frequently reproduced in the fiction of her era, more than one English writer drawing his material continually from her life and character.
To what extent her beauty forms part of her magnetism is with many people a debatable question. Though Long painted her as a typical beauty, and Sargent’s canvas of her that hangs in her own library portrays an exquisite feminine loveliness, she leans perhaps too much towards the masculine in mental poise and temperament to be an adequate reflection of purely feminine beauty. A many sided, strong, self-sustained character, her outward form is an expression of her own uncommon personality rather than a type of conventional beauty.