A Near Miss
A journalist future Prime Minister making money in America? Where have we heard that before?
By Michael Atkinson
February 13 2023
One dark December evening in 1931, a distinguished-looking gentleman stepped out of a taxi on Fifth Avenue, smoking a cigar. He was on his way to a friend’s house for a late-night get-together. As he crossed the street he checked for oncoming traffic, momentarily forgetting that Americans drive on the other side of the road to the British. He later wrote, “Right upon me, scarcely its own length away, was what seemed a long dark car rushing forward at full speed... I certainly thought quickly enough to achieve the idea, ‘I am going to be run down and probably killed.’ Then came the blow.”
He was seriously injured but conscious, and passers-by rushed to his aid. A constable arrived and asked his name. “Winston Churchill,” he replied, adding for further clarity, “The Right Honourable Winston Churchill from England.”
Born at Blenheim Palace in 1874, Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was descended from the 1st Duke of Marlborough. He graduated from Sandhurst and his early career was in the military, and he then served as a war correspondent.
From an early age, Churchill became adept at monetising his fame, capitalising on his aristocratic and high-society background as well as initially writing and speaking based on his status as a war hero. (He rescued British troops from an ambushed train during the Boer War, was captured, and then escaped from the prisoner-of-war camp.)
In 1900 he travelled to America to make money on a lecture tour – a lucrative venture that provided the finance to launch his career as a politician, which would eventually span seven decades. But 31 years later, on that December night in New York, his political career seemed over. He had held senior roles in government as First Lord of the Admiralty and as Chancellor of the Exchequer, but lost high office in the Conservative electoral defeat of 1929, sending him into the political wilderness. He was also struggling financially, having lost significant sums in the Wall Street Crash later that year.
Churchill was accustomed to the finer things in life, and was partial to vintage wines, caviar, lobster, and foie gras. He quaffed Pol Roger champagne. Suits were bespoke from Turnbull & Asser. He favoured luxury Wolseley cars. His trademark cigars were expensive Romeo y Julieta. His Chartwell estate was large and well-staffed. The lifestyle required constant and increasing funds. So he went back to America in 1931 to keep his profile high and shore up his badly dwindling finances.
After the accident, Churchill was taken to hospital with a serious head wound and cracked ribs. Had he died that evening, it could have changed the course of history, for as the 1930s progressed, Churchill became increasingly vocal (and accurate) in predicting the dangers of the new Chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler.
Neville Chamberlain, who had pursued a policy of appeasement, resigned as Prime Minister when the Liberal and Labour parties would not support a government of national unity under his leadership. Churchill’s moment arrived: he became Britain’s wartime Prime Minister, famed for his rhetoric. Churchill’s recovery from his New York accident demonstrated his innate ability to turn misfortune – and the trials and tribulations of his colourful life – into financial gain. While in his hospital bed for eight days, he drafted an article about his near-death experience, sold it to a newspaper for $2,500, and used the money to stay at the Waldorf Astoria before sailing to the Bahamas to spend several weeks recuperating in a luxury hotel.
Of course Churchill is not the first journalist to become Prime Minister. Boris Johnson has amassed much of his wealth through writing (not least a best-selling biography of Churchill) as well as speaking engagements, for which – just as with Churchill – the US has often proved lucrative.
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