DINNER WITH CHURCHILL. By Cita Stelzer. Pegasus Books. 332 pages. $26.95.
Sir Winston Churchill was a charming, smart, overbearing at times, often self-centered, hard-drinking and heavy-smoking consummate politician with a Henry VIII appetite for food. In other words, a man large in scope.
Cita Stelzer skillfully documents Churchill’s use of the dinner table during Britain’s World War II years “to enhance his efforts to shape the future of Europe and the post-war world.”
His canny use of this unrecorded informal setting allowed him to “accomplish what ... could not always be accomplished in the more formal setting of a conference room.” A personal diplomacy, if you will.
The book gives some well-researched, delightfully intimate details of the many elaborate dinners in London, Washington, Moscow and other places.
In 1941, Churchill sailed through rough, U-boat-infested seas to meet President Franklin Roosevelt in Newfoundland. His ship, the Prince of Wales, was well-supplied with victuals including Scottish grouse, “very nice beef” and “masses of butter and sugar” even though, in Britain, all these items were severely rationed.
Later, at a meeting at the White House, he found the cuisine unimpressive, especially the offering of sauerkraut and pigs’ knuckles by the “worst housekeeper in White House history.” But as long as whiskey, wine and champagne were flowing, he was happy.
Churchill’s 1942 dinner meeting with Stalin in Moscow was disappointing in all aspects. Stalin’s only interest was in demanding a second front in Europe immediately, which, at that time, was not possible.
Churchill found Stalin’s table manners revolting after watching him clean out a pig’s head and eat with his fingers, deeming the food “filthy.”
By the time the Big Three met for the Tehran conference in 1943, Churchill’s star was fading, as he was marginalized by Roosevelt and Stalin.
One wonders whether, amid these sumptuous feasts set against the backdrop of the chaos and carnage of war, Churchill identified with the miseries and privations of the time.
Stelzer displays a certain hero-worship in her view of the great man.
“He cared deeply for the people of Britain” and “saw to it that his gardener received unused tobacco from his cigar to use as pipe tobacco.”
Reviewer Frances Monaco is a writer based in Charleston.