- - Thursday, February 20, 2020

Decades ago, a Washington drama critic explained the instant success of “Hello, Dolly!” as an accident of timing after the musical opened just when the mourning period for President Kennedy ended; people were ready to party and that show featured songs and laughter. Likewise I predict a best-seller in Erik Larson’s latest in which Winston Churchill rallies beleaguered Britain.

Take a leap back four score years. “The Splendid and the Vile” tells of a resonant time when a ship-of-state flounders through chartless seas with a feckless harlequin on the bridge while citizen-passengers argue and anguish. Then “Winnie” takes command. It’s a comforting example. When rancor and hostility threaten a nation — as Hitler threatened Britain — a hero can prevail, warts and all; honesty and courage can win the day. Take heart, weary reader, ye who crave decency and candor today as sorely as we needed to laugh and dance in 1964.

Mr. Larson’s track record will boost this book’s success, of course. He wrote “The Devil in the White City” about a killer at the Chicago World’s Fair and “Dead Wake” describing the Lusitania’s sinking to prompt America’s entry into World War I, and “In the Garden of the Beasts,” wherein an accidental diplomat and his adventuress daughter explore Nazi Berlin. Mr. Larson’s forte is to follow oblique avenues into intersections of history, then reveal both his focused subject and its awesome context with clarity, complexity and verve. So be it here.

A preamble explains his motive. After moving to Manhattan, he understood “how different the experience of September 11, 2001 had been for New Yorkers than for those who watched the nightmare unfold at a distance.” Thus, he studied a historic parallel: London under airborne siege during the first year of Churchill’s epochal government, starting in May 1940.

There’s little new here about the Battle of Britain (May to September) and the Blitz (September to May, 1941) or about Churchill himself. What’s new is this perspective on the man and his eccentric family during those terrible months when German bombs fell and America dithered. Churchill’s wife shames an offensive dinner guest, Charles de Gaulle. His adolescent daughter, Mary, parties the nights away, then her favorite club gets bombed. His ne’er-do-well son, Randolph, cuckolds a celebrity the night his own wife is giving birth. His daughter-in-law, Pamela, finds comfy adultery with a dashing American, Averell Harriman.



Yes, this prime minister starts his days drinking whisky in bed while dictating to a troop of typists, addressing topics as momentous as the Grand Alliance and as picayune as the correct spelling of Tobruk. He works nonstop all day (save for a proper nap in pajamas), and half the night, unless he is hilariously entertaining guests, like FDR’s envoy Harry Hopkins, whose visit changes history. As bombs incinerate parts of London, Churchill prowls rooftops at his aides’ peril and his own. Watching Westminster burn under a “bomber’s moon,” a secretary writes “never was there such a contrast of natural splendor and human vileness” to bequeath this author his apt title.

Mr. Larson salts his copiously researched recap with choice details. The feared German invasion is codenamed “Cromwell,” proving British fondness for haughty sarcasm. Churchill hopes to rescue 50,000 Tommies from Dunkirk, then his slapdash rescue fleet brings home 338,226 to fight again. On its worst night, the Blitz kills 1,436 Londoners. In all, 44,562 civilians die, 5,626 of them children. 

Regrettably, like its central subject, the volume is overweight. Approaching 600 pages, the count would be 100 less but for the spaced-out headings, dividers, blanks and other design gimmicks. Like a lazy sophomore padding a term paper, Random House chose to make a bigger book, to fill a 10-pound bag with nine pounds of goods — albeit pretty good goods. 

Extra heft is slag in a narrative that sparkles with nuggets like a maturing daughter’s pride. Churchill is scheduled to visit Bristol University for an academic ceremony but the city was bombed the night before, and is still burning, and people line the streets to cheer their Winnie. Mary writes: “These are not fair weather friends. Papa has served them with his heart [and] his mind always through peace & wars — & they have given him in his finest & darkest hour their love and confidence.” (And therein lies another nascent title.)

Mr. Larson concludes, “And so, with family turmoil, civic trauma, and Hitler’s deputy [Rudolph Hess] falling from the sky, the first year of Churchill’s leadership came to an end. Against all odds, Britain stood firm, its citizens more emboldened than cowed.” The threatened nation was unified by its new leader’s courage and moral character. Let history repeat. 

• Philip Kopper, publisher of Posterity Press in Chevy Chase, Maryland, writes about history and Americana.

• • •

The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance during the Blitz

By Erik Larson

Crown, $32, 592 pages

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