Mary Soames, the youngest daughter of Winston Churchill and a child who more than fulfilled his great expectations, died in May this year. Born into a privileged social background, she repaid her debt of fortune with one of those lives of extraordinary service to others that make the rest of us slightly guilty about how we waste time. A list of her activities — as a young woman soldier, the mistress of an embassy, an active political wife, an indefatigable worker for a series of charities in Britain and Zimbabwe/Rhodesia, the author of almost a dozen books, and above all the guardian of her father’s legacy in books and such bodies as the International Churchill Society — would seem to require several lives. But she filled the only life she had been given not only with good works and social duties but also with deep friendships and a very large helping of fun.
One of her friends, the distinguished writer and biographer William Shawcross, delivered the eulogy at her memorial service two weeks ago. We are grateful to him for his permission to publish it here:
I sat next to Mary, when she was in her early 80s, at a charity dinner, which boasted a small fun fair. In those days one could still smoke at table, and to my delight she lit up a cigar and allowed the ash to lengthen and lengthen and lengthen — a skill in which she had competed with her father. When the ash finally fell, she said, “Let’s go on the bumper cars.” She drove our car with skill and rather terrifying speed.
Together with the courage and the devotion to her country which she inherited from her parents, much of her character was formed by Nana Whyte. Nana was a cousin whom Clementine engaged as a nanny after Mary’s birth in 1922, and she stayed until war began.
“As a child I turned to Nana for everything,” Mary wrote. From Nana, she acquired her steadfastness, her never-ending sense of duty, and, above all, her love of God, which radiated throughout her life.
That went hand in hand with her beauty, her smile, and her father’s sense of joy which, she said, cast a spell over her always. How could she not have been a gloriously attractive daughter, wife, mother, grandmother, and public person?
The core of her life was her family. She met Christopher Soames, a young Coldstream Guards officer, in the embassy in Paris in September 1946. He fell for her at once, and a few weeks later he wisely jumped aboard her train to Rome.
He proposed to her before they even reached the Samplon Tunnel. She said non to this near stranger, but a few days later, she wrote to her parents, “The front steps of St Peters were too much for me. I said ‘Yes’ and since then a feeling of peace and certainty has descended on my heart. . . . I feel like that lovely poem by Christina Rossetti ‘My heart is like an apple tree, Whose boughs are bent with thick set fruit.’”
The happy fruit of their marriage included five children, Nicholas, Emma, Jeremy, Charlotte, and Rupert, together with her twelve grandchildren and her four great-grandchildren. She created and she leaves a completely united family.
Mary wrote to her father that it was hardly to be expected that her family “should inherit your genius. But I earnestly hope that they may share in some way the qualities of your heart.” Mary made sure they did. All her children speak of their wonderful country childhoods with homes filled with flowers and ponies and dogs and loud family meals — Soameses don’t speak quietly, and they all speak at once!
Mary played games, prayed with them every evening, took them all hunting, and read them books which were always just beyond their ages. She was scrupulously fair, but she was also formidable.
Her children and grandchildren all speak with awe of the Exocets she would fire when displeased. I recall one of those whizzing scarily close to my own ear when I said something ridiculous to her some years ago. No wonder Nicholas said, “She was of the generation who could break a swan’s wing with one blow of her nose.”
Christopher used to say, “Give Mary a flag, and she will wave it.” She was exquisite as the British ambassador’s wife in Paris (which she had first visited just after liberation in 1944), and the French adored her. When Christopher was made the last governor-general of Rhodesia at the end of 1979, Mary embraced the country, visited schools, and launched her own fund for the country’s children. She became close to Robert Mugabe’s wife Sally. But, she later said, Mugabe himself did not remain on her Christmas-card list.
In the Eighties she developed her exceptional career as a writer. She wrote beautifully; no wonder she won the Wolfson Prize with her biography of her mother — a remarkably frank book which she described as “a labour of love, but I trust not of blind love.”
Alas, Christopher’s health deteriorated throughout the early 1980s. Mary tended him lovingly, but he died in 1987. It was a terrible blow. “A great hunk, perhaps three-quarters, has fallen away from my life,” she said. But typically, she rallied and made another life which was richly rewarding to her and to all those around her. Mary always gave the best of herself. She believed passionately in public service. She rarely turned down charities. She never turned down friends.
Richard Eyre has already spoken of the superb, openhearted way in which she chaired the National Theatre, confounding the critics of her surprise appointment. She was overjoyed to have this unexpected new role to play. She got to know all the cleaning ladies as well as the artistic aristocracy. In Richard’s words, she was “a great giver.”
Back in 1944 Mary had written in her diary, “I long to have huge sons to comfort my old age.” Be careful what you wish for, one might have said! But her hopes were fulfilled — her huge sons and her beautiful daughters were a source of pride, as well as a great comfort, to her. And she to them.
In her last pretty home in Holland Park, she was an enchantress. The house thrilled with her laughter, her conversation, her cellar filled with Pol Roger and her cigar smoke. Meals could last for hours. “Command the moment to remain,” she would say, echoing her father. It was all magic for her grandchildren.
She never let age affect her. “Please don’t treat me like an old lady,” she would say, firmly turning down almost all offers of assistance.
Her faith gave her a core certainty, and a kind acceptance of others. She worshiped regularly at St. John’s, Ladbroke Grove. One Sunday earlier this year, when she was too unwell to get to church, her friend the vicar, William Taylor, came over and said, “Mary, I have brought you Communion.”
“What time is it?” she asked; 11:45, he answered. “In that case, I would prefer a gin and tonic,” she replied. They had one together.
Throughout her life, Mary worked, in her words, “to keep the Churchill memory green and the record accurate.” She would talk to any researcher, answered hundreds of queries from strangers, and entranced Churchill societies across the world. Everywhere she was welcomed as a woman of history herself — after all, no one else had dined with Roosevelt, Stalin, Truman, as well as Churchill. She understood that the unique heroism of her father mattered to future generations, for whom the inspiration of Churchill’s courage and leadership will be always needed.
She too fought in Britain’s finest hours. She had her 17th birthday just after war began, and she wrote in her diary, “I shall never see the world again as I knew it before this ghastly war. . . . But if I never know happiness or joy again I shall always have the memory of my first 17 years, a golden glowing memory of pleasures, loves, friendships and heavenly rapture of living at peace in the beautiful place that is my home.” That home of course was Chartwell, the house her father loved most of all.
She joined up as a private soldier and in 1944, aged only 21, she was commanding 230 men and women in an anti-aircraft battery in Hyde Park, often under enemy attack. The prime minister delighted in visiting her during air raids and wrote, almost in wonderment, of “my child ordering the guns to fire.”
Just after victory, her father told Mary how proud he was of “the distinction and duty” of her war service. “I look forward in the days that are left to me to see you happy and glorious in peace. You are a great joy to your mother and me.”
And to all of her family — and to all who knew her.
That is why this Abbey is today filled with over a thousand people who have come to celebrate and to give thanks for the life of Mary, a woman of such enduring faith, joy, and goodness, whose service to her country was recognized when, like her father, Her Majesty created her a Knight of the Garter.
The breadth of her love and understanding I think are shown in words she wrote to her father in his old age — simple, beautiful words which will resonate always.
“In addition to all the feelings a daughter has for a loving, generous father, I owe you what every English man, woman and child does — Liberty itself.”
May she rest in peace.
— William Shawcross is a writer and broadcaster.