THE BLOG

Mourning Sir Martin

02/06/2015 02:18 pm ET | Updated Apr 08, 2015
Ian Tyas via Getty Images

Martin Gilbert died this past Tuesday evening, February 3, after a long and difficult illness. His accomplishments are too bountiful to be summarized. In the world of Winston Churchill scholarship and in the world-at-large, as a historian and as a humanitarian, he is irreplaceable. The eight-volume official Winston Churchill biography -- a project he inherited after two volumes from Churchill's son, Randolph -- stands as Martin's monument, but his writings on the Holocaust, on Jewish history and on both World Wars, were also voluminous and seminal. The rigour of his scholarship influenced virtually anyone over the past forty years who undertook to write about these subjects. Martin, however, was an all-embracing mentor in particular to those who wrote about Winston Churchill.

He also was a delightful man to know.

I recently offered some recollections for a Sir Martin Gilbert tribute issue in a journal called FINEST HOUR published by The Churchill Centre in Washington, D.C.
I thought I might share those words here, in memory of my departed friend.

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MARTIN
Let Us Count the Ways

As the only standing bookstore in the world devoted to the writings of Winston Churchill, Chartwell Booksellers has always also been devoted, inextricably, to the writings of Martin Gilbert. This association has yielded one especially delightful dividend; unlike Sir Winston, Sir Martin could actually visit us. Many of these visits resulted in parties. The first was on December 12, 1986, when we feted him on the publication of THE ROAD TO VICTORY, the seventh volume in his (and Randolph Churchill's) official Winston Churchill biography.

Martin's humility and straightforward communicative eloquence - so evident on every page of the official biography - was manifest from the moment one met him. We toasted his achievement that evening with Pol Roger Champagne and marveled at what lay ahead: Volume 8 - and the end of his remarkable biographical journey.

Little more than a year later, I visited Martin at his then-home on Parliament Hill, near Hampstead Heath. He swept me inside that day with unexpected giddiness. "I've just finished it!" he announced, practically crowing. "The last chapter. Let me read it to you."

And he did.

I felt giddy myself. What impossible luck! To stumble in on the day that Martin Gilbert completed the official Churchill biography. So dazzled was I by the moment, that I almost didn't grasp what Martin said next:

"Would you like to see the Fulton speech?"

Would I what?

Winston Churchill in 1946 had, of course, delivered his most famous postwar speech at Fulton, Missouri's Westminster College, a speech that returned him to the center of world events in the wake of his defeat the previous year as Prime Minister; a speech centered around the infamous warning: "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent."

Martin was sifting through masses of paper strewn across his desk. He lifted up what appeared to be a typed toilet paper roll.

"Churchill had the sheets pinned together with straight pins, you see, as he revised it on the train out from Washington."

The pages were pinned at the edges, creating one long, linked scroll. We hunted for the page containing Churchill's "iron curtain" watch phrase.

"I prefer to work from the original documents," muttered Martin simply, as we spooled along.
"I am often given leave to borrow them for a brief time. Quietly."

Indeed.

Twenty-two years later, a sequence of events transpired that, for me, captured both Martin's bone-deep modesty and his understated meticulousness. It was all set in motion by a telephone call. President Obama, then-newly elected, had just caused a stir by returning to the British government a bust of Winston Churchill that had resided in the Oval Office since the immediate wake of September 11. Then-Prime Minister Tony Blair had presented the bust to then-President Bush as a sign of solidarity. Officially, this bronze bust, sculpted by Sir Jacob Epstein, was "on loan" to the White House. Bush had given it a place of honor but had left it behind upon his departure. Now President Obama had replaced Winston Churchill's head with a bust of Abraham Lincoln.

A small furor ensued, particularly in Great Britain. Cut to the morning of February 26, 2009, a Thursday. The telephone rang at Chartwell Booksellers. Martin Gilbert was on the line. On Tuesday, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was coming to Washington for his first official meeting with the President-elect.

"I have been asked to suggest an appropriate Churchill-related gift that the P.M. might bring," said Martin.

Martin's idea was to offer Brown a machete of the Epstein sculpture that Martin kept on his own desk. I allowed that this was a symmetrical exchange but hardly an improvement. Why not give Obama a complete First Edition set of the Official Biography, signed by Martin Gilbert? The President was known to read voraciously.

At first, Martin balked at what he perceived to be rank self-aggrandizement. Finally, however he relented. There was a set in his house, Martin said, that he could hand over to the P.M.'s staff immediately. But, Martin added, it was missing Volume 5.

I offered to fill in the blank with a copy of Volume 5 that Martin had signed while visiting the store. Martin alerted No. 10. His seven-volume set left London with the Prime Minister, while we shipped off our signed copy of Volume 5 to a waiting operative at the British Consulate in Washington. Our book would be added to Martin's minus-one set in time for Gordon Brown's meeting with President Obama. All would be well.

Then, on the appointed Tuesday, emails began to appear in my inbox, emails like this one:
"In today's Daily Mail online, the story of PM Brown's visit to the White House today is discussed and the following statement appears: 'Mr. Brown arrived laden with gifts, including a seven-volume, first-edition of Sir Martin Gilbert's biography of Winston Churchill.' I've tried to identify the set but can find no trace of it. Do you know anything about this and will it be available for sale in the U.S.?"

Apparently, an advance press release from No. 10 had simply counted the books on hand. I checked newspapers around the world online. Every one of them reiterated the same inaccuracy: "Sir Martin Gilbert's seven-volume biography of Winston Churchill."

Frantically, I phoned our British Consulate contact in D.C. Yes, she reassured me, Volume 5 had arrived in time and she had "turned it over to the Number 10 people." President Obama had definitely been handed a complete, eight-volume official Churchill biography.

Martin remained non-plussed. "They so rarely read it," he sighed. "Now I know they don't even count it."