Of course, any and every day is perfect to celebrate the life and achievements of Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill (and Sir Winston, never falsely modest, would probably be the first to agree). However, today, April 9 is officially Winston Churchill Day -- commemorating the day in 1963 when the British Prime Minister was posthumously made an honorary U.S. citizen by President John Kennedy.
The honor seems appropriate on many levels. After all, Churchill was half-American to start; his mother, Jennie Jerome, was from Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. He enjoyed a devoted American audience. And then there was his dogged and determined pressure on President Roosevelt to bring the U.S. into World War II. The editor Maxwell Perkins once said that Churchill -- well known for his bulldog temperament -- seemed to be "much more like an American than an Englishman."
On the anniversary of the day when Churchill became an honorary U.S. citizen, it seems entirely appropriate to raise a glass in honor of the man who did so much to fight Nazism and renew the world's faith in decency and democracy. The wartime Prime Minister remains as quotable, as inspiring, and as controversial today as he did during his long lifetime.
Winston Churchill, best known as Britain's Prime Minister during World War II, was also an author, journalist, legislator, orator, painter, and soldier. Although his career was not without missteps, Northern Ireland Secretary Dr. Mo Mowlam was one of the strongest voices in support of Churchill's being named "Greatest Briton" in a BBC poll: "If Britain -- its eccentricity, its big heartedness, its strength of character -- has to be summed up in one person, it has to be Winston Churchill."
In researching and writing my novel, Mr. Churchill's Secretary, I had the daunting task of creating a fictional Winston Churchill. I relied heavily on his own writings, of course, and used his own words and speeches whenever possible.
I also relied on the memoir of his real-life wartime secretary, Elizabeth Layton Nel, with whom I had the honor of corresponding before she died. Nel's book is a portrait of a man who's narcissistic, exasperating, and demanding -- but also kind, decent, and often quite funny.
"From first to last," Nel wrote, "we were devoted to him, not because he was the Prime Minister, but because he was himself. Mr. Churchill ... was a hero to his staff."
Elizabeth Layton said the key to Mr. Churchill's character was "courage." My fictional secretary, Maggie Hope, would say the same of her Mr. Churchill, with just as much admiration and affection.
In that spirit, let's raise a glass to Sir Winston, our honorary fellow American, on April 9th and celebrate his "finest hour."
Susan Elia MacNeal is the author of Mr. Churchill's Secretary [Random House, $15.00]