The loss of Lady Mary Soames, Winston Churchill's youngest daughter and last surviving child, who died on May 31 at the age of 91, deprives the world of its finest direct Churchillian link. For me, it also draws to a close a very sweet friendship.
I first met Lady Soames in the Chartwell Kitchen Garden, miraculously, and on my very first visit, no less. It was the summer of 1985 -- barely a year after the April 1984 opening of the tiny Churchill-centric bookshop in New York City that I'd named for Churchill's home in the Kent countryside - though I'd not yet even seen Chartwell myself. A summer book buying trip to England soon gave me the chance.
Circumnavigating the verdant Chartwell landscape and finally entering the house that Churchill had so loved was both poignant for me and electrifying. Following a giddy house tour, filled with an enveloping sense of Winston Churchill's presence, I found myself drawn to Chartwell's Kitchen Garden, where I sat quietly on a bench gazing out at the vista. In the far distance, a door back at the house opened and a solitary female figure emerged onto Chartwell's manicured lawn terrace. I observed her without thought, as she made her way... well, this way. It is a rather long walk from the main house to Chartwell's brick-walled gardens. Until she entered -- through a gateway in the brickwork that her father, the bricklayer, had once helped construct -- I really hadn't a clue who this red-coated stroller might be. Instantly, however, I recognized her: It was Mary Soames.
We acknowledged one another; after all, we were alone together in a garden. I introduced myself and she, in turn, told me most offhandedly who she was, adding that she often stopped by to look in on her childhood home (and birthplace) and visit with "Mrs. Hamblin" -- Grace Hamblin -- who had served both Winston and Clementine Churchill as private secretary, and who now watched over Chartwell as its very first administrator.
Inevitably, I asked Lady Soames if I could take her picture. She smiled, yes. Inevitably, I also told her about Chartwell Booksellers. She was immediately full of questions: Could a bookstore really survive on her father's books alone? Whatever had given me the idea? Where exactly was this extraordinary place?
Over the ensuing years, all of my re-encounters with Lady Soames seem, in my recollection, variations on our initial meeting. She always appeared unexpectedly and at a distance, visible through the store window, marching toward the shop alone and unannounced. Always, she exuded the vivacity that I like to think she inherited from her father. Ever gracious, ever curious and utterly without pretense, she signed her own books at a gallop, thumbed through anything that was new on the subject of Winston Churchill, and departed as she had come; alone.
Years later, when Lady Soames could no longer travel overseas, I came to possess a volume with a deeply personal connection to her. It was a First American edition copy of The Gathering Storm -- the initial volume in Churchill's six-volume memoir of the Second World War -- and it was inscribed in ink on the front free endpaper: "To Mary and Christopher from Papa, 1948." This was Churchill's inscription to his newlywed daughter; she had married Christopher Soames on February 11, 1947. There were, moreover, extensive notes, in Lady Soames' hand, penciled across the rear endpapers.
The moment the book arrived, I emailed her Ladyship. Was this indeed hers? Had the book nefariously gone missing somehow from her library?
At first, she was mystified. In her library, she informed me, there was The Gathering Storm inscribed to her and "Christopher" by her father, but dated "1954." The mystification lifted somewhat when I mentioned one further detail. This book had been acquired, I'd been told, together with another written by her father that was inscribed:"Nana, love Christopher and Mary."
"'Nana' was my mother's first cousin," wrote back Lady Soames, "Maryott Whyte, who looked after me very soon after my birth until the beginning of the war and who generally invigilated Chartwell in my parents' absence."
I confess I had to look up that word, "invigilated." Turns out it is something of a Britishism, meaning "to supervise candidates during an examination."
Lady Soames would later write at affectionate length in her memoir, A Daughter's Tale, about Maryott "Moppet" Whyte's powerful, positive influence on her childhood, and her very special devotion to "Nana." I wonder if Lady Soames did not at some point give her first inscribed copy of The Gathering Storm to Maryott Whyte. Sir Winston then would have replaced the book in 1954, the year that the final volume of his war memoirs was published.
I offered to return the book to Lady Soames.
"I would be very sorry to see you at a loss over it," she replied, with characteristic magnanimity. "I therefore have no objection to your selling the book."
I thanked her then, and I thank her now, one final time. She was an exquisite exponent of all that her father represented. She also was quite a lady.