Why you should care
Freak encounters like this are like porn for historians.
Before it was demolished in 1929 to make way for the Empire State Building, the original Waldorf-Astoria had witnessed its fair share of history in four decades on Fifth Avenue. The largest hotel in the world at the time and the “cynosure of all things civilized,” as Al Pacino called it in Scent of a Woman, the glamorous venue had helped to advance everything from salad-making to the status of women (whom it admitted early on without male escorts).
Twelve years before it hosted the inquiry into the Titanic tragedy that killed its own founder, wealthy scion John Jacob Astor IV, the Waldorf-Astoria’s Grand Ballroom was the site of another remarkable historical moment. It was a meeting that embodied the collision of two centuries, of two empires going in opposite directions and of two great men with very different views on what makes a just war.
What prompted Churchill to come to America in 1900 was neither love of country nor fame but money.
By the time he set sail for New York on December 1, 1900, the 26-year-old lieutenant and war correspondent Winston Spencer-Churchill had enjoyed more privilege and suffered through more adversity than most of us will ever encounter. The grandson of the Duke of Marlborough and the son of a wealthy American heiress, Churchill was literally born in a palace.
But after getting his education in such elite citadels as Harrow and Sandhurst, he spent most of his 20s in less idyllic surroundings like Sudan, Egypt and South Africa as an officer and, later, a war correspondent. And as would happen with JFK half a century later, Churchill’s pursuit of adventure and sense of duty would end up converting him into an involuntary hero after he made a daring escape from a POW camp near Pretoria during the Second Boer War.
So, during what would have been his first session in the House of Commons — a chamber he would dominate for most of the next 64 years — Churchill was a no-show. And while his two-month tour of the U.S. would net him over 1,200 pounds sterling (80,000 GBP today, or about $129,000), the young champion of empire encountered an American audience that was largely unreceptive to his views on foreign policy and other matters. And nobody would heap more cold water on the cherub-faced lieutenant than the living legend slated to introduce him at the tour’s maiden engagement in New York City.What prompted Churchill to come to America in 1900, though, was neither love of country nor fame but money. He had returned to England in 1899 as a war hero and a minor celebrity after his Boer War escapades, had authored a best-selling book and had been elected to serve his first term as a member of Parliament. But the independently wealthy MPs were not paid at the time, and Churchill – not content to rest on family money and aware that his earning potential as a celebrity lecturer was declining each passing day — decided to take his show on the road.
Samuel Clemens, or Mark Twain as he was known to millions of admirers around the world, was in 1900 at the peak of his fame – and of his pacifism. Exactly 39 years older than Churchill, the great American writer had entered the world with Halley’s Comet in 1835 and would exit it — as he predicted – upon its next visit in 1910. Like Churchill, Twain was by the turn of the century not so much a man of letters as a hired gun of letters. After a series of bad investments in the 1890s had crippled his fortune, he had similarly embarked on a lengthy around-the-world lecture tour five years before.
Like Pacino, Twain was just getting warmed up.
Undoubtedly Twain was compensated handsomely for his appearance at the Grand Ballroom that evening. But the ornery, 65-year-old Southerner with the snow-white hair and moustache had no intention of just phoning it in before the fashionable audience of 1,200 that, as the New York Times reported, was “crowded to the doors.”
Twain began his brief introductory remarks to the buzzing Manhattan crowd at 8:30 p.m. with an apparent olive branch to the distinguished visitor, remarking that “Mr. Churchill and I do not agree on the righteousness of the South African war, but that is of no consequence.”
Next, the Lion of Hannibal, Missouri, proceeded to praise Churchill’s noble birth: “Mr. Churchill by his father is an Englishman, by his mother he is an American, no doubt a blend that makes the perfect man.”
But, like Pacino, Twain was just getting warmed up. After poking fun at his own brief military career — a two-week stint as a Confederate volunteer in the Civil War — Twain fixed his sights on his own country, musing that “America has thrown her doors wide open to all those who suffer or are oppressed, and who can put up the $50 admission.” A “red-hot imperialist” up until just two years prior, wanting “the American eagle to go screaming over the Pacific,” Twain had changed his tune dramatically, opposing America’s attempted annexation of the Philippines and becoming vice president of the American Anti-Imperialist League.
As the conquering hero looked on, Twain pivoted yet again on the Waldorf’s stage. He observed that Churchill “knew all about war and nothing about peace, [and that] War might be very interesting to persons who like that sort of entertainment, but he had never enjoyed it himself.” And just as “England sinned in getting into war in South Africa,” so the U.S., according to Twain, had sinned in the Philippines.
And then the kicker, as only Twain could deliver it: In a single turn of the knife, he repudiated his earlier praise of Churchill and skewered America, Britain and the man who would later embody the nation’s “special relationship” like no other. “England and America, yes we are kin,” Twain mused, “and now we are kin in sin, the harmony is complete, the blend is perfect, like Mr. Churchill himself, whom I now have the honor to present to you.”
By all accounts, Churchill was understandably slow off the blocks but overcame his slight lisp and his unkind introduction to lighten up the atmosphere with some timely humor. And, as he would demonstrate repeatedly in the next half century, the British Bulldog was more than up to the task of wading into a minefield laid by his predecessor. Ultimately, the future defender of the realm would win over the crowd not with a polemic but with a story, a compelling account of his escape over the walls of his prison while a sentry lit his pipe. It was a tale of intrigue, ineptitude and adventure worthy of, well, Mark Twain.
Three decades later in his autobiography, My Early Life (1930), Churchill would remark of his encounter with Twain that evening “Of course we argued about the war. …I think, however, I did not displease him, for he was good enough at my request to sign every one of thirty volumes of his works for my benefit.”
According to Churchill, on the first of those volumes, Twain inscribed “the following maxim intended, I daresay, to convey a gentle admonition”:
To do good is noble; to teach others to do good is nobler, and no trouble.
Churchill took note, and the world would take note of how well Britain’s future leader would hew to Twain’s advice. As another inscription read – this one in gilded Swedish 53 years later, on his citation for the Nobel Prize for Literature — Churchill’s “brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values” was his most enduring monument, the product of a man forged by war who would indeed prove to be a noble blend of words and action.