Back in the early 20th century, an American Winston Churchill got a letter from a young war correspondent of the same name.
The letter, from the British Winston Churchill, expressed concern that the public might mix the two of them up.
He needn’t have bothered. Everyone in America knew who Winston Churchill was – an author who lived in New Hampshire. The other one hadn’t made a dent in the public mind.
But nevertheless the two men had plenty in common. Both wrote best-selling books, both had received a military education and both had political careers. Both also had lonely childhoods and liked to paint pictures on weekends.
American Winston Churchill
The American Winston Churchill was born in St. Louis, Mo., on Nov. 10, 1871, to Edward Spalding Churchill and Emma Bell Blaine. He was descended from an American pioneer, Margaret Van Horne Dwight Bell, who rode west in a wagon from New Haven in 1810.
Orphaned at a young age, he attended school in Missouri and then the U.S. Naval Academy. He served in the Navy mostly as editor of the Army and Navy Journal. He quit the Navy to start a writing career. It turned out to be a good move.
The American Winston Churchill got a job as managing editor of the Cosmopolitan, then a family magazine. He quit after a year to write books. His first two books sold well enough for him to build a mansion called Harlakenden House in Cornish, N.H. There, the Cornish art colony attracted people such as Maxfield Parrish, Augustus St. Gaudens and President Woodrow Wilson.
In 1899, the American Winston Churchill published Richard Carvel, a historical romance set in the American Revolution. It sold 2 million copies and made Churchill rich.
Meanwhile another Winston Churchill, three years younger, was making a name for himself as a soldier and author. He began receiving letters congratulating him on his skill as a fiction writer. He had hoped the letters recognized his only novel, Savrola, published the previous year. But unfortunately for the English Winston Churchill, it was just a case of mistaken identity.
On June 7, 1899, the English Winston Churchill sent a letter to his American counterpart.
“Mr. Winston Churchill presents his compliments to Mr. Winston Churchill, and begs to draw his attention to a matter which concerns them both,” the letter said.
Churchill then noted the American Winston Churchill planned to publish a novel, and that he, too, planned to publish a novel as well as a military chronicle of the Sudan war.
Winston Spencer Churchill
The English Winston Churchill had no doubt,
...there is grave danger of his works being mistaken for those of Mr. Winston Churchill. He feels sure that Mr. Winston Churchill desires this as little as he does himself. In future to avoid mistakes as far as possible, Mr. Winston Churchill has decided to sign all published articles, stories, or other works, 'Winston Spencer Churchill.'
He may have been flattering himself. A newspaper reported, ‘in 1900, even after the British Churchill had been taken prisoner by the Boers and dramatically escaped, there was no question in this country as to which Churchill was the Winston Churchill.’
The American Winston Churchill, however, replied graciously. His British counterpart, he wrote, had brought forward a subject that gave Mr. Winston Churchill much anxiety.
Wouldn’t It Be A Lark
In February 1901, the English Winston Churchill came to the United States for a lecture tour. He had won election to Parliament but hadn’t taken his seat yet.
Winston Churchill arrived in Boston and checked into the Touraine Hotel. His manager then collected his mail, only to find the postal service had forwarded the English Winston Churchill’s mail to the American Winston Churchill. The manager went over to Churchill’s home on Beacon Street and persuaded Churchill to meet Churchill.
The two young men had lunch together, then spent the afternoon trying to find a common ancestor (they didn’t).
After lunch they took a walk on Boston Common, and the English Winston Churchill suggested his new American friend should run for office. “I mean to be Prime Minster of England,” he said. “It would be a great lark if you were President of the United States at the same time.”
The American Winston Churchill took him up on it, and in 1902 won election as state representative to the New Hampshire Legislature from Cornish.
After World War I, the English Winston Churchill began to eclipse the American Winston Churchill. His account of the war sold well, and his political career eventually took off. Meanwhile the American Winston Churchill’s fame began to die, and a run for governor of New Hampshire in 1912 ended in a loss.
The American Winston Churchill stopped writing and went into seclusion. In 1941 he did come out with a book, The Uncharted Way, a treatise on Christianity. It did not do particularly well. The American Winston Churchill died on March 12, 1947.
“His once great public had forgotten him,” the New York Times reported in his obituary.
The other Winston Churchill, of course, led Britain to victory over Nazi Germany in World War II and became one of the most prominent people of the 20th century.
With thanks to The Tale of Two Winstons by Warren Dockter.