On January 9, 1854, a baby was born who would one day grow up to be the mother of one of the man some people consider to be the greatest statesman England has ever known. Her name was Jennie Jerome. She was born in Brooklyn at 197 Amity Street, when Brooklyn was still a separate city. So not only was she a New Yorker but a Brooklyn baby, the greatest export before the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles.
She was the second of four daughters born to Leonard Jerome, and his wife Clarissa. Leonard Jerome was a financier, sportsman and speculator. He founded the American Jockey Club and created Jerome Avenue and Jerome Park in the Bronx (which still exist) as well as elevating the idea of horse racing in the United States. He was part owner of The New York Times and his mansion on Madison Avenue had its own theater. Clarissa, his wife, was a dark beauty who family legend says had Iroquois blood.
Another legend is that Leonard Jerome named his second daughter after the Swedish soprano Jennie Lind, who he supposedly had an affair with. While Jerome was a 'special friend' of singers like Minnie Hauck and Fannie Ronalds, there is no evidence that he and Lind ever knew each other.
New York society up until after the Civil War when a wave of new money came to town, was a pretty closed shop made up of various Knickerbocker families who had been in the city since the days of Peter Stuyvesant. While Leonard Jerome was accepted everywhere, his wife was not. Finally she took herself and her three daughters off to Paris, where society was much more fluid. The Empress Eugenie, who had an American grandfather, welcomed American girls particularly pretty ones who had a great deal of money. Leonard stayed in New York, making the money that supported his wife and daughters in the lifestyle to which they had become accustomed. This idyll lasted until the Franco-Prussian war in the early 1870's, when the family fled to England.
It was at Cowes in 1873 that Jennie met the man who would change her life, Lord Randolph Spencer-Churchill, the second son of the Duke of Marlborough. Randolph was 24 at the time, slender, pop-eyed, with a bushy mustache but charismatic. Three days after they met, they were engaged which was a scandal not only for the short amount of time they had known each other but because Randolph had asked Jennie before talking it over with his parents or asking her mother.
The marriage almost didn't take place. After discreet inquiries about Leonard Jerome, the Duke concluded that he was a bad sort and not exactly his ideal of an in-law. The family tried to put a road block in their way by insisting that Randolph couldn't marry until he had won a seat in parliament. Fate intervened when Randolph won a seat from his home seat of Woodstock. However, Jennie had also made the acquaintance of the Prince of Wales, who adored American women, in particular Jennie. He liked their freshness, their wit, and their irreverance. Unlike most aristocratic English girls who led incredibly sheltered lives until their debuts, wealthy American girls were out and about. They'd traveled to Europe, spoke several languages and had that brashness that comes from believing that America was the greatest country in the world. And they were well dressed to boot, sporting the latest couture from Charles Worth, the Englishman whose dresses were de rigeur for the American heiress. From the time of his visit to the United States in 1860, the first heir to the throne to set foot on American soil, the Prince had a soft spot for American women.
As he later told Winston Churchill at a dinner, "If it weren't for me, you wouldn't be here." The approval of the Prince of Wales paved the way for their eventual marriage at the British Embassy in Paris in April of 1874, but again the marriage was almost derailed by Leonard Jerome's insistence that Jennie have money of her own apart from the marriage settlement, an unusual arrangement at the time.
Jennie was in the forerunner of the Buccaneers, those American women who came to England and married titles. Around the time of her marriage, two other American women had made grand matches, including Consuelo Ynaga (who Edith Wharton immortalized as Conchita Closson in The Buccaneers) and Minne Stevens, who married a good friend of the prince's, Arthur Paget. Even Randolph's brother wasn't immune, after his divorce, he later married the rich American widow, Lily Hammersly, and his son, Sunny, in 1895 married Consuelo Vanderbilt, bringing much needed money to Blenheim which ate money on an increasing basis.
The future Prime Minister of England arrived on November 30, 1874, at Blenheim Palace, seven months after his parent's wedding. There was speculation that Winston was premature, but Anne Sebba in her new biography of Jennie, American Jennie, contends that Winston was actually full-term, that his parents had anticipated the marriage vows. Legend has it that he was born after Jennie had been dancing all night at a party, but the truth is that Jennie had probably gone riding or walking that day which led to his arrival. A brother for Winston arrived 6 years later when John Strange Spencer-Churchill was born while the family was in exile in Ireland where Randolph was secretary to his father who had been appointed Viceroy of Ireland in 1876.
Randolph's brother Lord Blandford had caused a scandal by attempting to blackmail the Prince of Wales. Lord Blandford had an affair with with Edith, the wife of the Earl of Aylesford, whose wanted to sue for divorce, after discovering that she planned to elope with Blandford. The Prince of Wales attempted to intervene, chastising Blanford for using the Earl's trip to India as an excuse to woo his wife. He asked him to give up the foolish notion of eloping. Blandford didn't take the Prince's interference too kindly, responding by brandishing letters that the Prince had indiscreetly sent to Edith Aylesford himself. The Prince was furious at being put in an awkward position and made it known that he would not set foot in a house where the Churchills were invited.
Living in Ireland however was the making of Randolph's political career. Seeing the country and their struggles with the British, Randolph became a proponent of Home Rule for the Irish. After their return from exile, Jennie threw herself into the role of political hostess. However, money was extremely tight. Leonard Jerome had suffered a financial reversal and was not able to help out as much as he had previously. And there were still doweries to be given for his other two daughters, Clara the eldest who finally married Moreton Frewen and the youngest Leonie who married Sir John Leslie, an Irish aristrocrat (Paul McCartney was married at Leslie Castle which is still owned by the family). Jennie also had the Jerome characteristic of being optimistic that money will come when it was needed.
Like most Victorian mothers of the aristocracy, Jennie left the raising of her sons mainly to nannies and governesses. Winston absolutely adored his beautiful, glamorous mother, writing her a steady stream of letters from boarding school at Harrow, where he was absolutely miserable, begging her to visit him, which she rarely did. Jennie seems to have been one of those mothers who were uninterested in children until they were old enough to hold a conversation. After Winston became an adult, he and Jennie became great friends and allies. She championed him not so much as a mother, but as a political mentor. Some people speculate that her affection for him as an adult was calculated once she saw his potential. Whatever the reason, his adoration of his mother never wavered, and he was just as proud of being half American as he was from being a member of the Marlborough family.
Jennie was known for having a strong personality, she was well-respected and influential in British society as a member of the first wave of 'Dollar Princesses' who swept across the Atlantic at the end of the 19th Century to make advantageous matches with the British aristocracy, bringing their American verve and liveliness along with their doweries. She was also incredibly beautiful, her portrait was sold along with a number of other 'professional beauties' in shops across London. A number of legends sprung up about her including one that she had a snake tattooed on her wrist. She had numerous affairs through her marriage to Lord Randolph including Count Charles Andreas Kinsky, the Austro-Hungarian ambassador to Britain and the Prince of Wales himself.
Although her marriage to Randolph was a love match, over the years they grew apart. Randolph spent increasingly more time on his political career and traveling with his cronies, than he did with his wife. He died young, at the age of 45 in 1895, suffering from what appears to have been syphillis. Despite her infidelities, Jennie was a devoted political wife, she supported his causes, and even helped to write several of his speeches.
She kept occupied after Randolph's death by founding the Anglo-Saxon Review, a short-lived magazine that came out quarterly from 1899 to 1901. Each issue was individually decorated which led to production costs being incredibly high. Five years after his death, Jennie caused a scandal by marrying George Cornwallis-West who was the same age as her son Winston. However, even after her marriage, she continued to be known by the name Lady Randolph Churchill.
Jennie kept busy helping Winston with his career, and chartering a hospital ship to care for those wounded in the Boer War. In 1908, she wrote her memoirs, The Reminiscences of Lady Randolph Churchill. However, her marriage to George Cornwallis-West didn't last, they were divorced in 1912 after he left her for the actress, Mrs. Patrick Campbell (famous for creating the role of Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion).
She married for the last time at the age of 64 to Montague Phippen Porch who was 3 years younger than Winston, and a member of the British Civil Service in Nigeria. However, Jennie never showed the devotion to her second and third husbands that she had shown for Randolph.
In 1921, three years after her marriage to Porch, Jennie fell down the stairs while visiting friends. Gangrene set in, and her left leg had to be amputated. Jennie Jerome Churchill died at her home in London on June 9, 1921 from complications from the amputation. She was buried next to Randolph in the Churchill family plot in St. Martin's Church, Bladon in Oxfordshire.
Jennie Jerome Churchill is unique for being not only one of the first American women to be accepted by English high society but for having given birth to Winston Churchill. Her American joie de vivre, and ambition manifested themselves in her son, combining with the inherent privilege of being a Duke's grandson.
For more reading:
Anne Sebba - American Jennie: The Remarkable Life of Lady Randolph Churchill (W.W. Norton 2007).
Ralph G. Martin - Jennie: The Life of Lady Randolph Churchill, Volumes I & II.