An admiring life of Jennie Jerome (1854–1921), Winston Churchill’s aristocratic mother.
Jennie was born into a family better fit to the Gilded Age decades later; her father was a speculator, even a swindler, who constantly cycled between boom and bust, riches and ruin. “Insecurity,” Higham (Murder in Hollywood, 2004, etc.) writes portentously, “was the very air she breathed.” You would not know it when the young adult, beautiful and clearly wealthy, arrived in England by way of France to conquer high society. There she met the son of the Duke of Marlborough, a weedy 24-year-old who “had not the musculature of most men of his age” but who carried himself with the proper nobility. “Jennie,” Higham gushes, “was captivated as completely as any heroine of the French romantic novels popular during her years in Paris.” The resulting romance was quick—so quick, the author whispers, that Winston Churchill may well have been conceived out of wedlock. Jennie and Randolph moved into a fixer-upper mansion and fell into the usual intrigues, most of them involving various sorts of odd sexual practices and serial adulteries. Higham’s narrative finds the young couple plotting to blackmail the Princess of Wales here, spending themselves into near-bankruptcy there, and always seeking to accumulate influence and power. In this endeavor, Jennie seems to have been the more successful of the two; Higham credits her with bringing Burma into the British Empire, for which efforts Jennie, with Randolph at once secretary of state and “a useless playboy,” was awarded the Order of the Crown of India. Jennie becomes somewhat more interesting once Randolph dies; Higham traces his decline to a neurological disorder, not the old canard of syphilis.
Like Elisabeth Kehoe’s The Titled Americans (2004), Higham’s account is too worshipful for comfort; it lacks the steel of biographies devoted to Jennie’s famous son, and it could use it.