Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Winston Churchill's Mother Jennie Jerome Was Born in Cobble Hill, But in Which House?

This article will be part of the soon to launch Cobble Hill History Project web site, directed by Francis Morrone (and spearheaded by the Cobble Hill Association). The reporter, Phoebe Neidl, had written about Jennie Jerome in the past and was encouraged to dig deeper into the subject by Morrone, who will be leading a tour of Cobble Hill this Sunday, June 19, 2-4 p.m.. RSVP cobblehillhistoryproject@yahoo.com.

Churchill (center) at 426 Henry St. on Jan. 7 1953. AP
On January 7, 1953, a convoy of vehicles slowly made its way down Henry Street in Cobble Hill. Several hundred people crowded the narrow street, many of them schoolchildren from nearby P.S. 29. Neighbors craned their necks out of windows into the cold winter air. “There might have been a daytime torchlight parade for all the flashbulbs that kept going off,” the New York Times observed.

The cars pulled up outside 426 Henry St. Reporters and photographers, along with members of Scotland Yard and the Secret Service all got themselves in position. And then the man himself emerged. Donning a black Homburg hat, carrying a gold-headed cane, and with a cigar clenched in his teeth, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill stepped onto the Brooklyn street and walked toward the modest, red brick house that was his destination.

Beginning in 1943, 10 years earlier, when Churchill and the Allied forces were mired in their effort to turn the tide of World War II, a correspondence began between him and the County Clerk’s office in Brooklyn, of all places.

Deputy County Clerk James Kelly believed he found conclusive evidence that Churchill’s mother, Jennie Jerome (aka Lady Randolph Churchill), was born in Brooklyn, not in Rochester, N.Y., as that city liked to claim. Not only that, he believed he had found the exact house in which she had been born.

Kelly sent Churchill a scrapbook of city records and documents, as well as notes from a published biography about Jennie, Young Lady Randolph by Rene Kraus, to substantiate his claims. And so when Brooklyn Eagle publisher Frank Schroth had the idea of affixing a plaque to the home, Churchill gave his blessing. His daughter Sarah Churchill was even there for the dedication ceremony on March 26, 1952.

Churchill himself, at 78 years old, finally had the occasion to see the house on that cold January morning in 1953, the day before he was scheduled to fly to Washington to meet with President Truman.

He flashed his trademark V for victory sign to the crowd before stepping into the home, which was draped with British and American flags, where he was greeted by owner, Joseph P. Romeo, a dress designer. Churchill’s tour of the house was limited to the ground floor. “He doesn’t do stairs,” one of his handlers informed the group.

The clerk James Kelly was also there to greet Churchill, ready once again with a presentation of documents proving the claim. Churchill reportedly signed the 1850 census record that proved his grandparents lived in that house — the record that led Kelly to believe that Jennie Jerome was born there.
Jennie Jerome, AP Photo

Before leaving, Churchill stepped up to a microphone outside and told the crowd, “I am most grateful to those who have put up this tablet in commemoration of my mother, who was born here in Brooklyn.”

When asked to compare the house with his own birthplace, the 320-room Blenheim Palace, seat of the Duke of Marlborough, Churchill replied, “I am equally proud of both.”

UNFORTUNATELY, Brooklyn’s collective face has been a bit reddened ever since Churchill’s 1953 visit. For it is generally believed we led him to the wrong house.

Most biographers now point to 8 Amity St. (which has since been renumbered 197), also in Cobble Hill, as Jennie Jerome’s birthplace, because that’s where the Jerome family was living in 1854, according to an 1854-55 City Directory. This assertion, then, depends on the truthfulness of the birth date most often attributed to her, January 9, 1854.

The confusion is understandable. Establishing exactly when and where Jennie Jerome was born has taken some diligent detective work. There are no birth records for Brooklyn before 1866, and Jennie left some misleading clues for the historians who began tracking down the details of her life once it became obvious she had given birth to greatness, when her son led Great Britain through World War II and the island nation was all that stood between Hitler and complete domination of Europe.

Jennie’s Brooklyn origins have fascinated Churchill fans ever since, in part because they are so unexpected. It means that patrician, conservative Winston Churchill, “the Greatest Brit of all Time,” has roots in the old neighborhood, so to speak.

Jennie Jerome was the second daughter of Leonard and Clarissa Jerome. Though born in Brooklyn, the lion’s share of her childhood was spent in Manhattan. The family was installed at a grand mansion on Madison and 26th Street by the late 1850s, but before Jennie was old enough to make her debut in society, she was living in Europe with her mother and two sisters.
Leonard Jerome, Winston's grandfather

Leonard Jerome hailed from Onandaga County in central New York State. He had seven brothers and one sister. His father was a farmer; his grandfather had been a clergyman. The clan was descended from French Huguenots who traversed the Atlantic in the early 1700s, and some of them had fought in the Revolutionary War.

Leonard went to Princeton University for two years before finishing at Union College, and then studied law in Albany. He married Clarissa Hall of Palmyra, N.Y., who was part Native American, at least according to family lore.

While living in Rochester, Leonard got into the newspaper business, and bought the Daily American with one of his brothers. The newspaper did well — well enough for him to invest in a telegraph company in New York, which is what prompted his move to Brooklyn in 1850.

In New York, Leonard and his brother Addison became stock market speculators on Wall Street, and in this way Leonard gained and lost several fortunes over the years. But the transience of the family’s wealth never curtailed the constancy of their indulgences.

Leonard was known as “The Father of American Turf” because he probably did more than anyone else to expand and legitimize the sport of horse racing in America. He was founder of the American Jockey Club with August Belmont and William Travers, and built Jerome Park racetrack in the Bronx, where the Belmont Stakes was originally held. He also organized the Coney Island Jockey Club, and was president of that organization until his death in 1891. For his Madison Avenue mansion, he had built an $80,000, three-story, black walnut stable.
Clarissa Jerome, Winston's grandmother

Attached to the stable was a private theater, evidence of Leonard’s other passion, music. He was an enormous fan of opera and named Jennie for the singer Jenny Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale,” with whom he was rumored to have had an affair.

Leonard enjoyed chasing women and racing yachts, but his wife longed for Europe, and in the late 1860s she moved to Paris with her three daughters, which proved a fateful move.

The Jerome women spent about three years at the court of Napoleon III before fleeing to England with the onset of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. There, they settled into the rhythms of Queen Victoria’s London. Jennie was a great beauty, spoke several languages, was accomplished at the piano, and, like her father, was passionate about horses.

In 1874, she married Winston’s father, Lord Randolph Churchill, after a three-day courtship during Regatta Week at Cowes, on the Isle of Wight, where she had made her debut the year before. Winston was born seven months after their nuptials. He was premature, though some have persisted in raising eyebrows at the timeline. She and Lord Randolph also had another son together, Jack.


Jennie’s marriage into British aristocracy thrust her into the most elite company, and among her close acquaintances was Queen Victoria’s son and heir, the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII (some say the two had an affair — it would not be the last for either of them).

She was actively involved in her husband’s political career (he was elected as a member of Parliament a few months before they were married), which meant delving into the slings and arrows of battle between the alternating prime ministers Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone. She proved an effective fund-raiser and organizer for her husband’s campaigns and edited many of his speeches. She was a “new woman” before it was fashionable to be one, her biographer Ralph Martin wrote.

Randolph’s death in 1895 hardly slowed Jennie down. In a period when most women were expected to be in mourning for years after their husband’s death, Jennie quickly sought a change of scene and took an extended trip to Paris where she took up with the American politician Bourke Cockran. (Incidentally, Cockran was known as a great orator, and it was his oratorical style that most inspired Winston’s considerable skills in this area. “He was my model,” Winston once said of his mother’s American paramour.)

Jennie launched an ambitious, conservative literary journal, the Anglo-Saxon Review, though it was short-lived. She also organized and managed a hospital ship during the Boer War, where both her sons had been in combat.

She also dedicated herself to furthering Winston’s career as writer and politician. In his memoir My Early Life, Winston wrote, “My mother was always on hand to help and advise … She soon became my ardent ally, furthering my plans and guarding my interests with all her influence and boundless energy…We worked together on even terms, more like brother and sister than mother and son. At least so it seemed to me. And so it continued to the end.”

She was youthful enough and beautiful enough to remarry twice  — and to men Winston’s age! Actually her third husband, Montague Phippen Porch, was three years younger than Winston.

She was still married to Porch when in June of 1921 she slipped and fell down the stairs, breaking her ankle. Blood poisoning set in and her leg had to be amputated. After a hemorrhage, she died on June 29, 1921.

TUCKED into her New York Times obituary was this inexact statement: “She was born in Brooklyn 67 or more years ago…” The Grey Lady hewed to the 1854 birth date, but hinted at that sliver of uncertainty, which brings us back to 426 Henry St. in Cobble Hill.

The plaque on the house reads, in part: “In this House in January 1850 was born Jennie Jerome.”

This date is an error. Nobody ever thought she was born in January 1850, not even the Brooklyn clerk, James Kelly, on whose research the plaque was based. Kelly’s papers are archived at the Brooklyn Historical Society and in the Special Collections of Brooklyn College Library. Among these papers is correspondence between Kelly and Churchill’s cousin Anita Leslie in 1952, referencing the mistake. “Imagine my surprise when I beheld the mistake regarding the January insertion,” he wrote. He enclosed a photocopy of the plaque design that he had approved, which only said 1850 — no month.

Kelly was unsure of her exact birth date but believed that she was born late in 1850, sometime between October and December. This is not far off from what Leslie thought at the time. In her letter to Kelly, she put the birth date at January 1851.

This date range comes from Jennie herself, who you would think would be a reliable source. In 1908 she had released a memoir, The Reminiscences of Lady Randolph Churchill. She does not state a birth date, but in the very first sentence of the book, she wrote, “My father was for three years American Consul at Trieste, and Italy thus colored my first impression of life, although I was born in Brooklyn, in the state of New York.”

Her father was appointed Consul at Trieste in January 1852 (there are several photocopies of the State Department paperwork attesting to this in Kelly’s papers). The Jeromes had moved to Brooklyn from Rochester in 1850. So if Jennie was born in Brooklyn and then went to Italy with her parents, as she herself stated, she would have been born somewhere between 1850 and 1852.

It was this combination of facts that was the foundation for Kelly’s assertion, and which led to the plaque at 426 Henry St.
426 Henry St.

The mistake Kelly made was relying on the biography by Rene Kraus to round out his research, which later biographers have found to be riddled with errors. Kraus never states a birth date in Young Lady Randolph (1943), but he repeatedly insinuates she was born in 1850, such as referring to her as a “10 year old beauty” at an event that took place in 1860.

When Kelly found the August 6, 1850, census record that put Leonard and Clarissa Jerome living with his brother Addison at 292 Henry St. (it was later renumbered as 426), he thought he hit the mark.
Since then, compelling evidence has arisen that Jennie was born on Jan. 9, 1854, and it is generally believed that she must have been lying about living in Italy as a child. (She definitely had the timeline wrong. Her father did not serve as Consul as long as three years, as she stated.)

By the time Anita Leslie wrote a biography of her great aunt in 1969, a letter had surfaced that Jennie wrote to her mother on Jan. 9, 1888. It says, “Do you know that it is my birthday today? 34!!! I think for the future that I will not proclaim my age…” If there’s one person you can’t lie to about your age, it’s your mother.

There’s also a letter that Leonard Jerome wrote to the State Department from Trieste on May 1, 1852, in which he mentions his wife “and child,” not children (remember Jennie was the second daughter). The manifest of passengers on the Baltic, the ship the family took back to New York in 1853 lists only 2-year-old Clara with her parents. Randolph Churchill’s biography of his father adds the additional evidence of a christening mug existing in the family that was engraved “Jennie Jerome 1854.”

In the face of this mounting evidence it seems likely that Jan. 9, 1854, is her birth date, which points to the house at 8 Amity St. (now 197) as her birth place.

Although, one other possibility is out there, just to make us doubt ourselves (Jennie did like to be chased). Some biographies still claim that Jennie was born at 426 Henry, the home of Leonard’s brother Addison.
197 Amity St.

Anita Leslie, Churchill’s cousin, writes that the family was staying there after their return from Europe and then rented 8 Amity after Jennie was born. Leslie wrote, “Jennie was certainly sure of the house in Brooklyn where she was born, because she pointed it out,” and then, infuriatingly, doesn’t footnote it, so we don’t know when or how Jennie supposedly pointed the house out.

In The Churchills, A Family Portrait (2010), authors John and Celia Lee relay a story they collected from interviews with Peregrine Churchill, Jennie’s grandson (her younger son Jack’s child): “Jennie’s mother went to stay with Leonard Jerome’s brother Addison and Julia at 426 Henry St., Brooklyn. A terrific snowstorm blew up, and Clarissa went into premature labor and could not be moved. She gave birth to Jennie in their house while the snow outside was several feet deep.”

We know that Addison was still living at the Henry Street address at the time of Jennie’s birth because he is still listed there in the 1853-54 City Directory. And as Leonard and family only returned from Europe two months before Jennie’s birth, it is entirely conceivable that they once again stayed with Addison at that time before setting up house for themselves on Amity. And between Anita Leslie’s and Peregrine Churchill’s anecdotes, it would seem there is some bit of family lore about her being born at her Uncle Addison’s.

And so it seems that Brooklyn didn’t do wrong altogether by Winston when he came to visit. He may have visited the right house after all.

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