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Arts & CultureBooksPassionate Mothers, Powerful Sons by Charlotte Gray

Passionate Mothers, Powerful Sons by Charlotte Gray

by Edith Cody-Rice 

Once you grasp the subject of this book, you wonder, “Why didn’t anyone think of this before?”. Charlotte Gray, the beloved chronicler of Canadian history and of Canadian women has turned her attention to the mothers of Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Reams have been written about these two men, not as much about their mothers who here seminal to their political success. What has been written comes mainly from male biographers who view Jennie Jerome Churchill, Winston’s mother, as a cold, uncaring spendthrift and Sara Delano Churchill, the mother of FDR, as a controlling harridan. Charlotte Gray has set out to put paid to those narratives.

The similarities between the two women are as striking as the differences in their personalities. Both were born into New York society in the same year, 1854, to enormously wealthy fathers. Both lived for a time in Paris and were fluently bilingual, if not trilingual; both became widows at a young age and both devoted their lives to the advancement of their talented sons. In short, they had a lot in common. But from there, their experience diverges. Jennie Jerome’s family were “nouveau riche” in New York, not admitted to the most exclusive society circle of old families (called Knickerbockers due to  their mostly Dutch ancestry) in spite of the business success of Jennie’s father Leonard  Jerome. Sara was born into “old money” and  had an impeccable Knickerbocker heritage, despite that fact that her father made and renewed his fortune by selling opium in Hong Kong.

Jennie married young to an unstable and not terribly wealthy, but impeccably aristocratic Englishman, Lord Randolph Churchill. This gave her entry into the highest echelon of British society, however her credentials might have appeared in New York. Sara married at 26, late for the era, to a fellow American aristocrat, 26 years her senior, who travelled in her circles and while not as wealthy as Sara, certainly could provide a secure, comfortable life.

Jennie’s father was a speculator and made and lost a few fortunes, while James Roosevelt, a distant cousin of President aTheodore Roosevelt, was a steady country gentleman who did not aspire to fame. He already had his fortune.

The influence of their fathers showed in their daughters: Jennie was a huge spender and assumed money would be provided to pay her debts by the men in her life as her second husband found to his dismay. Sara, wealthy in her own right, was a prudent administrator of her money and remained financially independent all her life.

Jennie courted fame, perhaps because she was essentially an outsider in stiff British circles. She was well read, sparkling, witty and beautirul. Sara, also a striking figure,  was retiring and while social, avoided fame except with respect to her son.

Two fascinating women, with one great thing in common – both adored their sons, believed in their greatness and supported them subtantially, Jennie through her numerous social contacts including the Prince of Wales to whom she was close. Sara supported Franklin financially and with social contacts. Without their mothers, it is doubtful that either man, however ambitious, could have reached the heights of their careers. And the way that they dealt with their mothers created personalty traits that revealed themselves in their dealings with each other during World War II.

Charlotte organizes the book through years, alternating the lives of each of the women in certain tranches of time. As always, Charlotte has written a highly readable and corrective history about two women who influenced history in their own ways. This is a very good book.

Charlotte Gray will appear at the Almonte Public Library on Tuesday October 10 at 6:30 pm. I understand that the registration  has reached capacity but I imagine there is a waiting list.

356 pages excluding acknowledgements and notes. 

Published by Simon and Shuster Canada and simultaneously released in Canada, Britain and the United States

Passionate Mothers, Powerful Sons is available at Mill Street Books.

Note: Full disclosure – Charlotte Gray is a friend. I normally do not review books by friends but her writing is so clear, so readable and the subject matter so enticing that I have departed from that principle. If I had not liked the book, I simply should not have reviewed it. 







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