On This Day in History, March 4: Winston Churchill’s American Family
Leonard Jerome’s Last Wish To Be Brought Back to Brooklyn
“Newspaper editor, lawyer, turfman, financier.” All of these titles applied to Leonard Jerome, and they were indeed listed in the Brooklyn Eagle’s obituary of the man, on March 4, 1891. But they omitted what would be his most notable claim: Grandfather to Winston Churchill.
Of course, it was of no fault to the paper. They had yet to know of what consequence Churchill’s life would be. When his American-born maternal grandfather died, Churchill was only 17 years old — and yet to be a soldier, writer, historian and politician. Yet to be the intrepid, inspiring, tireless Prime Minister of England during World War II, when the island nation was all that stood between Hitler and complete domination of Europe.
We can perhaps attribute a bit of that grit and determination to his mother, who was, believe it or not, a Brooklyn-born gal. This comes as a shock to some — there just doesn’t seem room in Winston’s upper-crustness for Brooklyn roots. But, of course, Jennie Jerome was no ordinary Brooklyn girl. She was the daughter of a very wealthy man, Leonard Jerome.
But this very wealthy man had fairly meager beginnings. Born in 1817, Leonard Jerome grew up in Pompey, NY, in 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’s mother, Augusta Murray, was “of a family honored in the county.”
His road to success began at Princeton, which he attended for two years before finishing at Union College in Schenectady. He then studied law for three years in the offices of John C. Beach and Marcus T. Reynolds in Albany.
He married Clarissa Hall of Palmyra, NY, (Winston’s Grandma!), who may have been part Native American, at least according to family lore.
In Rochester he got into the newspaper business, starting 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, according to Elizabeth Kehoe’s biography of the family, The Titled Americans.
Leonard’s brother Addison soon joined him and they entered Wall Street, working full time in stock market speculation. At one time Jerome’s wealth was estimated at $10 million, though he suffered many “reverses” and was said to have gained and lost several fortunes over his lifetime.
In 1852 he took a position as consul to Trieste, Italy (then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), returning to Brooklyn in 1853. His second daughter, Jennie, was born Jan. 9, 1854.
It’s said that she may have been named after the opera singer Jenny Lind, of whom Leonard was a great admirer (and possible had an affair).
In 1858, Leonard moved the family, now including three daughters, to a grand home at 26th Street near Madison Avenue in Manhattan.
A contemporary of Jerome’s said that no man “ever became more completely a New Yorker.”
He maintained an interest in the newspaper business and owned a large part of the New York Times early in its existence. He was passionate about horse racing, and his name was once synonymous with “the turf.” He organized the Coney Island Jockey Club, and was president of that organization until his death in 1891. He was also founder of the American Jockey Club with August Belmont and William Travers, and built Jerome Park racetrack in the Bronx. The Belmont Stakes race was originally held at this track.
He was also a great lover of opera, and helped found the Academy of Music in New York, one of the city’s first opera houses, and the city’s “sanctum sanctorum of high culture,” according to Edwin Burrows’ and Mike Wallace’s Gotham.
In the 1860s, Clarissa left for Paris with the couple’s three daughters (reasons for this vary: some say she was ill and wanting a specific Parisian doctor’s services, others that she and Leonard separated, still others that it was just her love for Paris). Whatever it was, the move proved fateful. They fled to London when the Franco-Prussian War began, and all three of her daughters ended up marrying titled Brits, most famously, Jennie. She met and married Lord Randolph Churchill in 1873. Their son Winston was born in 1874.
Her older sister Clara married Moreton Frewen, a financially challenged member of the landed gentry who served in Parliament as well as invested in cattle and lived for a time in Wyoming. The youngest sister, Leonie, married Irish landowner Sir John Leslie.
Jennie was a great beauty and a wit, fluent in several European languages, and was quickly enmeshed with the most exclusive social circles. She was close with Queen Victoria’s eldest son, Edward (namesake of the Edwardian Era; he succeeded his mother in 1901 and became King Edward VII) as well as an active supporter of her husband’s and later her son’s political careers. (For a dishy who’s who of late 19th century Europe, peruse her memoir, The Reminiscences of Lady Randolph Churchill.)
Toward the end of his life, Leonard Jerome was in a financial downswing. A February 1887 Eagle article reported that he had taken to leasing the family’s New York home to the University Club.
“Its rental is almost his only income and all that is left to maintain the mere shadow of what was once almost a regal state when he led society and the sporting world and when Jerome Park course was named for him. Now he alternates between New York for enjoyment and London for economy, staying while there with his daughter, Lady Churchill.”
The article goes on to report difficulties in Lady Churchill’s marriage. “Poor Jerome, who like many another American, has learned that the position of father-in-law to an English noble is a position full of difficulties and a small very unsatisfactory share of barren honor.”
Leonard Jerome died in Brighton on March 4, 1891, when Winston was only 17, so he knew not what his progeny would accomplish.
The Eagle later reported that Jerome had “expressed the wish during his last illness that he might be taken back to Brooklyn to die. When made aware that this was impossible, he desired that his body might be brought home and placed in the family vault at Green-Wood.” It arrived in New York on August 5, 1891, and was interred as he requested.
When Lord Randolph died in 1895, Jennie remarried five years later to a man the same age as Winston, George Cornwallis-West. They divorced in 1912 and in 1918 she married Montague Phippen Porch, who was two years younger than Winston and a member of the British Civil Service.
Jennie Jerome died in June of 1921.
Supposedly Winston was deeply proud of his American heritage and hung portraits of his American grandparents in his home in London.
In his first address to a joint session of the United States Congress, on Dec. 26, 1941, he told the assembly, “If my father had been American and my mother British, instead of the other way ‘round, I might have got here on my own!”
Churchill served as Prime Minister from 1940 to ’45 and again from 1951 to ’55. He was the recipient of the Nobel Prize in literature in 1953.
President Kennedy made him an honorary citizen of the United States in 1963.
Winston Chuchill died on Jan. 24, 1965.
In a 2002 BBC poll, he was voted the “greatest Brit of all time.”
— By Phoebe Neidl
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