Researching Churchill Photographs
Moments in Time: National Press Club, Washington, 4 September 1943
Winston Churchill was probably photographed a million times, yet some photographs still lack identification. Students and photo researchers who follow Churchill’s dictum to “never give in” might be inspired by my own story to keep digging, and to bringing the truth to light.
About a year and a half ago I asked the help of The Churchill Project, the Churchill Archives Centre, and historians Andrew Roberts, Warren Kimball and Paul Courtenay, in identifying my signed photograph of Churchill in a light colored suit at an unknown luncheon or banquet, flanked by unknown gentlemen. Emails flew back and forth with helpful comments and insightful suggestions. All we had to go by was the date, in Churchill’s own hand: 1943.
Guessing that such celebratory gatherings were most likely to have occurred abroad, we began by looking at Churchill’s foreign travels that year: Casablanca and Turkey (January); Washington (May); North Africa (May-June); Quebec, Hyde Park, Boston and Bermuda (August); Cairo and Teheran (November-December), Tunis (December). He mainly wore white or very dark suits at these venues, so there was no clue in his dress. The stars in the backdrop did not appear related + Add New Category to the American flag; they looked like (and turned out to be) a decorative backdrop.
Noticing that Churchill had a water glass (untouched), The Churchill Project suggested that the venue was America, where WSC often criticized the U.S. habit of drinking quantities of water with meals. The gentlemen’s suits do look American, and he did wear a light colored suit in Washington.
Over many months, assisted by amazing serendipity, I was able finally to establish the date, circumstances and personalities.
I started by searching Churchill pictorial biographies for the image, or similar images, of the same event…or even pictures that included the other two men. Nothing turned up. I sifted through other World War II books without success. Then I turned to the Internet, which contains tens of thousands of Churchill photographs, including some 1500 on eBay alone. But I could not find a match.
A year after my quest started I was back on eBay (now with 1711 Churchill images) looking for a Churchill photo for another project. To my astonishment, the first image that came up was a press photo almost identical to mine—with the principals, venue and location printed on the reverse, including a date: September 3, 1943. I was ecstatic.
The eBay photo, which I purchased, must have been taken within a half-second of the signed version because, while they are almost identical, they were taken from a slightly different angle. The eBay photo was also taken from a greater distance—far enough away to include a fourth person who might have jump-started the search had he been in the signed photo: Brendan Bracken, Churchill’s Minister of Information and press representative, who was part of his entourage on the 1943 Washington visit.
The legend on the back of the eBay photo proved that you can’t quite trust the identification information provided by news organizations—AP, UPI, Reuters. They are not good on details, and it emerged that the eBay photo had the date wrong.
I suspected this after pursuing the context of what was identified on the back as a press luncheon. By paying small fees to access the archives of the Washington Post and The New York Times, I found the relevant news stories. Based on these—and on Roosevelt’s daily schedule, provided by the Lorentz Center at the FDR Presidential Library, it became clear that the luncheon had occurred on September 4th, not the 3rd.
The Associated Press photo archive confirmed the date with a nice picture of Churchill and the Australian ambassador to the United States at the White House. Churchill is wearing the same suit as in my photo. The accompanying caption states that the PM is leaving directly to attend a luncheon with the Overseas Press Club, and gives a date of September 4th.
What emerges from all this is that the photo was taken on September 4, 1943 in the Presidential Banquet Room of the Statler Hotel, Washington. The function was a luncheon for the prime minister, arranged on 24 hours’ notice by the Overseas Writers Club, National Press Club, and White House Correspondents Association. It was the first time in history that these major press and radio organizations combined to welcome any public figure.
The journalists flanking Churchill are Raymond Gram Swing (left), who, I learned, was one of America’s best-known radio broadcasters;1 and Barnet Nover,2 president of the Overseas Writers Club, Churchill’s official host.
For ninety minutes, Churchill spoke to and took questions from an audience of about 250. Any question was welcome, but by mutual agreement his remarks were “off the record.” Articles the next day in the Post and Times were complimentary, noting that Churchill received a standing ovation. In his syndicated column, Walter Lippmann praised Churchill’s courage, honor, honesty and spirit.
After the luncheon, Churchill returned to the White House, where he spent much of the remainder of the day with President Roosevelt. He also met with the Australian ambassador to the U.S. to discuss Britain’s role in the Pacific. Churchill also met with his chiefs of staff. The next day he planned to depart for his famous speech on Anglo-American Unity at Harvard University
The main topic with Roosevelt was a joint letter to convince Stalin to attend a “Big Three” conference—which eventually took place in Teheran. It was a typical busy and productive day for the prime minister—and longer than the president had anticipated. According to Hillsdale’s upcoming Document Volume 19 in the official biography, Churchill wrote to Attlee that he had kept FDR up until two in the morning!
What a thrill it was to put “meat on the bones” of what until just recently was an unknown photograph. I hope my experience will encourage others with similar identification problems to “go on to the end.”
Mr. Belcher is a retired New England business and management consulting executive with a lifelong interest in 20th century history, and Winston Churchill in particular.
1 Raymond Gram Swing (1887-1968), an American print and broadcast journalist, was one of the most influential news commentators of his era, heard by people worldwide as one of the leading American voices from Britain during World War II. Known originally as Raymond Swing, he adopted his wife’s maiden name in 1919 and became known as Raymond Gram Swing. His books include Preview of History (1944), Forerunners of American Fascism (1969), and a memoir, Good Evening (1965).
2 Barnet Nover (1899-1973) began writing as a Buffalo, New York news columnist. In 1925 he published Why War Came, an account of the origins of World War I. In 1936 he joined the Washington Post as a foreign policy columnist. Barnet and his wife Naomi were Washington figures of consequence, who counted among their friends presidents, senators and Supreme Court justices, as well as the Post’s future publishers Philip and Katharine Graham. In 1947, Nover became bureau chief for the Denver Post, a position he held until retiring in 1971, when he founded the Barnet Nover News Service.