Liz Smith: History at Its Most Monumental

WChurchill“I’ll HAVE you know, that as a child my nursemaid would never prevent me from taking a walk in the park if I wanted to do so. And as a man, Adolf Hitler certainly won’t!”

5189mbZiOKLThat was Winston Churchill in 1940, defying Germany’s repeated bombings on the city of London — “The Blitz” as it was called. I read this Winstonian quote from among hundreds of others in the mammoth 2012 book about Churchill’s life, The Last Lion.

The late William Manchester had written brilliantly about Churchill’s younger years. Paul Reid masterfully put together Manchester’s notes, jotting, thoughts, edits into this final magnificent work. (Manchester was ill, and unable to actually write his final gargantuan effort on, but he was able to speak and think and make his notations, and rightfully trusted Reid to put it all together.)

It is beyond my own powers as a writer (or whatever the hell I am) to do this 1,000-page-plus book any justice. It begins in the pivotal year of 1939, as Hitler and his Nazis sweep across Europe. The work ends in 1965, with Churchill’s death.

It is epic, in the true sense of the word, and so moving, so uplifting, as Churchill and England fight for years alone against the the Fascist juggernaut. France falls with barely a whimper, as does the rest of Europe. America continues to look away as Churchill — who has been warning his country and the world for ten years about Hitler and Germany’s ultimate goal — urges Britain on. And he used the same incendiary language against Hitler as Hitler used against all those who opposed the Reich.

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It was Churchill’s unrelenting attacks on Nazism and Hitler in particular that won the Fuhrer’s undying enmity. (Near the end of the war one of Hitler’s aides mourns the fact that England never gave in. “Hitler liked the Englanders, he just hated Churchill.”)

If you want to know, step-by-step, how World War II engulfed Europe, and how it was our future enemy, Russia, who was more responsible than any other military force, in winning the European part of the conflagration, you must read this book.

628x471-15(And wait till you get to the parts about how Churchill decided it was an excellent plan to defeat the Nazis in the Mediterranean and in Africa, or the frantic negotiations and double crosses after the war, as Russia took what it pleased, ushering in the Cold War.)

Churchill was not an easy man. He was a great man, but not always “good.” Maybe no great men are. He loved war. He was often rash. He drove his staff mad. He was magnificent and he was petty. He stood for freedom, but as a man of his time and place, couldn’t erase aspects of racism from his heart and soul. He was an egomaniac and he was humble.

I cannot say enough for The Last Lion. I wrote glowingly about it after the first 100 pages. I sat upright in a chair reading “at it” every day for weeks.

It is a book to own, to savor, and from which to learn many things — good things and bad.

I only wish Little Brown had put it out in two volumes. Much like World War II, this book is lethal, difficult to navigate and confoundingly large. It’s not something for a summer afternoon on the beach. Not even the beach at Normandy.

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hamiltonSYNCRONICITY! Just last night, after I dashed off the above, what do find about to be shown on Turner Classic Movies? Yep, “That Hamilton Woman,” starring Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier. Sir Larry played Lord Horatio Nelson, who fought Napoleon and the French relentlessly. Miss Leigh was his low-born-but-ravishing paramour, who turned herself into a lady, if not quite a respectable one. Their love affair scandalized a nation, even in wartime.

It’s easy to see why Churchill supposedly watched the movie a hundred times. It is British propaganda of the highest, glossiest order. The comparisons between Napoleon and Hitler, and Churchill’s own obdurate stand; Nelson’s great speeches about what would happen to England if France triumphed, are impossible to miss.

But even if the political aspects don’t interest you, the onscreen love story between Lord Nelson and Lady Emma Hamilton (both of them married) is dazzling to look at, under the direction of Alexander Korda. Miss Leigh is more beautiful and bedazzling than she was as Scarlett O’ Hara, and the doomed aspects of the relationship mirror what the real life protagonists were going through, each trying to extricate themselves from unsatisfying marriages. They wanted to officially seal what both believed was a fated, magnificent romance — which indeed it was, for a few years.

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Director’s Korda’s famous tracking shot of Vivien Leigh dashing along a huge grand balcony, her glittering gown sweeping behind her, throwing herself at last into Olivier’s arms, still takes the breath away.

Note should also be taken of Gladys Cooper’s relentlessly unforgiving portrayal of Lord Nelson’s wife, Lady Frances Nelson. Underneath the ice, Cooper manages to convey her heartbreak and disappointment. What a movie!

NEW YORK’S Lincoln Center is preparing for the big event of the season so far — I do mean Barbra Streisand’s Lifetime Achievement Honor by the Film Society of Lincoln Center at Avery Fisher Hall. These nights are always a big deal, and I expect Barbra’s to be at least as tumultuous as those held for Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor. These were wildly clotted with celebs and fans. (Taylor, accompanied by George Hamilton, was so mobbed outside Avery Fisher Hall, even the stoic NYPD looked nervous!) Miss Streisand’s award will be handed to her by President Bill Clinton.

Oh, and Barbra’s classic movie — her first — “Funny Girl” will debut soon on Blu-ray. It looks and sounds fabulous — she’s got 36 expressions, sweet as pie and tough as leather/and that’s six expressions more than all those Barrymores put together! (That’s how Barbra launches into her blockbuster “I’m The Greatest Star” number.)

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edgarI DON’T care for vampires or zombies — certainly not as they have morphed in films and books over the past few decades. But give me a good crime thriller, and I am ready to settle in and be frightened or fascinated.

So I always keep an eye on the Edgar Awards, which honor all things mysterious. The latest lit event happens on May 2nd in New York City. The distinguished Margaret Maron will oversee the proceedings. She is the author of 26 novels and several short stories. Her books have been translated into 16 languages. Among the subjects she is expected to address; her role as president of Sisters of Crime, the American Crime Writer’s League and Mystery Writers of America. She’ll tell us how supportive those in the field of crime-writing have been to female authors.

The week of April 28th-May 5th is hailed as Mystery Week in NYC, commemorating the 67th anniversary of the Edgar Awards. There will be several “mysterious” events. Call 212-475-5097 or 212-308-7720.

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This column originally appeared on NYSocialDiary.com on 4/19/13

One comment so far.

  1. avatar JERILYN says:

    Barbra Streisand deserves this great honor and I know it will be an awesome event and receiving her Award from President Bill Clinton is perfection. Brava to a great icon! Other then Dame Elizabeth Taylor I believe Lady Vivien Leigh was the most stunning woman I had ever seen on screen. Never saw her in person and having seen Dame Elizabeth in person at the height of her beauty NOBODY was more stunning or sensual with those amazing eyes. But I always thought Lady Vivien & Dame Elizabeth looked like they could be sisters. Would love to have seen Elizabeth as “Bonnie Blue” in “Gone with the Wind.” But we never got that chance.