I just finished reading Anne Sebba’s 2007 book, “American Jennie”, a biography of New Yorker Jennie Jerome, who married Lord Randolph Churchill and gave birth to two sons, Winston and Jack. An interesting, and not entirely enviable, life.
I had read another biography of Jennie Jerome a few years ago, so I generally knew the territory. I am not sure Sebba’s book added much new, although I found it well written and well organized. There is obviously a lot of material about Jerome (after all, Ralph Martin wrote a massive two volume biography some years ago), and an author must be selective. Plus, when you have so much material, some of it turns out to be self-contradictory, and you have to decide what to rely on. I thought there were times when Sebba reached conclusions as to events or thinking, where she had not sufficiently explained why she reached those conclusions. But the story is here – these few details are not that crucial for the general reader.
Born to one of the wealthiest American businessmen, Jennie and her two sisters decamped for Paris with her mother at an early age, and her contacts with her father (and the United States) were sporadic. But the family relied on Leonard Jerome’s money for the survival – unfortunately for them, Jerome’s affairs took many turns, and at the end, he only had a shadow of what he once had, as he had made a number of unsuccessful moves and investments.
Jennie’s mother was, if nothing else, socially ambitious, introducing her daughters to the most elite circles not only in France, but in England. And this is where Jennie, not yet 20, met, fell in love with, and married Randolph Churchill. Churchill, descended from one of England’s oldest families, was also the scion of family whose financial resources, while significant, were often not significant enough to meet the expenses of their properties and life stiles. In addition, Churchill was clearly a restless soul, who spent much more time away from home than at home (sometimes engaged in sport, sometime in travel). He was ambitious and became a member of Parliament, and impressed many with his oratorical skills, but he was also moody and unstable, conditions later attributed to the syphilis from which he died at a young age.
Jennie and Randolph had two very different children. Winston, moody and hard to deal with, and Jack, the more even tempered and stable son. Winston was sent off to boarding schools at an early age, hated them, and had a poor relationship with his mother and hardly any with his father. This reversed after he grew up, and he and his mother grew exceptionally close and dependent upon each other.
Jennie’s financial situation, if you can believe it, also went up and down, mainly down, as did the finances of her two sisters, also married to established Englishmen who could not hold only to their inherited funds. The Jerome sisters had very expensive tastes, in housing, clothes and travel, and were often in debt. Jennie married twice after the death of her first husband, each time to someone approximately 20 years younger than she. She apparently had numerous other affairs (this seems to have been common for people of this class at this time), although the nature of these affairs, and in fact their existence, seems to have been accounted for differently by different biographers, and the definition of affair, for some, did not apparently necessarily include physical relationships, rather than flirting relationships or emotional connections. This is all unclear, and Sebba seems to take a conservative view, attributing many fewer examples of physical sexual relationships to Jennie than do some of her biographers.
Jennie’s later marriages, like her first, were not happy ones, her finances were always on the edge, her relationships with the British elite (including the royal family) had their ups and downs, but she remained very close with her mother (until her death) and her sisters, and with her two sons. Jack, who became a stock broker, took control of his mother’s finances, while Jennie spent much time promoting the interests of her more interesting son Winston, helping him get military and journalistic commissions, win elective office, and get his books published.
She died at a relatively early age (61), after injuring her leg in a fall, having it become infected requiring amputation, and having complications after the amputation that led to a quick death.
An interesting book, worth reading, giving you not only insight into Jennie, but into Winston’s early years, and leaving you with one important lesson: the lives of these people were so different from our lives today, but they sure weren’t happier or more accomplished. Well, I guess that’s a lesson.