Winston Churchill was indisputably one of the great political figures of the 20th century. But as a young man just starting out, he had more than a little help from his mom. With the assistance of her male friends, Jennie Jerome Churchill got her boy Winston into a good cavalry regiment, despite a less than stellar academic performance at the British equivalent of West Point. She got him accredited as a war correspondent. She got him his first book contract. He took it from there.
Jennie smart, loyal, generous was one of the earliest and most remarkable of a bevy of rich American women who married British aristocrats in the late 19th century, injecting cash and energy into families that often had little of either. Her equally charming sisters, Clara and Leonie, took a similar path. The three of them, their husbands and children are the subject of Elisabeth Kehoe's first book, The Titled Americans: Three American Sisters and the English Aristocratic World into Which They Married, which meshes biography with social and political history to create a beguiling chronicle of a long-gone world.
The Jerome girls' own mother was a social climber, but they insisted on marrying for love sometimes to their later regret. The aristocrats they chose Lord Randolph Churchill for Jennie, Moreton Frewen for Clara, Jack Leslie for Leonie were disappointing husbands, to various degrees. But all three women remained emotionally loyal, even as they found extramarital romance with assorted European royals.
Though in decline, the aristocrats still ran the British Empire. Kehoe capably describes the Jerome clan's roles in the struggle over Irish Home Rule, the Boer War, the First World War and the Russian Revolution. But she is most effective in bringing us into an exotic social world where the rich could do pretty much anything they wanted, as long as they did it behind closed doors and kept their mouths shut. The Jeromes didn't escape the tragedies that afflict all families. But along the way, they had more fun than most and accomplished much still worth knowing about. Winston may have been named Churchill, but he was a Jerome at heart. Anne Bartlett is a journalist who lives in South Florida.