She flips the pages of photographs hurriedly, past Churchill brides, Churchill babies and Churchill burials, past Churchills at the seashore and at Chartwell -- their country home -- past Churchills with notables and Churchills with nobodies, on their way to Parliament and on their way to war.
A classic 19th-century portrait of the British aristocrat and the American beauty. The woman is serene in ruffled satin; the man, distractedly handsome in tattersall suit. They are the parents of Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill: she, the high-spirited Jennie Jerome, Brooklyn-born and Paris-reared, and he, Lord Randolph Churchill, younger son of the seventh Duke of Marlborough, who would die of syphilis 21 years later.
"There they are so young, so full of hope, starting out together. I loved that one of my grandfather -- the later ones of him are so sad and ravaged," says Mary Churchill Soames, gazing at likenesses she has seen a dozen times in the course of writing her new book, "Family Album," and choosing the more than 400 photographs that fill its pages.
All the pictures are irresistible, the way albums are. The photographs were culled from a variety of sources including family collections; none was taken by Soames.
"I am a rotten photographer, and the thing I regret and bitterly resent about my family is that none of us was [a good photographer]," says Mary Soames, who first realized how many photographs were new to her when she started to write the biography of her mother, "Clementine Churchill."
"I thought if they were new to me they might well be new to other people."
Soames at first pooh-poohed the idea of an album (although albums "are rather the vogue in England now") and fretted that a picture book would be just another Churchill picture book. Then she realized she could tell the story that begins with Winston Churchill's birth in 1874, exactly 108 years ago today and ends 103 years later with the death of his wife, Clementine, at the age of 93. Soames saw the album as a broad sweep through all phases of her parents' lives as seen through a daughter's "lens . . . the small end of the telescope."
Now she is on the Washington leg of a book promotion tour. She is a pretty woman of 60, with short-cropped, gray-flecked hair; her manner is easy, her enthusiasm contagious as she thumbs through the book, hunting for a particular picture. It comes into view and she smiles. "Simply beautiful of my parents," she says.
Winston and Clementine, contemplative and somber, are huddled together in a motor launch, the Thames being the only sure way he could escape unexploded bombs when he inspected the devastation of the September 1941 blitz. Behind them on shore, London smokestacks etch the fog. Clementine is wearing a polka-dotted turban, which became her wartime trademark as she visted shipyards, bombed-out ruins and rest centers and went to luncheons with lord mayors all around England. Winston is grim-faced beneath his stovepipe hat, one arm draped behind Clementine. In his gloved, right hand is the cigar.
"I don't think Mother minded. She was quite used to it. Cigar smoke is quite pleasant, you know. Anyhow, we must all be pickled in it," says their daughter, laughing. It reminds her of someone at lunch the other day, puffing away at a foul-smelling pipe. "He said to me, 'I didn't bother to ask -- I'm sure you don't mind my smoking, brought up as you have been.' I wanted to say that Havana cigars smell much nicer than crumby old pipes, but I restrained myself."
Her hands are busy again and she stops at a photo of the Evening Standard's Oct. 26, 1951, front page -- "Winston in Power," blares its headline. Opposite is a picture she thinks is one of the best she's ever seen of her father, better than the Karsh portrait of him everybody always uses.
Winston is almost Dickensian in his stovepipe hat and white scarf. His massive head and torso suggest authority, his wry smile vigor but puckishness. Even without the caption, it's apparent he has triumphed. At 76, he has been named Britain's prime minister again.
He wasn't the sort of father who played jigsaw puzzles or things like that. He bellowed at his daughter when she made too much noise but left spankings to Clementine and Nanny. Still, he loved having her and the others -- Diana, Randolph and Sarah -- around.
Winston was very good with his hands, and at Chartwell, the home near Westerham in Kent that he bought the week Mary was born in 1922, he and a retired bricklayer once built an entire wall around a vegetable garden.
Winston's expression is undisguised contentment. The cigar is predictable but the business suit, vest, tie, soft felt hat and gloves aren't, hardly the attire of the mason he is pretending to be. Sarah, whose adult life would be so troubled and whose marriages would seem doomed to her family, is 14 at the time and poised to pass a brick to her father.
"Usually my father wore workaday boiler suits, but if it was still daylight when he arrived back from London, he would rush out into the garden to see what was going on," Mary Soames says. "I have the feeling he just went straight from the car and picked up the trowel and started to work."
She gazes fondly at the young Sarah, eight years her senior, to whom "awful things happened" and whose "wonderful, undaunted spirit" she adored. She was closer to Sarah than the others, although she says she loved them all very much. Sarah died of undisclosed causes in September. Diana Sandys, the eldest, committed suicide in 1963, and Randolph, Winston and Clementine Churchill's only son, in failing health after a lung operation, died suddenly in 1968.
"I suppose in all scrapbooks and family albums, if you sat down and delved into a family's past, you would dig up the bitter with the sweet. "It's all part of the tapestry," Mary Soames says.
A snapshot of a pretty young woman holding a dog flips into view. "There's Pamela Harriman," notes Mary Soames of her former sister-in-law, Randolph's first wife, who would give birth -- a few months after the picture was taken -- to Winston Churchill's grandson and namesake. They are still friends, and only the night before Pamela Harriman turned up at a book-signing party to add her congratulations.
In the pictures Winston is seldom smiling and Clementine is almost always smiling -- except at Chartwell; she never liked the place. Being "a careful Scotswoman," says her daughter, she thought it too big and too expensive for Winston's wallet. He never had a great deal of capital or inherited wealth, so he relied on his pen to keep his family educated, clothed, amused and comfortable. Then, too, Clementine always held it against Winston for buying it without telling her, even though after the war, when she knew Chartwell was going to the National Trust, she stopped worrying about the cost of keeping it up and did some ambitious things herself to the gardens.
"My father was the most open person in the world," says Mary Soames. "He didn't think he was tricking her, but he couldn't imagine that he couldn't convert her to his enthusiasm for it. She used to say, 'It was the only time in our lives together that I feel your father was less than candid.' It was all right but it was one of those things you trip on . . . you've buried the hatchet but you've marked the spot."
The walls of Winston's studio at Chartwell are solid with his paintings. Wearing a hat and chomping on his cigar, he stands in front of his easel ready to do what he used to call one of his "little daubs." There is a hint of amusement on his face as he stares into the camera.
He took up painting during World War I after his removal as First Lord of the Admiralty when the British fleet's Dardanelles operation failed so miserably. Depressed and brooding, Winston came upon his sister-in-law, Goonie (Jack Churchill's wife), painting in the garden one day and borrowed a box of her son's paints.
"He never had any formal instruction but he had a lot of friends who were painters, and at his best, I think he painted very well," says Mary Soames. "A painter who thought nothing else mattered in life once said to me, 'It's a great pity your father wasted so much time on politics. He could have been a very good painter.' "
Everyone seated in rows on each side of him seems to be laughing as Winston, his thumbs hooked in his vest pockets, stands at the lectern in Westminster Hall. Behind him, unveiled only a few minutes earlier, is his vaguely visible portrait by Graham Sutherland, which Parliament commissioned as its gift for Churchill's 80th birthday.
Winston loved the company of painters and was painted by many of them, but he despised the Sutherland portrait the moment he saw it, which was shortly before the official presentation. It wasn't what he had expected at all, but then he wasn't familiar with Sutherland's style.
"He was very big, like a portrait cartoon," says Mary Soames of the painting, which she thinks was probably one of the best ever done of her father. "It wasn't jokey but it wasn't what my father expected, and he thought it was meant to denigrate him, to show that he was well over the top." My mother hated it, too, and simply said to him to stop worrying, 'It will never see the light of day' -- in those exact words."
After Winston died in 1965, Clementine told her daughter she had ordered the painting destroyed. When Clementine died in 1977, the task of writing Sutherland to tell him what her mother had done fell to Mary Soames.
"I wanted him to know before it broke in the newspapers," she says. "He replied very civilly."
Mary Soames' own story, subtly threaded throughout, starts on the cover with a picture of her and her parents on their way to Westminster Hall to witness Parliament's Silver Jubilee year tribute to King George V and Queen Mary. She was 13, very excited and frightfully thrilled by her Bonnie and Clyde beret.
There are pictures of her as a youngster growing up at Chartwell, with Coldstream Guards Capt. Christopher Soames on their wedding day, leaving for France, to which he would later become Britain's ambassador. And at the end, Mary and Christopher Soames' daughter, Charlotte Hambro, with her infant daughter, Clementine, are pictured with Clementine Churchill, then in her 93rd year.
Next on Mary Soames' agenda is a book about the Fifth Duke and Duchess of Marlborough. "Although I'm descended from them, I don't actually feel an umbilical emotional cord," she says, "but they're rather an interesting couple who lived at an interesting time."
Mary Churchill Soames never discussed with her father the possibility that she might one day become a writer. By the time she had to think seriously about what she wanted to do, it was decided for her, she says. At age 18 she went into the women's Auxiliary Territorial Service, eventually attaining the rank of lance corporal.
She has never had any difficulty separating the Winston Churchill she knew from the one in the legends, she says, because being an Englishwoman and living through all those years when he meant so much to England and the world, she could also feel what the English people felt about him.
"Perhaps more so," she says, "because he was my father."