(One of a series of weekday posts on the life of Winston S. Churchill.)
Readers Note: The following post first appeared on February 1, 2006. I’m publishing it today in slightly revised form because many of you have become series readers since then. This is one of my favorite posts. I hate the thought that any of you have missed it.
For most of World War II, the noted Oxford historian Isaiah Berlin served in the Foreign Office; assigned to the British Embassy in Washington, where he wrote dispatches assessing current American political, economic and social issues.
Churchill became a regular and admiring reader of Berlin's dispatches. He told his aides if Berlin returned in England, he wanted to meet him.
The Prime Minister's wish was swiftly passed on to Foreign Office staffers and others.
Not long afterwards, word came back to Churchill's aides that Berlin was indeed in England. They arranged an invitation for him to join a luncheon the PM was hosting at 10 Downing Street. When arranging the seating plan, they placed Berlin close to Churchill.
Now, readers, we come to one of those "bumps in the road."
Not for the first time, eager government staffers didn't get it all quite right. That’s why a surprised Irving Berlin received a luncheon invitation just days after arriving in England with a USO show.
Author Stefan Kanfer tells us more:
Berlin showed up at Number 10. The PM addressed him as Professor and grilled him about the progress of the war.Perhaps the aides later comforted each other with something like: "Simple enough mistake. Both I. Berlin, you know."
Bewildered, the composer answered in monosyllables, until a frustrated Churchill gave up and turned to the guest on his left.
Later (Churchill) commented: “Berlin’s like most bureaucrats. Wonderful on paper, but disappointing when you meet them face to face.”
Stefan Kanfer, "The Americanization of Irving Berlin." City Journal (Spring, 2002)