Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Churchill Series - Dec. 17, 2008

(One of a series of weekday posts about the life of Winston S. Churchill.)

I first published this post three years ago. It still makes me smile, as I hope it will you.

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 and social matters.

Churchill became a regular and admiring reader of Berlin's dispatches. He told aides if ever Berlin was 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 would be hosting at 10 Downing Street. On the seating plan, Berlin was placed close to Churchill.

Now, readers, our story comes to one of those "bumps in the road."

Not for the first time, eager government staffers here, there and in other departments didn't get it all quite right. Which is why a surprised and honored Irving Berlin received a luncheon invitation just days after arriving in England with a USO show.

Author Stefan Kanfer tells about the luncheon:

Berlin showed up at Number 10. The PM addressed him as Professor and grilled him about the progress of the war.

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.”
Perhaps the aides later comforted each other with something like, "Simple enough mistake. Both I. Berlin, you know."
Stefan Kanfer,
"The Americanization of Irving Berlin." City Journal (Spring, 2002)