(One of a series of weekday posts on the life of Winston S. Churchill.)
In September 1929, following a month’s visit to Canada, Churchill, accompanied by his son, Randolph, his brother, Jack, and Jack’s son, Johnny, approached an American customs station. His plan called for his party to pass through customs and then tour America for two months.
As you’d expect of a former Army officer who believed cold champagne and warm brandy were two of life’s essentials, Churchill had prepared very carefully for his first encounter with officials of Prohibition-era America.
Before leaving England, Churchill obtained a letter of introduction from the American Ambassador. He was sure that would get them a “wave on” through Customs. But leaving nothing to chance, he also arranged for his “supplies” to be placed in small flasks carefully hidden inside various items in the party's luggage.
Historian Martin Gilbert tells us what happened next:
At American customs, Churchill produced the [party's] collective diplomatic visa and a letter of introduction from the American Ambassador in London. This did not deter the customs officials, led by George D. Hubbard, the Collector of Customs, from making a thorough examination.Churchill often said, “The Americans are a very remarkable people.” We don’t doubt he said it at least once that day, do we?
“What are you looking for?” Churchill asked. “I have already told you that we have nothing to declare. The point of this letter from the Ambassador is to assure you of my integrity.”
The customs officials replied that they were looking for guns and ammunition.
“Monstrous! Absolutely monstrous!” was Churchill’s riposte.
After their suitcases had been shut and locked, Johnny Churchill recalled that an “extraordinary change” came over the customs chief. “Mr. Churchill,” he said, “I apologize for this inconvenience. May I invite you and your party into my office for a drink?”
[Afterwards the] Collector of Customs … drove the [party] to a hotel where, Churchill wrote to Clementine, “the local hotel proprietor entertained the whole party with delicious iced beer.”
I hope you’re back tomorrow.
Martin Gilbert, Churchill and America. (p. 112)