On January 30, 1965, I got up at 3 a.m. to watch the state funeral of Winston Churchill on an early transatlantic television link. The broadcast was in black-and-white, and I watched on a small screen in my Houston apartment.
The ceremony lasted all morning. The procession began at the Houses of Parliament, and the marching troops followed the long route to St. Paul’s Cathedral. I recall President Eisenhower serving as one of the commentators and saying farewell “to Winston Churchill, my old friend.”
I already knew Churchill was the man of the century. Quotations from the great speeches made the rounds, thrilling us students with his defiance of Hitler but just as thrilling today:
We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France,
we shall fight on the seas and oceans,
we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air,
we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be,
we shall fight on the beaches,
we shall fight on the landing grounds,
we shall fight in the fields and in the streets,
we shall fight in the hills;
we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.
I had been reading Churchill’s writings since I was a teenager. (LIFE magazine was a major source.) I had read and reread The Gathering Storm, which is the first volume of his memoirs of World War II, in a college course of Modern European History. I had no idea then what a flood of books would follow in the next 50 years – in particular, the authorized biography by Randolph Churchill (who died two years after his father) and Martin Gilbert.
I watched the funeral all the way through. That was fortunate, because now all you can see are abridgments.
Much later I found a small book by Sir Isaiah Berlin, “Mr. Churchill in 1940” (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.). The last paragraph described the man at the height of his effort:
Like a great actor – perhaps the last of his kind – upon the stage of history, he speaks his memorable lines with a large, unhurried, and stately utterance in a blaze of light, as is appropriate to a man who knows that his work and his person will remain the subject of scrutiny and judgment to many generations. His narrative is a great public performance and has the attribute of formal magnificence. The words, the splendid phrases, the sustained quality of feeling, are a unique medium which convey his vision of himself and of his world, and will inevitably, like all that he has said and done, reinforce the famous public image, which is no longer distinguishable from the inner essence and the true nature of the author: of a man larger than life, composed of bigger and simpler elements than ordinary men, a gigantic historical figure during his own lifetime, superhumanly bold, strong, and imaginative, one of the two greatest men of action his country has produced, an orator of prodigious powers, the saviour of his country, a mythical hero who belongs to legend as much as to reality, the largest human being of our time.