17 October 2012

The Power of Words

Mr. Morgan's Library. Photo: Michele.

A few weeks ago I spent an afternoon at a favourite place in the city—The Morgan Library & Museum. First opened to the public in 1924, the Morgan began as the personal library of financier J.P. Morgan who hired the renowned firm of McKim, Mead & White to build the beautiful Italian Renaissance-style building next to his Madison Avenue home in 1902. Among the thousands of items in the Morgan collection today are not one but three Gutenberg Bibles, The Hours of Anne of Cleves prayer book (gorgeous), Beethoven and Mozart manuscripts with handwritten notes, Jane Austen’s letters, concept drawings for Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince, and first drafts of Bob Dylan lyrics.

I think my favourite section of the museum is Mr. Morgan’s Library, a wonderful large room with an enormous fireplace and tapestry and shelf after shelf of leather-bound books that rise up to a vividly painting ceiling. Wouldn't it be great to have that place to yourself and just sit and read?

The purpose of this visit was to see a special exhibit, “Churchill: The Power of Words,” which explored the famed prime minister’s masterly use of the English language. Apparently JP Morgan was a friend of Churchill’s mother, the Brooklyn-born Jennie Jerome Churchill, so it only seems fitting that an exhibit of Churchill items rarely seen outside the UK would be at the Morgan. I went the day before it closed and am so happy I didn't miss it.

While most people think of Churchill as a politician, many forget that he was a prolific writer; one of his first jobs was as a journalist, and he wrote numerous books. The exhibit included examples of Churchill’s writings from early letters written as a child to his mother from boarding school to an unpublished manuscript on the art of rhetoric to speeches he gave to the House of Commons to his stirring radio addresses that helped Britain stay the course.

A special focus of the exhibit was on Churchill’s relationship with America, particularly his strong friendship with Franklin D. Roosevelt. The two men liked each other tremendously and appeared to have enjoyed each other’s company, evidenced by their warm banter. Roosevelt once told him “it’s fun being in the same decade as you.”

There were also personal items of note to see—Churchill’s Nobel Prize for Literature, his US passport (he was made an honorary American citizen), a painting he did of Cap d’Antibes, and a noiseless typewriter that Churchill insisted his secretaries use so he would not be distracted by the clacking of keys while giving dictation.

Not all of the words in the exhibit came from Churchill. A very personal letter from King George VI (“My dear Winston,” it begins) after the death of Roosevelt was included as was a hilarious note from his doctor who prescribed alcohol for Churchill after he was hit by a car during a visit to Prohibition New York in 1931. Perhaps my favourite non-Churchill lines were the shortest. When war was declared on September 3, 1939, Churchill was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty and a signal was sent to the fleet that simply said “Winston is back.”

An annotated draft of Churchill's September 11, 1940 speech. Photo: Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge.

Yet with all of the material to read and look at, it was the drafts and final copies of his speeches that remained a highlight of the exhibit. Those stirring words that we have all heard recordings of were there in black and white, some with handwritten notes correcting a word or fact, some appearing like a poem on the page. Final, clean copies showed long spacing between certain words—a reminder to Churchill to pause when speaking.

Recordings of some of his most noted wartime addresses were played in a small portable theatre while images and the words were shown on video screens. The audio may have been scratchy but that unmistakable voice was there, speaking words that still manage to stir up emotions and proving why Churchill was one of the great wordsmiths of his time. Here is just one example:

“Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.
“Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, 'This was their finest hour.'”

To find out more about the Morgan Library & Museum, visit their site here. For more on Churchill, visit the Churchill Centre and Museum’s site here.

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