Earls, counts, even a future King - she had more than 200 lovers, some of them younger than her son. As a new documentary reveals, it's no wonder high society wits called Winston Churchill's wayward mother Lady Randy
She is said to have had more than 200 lovers, some of them younger than her own son. Strikingly beautiful, with amber eyes, dark-brown hair, full breasts and an irrepressible lust for life, Jennie Jerome was irresistible to men.
Earls, lords, counts, even the randy old Prince Of Wales, the future Edward VII, lusted after her. And she willingly complied.
When Edward was crowned in 1902, she sat in a special pew in Westminster Abbey, which society wits dubbed 'the loose box' on account of its rather promiscuous occupants. She shared it with half a dozen other royal mistresses, including Alice Keppel and Lillie Langtry.
Lady Randy was well known for her lifestyle and lovers
Jennie, Winston Churchill's American mother, was very different from her son, who was utterly devoted to one woman: his darling wife, Clemmie. And it is this contrast that makes their relationship - the subject of Lady Randy, a new Channel 4 documentary - so fascinating.
Her background is extraordinary. Descended quite possibly from an American Indian who had raped a white settler, she was born into a notoriously lascivious family, conceived in Italy and named after a popular singer who was probably one of her father's mistresses. She was possibly pregnant with Winston when she walked up the aisle to marry his father, Lord Randolph Henry Spencer Churchill.
When Lord Randolph died, apparently of syphilis, her next two marriages were to men more than 20 years her junior, earning her a reputation for vanity and frivolity.
Despite always being hard up, she was also a shameless spendthrift and wafted around London in the finest Paris gowns, entertaining the smartest trendsetters, courting lovers and sporting a provocative snake tattoo on her wrist. Wherever she went, she was the talk of the town.
Jennie Jerome was born in New York in 1854 - and named after the opera singer Jenny Lind. Her father, Leonard Jerome, had been an investor in railroad stock. But when the stock fell, he lost everything and declared himself bankrupt.
He didn't stay down for long and soon developed a peculiarly topical talent: selling short (that is, selling borrowed stock in the hope he could buy it back when it had gone down in value).
It was as uncertain a trade then as it is now, and Jerome was not above manipulating prices by summoning newspaper editors to lunch and spreading some self-serving rumour. And he did well. Before long, he was one of the nouveau riche millionaires of the so-called Flash Age.
Jennie benefitted accordingly. She and her two sisters, Clara and Leonie, learned to be young ladies, riding, skating and playing the piano, while their parents entertained on such a grand scale that there was always a fountain flowing with real champagne at their parties.
Winters were spent in Manhattan, summers in fashionable Newport, Connecticut, with billionaire neighbours such as the Vandebilts. Leonard bought himself a big yacht and built a private theatre where he paraded a series of opera-singing mistresses in front of his long-suffering wife.
He later became an influential newspaper proprietor and noted racehorse owner, and his political activities in support of President Lincoln and his anti-slavery drive during the Civil War stimulated an interest in world affairs in Jennie, his favourite daughter.
Irresistible: Lady Churchill with a young Winston
But his financial ups and downs, not to mention his mistresses, became too much for his wife Clara, who in 1867 took off for Paris with her daughters. Jennie, by then an impressionable 15-year-old, was dazzled by the bohemian decadence of the city.
Then history took control of events. In 1870, Germany invaded France and the family fled to England. And it was there, on a trip to the Isle of Wight, that the 19-year-old Jennie met Lord Randolph Churchill, the 23-year-old second son of the Duke of Marlborough, at a party.
The Marlboroughs were as disreputable in England as the Jeromes were in the US Charming and arrogant, they spent lavishly, demonstrating, as Prime Minister William Gladstone noted, neither morals nor principles.
Jennie and Randolph, who would soon become Winston Churchill's parents, fell in love at first sight. But they had to endure strong opposition from Randolph's family until a settlement of $250,000 by Jennie's father finally won the Marlboroughs over.
The couple began having frequent premarital trysts in Paris, which had become so intense by early 1874 that there is a strong possibility that the future statesman was conceived in Randolph's hotel room on Rue du Rivoli.
The couple were married in the British embassy in the city that April, and Winston Leonard was born eight months later in Blenheim Palace, Oxford - and deemed to be rather healthy and pretty for a premature baby.
Until she married, Jennie had never seen Blenheim, which was in a shocking state of disrepair. Its 200 rooms were lined with old masters but many were destined for auction to raise funds for the Marlborough's lifestyle.
Often left with her mother-in-law while her husband pursued parliamentary business, Jennie found married life difficult.
Randolph was mercurial and unstable and despite being in poor health smoked 40 hand-rolled Turkish cigarettes a day.
Meanwhile, Jennie missed the fun of her courtship and showed little interest in her son, who was largely cared for by his nanny.
History may have been very different had Jennie married Kinsky
Right from the start, tongues wagged about her relationships with men. When she gave birth to a second son, John, six years later, rumours about whether Randolph was his father were rife.
Apart from anything else, Jennie was spending less and less time with her husband who, according to the rumours, had visited a toothless old prostitute after drinking too much champagne, and had contracted syphilis.
Despite everything, however, the marriage survived. Jennie moved the family into a new London home, near Marble Arch, which became a curiosity in itself as the first house in the capital to have electricity.
But she still held Winston at arm's length, confessing he was a demanding child who teased his baby brother and could be uncontrollable. 'It is said that famous men are usually the product of an unhappy childhood,' Winston wrote later.
'The stern compression of circumstances, the twinges of adversity, the spur of slight and taunts in early years are needed to evoke that ruthless fixity of purpose and tenacious mother wit without which great actions are seldom accomplished.'
He was certainly speaking from experience. Even by the standards of the age, Winston's parents were less than attentive. His mother put him on the train to his first boarding school at the age of eight, and failed to read between the lines of his letters home, which begged her to write or visit.
No doubt she was too preoccupied with her own lifestyle, which consisted of charity work, shopping and entertaining gentlemen friends at lunch.
Even before he went away to school, little Winston had become suspicious of her amorous activities after noting one day that a hole in her stocking was on one leg when she left home and on the other when she returned.
By the mid-1880s, Jennie was madly in love with London's man of the moment, the handsome Austrian Count Charles Kinsky, who had just won the Grand National.
While everyone suspected the liaison, no one seemed to mind, including Randolph, who enjoyed the Count's company. When Winston came home from school one weekend, he discovered his mother and the count openly breakfasting together.
After ten years, his mother was living in an open marriage. Not only did his father have other women, including Gladys, Countess de Grey, the most beautiful woman of her generation (to whom Oscar Wilde dedicated his play A Woman Of No Importance), and the actress Ellen Terry, there was also talk of homosexual liaisons during his frequent visits to Paris.
Sir Winston and Lady Churchill (centre) had a very different relationship to his parents.
Randolph himself confessed that he preferred 'rough women who dance and sing and drink' to society ladies like his wife.
Jennie, however, put up with it all, content with her place as the wife of a rising political star. But then, out of the blue, Randolph resigned from government. His career was over and divorce was seriously discussed.
Although the marriage survived, Jennie, by then 32, was left with little of her former standing - nor the income which she had once taken for granted. But she still insisted on buying beautiful gowns to keep up appearances, a rule she had learned from her mother, and what Jennie wore immediately became the fashion.
One person who noticed her flair was the 45-year-old Prince of Wales. An affair almost certainly followed. She received the Prince at home alone and even hired a soon-to-be-famous cook, Rosa Lewis, to prepare private dinners for him.
But her royal admirer was not her only love interest. One American magazine referred to her as Lady Jane Snatcher, due to her fondness for snaffling up likely escorts, and she was also known as Lady Randy.
Amid all her other distractions, she even found time for a rapprochement with her husband.
Both were so busy that neither found the time to visit Winston at school on his 13th birthday, and when he returned for the Christmas holidays, he found the house empty - his parents had gone to Russia together.
'My darling Mummy,' the boy wrote plaintively, 'I do wish you were at home, it would be so nice.'
At this stage, Winston was not his mother's priority. She was the centre of Europe's attention. Russia loved her. Germany, including Count Herbert Bismarck, son of the German Chancellor, fell at her feet. And when she visited relatives in Paris at the end of 1888, she added a number of French suitors to her conquests.
While their marriage had now been reduced to a mutual concern for each other's health, she and Randolph still decided to embark on a world tour together, taking with them a leadlined coffin in case he died en route.
He was so ill that Jennie was pinning her hopes on marrying the highly eligible Count Kinsky as soon as she was free. In Rangoon, however, her hopes were dashed. There, Jennie received a telegram announcing the Count's engagement to another woman.
Randolph made it home to England but died aged 44, in January 1895, and was buried at Blenheim.
Jennie was now 41, alone in the world and living on a very restricted income - the family couldn't even rustle up enough money to send Winston to Cambridge.
For the time being, her best bet seemed to be joining her sisters in Paris. And there, as usual, new opportunities presented themselves.
After countless flirtations with British gentry, including John Delacour, Lord Wolverton and Lord Astor, Jennie fell in love with a fellow American, Bourke Cockran, who would become another of Winston's surrogate fathers.
And just as Jennie's Parisian lovers came in useful when she decided Winston should learn French, Cockran was now instructed to introduce her 22-year-old son to New York.
There, Winston was so popular that back in England Jennie set out to sing her son's praises wherever she went. Having failed to boost Randolph's career, she was determined to bolster her son's - to his great benefit.
Despite all her pushiness and vanity, and her compulsion to be a social butterfly, Jennie was still an admirable character. She was a woman on her own in a foreign country, but was an indefatigable networker and was determined to make the most of life.
She started a literary magazine, she took a hospital ship to South Africa to help in the Boer War effort, she wrote a play, she took up interior design, and she helped establish Winston, who had inherited her resourcefulness, in politics.
Had she married Kinsky, it might have been a very different story. Absorbed in a new husband, she might not have poured all her hopes into Winston - and the course of history might have taken a very different course.
But two years after Randolph's death, she fell in love once again. At the Duchess of Devonshire's fancydress ball, the highpoint of the London season, she met George Frederick Middleton Cornwallis, a 23-year-old contemporary of Winston's. He was exquisitely handsome and dressed as a black slave. Jennie was smitten.
Despite protests from his family and the Prince of Wales, she married George in 1900 in a grand Knightsbridge wedding. Winston stood gamely by his mother's side.
But while Jennie thought George stood to inherit two large estates, he actually had no money at all. When he was declared bankrupt in 1914, she divorced him.
By the end of World War I, however, she had a new young admirer, Montagu Porch, the son of a Somerset landowner. She married him in 1918 at Harrow register office.
Porch was 32, Jennie 65, but she had not given up her lust for life. She took a part in a film, and she filled her life with travelling and decorating - for Winston, now married to his Clemmie and making his way in the world of politics, was no longer so dependent.
The end came out of the blue. One day, while visiting a friend in Somerset, Jennie, who was wearing some shoes she had just bought in Rome, slipped on the oak staircase.
A bad fracture ended in gangrene and amputation of a leg, and a couple of months later she suffered a fatal haemorrhage.
'I do not feel a sense of tragedy but only loss,' wrote Winston loyally. 'Her life was a full one. The wind was in her veins.'
As for poor Porch, her young husband, he returned too late from a trip abroad to an empty house - and a mountain of his wife's debts.
After all her excesses, it was perhaps a fitting legacy.
• Lady Randy: Churchill's Mother will be screened on Channel 4 on Tuesday, November 11, at 9pm.
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