Lady Soames: Living Legacy of Churchill

Times Staff Writer

Being best known as the daughter of Winston Churchill is something Lady Mary Soames has never shied away from.

"Why should I?" she asks. "I think I'm perceived in America very much as my father's daughter, and I'm always deeply moved and touched at how all these years after his death that people really do love and admire him here . . . I think it's wonderful. It's quite a responsibility . . . I've been so lucky all my life. I've lived with tremendously interesting, exciting people."

At 66, Lady Soames is still keeping the Churchill history alive. The youngest and only surviving child of the late British prime minister and statesman has in recent years become her family's chronicler, writing two books about her family.

She is also a trustee of the Winston Churchill Foundation, an American organization started 29 years ago by Churchill's friends and admirers during his life to foster Anglo-American relations. The foundation grants scholarships and fellowships to American graduate students in science fields to study at Churchill College at Cambridge University. So far, there have been 300 Churchill Foundation scholars and fellows; eight have won the Nobel Prize.

Award Dinner

Lady Soames was in town to promote the foundation, and to attend a reception in her honor last Thursday. The reception, given by Lee Annenberg at the Los Angeles Country Club, also kicked off the Churchill Award dinner, to be held here May 17. This year, Prince Philip, honorary trustee of the foundation, will present the award to former President Ronald Reagan.

Guests at the reception included Robert O. Anderson, Caroline Ahmanson, British Consul General Donald Ballentyne and his wife, Elizabeth, Barbara and Marvin Davis, Robert Wycoff, Earle and Marion Jorgensen, Kitty LeRoy, Chardee Trainer, Armand and Harriet Deutsch, Jean and William French Smith, Edie and Lew Wasserman, Charles and Mary Jane Wick and Betty and Bill Wilson.

r Lady Soames was accompanied on this trip by foundation president John L. Loeb Jr. (former U.S. ambassador to Denmark) and executive director Harold Epstein. Her itinerary here included a tea hosted by Virginia Milner that was attended by Nancy Reagan.

Earlier on the day of the tea and reception, Lady Soames sat in a suite at the Bel Air hotel, dressed in a bright pink suit, sipping coffee and talking animatedly about the foundation and other current projects. When she says her father "almost couldn't define the word 'boredom,' " Lady Soames could also be speaking of herself.

"I'm very touched to be on the board," she says, hugging a beige sofa cushion. "and I think my mother was in her lifetime too. We cherish our family link with it very much. I think (the foundation) is a wonderful tribute to my father, and a marvelous continuing and living example of one of the great themes of his life, which was Anglo-American relations and the cross-fertilization of ideas.

"It's a small contribution in the great map of things," she adds, "but it's a steady flow of friendship and knowledge."

After all these years, Lady Soames is still amazed at the warm response she gets from Americans about her father.

"When I was stomping around for my book on the East Coast I was staggered, really, at what real love and admiration Americans from all sorts of backgrounds feel," she says. "That's very moving."

That the charity was started by Americans "was so touching and moving for my father," she says. "I always think it's quite remarkable that my father was so aware of technological and scientific needs and ideas when he was a very young man. He was always very aware of the way people thought of him in the political and literary sense, but he also had this great awareness of science and technology. The founding of Churchill College was the child of his old age, and I always think it's interesting that he took part in the last great cavalry charge of history, and lived to found a modern technological college in the nuclear age."

Enduring Marriage

Lady Soames' role as family chronicler came late in life. Her first book, "Clementine Churchill: The Biography of a Marriage," published in 1979, told of her mother's enduring marriage to Sir Winston. Her second, the 1982 "Family Album: A Personal Selection from Four Generations of Churchills," gave the family history in words and pictures.

"I wrote the life of my mother really largely at my husband's instigation," she recalls (her husband, Christopher Soames, died a year and a half ago). "He thought she was very remarkable and that somebody ought to write a book, and I ought to do it. I said, 'You must be joking!'

"My mother was a very private person," she says, "and she didn't talk easily to outsiders. I turned the idea over in my mind, and she seemed to be quite pleased with it. It was very brave--I might say foolhardy of me--to undertake it. But the book is founded largely on a marvelous collection of letters that she and my father exchanged over a period of 50 years.

"I don't know what modern biographers are going to do because on the whole people don't write letters nowadays. And however well you know somebody, reading their letters puts a different perspective on things. It does fill in all sorts of gaps or re-colors the background in a lot of ways."

Besides the foundation, much of Lady Soames' time these days is taken up with the Royal National Theater, of which she has been made chairwoman of the board.

"It's very thrilling for me," she says, smiling. "It's a nice new world. It's what I call a full part-time job. It's quite demanding, and I'm glad that it should be. It's thrilling to have a 'real' job. In fact, I'm cutting short my trip to California to dash back to a meeting.

"What do I get out of this?" she asks. "Tremendous satisfaction. I love something that is outside one's own personal life. And I like being in on the nitty-gritty, the nuts and bolts, which I certainly am with the theater."

She is very much her father's daughter. "All my life," she says, "I've lived with people who felt strongly about things and done things about them. I'm not a crusader, really, but I do like being involved in things very much."

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