When New York Times bestselling author Erik Larson (Devil in the White City; Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania) moved to New York five years ago, he had what he describes as a revelation. He had watched, horrified, as 911 unfolded on CNN.
“But I wondered what was it like for people living in New York to have their city invaded and all the fear they must have felt,” he says. “Then I started thinking about the bombing of London by the Germans during World War II. It was 57 nights of consecutive bombings. 911 shook us all but how did Londoners cope, knowing that every night their city would be bombed—that every night, hundreds of German bombers were flying over with high-explosive bombs?”
At first Larson thought he’d tell his story about an ordinary family living in London at the time.
“Then I thought why not a quintessential London family—the Churchills,” he says. “So much as been written about him, but this gave me the lens through which to tell the story.”
The result is The Splendid and the Vile. A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz (Crown Publishing), Larson’s saga about how Churchill, as prime minister, kept the country strong and together through his wit, his ability to speak to everyday people and by his own determination during the time of the Blitz from May of 1940 through May of 1941.
” I think the things that surprised me the most was the fact that Churchill was a lot of fun,” says Larson. “Even though his staff was really overworked, even though they knew Churchill was inconsiderate, but he worked just as hard or harder than anyone. They loved working with him, he was able to do that.”
He also had some intriguing habits—his drinking and his long soaks in the bathtub, smoking cigars and having his secretary take dictation, getting out, naked and wet to answer the phone and then getting back into the tub.
Churchill was also fearless and without vanity says Larson.
It drove the Nazis crazy.
Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Propaganda, cursed him, writing in his diary, “When will that creature Churchill finally surrender? England cannot hold out forever!”
His speeches were so effective with the British that Goebbels was alarmed when he learned that Germans were listening to them as well and ordered them to stop, saying it was treachery.
“Churchill would visit a city that had been bombed, and people would flock to him,” says Larson. “I have no question that these visits were absolutely important to helping Britain get through this period. He was often filmed doing so for newsreels, and it was reported by newspapers and radio. This was leadership by demonstration, by showing the world that he cared, and he was fearless.”