It is well known that Winston Spencer Churchill was one of the most influential people of the twentieth century. Perhaps no other figure, for better or worse, played a greater role in world politics during those years. In his early life, Churchill served as a soldier and correspondent in the Cuban Guerrilla War against Spain, the Pashtun tribal revolt in British India, the Battle of Omdurman in the Sudan, and the Boer War in South Africa. In the First World War, he served as the First Lord of the Admiralty for the Royal Navy, and later as an officer on the Western Front. His role as British Prime Minister and his many contributions in the Second World War are well documented. He wrote memoirs and popular histories about these events and others, and received a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953.
Today however, it is not as well known that at the end of the nineteenth century another Winston Churchill emerged in America as a gifted novelist. ‘The American’ Churchill was born in St. Louis and became one of the best-selling authors of the early twentieth century. He worked as an editor for the Army and Navy Journal, and as the managing editor for Cosmopolitan Magazine. Churchill resigned from this position in 1896 to concentrate on his fiction. Between the years 1898 and 1940, he published twelve novels, a few works of non-fiction, and had several plays produced on Broadway.
These Churchills were unrelated. Each of their publishing careers began in 1898, Churchill with his novel The Celebrity, and Churchill with his account The Story of the Malakand Field Force. As their independent popularity grew, there was some confusion among the public between the two; Churchill was credited with Churchill’s work, and vice versa. Some of this confusion remains to this day. In 1899, Winston Churchill (the British correspondent) took it upon himself to contact Winston Churchill (the American novelist).
This is that exchange, excerpted from Winston Spencer Churchill’s memoir My Early Life (Copyright 1930 Charles Scribner’s Sons pp 217-219):
June 7, 1899.
Mr. Winston Churchill presents his compliments to Mr. Winston Churchill, and begs to draw his attention to a matter which concerns them both. He has learnt from the Press notices that Mr. Winston Churchill proposes to bring out another novel, entitled Richard Carvel, which is certain to have a considerable sale both in England and America. Mr. Winston Churchill is also the author of a novel now being published in serial form in Macmillan’s Magazine, and for which he anticipates some sale both in England and America. He also proposes to publish on the 1st of October another military chronicle of the Soudan War. He has no doubt that Mr. Winston Churchill will recognise from this letter – if indeed by no other means – that there is grave danger of his works being mistaken for those of Mr. Winston Churchill. He feels sure that Mr. Winston Churchill desires this as little as he does himself. In future to avoid mistakes as far as possible, Mr. Winston Churchill has decided to sign all published articles, stories, or other works, ‘Winston Spencer Churchill,’ and not ‘Winston Churchill’ as formerly. He trusts that this arrangement will commend itself to Mr. Winston Churchill, and he ventures to suggest, with a view to preventing further confusion which may arise out of this extraordinary coincidence, that both Mr. Winston Churchill and Mr. Winston Churchill should insert a short note in their respective publications explaining to the public which are the works of Mr. Winston Churchill and which are those of Mr. Winston Churchill. The text of this note might form a subject for future discussion if Mr. Winston Churchill agrees with Mr. Winston Churchill’s proposition. He takes this occasion of complimenting Mr. Winston Churchill upon the style and success of his works, which are always brought to his notice whether in magazine or book form, and he trusts that Mr. Winston Churchill has derived equal pleasure from any work of his that may have attracted his attention.
And here is the response from Winston Churchill to Winston Spencer Churchill:
June 21, 1899.
Mr. Winston Churchill is extremely grateful to Mr. Winston Churchill for bringing forward a subject which has given Mr. Winston Churchill much anxiety. Mr. Winston Churchill appreciates the courtesy of Mr. Winston Churchill in adopting the name of ‘Winston Spencer Churchill’ in his books, articles, etc. Mr. Winston Churchill makes haste to add that, had he possessed any other names, he would certainly have adopted one of them. The writings of Mr. Winston Spencer Churchill (henceforth so called) have been brought to Mr. Winston Churchill’s notice since the publication of his first story in the ‘Century.’ It did not seem then to Mr. Winston Churchill that the works of Mr. Winston Spencer Churchill would conflict in any way with his own attempts at fiction.
The proposal of Mr. Winston Spencer Churchill to affix a note to the separate writing of Mr. Winston Spencer Churchill and Mr. Winston Churchill, the text of which is to be agreed on between them, – is quite acceptable to Mr. Winston Churchill. If Mr. Winston Spencer Churchill will do him the favour of drawing up this note, there is little doubt that Mr. Winston Churchill will acqueisce in its particulars.
Mr. Winston Churchill moreover, is about to ask the opinion of his friends and of his publishers as to the advisability of inserting the words ‘The American,’ after his name on the title-page of his books. Should this seem wise to them, he will request the publishers to make the change in future editions.
Mr. Winston Churchill will take the liberty of sending Mr. Winston Churchill copies of the two novels he has written. He has a high admiration for the works of Mr. Winston Spencer Churchill and is looking forward with pleasure to reading Savrola.