As Prime Minister, Winston Churchill might have been serious and forbidding—but his mother was something else entirely. Born Jennie Jerome, this beautiful heiress and socialite took the world by storm when she became Lady Randolph Churchill…yet that was only the beginning. From royal affairs to secret love children, Lady Churchill stirred up trouble wherever she went.
Lady Randolph Churchill might have married into wealth and power, but she didn’t start out too shabby herself. Born Jennie Jerome in 1854, her father was an influential financier, and her mother came from landowning stock, a big deal those days.
Along with her two other sisters, Jennie had an international, chic childhood growing up between New York and Paris. But before she became an adult, trouble started brewing.
Although all the girls in Jennie’s family had good looks and even better breeding, Jennie still blew them out of the water. She was undeniably stunning, yes—but that was just the half of it. Whip-smart and already restless as a teen, one of her admirers said there was "more of the panther than of the woman in her look”.
Boy, would he be proven right.
Even from a young age, Jennie had a self-possession that drove men mad with love as much as it terrified them. She was opinionated, a voracious reader, and reportedly loved a risqué anecdote more than almost anyone else in her acquaintance. It’s no wonder, then, that she was supremely comfortable rubbing elbows with dukes, duchesses, and other royalty—and she was about to meet her match.
In 1873, when Jennie was just about to leave her teenage years behind, she met the man who would change her life forever. While attending a sailing regatta on the Isle of Wight—as one does when one is rich and beautiful—Jennie came into contact with Lord Randolph Churchill, the third son of the Duke of Marlborough.
Randolph was well-educated, well-bred, and already a powerful politician. Jennie was smitten, and the pair wasted no time taking it to the next level.
Just three days after meeting Jennie, Lord Randolph knew that she was the one for him, and he proposed to her. Jennie, for her part, said yes…but they soon found out it wasn’t as simple as that. While Jennie was an heiress, Randolph—the third son of a duke—didn’t have much to his name, and their parents immediately began haggling over her dowry.
But if you think that’s getting ugly, hold onto your hats.
Eventually, Randolph and Jennie did marry. They tied the knot on April 15, 1874 in a formal, serious ceremony befitting Lord Randolph’s position, at the British Embassy in Paris. But here’s where it gets a lot less romantic: The wedding truly only happened the day after Lord Randolph’s family finally received Jennie’s dowry.
It was an inauspicious beginning—and it was about to get downright scandalous.
As Jennie walked down the aisle that day, the new bride may have been hiding a dark secret. Some believe that the long-delayed wedding could have happened none too soon—because Jennie was actually pregnant with Randolph’s child the day she married him. After all, Jennie’s belly did start growing almost immediately after their nuptials.
Then she really gave the rumor mill something to talk about.
Just seven months after marrying and officially becoming Lady Randolph Churchill, Jennie gave birth to a son—the baby boy who would eventually become Prime Minister Winston Churchill himself. Anybody paying half attention could do the dubious math and claims that he was conceived out of wedlock grew louder.
It’s just there may have been a more disturbing explanation.
The rumors about Winston Churchill’s ignominious birth were persistent, but Jennie and her family always staunchly claimed he really was two months premature—and that he had come early because Jennie had suffered a terrifying fall while pregnant with him, sending her into labor.
Whatever the truth, we’ll see that this was nonetheless tragic foreshadowing.
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Lady Randolph Churchill’s entrance into married society was already full to the brim with scandal, but she quickly outdid herself. In 1880, she gave birth to her second son, John—and people now whispered that this son was the product of an affair, with the dandy Viscount Evelyn Boscawen.
The claims are today met with suspicion—but where there’s smoke, there’s fire. That’s not even the half of Jennie’s messy personal life.
As bad luck would have it, Lord Randolph’s once brilliant political career petered out in 1886, and with it seemingly went a huge chunk of Jennie’s already dwindling adoration for her husband. But that wasn’t the worst part. More than that, there is some suggestion that Lord Randolph had become impotent during these years, leaving Jennie restless in the boudoir too. Either way, Jennie was on a very scandalous collision course.
One day, in the middle of his marriage, Lord Randolph came home and made a boneshaking discovery. His wife was home, virtually alone and unchaperoned, with another man. And it wasn’t just any other man: It was England’s Prince of Wales, Albert Edward—or “Dirty Bertie” as his detractors called him. The prince had a reputation for bedding women left, right, and center, despite the fact that he too was married.
Jennie’s husband was so incensed, he reportedly threw the future monarch out of the house. But the scandals didn’t slow down.
From the late 1880s onward, rumors of further affairs dogged Jennie—only now they weren’t all just rumors. She certainly had a dalliance with Prince Karl Kinsky, a handsome Austrian royal. But it wasn’t just the illicit relationship that rankled society; Kinsky was also four years younger than Jennie and completely obsessed with her, two things she liked very much indeed.
As we’ll see, this was about to become a disturbing pattern. But before that, tragedy struck.
In the 1890s, Jennie’s life took a cruel turn. Ever since the birth of their son Winston, Lord Randolph’s health had been steadily deteriorating, and his rumored impotence was just the tip of the iceberg. His illness turned near debilitating, with one doctor saying he suffered from “general paralysis”.
For a time, some thought he had contracted syphilis. The likely truth, however, is much more disturbing.
Today, experts believe that Jennie’s husband was painfully living through the effects of a brain tumor or, others suggest, multiple sclerosis. Regardless, the harrowing end result was the same: Lord Randolph died on January 24, 1895, at just 45 years old. Jennie was suddenly a widow—but before she could even get into her mourning clothes, she got a very naughty proposition.
In the wake of her husband’s passing, Jennie was inundated with messages from friends and family expressing their condolences. But one message was more scandalous than all the rest. Although her “friend” the Prince of Wales had laid low after Lord Randolph discovered them together, he came out of the woodwork in a big way.
The prince sent his condolences before anyone else, addressing Jennie as “My dear” in the missive. Subtle, sure—but it soon snowballed.
Soon, Jennie and the Prince of Wales were almost certainly having an affair. Jennie fondly called the stout royal “Tum,” while the prince addressed her as “Ma Chere”. We also have letters of him asking her to give him a “Japanese tea” in a loose kimono as if she were a geisha—a boudoir roleplay if there ever was one.
Still, in the end, Jennie and her prince were both canny social movers and shakers, and they knew enough not to fall in love or get too messy. The same couldn’t be said for Jennie’s next love.
While attending a high-society party in the years following Lord Randolph’s passing, Jennie happened to meet George Cornwallis-West, a dashing captain in the Scots Guard and an influential member of society himself. George, like Prince Kinsky before him, was completely smitten with Jennie, and she was delighted by his obsession in turn. But there was a very disturbing detail about their love.
By this point, Jennie’s affairs—rumored or otherwise—were legendary, even earning her the scathing nickname “Lady Randy”. But when Jennie’s acquaintances found out about George Cornwallis-West, even they were shocked. See, George wasn’t just decades younger than her, he was also only 16 days older than her son Winston.
Still, Jennie refused to be shamed. Instead, she just upped the ante.
Although Jennie’s relationship with George Cornwallis-West looked like it had “boy toy” written all over it, the pair of them seemed to think very much otherwise. In the summer of 1900, Jennie and George married, likely surprising many people who thought they would never even make it that far. But this one act of Jennie’s was also a huge betrayal.
Jennie had never been a particularly warm mother—Winston Churchill once wrote that "I loved her dearly—but at a distance”—but her marriage to George Cornwallis-West was a new low. Because according to Lord Randolph’s will, if Jennie remarried her sons were supposed to get a certain yearly allowance…and she had no intention of giving them one.
While Jennie knew about the will’s terms, her sons didn’t, and she conveniently never told them or gave them the inheritance. Little did she know, though, a bitter kind of karma was coming for her.
When George and Jennie started out, no one could have been more in love than them, with George even naughtily nicknaming her “pussycat.” Then it all careened downhill. It began, as many problems do, with money: Jennie simply couldn’t keep it, and all change burned a hole in her pocket.
Her husband and her sons grew increasingly worried about her—but more problems were on the way.
It wasn’t just Jennie’s irresponsibility with money that worried her husband George. As Jennie got further into middle age, his once-fiery passion for her began to fade, much to her dismay. Besides this, while Jennie began taking up writing to pay the bills, George himself was a “financial failure.”
They both stubbornly tried to make it work long past its expiration date, and it led to disaster.
The start of the nightmare began with something Jennie thought might solve all her problems. In 1909, she got it in her head to start playwriting and began the script for what would become His Borrowed Plumes, an autobiographical piece. It was not a brilliant success: Her own son Winston noted to her, “I do not think that the work is sufficiently strong…to justify its public production”.
Jennie, however, insisted that someone stage it anyway. She should have listened to her son.
Perhaps worried that Winston was right and the play wasn’t good enough, Jennie ended up making a fatal error. She decided she just had to have one of the leading actresses of the day, Mrs Patrick Campbell—known fondly as “Mrs Pat”—produce and star in the production.
Campbell was vivacious, beautiful, and 11 years younger than Jennie—and she would soon rue the day she hired the actress.
Despite keeping her husband’s name, Mrs Patrick Campbell was a widow. This meant she was a completely free agent who, like Jennie herself, knew how to use her charms to their best advantage. And almost as soon as she walked onto set, Campbell directed those charms right toward Jennie’s husband George, who was “seriously attracted” to her.
This did not end well at all.
As Jennie and Mrs Pat began working closely together, the wheels began falling right off. Firstly, His Borrowed Plumes was a certified flop, and everyone working on the play knew as much, calling it “His Sorrowful Blooms” behind Jennie’s back. It lasted a mere two weeks on stage before shutting down.
Yet that was more than enough time for Jennie’s husband to betray her.
Before His Borrowed Plumes petered out or perhaps just after, George Cornwallis-West and Mrs Pat struck up a fiery affair right under Jennie’s nose. In some ways, it was nothing more than a taste of her own medicine, and Jennie took it with a stiff upper lip—at first. But it was about to hit a dramatic breaking point.
In 1912, Jennie’s marriage went through its final failure. After years of falling out of love with her, George Cornwallis-West all but gave up on Jennie, asking for a separation—though he stopped shy of a divorce. It was an act Jennie took none too kindly. Sneering that she had “courage enough to fight my own battles in life,” she officially divorced him in 1914.
Then again, George got the last laugh.
George Cornwallis-West may have been cowardly about how he split from Jennie, but once they were divorced he didn’t waste any time with pleasantries. He almost immediately turned around and married his illicit love and Jennie’s old collaborator Mrs Patrick Campbell, who then became Mrs George Cornwallis-West.
Still, Jennie had a revenge up her sleeve too.
Jennie moved through the highest circles of society with ease and grace, and having a good name meant a lot to her. So when she dumped George Cornwallis-West, she didn’t just drop his name, she actually went through the effort to officially revert back to the name “Lady Randolph Churchill,” implying in no uncertain terms that her first husband was a better man than George would ever be.
Don’t go thinking that the new version of “Lady Randolph Churchill” was about to become truly respectable though. Not at all.
When Jennie and George Cornwallis-West finally divorced, she was entering her 60s, but was every bit as captivating as she had always been. A little too captivating, even. Her next conquest raised more eyebrows than ever. Around 1918, she met the British civil servant Montagu Porch, who had spent much of his service in Africa.
Porch was adventurous, and everything Jennie was looking for. There was just one thing.
As time had gone on, Jennie’s lovers seemed to stay the same age even as she got older—but Montagu Porch was the youngest of them all, and was 41 to Jennie’s 64. Perhaps more disturbingly, Porch was actually a full three years younger than Jennie’s oldest son Winston Churchill, who by now was well on his way to becoming an important member of parliament.
But Jennie Jerome was never one to play by anybody else’s rules, and she went full steam ahead.
On June 1, 1918, Jennie went right ahead and married Montagu Porch, making him her third husband—she, on the other hand, was Porch’s first marriage—and turning the younger beau into Winston Churchill’s official stepfather. Yet just like when she had swindled her own sons out of their inheritance, her big day came with a lot of secrets.
Whether Jennie felt self-conscious about her choice to marry a man so much younger than her own son, or whether she simply refused to answer to anyone, she didn’t appear to tell her family anything about the marriage. When her youngest son Jack heard the news, he wrote her and said, "What a surprise! Whenever I go to war you do these things!"
Still, besides Porch’s occasional trips to Africa, the pair seemed ready to settle down…which only meant Porch got one rude awakening.
Jennie hadn’t changed for Lord Randolph or George Cornwallis-West, and she sure as heck wasn’t going to change for Montagu Porch. Almost immediately after tying the knot with her, Porch realized the full extent of his new wife’s money problems. Even though he gave her a regular allowance, she couldn’t stop spending it faster than it came.
It looked like the marriage was in a slow decline before it had even started. Instead, something much worse happened.
In 1921, it seemed for a brief moment like Jennie’s financial troubles were over. Not only had she just sold one of her houses for a profit, but her husband Montagu Porch was back in Africa trying to squeeze out some investment opportunities. Seizing her opportunity for some girl time, Jennie stayed with her friend Vittoria Colonna, the Duchess of Sermoneta, in Rome.
Strangely enough, it was this visit that would lead to her downfall.
While staying in Rome, Jennie and the Duchess trawled the city endlessly in search of the best shopping spots—as the Duchess put it, “we ransacked all the old curiosity shops and Jennie bought profusely”. On one of these excursions, Jennie happened to buy a new pair of luxe shoes and brought them back to England with her. They might as well have been cursed objects.
Jennie, always a boundary-pusher, loved to display her shoes whenever she wore dresses, mostly to show off her slim ankles, of which she was particularly proud. So it didn’t take her long to take her new shoes out for a spin, wearing them to her friend Lady Katharine Horner’s house in Somerset right after buying them. But this was a gruesome error.
In her haste to wear her new shoes, Jennie likely didn’t even get her attendant to score the soles of the heels, which would have helped them grip the floor better. So that day at Lady Horner’s, just as Jennie was making an elegant entrance down the stairs, she slipped and took a nasty fall, seemingly spraining her ankle. But tragically for her, it didn’t stop there.
For the first couple of days, Jennie tried to rest, relax, and get mobility back in her ankle. But then the disturbing truth dawned. Although she was still extremely young and relatively healthy at 67 years old, gangrene set into her injury, threatening her life even from such an initially harmless fall. Terrified, her doctors had to make a grim decision.
With medical advancements nowhere near where they are today, doctors knew they had to act fast if they wanted any chance of saving Jennie’s life. In the end, they had to amputate her leg above the knee just 10 days after her slip down the stairs. After that, they had to wait and pray that her situation improved with more rest. It absolutely didn’t.
On June 29, Lady Randolph Churchill’s glittering life came to an ugly end. Her bad streak of luck continued, and she suffered a fatal hemorrhage in the thigh of her amputated leg while still in the midst of recovering at her home in London.
Following her last wishes, her family buried her beside her first husband in the Churchill family plot in St Martin’s Church. But Jennie left behind much more than memories.
Jennie’s two sons had both doted and depended on her, and Winston and his brother John were devastated at her death. Her husband Montagu Porch was equally beside himself—but he also had less romantic worries to attend to. As Jennie’s sister Leslie noted in the wake of her passing, "It is Winston who weeps copiously, but it is Jack, his brother, and poor Porchy who are paying off her debts”.
In the long run, Jennie’s tragedy had a devastating effect. She and Montagu Porch had only been together for three years when she died, and after he made it through her mountain of IOUs, he never seemed to be able to get over her. Even after he remarried five years later, Porch went to his grave refusing to talk about his first wife to nearly anyone.
As an infinitely accomplished, intelligent, and witty woman, Jennie helped first her husband Lord Randolph, and then her son Winston, set a pick in the political world—indeed, some experts even argue that Jennie’s affairs with high-powered nobles and politicians helped the careers of the men in her own family all the more. Still, despite this empowerment, Jennie had a dark side.
It will probably surprise many readers to know that Jennie Jerome, mother of Winston Churchill and powerhouse in her own right, was virulently anti-suffragist—as in, she didn’t want women to get the vote. She even used her celebrity to appear at anti-suffragist meetings with Winston at her side, where the women fighting for the cause would boo them both.
But that wasn’t the only secret she might have been hiding.
Jennie was truly one of the bad girls of her day, and she may have had the tattoos to match. Well-bred Victorians had a bit of an obsession with tattoos, and one rumor states that after running into some tattooed sailors, Jennie got an Ouroboros, a snake eating its own tail, circling around her wrist. This is likely only rumor, but it does get at the heart of Jennie’s rebellious reputation.
One of Jennie’s many talents was her extreme skill at the piano. In fact, when she was a young girl, Frederick Chopin’s good friend Stephen Heller was her tutor. More than that, Heller believed that she could become a concert pianist if she wanted to dedicate her life to the craft and work hard. Heller, however, presciently noted that the girl probably didn’t have such dedication.
One of Jennie’s most famous friendships was with the playwright George Bernard Shaw, who was admittedly the more talented of the two. Nonetheless, this didn’t stop Jennie from getting one over on Shaw with her characteristic wit. One day, she wrote him a telegram asking him to come to lunch.
When Shaw replied, “Certainly not: What have I done to provoke such an attack on my well-known habit?” Jennie didn’t miss a beat, quipping back, “Know nothing of your habits; hope they are not as bad as your manners”.
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