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A Brooklynite at Blenheim

Biographer Anne Sebba remembers the shocked reactions of some fellow Englishmen about the roots of her latest subject, Jennie Churchill.

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Jennie Churchill

Jennie Churchill

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LONDON — Biographer Anne Sebba remembers the shocked reactions of some fellow Englishmen about the roots of her latest subject, Jennie Churchill.

"I told them Winston Churchill had an American-born mother, but a lot of people didn't believe me. They said it wasn't possible," Sebba recalls with a laugh.

Indeed, while it's common knowledge that England's greatest 20th-century statesman came from the grand Spencer-Churchill family (Winston wisely dropped the double-barreled name so as not to appear too posh), few realize his mother was a nouveau riche, fashion-mad and often pushy Brooklyn girl called Jennie Jerome.

While the Spencer-Churchills were — and still are — among England's foremost clans with their family seat at Blenheim Palace, one of the country's grandest stately homes, the Jeromes couldn't even get invited to one of Mrs. William Astor's famous private balls in New York. But that didn't stop Jennie Jerome.

In her book, "Jennie Churchill: Winston's American Mother" (John Murray), Sebba argues that it was Jennie's American pluck — and stage-mother personality — that helped make Churchill the great statesman he became. And while the passionately written book — which won rave reviews in England — is a biography, it's really the story of a dynamic mother-son relationship.

"She was never a cuddly, nurturing mother — she was ambitious, well-educated, knew her ground and her power over Winston. She believed in her son's destiny," says Sebba during an interview at the English Speaking Union in Mayfair. "She may not have been the best mother when Winston was young, but she was the mother he needed. All of her ambitions were focused on him."

Born in 1854 and raised in Brooklyn, the beautiful, dark-eyed Jennie was educated mostly in Paris. Her upwardly mobile family had moved there to escape snobby, claustrophobic New York high society and try their luck at the more democratic court of Empress Eugenie, the wife of Napoleon III.

"In those days, Paris was the place to break through — Empress Eugenie loved Americans and accepted them," says Sebba. During her years in Paris, Jennie was taught to play the piano to concert standard, learned about world affairs — and the merits of discretion — and developed a penchant for shopping, happily spending her father's cash on dresses at couturier Worth.
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