The most celebrated conversationalist of mid-20th century Britain was the Oxford don, Isaiah Berlin. But he was unknown during World War II, when he was a lowly analyst, posted to Britain’s Washington embassy. His dispatches were so brilliant, so insightful that they often reached the desk of Prime Minister Churchill. So, it’s not surprising that, when Churchill learned that Mr. Berlin was in London, he invited him over for lunch to discuss the war effort. What happened next was a comedy of errors, recounted by the man who did receive the invitation, songwriter Irving Berlin, who was touring London with a play to raise money for the troops.
For prominent Americans wartime London was remarkable for the easy access they enjoyed to the highest echelons of British society. Berlin received an invitation to have lunch with Winston Churchill at 10 Downing Street. Throughout the course of the war, Churchill had been entertained by dispatches written by the celebrated Oxford don Isaiah Berlin, who was assigned to the British Embassy in Washington. On hearing that the writer he so admired was visiting London, Churchill hastened to invite Isaiah Berlin to lunch. Through a bureaucratic mixup, however, the invitation went out to the songwriter rather than the political commentator.
On the appointed day, Irving Berlin presented himself at the prime minister’s residence, where he was escorted to a comfortable room and given a cigar and a glass of brandy. In time, Churchill appeared, still under the impression that his guest was Isaiah Berlin. The prime minister wasted little time on pleasantries. “How is war production in the United States?” he demanded.
Berlin was taken aback by the question. He was a composer and performer, not a war correspondent. “Oh, we’re doing fine,” he hesitantly answered.
“What do you think Roosevelt’s chances of reelection are?”
Uncomfortable at being called on to play political pundit, he gave the obvious answer. “I think he’ll win again.”
“Good,” Churchill replied. “Good.”
“But if he won’t run again,” Irving offered, “I don’t think I’ll vote at all.”
For the first time, he had Churchill’s interest, not that he welcomed it. “You mean you think you’ll have a vote?” Churchill asked, a note of wonder–or was it British irony?–creeping into his voice.
“I sincerely hope so,” Irving said.
“That would be wonderful,” Churchill replied, appearing to sum up. “If only Anglo-American cooperation reached such a point that we could vote in each other’s elections. Professor, you have my admiration. You must stay for lunch.”
Throughout lunch at 10 Downing Street, Irving was haunted by the feeling that he was well out of his depth. Why had Churchill addressed him as “professor”? He stopped trying to reply to Churchill’s probing questions and fell silent. Eventually Churchill turned his back on his taciturn guest. The awkward lunch finally came to a conclusion, and as Churchill left the room, he whispered loudly to an aide, “Berlin’s just like most bureaucrats. Wonderful on paper but disappointing when you meet them face to face.”
This is the Army
I am indebted to Bookworm Room blog for the quote and to my friend Prof. Jerry Cohen at UC Santa Barbara and, before that, at Tufts and Princeton, who shared stories about being mixed up with other professors named Jerry Cohen at every stop on his route. Btw, neither of the Jerry Cohens at Yale (below) are my friend. They are simply living off the goodwill of his name.