The recent HBO Winston Churchill biopic, Into the Storm, shows the British premier bathing in a White House tub while amiably chatting with a nearby President Franklin Roosevelt. Rising from his bath, Churchill is at first covered by a towel, which he accidentally drops, appearing naked before the President. “As you can see, Mr. President, I have nothing to conceal from you,” he wittily tells his wartime partner, sparking mirth and laughter between the two.
It’s an amusing vignette, but did this nude encounter between Churchill and FDR really happen? The British ambassador recently hosted a screening of Into the Storm, followed by a panel discussion, where Newsweek editor and Churchill/FDR biographer Jon Meacham was asked this question. “Yes!” Meacham replied, according to the Washington Post, “I actually interviewed the man who took the dictation!” He added: “For me, in a dork way, it was very glamorous.”
That man was Patrick Kinna, Churchill’s wartime dictationist, who died at age 95 in March, and was the last surviving witness to the naked incident, which some of his obituaries dutifully noted. As Meacham described in his Franklin and Winston, during Churchill’s Christmastime 1941 visit to Washington, following Pearl Harbor, the Prime Minister was fresh from his twice a day bath and pacing about “completely starkers” in his White House bedroom, according to Kinna. The loyal stenographer, who previously had served the Duke of Windsor, was taking dictation from his restless nude chieftain. Churchill replied “come in,” after a knock at the door, and FDR rolled forward, surprised to see the Englishman disrobed. The President tried to leave, but the Prime Minister stopped him, declaring, “You see, Mr. President, I have nothing to hide from you.”
According to Meacham’s book, FDR supposedly enjoyed the repartee. His own secretary, Grace Tully, later recounted, “Chuckling like a small boy, he told me about it later,” pronouncing that the naked Churchill was “pink and white all over.”
An obituary for Kinna elaborated a little more. “Churchill was in the bath and began dictating,” according to Kinna. “He would submerge himself under the water every now and again and come up and carry on with the dictation.” The war-time secretary recalled: “He was very absorbed in his work that morning and would not keep still for the valet to help dress him; he kept walking around the room speaking aloud. There was a rat-a-tat-tat on the door, and Churchill swung the door open to President Roosevelt!” Kinna concluded: “Churchill simply said that he had nothing to hide from Mr. President!”
The story of Churchill naked with FDR may have first originated with Churchill’s long-time bodyguard, Walter Thompson, who remembered the Prime Minister saying: “You see, Mr President, I have nothing whatever to hide from you.” But FDR’s close aide and confidante, Harry Hopkins, also eagerly and bemusedly popularized the story among friends shortly after the incident, more majestically recounting Churchill’s riposte as: “The Prime Minister of Great Britain has nothing to hide from the President of the United States.”
Churchill Centre founder Richard Langworth, author of Churchill by Himself: The Definitive Collection of Quotations, thinks the episode very likely true though maybe exaggerated. Churchill himself later denied it to Hopkins’ biographer, insisting it was “nonsense,” and that he “never received the President without at least a bath towel wrapped around him.” He also cleverly noted, “I could not possibly have made such a statement” about nothing to hide, because the “President himself would have been well aware that it was not strictly true.” But Langworth observed that Churchill also told King George VI that he was “the only man in the world to have received the head of a nation naked.”
Langworth calls the incident “consistent with Winston Churchill’s personality” if also “very susceptible to being embellished or obfuscated through countless recitals by intimates (and friends of intimates) over the years.” He thinks Churchill likely was not stark naked (or “starkers”) in front of FDR, and was probably still toweled up, but almost certainly “made some offhand remark” that impressed his audience. More importantly, the encounter, whatever its details, illustrated the “extraordinary lack of ceremony” and close collegiality between FDR and Churchill.
FDR himself was known to conduct business from and receive visitors in his bedroom, if not from his bath. According to Conrad Black’s FDR biography, at least one member of Roosevelt’s inner circle thought this ritual discomfitingly reminiscent of the court of Louis XIV. Victorian patricians like Roosevelt and Churchill perhaps, accustomed to servants and valets, could stylishly hold forth from almost any location or state of dress, their spectators still in awe of their majesty. Presumably more recent American presidents and British prime ministers have not similarly entertained. Nor have they likely shared with each other what FDR famously told Churchill shortly after the bath incident and days of strategic planning about the world’s future: “It’s fun to be in the same century with you.”