(Cohen A105) (Woods A43)
In Bargaining for Supremacy (University of California Press, 1977), James R. Leutze accused Churchill of being “oddly unaware of other people’s reactions…[with] not much interest in others.” That charge has stuck, and rare is the Churchill critic who fails to repeat it. The reader of Great Contemporaries will come away with the opposite impression. No one could have written such vivid essays on the great personages of his time without comprehension, understanding and, in some cases, regard for them.
Take for example the Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Snowden, with whom Churchill (the preceding Chancellor) hotly debated all the great issues of socialism vs. capitalism in the 1930s. After a lengthy account of their antagonisms Churchill adds: “…never have I had any feelings towards him which destroyed the impression that he was a generous, true-hearted man… the British Democracy should be proud of Philip Snowden.” A generous tribute — and typical.
Of the twenty-five personalities eventually described (the 1938 Revised Edition added four to the original twenty-one), sixteen are British. With the exception of four military figures and an eclectic threesome (Shaw, George V, Baden-Powell) all of these represent the cultured, urbane British political leadership of the late 19th and early 20th century. Three of them—Balfour, Rosebery, Asquith—had been Prime Ministers. Several of the others had wished to be, including Lord Curzon, for whom Churchill reserves some of his most penetrating and wittiest prose:
“Here was a being gifted far beyond the average level: equipped and caparisoned with glittering treasures of mind and fortune; driven forward by will, courage and tireless industry; not specially crossed by ill luck; not denied a considerable span: and yet who failed to achieve the central purpose of his life. Why did he fail, and how did he fail?…Surely in this limited sphere no inquiry could be more rich in instruction.”
In 1923, Arthur Balfour had prevented Curzon from being named Prime Minister by leaving his sick-bed for the Palace, where he convinced the King that a Premier needed to come from the House of Commons. Churchill writes: “When late that night Balfour returned to his sick-bed…he was asked by some of his most cherished friends who were staying with him, ‘And will dear George be chosen?’ ‘No,’ he replied placidly, ‘dear George will not.'”
Churchill concludes this sketch of “a long and strenuous career with ultimate disappointment” with a magnanimous epitaph few would object to: “The morning had been golden; the noontide was bronze; and the evening lead. But all were solid, and each was polished till it shone after its fashion.”
The same penetrating evaluation, humor, and understanding permeates the sketches of those outside politics: King George V, Baden-Powell, George Bernard Shaw (a classic essay), and the four military figures—Generals Haig and French, Admiral Fisher, and Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence was always a romantic hero to Churchill, who failed to enlist his further efforts after Lawrence had helped him create modern Iraq and Jordan at the 1921 Cairo Conference: “All you will see of me,” Lawrence told Churchill, “is a small cloud of dust on the horizon.”
There are nine foreigners: three German/Austrian (the ex-Kaiser, Hindenburg, and Hitler); two Russians (Savinkov and Trotsky—one executed, one about to be); Spain’s King Alfonso XIII, America’s Roosevelt, and the two greatest Frenchmen of the age, Foch and Clemenceau. (The latter inspired a famous peroration when he told Churchill in the midst of World War I, “I will fight in Paris, I will fight behind Paris,” which may have inspired Churchill’s “Fight on the Beaches” speech in World War II.) The Hitler essay, quoted out of context by revisionists anxious to suggest that Churchill once approved of Hitler, was actually thought too belligerent by a Foreign Office colleague, who recommended it be dropped. Churchill ignored him.
Of Roosevelt, whom he did not then know, Churchill is respectful, but dubious about the New Deal: “Is it better to have equality at the price of poverty or well-being at the price of inequality?” (This is hardly an out-of-date question.) Our author was also judicious, quickly trimming his Russian essays from an edition published after Stalin became Britain’s ally, and his Roosevelt piece shortly after meeting FDR. (But all three were right back in the mix again after the war.).
-Richard M. Langworth
From the Reviews
“This book is about mankind and about a few prominent men—great, evil, stupid, silly, wise. Occasionally the dark stream of melancholy which is part of Churchill’s being is revealed, as when by the bedside of the dying Balfour he reflects on ‘the tragedy which robs the world of all the wisdom and treasure gathered in a great man’s life and experience, and hands the lamp to some impetuous and untutored stripling, or lets it fall shivered into fragments on the ground.’ Of course this also applies to ordinary mortals— people unknown who will inherit no known grave—though Churchill does not say so.
“There runs through all the pieces an overriding cordiality and liking for the subject, for Churchill was not a hater. Only once, over Hitler, would he be totally unforgiving. While recognizing its failures and foolishness he retained compassion, and hope for mankind. He was never cynical. His judgments are of justice, tempered with magnanimity.
“The book is also about Churchill as he sees himself, with the personalities which shaped his judgments and character. He outlines the debt he owes, the knowledge gained, from observing their qualities and defects. At this distance we see him absorbing those lessons of leadership for the moment when he was to become Prime Minister of a nation alone, at its most solemn hour.”
-H. Ashley Redburn in Finest Hour 36, Summer 1982
Great Contemporaries is, of course, an important part of the canon and belongs in every library, where it will be read and referred to regularly. Many of the situations confronted by its cast of characters are not unknown more than sixty years on. The characters themselves are intrinsically interesting; the book is avidly sought after, for example, by students of T. E. Lawrence (and well it should be, for the Lawrence essay is a gem).
Fine jacketed copies sell today for increasingly large amounts; although it pays to shop around, as there are many on the market. Poorer examples in dirty jackets cost much less. The price of the typical very good, somewhat worn but sound first edition hasn’t appreciated in twenty years. Reprints (all of them first edition lookalikes) should cost little, unless in jackets, which of course places them at a premium.
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Cohen A105.1 / Woods A43(a)
Publisher: Thornton Butterworth Ltd., London, 1937
Dark blue cloth. The top board bears the title and author’s name blocked gilt and the publisher’s device and two thick rules at top and bottom debossed blind. Top page edges stained dark blue. The spine bears the same material as on the cover (but no logo) and THORNTON | BUTTERWORTH gilt at the bottom. 8vo, 336 pages numbered (1)-335 (+1), with 21 tipped-in illustrations and a fivepage index. The verso of the half-title contains a list of 16 of the author’s other works. Endpapers are white. Published 4 October 1937 at 21 shillings ($5.25).
Impressions and Quantities
Six impressions occurred, which the volumes themselves date as September (2), October (2), November and December 1937. Woods’ dates, which he told me were taken from publisher records, were October (3), November and December (2). The first impression had 5000 copies; the next five impressions had 2000 each for a total of 15,000.
Identifying first editions: title page verso contains the line, “first published…1937” with no further reprints indicated.
Great Contemporaries is a straightforward production with no variants or states (except for the oddly printed page 57 in one example). Richard Langworth reports having encountered a copy in which the footnote in the Bernard Shaw essay, page 57 (“Alas we laughed too soon”) is preceded by the sentence: “Written in 1929.” This book was otherwise conventional, the leaf appeared integral with the other pages.
First Edition sheets were bound cheaply by the Times Book Club in smooth navy cloth, crudely blocked on spine only: “GREAT | CONTEM- | PORARIES” then “WINSTON S. | CHURCHILL” and, at the foot, “BUTTERWORTH”. They carry the typical TBC small gold on black paper label on rear pastedowns.
A short, narrow variant exists in dark blue, rough cloth, with block spine lettering omitting THORNTON, and a jacket trimmed to fit. Perhaps it is a salesman’s or traveler’s copy. Canadian dust jackets may also exist with the sterling prices obliterated or cut out.
Jackets are printed black on light orange paper. The first and second impression dust jackets are identical: book blurb and list of chapters on front flap. Commencing with the third impression, front jacket flaps began to quote book reviews. Later jackets occasionally crop up on first editions, a combination devoutly to be avoided.
First American Edition
Cohen A105.2 / ICS A43ab
Publisher: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1937
Dark blue cloth blocked silver and red. The top board bears the title in silver on a 3/8-inch high red band near the top; five similar red bands appear on the spine reading GREAT | CONTEMPORARIES | [decorative device] | CHURCHILL toward the top and PUTNAM toward the bottom. Top page edges stained red. 8vo, 312 pages numbered (+2) (i)-x and (1)-(300), with 21 tipped-in illustrations and a seven-page index. Endpapers are white. Published October 1937 at $4.
There are three known impressions.
Identifying first editions: title page verso contains no indication of a later impression.
Some books exist with unstained top page edges. Some later impression sheets may have been bound in red-orange cases blocked blue and silver on spines only, instead of the style described above, but this has not been confirmed by a known example.
Printed black and dark blue on white paper, with an illustration of the author (outside Chartwell, wearing his “at home” style four-in-hand tie) on the front face. First edition jackets may differ from those on later impressions. They contain excerpts from the book on Shaw, Trotsky and Lawrence (front flap); Lawrence (continuation) and Savinkov (back flap), and a three-paragraph promotional blurb on the back face.
Later impression dust jackets contain alterations to the back face: a new subtitle (THE NEW NON-FICTION BEST SELLER), with the third paragraph of the original promotion blurb replaced by two paragraphs of review excerpts from The New York Times and the Boston Herald.
Woods failed to mention the American edition of Great Contemporaries, an elegant production which was entirely reset and edited with American spelling (“fiber” for “fibre,” “color” for “colour,” etc.) The type style and leading makes for a more readable book; its wider, taller size and more interesting dust jacket make it aesthetically superior to the English edition. The two reprints must have been small; they are rarely seen. Interestingly, the American edition was never updated with the four additional articles added in 1938.
Prices for the American edition have never rivaled those of the English, possibly because (thanks to Woods) many collectors don’t know it exists. The binding was of high quality so fine unjacketed copies are readily available, but the dust jacket was likely to chip, and a really clean jacket is a rarity. Of the four Churchill works published by Putnam between 1937 and 1941, this is the hardest to find in a dust jacket.
Revised & Extended Edition
Cohen A105.3 / Woods A43(b)
Publisher: Thornton Butterworth Ltd., London, 1938
Navy blue cloth. The top board bears the title and author’s name blocked gilt and the publisher’s device and two thick rules at top and bottom debossed blind. Top page edges unstained. The spine bears the same material as on the cover (but no logo) and THORNTON | BUTTERWORTH gilt at the bottom. 8vo, 388 pages numbered (1)-(387) (+1), with 25 tipped-in illustrations and a five-page index. The verso of the half-title contains a list of 17 of the author’s other works. Endpapers are white. Published 7 November 1938 at 10s. 6d. ($2.63).
Impressions and Quantities
There were two impressions, the second in May 1940 according to the volume. Woods says August 1939, the only explanation for which is that the issue was held up with the outbreak of war, and hastened into publication when Churchill became Prime Minister. This theory is supported by Woods’ press runs: 5000 for the first, 28,000 for the second. The second impression bears the publisher’s Keystone Library logo on its title page.
A distinct variation of the first impression exists printed on much thicker paper and bulking a full two inches instead of the usual 1 3/4.
Jackets of the standard first edition are printed blue and black on white paper. The face bears a photo of the author printed blue and the title, “WINSTON CHURCHILL’S Great Contemporaries,” proclaiming itself “A Revised and Cheap Edition with 4 Additional Biographies,” which it names. Type is dropped out white. The spine contains similar information but the correct title above “(Revised Edition”). The front flap promotes the edition, the back flap the Keystone Library in general; four additional books and a price of 10/6 are on the spine; review blurbs are on the back face.
The variant binding carries a white dust jacket without a photograph. The 1940 second impression is reported with a Keystone Library style dust jacket.
Churchill added four essays to this edition, on Parnell, Baden-Powell, Roosevelt and Fisher. The latter (“Lord Fisher and his Biographer”) is really a review of Admiral Bacon’s anti-Churchill Fisher biography. Our author is also circumspect with regard to Roosevelt, entitling that chapter “Roosevelt from Afar,” perhaps to suggest that Churchill was not close enough to pronounce definitely on Roosevelt’s domestic policies (which he generally abhorred at the time). This edition, or some later version of it, belongs in every Churchill library for the extra material.
Highly prized for its four additional essays, the Revised & Extended is a rather uncommon edition, and the extra-thick variant is a real rarity. Jackets are very rare. As a result, the Revised commands more than the first edition. Any jacket, however incomplete, is prized, but poorer condition lowers the price. The book itself doesn’t wear well, and unjacketed copies invariably show dulled gilt; these sell for much less. Second impressions, despite Woods’ high press run figure, are not often seen and worth only a little less.
Reader’s Union Edition
Cohen A105.5 / ICS A43c
Publisher: Reader’s Union Ltd. & Thornton Butterworth Ltd., London, 1939
Light blue cloth blocked maroon (triple wavy line, title and facsimile signature on top board, “Churchill’s GREAT CONTEMPORARIES” on spine, reading up). 8vo, 388 pages numbered (1)-(387) (+1), with 25 in illustrations in two gatherings between pages 126-27 and 254-55 and a five-page index. Halftitle verso contains a list of 17 of the author’s other works; title verso explains this edition. No endpapers. Published at 2s. 6d. (63¢).
Variants: Various shades of blue cloth are reported.
This book club production from the Revised & Extended Edition sheets (trimmed slightly, but type not reduced) was an excellent value, giving all that the latter gave at a fifth the price. Entirely unmentioned by Woods, it was the last prewar edition with all twenty-five of Churchill’s essays intact. There was probably no dust jacket. Market value incidental, though $50/£30 for an exceptionally fine copy would be worth paying
Reprint Society Edition
Cohen A105.6 / ICS A43d
Publisher: Reprint Society Ltd., London, 1941
Cream buckram with brown leatherette spine label containing the title and author’s name inside a decorative double border. 16mo, 352 pages numbered (I)- (viii) and (1)-344, with eight pages of photographs on coated paper grouped between pages (viii) and (1). Dust jacket printed dark brown on thin white stock; spine and front face have a repeat pattern of light green wreaths on a faint lilac background. Published at 3s. 6d. (88¢).
Another book club edition, containing only 23 essays: the Soviet Union was now in the war, and Churchill thought it judicious to excise his essays on Savinkov and Trotsky, both by now murdered by Stalin. The Hitler chapter, considering all that had happened, was retitled “Hitler and His Choice, 1935.” With wartime paper restrictions in place, this volume measures only 5 x 7 1/2.” Its chief importance to the collector lies in its use of different photos (15 of the Page 12 of 20 GREAT CONTEMPORARIES protagonists, plus one of the author). Value incidental, except for fine jacketed copies which are worth up to $100/£60.
World Books Issue
Cohen A105.7 / ICS A43e
Publisher: Reprint Society Ltd., London, 1941
Tan cloth blocked maroon on top board (title) and spine (title, decorative mark, author name and World Books logo. Contents identical to the Reprint Society Edition. Dust jacket printed green on thin white stock with wreath pattern identical to the above. Published at 2s. 6d. (63¢).
World Books, in Reigate, Surrey, was another outlet for the Reprint Society with an even more generous discount pricing policy.
Note: Although both Reprint Society variations contain a note that they were published “by arrangement with Macmillan & Co., Ltd.,” both carry 1941 dates while the first Macmillan Edition carries 1942; therefore their place in the order.
Cohen A105.8 / ICS A43f
Publisher: Macmillan & Co. Ltd., London, 1942
Black cloth blocked gilt on spine (title, author name, publisher name). 16mo, 294 pages numbered (i)-(vi) and (1)-287 (+1). No illustrations. Dust jacket printed black and red on heavy off-white paper. Published 1942 (not “1943” per Woods) at 8s. 6d. ($2.13). Second impression, 1943.
The product of wartime inflation? Macmillan first published Great Contemporaries in 1942, using the same plates that had produced the two book club editions immediately preceding, but taking further economy measures: dropping the individual title pages for each entry, dropping the photo section and (since America was now an ally, dropping that diffident chapter on Franklin Roosevelt). The result saved almost sixty pages. Although slightly taller and wider than the Reprint Society’s production, the Macmillan Edition has no Page 13 of 20 GREAT CONTEMPORARIES aesthetic significance, and is important only to illustrate the political exigencies of the time.
Variant dust jacket: The decision to excise Roosevelt must have come at the last moment, because the first state Macmillan dust jacket fails to omit him from the front flap copy. (The back face of this jacket promotes Great Contemporaries among three other Churchill works published by Macmillan.) The second state jacket omits Roosevelt from the front flap. (The back face replaces the blurb for Great Contemporaries with one for Thoughts and Adventures). There is no difference in the books themselves. Curiously, the first state jacket does appear on some second impressions as well as firsts.
Cohen 105.9 / ICS A43g
Publisher: Odhams & Co. Ltd., London, 1947
8vo, 320 pages numbered (i)-x and 1-309 (+1) with sixteen pages of photographs between pages viii and ix. Four impressions: 1947, 1948 (2)1949. Completely reset, the Odhams Edition includes a frontispiece and eight illustrations between pages viii and ix, and the former folding map was now printed over a double page spread. Later impressions have been reported. (Odhams offered this title in 1954 to buyers of Malcolm Thompson’s Churchill: His Life and Times, under the general series title, “The People’s Home Library.”)
There were two Odhams bindings: standard bright red cloth blocked gilt and black on top board and spine, page edges unstained; deluxe red leatherette with author signature blocked gilt on top board and black leather title/author label on spine combined with multiple devices, rules and the Odhams name, also gilt, page edges stained red. Dust jackets printed black, yellow and dark yellow on white paper.
The first impression is identified on the verso of its title page by no date beyond 1947 and the code “S.947Q.”
Odhams was a mail order bookseller, which helps explain the lack of prices on dust jackets. Deluxe bindings of first four impressions were shipped in Page 14 of 20 GREAT CONTEMPORARIES grey cardboard boxes with Step by Step, My Early Life and Thoughts and Adventures at 32s. ($6.40) postpaid to mail order clients.
Odhams published all twenty-five of Churchill’s sketches from the 1938 Revised and Extended Edition; the books are plentiful and of incidental value, although the first impression is quite rare. The only distinctive feature of this edition is a number of new photographs.
Fontana Paperback Edition
Cohen A105.10 / ICS A43h
Publisher: Collins Fontana, London, 1959
The first paperback was published in 1959 at 5/ (70¢), and at least four impressions followed through 1972, when it sold for 45p. The text was reset for this edition though curiously, Fontana used the Odhams foreword with its 1947 dating. Sixteen pages of photographs, some new to the work, were incorporated on coated paper; in later editions these were divided into two gatherings of eight pages each. Trifling value: the cheapest way to read the full text.
Books for Libraries Issue
Cohen A105.11 / ICS A43i
Publisher: Books for Libraries, New York, 1972
A reprint edition published in hardback. Issued without dust jacket.
University of Chicago Edition
Cohen A105.12 / ICS A43j
Publisher: University of Chicago Press, Illinois, 1974
Published in both cloth and paperback. Published on 12 February 1974 at $7.95 in hardback, $4.95 in paperback; at least two impressions. The hardback’s dust jacket and the paperback’s cover carry the famous Karsh “growling lion” photograph from 1941. Offprinted from the 1938 Revised and extended edition, including muddy reproductions of the original tipped in photographs. By eliminating the blank pages (versos of essay titles, versos of photographs), the publishers were able to retain the original pagination.
The New Edition, 1990
The last of six new trade editions produced by Leo Cooper (four issued by Norton in the USA) had two hardback and one paperback issues. Features common to all issues are as follows: text photographically reproduced from the “Collected Works,” (see appendix); new Foreword by Tom Hartman (in addition to the author’s original Preface); appendix on the International Churchill Societies
First New Edition
Cohen A105.14 ICS A43ka
Publisher: Leo Cooper, London, 1990
Black cloth, blocked gilt on spine, offprinted from the “Collected Works” 1974 edition. 270 pages numbered (i)-(xii) and 1-(252) (+6). Eight pages of photographs (some new to the title) on glossy stock between pages 84-85, 116- 17, 148-49 and 180-81. Pages ix-xi contain a new foreword by Tom Hartman, pages (251-52) contain a note on the International Churchill Society, which collaborated in the reprint. The dust jacket is printed black, green and red on white paper with the titles dropped out. Published at £16.95.
New Paperback Issue
Cohen A105.15 ICS A43kc
Publisher: Mandarin Paperbacks, London, 1990
Photographically reproduced (reduced) from the Cooper Edition, this (5 x 7 34″) paperback was published at £5.99.
New American Issue
Cohen A105.16 / ICS A43kb
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 1991
Grey cloth stamped gilt on spine, plain boards with “WSC” debossed blind. 264 pages numbered (I)-(xii) and 1-(252). 8vo, sold at $22.50. White dust jacket printed purple, gold and black, photo of author c. 1910 on front face. One impression, no known variations.
Dutch: GROOTE TIJDGENOOTEN
Published by Universum-Editie: 1937; blue cloth, white dust jacket printed orange and black. A second edition was published by Jedes: Amsterdam (no date).
French: LES GRANDS CONTEMPORAINS
Published by Gallimard: Paris 1939. Card wrappers printed brown and navy.
German: GROSSE ZEITGENOSSEN
Published by Allert De Lange: Amsterdam 1938 (German text, not Dutch, black cloth). A much abbreviated paperback second edition (containing only Rosebery, Chamberlain, Balfour, Asquith, Parnell, Curzon, Shaw, Lawrence, Fisher, Clemenceau, the Kaiser, Alfonso XIII and George V) was published by Fischer Bucheri: Frankfort & Hamburg 1959.
Hebrew: GADAULE HADOR
Printed and published in Palestine.
Norwegian: STORE SAMTIDIGE
Published by Cappelens: Oslo 1938 in card wrappers and in yellow cloth. Contains only Shaw, Chamberlain, French, Savinkov, Asquith, Lawrence, Birkenhead, Foch, Haig, Balfour, Curzon, Snowden, Clemenceau and George V.
Portuguese: GRANDES HOMENS CONTEMPORANEOS
Published by Companhia Editora Nacional: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1941. Black cloth.
Spanish: GRANDES CONTEMPORANEOS
Published by Los Libros de Nuestro Tiempo: Barcelona, 1943. A paperback edition was published by Plaza & Janes, 1960.
Swedish: STORA SAMTIDA
Published by Skoglund: Stockholm 1937-54 in several impressions. The first edition is much thicker than its successor and was offered unbound or bound in blue cloth, both in jackets. The first edition jacket is white printed orange and black. An expanded edition was published in 1954. A Swedish edition was also published in Helsinki, Finland, Swedish being Finland’s second language.
Combined Work: CHURCHILL ON MEN AND EVENTS
Subtitled: “A Selection from ‘Thoughts and Adventures’ and ‘Great Contemporaries’ made by Andrew Scotland, M.A., Ph.D.”, this work was published by Ginn & Company Ltd., London, 1965. It appears to be the only work to combine chapters from both of Churchill’s mid-Thirties collections of essays. Frontispiece has a drawing of T. E. Lawrence by Augustus John.
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