On September 6, 1943, in the later years of World War II, Harvard hosted a vital American ally: British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The university bestowed upon Churchill an honorary Doctor of Laws in a ceremony at Sanders Theatre, where he gave a now-famous speech on Anglo-American relations. After the ceremony and an informal address to Harvard servicemen in Harvard Yard, Churchill, along with over 100 guests, adjourned to a luncheon in the Fogg Museum’s Warburg Hall.
News of his impending visit had been a highly guarded secret, but apparently rumors began to circulate in the Harvard community about it. Agnes Mongan, the Keeper of Drawings at the Fogg, departed on vacation shortly before the event, not believing Churchill would actually come. When Mongan learned she was mistaken, she wrote immediately to Paul Sachs, the museum’s associate director, lamenting her exclusion from “the biggest story in years” and begging for details. She wanted to know, above all, “Did Churchill come to the Fogg?”(Mongan 1943)
In his return letter to Mongan, dated September 10—by which point the visit had been widely reported—Sachs wrote that she must know that “the wonderful man did come to the Fogg” (Sachs 1943). But he obliged her with a “few tidbits that would not appear in the press.” According to Sachs, the guests of the Fogg Museum luncheon were chosen by people in Washington, and he and Fogg Museum Director Edward Waldo Forbes were invited “at the eleventh hour” and without their wives.
“After [the] luncheon, President [James B.] Conant spoke briefly, informally and charmingly, and Churchill (a little flushed by champagne) replied in delightful fashion,” Sachs recounted. “Yes! I said champagne a moment ago. I feel that the Fogg has at last gone over the top . . . it took Churchill to produce the champagne and damn good champagne it was too.”
Churchill’s fondness for painting was well known, and Sachs added drolly that he should have “asked him for one of his water colors, had there been the slightest chance.” But the prime minister proved elusive: “Not a single person at the Fogg—not one—as much as shook hands with him,” he wrote. Churchill appeared to have a pleasant time; a photograph from our Archives shows him flashing a victory sign and a smile on the steps of the Fogg Museum.
Brooke McManus is the Archives Assistant at the Harvard Art Museums.
Letter, Agnes Mongan to Paul Sachs, September 6, 1943. Courtesy Harvard Art Museums Archives. Letter, Paul Sachs to Agnes Mongan, September 10, 1943. Courtesy Harvard Art Museums Archives.