Churchill: Manic Production and the Black Dog

For all the talk of those with bipolar disorder having shorter lives, Churchill lived to age 90.  And that despite being overweight and drinking and smoking to excess.  Those with bipolar disorder are known for their tremendous output.  Churchill wrote an astonishing 73 volumes of books as well as numerous articles and speeches.  He wrote all of his speeches.  He wouldn’t consider having a speechwriter or a ghostwriter. During bursts of tremendous energy he would work from the early morning hours late into the night. He had to write prolifically.  He was notoriously bad with money and needed the income.

Less discussed than Churchill’s writings and speeches are his paintings. Though less talented than Van Gogh, he was in the same league in terms of numbers of paintings, with some 550 pieces in his portfolio. And he wasn’t bad!  He was a better writer, orator, and even a better painter than his arch rival Hitler.  His "Tower of Koutoubia Mosque” sold for $11.5 million in 2021. Of course, it was an historically significant painting in that Churchill gifted it to FDR.  (A Hitler watercolor sold for $161,000 in 1914, a significantly lesser figure that would have pleased Churchill.)  The “Tower” painting was the only one Churchill produced during World War II. He painted it in Marrakech during the ten days of the Casablanca Conference, on the spot where he and FDR had enjoyed a spectacular sunset. The gift to Roosevelt no doubt helped cement their relationship as friends and allies. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie bought it as part of a collection in 2011, and it was she who sold it individually for $11.5 million.

Churchill took up painting during one of his depressive (“Black Dog”) episodes, one that was triggered by a failure of his Gallipoli offensive that he planned in World War I as Lord of the Admiralty. He then took his painting supplies with him thereafter wherever he went.

Churchill was not the first to use the expression “black dog.”  The first reference to the term on record is in the 18th century by Samuel Johnson, a sufferer of melancholia himself, what we would call today major depression. Johnson, who gave us The Oxford English Dictionary, frequently referred to his melancholia as “the black dog” in his letters to friends. But the expression is almost surely older than that.

Sir Winston’s friends noticed that he had frequent and deep mood swings. His chief of staff, General Hastings “Pug” Ismay, said this of his boss: “He is a mass of contradictions. He’s either on  the crest of the wave, or in the trough: either highly laudatory, or bitterly condemnatory: either in an angelic temper, or a hell of a  rage: when he isn’t fast asleep he’s a volcano.There are no half-measures in his make-up.”

Lord Moran, Churchill’s long time physician wrote of his mania and depression. FDR observed of Churchill that he had about a hundred ideas a day, and that about four of them were good. Churchill may have had bipolar II disorder with hypomanic episodes. Someone with bipolar I disorder, in a hypermanic episode, might have a thousand ideas a day, with maybe none of them any good. 

Churchill had grandiose beliefs about himself, referring to himself as a “glow worm.” His extravagant spending exasperated his wife Clementine to no end. He had a total lack of inhibition, dictating to his secretary from bed or bath. And like Theodore Roosevelt, he had a passion for war. 

Sir Winston’s spending was obscene. He bet the stock market recklessly enough, a misfortune compounded by the Stock Market Crash. Always behind in his taxes, he nevertheless sank thousands of pounds into his Chartwell estate and its employ of numerous staff. He gambled away thousands more in Monte Carlo. And that’s not to mention his enormous expenses in food, liquor, and cigars.

Churchill had a major depressive episode each decade of his adult life, whether triggered externally or from within.  He lived to 90 though, doubling his father’s longevity. In later years he self-medicated prodigiously with alcohol and amphetamines. His indulgences were legendary. He began with whiskey after breakfast and continued with a bottle of champagne at lunch, more whiskey during the day, more champagne at dinner, and brandy in the evening.  All that alcohol consumption didn’t seem to dull his mind.  A famous story that may be true involved Lady Astor, the first female member of Parliament, who reportedly said to Churchill:  “You, Mr Churchill, are drunk.”

To which the ever sharp witted Churchill replied:

"My dear, you are ugly, and what’s more, you are disgustingly ugly. But tomorrow I shall be sober and you will still be disgustingly ugly.”

 An art therapist named Carol Breckinridge wrote a piece for the International Churchill Society (“The Myth of the Black Dog”) stating flatly that Churchill was not bipolar. She boldly put her credentials up against prominent psychiatrists, particularly Dr. Nassir Ghaemi, who devoted a chapter to Churchill in his book about mental illness and great leaders, entitled A First Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness. Ghaemi is a professor of psychiatry at Tufts Medical School. But Breckinridge uses examples of Churchill’s mania to prove he wasn’t depressive and examples of his depression to prove he wasn’t manic!

Breckinridge’s point is that Churchill accomplished too much to have suffered from bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder is too debilitating. (This she gathers from all those with bipolar she had provided with art therapy.)

Breckinridge’s argument would mean the entire list of high achieving bipolar sufferers is wrong. Van Gogh? He couldn’t have possibly painted 900 paintings and been bipolar. Twain? No, he wrote too many books. Same with Hemingway. Theodore Roosevelt would never have become president with bipolar. 

Breckinridge’s argument is absurd. Granted, the myth of bipolar genius is indeed a myth. But bipolar energy is not.  Churchill’s vigorous intensity was responsible for his 73 volumes and his other achievements.       

What can be debilitating are psychotic episodes, which some people with bipolar get and some do not. There’s no evidence to indicate that Churchill experienced such episodes. If he had, he would have likely produced nonsensical writing, much like Kanye West lyrics. 

Other Churchill fan sites deny any sort of mental illness in Churchill.  Churchill Central insists: “Churchill Did NOT Have Depression — Here’s Why.” A statue of Churchill in a straitjacket unveiled in 2006 by mental health charity Rethink.Org created understandable backlash. The Churchill debate notwithstanding, people with bipolar should never be depicted that way.

Admiration societies that vehemently deny the mental illness of their heroes affirm the stigma of mental illness.  The well meaning Churchill defenders should look at the family history. His father, Lord Randolph Churchill, rose to prominence and then fell meteorically.  At age 37 he held the important title of Chancellor of the Exchequer. Shortly thereafter he became Leader of the House of Commons, clearly on track to become Prime Minister. He had been a hellion as a boy and later in college . Always in trouble for drunkenness or smoking, Lord Randolph had a fondness for brawling and smashing windows.

But in adult life, Lord Randolph was a workaholic. He became a world traveler, big game hunter, and horse racing enthusiast. His political moves were erratic. British historian Paul Addison wrote of him: “On the high wire of politics, he was a supreme acrobat whose feats of daring were as breathtaking as they were unpredictable.” At times he was a reliable Tory Conservative; other times he didn’t seem to know what it meant to be one. He had a weak political compass. He resigned from the Government impetuously over trivial issues, but by then he was exhausted and depressed.

Lord Randolph’s health deteriorated at a young age. He smoked strong Turkish cigarettes and drank abundantly. His sexual appetite was characteristic of someone with bipolar disorder. And he may have had syphilis because of it. It’s even possible that neurosyphilis, an advanced form of syphilis that affects the brain, may have contributed to his increasingly erratic behavior toward the end of his life. He died at the age of 45. The dualistic nature of his career that so often characterizes prominent bipolar victims was noted by The Pall Mall Gazette, which described Churchill as “the Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde of modern politics.” His colleague William Gladstone observed that Churchill would have been a fine public servant if the bad half of his character was removed.

Sir Winston’s son Randolph is widely considered to have inherited bipolarity. Sullen at once, then exuberant to the point of obnoxiousness, Randolph would emerge apologetically from his mania. 

In a 2014  Psychology Today article, Thomas Maier described Randolph’s classic bipolar symptoms: "...very elevated emotional highs with racing thoughts and talkative outbursts followed by remorseful “black fogs” and feelings of worthlessness; irritable moods and little temper control; impulsive decisions and spending sprees; binge drinking and overeating; compulsively seeking sex with many different partners; and a false overestimation of self-importance."

Everyone knows Randolph didn’t achieve what his father did despite his best efforts. But what most people don’t realize is that his efforts were not bad. He was a gifted and prolific writer and talented speaker. Perhaps he was even a better speaker than his father. But his father was the right man at the right time, and that’s the key to greatness. He was elected to Parliament and served in World War II. His spotty attendance in Parliament led to an early ouster.

Randolph’s legacy would be of failed marriages and unpaid debts. He smoked and drank even more than his father.  Like John Adams and his son Charles, Sir Winston would estrange himself from Randolph.  Randolph died of a heart attack at age 57.

If there’s some doubt as to an historical figure’s mental health, a look at the family can offer some clue. Sir Winston’s daughters had their troubles too. Diana had numerous breakdowns, two failed marriages, and, despite her work with the suicide prevention organization Samaritans, she committed suicide in 1963 at age 54. If seems that there’s too much suicide in these family stories, bear in mind that there wasn’t the awareness and treatment and education there is now.  Even as recently as 1963. Actress Sarah Churchill married three times and suffered from alcoholism. Churchill's family clearly suffered.