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Eternal City

Winston Churchill’s Mother? You’ve Got the Wrong Brooklyn Address

"We don't know for certain when or where she was born," said one historian, despite what a plaque on a Cobble Hill apartment building says.

(Glen Jeffries / Hell Gate)

On March 26, 1952, a crowd of about 1,000 gathered outside 426 Henry Street, a brownstone in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, for the unveiling of a bronze plaque marking the birthplace of Jennie Jerome, the mother of Winston Churchill.

Newspaper publisher Frank Schroth had teamed up with the Brooklyn's official historian to remedy what the then-borough president described as a "strange lapse of memory"—everyone had forgotten that Winston Churchill's mother was born right here, in Kings County. 

Full audio of the unveiling ceremony remains available in the New York Public Radio archive and the Brooklyn Public Library holds a digitized set of photographs. After the national anthems of both the U.S. and the U.K., there were speeches by various dignitaries, including Sarah Churchill, Jennie's granddaughter (Winston was apparently too busy to attend) and Robert Moses, who intermixed bits from Churchill's most famous public addresses with his own excruciatingly racist commentary on the might and morality of the British empire (Moses remarked on its role in stemming the "rise of the lesser breeds without the law"). The Department of Sanitation band—still going strong today!—played a sprightly tune as the cords were pulled for the big reveal. 

A crowd of onlookers paying rapt attention at the plaque unveiling ceremony. (Brooklyn Daily Eagle photograph, courtesy of the Brooklyn Public Library, Center for Brooklyn History)

None of the speakers talked in that much detail about Jennie, which is a great shame because she had a fascinating life. She was born into a wealthy American family; married Winston's father, Randolph, at age 20, then wed two more times after her first husband's death; philandered with monarchs; sported a snake tattoo in true Brooklynite fashion; received false credit for inventing the Manhattan cocktail; and tripped down the stairs in high heels to her death at age 67. Instead, the speakers focused on the "sympathetic understanding" between the U.S. and the U.K.

The plaque itself isn't any better at doing justice to Jennie's joie de vivre. For one, her name is etched the same size as her son's. The first sentence reads, "IN THIS HOUSE IN JANUARY 1850 WAS BORN JENNIE JEROME."

But about that first sentence: It's quite probably wrong on two counts. The "AIA Guide to New York City" says in its entry for 426 Henry Street that "Winnie's Mom didn't live here," noting she was actually born a few blocks away at 8 Amity Street (which has since been renumbered to 197). It also notes that Jennie was born in 1854, not 1850 as the plaque says. The book blames these gaffes on the fact that Jennie's parents lived with her uncle for a short while, and he lived at 426 Henry…although, to add to the broader confusion, back then, 426 was number 292. The NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission also states that Jennie was born on Amity Street, not Henry.

Francis Morrone, an architectural historian and the author of a number of books on New York's built environment, isn't convinced that the details on the plaque are wrong, but nor does he believe they're true. "We don't know for certain when or where she was born," he said. "We just don't have smoking gun documentation for either."

There is also some evidence that Jennie might actually have been born upstate in Rochester, as one of her first autobiographers pointed out in a letter to the New York Times—a notion that her son seemed to hold onto, even after the 426 Henry Street plaque was unveiled.

John Cashmore, Brooklyn borough president; Sarah Churchill, daughter of Winston Churchill; and Henry Hobson, British consul general, showing off the plaque. (Brooklyn Daily Eagle photograph, courtesy of the Brooklyn Public Library, Center for Brooklyn History)

This kind of shit happens all the time in New York City. In 1936, someone installed a plaque on their Greenwich Village house claiming that this was where Alexander Hamilton died (they lied), and it is still there today. Earlier this year, the MTA couldn't spell Georgia O'Keeffe's name right on a commemorative plaque in Grand Central Station. 

So, who cares? 

I care, because I am a resident tenant at 426 Henry Street.

I live on the second floor of the building and my bedroom window overlooks the potentially bogus plaque. From my desk, I can spot Jennie's callers. It's usually older people who stop to look, nearly always Americans, and rarely Brits. Most haven't made a special trip there and are just passing by. I've just once seen a school group visit her plaque—and boy, did those kids look unenthused. There's an older local guy who seems to do loops of the same Cobble Hill blocks each day, and every time he sees me, he tells me how great of a wartime leader Winston was. I've seen a fair few Instagram efforts copycatting Churchill's 'V for Victory' pose next to the plaque, and one time, I overheard one couple talking reverentially about Gary Oldman, who played Churchill in the 2017 blockbuster "Darkest Hour." (I've also witnessed someone throwing a bag of dog crap at the plaque, but rather than being any sort of grand political statement, I assume it happened because trash bins are now stored directly beneath the sign.)

Brooklyn historian James A. Kelly enters history by speaking at the plaque unveiling. (Brooklyn Daily Eagle photograph, courtesy of the Brooklyn Public Library, Center for Brooklyn History)

Sometimes, I yell down from my window, or if I'm on the stoop, I jump into action like an unofficial docent: "Hey guys, want to know something? It's actually MORE COMPLICATED!" (I'm also British, which in these circumstances seems to add clout to my pronouncements.)

The reaction is usually the same: mild, polite enthusiasm followed by the question, "Oh, so is there a plaque at the other address?" 

With all this uncertainty, one could make the argument that the plaque should be removed. "It doesn't make any difference to property value," said Gigi Zimmerman, a real estate broker at Brownstone Real Estate and a Cobble Hill resident since the '70s. "It might be important to Winston, but not anyone else."  

But the plaque is important, just not for the same reasons it was installed. The hyper-local familiarity with the plaque's backstory has made it a Brooklyn Heights shibboleth. If you're properly ensconced in the neighborhood, you know—and want to share the story of—the plaque's infelicities. It’s a locals' memorial now.

And I do get a kick out of knowing that in 1952, all those people gathered around my stoop to look up at where I live, even if they were probably looking up at nothing. That's now a history in and of itself. 

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