In assembling his Winston Churchill collection, Dr. Milton Mutchnick has, in the words of his idol, expended plenty of “blood, toil, tears, and sweat.”
However, it’s all been worth the effort to Mutchnick, chief of gastroenterology at Wayne State University’s School of Medicine, who calls Churchill, the silver-tongued orator who galvanized the British people in the darkest days of World War II, “the man of the century.”
A visit to the “Churchill Room” in his West Bloomfield Township home leaves no doubt about Mutchnick’s admiration for the statesman who was twice prime minister of Great Britain (1940-45 and 1951-55).
Mutchnick’s roughly 60-year quest for memorabilia has taken him to dusty antiques shops and bookstores around the world. The room is crammed with items, and, Mutchnick admits, “There are more objects in trunks on the lower level. But Janet [his wife] won’t allow my collection to go beyond this room and the hallway.”
The walls are covered with original photographs, many of them signed by Sarah Churchill, Winston’s daughter. There’s also a Churchill caricature sketched in a London nightclub and signed by the subject. When he was 26, Mutchnick painted a portrait of the statesman, which hangs on the opposite wall. Cabinets and drawers are chock-a-block with treasures bearing Churchill’s bulldog-like visage: bowls, dishes, busts, thimbles, Toby mugs, tobacco cards, wine glasses, lamps, busts, a pocket knife, a cookie tin, a trinket box. In addition, rare first-edition books by and about Churchill and record albums of his speeches fill the shelves. There’s even a figurine of Churchill as a bricklayer, trowel in hand — masonry and painting were favorite pastimes.
“This,” Mutchnick says as he carefully reaches for an unflattering squatting figurine of Churchill, his pants lowered, “was done in Nazi Germany. They just hated him. There’s a slot in the back; it’s a bank.”
Mutchnick then fetches one of his most recent finds: a Wedgwood lighter with Churchill’s profile embossed on it.
“I was at a huge antiques mart in Virginia with family. They all were looking for Churchill objects, but I found this first. It’s almost instinctive after all these years.”
When the Mutchnicks bought their brand-new home in 2003, Janet called on her sister, interior designer Amy Miller Weinstein, for décor assistance. To house the Churchill collection, Weinstein showcased the objects in glass and wood cabinets. She also arranged the photos, which she had matted and framed.
“I knew I had to eke out every inch for storage, as well as to find a place to sit, which is why the partners’ desk is there,” Weinstein says. A sofa and two chairs are the the room’s only other furniture. “Since then, I know he’s stuffed more items in,” she adds.
Mutchnick’s collection started in the early ’50s when he was about 10 or 11. At a library branch in Detroit’s Dexter-Davison area, he requested “an interesting book, well-written, but not a novel.” The librarian suggested the latest book in Churchill’s six-volume The Second World War. That would be the spark that ignited a burning interest that continued through medical school, a stint in the air force, and shows no signs of being extinguished today.
“I read the book and found it fascinating,” Mutchnick says. “When I finished it, I went back for the other volumes. It just blossomed from that point.”
Serendipity played a role in how the doctor acquired some of his souvenirs. In 1964, he and a friend were walking in London’s Hyde Park when Mutchnick bumped into an elderly woman. “I apologized and told her I should look where I’m going,” he recalls. “I took about 10 steps and said to my friend , ‘Holy s—! That’s Clemmie — Churchill’s wife.”
He caught up with Clementine Churchill and asked if he could pose with her for a picture. She agreed, and the photo, inscribed by her, hangs on the wall.
On that July day in 1964, he also asked Lady Churchill if he might meet her husband. “Imagine the chutzpah,” Mutchnick says in reflection. But she assented, inviting him and his friend over the following day. Churchill was then very frail, having suffered a series of strokes. The following January, he would die at 90. When the great man appeared, Mutchnick remembers Clementine said, “Winston, say hello to your American cousins.” (Churchill’s mother, Jennie, was an American, and President Kennedy had named Churchill the first Honorary Citizen of the United States the previous year.) As a greeting, Churchill flashed the visitors his signature “V for victory” sign. The former prime minister was on his way to an appointment, and the young Mutchnick assisted him in getting into the car.
“He turned to me and said, ‘Thank you.’ Winston Churchill actually talked to me, and my legs just turned to rubber.” In time, Mutchnick also corresponded with Churchill’s son, Randolph, and met Randolph’s son, Winston, who introduced him to Queen Elizabeth II in 1974.
Another incident that took plenty of chutzpah happened in Israel in 1966, when Mutchnick approached David Ben-Gurion, the country’s first prime minister and a Churchill admirer and friend. Ben-Gurion told his guest about a 1961 meeting with Churchill in London. They discussed who had the greater influence on Western society — Moses or Jesus Christ, a dialogue that continued via letters. Finally, Mutchnick says, Churchill conceded that Moses had more sway because he influenced three great religions.
“Then he added at the bottom of the last letter: ‘P.S.: But Jesus Christ was a greater man.’ ”
Mutchnick guffaws at the exchange. “What tenacity Churchill had; he was a bulldog. Even when he gave up, he didn’t give up.”
Just a few years ago, he spotted a photograph on eBay of Churchill and Ben-Gurion taken in 1961 in London, which now hangs on his wall. “That photo is dearest to me,” he says. “Every time I look at it, I can hear those two arguing about Moses and Jesus.”
When asked what Holy Grail object would complete his assemblage, Mutchnick doesn’t hesitate.
“A painting by Churchill,” he says. “I’d kill for one. They come up occasionally, but they cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Still, Mutchnick has something more valuable than any tangible item: Churchillian inspiration.
“ ‘Never give in,’ ” he says, “is advice that has guided me in life. If something is worth fighting for, don’t give in.”