Retired Detroit attorney gets sneak peek at historical film 'The Darkest Hour'


by Tom Kirvan
Legal News

Hollywood knows a good story and, as such, the legend of Winston Churchill is a veritable gold mine for those who make their livelihood in the shadow of the silver screen.

Churchill – the British statesman who twice served as prime minister of the United Kingdom – became a bigger than life historical figure during World War II, when his leadership and oratory helped inspire resistance to Nazi aggression across the European map.

In recent weeks, Churchill has been brought back to life most notably in the highly acclaimed The Darkest Hour, about the events of May 1940 in Great Britain, when the future of freedom was imperiled.

Attorney Dick Marsh, president of the Churchill Society of Michigan, got an early look at the movie during “a preliminary showing in New York City in early October,” a preview highlighted by the appearance of a very special guest.

“The movie was introduced by Randolph Churchill, Winston’s great-grandson,” said Marsh, a retired Clark Hill attorney and one of the foremost ex-perts on the late British prime minister.

“I consisameder the events of May 1940 to be one of the decisive moments of the 20th Century,” Marsh proclaimed. “Would Winston or (Viscount) Halifax become Prime Minister? Would Winston or Halifax prevail in the War Cabinet as to whether Great Britain would attempt to negotiate a peace with Hitler? Those were close questions and if Halifax had prevailed on either, the world could have been a very different place today.”

In the movie, praised by critics as a “monumental cinematic achievement,” Churchill is portrayed by Gary Oldman, whose performance is already garnering Oscar award mentions.

“Gary Oldman is outstanding as Winston,” said Marsh. “The movie is accurate with one glaring exception. The scene towards the end of the movie, which shows Winston in the underground, gauging the courage and resolve of the common man, never occurred.

“The movie is also controversial in another sense,” Marsh noted. “It portrays Winston waffling on the question of whether negotiations should occur with Hitler. This is not the standard historical view that Winston was steadfast in avoiding the ‘slippery slope’ of negotiating with Hitler.”

Churchill as a historical character also found his way to the television screen in the popular Netflix series, The Crown, which traces the reign of Queen Elizabeth II from the 1940s to modern times. In The Crown, Churchill is portrayed brilliantly by John Lithgow and the first season is spiced by story lines involving the Prime Minister.

“I think the series is outstanding,” Marsh said of the Netflix-original. “I do, however, remember one episode involving Winston based on a false premise. It involved the great fog in London (in December 1952), which allegedly caused the death of Winston’s secretary. There was a great fog, but the story about Winston’s secretary never occurred.”

Marsh, as an avid student of history, is a walking encyclopedia of all things Churchill. His breadth of knowledge of the late British prime minister is perhaps surpassed only by the magnificence of Marsh’s home library, which is dedicated to the World War II hero widely credited with helping stop Nazi tyranny in its tracks.

The library would undoubtedly would make Churchill proud, rich as it is with collec-tibles, books, letters, documents, and photos of the cigar-chomping war leader in particular and British history in general.

“Let’s just say that when we built this house we did it largely with this library in mind,” said Marsh, who has served as president of the Winston Churchill Society of Michigan for nearly a decade. “My collection of books had grown to such a degree over the years that we needed a larger space to house them.”

Marsh and his wife, Mary Jo, a retired school teacher, designed and built their stately Scio Township home west of Ann Arbor with exquisite attention to detail. At the front of the house is a quaint English courtyard with British lions adorning the bench. The front door has a lion’s head doorknocker in keeping with 10 Downing St., the home of British prime ministers since 1735.

A portrait of Churchill, a replica of a 1941 painting by acclaimed artist Frank Salisbury, sets the tone for the library, which features a stylish fireplace and coffered ceilings. It is accented by furniture modeled after treasured pieces in the grand Althorp House, the English home of the Spencer family that included Lady Diana, the late Princess of Wales. Marsh says Churchill’s ancestry can be traced to the Spencers, one of the preeminent aristocratic families in Britain.

“I’ve always believed in the importance of planning and preparation,” Marsh said. “Everything was designed or collected with a purpose.”

There are 13 generations of Churchills represented in Marsh’s collection, which has been built over the course of his legal career that began in 1969 when he graduated from the University of Michigan Law School.

“My family’s ancestry is tied to Cutcombe Parish in southwest England and I’ve probably made at least 15 visits to Great Britain over the years,” said Marsh, who also earned his bachelor’s degree from U-M. “I’ve always been fascinated by history and Churchill is such a revered figure who stands out in so many ways,” he added, noting that the heroic prime minister won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953 and a decade later was made an Honorary Citizen of the United States.

Much of Marsh’s collection has been obtained through purchases from three primary dealers in the U.S., including Chartwell Booksellers in New York City, billed as “The World’s Only Winston Churchill Bookshop.” He said that prices for prized Churchill items tend to follow the ups and downs of the stock market. In other words, “dealers have done well” during the ongoing bull market, fetching higher prices for authentic Churchill goods.

Steve Forbes, son of magazine publisher Malcolm Forbes, reportedly is influencing the market, periodically selling some of his father’s cherished Churchill items at auction.

“Being a collector is not for the faint of heart,” Marsh said with a half smile. “It can be a pricey proposition.”

Churchill, as a prolific and gifted writer, is largely responsible for that. He reportedly authored more than 40 books, including his best-selling six-volume history, “The Second World War.” Marsh even has collected a 2,100-page bound bibliography of Churchill’s various published works.

“What many people don’t know about Churchill is that he was a war correspondent of great note in the late 1800s before he became involved in politics as a Member of Parliament,” related Marsh, who estimates that he has more than 1,500 books in his Churchill collection. “He wrote for several of Britain’s leading newspapers and also authored several books about his military experiences in the British army.”

In keeping with his British hero, Marsh has written extensively on Churchill’s life, privately publishing a collection of essays. He also is a sought-after speaker at various Churchill-related events, regularly traveling the country to attend meetings of significance. Of local note, Marsh recently was the featured speaker at the Ann Arbor Rotary Club, and earlier spoke at the Detroit Athletic Club about “Churchill and his ‘Dream,’ an interesting story of when Winston was visited by his father’s ghost in November 1947.”

For Marsh, talking about the many facets of Churchill’s life and complex personality is an enriching experience.

“There is never a shortage of Churchill material, that is for sure,” Marsh said matter of factly, pointing out that Churchill and his father died at the same hour on the same day of the month some 70 years apart.
He also likes to note that Churchill possessed a photographic memory and had an “uncanny ability to foresee the future.” Of additional note was Churchill’s strained relationship with his father and his mother’s Brooklyn-born American lineage.

Marsh has undoubtedly gathered some interesting nuggets from Churchill’s daughter, Mary Soames, whom he met several times before her passing in 2014 at the age of 91. In 2012, Lady Soames published her memoirs, A Daughter’s Tale, a signed copy of which appears in Marsh’s collection.

Fortunately, Marsh’s wife shares his enthusiasm for the man known as “The Last Lion,” as do the couple’s three daughters, Elizabeth, Catherine, and Diana. Marsh and his wife, who grew up in Canton, met on a blind date to a U-M football game in 1967, marrying during his final year of law school.

He spent his entire career with Clark Hill, a Detroit firm that has taken many shapes since its founding in 1890. He specialized in administrative law, environmental law, and litigation before retiring.

“I rarely stop by the office anymore, except to abuse the copier,” Marsh quipped.

Marsh was raised in Dearborn, the home of Ford Motor Co.

“I was discriminated against as a kid because my Dad was the Chevy dealer there,” Marsh said with a smile. “My grandfather started the car dealership in 1933 after losing his job as circulation manager at The Free Press.”

Now in his “second career” as president of the Churchill Society of Michigan, Marsh runs little risk of losing his job.

“I have a feeling that this is a lifetime appointment,” he joked.