Stanley Weintraub
Stanley Weintraub
Disraeli: A Biography
ISBN: 0525936688
Disraeli: A Biography
Historian Stanley Weintraub discussed his book, "Disraeli: A Biography," published by Dutton Publishing. The book deals with Disraeli who was a novelist, prime minister, and one of the major political figures in England during the 19th century. Professor Weintraub mentioned his admiration for Disraeli and said that his success in politics was due largely to his audacity.
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Disraeli: A Biography
Program Air Date: February 6, 1994

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Stanley Weintraub, who was Disraeli?
STANLEY WEINTRAUB, AUTHOR, "DISRAELI: A BIOGRAPHY" Disraeli was a novelist; Disraeli was twice prime minister and probably one of the major figures of the 19th century in England.
LAMB: When was this picture taken that's used on the cover?
WEINTRAUB: He was in his early thirties, though he looks younger. He was then a novelist and aspiring to be a politician. It took him a long time. He lost four elections before he became a member of Parliament.
LAMB: What years did he live?
WEINTRAUB: Disraeli was born in 1804. He died in 1881. By the time he died, he was probably the most famous man in England and would have been the most famous person in England if Queen Victoria hadn't been around, and he was her favorite prime minister.
LAMB: Why would he had been the most famous person if she hadn't been around?
WEINTRAUB: As twice prime minister, as a famous novelist, as somebody who was always in the public eye because of his audacity, he once said that success is the child of audacity, and he proved it in his own lifetime.
LAMB: Where did the name Disraeli come from?
WEINTRAUB: Disraeli was originally D'-I-S-R-A-L-E-Y. Disraeli was "of Israel"; that is, Israeli meant "of Israel." In other words, it identified his Jewish background. His father kept the name, but he dropped the apostrophe just out of simplification.
LAMB: Where was his father born?
WEINTRAUB: His father was an Englishman. His grandfather was born in Italy and probably came from Sephardic Jewish background. When Disraeli's grandfather came to England, he came as a seller of straw hats from Leghorn, Italy, and had only one son. The son was not interested in selling hats or doing anything else in the way of mercantile business, and he became a writer and Disraeli followed him as a writer.
LAMB: When did you first get interested in him?
WEINTRAUB: I wrote a biography of Queen Victoria, published in 1987, and was fascinated by the character of Disraeli as he came across in the biography of Victoria, and at that point I decided I wanted to write about Disraeli.
LAMB: Where do you live?
WEINTRAUB: Where do I live? I'm at Penn State, the center of Pennsylvania.
LAMB: What do you do there?
WEINTRAUB: I teach. I'm teaching a course in biographical writing this semester.
LAMB: And how long have your been there?
WEINTRAUB: A long time. I came to Penn State right out of the Korean War. I was a young lieutenant in the Korean War. One of the other sides of my writing has always been war because I've been interested ever since Korea. So the last book of mine between Victoria and Disraeli was one called "Long Day's Journey Into War" about the weekend of Pearl Harbor.
LAMB: How many books have your written over the years?
WEINTRAUB: Oh, a lot. I would guess a dozen biographies and possibly nearly that many books of cultural history of various sorts -- about World War I, about World War II, the Spanish Civil War, a book about my own adventures in the Korean War and so on. Now I'm working on a book on the summer of '45 about the end of World War II. So perhaps I'll be back again here in a year or so.
LAMB: Where is your home originally?
WEINTRAUB: Philadelphia. I'm a Pennsylvanian all the way.
LAMB: I vaguely remember years ago when Richard Nixon was president that he used to refer to Disraeli as -- maybe you know this -- one of his favorite politicians in history.
WEINTRAUB: What has happened is a lot of politicians have adopted Disraeli the same way in America they've adopted Harry Truman. In other words, they've adopted somebody who is a feisty, fighting character who came out of nowhere, who came out of a rather low beginnings -- not an aristocrat by any means -- and who fought his way up. So you find Republicans having adopted Truman over here, and you find people of both parties adopted Disraeli because they like the fighter. They like the fact that he had the audacity to do what he did.
LAMB: And where was he born?
WEINTRAUB: Disraeli was born in London, and his father was at least nominally Jewish. But about 12 years later, just before Disraeli -- Ben, the man I've written about -- would have been barmitzvahed on his 13th birthday, his father got a visit from a friend who said, "Your son is never going to make it anywhere because he's Jewish." The laws against Jews, against Catholics, against Unitarians -- quite a lot of prejudicial laws then -- prevented someone like Disraeli from becoming a public figure through election to an office or professions of various sorts. So his father had him converted to the Church of England, the Anglican Church, at age 12. The other children, too; there were four children. So all four Disraelis became nominally Anglicans. If it weren't for that, Disraeli would never have been prime minister.
LAMB: Why?
WEINTRAUB: Because of those laws against Jews and others forbidding them to hold public office at that time. The laws changed over Disraeli's period as a public figure. But he couldn't have become a lawyer, he couldn't have become a judge, he couldn't have run for office, and so his father decided give him a chance and had him nominally converted. So Disraeli had this schizophrenic background of tremendous loyalty to his Jewish background and yet, at the same time, a need to stress the fact that he was legally entitled to the offices he was running for.
LAMB: Was the law stated positively or negatively?
WEINTRAUB: The law said that you had to swear an oath on the appropriate Bible. So if you sweared an oath for public office on a King James Bible, for example, that would have ruled you out if you were a Roman Catholic. It would have ruled you out if you were Jewish. It would have ruled you out in some other ways also, so the laws were not very complicated. They just ruled you out. If you would not swear the proper oath, you couldn't hold office. The oath was a religious oath.
LAMB: When did they change it?
WEINTRAUB: For Catholics, in 1829; for Jews it wasn't until 1858.
LAMB: And how did they change them?
WEINTRAUB: They changed them by changing the oath, by modifying the oath.
LAMB: Was there a lot of debate about it?
WEINTRAUB: Oh, tremendous debate. The debate about Disraeli and his brethren becoming members of Parliament was fought over about every year, sometimes every other year. One of the leading men in England at the time was Lionel de Rothschild, who was the number one banker in England and a very fine man and one who ran for office from the city of London, I think five times, elected most of the time unanimously, and he couldn't take a seat because he would not swear an oath on the Protestant Bible, the Anglican Bible.
LAMB: You say "de Rothschild." Is it now Rothschild in this country and others?
WEINTRAUB: They mostly the dropped the de.
LAMB: And are they all descendants?.
WEINTRAUB: They are all descendants of von Rothschild, in other words, the German family from Frankfurt. Some of them went to Italy, some to France, some of them remained in Germany and one brother went to England. They established branches of the bank in England so that some of them were de Rothschild, some of them were von Rothschild, but basically they had received titles of baron from the Austrian empire and it entitled them to the de or the von.
LAMB: Were the books that Disraeli wrote all nonfiction?
WEINTRAUB: No, Disraeli was a novelist.
LAMB: I'm sorry, I meant fiction.
WEINTRAUB: But most of his books were fiction except that, as in the case of most novelists, they begin by writing about themselves. So Disraeli's early heroes in the first four or five novels were pretty definitely Disraelis. And when he would write about somebody as having "the two greatest spurs to ambition, youth and debt," he was writing about himself. He was terribly in debt at the beginning of his career, for example.
LAMB: His first novel, you say, was written when he was 20.
WEINTRAUB: Twenty or 21. Yes.
LAMB: Did it sell?
WEINTRAUB: It was a great success until people discovered who wrote it. It was published anonymously, and people thought some great writer must have written it and published it anonymously. They praised it, bought copies and then they discovered that this young kid had written it, and they were embarrassed and it hurt the future novels of his for a while.
LAMB: What was the name of it?
WEINTRAUB: Vivian Grey was his first novel, and he wrote a number of others after that that also dealt with his own background, but in between he tried to write one that would sell a lot of copies, in other words, a sort of romantic dream fiction. He called it The Young Duke, and his father scoffed at this saying, "What does Ben know of dukes?" He didn't know anything about dukes, but by the end of his life Queen Victoria was ready to make him a duke. He got as far as being earl. He became Earl of Beaconsfield when he was prime minister. So he went from obscure Jewish boy ineligible for office to the end of his life Earl of Beaconsfield, and he could have had a dukedom if he wanted it.
LAMB: How many novels did he write?
WEINTRAUB: He wrote about a dozen, and what is very striking about his novels is that it made some of the other novelists of the time very jealous. Some of them were successful. They were all very greatly talked about, and finally at the end of his life when he was about to publish his last completed novel, Endymion, he received the highest sum for signing the contract that any novelist had ever received in England. It made people like Anthony Trollope and some of the other novelists who were popular at the time very jealous. They couldn't imagine why somebody like Disraeli would be getting that kind of money. But he was a public figure; people would read what he had to say because it was Disraeli even it didn't turn out to be an exciting novel.
LAMB: Today in this country if you went to the bookstore, how many of his novels would be there, and which names would we know the most?
WEINTRAUB: I think only three of them are in reprint right now. They're a group known collectively as The Young England Trilogy that were published when he was a young member of Parliament -- the first one called Coningsby, the second one called Sybil and the third called Tancred. They all deal with a young politician and the changes in the aristocracy, the popular democracy coming in. Sybil, which is probably the best of the three, was so successful that people began naming their children Sybil. There was a race horse named Sybil. There was a song for Sybil. It was a tremendous success. Sybil was a girl of the country who falls in love with, and eventually marries, a member of the aristocracy, and so you have a merger of the two nations. Disraeli called Sybil, Sybil or the Two Nations. He meant by the two nations the rich and the poor, and so the two nations are merged in Sybil as they were never merged in real life. But as I said these were political dreams of Disraeli turned into novels.
LAMB: Did you read many of his novels?
WEINTRAUB: I read them all in working on the biography and found tremendous numbers of parallels between his own life and his novels. He just put what he thought about, what he knew, what he experienced, what he would have liked to have been; all of these go into the novel. Possibly the most interesting this way there is that last one I mentioned called Endymion because in Endymion he relives his life. He sees his life through rose-colored glasses the way it would have been if he hadn't been an upstart Jew, if he had only been just an upstart and made it all the way to becoming prime minister where the ladies fall in love with him -- he was always a ladies man -- and older women went after him. In fact, he married a woman because he was so much in debt, a widow who was about 14 years his elder and didn't get him out of debt but it helped a bit.
LAMB: Why not?
WEINTRAUB: She didn't have enough money. He was so deeply in debt. He speculated in the stock market.
LAMB: Is this the woman right here?
WEINTRAUB: That's the lady, Mary Ann Disraeli, who had been the widow of a member of Parliament. That's young Disraeli next to her. That's a flattering picture of her. She wasn't really all that attractive at age 49 when he married her, but he really needed her money and he needed her house on Grosvener Gate across from Hyde Park as a place where he could entertain and be a major politician. But when you're mid-30s and you marry a woman about 50 at a time in England when -- not as now, a 50-year-old woman can still be very attractive -- she was on her way down as a beauty and was very jealous of him although there was a good deal of love between them after a while. She was also very jealous. She couldn't bear the idea that younger women were interested in him, and at one point in his life, perhaps 10 years after they married, she broke into his safes and bureau drawers and so on looking for love letters because she was sure there were some. And she found no love letters. He said he was relieved by this, but she found a lot of material about his debts. She had no idea he was in so much debt.
LAMB: How much?
WEINTRAUB: By our buying power, millions.
LAMB: How did he do it?
WEINTRAUB: He kept borrowing money. Unfortunately, this is how this works. You're in debt and so you borrow money at a higher interest, and then in order to pay that back you have to borrow more money at even higher interest. So in the long run, he was so deeply in debt that the only way he got out of it is that successful bankers within the Conservative Party who knew that he was a future prime minister tried to figure out ways that they could buy the debt off at very low interest.
LAMB: When he died did he have any money?
WEINTRAUB: When he died, he was a rich man because he had been a novelist. But he got no money from his wife because his wife's money was all tied up; that is, she was entitled to it in her lifetime, and he could spend the interest on her income. But when she died, the capital went to her relatives, distant cousins, so he even lost his house. He had to move into a hotel for a while, and finally one of the Rothschilds offered him a house temporarily until he could get a house of his own.
LAMB: In history, how many biographies have been written about Disraeli?
WEINTRAUB: Possibly a dozen. There were biographies written of Disraeli before he became famous, before he became prime minister. And they were often very negative, very derogatory, very anti-Semitic, because he was never lost the tag of being a Jew all his life. How could he? He was converted at 12, but he remained Benjamin Disraeli. And if your name were Benjamin Disraeli, you're going to be identified with the background from which he came.
LAMB: How often did he marry?
WEINTRAUB: He only had one wife. He didn't remarry, but curiously, after his wife died -- I think he was about 69 at the time or at least late 60s -- two women proposed to him, two of the richest women in England. One of them was the Baroness Burdett-Coutts of the banking family, the Coutts Bank. She proposed to him and she said, "We'd be the richest couple in England." He said he wasn't interested. The other woman was the widow of the Earl of Cardigan, the very Cardigan who we have our cardigan sweaters named for. He had been the one who ran the Charge of the Light Brigade, was responsible for that terrible disaster. But he was a rich man and as a second wife had married a beauty who was very young, and she survived him by a lot of years. She wanted to marry Disraeli, and he said she was too notorious and he wasn't interested.
LAMB: How many affairs were you able to find?
WEINTRAUB: I'm not sure I found them all yet. I mention in the book that he appears to have had two illegitimate children by two different women. Just recently a lady in England wrote to me to say that there is a tradition in her family that they're descended from an illegitimate Disraeli child. I have no evidence this is the case, but I'll follow it up and maybe it's true.
LAMB: What years was he prime minister?
WEINTRAUB: Disraeli was prime minister for the first time in 1868, and the two illegitimate children were born by then. One was born in 1865, the year our Civil War ended, and the other was born the next year.
LAMB: How do you know they were his children?
WEINTRAUB: We'd have to say smoking guns, because this is before the day when birth certificates were required, and even if they were required there would have been ways to hide the fact. One of the woman, Lady Dorothy Neville, was married. She hadn't lived with her husband for years, but she was a neighbor of Disraeli's. She lived across the street at Grosvenor Gate and was very, very close to Disraeli, although 20 years younger than Disraeli -- always known as a very fast woman. Disraeli was close to her for a number of years and may have been -- I think he was -- the father of her last child. She certainly wasn't involved with her husband then, and the child, named Ralph Neville, was never owned up as a Disraeli, but the family says that he looked like Disraeli. I've been trying to get a picture out of the family, and so far I've been unsuccessful but I do have a picture of the daughter. That's in the book, and she looks just like Disraeli, I think. I can find it in my copy if you can't.
LAMB: I've got it right here.
WEINTRAUB: On your left-hand side, you can see the young Disraeli, and you can also see Kate. Kate's family still exists. The family of Kate is a very interesting story herself. Kate was married off after Disraeli's death and sent away, very likely with Rothschild money -- in other words, they helped protect his reputation. One of the Rothschilds was executor for Disraeli's will, and I found in the Rothschild papers a statement from the executors saying that the infant beneficiary is not mentioned in the will. And infant means somebody who is a minor child, and Kate would have been a minor child then. She wasn't mentioned in the will, but she apparently was taken care of.
LAMB: When you did this book, did you interview people?
LAMB: In the families?
WEINTRAUB: I haven't met Kate's descendants, but I've talked to them on the phone. I've written letters to them. They live in New Zealand. They are a long way off, and the family sent me the picture. The curious thing about this is that Kate's great-granddaughter, who is still around and in New Zealand, is a novelist. She's followed the family profession, and she and her son consider themselves Jewish, although we have no idea who the mother was in the case of this particular child. The great-grandson has literally converted back to Judaism and considers himself to be a member of Disraeli's family. I can't prove anything more than the close resemblance between Disraeli and Kate and the fact that there is reference by the lawyer who handled the will to there being a child not mentioned in the will, and there's some other smoking guns. But there is only one child, you see, because Lady Dorothy Neville had a living husband, and so that child was covered under the husband's will. Ralph inherited money under his legal father's will, never needed Disraeli's. He was a writer. He wrote 30 books, all of them no good, not of any value, but nevertheless he was a writer, too, and apparently looked like Disraeli.
LAMB: Back to your book on Queen Victoria. What's the name of it?
WEINTRAUB: "Victoria: An Intimate Biography," published by Dutton, as is Disraeli.
LAMB: When did you start work on Victoria, and why?
WEINTRAUB: In 1984, literally, I went to an exhibit in London -- I was working on another book that I never wrote as a result of this -- of the documents and papers and memorabilia dealing with Victoria's consort husband, Prince Albert. I was fascinated by what I saw and decided I wanted to write about that marriage, Victoria and Albert, and began the book and spent a great deal time of working on it that came out in 1987. By that time I knew I wanted to write Disraeli. Very often what happens is that a subject of a book comes out of the index to the last book because you get fascinated by somebody in the book, and you want to go on and write more.
LAMB: What was the first thing that caught your attention when you were doing the Victoria book about Disraeli?
WEINTRAUB: I think the first thing was how both Albert and Victoria disliked him intensely. They disliked him; he wasn't a gentleman.
LAMB: At what time in their lives?
WEINTRAUB: They were rather newly married. They were married in 1840, and this would have been about 1850.
LAMB: Would he have been 40-some years old?
WEINTRAUB: He would have been in his early 40s and still someone not yet ready to make the big move into the cabinet.
LAMB: What was he doing?
WEINTRAUB: He was a member of Parliament, and he was also writing novels and saying things in novels that the aristocracy didn't particularly care for. So they didn't like him on two counts.
LAMB: Had they met him?
WEINTRAUB: They had met him because he was a member of Parliament and would turn up at social events that the consort and queen had to be at.
LAMB: What do you mean by consort?
WEINTRAUB: Victoria was the queen. She was queen in her own right and inherited the throne the same way that Elizabeth today is queen. Elizabeth is queen, and she doesn't have a king. Philip is Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh. In Victoria's time, she would have liked to have her husband named king, or king consort as they would have called it then, and the Parliament wouldn't allow it. He was a minor princeling from a small German state, Coburg. He wasn't good enough or important enough, and he wasn't English and so they wouldn't permit it. But he was a small prince, or princeling, and Victoria in her own right decided to name him prince consort, prince husband in effect, and that was his title in the last years of his life.
LAMB: And how long was she queen?
WEINTRAUB: Victoria was queen for 64 years from 1837 to 1901. She became queen when she was 18 years old, so she was a good deal younger than Disraeli was. But there was a sort of love affair going on, a very safe, platonic kind of love affair between Disraeli and the queen after she was widowed. You have a picture there of Disraeli and the queen seated in Windsor Castle. She thought he was wonderful. She said that he "treats me like a woman" while Gladstone, who was the rival prime minister from the other party, treated her like a committee. She said she was not a public meeting; she was a woman.
LAMB: Let me interrupt you on William Gladstone. When was he prime minister?
WEINTRAUB: Gladstone was prime minister for the first time just after Disraeli's first prime ministry, so that was 1869. And he was prime minister off and on four times, longer than Disraeli was, right into the 1890s.
LAMB: His party?
WEINTRAUB: His was the Liberal Party; Disraeli's was the Conservative Party.
LAMB: Would he have been the same Liberal Party that exists over there today?
WEINTRAUB: What exists today is the rump of what is left of a once very powerful party. Disraeli and Gladstone had both been Conservatives to start with, but Gladstone moved parties in order to be able to have a chance as prime minister. He switched parties.
LAMB: What did they think of each other?
WEINTRAUB: They disliked each other intensely.
LAMB: Why?
WEINTRAUB: First of all they were rivals. Second, Gladstone came from a rich, gentlemanly background, and he considered Disraeli an upstart. Disraeli was that audacious character that he said he was. He also was covertly anti-Semitic, and I found in Gladstone's papers references to his anti-Semitism, the fact that he said at one point when Disraeli replaced him as prime minister, "That Jew is going to spend our surplus." One doesn't say these things if you're a real liberal.
LAMB: I just happened to open to the page on 392. You say, "Ignoring his elevated moral posture on most other matters, Gladstone ..." His "elevated moral posture"?
WEINTRAUB: He was known to be the epitome of dignity and honor and rectitude and so on, a great high-church goer -- very, very religious. He wrote religious tracts, for that matter.
LAMB: You say here that Gladstone at a public dinner in Newcastle embraced the slave-owning South and declared of its president, "Jefferson Davis had made an army and made a navy and what was more, had made a nation."
WEINTRAUB: He never lived that down. He supported the Confederacy. In fact, the Liberal Party for the most part did support the Confederacy because they represented the industrialists of the north of England, the cotton mills in particular. They wanted the slave cotton, and Gladstone also was the son of a sugar planter family that made money through Jamaican slaves before the slave trade was declared illegal. So he had a background of that sort, and I found Gladstone to be a tremendous hypocrite. And, of course, that's run into trouble for me in England in reviews of the book because there are a lot of people who think that Gladstone was wonderful, and I have looked under the sofa and found other things about Gladstone that they'd rather not repeat. Gladstone used to chase prostitutes, for example. He claimed he was reforming prostitutes. Even as prime minister, he'd go out at night and walk the streets looking for prostitutes. Only pretty ones interested him. He would give them Bibles and money, take them up to their rooms and exhort them to change their ways, and then he'd go home and he'd whip himself because he had excited himself too much. That was what he was after. This is in his diaries.
LAMB: How did you find that out?
WEINTRAUB: This is in Gladstone's diaries.
LAMB: Were they available to everybody else to see like you?
WEINTRAUB: Oh, yes. Yes.
LAMB: Why hadn't they written it up?
WEINTRAUB: Because they wanted to be kinder to Gladstone. And they're there. The diaries are now published, but the facts are there.
LAMB: What kind of outrage have you gotten about this in England?
WEINTRAUB: The outrage is largely that Disraeli was a bad man, too, in other ways, that I should have treated Disraeli as a bad man. I don't think Disraeli was a bad man. I think Disraeli was an ambitious man. He was an ambitious man, and he had to be more audacious than the others because he had all those handicaps that he had to overcome. He may have said things that he didn't believe in. All politicians do. But I think he was a man of tremendous courage. I go into the problems in his early years, that he suffered from very serious depression. He never thought he would amount to anything. He had such severe depression that doctors in that benighted age tried to treat that depression by, of all things, depressing him more; that is, they took a lot of blood from him, and then they gave him doses of digitalis. Digitalis slows down the heartbeat, so they were treating depression by depressing him. He had at least two very serious bouts of depression that he overcame. He overcame an awful lot of obstacles -- debt in the millions by our standards, prejudice that was religious and social, severe depression -- and yet he triumphed over all of these. He became one of the most famous novelists in England and perhaps the best known prime minister of the century, and Victoria's favorite. When Isaac Disraeli said of his son, "What does Ben know about dukes?" he was right, but he sure knew a lot about dukes when he was done.
LAMB: And you live in Pennsylvania in State College where ...
WEINTRAUB: Penn State is.
LAMB: What's it like there?
WEINTRAUB: What's it like? It snowed a lot the last time I was there, but it's a very pleasant place to be.
LAMB: What's it like, though, to write a book? Is that where you wrote your book?
WEINTRAUB: I wrote the book at home at Penn State. I did a lot of research, obviously, in London because that's where the stuff is. What is it like to work at Penn State? It's a very supportive atmosphere, and I get a lot of encouragement. If I hadn't, I wouldn't have been able to do all the things I've been doing.
LAMB: How do you find time to teach? : I don't play golf, and I guess I don't have any other hobbies but writing. So I keep at it, and the next book will be done this spring. After that I don't know; I haven't figured it out yet.
LAMB: What's the title of the next book?
WEINTRAUB: I don't have a title yet, but it will be about the end of World War II. As I said, I move back and forth between writing about war and writing about Victorian people.
LAMB: Do you use your books at all in your teaching?
WEINTRAUB: I'm teaching a class in biographical writing this semester, and one of the books we're going to look at is "Victoria" because it's in paperback and so it's more accessible to students. The reason I'm using it is that if I'm going to teach students how to do it, at least I can tell them how that one was done. I can't get into the minds of another writer, but I can give them some ideas how mine are done. I tell them, "Be tough. If you don't like the way I did something, tell me why it's no good. Write it better."
LAMB: Where did you learn how to write?
WEINTRAUB: You learn how to write by writing. I guess that's the only way one can do it. I'm teaching a course in biographical writing, but I don't think that's how you learn how to write. I think you write by writing and writing and writing.
LAMB: When did you start?
WEINTRAUB: I guess I wrote some stuff as a kid in school, but the first thing I wrote was as army officer in Korea. I kept a diary, and part of the diary was later published as a book called "The War and the Words." So I began serious writing, I think, when I was in the Army. It's not a matter, as a professorial type, to publish or perish because that's not necessary at this point, but it's a compulsion just as Disraeli was compelled to be famous. I think that's all he was interested in, and I think that's what critics had against him. He didn't want to be the best prime minister England ever had; he wanted to be famous. He didn't want to be the best novelist England ever had; he wanted to be a famous novelist. But people often live by compulsions. I guess mine is to write.
LAMB: Do you have any interest in being famous by your writings?
WEINTRAUB: No, I want to be read. I want to be read. I don't want to be read only by scholars who number maybe 30 to 300, and that's it. If I'm going to work very hard to try to reveal what somebody was really like and I think the person was a fascinating individual, I want to communicate that. I think Disraeli was just compellingly fascinating as a human being and as an achiever and so I'd like people to know about that.
LAMB: What would happen if he were here today in our system? Where would he be politically? What would we think of him if he had to live in this television age?
WEINTRAUB: I think we'd have to consider him something on the order of a liberal Republican; that is, he was in the Conservative Party but he was in the liberal wing of his party. Disraeli was responsible, for example, for what was called the Second Reform Bill, which extended the number of people who were eligible to vote tremendously, made working-class people eligible to vote and the Liberals hated him because he succeeded in doing it where they couldn't. But sometimes, as we discovered, for example, when Richard Nixon was able to recognize and create relations with Communist China that it often takes a conservative to accomplish something that would be seen as otherwise as very radical. And so it took Disraeli.
LAMB: Go back to that time period when he was the prime minister. What was going on in the world then? Bismarck's name was in the book and Charles Dickens's name and others.
WEINTRAUB: We like to thing of the period between the end of Napoleon's time, 1815 and the Battle of Waterloo, and the beginning of the first World War in 1914 as the century of relative peace. But it wasn't a century of relative peace any more than now; it's just that the bigger wars didn't happen. In the early 1850s when Disraeli was in Parliament, the Crimean War took place, which was a pretty good-sized European War, the one we remember mostly for Florence Nightingale having been involved in helping the sick in the Russian and Balkan area. That was in the '50s. There was a big mutiny in India toward the end of the '50s. The American Civil War was in the 1860s. Germany was being forcibly unified through Bismarck, as you mentioned, in the 1860s, and Disraeli and Bismarck had a fascinating relationship. They respected each other very considerably. But in order to do this Bismarck had wars with three different nations -- first with Denmark and then with Austria and then with France. So there were three big wars. Disraeli and Bismarck met again in the later 1870s in Berlin for the Treaty of Berlin to try to end the fighting in the Balkans between the Turks and the rising nationalities there, a repeat of what we're having with Bosnia and Herzogovina and so on now.
LAMB: Those names are in your book?
WEINTRAUB: Oh, yes, yes. That hasn't stopped, and those Balkan wars continued through the 1870s when Disraeli was trying to stop them, right into World War I. Here we are back again, so you'll see some familiar names in there when you look at Bosnia and Herzogovina and Serbia and so on. They were all going on.
LAMB: Did Benjamin Disraeli ever come to the United States?
WEINTRAUB: No, he didn't. He never had any interest in coming to the United States. He knew that his political fortune had to be made in England. I think he was worried that if he left England, the backbiting about him would be so strong that he would lose his position. Traveling meant being away a long time back then. You couldn't just take the Concorde and fly over. It was a long and somewhat harrowing trip to go over the Atlantic to the United States and then come back again sometime later. He never made a trip that big.
LAMB: You say in Chapter 25, 1874-1875, that "symbolically the first major event of Disraeli's premiership was his being awakened at 6 a.m. on Feb. 27 with the news that General Sir Garnet Wolseley's forces had captured the Ashanti capital of Kumasi now in Ghana."
WEINTRAUB: In other words, there were a great many African colonial wars also at this time.
LAMB: But the next thing I wanted to get to which was important to this discussion is that on the next page there is a woman by the name of Jenny Jerome of New York who comes into this picture. Who was she?
WEINTRAUB: Jennie Jerome was Winston Churchill's mother, an American. She was the wife of an aspiring young parliamentarian, and as a result she became hostess to Disraeli on a number of occasions. Disraeli admired her quite a bit, but he admired pretty women.
LAMB: The quote that I wanted to read was from her that you put in the book, "When I left the dining room after sitting next to Gladstone, I thought he was the cleverest man in England. But when I sat next to Disraeli I left feeling that I was the cleverest woman."
WEINTRAUB: You see, that's why Victoria liked him too. He knew how to treat a woman, and he was able to do this even when his own wife was jealous of him. He was able to soften her up and treat her this way as well. So she would boast to people about Disraeli, who was never really a handsome man in his old age -- he might have been as a young man. They would boast of a picture hanging on the wall of a Greek god, nude of course, and she would say, "Oh, that's nothing. You should see my Dizzy in his bath." She was a little flutter-headed, but she was very proud of her Dizzy, as she called him.
LAMB: You say his last novel Endymion is "rich in wry wisdom of Disraeli's six decades of political and fashionable life." What time in his life did he write this?
WEINTRAUB: He wrote this when he was in his last years. He died in 1881 when he was 77, and he wrote this in the later 1870s so he was already in his 70s when he wrote this. He was not the retiring type. For example, he has somebody say in Endymion, "An ox in a pasture has a pleasant life" but he doesn't want that kind of life. He doesn't want to be put out to pasture.
LAMB: I counted 19 different points about life and how you ought to live life. I'll read a couple. See if you can relate them to his life. Would you say these are how he thought life ought to be lived?
WEINTRAUB: I think most of them are the way he thought life ought to be lived, but, of course, he was writing dialogue for characters and he might have put dialogue in the mouth of a character that he didn't like that would be a different ...
LAMB: I'll just read a couple. One: "As a general rule nobody has money who ought to have it."
WEINTRAUB: That goes back to Disraeli's attempt to get it. He knew that he oughtn't have all those riches he was aiming for when he was 20 years old.
LAMB: Two: "What is the use of diamond necklaces if you cannot help a friend into Parliament?"
WEINTRAUB: He was very indebted to women who either pawned or sold their jewels, if necessary, to help him in public office, to help him fight an election.
LAMB: Three: "Marriage is a mighty instrument."
WEINTRAUB: Marriage was a mighty instrument for him. It saved his career.
LAMB: Four: "Life is a masquerade."
WEINTRAUB: That one takes a whole book to deal with, and maybe this is the book. The masquerade is who are you at the time; that is, this is image making -- the masquerade -- and he was certainly in the process of image making as a politician all his life.
LAMB: Five: "Desperation is sometimes as powerful and inspiring as genius."
WEINTRAUB: There were many times in his life when he had to do what he had to do about it because he was desperate. I mention the occasions when he was suffering from depression. He married his wife, I think, as much out of desperation as anything else. It worked out, fortunately.
LAMB: Six: "As for religion, generally, if a man believe in his maker and does his duty to his neighbor, in my mind that is sufficient."
WEINTRAUB: I think that was Disraeli's religion; that is, he may have gone to church because politically he had to. But I think his ideas about religion were much more liberal than that, that church, or religion rather, is a maker of ethics, and he wasn't much of a theologian. But then neither was Victoria. Victoria had no theology.
LAMB: Seven: "It is not good taste to believe in the devil."
WEINTRAUB: I think that represents his dislike of evangelical religion.
LAMB: Eight: "A little knowledge of the world is a dangerous thing, especially in literature."
WEINTRAUB: I think that Disraeli, as a novelist, practiced what he preached.
LAMB: Nine: "I prefer the society of a first-rate woman to that of any man."
WEINTRAUB: He practiced what he preached there, too. He told a number of people that the best way to learn what the world was like was to talk to an intelligent woman. Oscar Wilde used to repeat some of Disraeli's sayings as his own, and that was one.
LAMB: Eleven: "Never dine out in a high-neck dress."
WEINTRAUB: It was fashionable, of course, for women in high society to wear very low-cut dresses, and if you wanted to be interesting, you wore the low cut dress and not the high one.
LAMB:This is from his novel, Endymion. How did it sell?
WEINTRAUB: Endymion, as I said, got the biggest advance on signing a contract that any novelist had ever gotten. By the time that Disraeli had died, which was less than a year later, it made the money back and was beginning to make a profit.
LAMB: Do you have any idea what the novels sold for in those days?
WEINTRAUB: Novels usually sold for a shilling. Sometimes they sold for a shilling and a half. But relatively, because of our change in money values, it would have been the same as a novel today. So you might have paid $20 for a novel by our standards today.
LAMB: Another saying you took out of Endymion: "Only let a man be able to drive into Bamford on market day and get two of three linen drapers to take off their hats to him and he will be happy enough and always ready to die for our glorious constitution."
WEINTRAUB: He says you need a little pride in yourself, and if one of the things you get in your life is a sense of pride then you've achieved something as this man.
LAMB: Twelve: "The most precious stone must be cut and polished."
WEINTRAUB: That was Disraeli's life. He knew that he was a man of some genius, but he also knew that he had to sophisticate it and with the help of a lot of women he did.
LAMB: How much education did he have?
WEINTRAUB: It was mostly self-education. He went to private schools because there were no public schools until he was about 16. Then he was apprenticed out to a firm of lawyers in which he lasted a couple of years -- never practiced law, never made it to the end. He worked for a newspaper briefly but largely he was self-employed by writing.
LAMB: Thirteen: "Without tact you can learn nothing. Tact teaches you when to be silent."
WEINTRAUB: I'm afraid he didn't learn that one well enough. He was too feisty to be as tactful as he ought to be.
LAMB: Fourteen: "I think life would be very insipid if all of our lots were the same."
WEINTRAUB: He was ambitious, and obviously he felt that you need the drive of ambition to get somewhere. There is a limit to equality in that respect. Equality of opportunity is one thing, but you need the drive of ambition.
LAMB: Two more. Eighteen: "No one can be patient who is not independent."
WEINTRAUB: This was the problem for a politician in particular then. It may still be for politicians until we get public financing of elections. If you're independent, you can then run for election. If you're independent, you can do things you want to do. But if you have to make a living, this is going to keep you from fulfilling many of your ambitions.
LAMB: Finally, your last quote: "Every procession must end."
WEINTRAUB: That's a good one to end on, isn't it? Every procession must end. He knew that it was going to stop -- the bugles were going to stop playing for him -- and it did stop. He became prime minister for the last time when he was in his 70s, and his ministry ended less than a year before he died, so the procession ended.
LAMB: He was in the House of Commons for how many years total?
WEINTRAUB: He was in the House of Commons from 1837, the year that Victoria became queen, until he died. He never left the House of Commons. He was reelected every time he ran.
LAMB: But didn't he become a lord?
WEINTRAUB: I'm sorry, he was in Parliament. I shouldn't have said House of Commons. You're right. When he became Earl of Beaconsfield in 1876, which was five years before he died, he moved over to the House of Lords, so he was in Parliament but the last five years were spent in the House of Lords.
LAMB: How about Gladstone? Did he ever become a lord?
WEINTRAUB: Gladstone refused. He was the great commoner. He wanted to be the common man and a friend of the common man and so he refused even to be knighted. He remained pure William E. Gladstone to the end of his days. Churchill tried that for many years, and it was only when he was in his very late years that he agreed to be Sir Winston. Churchill, I think, in part didn't want a title that would be inheritable. In our days now you can get a life peerage so that the title is not inherited. Disraeli had no legitimate children, and in his day when he was made an earl, Victoria said that "if you'd like I will issue a special ruling that will enable your nephew" -- he had only one male nephew named Coningsby, after his novel -- "to inherit your earldom." Disraeli said, "He'll have to work for it." He didn't believe in that sort of thing. He did not want people who did not earn their honors to have them.
LAMB: How many times did he run for the House of Commons before he got elected?
WEINTRAUB: Four times.
LAMB: In the same constituency?
WEINTRAUB: No, they differed a little bit, but two were in the same constituency, the one he finally won from. He was just too antagonistic to the electorate. He thought that he could win on the basis of feistiness and the fact that he was a genius. He didn't know you had to be trusted, and he also didn't know you had to buy the votes. Eventually, before the English reforms came along, he managed to borrow enough money to buy enough votes that he got elected. It's a little harder to buy votes now.
LAMB: Did he and William Gladstone ever debate?
WEINTRAUB: No, they never did, except in the House of Commons where they would have debated along with other people, but they did answer each other. One can't call it so much a debate because other people were involved. But they did answer each other, and they probably were the two best speakers in the House of Commons in their time. And people would fill the place to listen to them talk.
LAMB: How tall was he?
WEINTRAUB: He was rather short. He was about 5'6", and that was average height for his time.
LAMB: You refer to him as having a drawl of some kind.
WEINTRAUB: He seems to have developed a drawl because he thought it was aristocratic, and he wanted to speak in an aristocratic fashion. Part of the drawl, I think, was that if you slowed your manner of speech, it gave you time to think ahead, and that enabled him to speak with greater effectiveness.
LAMB: Which character in this book besides Disraeli is your favorite?
WEINTRAUB: Somebody we haven't mentioned at all, one of the ladies who was very friendly with him and who he admired immensely, and that's Charlotte de Rothschild, who was Lionel de Rothschild's wife. He would often go over and visit her on his own to talk to her. He admired her mightily, and I think he admired her because he liked to hear intelligent women talk . He often went to talk with her.
LAMB: Who was the Viscountess Beaconsfield?
WEINTRAUB: That was his wife, Mary Ann. After Disraeli was prime minister for the first time, he was entitled to an earldom if he wanted it. The queen asked him if he wanted to have the rank of nobility. He said, "No, but my wife is very old and she probably will not live to see me prime minister again. I would like her to be honored in her own right." She and her advisors thought that it was a scandalous thing to do, that one shouldn't do this, but Disraeli insisted and so she became Viscountess Beaconsfield in her own right and was able to wear a coronet and had the fancy stationery and a coat of arms, and she loved it in her last years.
LAMB: What would you say he accomplished for Great Britain?
WEINTRAUB: I think he accomplished bringing the average person more into the political scene than had ever been done before, particularly with what I had called the Second Reform Bill. It brought the working class into the electorate as had not been done before. In his second prime ministry, he mainly consolidated things. He was interested in pure food and drug laws, improving sanitation facilities, improving education and so on. He didn't have big breakthroughs in the second ministry. He was trying to improve the lot of society.
LAMB: What's new in this book compared to all the other biographies?
WEINTRAUB: I think Disraeli the man is elicited here more than ever before. Disraeli the man and in particular I think how his being a Jew drove him and how it affected him in the public eye. I think in both ways it was tremendously important; that is, the public's perception of him as a Jew no matter what baptism occurred early in his life and his own perception of how that was going to affect his career. He used it. He did not let prejudice stand in his way.
LAMB: The dedication for this book is in memory of "my father Benjamin Weintraub and my father-in-law Benjamin Horowitz, who each share a name with Disraeli." How long have they both been gone?
WEINTRAUB: I guess a dozen years in the case of my father-in-law. My father died when I was working on my doctorate, and I was much. much younger.
LAMB: What do you remember about both of them?
WEINTRAUB: What I remember most about my father was that he was a tremendous reader although he had very little education. I think he didn't have formal education beyond the fourth grade. But when he died in his sleep, he was found reading Shakespeare's Othello.
LAMB: What about your father-in-law?
WEINTRAUB: My father-in-law was busy all his life and wasn't the great reader that my own father was, but he was a very strong figure in the family and someone I admired a great deal.
LAMB: What was the toughest thing about writing this book?
WEINTRAUB: The toughest thing about writing this book was not to get diverted into writing too much about all of those other interesting people who turned up in Disraeli's life. Perhaps I shouldn't have even been diverted by the two illegitimate children into half a chapter because one doesn't want a book to get too long. You want to be able to lift it up in your lap and hold it and be able to read it. So there comes to be a practical limit as to how long a book should be. The first official biography -- and the only official biography -- of Disraeli was six volumes, and I don't think it went into nearly as much detail about what he was really like as this one does.
LAMB: You said that "Victoria" led to "Disraeli." Is there anybody in the index of this book that might lend itself to a biography in the future?
WEINTRAUB: Several, but I don't think I want to get into them because I don't want to give anybody out there any ideas before I get started myself.
LAMB: What about William Gladstone?
WEINTRAUB: I will never write about William Gladstone. I found him to be very unsatisfactory dirty old man, and he's not for me. It will not be William Gladstone.
LAMB: You didn't find Disraeli to be a dirty old man?
WEINTRAUB: No, no, no. I found Disraeli to be far more of a gentlemen and far more of a liberal-minded individual than the so-called liberal who was Gladstone. I came away disliking Gladstone even more heartily than I did when I stopped writing Victoria. Victoria once wrote a letter to Gladstone telling him that she was to visit him as prime minister up at her Balmoral Castle in Scotland. She said, "Buy a new suit of clothes. Don't put it on; don't wear it until you come up and visit me and then put it on." She went into some detail about this. She said he was a dirty old man in effect. She didn't want to be near the man who had been consorting with these prostitutes, and so she said I want you to come clean when you come to me.
LAMB: Here's the book. It's called "Disraeli: A Biography" written by Stanley Weintraub. Thank you for joining us.
WEINTRAUB: You're welcome. Glad to be here.
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