John Gilbert Winant: The Most Important NH Man You Never Knew

You've heard of our famous former governor, but what do you really know about his illustrious career and tragic life?



John Winant was a fighter pilot in WWI.

In his 58 years of an extraordinary life, John Gilbert Winant rose from anxious schoolboy in Concord to the pinnacle of political power in New Hampshire and later to international influence in the Allied nations’ victory in World War II.

Much like today, the early years of the 20th century were tumultuous. Winant turned out to be an excellent leader for those times, until his own personal troubles overcame him — but that’s a sad note for later.

Winant’s political mettle was tested in the world of New Hampshire politics. His progressive vision made Winant the right man to lead New Hampshire at a critical point in the Great Depression and propelled him to become the first person to be elected to three two-year terms as the state’s chief executive. At one point in 1933, after Winant personally mediated a violent strike of 8,000 workers at the mills in Manchester, Republicans began to tout him for president. Although Winant had White House ambitions, he had been boosting FDR and the New Deal too much for that role.

Later, as Hitler’s troops swarmed across Europe, Winant was the right man to risk his life during the Nazi Blitz of London to help build an alliance between England and the United States. That became the core of the Allied nations in their ultimate triumph over the Axis Powers in World War II and in their creation of the United Nations after the war.

Because of the uniqueness of his public service, his quirky personality, the bittersweet way he navigated through life, and most of all because of his passion for the troubled and less fortunate, Winant is a man worth knowing about and remembering. And the state of New Hampshire has extended a rare honor to Winant’s memory. At the end of June, in a setting reserved for commemorating the state’s most distinguished citizens, a nonprofit committee will dedicate a life-size bronze statue of John Gilbert Winant in his honor. The governor and executive council gave permission to the Winant Memorial Committee to erect the statue on the State Library grounds, facing the Capitol building and in view of the governor’s corner office.

Winant becomes only the fifth person accorded such recognition, and the first who served in the 20th century. His statue joins memorials to Daniel Webster (1782-1852), General John Stark (1728-1822), Abolitionist US Senator John P. Hale (1806-1873), President Franklin Pierce (1804-1869) and Civil War Commodore George Hamilton Perkins (1835-1899).


Who Was John Winant?

Winant, known to his friends as Gil, was a transplant, born into an upper-middle class family on New York City’s East Side. His father prospered in real estate. A defining event occurred for young Winant when he was enrolled at St. Paul’s School in West Concord at age 15. Teachers there instilled in him a sense of direction and purpose. He served as the captain of the intramural rowing team, his first test of leadership. Although he had difficulty in his studies, he graduated from St. Paul’s and entered Princeton, where he soon faltered under the heavy academic pressure. Without a degree, he returned to St. Paul’s to teach history.

Winant with his wife, Constance Rivington Russell

Winant loved to teach, and his students loved him. St. Paul’s remained a rock for Winant throughout his life. He returned to St. Paul’s after military service as a pilot in World War I, discharged as a captain in the Army Air Corps.

“One of John’s personal values was to encourage citizens to stay engaged in the changing world in which we live,” says Michael Hirschfeld, St. Paul’s current rector. “His example continues to serve as a model for how our young students might engage in the future themselves. When he was a St. Paul’s School student in the 1960s, former Secretary of State John Kerry established the Winant Society to discuss current events and to share differing perspectives on worldwide issues. The society remains a vital organization with students meeting several times a month over dinner to discuss today’s global issues.”

In 1919, Winant married Constance Rivington Russell, who came from a privileged New Jersey family, and they became the parents of two sons and a daughter, John Jr., Rivington and Constance. His wife was never comfortable living in New Hampshire, though, nor with Winant’s busy life. In the end, they would grow apart.

At 36, Winant projected the image of a handsome, charming, wealthy and optimistic man. Tall and a bit awkward, Winant was delighted when people said he resembled Abraham Lincoln, his personal hero. He seemed uneasy with people until his innate goodwill, kindness and openness began to shine through. After the bumbling handshakes were over, he was warm and engaging, but he suffered from self-doubt and dark moods all of his life. Dr. Abby Rollins Caverly of Laconia, his aide and interpreter while in Geneva, said he was “one of the loneliest men I’ve ever known. I think he sometimes desperately needed someone to talk to, and at home, there was no one to listen to him.”

There was a period early in his marriage when Winant took a stab at investing. In 1921, he bought a part-ownership in the Concord Monitor with $40,000, selling his stake at a $10,000 profit six years later.

He speculated in Texas oil leases during the ’20s, with modest success at first. He owned the Patriot Building on Park Street, a block from where his statue now stands, and along with UNH graduates he operated the Edgerstoune Dairy with a herd of Ayrshires in East Concord. There was also the Stevens-Winant Lumber Company. He lost heavily in each — much of it his wife’s money. Then he sank the rest of whatever remained of his own money in the stock market before the 1929 crash. By 1935 he was broke and would remain so for the rest of his life.


The Great Depression

The 1930s were years of increasing hardship for Americans, as the stock market crash led to one economic catastrophe after another. Banks closed, and millions of working people lost their savings. Businesses and factories toppled into bankruptcy. Unemployment soared. In New Hampshire, the jobless rate reached a staggering 25 percent.

During this time, Winant was elected to terms in the New Hampshire House of Representatives and Senate, and later as governor from 1925-1927 and 1931-1935.

During his time as governor, Winant worked tirelessly to find ways to stem the downward economic spiral and to generate jobs. Although a Republican, he embraced Democratic President Roosevelt’s New Deal, which called for government spending to create jobs. New Deal workers built municipal structures, cleared trails for ski resorts, created recreation areas, and developed tourist and commercial resources that still exist and serve the public to this day.

Winant became an expert in labor issues such as limited work weeks (often 48 to 54 hours back then) and new concepts such as unemployment compensation. Today his terms as governor are generally considered highly successful despite the trying times.

“As governor, Winant was very well-liked, and he changed the office,” says William H. Dunlap, president of the New Hampshire Historical Society. “Governors would be at the Statehouse only for the few months that the Legislature was in session. Winant was full-time. He held regular office hours and would see anyone who came to visit, literally anyone off the street.”

Dunlap explains that Winant helped the state navigate through the difficulties of the Great Depression by implementing progressive policies such as a minimum wage for women and children. Winant, though, was about more than just implementing policy.

“What set Winant apart was his empathy and genuineness; there was just something compelling and authentic about him,” says Dunlap.

“In the Depression my grandfather lost his job,” he adds. “He ran into Governor Winant on Main Street in Concord and told him what had happened. Winant said,  ‘Come by my office tomorrow, and I’ll see if I can help you.’ Winant found him a job.  Winant did a lot to help people at a human level, one on one.”



In Charge of Social Security

With the passage of the Social Security Act in 1935, Winant, promoted by Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, was suggested to lead the effort. Roosevelt came to believe that the appointment of Winant, a Republican, would calm fears on the right, and that Winant’s support for the New Deal would reassure the left. Roosevelt was correct on both counts. Winant’s appointment as chairman of the three-man Social Security Board was widely praised.

The Social Security Board job was the biggest challenge of Winant’s career. A new office with no employees and a treasury of many millions of dollars brought the potential for not only grand public service, but also for misuse and scandal. Winant and his board vigorously fended off political attempts to coerce them into placing facilities  in certain states or congressional districts. They resisted similar attempts when it came to awarding jobs. By and large, they succeeded, and Social Security was launched with a high-quality civil service workforce and a determination to achieve honesty and impartiality in its services, a determination that it maintains to this day.

In his assessment for Winant’s official biography for the Social Security Administration, staff historian Larry DeWitt refers to Winant’s  “glancing acquaintance with financial management,” and calls him “pretty much a disaster” as an administrator, but adds that the he was “an effective leader ... an inspirational leader, a visionary, of the type organizations need in their founding era.

“Winant was passionate, with a smoldering emotional intensity,” DeWitt concludes.  “For him, every public policy issue was personal, it was about people, sometimes specific individuals, and the effect of the policy on them.”

In 1939, Roosevelt appointed Winant to head the International Labour Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. The ILO had been formed by the victorious nations in World War I to address international labor concerns and workers’ rights. With war in Europe imminent, Winant moved ILO headquarters to Montreal, Canada, but he left in 1941 when Roosevelt called with an even more urgent assignment. 


Called Into War Service

Americans in the late 1930s were still struggling to lift their nation up from the abyss of the Great Depression — they were in no mood for war. Nazi forces were sweeping through France and the Low Countries; Italy had fallen to a dictator who joined Germany in forming the Axis. London was under nightly bombings by Hitler’s vaunted Luftwaffe. Nevertheless, most Americans wanted to keep out of the conflict.

Roosevelt knew he had to respect the isolationist mood of his country, but he also believed that, to protect the United States, he could not abandon England and Europe. In fact, many Americans saw little hope for England’s survival, including the US ambassador to London, Joseph P. Kennedy of Massachusetts.

Conflict between Kennedy and FDR eventually resulted in Kennedy’s resignation, whereby Roosevelt dispatched Winant as his replacement in March of 1941. Unlike Kennedy, Winant was deeply sympathetic to the English cause. As an expression of the importance his appointment had to the British, King George VI — in top hat and greatcoat — greeted Winant upon his arrival at Windsor Station after his trip from the United States. The monarch of England had never before left the palace to greet an arriving ambassador in modern times.

Winant with Winston Churchill

Winant soon formed an easy and open relationship with Prime Minister Winston Churchill and began to spend weekends at Chequers, the prime minister’s country retreat. The two had deep and probing discussions that often lasted into the night.  Declining use of the American Ambassador’s official residence, Winant took a small flat nearer the Grosvenor Square Embassy — but also in the target zone of the Luftwaffe bombers. Today, a small plaque describing his residency there is placed beside the front door.

Winant often joined Churchill on morning rounds after a bombardment. The two would walk through badly damaged neighborhoods, knowing unexploded bombs could be anywhere. They would talk with survivors and firefighters. Winant was soon a focus of the newspapers, and he was embraced by Londoners as a brave and beloved American cousin.

Winant led a vigorous effort to inform Roosevelt and the Americans of what was happening in England and Europe. He sent military dispatches on England’s preparation for Germany’s invasion. Each night, Americans tuned their radios to the riveting accounts of London under siege reported by renowned newsman Edward R. Murrow.

On Sunday, December 7, 1941, Churchill and Winant were at Chequers when the radio announced that Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor. The men were stunned. Churchill angrily barked, “We shall declare war on Japan!” Winant’s son, Rivington, recalls that his father said, “Good God, you can’t declare war on a radio announcement!” Churchill demanded, “What shall I do?” Winant answered, “I will call up the president by telephone and find out what the facts are.”  Churchill added, “And I will talk to him too.” 

Winant placed the call and Roosevelt confirmed the grim news. The next day, the United States and Great Britain declared war on Japan.

“The United States has sent hundreds of ambassadors overseas in its history, but only a handful can claim to have had the influence of John Winant,” says Kurk Dorsey, professor of history at the University of New Hampshire and a specialist in diplomatic history. “Despite fundamental differences about strategy and goals, the UK-US alliance in World War II functioned better than any major alliance in history. Winant deserves much of the credit for that.”

Dorsey adds that the relationship Winant helped forge still matters. “When we speak today of a special relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States, we are acknowledging Winant’s vision, that the post-World War II world needed a strong Western alliance to provide peace and security. That’s just what we have had so far,” says Dorsey. 


Personal Devastation

In 1942, Winant fell in love with Sarah Churchill, an auburn-haired, 27-year-old actress and youngest daughter of the prime minister. Sarah was unhappily married to a philandering musician, and Winant’s marriage was suffering. The highly discreet relationship lasted until the end of the war, and her rejection would devastate him.

As the war ended, Winant was known throughout the world as a key advisor to Roosevelt and Churchill. He appeared in news accounts and photos of the Allied leadership as the man who had helped fashion the Allied war effort and was now helping design the new world that would follow.

But with the war finally over, Winant was left very much alone. Roosevelt had died. Churchill was defeated at the polls. President Truman recalled Winant as ambassador and named his successor. As he boarded the plane for home, Winant told the press, “I arrived in the thick of the storm and I’m leaving it in sunshine.” In a little less than two years, he would be dead.

This man of the people stumbled on his own path forward. He was trusted by his state and his nation and revered by the British. He was recalled to England to receive Great Britain’s highest civilian honor — Honorary Knighthood of the Order of Merit — by King George VI for his valor during the Battle of Britain, only the second American to be so honored, the first being General Dwight D. Eisenhower.   

Winant returned to his home in Concord, his granite foundation, to write his memoirs, but writing was tedious and difficult for him. A deep depression continued to overwhelm him. He tried to reunite with Sarah with phone calls to Europe, but she would have none of it. He was now drinking steadily. His personal debt, the result of years of living beyond his means, had now reached more than $750,000, nearly $8 million today. He faced lawsuits from creditors, which were headed off by his friends, Concord lawyers Robert and Richard Upton, who worked pro bono. His estranged wife was living in New York. 


Winant’s Last Day

“On November 3, 1947,” Winant biographer and historian Bernard Bellush writes in “He Walked Alone: A Biography of John Gilbert Winant,” “Winant arose but did not dress. Aimless and distant, he managed to inform his financial secretary that a copy of his book, ‘Letter from Grosvenor Square,’ would be bound that day and rushed to Concord in time to be picked up at the post office by 7:45 p.m.

“Into a black Belgian automatic he inserted three bullets. Slowly he knelt on the floor, steadied himself with his left elbow on the chair and held the pistol against his right temple ... Within a half hour, John Gilbert Winant was dead. ‘Letter from Grosvenor Square’ was indeed waiting for him at the post office, but he would never see it.”

Dean Dexter, journalist and former state representative from Laconia, is also a historian who has studied Winant’s legacy. Dexter notes that during the Depression, as governor, Winant gave a standing order to the Concord Police Department to house in jail any homeless persons found on the street at night, feed them breakfast, let them out, and then send the bill to him. As the state’s chief executive, Winant would walk down the street in his long, black overcoat and fedora. When he came across people who were down-and-out, he’d give them cash from his own pocket. He would shake their hands, leaving a roll of bills in their palms as he walked away.

“People might ask, why have the people of New Hampshire put a statue of this person up there, under that second story window in the corner of that big building with the gold dome?” says Dexter. “Maybe it’s because whoever is governor can turn his or her chair around and see it on the lawn below.  They can picture a man who, once upon a time, held that same office they have. Maybe they’ll remember that even if you have a big important job and a big ego, sometimes your own life is sad. Perhaps they will know what Winant knew — that the only thing that really counts in this life is how much you help your fellow man, how well you can offer a little hope to others as they try to make it along the way.”


courtesy of brett grill
Preparations for Winant's new State Library statue

From Clay to Bronze

A Man of the People Gets a Fitting, Permanent Tribute

Growing up in Concord, Steve Shurtleff heard about “Gil” Winant and eventually found his own path into public service. Now a member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, Shurtleff read about Winant in “Citizens of London,” Lynne Olson’s masterful account of Winant and the small band of Americans in London who helped Britain through its darkest days early in World War II.

Representative Shurtleff knew his history. He knew that Winant himself had been a member of both the House and Senate in New Hampshire. He knew that Winant had been willing to take on the New Hampshire governorship even as the nation plunged deeper in the abyss of the Great Depression.  He also knew that Winant played a leading role in guiding President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill to come together for an important common cause — saving England from the Nazi Blitz and defeating Hitler in Europe.

“I realized that Governor Winant deserved permanent recognition,” Shurtleff says. In 2013, he introduced legislation in the New Hampshire House that authorized a committee to study the construction of a memorial to Winant. Two years later, Shurtleff won passage of a second bill establishing the nonprofit John G. Winant Memorial Committee, with authority to raise tax-deductible funds to pay for the memorial (providing, the law said, no public funds would be used).

With Shurtleff as chairman, that committee quickly attracted a strong membership of legislators, administrators, historians and other citizens, including Van McLeod, the state commissioner of cultural resources and a powerful advocate for New Hampshire arts and culture. The committee eventually raised more than $270,000 to pay for the statue and its maintenance as well as for scholarships for New Hampshire students to attend St. Paul’s School’s advanced studies programs.

What of the statue itself? Tall, lanky, stylish, a bit shy, gracious, intelligent — Winant would seem a challenge to any sculptor. How to capture his humanity, his courage, his compassion? The Missouri sculptor Brett Grill, who created the sculpture of President Gerald Ford that now stands in the Rotunda of the US Capitol in Washington, DC, was commissioned to design and sculpt the model for casting the statue in bronze. A site on the grounds of the State Library, facing the State Capitol, was chosen.

Groundbreaking took place on April 3, and the first shovel of dirt was turned by Joan Goshgarian in honor of her late husband, Van McLeod, whom Shurtleff dubbed “the heart and soul” of the memorial committee. The formal dedication is set for June 30.


Winant Today

Winant’s Epitaph

Winant’s death almost prevented one of his life wishes: that his final resting place be in the St. Paul’s School cemetery on Hopkinton Road in Concord. At the time of his death, clinical depression (which most likely beset the former governor) was little understood and suicide was considered sinful. The Episcopal rector at St. Paul’s refused to allow his burial on the grounds of the school, and he was interred in the grounds of Blossom Hill Cemetery on North State St. Just a couple of decades later, with depression better understood and new leadership at St. Paul’s, his wish was finally granted. Winant was exhumed and reburied in the St Paul’s plot in September 1968. The illuminating and lengthy inscription found on the back of his gravestone reads:

“Doing the day’s work day by day, doing a little, adding a little, broadening our bases wanting not only for ourselves but for others also, a fairer chance for all people everywhere. Forever moving forward, always remembering that it is the things of the spirit that in the end prevail. That caring counts and that where there is no vision the people perish. That hope and faith count and that without charity, there can be nothing good. That having dared to live dangerously, and in believing in the inherent goodness of man, we can stride forward into the unknown with growing confidence.”

Winant’s Legacy

Although his contributions to our state, country and the world are vast, some aspects of Winant’s legacy are quite tangible. Winant Park in Concord is an 85-acre city park offering trails for hiking, skiing and bicycling. It was a gift to the city of Concord from the late governor’s son, Rivington, and his wife Joan in 2009. The Winant Fellowship Program was established in his memory in 1982 at the University of New Hampshire. The fellowship is aimed at students who are considering a career in public service or the nonprofit sector, and pays a $3,500 stipend. Finally, the Winant Clayton Volunteers (see “Editor’s Note") still provides an eight-week US/UK summer exchange program to support the disadvantaged in New York and London. For more information, visit winantclayton.org.uk.

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