Secretary to Genius (Winston Churchill, Lillian Gish) – By Carol Bird (San Bernardino Sun, 1941)

  • San Bernardino Sun, Volume 46, 17 August 1941
  • Secretary to Genius
  • By Carol Bird
Phillis Moir

EVERYONE is interested in geniuses and how they tick. And the ones who can give the real “lowdown” on them are their secretaries, those long-suffering girls who transfer the pearls of wisdom from lip to paper. Phyllis Moir, who was once secretary to Winston Churchill, prime minister of England, is competent to speak of such men of importance. She has also been secretary to Lord Robert Cecil, Lord Balfour, Sir Nevile Henderson, Lord Derby, and other guardians of the British foreign policy. She worked in the British Foreign Office in London, Rome, and Paris, was the first woman of the clerical staff to be sent out to the British Embassy in Paris. She was chosen to type out, in confidence, the historic Armistice terms of the first World War. But her experience did not end with statesmen. She was also secretary to the stage and screen star, Lillian Gish, at the height of her fabulous career, and to the social arbiter, Mrs. O. H. P. Belmont. She is now a manager of celebrities, founder and president of a lecture bureau in New York City. In the interval between her association with British officialdom, and her services as an editorial associate of Dr. Henry Goddard Leach, in New York, she was a European assistant in administering relief to the Polish refugees in their post-war plight. During her work with Winston Churchill, Miss Moir got her real slant on the ways of “genius.” She traveled with the Churchill family for months. She was on a round-the-clock call, thus gained an intimate insight into the many-faceted personality of the man. She learned, for example, that he often lisped and even stuttered while dictating; that he has pet words which he sometimes overworks a bit, after the fashion of many a boss (his was “prod”); and that he was very impatient, and wanted his letters and speeches typed with lightning rapidity. She found out so much about the “genius make-up” while in Winston Churchill’s employ that she can give out what might be termed the “genius formula.” Anyone who has ever wondered what qualities of character are necessary for the creation of a genius, have only to bend an ear to what Phyllis Moir has to say about her discoveries. “All geniuses have self-confidence,” said Miss Moir. “They have tremendous faith in their own destiny, and they have persistence. “The genius, no matter how many times he is knocked down, gets up and tries all over again. He keeps on trying until he wins out.

“Think how many times Churchill was defeated, only to achieve extraordinary success in the end. After many overwhelming defeats suddenly he has come into his own at the age of 66. “The ordinary Individual lets his own little setbacks get the better of him. He does not put forth any further efforts. He gets depressed, discouraged, and stays defeated. “Another mark of genius is never to brood over troubles, never to know self-pity. That was one of Churchill’s outstanding qualities. He never pitied himself. In his darkest hours he would lose himself in some hobby, such as painting, or backgammon. And in no time at all he would come up smiling, and ready to tackle his problems anew.”

Winston Churchill

Phyllis Moir . . . To Winston Churchill secretary is only a machine.”

It is Miss Moir’s belief that we have fewer women geniuses. “Women are foolish about setbacks,” she explained. “They go home and cry about them. They are not as resilient as men. They have not yet learned how to ‘bounce.’ “It is unfortunate, but true, that too many women look upon their jobs as mere stepping-stones to marriage. This viewpoint serves as a handicap to success. It places definite limitations upon their efforts. “Men, on the other hand, always feel that the world is theirs, and full of possibilities for them.” What are Winston Churchill’s methods of work? “It didn’t take me long to discover that to Mr. Churchill a secretary is a completely impersonal adjunct. She is a machine that must have no personal needs, who must be on call when he wants her, a being anonymous, perfectly efficient and completely dedicated to the service of Winston Churchill. “But he cast a spell on you that reconciles you to his exacting demands on your endurance, his terrifying impatience and unpredictable fits of irritation. “I would fill two shorthand notebooks in the course of a day, would gulp down a sandwich and coffee, without tasting them, while I went on with my endless typing. I often worked nights. “He had a keen appreciation of good service, however, and was lavish with his praise when it was merited. He was always sincere. “Mr. Churchill himself was a tireless worker. His power of concentration is great. He achieves a state of childlike absorption. The world around him ceases to exist. “He is also blessed with a fine constitution, which stands up under high pressure work. He can tap the reservoir of creative work at any time he chooses.” PHYLLIS MOIR, an intelligent, serene, brown-haired young woman, has written a book, “I Was Winston Churchill’s Secretary,” in which she tells about her close-range observation of Mr. Churchill on and off parade. She admits that “the impact of his personality was so shattering that I felt, when I left his service, that this had been the private secretaryship to end all private secretaryships so far as I was concerned. From now on I knew there could be little excitement or adventure in working for a lesser man.” She can tell just how Churchill coins his unique figures of speech, how he creates the books and articles which have brought him an income of more than $100,000 a year. Churchill, she believes, is a particular genius (she is firm in her belief that this is the word to apply to him), volcanic in action. Discussing some of the other qualities which go to make up the personality of a genius, Miss Moir said. “They always know quite definitely what they want out of life. They have a blueprint in their own minds of the kind of lives they want to live, the kind of success they want to achieve. “Then they work out that blueprint.

Lillian Gish as Ophelia in Hamlet 1936

As a child, Lillian Gish decided she was going to get to the top. She allowed nothing to interfere with her ambition until she reached her goal.

As they go along they fill in the rest of the plan, the details. That is the method of the unusually successful person. “The others, the mediocre ones of the world, do not know where they are going really, and so they arrive at no particular destination. They had no port in the beginning. They let the ships of their lives just drift. “I once asked Lillian Gish when she first decided she was going to get to the top of the ladder in her field. She said she first made up her mind to that when she was a child. “After that decision, she worked incessantly to get what she wanted. She never had any fun as a child, never let down to play. She had that goal, and she was determined to arrive at it as soon as possible. “It was only when she had reached the top that she let down a little, and began to go to parties and enjoy herself away from her work. She, like Mr. Churchill, never let herself get depressed ‘over anything. When things went wrong, she tried again and again for what she wanted. “She got a tremendous amount of pleasure out of her work, and she also knew how to drive herself. Although she looked fragile, she had a lot of endurance. She could make pictures on the desert when the temperature was 115 and take it.

 “She is an extraordinarily difficult person to know, and if I hadn’t gone to live with her … and been with her through some of the most trying times of her life, I doubt whether our casual contacts at the studio would have brought me any intimate knowledge of her. There seems to be a wall of reserve between her and the outside world, and very few people ever get through that wall.

“The little things of life simply don’t worry her at all. Gales of temperament can rage around her—she remains undisturbed…. I have seen her at a time when anyone else would have been distraught with anxiety, come quietly in from the set, eat her luncheon calmly and collectedly (for first of all, Lillian believes in keeping fit for her work), then pick up some little book of philosophy and read it steadily until they sent for her.

“She refuses to believe that there are people in the world who are jealous of her and want to harm her. I remember someone once remarking that a certain person was jealous of her and hated her, and I can still see the look of utter surprise on Lillian’s face. But it never made any difference in her treatment of that person. In fact, I doubt whether she remembered it when she met her again.

“She is intensely loyal to those who have helped her along the path of success. She likes to be alone. She has an inexhaustible fund of patience, and a quiet sense of humor.” PHYLLIS MOIR (secretary to Lillian, 1925-27)

“Think success, dream success, live success.” That was the credo which carried Douglas Fairbanks to Hollywood fame.

Douglas Fairbanks -The Black Pirate 1926

“While I was in Hollywood, secretary to Miss Gish, I sat next to Douglas Fairbanks at a dinner. I asked him the plan of his life. He said that, above all, he had wanted, early in life, to be a success. “He said: ‘I think that if a person wants to be successful, he must think success, dream it, live it. He must have it constantly in mind. He must even repeat over and over: ‘I am a success. I am a success.’ ” The truly successful person leads a well-rounded life, according to Miss Moir. “Mr. Churchill, no matter how hard he worked, enjoyed life. He got a lot of fun out of living. He has the best rounded life of anyone I know. I am not an admirer of one-track minds. I, personally, want to get fun out of a lot of things, in addition to my work. “I don’t want to be a secretary again. But, since you ask me to outline the things which go to make a good secretary, I might say that tact is important. “A secretary must have an excellent command of English, and I find that really competent secretaries are at a premium today. So few girls who apply for these jobs can use good English. Their lack of knowledge is really appalling. “I might further add that a good secretary must not have a dominant personality. She must be a shadowy reflection of her employer. “Of course, there are exceptions. Some employers want all their thinking done for them. They demand that someone else take the initiative.” Secretary to a genius? It’s a particularly demanding job. But if you have the intelligence, the ambition and stick to Miss Moir’s prescribed “musts” well, young lady, grab your pencil and paper and take an important, perhaps world-shattering letter, That man at your elbow is apt to be a pretty influential fellow.

San Bernardino Sun, Volume 46, 17 August 1941 – secretary to genius

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