His radio shows played to audiences bigger that the viewing audience of Eastenders, Churchill once described him as being ‘as common as dirt’, and Adolph Hitler had him listed on his notorious Sonderfahndungsliste or Death List. Victor Oliver von Samek was born in Vienna on the 8th August, 1898 to Jewish parents and went on to become Winston Churchill’s son in law.
Oliver originally trained as a doctor in Vienna but when World War I broke out he interrupted his studies to fight. Some say he fought alongside Adolf Hitler, although this was neither confirmed nor denied by Oliver during his lifetime. When the war finished Oliver decided not to return to medicine and instead concentrated on music; studying piano, violin and conducting at the Vienna Conservatoire before becoming assistant conductor at the famous Graz Opera House.
Deciding to emigrate to America he soon found work playing piano in restaurants, bars and accompanying silent films in cinemas. One evening he was asked to announce a charity collection during the interval at a theatre where he was playing. At this time his English was fairly basic and when he announced: “I shall now come down and go through you all” the crowd erupted with laughter. Large donations and much back-slapping followed with Vic realising for the first time that his future might be in comedy rather than in music.
It was during this time that Vic met a Young British stage dancer, her name was Sarah Churchill and her father was no other than the British politician, Winston Churchill. Their romance grew quickly and publicly and it wasn’t long before their relationship was all over the papers. By this time Vic had become a big star in the US, both on radio and on the stage, and had begun to be offered work in Britain. In 1936 he travelled to Britain to star in Charles B Cochran’s revue “Follow the Sun.”
In the September of that year Vic told the British press when asked about his plans for Sarah that he was not the marrying kind. Despite this denial Vic and Sarah, 16 years his junior, had become engaged and were preparing to get married. Winston Churchill’s youngest daughter, Lady Soames, remembering the day her parents heard the news said in an interview for the Daily Telegraph in 2002.
“The first time I saw my mother cry, I was absolutely overwhelmed,”
“I was 13 and she broke down in floods of tears because Sarah had run off to America to marry Vic Oliver. I realised then how much Sarah had hurt them.”
For Churchill Vic was just another nobody. In letters, released and published after Sir Winston’s death, he wrote about Oliver:
“He did not impress me with being a bad man; but common as dirt: An Austrian citizen, a resident in US & here on license and an American passport: twice divorced: 36 so he says.
“A horrible mouth: a foul Austro-Yankee drawl. I did not offer to shake hands: but put him through a long examination.”
On this occasion though Winston had got his facts wrong; Vic had only been divorced once. Despite all of Churchill’s objections, the couple married on Christmas Eve, 1936, in New York.
Oliver was already on his way to stardom before the Second World War broke out, but the war was to make him one of the most popular entertainers of his era, a superstar in today’s terms. In 1940, based around the simple idea that humour and music would keep up the spirits of wartime Britain, Vic starred alongside film star couple Bebe Daniels and Ben Lyon, in a new radio show – “Hi Gang!” Vic, in an interview recorded in the 1960s said:
“That programme really put me on the map because, when everyone else was going to the country and sheltering, we were there every Sunday regardless of the Blitz,”
There is a story that at a dinner party Churchill was once asked whom he most admired. Churchill replied, “Mussolini” and when asked why, he replied, “Because he had the good sense to shoot his son-in-law!” Despite this Winston eventually warmed to Vic, perhaps due in part to the courage that he showed during the Blitz. While Hitler tried to flatten London with bombs and rockets, the radio show “Hi Gang!” with Vic, Bebe, and Ben remained in London broadcasting every Sunday evening despite the bombs falling all around them.
“We were there broadcasting to the people and spreading humour and good entertainment among them. The people have never forgotten it, that’s when I took out British citizenship.”
Vic was even wanted by Adolph Hitler, but not as an entertainer or even as a musician. Vic’s name was on a list of people to be arrested in the event of a successful invasion of Britain, the Sonderfahndungslistet – Hitler’s ‘Death List’. The ‘Black Book’ as it was known, included more than 2,800 people ranging from Winston Churchill to Jewish refugees whose arrest would be “automatic” after the Wehrmacht’s victory. Vic is simply listed as: “Oliver, Jewish actor.” Other names on the list included Noel Coward, Virginia Woolf, Paul Robeson, Dame Sybil Thorndike, and Aldous Huxley.
But whilst Vic’s career was going from strength to strength, Vic was the first castaway of the very first Desert Island Discs broadcast on 27 January 1942, his marriage was not. Even the couple starring together in the 1941 British film musical “He Found a Star” directed by John Paddy Carstairs could not bring them closer together again.
Vic’s own blend of humour, put-on bad violin playing, and immaculate dress had melted the heart of a nation and its Prime Minister but had failed to retain the love of his wife. Vic and Sarah separated that same year and went on to divorce in March 1945. Winston Churchill is said to have been distressed when it became obvious that the couple would divorce.
Vic von Samek Oliver, remarried in 1946 and continued to broadcast on radio and appear on stage up until 1962. He died in Johannesburg on 15 August 1964.
Sarah Churchill, sometime dance partner to Fred Astaire, film actress, wartime interpreter, member of the Women’s Auxiliary air Force, and the ‘brainiest & smartest gurl’ Vic had ever met, married a further two times and died on the 24th September 1982.