“A strange man, a strange age, a strange country. There is more to Mackenzie King, and to Canada, than meets the eye.”
In the mid 1970s, the writer of those words, political scientist Reg Whitaker, sat down in the reading room of the Public Archives in Ottawa to study the newly released volumes of the King diaries—a massive journal that Prime Minister Mackenzie King began keeping as a student in the 1890s, and in which he was still making entries until three days before his death in 1950. At first, Whitaker told readers of Canadian Forum in 1976, he was intrigued, because he found himself in “strange territory, not like other matter-of-fact diaries I have read before.” King appeared to be “an odd gentleman,” who believed that his dead loved ones literally hovered around him, and that the hands on a clock might be a communication from divine providence.
But as Whitaker read on, he abandoned his attitude of fond indulgence and hurtled toward the conclusion that Canada’s longest-serving prime minister was “quite crazy … The inner world of the public man begins in incongruity and ends in hallucination. The stream runs faster and wilder, the light darkens, and the shore is lost from sight.” Whitaker connected King’s strangeness with the larger mysteries of Canada, suggesting that the prime minister reflected the suppressed peculiarities of the land he governed.
Whitaker was far from the only writer spelunking through King’s psyche after the diary was made public. The year after that Canadian Forum article, military historian Charles Stacey published A Very Double Life: The Private World of Mackenzie King. Revelations about hookers, séances, Ouija boards and superstitions surged through the media, and the “Weird Willie” phenomenon exploded. King’s posthumous image would never be the same again. Soon every commentator in the country was asking what it said about Canada that the stuffy little man who had adroitly run the country for more than 21 years was now revealed to be a nutcase.
Most Canadians today are vaguely aware of the Weird Willie side of William Lyon Mackenzie King, although as I reread some of the details in Christopher Dummitt’s Unbuttoned: A History of Mackenzie King’s Secret Life, I found them as jaw-droppingly hilarious as when I first encountered them. What? The prime minister of Canada consulted spiritualist mediums? He spoke to his dead parents and took advice from the ghosts of Sir Wilfrid Laurier and William Gladstone? The staid, sexless bachelor had visited prostitutes repeatedly as a young man? He studied the patterns in his shaving cream for their political omens? A 21st-century reader cannot help wondering if King isn’t a character out of some bizarro Netflix series involving aliens.
But Dummitt, a professor of history at Trent University, has done more than indulge any voyeuristic tendencies in this lively book. Instead of asking what light King’s weirdness throws on Canada, he explores what Canadian reactions to the King story say about our expectations of political leaders. In other words, this is not just about King; it is about us. And although Dummitt is also making a sophisticated argument about the importance of narrative history, he has done it with punchy elegance rather than impenetrable jargon. (Not that he leaves his debts to other scholars unacknowledged. The witty and informative endnotes are a joy in themselves.) He tells parallel stories: the trajectory of King’s posthumous reputation within the larger historical context, as Canada itself evolved from the small-minded, stuffy country afflicted with “Victorianitis” into today’s self-assured society with a fetish for “authenticity.” In the 21st century, politicians hide secrets or keep the public at arm’s length at their peril. We want our leaders to be real people, with whom we might share a mug of coffee or a yoga class.
Dummitt also traces the story of the diary itself, which had its own curious narrative. King often said he kept his diary so that he could draw on it for his memoirs—but he had neither the time nor the stamina for the task once he left politics. In his will he dictated that the diary be destroyed, except for those passages that he indicated were to be preserved. However, he never marked any passages, leaving his four literary executors with a dilemma. How should they fulfill their obligations to King and balance an appreciation for his place in historical memory with his desire for privacy?
While the early handwritten volumes were being typed up, the executors dealt with one challenge after another. An employee of the Public Archives who had been tasked with photographing the diary tried to sell photocopies of some of its pages to the press. A pivotal volume of the diary went missing in the middle of the Gouzenko spy scandal, so that the diary was caught up in an investigation by the RCMP secret service into Soviet spookery. That volume has never reappeared. Historians and reporters repeatedly pressed for access. Two of the literary executors died before their job was done. The remaining two opted for preservation rather than destruction (although they did burn additional material on spiritualism). At first, only serious scholars were given access. But in 1975, the volumes up to 1945 were made generally available, following the standard 30-year rule for release of archives, and the floodgates opened. By 1980, the entire massive oeuvre was in the public realm.
King’s handwriting is difficult to decipher, so most researchers today rely on the transcripts. If you want to troll through their thousands of pages for yourself, go to the Library and Archives Canada website. I guarantee that you will be bored by the banality of some passages, awed by the importance of others and fascinated by the weird stuff. And you may not be getting the full story. Sometimes the handwritten originals were so illegible or repetitive that the typists skipped paragraphs. An employee of Library and Archives Canada told me recently, “There are probably still secrets in there.”
“There is a lesson here of a kind,” observes Dummitt. “Be careful when you die. And burn your diaries.”
Dummitt embarks on this journey in fairly conventional narrative style—important for an author looking for a general audience, since I am afraid that many readers will know little about King’s story beyond the Netflix details. (Don’t get me started about Canada’s wilful disregard for history…) He describes how, after King’s death in July 1950, the coffin lay in state on Parliament Hill for a day and a half. Nearly 40,000 people lined up for hours in the midsummer heat to pay their respects to the leader who had nudged Canada into nationhood since he became prime minister for the first time in 1921. King had held the country together during the Second World War’s conscription crisis, and in his final years, he began the process of putting in place social programs. He also manoeuvred Canada into a new relationship with its traditional allies in the North Atlantic triangle. Although few of the mourners who stared into the open casket displayed much fondness for the old man (let alone the kind of adulation shown to more recent leaders), they quietly honoured a “great statesman.”
Hints of a secret life circulated almost immediately after King’s death. An article about his visits to spiritualists was published in an obscure British publication called Psychic News. The respected journalist Blair Fraser published a column in Maclean’s magazine in 1951 entitled “The Secret Life of Mackenzie King, Spiritualist.” But the buzz was muted. Meanwhile, King’s literary executors embarked on the search for an official biographer, who would produce a solid tome of careful research and respectful prose.
The need for such a literary monument was urgent because King was under attack by less reverent writers and authorities. Chief among these was the formidably articulate Eugene Forsey, a constitutional expert who damned King not for his private oddities but for his public hypocrisy. In Forsey’s view, King had pretended to be a statesman, but was in fact nothing more than a grubby politician. The secrets of his power, wrote Forsey, included “ruthlessness, callousness, utter lack of principle, infinite capacity to wear opponents down by the sheer weight of irrelevant talk and, of course, sheer mendacity.”
This is where Dummitt takes leave of the corpse and plunges into the larger context: the values of post-war Canada, in which deference toward public figures in general, and King in particular, was slowly evaporating. Outwardly so cautious and prissy, King already looked like a relic from a different age by 1950. The most pointed criticism came from F.R. Scott, the future dean of the McGill Law School who in 1957 published a poem about King’s legacy. King, wrote Scott, “blunted us,” leaving Canada as an unfinished country:
We had no shape
Because he never took sides,
And no sides
Because he never allowed them to take shape…
Let us raise up a temple
To the cult of mediocrity,
Do nothing by halves
Which can be done by quarters.
A cultural revolution was bubbling up, and the Victorian, Christian self-discipline that had hitherto moulded middle class culture began to crumble. Sales of alcohol rose; families purchased televisions and shiny new cars on installment plans; moviegoers flocked into cinemas to see Some Like It Hot. Talk of frugality and duty waned, to be replaced by open discussion of desires and truths that an earlier morality had hidden or repressed.
The discipline of history was also changing. It was no longer the preserve of deferential academics who explored the past through the lenses of politics, economics and great men. From the 1960s onward, some scholars turned toward different kinds of history that had hitherto been ignored; they explored the role of class, region, gender, race and religion in the Canadian identity. They also employed a broader range of tools, including some of the psychoanalytic terms (Oedipus complex! Guilt! Superego!) that were now being flung around. As revelations about King’s private life appeared, the former prime minister became a sitting duck for both earnest scrutiny and mocking scorn. People were fascinated by the secrets that came spilling out of the diaries, and by King’s lack of self-knowledge as he rationalized his own sometimes devious behaviour. And there were those inevitable questions … did the prime minister take direction from the dead when making crucial decisions? Was he guided by his officials or by irrational omens? How weird was Willie?
“By the early 1980s, Mackenzie King lived the afterlife of a palimpsest, those ancient documents whose original words had been erased so that something new could be rewritten over the top,” writes Dummitt.
But then, “a funny thing happened on the way to the 1990s. Mackenzie King’s reputation was resuscitated.” Senior historians including Norman Hillmer, Jack Granatstein and Michael Bliss began the game of rating prime ministers, and King kept emerging at or close to the top of league tables. Despite Weird Willie’s stodgy public persona and bizarre private quirks, he was now recognized as an exceptionally skillful politician, war leader and champion of unity.
This new appraisal of King, however, came in a different context. In the 1990s, argues Dummitt, the King legacy looked better and better because Canada was suffering another bout of national disunity. After decades of muscular decisiveness from prime ministers Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney, the cautious conservatism of King acquired a new glow. What Scott had derided as King’s mediocrity and refusal to take sides now looked like a successful formula for the government of such a fragile, fractious country.
There was a further dimension to the evolving King image. The small clubby world of the Ottawa press corps that King knew had been replaced by “gotcha” journalism. Investigative reporters had revealed the often flawed private lives of several politicians—John F. Kennedy’s affairs, Richard Nixon’s law breaking, Pierre Trudeau’s marital meltdown, Brian Mulroney’s high-spending habits. Canadian historians had written about Sir John A. Macdonald’s taste for alcohol and Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s mistress. So what if King’s diaries had revealed him as petty, small-minded and odd? By the end of the 20th century, Weird Willie had lost his novelty value. And, besides, King at least had done a good job.
Virginia Woolf once observed that the actual length of a person’s life is open to dispute because lives do not necessarily end on deathbeds. As Dummitt puts it in Unbuttoned, “history is never finished with its main characters—it is only the questions and passions that change from one generation to the next.” The biographer is always part of the picture, shaping the story told, whether or not she or he directly addresses the reader. King continues to live on, with a succession of biographers in hot pursuit, reimagining him from their own perspectives.
Given that Dummitt acknowledges this, I am surprised that he himself does not emerge from behind the curtain to voice his insights. Instead, he sticks to the magisterial “we” in Unbuttoned—except in the preface. Here he gets more personal as he reflects on the role of history. Contemplating an academic discipline now dominated by postmodern analysis, he writes, “it seems to me that the role of history is to make an earlier era come alive again in the minds of our contemporaries.” Only narrative history, he argues, can make it poignant, or allow readers to catch glimpses of an earlier time. No account of the past can be the whole truth, but at least narrative history evokes responses that might range from shock or sympathy. “I’m just not convinced that a more analytical style of writing … gets any closer to the truth or its construction … It is possible, I hope, to write a story and to still make a contribution to scholarly knowledge.”
It is refreshing to see an academic historian make this argument, and I echo his hope that both general readers and his colleagues will enjoy this book. Unbuttoned deserves a broad audience. If it does not find it, it will not be Dummitt’s fault. It will be because today’s educational institutions have starved Canadians of narrative history for so long that most of us do not realize that the past has shaped our present.