Sit yourself down for an intriguing Canadian potboiler, a story that involves allegations of a clandestine, one-last-time tryst with a former prime minister, millions of dollars, bitter antipathy toward the man who raised him, a mother on the edge of dementia, and – steady now – an uncanny similarity of jowls.
And all of it is sitting here in front of me, wearing a suit, powerful cologne and a cloak of indignation.
The man who would be John George Diefenbaker II, if he can get DNA tests to prove it, is telling his story in a breakfast joint on Bloor Street in Toronto, where he knows the waitresses by name and favours thick slices of white toast, washed down with dishwater coffee.
“Absolutely I would change my name [to Diefenbaker]” says George Dryden, straightening his collar a bit. “That’s what I am. I’m not a Dryden. They hate me. And I wouldn’t change it to Smith. Or Goldenberg,” he scoffs, surprised that anyone would question his desire to change his surname.
George Dryden’s story begins with his mother, Mary Lou Lonergan, an entertainer/socialite who was involved in conservative political associations in the sixties. She was single, in her 30s and reportedly “adored” Mr. Diefenbaker, who was married and more than 30 years her senior. There are photographs of them together at public events.
In 1967, she married Gordon Dryden. But her son believes that when she returned to Toronto from a six-week European honeymoon in the late fall of that year, she had a meeting with Mr. Diefenbaker, on the brink of retirement as leader of the opposition. (His six-year run as prime minister had ended in 1963.) “I think this was one last goodbye, and one thing led to another. Three months after she was married, I was conceived by Diefenbaker,” alleges Mr. Dryden. The question of his paternity is related to a $30-million lawsuit, launched in 2010, against the man who raised him, Gordon Dryden, his mother and his brother, Barrie. He claims that Gordon Dryden knew or suspected that he was not his biological father and therefore not only mistreated him but breached his fiduciary duties, cutting him out of a windfall inheritance from an uncle’s estate. The lawsuit was dismissed late last year except for a defamation claim against Gordon Dryden. Lawyers for George Dryden are appealing the judgment.
“I never had a hug from Gordon Dryden. We were never close,” he says, adding that their antagonism worsened when he became a teenager. A paternity test in June last year proved that Mr. Dryden is not his biological father. The suggestion that he is Mr. Diefenbaker’s only biological son – Canada’s 13th prime minister had no children from either of his two marriages – was long rumored by members of Mr. Dryden’s family, because of similarities in appearance.
An attempt to get DNA samples from artifacts at Saskatchewan’s Diefenbaker Canada Centre came back inconclusive in late December. Members of the extended Diefenbaker family have so far refused to co-operate with information or DNA samples. “They’re worried about legacy...I’m not suing the Diefenbaker estate [for money]” he explains, indignant at the very thought. “The estate has been wound up for 35 years. And even if I could, I don’t think he had any money.”
The woman who could help clarify the facts, his mother, 77, is ailing and being kept from him by Gordon Dryden, a wealthy patriarch in his 80s, he says. “If I can spend an hour or two with her over a few days, she would tell me. I know that for a fact.” He saw her briefly last June and even though doctors said she was suffering from dementia, she was lucid, he explains.
The fact that his father could be Mr. Diefenbaker is what gives the story its sensational appeal. “It’s a story that could rewrite the history books,” his lawyer, Stephen Edell, says in an telephone interview.
But it doesn’t have an impact on his lawsuit, other than help him make sense of what he says has been lifelong antipathy from the man who happened to be an ambitious, powerful Liberal at the time. “They hated each other. They were enemies! And every time he looked at me, not only did he see John Diefenbaker, he saw that his wife was having an affair with the enemy! The innocence of my birth screwed me.”
But if the identity of his biological father has no bearing on the outcome of his court case, why he is spending on all his energy and time pursuing it?
“It has just been a year,” he retorts. “It’s not a life mission,” he says, dismissing the idea that he’s obsessed with finding out the truth. “It’s about finding out who my father is. If it’s not Diefenbaker, we’ll take another shot at who.”
But clearly, a famous last name would give him a coveted sense of belonging. “I’m confident that [Diefenbaker]is my father, because if he’s not I have no idea who it would be,” he admits.
And if he’s not able to prove he is the son of Mr. Diefenbaker through DNA or other means?
“We have new leads,” he offers conspiratorially.
Divorced with no children, the 43-year-old worked for a family business after high school, never attending university. After he left – having been pushed out of the real estate and investment firm by Mr. Dryden, he alleges – he started up his own marketing company. A few years ago, he decided to work as a self-employed legal consultant even though he has no formal training in law. Now, most of his time is spent working on the mystery of his paternity and on his court appeal.
He has read some biographies of Mr. Diefenbaker. “I would say I share general personality traits both good and bad,” he says. “The talking, the finger wagging, the jowls. Diefenbaker had a tendency to fly off the handle... I’m conservative and determined and not afraid to ruffle a few feathers.”
And if he did find out he’s a Diefenbaker, would he run for political office?
“One thing I’ve learned is not to count chickens before they hatch,” he offers after a moment’s hesitation. “But I’m open to any and all suggestions. If the country needed me, and I thought I could be of some assistance, I would be more than happy.”