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Book Reviews Review: Christopher Dummitt's Unbuttoned is an engaging chronicle of Mackenzie King's private life

William Lyon Mackenzie King, seen here in 1935 at a Liberal picnic in Woodstock, Ont., left behind a diary that has drastically altered the public’s perception of the former prime minister.

John Boyd/The Globe and Mail

Title
Unbuttoned: A History of Mackenzie King’s Secret Life
Author
Christopher Dummitt
Genre
Non-fiction
Publisher
McGill-Queen’s University Press
Pages
326
Price
$34.95

When William Lyon Mackenzie King, who served as Canada's prime minister for nearly 22 years, died in July, 1950, at the age of 75, his four literary executors led by Jack Pickersgill – soon to be a cabinet minister in the government of King's successor, Louis St. Laurent – had a big headache to deal with. Not only had King left millions of documents and photographs crammed into every nook and cranny at Laurier House in Ottawa, where he lived for decades – material which had to be catalogued and evaluated before it was shipped to the archives – but there was also the conundrum of what to do with the diary King had meticulously written since he was nearly 19 years old.

Famous for being a fence-sitter, King's instructions in his will about the diary were classically ambiguous. He wanted the diary destroyed, "except those parts which I have indicated are and shall be available for publication or use." The intriguing story of how Pickersgill and the other executors tried to honour King's wishes, yet also protect and preserve his legacy, is told in this engaging narrative by Trent University history professor Christopher Dummitt. This includes an account of the mystery of the only volume of the diary from late 1945 that vanished and has never been found.

The executors understood that the diary was essential for future biographers and historians in assessing King's life and career. But this remarkable treasure trove of nearly 30,000 pages (about 7.5 million words) was explosive, because it also chronicled, sometimes in numbing and unbelievable detail, King's personality foibles, insecurities, pettiness, vindictiveness and prejudices (a man of his time, King's comments on Jews, blacks and Asians are today cringeworthy); as well as his craziness and eccentricities: his long interest in spiritualism and communication with the departed; his sexual hang-ups; his deep love for his mother that often borders on creepiness; his over-the-top affection for his three Irish terriers (all named Pat); his close friendship with the married Joan Patteson, who shared his passion for séances and table-rapping; and his obsession with numbers and images in his shaving-cream lather. In short, King's diary ran from the mundane to the insane.

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Stories about King's spiritualist activities were published in the press soon after his death. Though these tales of séances and visits with mediums caused a stir in Ottawa, they would have been of secondary importance had not the executors finally decided to permit access to King's diary, which was released in stages starting in the mid-seventies and completed in 1981. King's official biographers, first Robert MacGregor Dawson and then Blair Neatby, made respectful use of the diary. It is military historian Charles Stacey who Dummitt rightly acknowledges as the creator of the "Weird Willie" phenomenon, when in 1976 he published his sensational book, A Very Double Life: The Private World of Mackenzie King. Stacey took great delight in exposing King's private, smutty thoughts and bizarre idiosyncrasies, including the fact that he might have consorted with prostitutes in Toronto when he was a mere 20 years old. (No fan of King, Stacey wrote about this episode as if King were prime minister at the time.)

Stacey was criticized by Liberal loyalists for his gossipy exposé, but journalists and the public ate it up. The timing of the publication of Stacey's book was no accident, Dummitt suggests. In the background to his tale about King's diary is what he refers to as the "decline of deference," the way in which Canadians, influenced by a "Freudian flood" that impacted books, magazines, journalism, television and films, rejected the moral self-restraint and formal reverence of King's era for the indulgent, individualistic and sexually uninhibited culture of the sixties and seventies.

He is correct, but to a point. Dummitt argues that Stacey would not and could not have written his book 20 years earlier and emphasizes the rebukes and dismal sales of Harry Ferns and Bernard Ostry's 1955 book, The Age of Mackenzie King, which was highly critical of the late prime minister and his alleged insatiable ambition. Morally uptight or not, Canadians were, in fact, ready for political behind-the-scenes intrigue and gossip. Ferns and Ostry did not appeal to general readers because their book was too academic and written with a left-wing bent, not necessarily because it was disrespectful, as Dummitt postulates. Eight years later, the publication of journalist Peter C. Newman's blockbuster Renegade in Power that related the rise and fall of John Diefenbaker – which Dummitt does not mention – altered forever Canadian political commentary. It contained fascinating insider information and was definitely not deferential. Bookstores could not keep up with demand.

Had King's executors released the diary in 1960, rather than 15 years later, it is hard to imagine that an enterprising journalist such as Newman or another historian would have not delved into it and revealed King's secrets just as Stacey eventually did. True, a 1960 version of A Very Double Life might have received even more caustic criticism, but that would not have stopped such a book from flying off the shelves.

Either way, as Dummitt shows, the executors' controversial decision to not burn the diary and all of King's spiritualist notebooks – they did burn some – changed perceptions of this fastidious and strange leader who helped redefine Canada's status within the British Empire, reworked federalism, initiated social-welfare legislation and skillfully guided the country through the Second World War. Needless to say, King would be aghast that the legacies of those achievements frequently are overshadowed by his enduring reputation as "Weird Willie."

Allan Levine is the author of King: William Lyon Mackenzie King – A Life Guided by the Hand of Destiny. His next book, Seeking the Fabled City: The Canadian Jewish Experience, will be published in 2018.

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