Just say that Margaret MacMillan's path through life is different.
For 27 years she teaches history at Toronto's Ryerson University. Her name is not a household word. The glitterati of Toronto society do not line up to pay $45 each to hear her speak. The media do not beg for her thoughts on world affairs and whither Canadian foreign policy. Michael Levine, agent to the stars, is not her agent.
Canadian publishers reject her book-manuscript -- the product of five years work -- on the peace negotiations that followed the First World War.
That is Prof. MacMillan in 2000, at age 57.
In 2001, her book is published in Britain to spectacular acclaim. It wins prize after prize after prize, including the £30,000 Samuel Johnson award for non-fiction.
In 2002, it is finally published in North America -- under the title Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World. It soars instantly to the top of bestseller lists and wins Prof. MacMillan the Governor-General's Award for Non-Fiction. The same year she is appointed provost of University of Toronto's venerable Trinity College.
She becomes the toast of media, society and the academy. Journalists trip over themselves to write shimmering profiles and pronounce her to be everything she always was before she emerged on the mountain top -- witty, clever, intellectually formidable, charming, socially sparkling and cool.
Michael Levine becomes her agent and sells her next book to Penguin for a reported $100,000.
And yesterday it is announced she will become warden (president) of Oxford University's St. Antony's College, one of the most prestigious and coveted jobs in Britain's academic Elysian fields.
This is Margaret MacMillan in 2005 at age 61, a Hail Mary beacon of hope for people who think life dead-ends past 50. "I was of two minds about it," she said in an interview. "I hate moving. I thought, 'Will I ever find a nice dry-cleaner?' And then I told myself, 'Don't be so pathetic.'
"I'm pleased. I don't really want to live in England forever. But I think for a few years it will be really fun."
The college was founded in 1950 by a shadowy and enormously rich French merchant, Antonin Besse (rumoured to be a model for characters in at least two of Evelyn Waugh's novels, including Mr. Baldwin in Scoop) and dedicated to advanced graduate research in modern international history, philosophy, economics and politics.
Prof. MacMillan was one of its students in the 1970s (women were not admitted until 1962). Her master's degree and doctorate are both from Oxford; her undergraduate degree was taken at the University of Toronto.
When she takes up the post in 2007, she will follow in the footsteps of four stellar and titled predecessors: Sir William Deakin, a brilliant Oxford academic who was an adventurous soldier and aide to Winston Churchill; Sir Raymond Carr, a distinguished historian of Spain; Sir (later Lord) Ralf Dahrendorf, a giant among social theorists and former director of the London School of Economics, and Sir Marrack Goulding, a former undersecretary for political affairs at the United Nations.
She also will be taking over a college steeped in mystery and love.
Its links to the spy world are fabled. Oxford English professor John Bayley was living there when he saw the novelist Iris Murdoch cycling slowly past his window and fell in love with her, igniting a profound, life-long relationship. Dr. Michael Aris taught Tibetan studies there until his death in 1999, separated for years from his wife, Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was forced to live in internal exile and was not allowed to visit her husband as he was dying.
The college sought out Prof. MacMillan for the job. Its website calls her "an outstanding scholar and manager. St Antony's has for years been proud of her achievements. Her command of modern history and contemporary international relations make her an ideal head of this College."
Her career has not been as magical as it may look. The success of Paris 1919, apart from acclaim for its groundbreaking scholarly research, lies in its wealth of brilliant gossipy detail about the characters who were at centre stage for the Paris peace negotiations, and Prof. MacMillan's masterful talents in writing about them.
(One of those characters, of course, was her great-grandfather, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George. Her mother was visiting Toronto in 1939 as a British schoolgirl when the Second World War began. Her family told her to stay put. She enrolled at the University of Toronto, met a young medical student and married him.)
She credits the Ryerson students she taught between 1975 and 2002 -- engineering students, nursing students, students of just about everything except history -- for compelling her to make her lectures interesting, and telling stories richly coloured with gossip. She once said if she hadn't dedicated her book to her family, she would have dedicated it to her Ryerson students.