043: Mackenzie King: Against his Will
February 20, 2018
Listen Now [61 MB, length: 1:01:00]
William Lyon Mackenzie King was Canada’s longest serving prime minister, an accomplished politician and a prolific writer. He kept an ongoing diary from 1893, until a few days before his death in 1950, in which he wrote down meticulous accounts of his life in politics and fascinating details from his private life. On today’s episode, we talk with professor and author Christopher Dummitt, whose latest book details the history behind the diaries and how they became available for the world to read.
Google Play to automatically receive new episodes.
Email questions and feedback to:
Who’s Who Index
Rachel Bleaney: medium from Kingston, Ontario whom King consulted
Michael Bliss: Canadian historian and author of Right Honourable Men: The Descent of Canadian Politics from Macdonald to Chrétien (2004)
Jean-Louis Daviault: employee at the National Public Archives who attempted to sell King’s diaries
Robert MacGregor Dawson: first official biographer of King, author of William Lyon Mackenzie King: A Political Biography, Volume I, 1874–1923 (1958)
Eugene Forsey: Canadian senator in the 1970s, constitutional expert and critic of King
Donald Forster: co-author of The Mackenzie King Record, Volumes I–4 (1961, 1968, 1970)
Igor Gouzenko: Russian-born cipher clerk employed by the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa, who defected in 1945 and exposed a Soviet spy ring in Canada
J. Edouard Handy: King’s private secretary who typed some of King’s dictated diary entries
Norman Hillmer and Jack Granatstein: Canadian historians who put King at the top of Maclean’s Magazine’s 1997 list of the greatest Canadian prime ministers
W. Kaye Lamb: Dominion Archivist of Canada (1948 to 1968) and one of King’s literary executors
André Laurendeau: Canadian journalist, politician and playwright, critic of King’s conscription policy
Fred A. McGregor: one of King’s literary executors, author of The Fall & Rise of Mackenzie King: 1911–1919 (1962)
Arthur Meighen: eleventh prime minister of Canada (1920 to 1921), leader of the Conservative Party
Sir William Mulock: Postmaster General in Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s Cabinet, appointed King as Deputy Minister of Department of Labour
H. Blair Neatby: second official biographer of King, author of William Lyon Mackenzie King, Volume II, 1924–1932: The Lonely Heights (1963)
Jacqueline Neatby: née Jacqueline Coté, archivist working with King’s papers, married H. Blair Neatby
Herbert Norman: Canadian ambassador accused of being a communist spy, committed suicide in 1957
Bernard Ostry and Harry Ferns: co-authors of the critical biography of King entitled The Age of Mackenzie King (1955)
Joan Patterson: close friend of King and fellow dog-lover
Samuel Pepys: administrator of the English Navy and member of the British Parliament in the 17th century, famous for keeping a detailed private diary
J.W. Pickersgill: one of King’s literary executors, Canadian politician and co-author of The Mackenzie King Record, Volumes 1–4 (1961, 1968, 1970)
Norman Robertson: one of King’s literary executors, Canadian diplomat and advisor to King
F.R. Scott: Canadian poet and constitutional expert, founding member of the socialist movement in Canada (CCF), which became the New Democratic Party in 1962
O.D. Skelton: King’s Under-Secretary of State for External Affairs, who was aware of King’s spiritualist activities
C.P. Stacey: military historian and author of A Very Double Life: The Private World of Mackenzie King (1976)
Louis St-Laurent: seventeenth prime minister of Canada (1948 to 1957), succeeded King as prime minister
Margaret (Maggie) Trudeau: née Margaret Sinclair, Canadian author and activist, formerly married to Pierre Elliott Trudeau
Pierre Elliott Trudeau: twentieth prime minister of Canada (1968 to 1979 and 1980 to 1984)
Lucy Zavitske: member of King’s staff who typed some of King’s dictated diary entries
Mackenzie King: Against his Will
Geneviève Morin (GM): Welcome to “Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.” I’m your host, Geneviève Morin. Join us as we showcase treasures from our vaults; guide you through our many services; and introduce you to the people who acquire, safeguard and make known Canada’s documentary heritage.
William Lyon Mackenzie King was Canada’s longest serving prime minister. He is also increasingly viewed as one of the greatest. However, King’s accomplishments are not restricted to the realm of politics. Throughout his entire adult life, King was very much a dedicated writer. Although he was an exceedingly prolific correspondent, and the author of numerous books and articles, by far his most important literary project was the ongoing, almost daily, writing of his diary. From 1893, until a few days before his death in 1950, King not only wrote down detailed accounts of his life in politics, but also fascinating details of his private life.
On today’s episode, we talk with Trent University professor and author Christopher Dummitt, whose latest book, Unbuttoned: A History of Mackenzie King’s Secret Life, details the history behind the diary and how it came to be available for the world to read.
For a who’s who index of the individuals that we’ll be discussing, refer to LAC’s podcast page for this episode.
January 1st, 1902. “This journal is strictly private, and none should look upon its pages save with reverent eyes and a heart that can abide with silence, for it is the story of a human life, its ambitions, its beliefs, its failures & its broken achievements, all or any of which may be right or wrong, none of which are without their influence and purpose for all time.”
We sat down with Christopher in his office at Trent University. The first thing we asked was what inspired him to write a book about King’s secret life.
CD: Well, I was finishing my PhD and I took a summer road trip to get away from it as far as possible as I could. And I picked up a copy of this book called A Very Double Life by C.P. Stacey, which was the bestseller in 1976. And it was all about Mackenzie King’s secret life. And I loved the book and I found it really fascinating but what I found fascinating about it wasn’t just King’s secret life—which was fascinating, he was a spirit talker, all these things—but I found myself lingering over the book asking, well how did someone like C.P. Stacey, this 70-year-old military historian, come to write this tell-all exposé about King and how did it come to be a bestseller in 1976? I thought, this wouldn’t have been possible a couple of decades earlier. And I thought, you know there’s a book here about how that book came to be written, how we came to be so fascinated by King’s secret life and how we came to allow ourselves to talk so openly, and you know, gleefully about his secret life.
GM: We asked Christopher what Mackenzie King’s education was like, and how he started working for the federal government.
CD: Yeah, he went—I mean it’s always—I find that his education is fascinating because he goes to U of T and then he stays in Toronto and collects a few degrees. And I’m not sure what he’s done [laughs]. He stays on and then they give him an LL.B. Okay, what has he done? He gets a master’s degree and then he goes to Chicago and studies social work at Hull House, the famous kind of hot bed of social work activity in the 1890s. And then he goes eventually to Harvard.
GM: King received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Toronto in the spring of 1895, and then the university conferred on him a law degree in June of 1896. He got a third degree from U of T in 1897, a master’s degree for a thesis he wrote. Then in 1897, he moved on to Harvard, where he earned another master’s degree. Wow! Four degrees in four years!
CD: But he’s not at Harvard a lot. He’s there for a while and then he goes to London on research about—it’s from London that he gets brought back to work under the Postmaster General William Mulock who was a family friend who brings him into the burgeoning new Department of Labour.
GM: To give our listeners some context, can you mention some of the highlights of King’s political career?
CD: Sure, well King is arguably the most successful Canadian prime minister, certainly in terms of years served, if that’s the only thing you want to go by—and maybe you don’t. You know, over 21 years as prime minister. He first becomes elected Liberal leader in 1919 and becomes prime minister in 1921. He comes into power in a time of national turmoil after the end of the Great War, the great divisions of the Great War around conscription, around east and west, the rise of the Progressive Party out of the west. And the Liberal Party is kind of falling apart and he nonetheless manages to maintain power. And of course, he loses again—we won’t get into King beginning of 1926, that’s a fascinating topic [Geneviève laughs] but probably we don’t have time for that. But it’s great. We should do a whole other podcast about that.
He loses power for five years in the midst of the Depression, somehow maintains the leadership of the Liberal Party, which is a fascinating story. Today, that would never happen—a leader after serving nine years as prime minister would resign and we’d get somebody else. But he stays as leader of the Liberal Party, gets re-elected not surprisingly in 1935 with actually not much more of the vote than he got in 1930, and then really maintains power until 1948 when he retires as a very old man. And his Liberal Party continues to stay in power for a number of years after that.
He’s probably best known, I think, in terms of what people say is his achievements, are for national reconciliation at least as was understood in the mid-20th century, which had nothing to do with Indigenous peoples but had a lot to do with French and English Canadians, and especially the conscription crisis in the Second World War. The conscription crisis in the First World War, of course, had driven the country apart. There were riots in the street, violence—it was an incredibly tumultuous time.
And when the Second World War broke out, of course there’s the whole politics of the war but there’s also domestically the question of what’s going to happen this time. And King managed—as his proponents would say—he managed to keep putting conscription off enough so that in late 1944 when he finally imposed it, things didn’t fall apart in the way that they did before. He had kind of pushed it off so much. It didn’t mean that some people weren’t upset, but he held his party and, in a sense, the country together, in fact so much so, that he ends up winning re-election in 1945 even when people like Churchill in England actually lose election and Labour takes over. So, there’s a series of kind of triumphs he has there. So arguably, as I say, the most successful prime minister. We could get into all kinds of criticisms about him, but that’s, I think, his place in public memory.
GM: One aspect of King’s legacy relates to the diaries that he kept. Do we know why King started keeping a diary and how old was he when he first began?
CD: So, he started keeping a diary in 1983 as a student at the University of Toronto. Why he did so? I think this fits into King as a young, devout Christian in the late 19th century, the Victorian era, and keeping himself to account, you know, accounting for what he did that day, keeping himself to account for maybe the sins that he felt he committed, the things he didn’t do right, recording all the books he’s written, the things he wants to do. It changes over the course of his life. So, he keeps at it for 57 years. So, it starts in 1893. He doesn’t stop the diary until three days before he dies in 1950. So, it’s an incredibly voluminous document.
GM: King explained his original purpose in the first entry of the diary from September 6th, 1893. For him diary-keeping was a challenge: “After being told by many that I could never keep a diary, I decided to make, at least an attempt. Accordingly I secured this book about 4 P.M. this afternoon.” King promised to make the diary a true account of his life and hoped to be able to look back through it later on, and remember past events.
September 6th, 1893. “This diary is to contain a very brief sketch of the events, actions, feelings, and thoughts of my daily life. It must above all be a true and faithful account. The chief object of my keeping this diary is [...] that through its pages the reader may be able to trace how the author has sought to improve his time. Another object must here be mentioned and is this, the writer hopes that in future days—be they far or near—he may find great pleasure both for himself and friends in the remembrance of events recorded...”
CD: And although there are periods in the early 1900s where he’s not doing it as regularly, pretty soon he’s keeping it up daily. He’s writing in this horrible, indecipherable script, scratchy script in these diary books. By the time he comes back into office in the mid-1930s, he decides to actually dictate his diary to a scribe, to his secretary who then takes it down and then goes and types up his diary.
CD: And so, that’s a fascinating relationship. In fact, the cover of my book has a picture of one of these people who was a secretary, J. Edouard Handy, who I would have loved to have interviewed but of course he died long before I published the book.
GM: Around 1935, King started occasionally dictating the diary to a member of his staff, Lucy Zavitske, who then typed the entries, but King continued to write many passages by hand. After 1936, like Christopher mentioned, he usually dictated the diary to his principal secretary, Edouard Handy.
CD: And of course the diary—once he can start dictating it and just sort of going at random—it balloons in size. So it becomes this huge, huge document and an incredibly useful document for historians to know all about this public man.
GM: It definitely did balloon in size. The diaries, when stacked in a row, span over 7 metres in length, and contain over 50,000 typed pages!
I had no idea he’d started [dictating it]—like you say, the people who were privy to his verbal musings—[it] must have been an amazing opportunity, not an opportunity, a privilege.
CD: And I think they would see it as a privilege. That’s a good word. That’s why I would have liked to have known this man and spoken to this man. King would have had to trust him, to figure out who he was. He stays on after King dies. He stays on at King’s house, which becomes called Laurier House because it had been Laurier’s house before that, becomes a museum in Ottawa. It’s still running. You can go see it. I’d recommend it. And Handy actually becomes not the curator but the caretaker there. So, he stays on in King’s service even after King dies. So, clearly there was that long relationship there, which is pretty fascinating.
GM: There was loyalty, yeah.
What types of details do the diaries reveal about King’s private life?
CD: About his private life…well early on, many things. You know, he’s very open. I’d say King is not very self-aware in the sense that he doesn’t question himself a lot. But he’s pretty open with it. So everything from his bowel movements, which as men get older they—[as] people get older, that becomes very important. His dreams—of course, I’m sure we’ll get into this further. He was a spiritualist, a believer in psychic research as he would have called it. And so, all his dreams, his musings, his comments on meetings that he’s had with mediums are there.
His relations with his friends, although he didn’t have a lot of friends. His closest friends were actually two women—the wives of other men. And their relationships. Early on in his life, his attempts to woo a wife that he could never quite commit to, ever. And then famously—and this was in A Very Double Life—maybe they reveal that he visited prostitutes and felt extremely guilty about it. But the evidence is very inconclusive. That’s the best we can say.
So Stacey comes up with sections, really in the first couple days of the diary, they’re there. That King is going out for a stroll in the evening. He comes back, feels guilty about it. He talks about his time and money wasted, and worse than wasted. And he’s kind of verbally—and in his diaries—self-flagellating, right? And Stacey interprets this as that he’s visiting prostitutes. That might be the case. Other historians, Michael Bliss, if you really want to get into the details of this, says no, he’s going and he’s buying early Victorian versions of pornography and maybe he’s masturbating. And so, you know you can really get grubby about it. And we just don’t know. But clearly, he feels guilty about it and his diary is a place where he can record these thoughts.
GM: I guess in that era, it wasn’t going out for a really sugary sweet coffee at one of those specialty places, that’s not why he hates himself [Christopher laughs], like I would.
October 30th, 1897. “I wandered about the streets of Boston. Oh fool that I am who will deliver me—went completely to the devil with my passions, wasted money and came home sad. God only knows why I am so weak, he knows I fight hard.”
February 2nd, 1894. “I cried after coming home tonight. I feel very sorry for something I did last night. What sort of man am I to become, is the question that is bothering me at present…”
April 21st, 1917. “I have allowed myself to give way to inclination and desire in a manner, which is wholly wrong…”
February 1st, 1894. “It was very hard for me to stay in. I felt I must go out and stroll round. Alas, I have much to conquer as yet. Oh I wish I could overcome sin and some of its more terrible forms. Tonight has proven to me that I am very weak but I pray to be made stronger.”
GM: In his will, King named four literary executors: Fred McGregor, J.W. Pickersgill, Norman Robertson and Dominion Archivist Dr. W. Kaye Lamb. Among other things, he instructed them to quote “destroy all of my diaries except those parts which I have indicated are and shall be available for publication or use.” End quote. But he never indicated the parts that were to be kept. They had a difficult task at hand…
In his will, King stated that he wanted the diaries destroyed after his death. How did the executors of his will manage not only to keep the diaries but also to make them available to the public?
CD: Well, and that’s a fascinating story. That’s one of the main stories I want to tell in the book. Because his will says that my diaries should be destroyed, except those portions which I indicate are to be preserved. And in writing, he never indicates that anything should be preserved. So one interpretation would be that the diaries shouldn’t exist, that your institution—Library and Archives Canada—is betraying his will.
Now right after he dies—in his will, he also appoints four literary executors, one of whom was in fact the National Archivist W. Kaye Lamb at the time. And they quickly go and try to get a legal reading on what this means. Because one of the executors and Handy, the assistant, say that verbally, he kind of told them what he wanted kept and they felt they knew. And so they think they know what he wants to be preserved and they also see the diary’s usefulness, especially for his official biographer, right? And that’s what they want to do, is create this monument to King.
GM: There were a few ‘official’ Mackenzie King biographers appointed by the literary executors. The first was Robert MacGregor Dawson, who published a volume on King’s life covering 1874 to 1923. Then, H. Blair Neatby, dealt with the years 1924 to 1932.
CD: So they get the Minister of Justice to get a legal ruling and the legal ruling opens the door for them. It says, well indicated is it could be interpreted more widely than that.
GM: Remember, King had written, “destroy all of my diaries except those parts which I have indicated…” The executors got advice from Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent and the Department of Justice on the legal meaning of the word “indicated.”
CD: And then they spend the next couple of decades debating whether they should use them, destroy them. Should the official biographer use them but not quote from them? Should the official biographer use them and quote from them? Should anyone else have access? Should they be destroyed after it’s used?
And it goes on for decades. In fact, by the time they make a decision to open them in the 1970s, two of the original literary executors are dead and a lot has changed in Canada. And that’s of course a big part of the story I tell in the book. And so they ultimately decide that it’s possible to open them.
GM: I just had a little side thought about how this happens so often in archives where people—either the person themselves or their family—will destroy parts of their records for fear of anything getting out. But they’re doing it with the mentality of the day and they don’t imagine that later on in life there won’t be the same sort of mentality where certain things will be accepted, certain things will not be, the judgment will no longer exist. So the fact that it did take until the 70s probably meant that they were more open-minded about keeping them open.
GM: We see this in the archives of the gay community, how families—after someone passes—they realize they had these secret relationships with someone of the same sex and they destroy that whole part of their archives. But today, it would be so important to have this sort of documentation. So it comes to mind again that they thought they were doing them a favour but—
GM: They’re not doing the rest of us a favour.
CD: Yeah. And you know, time moves in one direction, at least as we experience it, right? So, we see this as we’re now more open-minded. I mean, if we could speak to them, it’d be interesting to know—this is King speaking to the dead—would they feel the same way when they haven’t lived through those times? So maybe—and I say this as a historian actually wanting the documents—but maybe they still wouldn’t want them open, which is fascinating because they still would be believing as they believed, right? And so just because we believe differently doesn’t mean that we should actually have them.
Now as a historian, I want the diaries. [Geneviève laughs.] I absolutely want the diaries, but ethically there’s a whole other question there. Maybe we shouldn’t have them. And now, Frederick McGregor—who is one of his executors and probably the closest to King—he was the one who really pushed for them to be preserved. He thought that they were incredibly useful. In fact, he spent a number of years of his life transcribing the handwritten diaries into a type-written version. So, he knew them better than anyone else in the world. And he really thought that they would show King’s legacy.
And I think ultimately he’s been proven correct, that even though King was made to appear ridiculous in many respects—and was—still the sheer weight of this record means that people just go to the diary, they go to his record and we get things through King’s perspective. So, he probably has too much weight in our public memory and historical memory of the 20th century because of the diary.
GM: Who was Jean-Louis Daviault and what was his role in the executors’ decision to release the diaries?
CD: So Jean-Louis Daviault was an employee of the National Public Archives. He had a job in the mid-1950s in the great new technology of microfilm—you know, that was going to change the world for archives in the 1950s. He was the photographer who would capture the images of all kinds of government records including King’s diaries. So, King’s executors weren’t sure what they were going to do with his diaries but for insurance purposes, they wanted—they were letting the official biographer use them, and now they wanted to have an extra copy just in case.
And Daviault was an interesting guy. He was a troubled man. He had a very hard time during the Second World War, a very bad experience on one of his ships that sunk. He ended up leaving the service with a psychiatric evaluation going against him. But he still came back to work for the government after the war.
And he seems to have a lot of money problems, gambling problems, maybe drinking problems. And when he comes to see King’s diaries, for some reason he seems to have gotten the idea that maybe what he should do is he should take these copies and make extra copies for himself and then go and sell them on the black market. He goes and tries to sell them to a number of newspaper owners in the 1950s, thinking this is a great story. That this would be sensational. But he has very bad luck because one of the newspaper owners he goes to consults his lawyer but his lawyer also happens to be the lawyer for King’s estate.
[Laughter] So, it doesn’t go well. Now, it’s unclear to me. It doesn’t seem to be—they didn’t know who the name of this person was. But they knew that it was being sold. And so they go to the executors and say someone is trying to sell King’s diaries and they’re able to identify that it’s the typed-up versions that Frederick McGregor has done, and so they figure out it’s got to be someone within the archives and there’s only like three people that could have done it in the archives and they fingered Daviault as the one who’s done it.
Now interestingly, he doesn’t get fired for about a year and a half. And he’s never charged so there’s no criminal record against him, but ultimately he leaves and it seems to be—there’s records of later him calling up the National Archives and threatening them with releasing copies of the diaries, so it seems likely that he’s done this.
So, the effect of that stolen diary incident, though, is that later on the executors can never be sure that there aren’t black market copies of King’s diary out there. And they might still be out there, never been recovered. And the question is, what happened to these diaries? What if they destroy the original diary? What happens with these other copies? Could people make different versions of them? Could they make King out to be even crazier than people might think he was, right, even what his own writing was? Could they make him say things—the missing diaries had to do with the Second World War—could they misconstrue things? So, I think that was always on the executors’ minds. There’s only a few written references to that but it was clearly on their minds as they decided ultimately to open the diaries.
GM: He forced their hand.
CD: He forced their hand. And you know, he also has a fascinating story because he comes up again in the late 1960s, early 1970s, under the RCMP search for Soviet spies within the Canadian government. So, there’s a famous file called Operation Featherbed, which was started after the suicide of Herbert Norman in the late 1950s. The RCMP becomes convinced that there might be moles within the top levels of the Canadian government in the civil service. It’s not an irrational fear. There were in other countries.
And they keep this file open. And Daviault’s name comes into it. The King diaries come into it because they think—Daviault also had access to Privy Council Records, to Cabinet minutes. And for a while—although the RCMP files are so blacked out it’s hard to be sure—it’s clear that they thought Daviault maybe was involved in selling other documents, maybe the King diaries as well, to the Soviets. And it doesn’t help that Daviault ends up dying in a hotel room in downtown Ottawa under kind of seemingly suspicious circumstances.
Perhaps he committed suicide—that was the official record. But the RCMP clearly investigated with an eye to asking—you know his shoes were missing, other things were missing. The RCMP clearly are asking, did he die by his own hand, someone else’s hands? It’s unclear from the records what happened. Nothing ever came of it. But the RCMP was convinced that Daviault was the one who was supplying records to the Soviets. So the King diary comes up in all these mysterious and very interesting ways long after King is dead.
GM: So many book ideas coming out [laughs].
CD: Or movie ideas.
GM: [Laughing] Movie ideas. In what year did LAC acquire King’s papers and the diaries?
CD: Well that’s not an easy question to answer. So, they already had some copies of King’s papers after he retired and they were processing them. And there was an archivist who actually was working with King, Jacqueline Coté, later Jacqueline Neatby. She married King’s second official biographer because they worked so closely together on the biography.
GM: Oh, how romantic.
CD: There you go. And I think the first agreement is about 1954, where some papers are officially handed over. And then there comes this long-stage process whereby different papers are handed over at different stages. And eventually the diaries go—the diaries are with the archives but then people still have to request access from the literary executors to get into a number of the records. And many of them were kept private well into the 21st century.
GM: In 1954, the National Archives, then known as the Public Archives, started to acquire most of the Mackenzie King records. Mackenzie King is the longest serving Canadian Prime Minister, so his fond is very large. There are over 2 million documents, which include 25,000 photos and over 700 works of art. There are also 316 linear metres of textual records, which include correspondence, speeches, election materials and financial and personal documents, which of course include his diaries. King kept everything! We even have some of his X-rays from dental exams.
LAC also holds King’s personal book collection. These include books on history, philosophy, poetry and many biographies. There are also books on the occult and mysticism.
In what year were the diaries made fully accessible to researchers? You kind of touched on that a little bit.
CD: Yeah, so the diaries come out—the first draft of them, the first version comes out, they make the decision to open them in December of 1971 and then they open later that next year up to 1932. And the decision is why 1932? It’s because they only want to open up the diaries up to the point that the official biography has reached. And at that point, the official biography has reached 1932 and another volume is going to come out by Blair Neatby—that will come out in 1976, actually, covering the rest of the 1930s.
Now, by 1974/75 they decide they’re not going to wait for Neatby and they publish another batch of diaries up to 30 years before that date—I think it’s January 1st, 1975. I’d have to double-check. And then year by year through the rest of the 1970s, every January 1st a new year of King’s diaries would be released 30 years on from that. So the ‘48 ones are released on January 1st of 1979, if that makes sense. So 30 years plus that next day at the beginning of the day.
CD: And from what I understand, from the media reports and talking to other archivists, that every January it was kind of, here, let’s see what’s in Weird Willy’s diary this year. [Genevieve laughs.] And it becomes kind of this long striptease of, oh, what’s going to be revealed this year. And I think the archivists of the time liked it from what they’ve told me. They enjoyed the publicity, what the archives were doing, and getting people talking about a prime minister, I suppose, in a certain way. And they would kind of have an unveiling and kind of give some snippets to the journalists and the journalists would do a series of stories. King was in the news until the early 1980s because of his diary.
GM: The diary also served as a place for King to explain his spiritualist activities. Starting in the late-1920s and continuing with varying frequency right up to his death, he described meetings with mediums, séances, table-rapping sessions, his interpretations of his dreams, the reading of his tealeaves and the significance of certain numbers. We asked Christopher if King’s belief and practice of spiritualism influenced the decisions he made as Prime Minister.
CD: So, and usually those questions are paired just like you’ve asked them. People want to know did he get instructions from ghosts to go and declare war on Germany, right? That’s the ultimate [laughs].
GM: Please say no.
CD: Did the creation of family allowances have anything to do with what the ghost of Laurier told him. I’d always wanted to do this. No. So there’s very little evidence that there’s that kind of direct influence. And that’s what King’s defenders would always say. There’s no indication that he’s speaking with one medium, he’s getting instructions and then he’s putting that in policy. King was a much slower, more methodical, more political person than that.
We do know that his influence in the spirit world was long pervasive. It lasted for a long period of time, longer even than Stacey knew. There’s another PhD thesis [that’s] come out of Queen’s University that has been turned into a book, which really looks at the released spiritualism documents that only came out in the 21st century. And that shows that Stacey didn’t even have all the information, that there was much more correspondence here, a much more elaborate relationship that went on for a long period of time, correspondence with different mediums.
And so it was pretty all-encompassing. He believed he could communicate. But the closest I’ve come—you know, I think the closest thing we’ve come to say [that] influences his politics is King’s attitude towards Germany, for example, was pretty fascinating. And his appeasement, his support of appeasement in the 1930s.
But that’s a pretty distant connection, right? It’s probably right that there was some kind of connection there but King would have already—like many national leaders in the 1930s—had many reasons to hope Hitler wasn’t going to do everything he did. And people hoped long after they probably should have hoped that things would have gone [the way of] something else. So there’s really not any record that that’s the case.
Now, having said that, here’s a future project for someone who wants to write a book and is very good at reading handwriting—I’m not sure if I’m up to it—which is that when Frederick McGregor transcribed the diary, he didn’t transcribe the whole thing and even admitted he didn’t transcribe the whole thing.
And he said that there were certain sections where he put little ellipses in there. And he said it got too exhausting, and so some sections he left out portions which were really irrelevant.
Now, I think that’s a great project to go through and find out what was left out, to side-by-side compare the written diary to the transcribed diary. I’m not sure if I’m up to it, but I hope someone else is.
GM: We were debating this while we were preparing the podcast. You know how leaders have—some leaders go to church every Sunday. I’m sure some of them sit and meditate. Could this have been sort of King’s way of reflecting, of meditating, of doing mental exercises, stretching his—thinking out of the box?
CD: So, the meditation is maybe a useful analogy, I think. So, I’m not sure if it’s his way of thinking in different ways, but so his official biographies usually say this was a kind of way for him to not be lonely. This was his psychological crutch. He was unmarried. He was a bachelor. He was probably in many ways lonely. So, this was his way of speaking to someone in the way that you might speak to your spouse. This was his connection.
GM: Because it’s lonely at the top?
June 30th, 1932. “There can be no doubt whatever that the persons I have been talking with were the loved ones and others I have known and who have passed away. It was the spirits of the departed. There is no other way on earth of accounting for what we have all experienced this week…”
GM: Surely people close to King, his friends, his employees, perhaps even reporters, must have known about this pastime of engaging in these spiritualist activities?
CD: Yeah, some of them did. Absolutely. Obviously the people in the house knew. Handy knew. And in fact, I came across the new biography of O.D. Skelton—the Deputy Minister of External Affairs for much of the first of the 1920s on through King’s period. In his diary, Norman Hillmer found evidence in the mid-1920s of King being brought in from the train with all this hoopla amidst an election. And he comes back to his house and he meets Mrs. Bleaney, the fortune teller. And Skelton reflects, if only all these crowds of people knew that King was going right from them to the fortune teller. So Skelton knew. One can only assume that other people around them knew and they didn’t want to risk it. They didn’t want the news coming out.
Clearly, there was more openness to these kinds of possibilities. People would sit up with a Ouija board—even as a kid I remember using a Ouija board—but I think people make too much of a case that people were widespread spiritualists in the mid-20th century. I think clearly they were but there were also boundaries, right, what was respectable and what wasn’t. And King’s excessive devotion to belief in this would have been considered just unacceptable and I think people knew that. And it went beyond just a parlour trick, a game you play one Saturday night. It was much more serious than that. And so people didn’t want that to get out.
Pierre Berton (PB): Mr. Jackson, is it not an incitement of the Ottawa Press Corps, of which you were a member, that these facts did not emerge in some form during King’s lifetime? Here you had a prime minister for 25 years who, in some cases, was a certifiable nut. He wanted to give his dog a medal: the Order of Merit. Who talked in the electric crystal ball to spirits—this was not a secret. Who collected on his farm at Kingsmere for everybody to see the most curious old ruins. And none of this was written about during his lifetime by you or anybody else. How do you explain that?
Richard Jackson (RJ): Well, the ruins are not curious, they’re beautiful. They’re works of art.
PB: But nobody wrote about them!
RJ: They did—
PB: Surely the fact that a prime minister goes down and buys up a corner of a bank, and puts it up, is an indication of his character and is a fascinating story. That story was never published—
RJ: It was. It was published. There were pictures taken of it.
PB: I know when it was first published. It was published in 1947 in Maclean’s Magazine. There were pictures of it.
RJ: I don’t believe that.
PB: Well, I can assure you that it had not been published before. And I know that the spiritualism—which was known to the Ottawa Press Gallery—was never published.
RJ: It was known to the Ottawa Press Gallery but was kept as a secret from me. It was Blair Fraser who first broke the story in Maclean’s.
PB: But Leonard Brockington knew about it. He was a member of the Ottawa Press Gallery—certainly a member of the press. Leonard Brockington was sent to England to stifle a spiritualist who was going to spill the beans, and having paid him the money, came back and said for the first time he’d met a happy medium.
RJ: Well, if you knew about it, why didn’t you say something at the time?
PB: I didn’t know about it at the time. I was in Victoria. I wasn’t in Ottawa. This story was told to me after.
RJ: Well, I—
PB: And I ask you of this—surely in any other country, no prime minister could hide the fact from the press that he was that much of a spiritualist.
RJ: Well, you’ve got to remember it was a different day and age. The press gave a prime minister a lot more respect than it does now. Now they go after him like a pack of howling dogs.
GM: You just heard an excerpt from CBC’s “Front Page Challenge,”where Pierre Berton grills King’s former neighbour, journalist Richard Jackson.
We know that King kept separate diaries detailing his séances, table-rapping sessions and meetings with mediums. We asked Christopher if these diaries still exist.
CD: So, some do, and some were destroyed. So all the spiritualist papers were released I forget which year in the 2000s but they were opened up. There were things in the diaries. But there were these series of binders—which I’ve never seen because they were destroyed long before I came along—that King kept some of these notes and transcriptions. And the executors decided that they were going to in fact destroy them. I think they felt like they had to destroy something. They were supposed to destroy the diaries [laughing] and they hadn’t and so actually Blair Neatby the official biographer had used them in one of his books. And he mentioned them in a footnote and he says that the only thing the literary executors ever asked him to change in his book was this one footnote where he referenced these binders. And he says, we’re going to destroy those so can you please not mention them. And so according to Neatby—and I think there’s every reason to believe him—that that’s the only thing they ever asked officially to be changed.
And so they have a little bonfire in 1977, I think, in the living room of this house. And they have the fire and they throw the binders into the fire. So it’s a sad day for historians everywhere but I think for the executors, they felt they—I can only imagine they felt they had to do something. They’d really exposed him beyond belief. By 1977 when they do it, Weird Willy is everywhere, he’s all-pervasive in the culture and I think they felt they had to actually protect him in some small way.
GM: It’s really sad.
CD: [Laughs] You’re speaking as an archivist.
GM: I know.
CD: Like, you can’t destroy any documents. But you know, think of St. Laurent—Louis St. Laurent—a person who—we should know a lot more about St. Laurent. In fact, I’ve just been teaching him in a course on “Canada since 1945.” I had an MA student just write a thesis on St. Laurent’s election campaigns. And he is gone from public memory. It’s an incredibly successful Canadian prime minister for a lot of reasons but one of the main reasons is so many of his records are destroyed. His collection at the archives is just bereft of information. And from what I understand, what I’ve been told, is that when they cleared out his office when he left office, they just destroyed all kinds of stuff that they couldn’t fit—wait what’s the story? Is it also that they moved offices into a different spot and so all the papers weren’t going to fit into the new office so they just threw everything else out…
CD: So, it’s the worst nightmare of what could happen to a prime minister’s documents, or anyone’s documents. And think of the way he’s suffered as a result of that. His historical memory has suffered as because of that.
GM: The diary is complete for the period 1935 to 1950, with one exception. There is no binder for the period November 10th to December 31st, 1945. King also wrote a separate Gouzenko diary for September and October 1945 relating to “Russian espionage activities.” Christopher shares with us some of the theories surrounding what happened with these missing volumes.
CD: Yeah, so the one missing volume is this period from November into the end of 1945. And the thing that most people point out is that it’s interesting and perhaps not surprising—or not coincidental that this corresponds with the Gouzenko spy scandal, right? Igor Gouzenko, the Soviet cipher clerk who defects to Canada in 1945 with a whole bunch of documents showing that there was a Soviet spy ring in Canada. And in late 1945, the period covered by the missing volume of the diary, that news isn’t public. So, Gouzenko was defected, but the news that he was defected isn’t going to come out until the spring of 1976. And that’s when the RCMP will go and round up all of the suspects who were covered in that.
And so the RCMP security service is very interested in this missing volume. Their suspicions are that someone has stolen this, either to cover up maybe revelations in it. Maybe they’re—so think of Operation Featherbed—maybe people are… information about them are reviewed in this diary that they don’t want anyone else to see. Or maybe the Soviets have somehow stolen it or purchased it off someone who’s stolen it.
And the RCMP hunts for that missing volume well into the 1980s as far as I can tell. Maybe longer. But in the mid-1980s, I have people telling me that they’re visiting the children of Frederick McGregor, the executor, and interviewing them about the diary. And there’s a missing King diary volume in the RCMP security service, which I’ve been through—much of it blacked out but some of it still useful.
My own theory, such as it is, is that I think I found something interesting, which is that the Jean-Louis Daviault case, which we talked about earlier about the stolen copied versions of King’s diaries. At the time he steals them and the literary executors find out that he’s doing that—so that’s in the autumn of 1955—the executors think, okay we need to really get a handle on this. And so they make a list of all the copies so far that had been copied up to that point. And that list ends right before that missing volume of the diary.
CD: And so essentially they’ve been doing all this copying and they were just about to do this next volume. And it’s interesting to me, and maybe not coincidental, that that is the volume which is missing. So, if I had to hazard a guess as to where that volume went, I would say maybe Daviault took it. Or something happened to it in the mixture of that investigation because it strikes me as pretty coincidental that that is the volume that’s missing right after that. But I mean I don’t have anything to go on except the coincidence of those two facts.
GM: Maybe it’s just sitting in the old microfilm room in the old archives building and no one knows it’s propping up a table or something.
CD: Well, I don’t know. And the other thing that is interesting—so Pickersgill, Jack Pickersgill, says that it was missing much earlier, right? But Handy, King’s assistant, later told the RCMP that when he left Laurier House early in the 1950s, that it was still there. So now, these are people’s recollections years after the event. But we’ve got two different recollections. So, did Jack Pickersgill take the volume of the diary because he published a series of books called the Mackenzie King records which were essentially excerpts from the diary that they thought were acceptable. Could it have gotten taken in there? The RCMP actually wonder if Donald Forster, who assisted Pickersgill with those books, did he take it? So the RCMP are thinking about all of these options and we just don’t know.
GM: You bring up a really interesting tidbit that I hadn’t considered. Was King writing national secrets in his diaries? Was he talking about work, talking about security briefings and everything else?
CD: Yeah, there were recordings of conversations with other national leaders. They are state documents in many respects. And so it’s very much—it’s not clear they’re top secret documents but clearly it’s recordings of what happened in Cabinet, all the kinds of things that would be considered private for a good period of time, are all in that diary. Yeah, so they are, in a sense, state papers.
GM: It’s a miracle Daviault didn’t get arrested because he was looking to sell state secrets, basically. Wow, lucky guy.
CD: Well, sort of. [Laughter] It didn’t go well for him in the end, so.
GM: Oh, you’re right. The shoes… The missing shoes. That’s really weird.
CD: It is a strange story, yeah.
GM: C.P. Stacey’s book, A Very Double Life, came out in 1976 and all of King’s diaries were made accessible by 1981. Can you tell us about the impact of this biography? How did the public receive the information that was presented in the biography and in the diaries themselves?
CD: So Stacey’s book I think is really pivotal. Lots of stories are coming out after the diaries are released and journalists are doing stories, but Stacey is the first historian to really go at it in detail. So, it’s not just little snippets. He goes through and writes a book about the whole private life of King. And he’d already had access to the diary as the official military historian before this, at other points. And so he kind of had an early sense of what was in there. And so as soon as they become open, he gets in his mind that he’s going to write this book about the side of King that we didn’t know about.
And the book becomes a best-seller. It’s really wittingly written. It’s very thin, which is nice for it to be a best-seller. And it’s a fun book. And it hits Canada at a time when Canadians are really interested in prime ministers’ and politicians’ private lives and the secrets that they hide. You know, this is the time of Watergate, of Pierre Trudeau and Maggie Trudeau and the romance and the falling apart of the marriage. In fact, that’s happening as the book is coming out. And so Stacey’s life gets excerpted in papers across the country and it becomes a best-seller. It gets on the book-of-the-month club. You know, for a book written by an academic historian it does pretty well. It’s not Pierre Berton [Genevieve laughs.] selling hundreds and hundreds of thousands of copies but it does pretty well.
And I think it really—other people then go to that book and they can have a ready access to it. If they want to understand why was King wacky, well here you can find out in a couple hundred pages. And so it really shapes a view of King and it consolidates a view of King that had been growing for a number of years already.
GM: Living in Ottawa, we hear a lot of political rumours. You know, you go to social events. We run in political circles—not political circles, we work with public servants. And you hear rumours about people’s private lives, about politicians’ private lives. But somehow the press never reports on it. It never comes out, it’s never in some sort of gossip magazine. There is a line of respect that is not crossed. And so when this book comes out, it seems that that line has been crossed. And it creates almost this frenzy of needing to know more.
CD: Yeah, and I think it’s interesting. I think we have a slightly different take on it now, a few decades on from the 1970s, about there being this line. And of course there had been a very firm line before this time. And I think what happens in the late 1960s/1970s—you have to see that in that socially, culturally tumultuous era in which generations of people are trying to overthrow Victorian constraints. And the Victorian era has been done for a long time, theoretically. She [Queen Victoria] died at the first of the century. But in many ways, culturally, Canada remains Victorian, I would say, into the middle years of the 20th century. And in attitudes towards drinking and gambling and sex, much of the second half of the 20th century—especially the 1950s/60s/70s—is about getting away from those earlier constraints. And it becomes very important to kind of throw off those constraints, to step over those boundaries for I think a lot of people.
And what you see in the 1970s is kind of a conglomeration of a whole bunch of those movements coming together, right? Politically, as I said, it’s about Watergate exposing the dark secrets that we see in our public life, and not doing that because you’re crossing a line. Doing that because it’s vitally important as a citizen to do that. At that same time, you have people talking the language of self-help, of Freud, of authenticity, of being true to oneself—all these things that I think now we take for granted entirely as being personal ideals. Those are really coming to the fore in this period as well. All of these kinds of cultural movements are consolidating.
So, I think today there’s a real line. The line I think it is is if someone’s private conduct shows that their public conduct is hypocritical, and that tends to be where I think we’ve drawn the line now. But in the context of the 1960s/1970s, I think people were caught up in just overthrowing those previous constraints. And that was such a vital issue that you did that. And that’s the context in which Stacey’s book becomes such a hit.
GM: We asked Christopher what King meant to Canadians before 1950, and if public opinion of him changed after the exposure of certain elements of his private life.
CD: So, obviously there’s partisan interpretations of King. So, some people would have hated King and some people would have liked King. And French and English Canada were very different in some respects. So, they’re very divided. King was not loved and admired, even by the people who really supported him. He wasn’t a great speaker, he wasn’t a very charismatic man. But he was respected, I would say. So when he dies, the vision of King, which is sort of there, the idea of King as a great Canadian, as someone who had taken the country from a certain stage and had risen along with, and helped Canada to rise to a larger place in the world, especially after the Second World War. It’s kind of the old colony-to-nation story in King’s place. And one part of that colony-to-nation story, kind of out of the grips, as some people would have it, or at least the influence of Britain and more standing on its own. And King’s story and political career go along with that. And so the positive version of King is that.
I mean, the negative version of King is that he was boring and staid and didn’t impose—in English Canada—he didn’t impose inscription. He kind of betrayed the troops. And of course, if you talk to someone like André Laurendeau in Quebec, he’d say he betrayed Quebec because he imposed inscription. So it’s a riven image. But the polite thing would be to say that he was a statesman and that he was a great Canadian.
GM: And so the new details that came out—the spiritualism and everything else—didn’t change that? Didn’t…?
CD: So I think that for a few decades it did, yeah.
CD: It very much did. So he became remembered, if he is remembered at all, as Weird Willy. And so by the mid-1970s, that’s his place in Canadian history. So, I think among historians and political scientists you would have people who would still look at his public record but those voices were really drowned out by this growing fascination with Weird Willy. Now of course, that changes again. So the fixation around Weird Willy lasts for a while. It kind of grows steadily through the 50s/60s, explodes in the 70s and 80s.
And then by the 1990s I think it’s faded and you get a resurrection of King as in some ways Canada’s greatest prime minister. So, in 1997, Maclean’s magazine does their list of the greatest Canadian prime ministers. And of course, King tops the list. And the historians who make that list, Norman Hillmer and Jack Granatstein, say people might be surprised by this, that King is here, but nonetheless, in fact, he has this record of achievement, which is there already.
And I think that’s kind of stayed the same in some ways. In fact, in the last list that Maclean’s just did last year, he was back up to number one again. So.
GM: Referencing King’s diary, the Dominion Archivist of Canada W. Kaye Lamb wrote in 1955, “The more I see of it, the surer I am that it is one of the great political documents of our time.” Do you agree with Lamb? And just how valuable are the diaries?
CD: Well, I think he’s exactly right. I can’t think of—it’s hard to imagine any diary that’s kind of more important. Pepys’ diary, you know, you think of these great diaries. Now, obviously Canada isn’t considered as great as Britain so people don’t know King’s diary. There’s kind of a colonial thing going on. But, King’s diary is right up there with maybe some of the most important historical documents that this nation has, I would say. Fifty-seven years—especially once he becomes leader. It’s daily, it’s incessant, it’s constant. You can’t get a better recording of information than that.
One wishes that King, as I said, had been a bit more self-reflexive, that he was a bit more modern, a bit more thoughtful. But then again if he was, maybe it would have gone on even too long because people can be more—too much information, right? But there’s so much in there. And there’s so much more to come. As I was saying about these different versions of the diary, there’s so many more stories we can get out of King’s diary even though so much has already been written.
GM: What about the dogs?
CD: So Pats: Pat 1, Pat 2—
GM: The Pats.
CD: —and Pat 3. And Pat 3 went off to—I think actually it was a connection to Handy’s brother or cousin, a relation of Handy took Pat 3 when King died. So, Handy is there everywhere in King’s family, at least that’s what I think happened to Pat 3. So, Pat—King’s dog—was given to him by, if I’m remembering correctly, Joan Patterson, his very close friend. And you know, King is a lonely man and his dog is very important. I have four kids, so I love my dog but you know, ultimately, if the choice comes, the dog’s coming fifth place, right? [Geneviève laughs.] Sixth place after the kids and my wife.
But as a single man, one can only assume that these relationships are very important, you know, loving connections. Now at the time, people in the 1940s were—and the 1950s when he dies—were a lot less understanding of that relationship, I would say. So, I know the later executors didn’t want—there’s a section that C.P. Stacey highlights in A Very Double Life where King is mourning the loss of Pat in the midst of the Second World War. And he’s devastated. He’s clearly very upset by this. And Stacey as a military man, as an official military historian, he just thinks this—he should have just sucked it up and got on with his job. And he finds this pathetic, right?
And I think many people at the time would have believed that. The literary executors certainly—I came across a reference and I couldn’t actually find it when I went looking for it again, of the literary executors saying, oh we saw this portion of the diary, and they hope people won’t see that, that they don’t want people to see that section because they understood that people at the time would have seen this just as Stacey did, as King being a bit pathetic. But I think from our current age, people are more open about our emotional connection with animals and I think we’re more accepting of that now.
GM: If you’re interested in reading King’s diary entries for the death of his dog, Pat 1, you can go to the online diary on LAC’s website, and search for “Pat” on July 14th, 1941.
Our final question. When you were doing the research for your book, what types of resources did you use?
CD: All right. Well, I went hunting in the private collections of anyone who I thought would talk about King after he died. So obviously his literary executors, King’s papers—thank you very much for keeping the papers of his literary executors within the King collection. That’s wonderful. But then I went in not only the official records of the literary executors, but their own personal papers, their correspondence. King’s enemies, his political enemies. So Arthur Meighen, Eugene Forsey—who was a fascinating figure in the spirit of time, who had written this critical book on King-Byng, who actually became good friends with Arthur Meighen even though Meighen is a conservative and Forsey is a socialist.
Anyone who wrote about King, I would go into their papers. So F. R. Scott who wrote that great poem, “William Lyon Mackenzie King” in 1955—I went into his papers, what correspondence happened around that poem, how was it received. People who wrote books. Bernard Ostry and Harry Ferns in the mid-1950s. The first critical biography of King. There was a huge story in their papers about that book, about the controversy around it.
And I’ve come to believe that actually there’s a book to be written or an article to be written about every book that has ever been published if you go into the private papers of the authors. And they’re just a beautiful treasure trove of information around the books. And of course they collect all the newspaper articles, any kind of clippings. You know, authors are desperate to get any information about how people are receiving their book. So, it’s kind of all there for you. And then you can go and read their correspondence, that they correspond with someone else. And then you can go in that person’s papers. And it’s kind of a trail that I followed all through the post-war years of anyone who I thought could be writing about Mackenzie King.
GM: He’s a fascinating guy. Well, aren’t all men in history?
CD: I think people are generally fascinating. Although I sometimes think that he’s—I become…when you spend so much time studying someone, I become less fascinated now with the oddities and more fascinated with the kind of questions that people wondered at the time, like how he could have been so successful for so long. That’s the enigma I can’t solve, that’s the puzzle I can’t solve. Whereas I can reconcile myself with the infinite variety of people and their particularities. I think we’re more accepting of that now. King’s enduring mystery is how he actually did maintain office for so long, his political skill and acumen, which I’m sure lots of people would like to bottle and drink.
GM: He must have had help from beyond. [Christopher laughs.]
To explore the Mackenzie King diaries on your own, you can search them online at
bac-lac.gc.ca. And to view images associated with this podcast, you can access a direct link to our
Flickr album on the episode page for this podcast. If you liked this episode, please subscribe to the podcast. You can do that through
Google Play or the
RSS feed located on our website.
Also, it would be great if you left us a comment and a rating on
iTunes. It boosts our ranking, which helps introduce new listeners to the podcast.
We would like to thank the CBC for allowing us to use a clip from “Front Page Challenge” in this episode. To check out other amazing media in the CBC Digital Archives, please go to
Thank you for being with us. I’m Geneviève Morin, your host. You’ve been listening to “Discover Library and Archives Canada—where Canadian history, literature and culture await you.” A special thank you to our guest today, Christopher Dummitt. Also, thanks to Joseph Trivers and Théo Martin for their contributions to this episode.
This episode was produced and engineered by David Knox with assistance from Paula Kielstra.
If you’re interested in listening to the French equivalent of our podcast, you can find French versions of all our episodes on
Google Play. Simply search for “Découvrez Bibliothèque et Archives Canada.”
For more information on our podcasts, or if you have questions, comments or suggestions, please visit us at
You're the best little mother that God ever made
Words by J. K. Brennan / Music by Ernest R. Ball
Victor Talking Machine, 1916
Front Page Challenge
March 27, 1978
© CBC Digital Archives