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‘Canada’s greatest prime minister was a mama’s boy,’ Unbuttoned: A History of Mackenzie King’s Secret Life 

Christopher Dummit is shortlisted for the Writers’ Trust’s Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing for his book Unbuttoned: A History of Mackenzie King’s Secret Life published by McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Mr. and Mrs. John King, left, with their son William Lyon Mackenzie King, right, at the Scarborough Fair in 1911. Canada’s greatest prime minister was a mama’s boy. Not only that, he was a sexually repressed, hypocritical, ghost-talking, spiritualism practising, guilt-ridden, prostitute-visiting mama’s boy. Or so Canadians learned in 1976, writes Chritopher Dummit. Library and Archives Canada photograph by William James
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Canada’s greatest prime minister was a mama’s boy. Not only that, he was a sexually repressed, hypocritical, ghost-talking, spiritualism practising, guilt-ridden, prostitute-visiting mama’s boy. Or so Canadians learned in 1976.

That was Mackenzie King’s annus horribilis, when the “Weird Willie” phenomenon reached a climax amidst a mounting din from books, documentaries, poetry, newspaper stories, and radio shows exposing King’s secret life. “Weird Willie” King seemed to be every where and he looked nothing like the staid, boring bachelor William Lyon Mackenzie King who had so dominated Canadian political life as prime minister and Liberal leader for most of the first half of the twentieth century. Mackenzie King was dead. Long live “Weird Willie.”

No man did more to expose King’s double life than Charles Perry Stacey. He was an odd figure to play the role of sensationalistic muckraking biographer. In 1976 Stacey was a septuagenarian professor of history at the University of Toronto whose memoirs, when published several years later, revealed almost nothing about his own intimate life. Stacey had grown up in—and imbibed the values of—“Toronto the Good,” that city of Sabbath observance, propriety, and closed curtains. He was a man for whom restraint, not unabashed confession, was a virtue. Stacey was also a figure of the historical establishment, having served as the official historian of the Canadian Armed Forces during the Second World War. Nothing in his life beforehand would have pegged Stacey as the figure who would write the tell-all exposé of Mackenzie King’s private and often petty particularities. Yet that is exactly what he did in the spring of 1976. His book A Very Double Life: The Private World of Mackenzie King became the informational centre of the gossip storm whirling around the former prime minister’s reputation. There were many novelists, poets, historians, and others who delivered up “Weird Willie” to the public in the mid-1970s, and most of these selected their juiciest bits from Stacey’s A Very Double Life. It was quite a transformation for the aging historian.

But this was 1976 after all. Neither politics nor society was what it had been. Maggie Trudeau, the flower-child wife of the current prime minister, was about to sneak off to New York to party with the Rolling Stones as her marriage to Pierre Trudeau fell apart in full view of the nation he governed. An American president, Richard Nixon, and his vice-president, Spiro Agnew, had been forced to resign in disgrace after reporters exposed their illegal and corrupt behaviour. It wasn’t just politics. The culture of exposé made normal the outing of secrets and the baring of previously taboo desires. In the 1950s, the “girly magazines” like Playboy had bookended their snapshots of topless women with essays on high culture and literature, a veneer of respectability to get them past the censors. Yet in the 1970s Hustler magazine eschewed the facade of respectability and made no attempt to hide its masturbatory purpose. The two cultures of exposé came together nowhere more clearly than in the Watergate scandal that brought down Richard Nixon. The top-secret source who leaked information to the reporters at The Washington Post was code-named “Deep Throat”—a reference to pornographic film that had achieved mainstream notoriety in 1972 and, of course, to oral sex. Outing the secrets of the powerful and exposing the secrets of the bedroom—they were of a piece. The mighty had fallen. What was secret had come into the open. The personal was political.

For quite some time, it had been clear that Canada’s longest serving prime minister was a rather odd duck. Shortly after King died in 1950 stories leaked out claiming that he had been a practising spiritualist. The full extent of his ghost-talking beliefs—including whether he relied upon ghostly advice to make political decisions—remained a question for years, always downplayed by those who had been close to him. New reminiscences from King’s former mediums occasionally heightened the speculation. In the early 1970s, Mackenzie King’s literary executors released a large number of volumes of his personal diary. These confirmed and added detail to the rumours. But until now, the details had been tantalizing but sporadic. In A Very Double Life C.P. Stacey promised to answer all of these questions. Here was a respected historian who had taken the theme of King’s private life and explored it in full, replete with direct citations and thoroughness, not to mention stylistic wit. Finally, Canadians were to learn the true story of Mackenzie King.

The version of Mackenzie King that Stacey offered up in A Very Double Life could not have fit more perfectly with the ethos of the age. Stacey gave to Canadians “Weird Willie,” the prime minister who “inhabited two worlds.” One was “the world of public affairs,” the part of King’s life typically found in the history books. Yet King also lived another life in “his private world” and this had been hidden from the public. In his private world, King was utterly unlike his public image. King’s private world “was often emotional and sometimes irrational.” It was a world “of the women and the spirits.” King was not the man he claimed to be. Just like the politicians of the 1970s, the Richard Nixons of the world, King had secrets. While Nixon’s secrets were exposed on the infamous White House tapes, Stacey uncovered Mackenzie King’s secrets on the pages of his diary, so recently released to the public.

Stacey’s King was a man who had practised odd forms of spirit communication, believing that the knocks he heard on seance tables were the voices of ghosts. King appeared pathetic as a middle-aged bachelor who couldn’t commit to other women but who devoted himself to his mother, smothering her with seventy-four kisses on her seventy-fourth birthday—a level of physical attention that seemed altogether less innocent in the Freud-soaked 1970s than it had in 1917 when King had delivered the kisses. Stacey showed King as a bachelor who had always seemed staid and almost asexual but who in fact had visited prostitutes again and again as a young man. He had even gone on a stroll of Ottawa’s streets looking for a woman after speaking to a church group one Sunday. As for King’s claim that he visited the prostitutes to save their souls and bring them to Christ, Stacey would have none of it. Those protestations were for a more innocent, and more hypocritical, age. A Very Double Life retold how King succumbed to his carnal urgings with these women, only to rush back to his bedroom at night and scratch out guilty admissions in his diary about nights and money “wasted” and “worse than wasted.”

Stacey didn’t deny King’s political genius. Instead he offered a double image of the great man. Like a Picasso painting in which perspective is ripped asunder so that viewers can simultaneously see the visible and what would normally be hidden, A Very Double Life painted into King’s public image the lurid view of King’s private side, insisting that we view all of Mackenzie King simultaneously. The other books on the best-seller lists in the summer of 1976 included Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s exposé of the Watergate scandal, Joel Kovel’s The Complete Guide to Therapy, and the American satirist Tom Wolfe’s send-up of the narcissistic “Me Decade” republished in Mauve Gloves & Madmen. Secrecy, politics, therapeutic analysis, and narcissism: you could read about them separately, or you could just buy A Very Double Life and get them all in one slim little volume.

It hadn’t always been so. A generation earlier, a book like A Very Double Life would never have been published in Canada. The Canadians of this earlier era might have been just as curious about King’s private life. The might even have gossiped about it privately, the journalists among them snickering about the “medium” of King’s communications in side-long remarks in newspaper columns. But for a respectable press to have published an entire book on the peculiarities of a statesman would have been unthinkable. Stacey admitted as much as he talked to reporters when launching A Very Double Life. “Twenty years ago,” he reflected, “I can’t imagine myself having written a book like this.” Yet he had done so. The world of 1976 made it possible. As Stacey put it, “tastes had changed.”

Christopher Dummitt is an historian of Canadian culture and politics. He is a professor at Trent University and taught previously at the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies in Berlin and at the University of London’s Institute for the Study of the Americas. He has written two other books exploring Canadian history and his work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, Literary Review of Canada, and the Ottawa Citizen. Dummitt lives in Peterborough, Ontario. Excerpted from Unbuttoned: A History of Mackenzie King’s Secret Life copyright © 2017 Christopher Dummitt. Published by McGill-Queen’s University Press. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved. The Shaughnessy Cohen Prize winner will be announced at the Politics & the Pen gala in Ottawa on May 9. www.writerstrust.com

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