- Unbuttoned: A History of Mackenzie King’s Secret Life by Christopher Dummitt
C.P. Stacey’s A Very Double Life (Macmillan) hit Canadian bookstores in 1976. It seemed unusual for a septuagenarian military historian to gleefully pillage William Lyon Mackenzie King’s private thoughts from his private diary. Not everyone was thrilled (the reviewer for this journal was squeamish about Stacey’s approach), but the book sold well. More significantly, it seemed to mark a new openness in Canadian historiography to exploring the seamy aspects of the lives of Canada’s leaders. Stacey did not introduce Canadians to the peculiar side of King, but he set the image in stone. Recently republished, Stacey’s volume is also the inspiration for Christopher Dummitt’s latest book, Unbuttoned.
Those seeking new revelations about Mackenzie King’s private life will be disappointed. Dummitt has not written a biography, although he draws extensively from the many that exist. Nor has he added new, colourful details to King’s secret life. Indeed, he only revisits some of the best-known episodes and scandals associated with King: his séances and spiritualism; his “chats” with prostitutes; his sexual life; and his peculiar reverence for his mother and his dogs. There is nothing new here, which is the point. These titillating tidbits are not the focus of the book’s argument. Unbuttoned is not intended to be yet another exposé of the private oddities of Canada’s longest serving prime minister. Instead, it is an analysis of the changing nature of Canadians’ relationships with their political leaders through the middle decades of the twentieth century. In this analysis, Dummitt narrates two connected stories: the first explains how Canadians came to learn about King’s private life over a period of three decades; the second explains why they moved from wilful ignorance of King’s oddities to an almost voyeuristic thrill about them. [End Page 284]
In the keeping of King’s secrets and their exposure, Dummitt reintroduces his readers to some of the most powerful members of Canada’s media and political establishment in the mid-twentieth century. Jack Pickersgill, Blair Fraser, MacGregor Dawson, Bruce Hutchison, Norman Robertson, and others played prominent roles in one way or another. At King’s death, his literary executors, in Dummitt’s words, “[g]ood Liberals all” (45), inherited the task of controlling public knowledge of King’s life and works. They accepted the weight of this responsibility and dutifully set about preserving a carefully constructed image of a respectable, Victorian, Mackenzie King. They chose a safe pair of hands to write the official biography. They guarded access to the King papers, and they planned to destroy most of King’s private diaries, as the prime minister himself had requested. It was not neglect of duty by the literary executors that allowed “Weird Willie” to creep into the public consciousness, Dummitt insists, but simply that the times passed them by.
Dummitt argues that Canadian cultural and intellectual life was reshaped in the middle decades of the century by a fixation on locating claims of truth and authenticity within the self. By the 1970s, North American society and popular culture demonstrated a mistrust of external authority and a tendency to look back on the more reserved moral codes of earlier decades with derision. Chapter 7, “Blame Freud,” sets the ball in motion. A key section of the argument follows page 226 to the end of Chapter 16. Certainly, there were political and social contributors to this pronounced shift in values, but Dummitt connects it most strongly to a “loose Freudianism” that seemed to fuse the influences of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung into a fascination with poking around in the darker corners of the psyche. The psyches of public figures offered the greatest fascination. It is a compelling, if not all together convincing, argument. Dummitt’s thesis does not fully account for the growing influence of American media and popular culture on Canadian sensibilities. The cynicism about social and political scandals that...