Almost from the moment Max Aitken became old enough to talk—and able to talk back to detractors—he exhibited breathtaking self-assurance. Bom in 1879 in Maple, Ont., (he grew up in Newcastle, N.B.) to a Presbyterian minister and his wife, Aitken was an easily bored student, a loving but impudent son—and was, by his own admission later on, sometimes bedevilled by “an anxiety complex.”
All those qualities were evident throughout his life, but none hindered his determination to be a success. By 14, he was selling subscriptions and writing columns for the local newspaper. By his ifiid20s, he was enormously wealthy, the result of his extraordinary business intuition and considerable personal charm. Less than a decade later, after arriving in England as a little-known colonial, he laid the foundations of the newspaper empire that would lead to his peerage as Lord Beaverbrook and establish him as a dominant figure in a still-imposing British Empire.
BEAVERBROOK: A LIFE
By Anne Chisholm and Michael Davie
(Random House, 589 pages, $30)
By his death in 1964, there seemed to be few important world affairs that Beaverbrook had not been intimately involved in—and equally few world leaders he had not known.
In Anne Chisholm’s and Michael Davie’s Beaverbrook: A Life, those achievements are only part of the fascination. The meticulously researched, eminently readable biography by the two British authors reveals Beaverbrook as a complex figure who regularly promoted unorthodox views. Although a devout capitalist and member of the Conservative Party, he deeply admired the Soviet Union, saying that “communism under [Josef] Stalin has won the applause and admiration of all the Western nations.” During the Second World War, Beaverbrook played a crucial role in Winston Churchill’s war cabinet as minister of aircraft production. But less than a year before the war began, Beaverbrook steadfastly advocated a policy of appeasement with Nazi Germany and made approving remarks about certain aspects of Nazism.
Worse, he forced editors of his newspaper chain, led by the highly influential Daily Express, to support that line.
In his private life, Beaverbrook was equally contradictory—and capable of arousing sharply different emotions. He was short and squat with an exceptionally large head. But his charm, boundless energy and absence of moral qualms attracted beautiful women, both single and married. He had many af-
fairs before the 1927 death of his first wife, Gladys, and until his second marriage, to Marcia, three years before he died. He was capable of great generosity and exceptional pettiness: he spent huge sums of money supporting his parents, brothers and sisters, but once he became wealthy he was often cruel to his own children.
Both men and women remarked on the force of Beaverbrook’s personality. Churchill described him admiringly as “a devoted tiger,” but Churchill’s wife, Clementine, dismissed Beaverbrook as a “microbe.” Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee, who succeeded Churchill, said that Beaverbrook was “the only evil man I ever met.”
In the country of his birth, Beaverbrook
aroused equal passion and disdain. One reason Beaverbrook left Canada, in 1910, was the widespread suspicion that he had misappropriated more than $13 million in a 1909 merger of the country’s three largest cement companies. The case was eventually settled out of court, with Beaverbrook making a cash payment of $20,000 to the Bank of Montreal. Many years later, when Churchill was preparing his wartime cabinet, King George VI urged him not to include Beaverbrook, reminding him that “the Canadians do not appreciate him.”
Still, Beaverbrook retained extensive business interests in Canada, and a deep love for his home province—he was a generous benefactor to the University of New Brunswick. In one of several patronizing comments about Canada, the authors note that when Beaverbrook died at his English estate, he cheated the British taxman by having established Canada as his legal place of residence. By doing so, they conclude, he demonstrated his “affection for the colonial backwater whence he came.”
By 1964, most Canadians had long since ceased regarding themselves as colonials. But Beaverbrook had remained devoted to the notion of the British Empire as the cornerstone of civilization and the basis for his dream of a free trade agreement that would eliminate trade barriers between Britain and all her former colonies. For a period extending into the 1930s, he used his influence with British Tories and his newspapers as a podium to promote that idea—with the result that it gained strong intellectual currency.
Ironically, one of the reasons that the idea failed was Beaverbrook’s apparent endorsement of the incumbent Liberal party in the 1930 Canadian federal election against the Conservatives, led by his friend R. B. Bennett. An angry Bennett, who won the election, later said that Beaverbrook’s cherished idea of Empire Free Trade was “neither desirable nor possible.”
The book chronicles a state of affairs far removed from the present. And occasionally, the authors betray a dated condescension towards the amusing accents and quaint lifestyles of those not fortunate enough to have been bom into the British upper classes. But that quality may explain why they offer such an understanding portrait of a oncedominant Great Britain—and the colonial barbarian who penetrated its carefully layered defences.
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