Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook, raised in a modest home in Newcasde, N.B., in the 1880s, was a preternaturally gifted entrepreneur and politico, and a notorious womanizer and gadfly, destined to become his era’s most powerful newspaper tycoon. In this excerpt from Lord Beaverbrook, Aitken rallies his spirits in London in 1916 after newly minted British prime minister David Lloyd George, whom Aitken himself helped to put in power, denies him a coveted cabinet position.
He drank, but he was not what we call a falling-down drunk. He partied, and gambled, and lost himself in the arms of splendid women. He licked his wounds with sensual comfort and brandy. He had money to last ten lifetimes. He bought mechanical gadgets that were new, and that he had seen in the houses of the powerful. He moped about, pretending to be happy.
But he needed a new weapon to fight them. And so he went back to his first love.
Newspapers? Well that is the one place where the little bugger could “catch the conscience of the King,” to quote Hamlet. He had been writing off and on for papers since he was 11, and at times the last thing he had been was discreet. He knew how to use newspapers, how to “write a lead,” as they say. And he was good at controversy.
It has been said that he bought the Daily Express in 1916 to help bring down Asquith’s Liberal government and force the wartime coalition in order to help Bonar Law become prime minister. That may be far-fetched, but he probably did decide that his own world view needed some publicity.
Max was once asked by Lord Northcliffe, also a powerful press baron, how much money he had.
“I have five million,” Max said (by which he meant £5 million, which was somewhat more
than $20 million Canadian in those days).
“Then you will spend it all on that paper,” Northcliffe cautioned, and probably scoffed.
This wasn’t to be the case. The bold little fellow went forward with his newspaper, so that, by the end of the 1920s, the Daily Express (along with its sister papers, the London Evening Standard and the Sunday Express) would be the most read, most hated, most cherished paper in the realm. At its height it had a circulation of over three million, and for a long while was also the most read newspaper in the world. Beaverbrook had much to do with making it so. He never made it to the Admiralty, but he was called, even by detractors, “the First Lord of Fleet Street.” Most of the men he worked with were outsiders like himself. Many were Canadian.
He was creating what would become an entirely new kind of paper, one which could be considered the start of the tabloid press. Like so many of these papers, it was hated by people who never read it. It was called “middle class” by his former colleagues, which was a snub synonymous with “trailer trash” today. Max wrote for it for many years, and became a real working editor.
What made it successful? He, more than his competitors, knew what people wanted. Max Aitken’s new newspaper featured, as Peter Howard tells us, a woman’s section (the first paper to do so), a crossword puzzle (the first paper to do so), Alfred Bestall’s Rupert Bear cartoons, and satirical cartoons by Carl Giles. He was generous to his employees and compensated his workers better than most of the left-wing papers whose owners hated him for his money.
He was, of course, an imperialist, a conservative, and a businessman—all of which seem tainted now. No one made more fun of him than novelist Evelyn Waugh, because, as far as Waugh was concerned, a colonial like Max did not have a right to have money. Yes, it was very bad form. So he was Lord Copper in Waugh’s novel Scoop. H.G. Wells based a character on him as well: Sir Bussy Woodcock. When Max approached him about it, Wells said: “I needed a character who could think for himself and was able to earn his own money. You are the only person in London I know who can do both!”
Considering how Churchill handled money, and almost went bankrupt doing so, and how most of Max’s acquaintances inherited their money, it seemed true.
The famous novelist Rebecca West also created a character based on him. And she loved him, had an affair with him, and wanted to marry him. It did not happen.
His paper was right wing of course, and o
would be viewed harshly by anyone addicted to the kind of status quo papers of the Canadian left today. Aitken was in a fight against rival papers and wasn’t beyond using titillation to sell, though I know he would blanch at what is allowed today—say, the bum shot of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany. People might say he helped to cause this. But no more than others. Very few litmus tests for taste or decorum are done. Newspapermen are in many ways treacherous rascals, and the game is played on a daily basis. They are sometimes the last to consider personal ethics, and the first to howl in moral outrage if their noses are tweaked by censure. Not that novelists are any better. Novelists simply get you over the long haul. Newspapermen and newspaperwomen have a different kind of venom.
Max surely had it. He was also a tit-for-tat kind of guy, and why shouldn’t he be?
He never had tenure. What he had he had by his own brains. Tit-for-tat was the only method he knew. And tit-for-tat is, in fact, what did him in eventually. It seems once the dust settled, and he realized what had happened, he could not rest as long as David Lloyd George was in power.
There was a war on, and Max was still in the thick of government.
He was a propagandist for Canadian efforts to such a degree that he was acting almost as high commissioner for Canada—though Canada already had one. Besides entertaining in his Hyde Park Hotel chambers, he had time to write a three-volume collection called Canada in Flanders, and more than any of his Canadian detractors (ever), he made sure that Canadian stories and contributions to the war effort were known and published in British papers. If he embellished, good for him. So little about us had ever been embellished before, or was after.
The Canadian government had put him in charge of creating the Canadian War Records Office in London in 1915. He wisely used some of the funds he was allotted to commission paintings of battles fought by Canadian troops—like Vimy Ridge and Ypres—by painters like Augustus John (who today is famous for painting portraits of poets like Yeats and Dylan Thomas) and Wyndham Lewis (a man who had connections with, and spent time
LONELY? ONE JUST HAD TO LOOK AT THE WRECKAGE OF HIS LIFE.
in, Canada). These paintings, which are some of the first to show the real face of war, are startling in their depiction of what battle actually looked like, and it is a great credit to Beaverbrook that some say this effort helped develop modern Canadian art. This is something for which he gets very little or no credit now, and which no one at the time, besides him, thought of doing.
Toward the end of the war, Lloyd George’s government made him minister of propaganda, which Max renamed subtly enough minister of information. He was offered this position, in my mind, because Lloyd George feared Max’s paper and its influence if it turned against him.
But let us ask this. Why was he made minister of propaganda? Because it was an unsavoury positionthink of Hitler’s minister of propaganda. It allowed others, who had already heard he was unsavoury, to believe he fit the image they wanted to give him. Did Max know this? Well, he did change the name to minister of information.
Max did this job with zeal, but of course he did not have the free hand he had had when dealing with Canadian command. And, after Max brought Lord Northcliffe of the Times on board, some in the House of Commons roared foul that two newspaper barons with ties to the government were allowed to embellish the progress of the war. Lord Salisbury (the son of the former prime minister) stated that Max Aitken was a very wicked man.
Asked to prove it, he simply said: “Oh, just ask anyone in Canada.”
“Lord Salisbury is a vile landowner—ask any one of his tenants,” Max quipped.
But this is the kind of admonition he had to face, and he began to fight back as ruthlessly as he could. And, I might add, why shouldn’t he?
There are pictures of him at spas with his children, Peter and Max, and later on, looking out over seacoast resorts by himself or attended by butlers or advisers. Now and again there is a picture of him with a woman of interest, like his lover Jean Norton. As he grew older, he wore those large sun hats that made him seem a comic little fellow, half-hidden, with a playful smile. At times the smile seems to be a plea, maybe for understanding or a truce of some kind.
As much as he was part of the great world, he is seldom pictured in groups of people. Usually there are only one or two others, unless he is trying to stump for some cause like Empire Free Trade. This does not imply he was not happy with things. He was an original, oddity, and outcast, all at the same time. An outcast tends to become used to it. Max learned to delight in it. He irritated the mighty and confused the poor, so that both saw him as a peculiarity. As he said of his sons, they would have been much better off going to Harkins Academy, in Newcastle, than to Eton, where three-quarters of his enemies had gone. So, although he took his children to resorts, he must have seen in them the faces of those who were trying to hold him back. And he bullied them because of it.
In certain respects, though, he must have been very lonely. From the time he was 12, he prosecuted his life from no vantage point but self-will. Lonely? One just has to look over the wreckage of his life, his marriage, and his career.
There is a story of him, one night at a dinner, making fun of many of those titled men who had stabbed him in the back, using quips and barbs they could not answer, in order to entertain a young actress who was sitting beside him. They had titles and no money, he claimed, and they hated his money and begrudged him his title. They were men who, as Peter Howard said, had lost their fortunes, or their fathers’ fortunes, and had no ability to make another, so they cursed the man who made his own, and came to them from across the sea (from that land of wolves and primitive Redmen).
The young actress said nothing to him as he used his scathing wit against them. Not for the longest time. Then she turned her pretty little head, and said:
“My dear sir, you are making fun of who you paid to belong to.” M
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