London Letter

The unsolved mystery of Brendan Bracken

BEVERLEY BAXTER September 27 1958
London Letter

The unsolved mystery of Brendan Bracken

BEVERLEY BAXTER September 27 1958

The unsolved mystery of Brendan Bracken

London Letter


A few months ago a great dinner party was thrown at the fashionable Claridges Hotel in honor of the four visiting premiers from the Canadian maritime provinces. Lord Beaverbrook was the host, supported at the head table by Sir Winston Churchill and Prime Minister Macmillan.

We were all standing around as sherry and cocktails loosened our tongues in the usual preliminary to such a dinner, when many of us were startled into silence by the arrival of (Viscount) Brendan Bracken. None of us had seen him for many months and we were shocked by his appearance. His mop of reddish hair, once bristling with vitality, had changed to wispish, lifeless, thin white strands. The sonorous humor of his voice had not lost it's quality but he moved like a man who was weary of life's journey.

A moment later dinner was announced and, after a time, above the rising volume of conversation, we could hear Bracken's ironic, rasping voice in full blast. Then he grew quiet—strangely quiet for a man who had always erupted like a volcano. Yet his weary face lit up when his closest friend. Sir Winston Churchill, was called upon to speak.

What an amazing man is Churchill—so dominating, so vibrant of

voice and spirit despite the unforgiving years! With that delicacy and sense of occasion which are part of his character he spoke only for a few moments because, "1 am in the presence of my leader." As he said the words he bowed to Macmillan, not in irony, but in traditional respect. With equal delicacy and brevity Macmillan paid tribute to the Old Warrior without false flattery or any pretense at self-effacement.

The tired, haunted face of Bracken broke into a smile and we heard his metallic voice holding forth as we had heard it a hundred times in the past. But soon it relapsed into silence. He had traveled bravely but he was nearing journey’s end.

Not long afterward I was walking in Hyde Park with Beaverbrook when 1 mentioned the tragic appearance of Bracken. "He is dying,” said the Beaver. And then with that characteristic abruptness which often conceals emotion he said: “Brendan is dying of cancer.” A few weeks later he was dead.

Who was Brendan Bracken? What was he? By what miracle or quirk of fate could an unknown young man arrive in Britain from South Africa and almost overnight become the close confidant of Winston continued on page 61

London Letter continued from page 10

Bracken was “Man of mystery, a secretive eccentric, a freak

■ ” so wrote Randolph Churchill

Churchill in his irrepressible days? No wonder when Randolph Churchill wrote an obituary of Bracken in the Evening Standard it was headed;

This was Bracken:

The Man of Mystery.

Here is the opening paragraph of Randolph's article: "Man of mystery, a secretive eccentric, a freak, perhaps a genius, certainly an expert in the art of make-believe and fantasy; such was Viscount Bracken whom 1 first met at Chartwel! when 1 was eleven years old."

Then Randolph goes on: "Born in Dublin at the turn of the century he always made a mystery about his origin. He certainly gave me three or four quite different accounts of his early life, including several fascinating tales of his early days in Australia and later at Sedbergh (in Britain) of which school he subsequently became chairman."

In turn it has been published that Bracken was born in Australia. South Africa and Ireland. In Who's Who it is definitely stated that he was born in Ireland, the son of J. k. A. Bracken, and presumably it must be accepted since Brendan supplied the information. Yet the mystery is not made clearer by the fact that almost from the moment he reached London with every intention of conquering it he became the close friend and protege of Winston Churchill. In fact their friendship was one of deep affection.

Churchill's Sancho Panza

As an example let me recall the Abdication debate in the House of Commons when the tragedy of the young King Edward VIII was being discussed. Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin was at his dignified best as in quiet but relentless words he pronounced the ultimatum that the King must choose between the Throne and the woman who, unfortunately, had two ex-husbands still living. The whole House seemed to be in sympathy with Baldwin yet Winston Churchill, the traditional rebel, rose to put forward the argument that the King should be allowed to marry the woman he loved.

A storm of protest broke out from all sides, and from protest it grew to pandemonium. Churchill’s raucous, resonant voice could hardly make itself heard above the din. At last the noise was so impossible that Churchill, flushed with anger, strode out of the Chamber to exultant ironic cheers. But as he made his way to the exit he was joined by one member of the House. Brendan Bracken went into the wilderness with his closest friend.

In the smoking room, after the debate had ended, we heard the epitaph of Churchill over and over again: "Genius without judgment!" But at least like Don Quixote he had his faithful Sancho Panza.

But was Bracken no more than a mysterious young man who got himself elected to the British parliament in 1929 and sat in the House with the unlikely hope of some day becoming a minister? Not at all. Bracken was much more than that. He became a director of the publishing house of Eyre and Spottiswoode Ltd. Later on he became chair-

man of the powerful Financial News. He also took on the job of managing director ol the Economist and. to fill in what was left of his time, he joined the board of the Associated Electrical Industries.

Unmarried, he acquired a stately

house in Lord North Street. Westminster, and entertained tycoons to dinner. Rich, powerful, aggressive and kindly. Brendan had no woman in his life. Soft eyes were languished on him but his house remained a monastery. But great days were

ahead for bachelor Brendan Bracken.

With the coming of the Hitler war Bracken, needless to say, hitched his wagon to t hurchill's star. Nor must it be thought that his devotion to Churchill w;ts due merely to the rising tide

of the great man’s fortunes as Chamberlain went down before the early disasters of the war. It would have been the same with Bracken whether Churchill rose or fell.

When Churchill took office he knew that in a modern war propaganda is of vital necessity and importance. Not surprisingly he appointed Bracken to the post of minister of information, a brilliant choice in spite of the fact that there were members of the cabinet who thought that it would have been better to give the task to a journalist of wider

experience. Actually Bracken was exactly the right man, partly because of his dynamic qualities, and even more because of his close affiliation with Churchill.

Bracken’s administration of wartime propaganda was not only brilliant but sustained. Every night at nine o’clock the BBC sent out on the waves of sound Big Ben striking the hour, followed by a commentator on the news. The opening wortlrs were always the same: “This is London calling.”

During the battle of the air Hitler told his people every night that England’s

capital city had been virtually destroyed, yet every night at that same hour the Germans, listening stealthily, heard the proud calm voice: “This is London calling.” The most effective instrument of propaganda in the whole war was Big Ben striking the hour.

With the cessation of hostilities there were many MPs who thought that the Ministry of Information should be continued into the peace but wisely that advice was disregarded. The ministry was wound up and no one supported the decision more enthusiastically than

Bracken. But what about himself? Was he to be thrown into the discard because his ministry had been sentenced to death? Churchill solved that problem by making him first lord of the admiralty. There could hardly have been any appointment less suitable. The pomp of naval power, the boisterous spirits of junior officers, and the healthy normality of admirals in general made no great appeal to Bracken’s complex mind. However, this dilemma was soon resolved. Churchill decided on a July election in which, having won the war, he would ask to be allowed to win the peace. And what' was the response as the electorate went to the polls? The war-winning coalition had been dissolved and the election (the first for ten years) was on normal party lines. After all the Tories were led by Churchill, the supreme architect of victory in the war. Gratitude, if nothing else, would sweep him and his party to power. 'I he grateful electorate threw out Churchill and the Tories with such enthusiasm that when parliament assembled after the debacle we Tories were hemmed into a corner of the chamber like a besieged garrison. Among the casualties was Brendan Bracken. He had represented the London seat of North Paddington from 1929 to 1945 and had gone down in the holocaust. But did he remain the Tory candidate for North Paddington, resolved to win it back at the next general election? Not at all. He was a realist as well as a romantic. What was the use of being a politician unless you were in parliament? Accordingly he abandoned Paddington and was adopted at a by-election for the strong Tory seat at Bournemouth which duly returned him. In 1952 he resigned as a member of the House of Commons and was created a viscount in tribute to his great services to the nation during the war. Yet he took no part in the debates of the House of Lords and he was seen in public less and less. His publishing and financial affairs kept him busy during the day, but in the silence of the night he sat alone in his great house and read until sheer exhaustion brought surcease to his weary body. The long, long trail was coming to its end. I do not know why Bracken never married. He liked the company of women within reason but preferred the hardheaded romanticism of rich men with their inarticulate genius and their lust for power. The mystery that surrounded Bracken’s origin will probably never be solved, nor is there any logical explanation of how he came, unknown to London, and moved at once among men of high position. His heart was kindly and he detested injustice yet he never sought friends in humble places. He was bewildered by only one thing —the meaning of life. It eluded him and because of that he withdrew more and more from normal contact with humanity. His beautiful house became a monk's cell in the last years of his life. The life and death of Brendan Bracken will become part of the London legend. It is only in a great metropolis that a man can come from nowhere and play a dynamic role in peace and war, then die alone. ★ IS YOUR SUBSCRIPTION DUE? Subscribers receiving notice of the approaching expiration of their subscriptions are reminded of the necessity of sending in their renewal orders promptly.