Canadian News

The once and future King

Julianne Labreche January 15 1979
Canadian News

The once and future King

Julianne Labreche January 15 1979

The once and future King

Canadian News

Julianne Labreche

While couples kissed to the tune of Auld Lang Syne and church bells chimed in the New Year of 1948, William Lyon Mackenzie King, 73, soon to retire as prime minister, lay asleep in his bed at Laurier House. That winter night in Ottawa “Willie” had a dream. Two lists appeared before him, each a history of his life—yet each entirely different. The first immediately gained his approval and he was pleased. The second seemed to stun him.

Last week King’s dream took on hints of reality when the Public Archives made public the private 1948 diaries of the nation’s 10th prime minister. Again, the King diaries reveal that the Liberal leader, unknown then to anyone but the confidential male secretary* to

*Now 68 and retired in Ottawa, J. Edouard Handy told Maclean’s last week that King’s affair with the spirit world was “just a little hobby that he had—I didn’t see anything mischievous in it at all. ”

whom they were dictated, really led two lives. Publicly, King was a straitlaced Presbyterian and a shrewd politician who led the country cautiously and conservatively for 21 years. Privately, the lonely bachelor craved the company of prostitutes and then, out of guilt, tried to reform them. In later years, King embraced the eerie, mystic world of ghosts, spirits and séances, finding inner meaning from images in his shaving cream, dreams of his dead mother or the hands of the clock.

The neatly typed diary for 1948, in six thick, black binders—1,100 pages in all—is full of the eccentric prime minister’s spiritualist musings. In London, England, that October to attend his last Commonwealth Conference, but bedridden instead by heart strain, King was visited in his hotel room by several fe-

male mediums from the London Spiritualist Alliance. One medium fell into a trance for just over an hour and King recorded: “I made notes as we went along. In the early part she was remarkably well, immediately getting my mother and father, and my sister Isabel.” Later in his room, one Geraldine Cummins performed “automatic writing,” producing a letter from his deceased mother who identified herself as the Lady of Light. Wrote King: “That is part of her actions beyond, helping to release souls from their bodies at the time of death.” Just after a visit by Winston Churchill, King received his close friend Violet Markham and together they mused on the thesis that dogs are bonds of immortality, followed by King’s reading of a verse on canine angels.

The bizarre and complex personality that struggled within one man is seen vividly in King’s dreams, all fully recorded for posterity. In early May, he dreamt of climbing a lighthouse growing with grass, only to discover at the top a private women’s club where no preparations have been made for his arrival. “The vision seemed to me to symbolize reaching the summit of my public career securely,” King told his diary, “but that I should not expect [to enjoy] it in the society of women.” He seemed especially insecure and timid among world leaders in his dreams. In an April vision, King met Princess Juliana and Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands and found himself apologizing for wearing an old-fashioned nightgown. Later in that dream, he found himself without trousers. He saw Hitler sewing buttons onto a quilt. In a dream where he directed world leaders to an important Paris meeting, he imagined his nose was bleeding and that he had to keep the spots of blood on his handkerchief discreetly hidden. Late in January, King had a dream of being chased by the “furies” down the narrow streets of a warehouse district and “having no fear but knowing if the furies caught up with me, I would be assassinated.” Whether such embarrassingly honest confessions by a Canadian prime minister should be unlocked for the public was a source of much disagreement among King’s four literary executors after his death in 1950. The section of his will concerning the diaries was vague, and they might have even been destroyed had it not been for the discovery in 1955 that an employee at the archives had microfilmed and sold copies of some excerpts to the old Toronto Telegram. On legal advice, the Tely did not publish them, but archivists, fearing the excerpts might some day surface in a distorted form, preserved the originals. Today, according to an arrangement worked out with

King’s executors, there is a 30-year embargo on release of the diaries (see box). Unreported, however, is the fact that a number of King’s notebooks dealing with spiritualism and dreams were burned in 1977 by two of the executors, Gordon Robertson, the cabinet’s keeper of official secrets, and Jack Pickersgill, King’s chief adviser and confidant. Pickersgill refuses to talk about the destroyed material, simply stating: “We had a lot of discussion and decided this was something King would not want released.” Given the sensational nature of what the executors have been willing to

unleash, the suppressed notebooks, written for King’s eyes only, could well have contained material far more kinky than anything in the steaming pages of Psychopathia Sexualis.

For all King’s private, brooding obsessions, his last year in office was not without its measure of mingling with social and political celebrities. He attended the film Sleep My Love with its producer, Canadian film star Mary Pickford, but later recorded secretly preferring the Technicolor interlude of Mickey Mouse. He expressed admiration for John Diefenbaker who, King

wrote, is “very hardworking and informed. His name will be against him as the party leader.” He saw Lester Pearson with a bright political career and predicted that he would become prime minister. King even admitted being an avid admirer of figure-skating champion Barbara Ann Scott, though he shunned the memory of her publicly kissing him on the cheek.

There are only two years of diaries by King left to be released. Page 1 of his first diary back in 1893 tells just why at age 18 he decided to keep what was to become the strange and rambling account of his life: “After having been told by many that I could never keep a diary, I decided to make, at least, an attempt.” Ironically, those diaries grew to span 57 years of his life from his undergraduate days at University College in Toronto until three days before his death. Though King might roll over in his grave at the thought, their release means his memory will not soon be forgotten.