When Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King died in 1950, the public knew little about his eccentric private life. In his final will King ordered the destruction of his private diaries, seemingly securing his privacy for good. Yet twenty-five years after King’s death, the public was bombarded with stories about "Weird Willie," the prime minister who communed with ghosts and cavorted with prostitutes. Unbuttoned traces the transformation of the public’s knowledge and opinion of King’s character, offering a compelling look at the changing way Canadians saw themselves and measured the importance of their leaders’ personal lives.
Christopher Dummitt relates the strange posthumous tale of King’s diary and details the specific decisions of King’s literary executors. Along the way we learn about a thief in the public archives, stolen copies of King’s diaries being sold on the black market, and an RCMP hunt for a missing diary linked to the search for Russian spies at the highest levels of the Canadian government. Analyzing writing and reporting about King, Dummitt concludes that the increasingly irreverent views of King can be explained by a fundamental historical transformation that occurred in the era in which King’s diaries were released, when the rights revolution, Freud, 1960s activism, and investigative journalism were making self-revelation a cultural preoccupation.
If you are picking up this book to read the salacious details of the private life of William Lyon Mackenzie King, set it back on the shelf. There are precious few details about our 10th Prime Minister’s dabbling in spiritualism or his probable visits to prostitutes. Instead, this is an analysis of the way Canadians have viewed/judged/responded to these revelations about WLMK.
It’s an examination of our changing attitudes towards politicians, about the limitations of privacy, and what is acceptable behavior in Canadian society. Basically, the psychological changes as we moved from Victorian to modern sensibilities. Much of the text deals with the history of the voluminous diaries kept by WLMK and how they were a thorn in the side of his executors. King was notorious for doing just enough to get through a crisis and not another thing more—so of course he had wanted certain excerpts of his diary available to historians and the rest destroyed. However, he never got around to specifying which parts were which. The upshot is that all of his diary is now available for perusal and today you can search them online through Library and Archives Canada. His executors only destroyed the binders which detailed séances WLMK attended.
Looking backward from the 21st century, King’s foibles seem pretty tame, but they caused a sensation when they were first revealed to the public after King’s death. With no social media to out him, he was able to conduct his psychic research without penalty during his time in office. I’m not sure that Canadians are interested in more than the broad strokes of their politicians’ lives and beliefs even yet. We are much more likely to leave them alone when we encounter them in the community, because we respect private life, even if we don’t respect the politician his/her self.