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Mackenzie King’s diaries released

The Story

Front Page Challenge panellist Pierre Berton is grilling this week's guest, Richard Jackson, during a discussion about the release of Mackenzie King's diaries. Jackson was King's former neighbour, but was also a political journalist while King was prime minister. After reading certain things in the diary - especially the items about séances and spiritualism - Berton says it seems like King was "a certifiable nut" at times. He feels the press did Canada an injustice by not exposing King's quirks."Is it not an indictment of the Ottawa press corps, of which you were a member, that these facts did not emerge in some form during King's lifetime?" accuses Berton. Jackson responds by vehemently defending King and the Ottawa press. "You've got to remember, it was a different day and age," he says. "The press gave the prime minister a lot more respect than it does now."

Medium: Television
Program: Front Page Challenge
Broadcast Date: March 27, 1978
Guest(s): Alex Barris, Richard Jackson
Host: Fred Davis
Panellist: Pierre Berton, Betty Kennedy, Gordon Sinclair
Duration: 10:29

Did You know?

• As Mackenzie King's diaries became public entities during the 1970s, Canadians were increasingly fascinated with aspects of King's personal life. His strong attachment and devotion to his dead mother and his maudlin affection for his dog Pat were considered unusual, but Canadians were particularly shocked by the extent of his participation in spiritualism and séances.

• Making the diaries public also left King's personal life open to many different analyses. In one contentious interpretation, certain historians inferred that King frequented prostitutes during his university years. This was based on certain diary entries where he described "wasted" evenings out, or where he feels very guilty about unnamed "sins" from the night before. Other historians later maintained that this is just speculation, and those passages could have meant any number of things.

• Mackenzie King began keeping a diary in 1893 while he was an undergraduate at the University of Toronto.
• He handwrote his diary for the first 42 years, usually writing each evening just before going to bed. After 1936, he began dictating his diary to his principal secretary, Edouard Handy, who then typed up the entries.

• King planned to use the diaries to aid him in writing his memoirs, but he died before beginning to write his autobiography. He had appointed several literary executors for his diaries, and had stipulated that they should "destroy all of my diaries except those parts which I have indicated are and shall be available for publication or use." He never clearly indicated which parts should be made available, however.

• After his death, the diaries were only available to King's literary executors and certain official biographers. As debate raged over which parts of the diaries should be available and to whom, the executors began to realize just what an important historical resource these diaries were. They decided that destroying the diaries would be completely unacceptable.

• In 1971, the literary executors decided the diaries should be made available to all researchers through the National Archives of Canada. The diaries from 1893 to 1931 were made available first.
• In October 1974, the executors authorized the release of the diaries from 1932 to 1943. For each subsequent year, the diaries would be made available 30 years after the date they were written (the 1945 diaries would be available in 1975, the 1946 diaries would be available in 1976, and so on).

• The entire diary became available at the National Archives on Jan. 1, 1981.
• As a result of the growing public fascination in the 1970s and 80s with King's personal oddities, a number of fictional works were produced based on his life. These included Elizabeth Gourlay's play Isabel in 1979 and Allan Stratton's play Rexy in 1981. Novelist Heather Robertson wrote a trilogy of fictional accounts of King's life: Willie: A Romance (1983); Lily: A Rhapsody in Red (1986); and Igor: A Novel of Intrigue (1989).

• Well-known historians such as Jack Granatstein and Michael Bliss often objected to these fictionalized images of King, especially when they came across as caricatures of his life. Granatstein called Rexy "a travesty of history," objecting that it was a "gross caricature" that portrayed King as a "buffoon." And when interviewed about one of Heather Robertson's books, Bliss expressed concerns that the only picture Canadians were getting of King was that of a "sex-crazed spiritualist".  


Mackenzie King: Public Life, Private Man more