When I fell off the stage in Canada House, I did so in the Mackenzie King Room. Another example of how links with this former Prime Minister keep cropping up in my life.
In ACROSS CANADA BY STORY I tell about how, long before my own days at Macmillan, the sober bachelor’s visit to the Macmillan of Canada’s building on Toronto’s Bond Street went terribly wrong. The Prime Minister expressed the wish to pay his respects to the nearby house that had belonged to his grandfather, William Lyon Mackenzie. His appalled assistants, and their Macmillan hosts, were aware that the house had fallen on hard times, and was now a brothel.
As the portly Prime Minister stood reverently on the sidewalk outside, one of the ladies inside spotted him, and mistook his quiet reverence for bourgeois hesitation. Throwing up the window, she vigorously invited him to step inside, giving some very explicit promises of the pleasures that awaited him there. The Prime Ministerial party departed at high speed.
Later that old house was restored, and became the fine museum that it is today. That was where we at Macmillan mischievously launched the 1976 book, A VERY DOUBLE LIFE by C.P.Stacey. This astonishing history drew on the recently published secret diaries kept by Mackenzie King. These diaries revealed, beyond question, that this man, who held the post of Canada’s Prime Minister longer than anyone else, was deeply crazy. In the restrained words of The Canadian Encyclopedia (1988): “Recent revelations show that this apparently proper and colourless man was a spiritualist, in frequent contact with his mother and other dead relatives and friends.” To speak plainly, this Prime Minister, in charge of Canada throughout the Second World War, was a crazy man, who consulted his dead mother before making vital national decisions that would cost lives.
Yet this very eccentric side remained a closely held secret. Most Canadians were astonished when the Diaries, and Stacey’s book full of damning excerpts, revealed the truth.
But surely, for this secret to be held so successfully, he must have kept his beliefs totally secret in Ottawa? Right?
We switch to Gananoque, where, thanks to Debra Davis, on 29 April, I went to visit The Literary Festival, now in its second year. (I recommend it, without question).And, as usual, in telling stories, I received some. A woman in the audience later introduced herself as a member of the Norman Rogers family, and told me that Norman had been one of Mackenzie King’s closest advisers, and a member of his War Cabinet. In fact, in 1939, this former Professor turned Kingston MP became the Minister of National Defence. The next year, he died in a plane crash.
Naturally, his funeral was a major national event, and Prime Minister King was there, with the Cabinet. To console the grieving Rogers family, King sought them out, to assure them that Norman was just fine, and very happy in Heaven. He, the Prime Minister, had recently chatted with him, and was pleased to report that everything was fine with good old Norman.
The family was amazed to hear the Prime Minister talking openly in this way, but they kept the story secret, like all the stories of King and his mother’s portrait, and his respect for the opinions of his dead dog, little Pat. But the story lived on.
I’ll think of this story every time I go near the Kingston Airport, The Norman Rogers Airport, one of the few instances of an airport named after a man killed in a plane crash.