For 22 years, over three terms (1921-1926, 1926-1930, and 1935-48), William Lyon Mackenzie King served as prime minister of Canada. His endurance may seem odd, considering that many viewed him as "self-righteous, egotistical, petty, vain, moralistic, paranoid, selfish, self-centered, and vindictive,” according to biographer Allan Levine. King's speeches were said to be lackluster, and his public persona was far from colorful. He once said "It is what we prevent, rather than what we do that counts most in Government," and that may have summed up his somewhat uninspiring approach to leadership.
King was also deeply eccentric. He sought political advice from his dog, the dead, and even the patterns in shaving cream. These idiosyncrasies, however, didn't come to light until after his death in 1950, when his personal diaries were revealed. He wrote or dictated a diary entry nearly every day for 57 years, and keeping his strange behaviors under wraps in his diaries may have helped keep him in office as Canada's longest-serving prime minister.
Despite his odd habits, King obviously had the talent, ambition, and determination of a politician and leader. He served Canada through a period of industrialization, much of the Depression, and World War II. He also somehow had the resilience to bounce back from his own shortsightedness.
Although King had studied economics (and law) at the University of Toronto and the University of Chicago, he didn't recognize the scale of the economic crisis when the stock market crashed in 1929. He believed the Depression would pass and did little to relieve high unemployment in the western provinces. He also said he "would not give a five-cent piece" to any province with a Conservative government. As a result of his tight-pursed policies, the Conservatives swept to power in 1930. Led by R.B Bennett, the Conservative policy initiatives, however, could not lift Canada from the economic hole. So in 1935, the Liberal Party roared back with a crushing majority, returning King to the prime minister seat with the slogan "King or Chaos."
Although getting Canada back on its feet was tough going, the King government passed the Reciprocal Trade Agreement with the U.S. in 1935, which helped open the American market to Canadian products and brought about significant increase in trade. The agreement strengthened U.S.-Canada ties and helped bring about an economic turnaround.
His initial response to the Depression wasn't King's only act of short-sightedness. When King met Hitler in 1937, the 62-year-old prime minister had an overall favorable impression of the German Chancellor. As King remembered it in his diary, Hitler told him: "So far as war is concerned, you need have no fear of war at the instance of Germany. We have no desire for war; our people don't want war, and we don't want war." King then wrote that Hitler “is really one who truly loves his fellow man." Of course, events differed sharply from Hitler's promise—Great Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939 and Canada followed suit.
Wanting to maintain stability in a time of war, the Canadian public reelected King's government in 1940. That year, the King administration passed the Unemployment Insurance Act of 1940 (introducing benefits for the unemployed) and later the National Housing Act of 1944, which made mortgages more affordable.
King at the opening of parliament in 1947. Image credit: Chris Lund/National Film Board of Canada/Phototheque/Library and Archives Canada via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
While King basically kept a steady hand during some turbulent times, he was later discovered to have had many peculiarities while governing the country. He never married, and had few close personal friends—at least not human friends. His closest living companions were three Irish Terriers, each named Pat. He called one “a god-sent little angel in the guise of a dog ... a dear little saviour." The solitary bachelor disliked socializing and much preferred a night at home sipping Ovaltine with Pat. He often talked and read to his dogs, and saw meaning in whether or not they wagged their tails at certain news. And although his dogs eventually died, King wasn't afraid of never seeing them again. "We shall all be together in the Beyond, of that I am perfectly sure," he wrote.
While looking for answers to Canada's problems, King also interpreted formations in his shaving cream and in the leaves at the bottom of his breakfast tea. He wrote in detail in his diaries about his interpretation of the dregs, for example, regarding a cup of tea at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto: "There was very distinctively two birds soaring in opposite directions …. a much larger bird, coming in an opposite direction and above the other, it seemed to have had to go through some obstacles." He interpreted this formation of leaves as a sign of a Liberal victory in a 1934 provincial election, which did occur.
King also communicated with his dead brother, sister, father, grandfather, and mother through séances. He had lost four family members all in a seven-year period between 1915 and 1922. While his trust in fortunetellers and mediums seems strange now, his devotion to spiritualism wasn't all that peculiar for the time. The belief that one can communicate with the dead had a surge in popularity after World War I, when millions lost loved ones in battle. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, was just one dedicated Spiritualist.
King visited with mediums who delivered messages from beyond the grave via table rapping and automatic writing. He kept lengthy and meticulous records of all the séances he attended, and wrote that he had no doubt that he was actually communicating with the dead. In his diary, King described how he had contacted his deceased grandfather on his birthday:
"This is the anniversary of grandfather Mackenzie's birthday (Dundee, 1795). How amazing it would sound in the ears of the world today were I to answer that I had spoken with him last night and wished him many happy returns of the day. Yet it is true, and it is true my actions today and utterances have been in large part the result of our talk together last night and the talk with Mrs. Mackenzie.”
When King was dealing with a troubling situation involving a Russian spy ring in Canada in 1945, he weighed the advice given to him by his dead brother Max and the late President Franklin Roosevelt. He also received guidance from Leonardo da Vinci and former Canadian Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier. As might be expected, he consulted with his dead dogs via séance as well.
On one occasion, he was being driven home when he spied a bay window from a house that was being torn down. He felt the window was calling to him. He was mesmerized by this glass, and had it delivered to his country estate. After communicating with his dead mother, he knew exactly where to place it on the grounds.
For King, coincidences had potential meaning. If he met a friend unexpectedly, he mulled over the significance. When something major happened in his life, he checked the hands on a clock. He believed that when the clock hands were in certain positions, those in the afterlife were watching over him. He also thought the numbers 7 and 17 held special meaning—World War II ended on May 7, 1945 when Germany signed an unconditional surrender, and King's birthday was on December 17.
While some may scoff at King's beliefs in numerology, spiritualism, and dogs, his reliance on them appears to have provided him with the assurances he needed to help Canada out of the Depression and through a punishing World War. The Canadian public found comfort in their bland, mild-mannered prime minister, who kept his quirky private life a secret.