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. Presenting extensive archival research in a captivating narrative, Unbuttoned traces the rise of a political culture that privileged the individual as the ultimate source of truth, and made Canadians rethink what they wanted to know about politicians.
About the author
Christopher Dummitt is associate professor of history in the School for the Study of Canada at Trent University.
"Another tell-all King biography this book is not; it is a careful study of the shining attitudes of his executors toward his private diary and it is a probing critique of the changing portrayals of King published after his 1950 death. Unbuttoned reveals
"The fault in Unbuttoned is that it is too short. Readers will wish Dummitt's analysis continued until, say, the election of Donald Trump, when it seemed that unbuttoned became unhinged. Maybe next time; Dummitt says he is planning further explorations."
"Christopher Dummitt takes a tremendously imaginative approach. By following the controversy around King's diaries, he creates a unique story, unlike any other I have seen in Canadian historical writing." Doug Owram, University of British Columbia
"Most Canadians today are vaguely aware of the Weird Willie side of William Lyon Mackenzie King, although as I reread some of the details in Christopher Dummitt's Unbuttoned: A History of Mackenzie King's Secret Life, I found them as jaw-droppingly hilarious as when I first encountered them. Dummitt has done more than indulge any voyeuristic tendencies in this lively book. Instead of asking what light King's weirdness throws on Canada, he explores what Canadian reactions to the King story say about our expectations of political leaders. In other words, this is not just about King; it is about us. And although Dummitt is also making a sophisticated argument about the importance of narrative history, he has done it with punchy elegance rather than impenetrable jargon." Charlotte Gray, The Literary Review of Canada
"Unbuttoned is a masterpiece of sophisticated storytelling." Writers' Trust of Canada Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing jury
"More than a revealing portrait of Canada's longest-serving prime minister, Dummitt's (The Manly Modern) cultural critique insightfully examines the way changing perceptions of William Lyon Mackenzie King reflect broad changes in North American culture." Publishers Weekly