A History of Mackenzie King's Secret Life

How Canadians reimagined what a politician should be.


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.


"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

"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

"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

"Unbuttoned is a masterpiece of sophisticated storytelling. " Writers' Trust of Canada Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing jury

"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. "