The enduring speculation about the bachelor prime ministers who shaped modern CanadaHere's the evidence that two bachelor prime ministers were gay men forced by the era to conceal their sexuality
Author of the article: Mark Hill, Special to National Post
Publishing date: Aug 09, 2021 • 8 minutes ago • 7 minute read • Join the conversation
Political rivals R.B. Bennett and Mackenzie King shown linking arms. Both men were lifelong bachelors rarely seen in the company of women, spurring decades of speculation that both leaders were secretly gay. PHOTO BY NATIONAL ARCHIVES OF CANADA/NELSON QUARRINGTON
While you were busy memorizing interminable details about Responsible Government or Laura Secord, you missed out on some of the best parts of our national story. Hopefully we can rectify things somewhat in our occasional series, The Secret History of Canada, documenting the little-known (and often R-rated) parts you missed. Today, we examine the evidence that a string of bachelor Canadian prime ministers were really just gay men forced by the era to conceal their true identity.
The only thing stranger than early 20th Century Canadian voters electing a lifelong bachelor to their highest political office is that they did it twice in a row.
Even today, a spouse is a virtual necessity for anyone looking to lead a Western democracy. France has never once elected a president who didn’t have a live-in romantic partner. The United States’ last bachelor president was James Buchanan, a one-termer elected in 1857. And the United Kingdom has had only four bachelor prime ministers in three centuries.
But for an unbroken 22 year stretch, Canada was led by two men — one Liberal, one Conservative — who never married and didn’t seem all that comfortable around women. Here is the evidence as to whether Canada’s most formative years may have indeed been shaped by gay men forced to live lives concealing their own sexuality.
Mackenzie King dominated Canadian politics for most of the early 20th Century, serving a total of 21 years as prime minister in non-consecutive terms. And for five years in the 1930s, King’s reign was interrupted by Conservative Leader R.B. Bennett.
R.B. Bennett (left) photographed around the time of his prime ministership. The man on the right is unidentified. PHOTO BY LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA
King oversaw the Second World War and much of the Great Depression, while ushering in the beginnings of the Canadian welfare state. Bennett, in turn, gave the country the Bank of Canada, the Wheat Board, and the proto-CBC Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission.
The 1992 biography The Loner sums up Bennett’s personal life. He never owned a home in Canada, instead living out of hotels in Calgary and Ottawa. A fastidious workaholic who held several of his own cabinet posts, his limited social life revolved mostly around the Methodist Church. He’s the only prime minister buried outside of Canada; not long after his 1935 electoral defeat he fled the country for Britain and never looked back.
Historian Bob Plamondon wouldn’t be the first to see Bennett’s life as being defined by repressed sexuality, surmising in his 2009 book Blue Thunder that the Conservative leader may have been the first homosexual prime minister in the British Empire.
R.B. Bennett aboard a steamer in 1930, bound for an imperial conference. He is accompanied by his sister. PHOTO BY LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA
However, Bennett was so intensely private that the 2012 biography In Search of R.B. Bennett lamented the huge gaps in his paper trail making it near-impossible to draft a coherent portrait of the man. Nevertheless, while he spent his political heyday almost exclusively in the company of men, he was known to have dated a few women and was rumoured to have had an affair with Jennie Shirreff Eddy, the wife of a lumber magnate.
While there’s no hard evidence they were ever more than friends, Bennett helped Eddy manage her financial affairs when her husband died. He was also forced to quash gossip that Eddy’s daughter was secretly his and, when asked about a potential romance, dismissed the idea because Eddy was eight years his senior.
Homosexuality in Canada was illegal up until the 1960s, and any dalliance in what was defined as “gross indecency” was enough to kill a career.
In the 1890s, the celebrated Irish writer Oscar Wilde was jailed for gross indecency after he launched a libel suit against his lover’s father that backfired horribly. An 1898 book, Of Toronto the Good, suggested that several high-profile Canadians could be ruined like Oscar Wilde if the nation’s hotel bellboys ever confessed to the same-sex hookups they’d witnessed.
British mathematician Alan Turing. A renowned Second World War codebreaker and pioneer of what would become modern computers, Turing was infamously forced into chemical castration by the British government after his conviction for “gross indecency” in 1952. PHOTO BY AFP/GETTY IMAGES
But society still considered homosexuality, at best, a mental illness and was known to tolerate male lovers so long as they upheld the fiction that they were simply good friends. The archetypal example is longtime FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who maintained a lifelong bond with FBI associate director Clyde Tolson — the two bachelors vacationed together, wrote each other into their wills and even wore matching suits.
But there’s no record of Bennett ever having a close male companion; the only roommate he ever had was his younger brother.
For an unbroken 22 year stretch, Canada was led by two men — one Liberal, one Conservative — who never married and didn’t seem all that comfortable around women
Another biography by John Boyko suggests that a medical condition may have prevented Bennett from enjoying sex and made him steer clear of intimate relationships. But it seems most likely that Bennett was simply married to his work and disliked the company of others.
R.B. Bennett in court dress with his sister Mildred. PHOTO BY LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA
We know much more about Mackenzie King’s love life, or lack of it. While King was a sound political strategist, he was considered cold, tactless, and completely lacking in charisma.
During his 21 non-consecutive years as PM, King presented himself as a bland technocrat dutifully working round the clock for the sake of the nation. But his voluminous and candid personal diaries — published against his wishes 25 years after his death — reveal an extremely eccentric character who paid for séances with everyone from his mother to Leonardo da Vinci, and who occasionally believed himself to be a divine figure sent to earth to solve humanity’s woes.
The 1976 book A Very Double Life, based on the diaries, concluded that King had visited prostitutes in his youth, a stern contrast to the stoic, borderline asexual image he presented while in office. An 1897 entry said, “I wandered about the streets of Boston … went completely to the devil with my passions, wasted money and came home sad,” while a 1917 entry concluded, “I have allowed myself to give way to inclination and desire in a manner, which is wholly wrong.”
King (right) pictured with his parents in 1911. PHOTO BY LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA
Other interpretations concluded that King was simply trying to preach Christianity to the sex workers, or that the alleged sex encounters in his diary were actually alluding to him purchasing and masturbating to pornography.
But whatever the case, his diaries show a crushing sense of guilt over erotic thoughts. A vague 1894 encounter prompted him to cry upon his return home, and during an overnight train ride in 1898 he reproached himself for being unable to resist spying on “the lady in the berth below making her toilet.”
Like Bennett, King had few personal friends and his few attempts at dating petered out. King certainly desired female companionship; his diaries recounted dreams of beautiful women, and he wondered if his 1918 book on labour management, Industry and Humanity, would “bring me the wife I long so much for.”
A young Mackenzie King (right), with his brother Macdougall. PHOTO BY LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA
No less than Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier, his political mentor, kept setting him up on dates, but King seemed more interested in companionship than sex, and his milquetoast approach prevented him from advancing beyond friendship.
Nevertheless, unlike Bennett, there are hints of same sex attraction.
His diaries refer to the man who showed King around his Saint Albert riding as a “young god.” The dashing Charles Lindbergh was also a deity, and was further praised as “all that could be desired in youthful appearance … as noble a type of the highest manhood as I have ever seen.” An encounter with Adolf Hitler seemed to spur a kind of crush in the prime minister, with King recounting details such as the smoothness of the German dictator’s skin and his love of flowers.
And then there was Bert. King’s University of Toronto chum, Henry Albert Harper, became his roommate in 1900. A Very Double Life concluded they shared “a special relationship” that was “consciously romantic and affectionate,” but rejected the premise that the two deeply religious men ever got physical. Historian Allan Levine concurred, saying “no two heterosexual males likely adored each other more.”
Portrait of Henry Albert Harper. PHOTO BY LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA
When Harper drowned in 1901 while trying to rescue a woman who fell through a patch of ice, a devastated King lamented that he’d lost “the man I loved as I have loved no other man, my father and brother alone excepted.”
King later arranged for a statue of Sir Galahad — the most chivalrous of the Arthurian knights—to be built on Parliament Hill in tribute to his friend, and in 1906 King penned the hagiographic Secret of Heroism: A Memoir of Henry Albert Harper.
The Harper Memorial depicting Sir Galahad in front of Parliament Hill. A clandestine tribute to the one true love of our longest-serving prime minister? PHOTO BY CHRIS MIKULA / THE OTTAWA CITIZEN
We’ll never know for sure what kind of love Mackenzie and Bert had. This was also a time when male friends wrote to and about each other with flowery language that would sound romantic today. Abraham Lincoln, for one, has been the subject of dubious gay rumours for decades, in part because of letters he wrote to male friends including passages such as “you know my desire to befriend you is everlasting, that I will never cease, while I know how to do any thing.”
It was soon after Bert’s death, after hearing Schumann’s Träumerei, that King wrote some of his moving diary entries to his friend. “It made me feel that I lay with my head on Bert’s breast as he caressed it.” Upon another moving performance, he added, “It was as though Bert had me lay my head again upon his breast, and sang of the infinite love which lies beyond the vale of tears.”
Here's the evidence that two bachelor prime ministers were gay men forced by the era to conceal their sexuality