This Has to Be Private

“The best published diaries are rarely by the most prominent people,” writes Alister Campbell, a friend of SHuSH. “They are written by people in close proximity to greatness (think Pepys).”

A particularly good twentieth-century example of this, says Alister, is Sir Henry “Chips” Channon, a very wealthy American (thanks to grandparents and father), who in 1917, at the age of twenty, moved first to Paris where he hung out with Proust, Gide, and Cocteau, and afterward to London where he became a devoted Anglophile. Rich enough to gain social access everywhere, and witty and clever enough to engage at the top end of intellectual society, he went up to Oxford and befriended an impressive network, starting with his best friend Prince Paul of Yugoslavia and, through him, the royal families of Europe. Channon married Honor Guinness, eldest daughter of the brewing fortune (below) With her came the family’s safe seat (Southend) in the House of Commons, where he served from 1935 until his death in 1958.

“What makes Chips’ diaries particularly wonderful,” says Alister, “is that he was wrong about practically everything.” He was part of the London set wined and dined by Goebbels and Goering in 1934 Berlin—he couldn’t get enough of the Nazis. He backed Edward VIII’s efforts to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson (that’s them with Chips’ idol below) right up to the eve of Edward’s abdication. He was devoted to Neville Chamberlain, sitting directly behind him in the House and serving as parliamentary secretary to his foreign office throughout the appeasement period. And he absolutely loathed Churchill.

More to his credit, continues Alister, Channon set up at 5 Belgrave Square and entertained everybody: royals, lords, ladies, politicians, and authors. On a representative day in the 1950s, he drove Gore Vidal and Tennessee Williams up to his country palace and made it back next day for cocktails with Mae West and Danny Kaye (he spiked drinks with Benzedrine to help things “go”). He recorded everything he saw and heard in his entertaining diaries.

From 1939:

I am glutted with the great.  An early start, as had invited a French constituent to Westminster. The little woman gurgled with Gallic glee as we drove up to the great door in my green Rolls.  Soon all the great of England filed in… the French President (Lebrun) was immaculately dressed though it is absurd to look as French as he does.

At luncheon with the Kents, the Duke of Alba asked me whether I knew that Grandi, my dear bearded, adorable Grandi was to succeed Chiano at the head of Foreign Affairs in Rome – he had heard it from General Franco….

At dinner the Queen (Mary) saw me and smiled, with a touch of the twinkle which she keeps for her old friends.  The rest of the dinner party followed….Anthony, Winston, all the pro-Frog boys…

Channon’s diaries (1934-1958) were originally published in 1969, nine years after his death, and were heavily redacted by an over-protective son. Close readers of the original edition (like Alister) couldn’t help but notice that amid the ellipses, Chips separated and then divorced his Guinness wife. In fact, his marriage ended because of his chronic infidelities with other gay men. He is said to have slept with Prince Paul, The Duke of Kent, Terrence Rattigan, among others.

This fall, Hutchinson will begin publishing the complete unexpurgated diaries, including all the sex and drinking and drug-taking, in three volumes starting at their beginning in 1918. The historian Simon Heffer is in charge. “I can’t wait,” says Alister. We can’t, either.

Alister’s enthusiasm for Channon’s efforts got us thinking about political diaries generally. It seems to be a lost art, one that did not survive the twentieth century, and to the extent that it was a factor in the twentieth century, it seems to have been mostly a British thing. In addition to Channon there is Jock Colville, Churchill’s private secretary, who gives you a wonderful sense of what it was like to be a Tory toff active at the highest levels of public affairs in the Great Depression and WW2. Alan Clark left a gossipy account of the Thatcher years: “There are no true friends in politics, we’re all sharks circling and waiting for traces of blood in the water.” The British are so good at political diaries that a serious journalist can do a top ten list of them and (unforgivably) fail to include Channon.

What have we got on this side of the Atlantic?

American political types are poor diarists. There are some monumental literary diaries, such as the 22,000,000 words left by writer and journalist Edward Robb Ellis, and the 17,000,000 left by the poet Arthur Crew Inman. There are some journalistic diarists who have been close to power, notably Drew Pearson who chronicled mid-century Washington thoroughly, if lightly, and his contemporary William Shirer whose Berlin Diaries are worth a read, keeping in mind that much was rewritten after the fact (not least his initially favorable opinion of Hitler).

The historian Arthur M. Schlesinger (with second wife, above) produced a journal that runs from Adlai Stevenson to Donald Rumsfeld. It’s fine if you can stand the man’s obsequiousness to power and his purblind devotion to the Kennedys and Henry Kissinger.

This is a tangent but every time I think of Schlesinger I’m reminded of Lillian Hellman’s question after running into Arthur (old and short) and his new wife (young and tall) at a Manhattan restaurant: “I wonder if he goes up on her?”

What about American diaries from actual players? The choices are few and disappointing. Teddy Roosevelt left a life’s worth of earnest, informative journals, now available online (you can read an introduction here). Harry Truman’s earnest, informative diary covering (sporadically) the early part of his presidency tells us about Hiroshima and his anti-semitism (“The Jews, I find, are very, very selfish”). H.R. Haldeman left an earnest, informative account of the Nixon years. Ronald Reagan’s earnest, informative record of his presidency offers little in the way of introspection or anecdote. “Getting shot hurts,” he wrote after getting shot.

Nothing truly intimate, charming, revelatory, or literary in any of them. Also, a great diary needs to feel private and deeply personal, a bargain between the writer and its pages, and no one else. Even if that’s just a conceit, it is what distinguishes a good diary from notes towards a published memoir, a different and lesser thing. American politicians seem more often to be writing with Posterity in mind, if not the voting public, and that undermines the diary format. A diary should contain all the stuff that can’t be said in public, at least not see until you’re dead, or almost dead, and beyond recrimination. Presumably.

The one American diarist I’d take above all others (since the start of the twentieth-century, at least) is Colonel Edward M. House, Woodrow Wilson’s right-hand (above). He was a great observer of human nature and an excellent story-teller. Better still, he was genuinely in the loop, close enough to Wilson to record conversations like this at the start of the Great War:

He goes even further than I in his condemnation of Germany’s part in this war, and almost allows his feelings to include the German people as a whole rather than the leaders alone. He said German philosophy was essentially selfish and lacking in spirituality.

A shrewd student of world affairs, House knew far earlier than Wilson that U.S. entry into WW1 was inevitable. Unfortunately, his diaries have never been published to much


In Canada, we’ve had a couple of ambassadors who were faithful to their diaries. Charles Ritchie, who performed the trifecta (representing his country in the U.S., the U.K., and the U.N.) was an accomplished man and a heroic snob who published four volumes of diaries. This is from September 12, 1938:

I had my first taste of Hitler’s style today. I heard the broadcast of his eagerly awaited speech at Nuremberg dealing with Czechoslovakia. He is certainly remarkable entertainment value. I listened for nearly an hour to him speaking in German with brief interpretive interpolations. At the end of that time my nerves were jumping so that I could hardly sit still. This was not because of the subject with its implied danger of war — it was that voice, those whiplash snarls, those iron-hammer blows of speech. What a technique! The Germans get their money’s worth all right — the long-drawn sentences with the piled up climax upon climax until the nerves are quivering, shudders of hate and fear and exaltation going through the audience.

More recently, my good friend Allan Gotlieb (above on Air Force One with Reagan), who died last month at age ninety-two of non-covid causes, published The Washington Diaries, devoted to his time as Canadian ambassador to the United States. Allan was not quite Charles Ritchie, but he was no slouch. This from January 25, 1987:

[Ontario Premier] David Peterson arrived in the midst of yet another snowstorm. We had arranged a dinner of thirty-six guests for him, and it was a difficult task. First, it’s hard to get people out on a Sunday night. Secondly, Washington is not interested in a provincial satrap, even one who governs half of Canada. Thirdly, it was the night of the Super Bowl. [The great Texas Democrat] Bob Strauss, who regretted, said only a stupid Canadian would chose tonight for a dinner…”

The ambassadors notwithstanding, the mother of all Canadian diaries, and perhaps the mother of all political diaries, is that of William Lyon Mackenzie King (above with FDR). Canada’s most successful, longest-serving, and most important prime minister was fairly addicted to his dairy, leaving 30,000 typewritten pages, almost eight million words. If it were ever published in full, it would require somewhere in the neighborhood of thirty-five thick volumes. It runs from when he was a student at the University of Toronto to three days before his death in 1950.

King’s diary has yet to be properly excavated by historians. It is largely known today for revealing his fascination with the occult, which was not unusual at the time (all kinds of people, including Churchill, were seeing ghosts). The diary deserves to be read for its substance. It may, in fact, be the most valuable single resource we have on Canadian politics and public life in the twentieth century. It has something important to say on every significant domestic event in the years covered, and most international events, as well. And King was fascinated by people, their manners, appearances, and conversation.

Sutherland House will play a small part in rectifying Canada’s sorry treatment of King and his diary this fall with the publication of Neville Thompson’s The Third Man: Churchill, Roosevelt & Mackenzie King and the Friendships that Won WW2. Rooted in King’s diaries, The Third Man shows how closely King worked with both Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt from 1939 to 1945, and how he was instrumental in managing their crucial alliance.

King knew both leaders long before the start of the war and, throughout the conflict, he knew each of them better than they knew each other. He leveraged his position as head of the largest British Dominion and America’s closest neighbor to serve as a lynchpin between the great powers. He needed to be in such a position to protect Canada’s interests: his great concern, more real than we might imagine today, was that Canada could be subsumed by either the old British empire or the emerging American one.

Churchill and Roosevelt both came to rely upon King, a fellow head of government, as their next most important ally, routinely confiding in him, and never suspecting that he was meticulously recording every word, prayer, slight, and tic from their countless interactions at the end of each day.

King’s diaries reveal more of himself and display a far greater range of curiosity and emotion about the world around him than those of his counterparts to the south. He knew he was alive at an important moment, and he did his best to get it all down on the page. From the middle of WW2, 1943:

Churchill has been “raised up” to meet the need of this day in the realm of war, to fight, with the power of the sword, the bruit beasts that would devour their fellow men in their lust for power. Roosevelt, while far from being as great a man in his intellectual power, or military genius, is greater in his love for his fellow men and in his very sincere desire to improve their lot. Both men have great physical and moral courage but each is less great than he might have been had he been less personally ambitious to be great in the eyes of the world, less fond of and motivated in many ways by an inordinate desire for publicity.

Churchill, I greatly fear, may not last out the war – because of drink. . . I pray it may not be so and that he may be spared to enjoy some of the fruits of victory, which he more than any other single man deserves. . .  The President has overtaxed his strength in other ways. He has had a harder battle in many ways than Churchill. His fight for the people has made him many and bitter enemies. He has done too much, I fear for purely political reasons – the vast expenditures totally regardless of consequence, & which may leave the United States in an appalling condition someday. He has used public office to ensure continuance of power, in some ways that can scarcely be justified – but I believe that he has been sincere in his determination to better the conditions of the masses.

I doubt that King’s diaries will ever be properly edited and published, which is a shame. But I do think Thompson’s book will make the case for them as an enormously significant piece of history, and raise Canada’s estimation of King, the statesman, in the bargain.

Will we ever see the likes of King or Channon again? I doubt that, too. There is less privacy now generally, less literacy, less introspection, more posing, more narcissism. Politicians are more addicted to instagram than to diaries, and that’s a shame.

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