Maxwell Aitken

Maxwell Aitken

BORN: Maple, Ontario • 25 May 1879

DIED: Cherkley, Mickleham, United Kingdom • 9 June 1964

Were he still around, Max Aitken would be convinced that he belongs in this book. If he was never connected with a specific outstanding achievement, and if he never quite made it to the pinnacle of a particular profession, Aitken nevertheless believed that many of the momentous events of the twentieth century involved him intimately.

Modesty was obvi¬ ously not one of Aitken’s personality traits, and there was much exaggerated self-importance to just about everything he did. Yet over the course of his long life, whatever he was up to, Aitken could never be ignored.

Capitalist, politician, journalist, publisher, and author were Aitken’s best-known public roles, but beneath it all, seduction was his real craft. He simply had an exceptional knack for ingratiating himself with people.

Though born in Ontario, Aitken’s Presbyterian minister father moved the family to New Brunswick when he was an infant, and Aitken would call the Maritime province home for the rest of his life. From the start, Aitken made friends effortlessly: he had a way with strangers that allowed him to accumulate business partners and money with breathtaking ease.

A millionaire in his twenties, he rapidly rose to prominence by choreographing major industrial mergers such as those that created Stelco and Canada Cement. By then he was one of the few Canadian financiers who mattered.Business brought him to England before the 1914—18 war, and Aitken stepped easily into the British ruling classes.

He seemed an unlikely fit with the sundry lords and ladies of the aristocracy; he was, after all, a poor man’s son, a busi¬ nessman, and a Canadian. And his often-commented-upon appearance—short, ugly, with an apparently permanent self- satisfied grin—won him few admirers. But Aitken possessed charm in abundance and even more money, and he liked to lavish both on himself and his friends.

Men and women of all stations fell under his spell. Ofcourse, being rich was never enough for Aitken; he needed to plunk himself near the centre of the action to remain content. England seemed to be the place for that in those years, so he decided to stay.

He befriended another Canadian in London, Andrew Bonar Law, and emerged as an overnight insider within the Conservative Party to make his compatriot British prime minister. Aitken himself entered politics briefly and was elevated to the House of Lords in 1917. Prom then on, he was Lord Beaverbrook.

After the war, Canada’s most renowned baron became a newspaper owner. The press was just a sideline at first, but he quickly realized how much power newspapers wielded in a democracy. Soon Beaverbrook was an obsessive publisher with a knack for the great crusade: he wrote editorials, super¬ vised coverage, and boosted circulation at his flagship Daily Express until readership was over 4 million.

More than ever his opinions mattered. He campaigned for issues he viewed as particularly important to Canada—a plan for imperial free trade, for example, though never successful, was a cause he alone kept in the public eye. Beaverbrook could not be disre¬ garded, and kings and prime ministers routinely sought his advice. When they did not, it was proffered anyway.

By 1939, though Beaverbrook still cultivated his Canadian identity, he was one of the most important people in British politics. He was a close confidant of Winston Churchill, and he joined the prime minister’s Cabinet for most of the war. “He did not fail. This was his hour,” Churchill remembered of Beaverbrook’s wartime contribu¬ tion.

His lordship was in the middle of struggles to increase war production, and in secret meetings with international leaders at the highest level. But the Canadian, too used to getting his own way in his personal affairs and newspapers,was not well suited for the compromise-filled world of poli¬ tics. He retired before the war was over and returned to the carousing life of a fabulously rich press lord.

Late in life Beaverbrook took to recording the public events of his lifetime. These memoirs were usually self- serving and sometimes mean-spirited, but, combined, his books offer a unique first-hand glimpse inside important moments in mid-century history; they are required reading for a full understanding of the period.

He spent more and more of his time in his home province in his declining years, and the University ofNew Brunswick and the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton were just the most notable recipi¬ ents of millions in donations.

What it all added up to was a continuing obsession with his place in history: Beaverbrook hoped to charm future generations of historians as completely as he had many of his contemporaries. But in most of his roles, Beaverbrook was a supporting player rather than a star. He lurked for over fifty years on the very edge of power; highly influential, but rarely able to change events decisively on his own.