Articles

OLIVE DIEFENBAKERS not-so-private life

ALAN PHILLIPS December 21 1957
Articles

OLIVE DIEFENBAKERS not-so-private life

ALAN PHILLIPS December 21 1957

When John Diefenbaker stole the political show last June he brought with him onto centre stage a fresh new personality, his wife and political co-star, Olive Evangeline Diefenbaker, to play the role of Canada’s First Lady.

The weight of this role is seldom realized. Madame St. Laurent underplayed it, and when Bennett and King, bachelor PMs both, were in office it was played by the wives of the governors-general. No one has ever defined it, except to say that it’s tough.

At the least, the First Lady must offer her husband a centre of calm, no mean feat in itself when a man is embroiled in political warfare and pressed by decisions of state. At the most, she can offer advice he respects, lead the party’s female contingent, sway diplomats, and influence voters all across the country, especially those women who judge a man by the kind of wife he picks. The role is wide open. It’s what a lady can make of it.

Mrs. D., as she’s often called, indicated how she would play her role on the first day she moved into the grey stone mansion remodeled in 1951 to house Canada’s chief executives. It was a Saturday in July. The Diefenbakers had come direct from the prime ministers’ conference in London, he to a cabinet meeting, she to their new home.

She explored the ground-floor library, drawing and dining rooms, admiring (except for the Chinese red of the dining-room walls) the elegantly muted decor, the French doors opening onto patios, the sweeping views of the Ottawa River, the graceful curve of the stairs. The second floor delighted her. Here was a personal sitting room with a kitchenette attached, connecting bedroom suites, and two guest rooms. On the third floor she entered the servants’ quarters “for the first and last time—both John and I value our privacy, I’m sure they do too.” That afternoon she asked her husband to invite the cabinet for tea next day.

A few weeks later she gave a party for ambassadors and their wives to meet cabinet ministers and their wives. Many diplomats had never before been inside the house. “This isn’t just another party,” the wife of one diplomat said. “This is something new.” Mrs. D. followed it up with a party for press and radio, then a tea for all wives of Conservative MPs. In three months she showed eight hundred visitors through the residence. Though it is, and must be, a refuge, she says, it also belongs to the people. “I feel it’s my duty to show it to those who can and should be here.”

Her attitude has won her the plaudits of reporters, pleases the diplomats who like to entertain, and be entertained by, the PM so they can repeat in dispatches what he says, and it’s giving her prestige among the wives of Conservative MPs, who, when met in the House of Commons halls, may be asked to join her for tea.

“She never brushes anyone off,” says Mrs. Roland Michener, wife of the Speaker of the House. “She takes time to bring the wives of the younger members along. She’s the kind of person they don't mind taking advice from, and who knows how to give advice tactfully.” “Mrs. D. will see you right across the room at a party,” says the wife of a senior civil servant. “It doesn't matter if she’s talking to an ambassador's wife, she’ll smile and nod.”

When she left for London last June, Mrs. Michener, a close friend, drove to the airport to see her off. A CBC cameraman, trying to get a picture of Mrs. D., asked Mrs. Michener to stand aside.

“Oh, but she’s my friend,” Mrs. Diefenbaker said, a glint of steel in her smile, “You take her with me.”

In London she was assigned a car and a chauffeur, a girl. Trying to get through a half-blocked-off street the girl scraped the car. Mrs. D. realized the girl felt badly about it. At the end of the ride she unpinned her expensive maple-leaf brooch and presented it to her driver. “She's always aware of other people's feelings,” says Mrs. Pearkes, the defense minister’s wife, who took the trip with her.

Mrs. D. was a popular guest in London’s fashionable mansions but her triumph was not entirely effortless. Leaving Ottawa, the temperature had been a hundred. At Gander Airport in Newfoundland it was forty, and Mrs. D. developed laryngitis. Crossing the Atlantic the plane dropped five hundred feet. Mrs. D. hit the ceiling twice, crushing two vertebrae. Once in London and feeling far from her best, she found herself sitting next to Prince Philip at a dinner given by the Queen. For perhaps thirty seconds they talked haltingly. Then Philip leaned forward. “Tell me,” he said, “how did you win this election?” From then on the conversation was spirited.

At a luncheon Mrs. D. met Lady Churchill who said, “Winston's dying to meet your husband. When he heard about the election he was so excited he danced.” Next day they lunched with the Churchills in Hyde Park Gate.

Mrs. D. recalls that Churchill, though feeble, sparkled with wit. When his guests refused the added stimulation of a rare Napoleon brandy, Churchill said to Diefenbaker, “I hear you’re a teetotaler.”

“That’s not quite so,” Mrs. D. intervened. “He takes a glass of sherry now and then.”

He could be worse, Churchill rumbled, recalling an election he had lost to an opponent who was a prohibitionist.

Several nights later, wearing a strapless white Chantilly gown styled by Christian Dior, Mrs. Diefenbaker sat between Churchill and Harold Macmillan at the prime minister’s dinner.

“Everyone seems very interested in the election,” she remarked.

Mrs. D. recalls that Churchill replied: “Interested? Why wouldn't they be? It’s the most important event since the end of the war!”

Several times in London Mrs. D. heard her new home in Ottawa referred to as “that house with the difficult dining room.” On her return, in preparation for the Queen’s visit, she had the room’s red walls painted Wedgwood blue. “The dining room couldn’t take any flowers but pale pink or white,” she says, “and evening gowns invariably clashed with the walls.” She was also aware, of course, that red is the Liberal Party’s color and blue the Conservative’s.

Mrs. D. spent hours with her steward, Don Longchamps, formerly steward at the parliamentary restaurant, on the menu for the Queen’s dinner. At first they decided on wild duck, shot by friends in Prince Albert. Then, learning that the governor-general would serve duck, they switched to pheasant, with wild rice and a vegetable platter. “I knew the Queen was on a diet,” says Mrs. D., “and I know how sick you can get of fancy foods. I tried to plan a menu (baked grapefruit, tomato consommé, creamed lobster, assorted Canadian cheese) that would be nice for the guests but not too hard on her.”

On the day of the royal visit, twenty plain-clothes policemen swarmed through the house, searching closets, peering in vases, lifting rugs, chair cushions and pictures. A florist arranged pink roses and snapdragons and the chef, on loan from Toronto’s King Edward Hotel, made candied replicas of the Queen and Philip. The dinner went so well that the royal couple lingered, chatting, an hour after they were due to depart.

Mrs. D. is not awed by the harsh glare of greatness. During the state reception for the Queen in Ottawa, the prime minister spotted CBC commentator Maude Ferguson. “Well, Maudie,” he said, “how are you?”

“Not very good,” said Miss Ferguson, frankly. She’d been asked to attend unexpectedly, and, excited at being presented, had failed to notice what the Queen was wearing.

“Let’s see,” Diefenbaker said. “I think her dress has maple leaves on it, right about here.” He described a circle around his middle. “No, let's see. Were they maple leaves?” He pondered, then found the solution. "We’ll ask Olive. She always keeps calm.”

Mrs. D. remains as self-possessed when attention is turned in her own direction. “I’m accustomed to public scrutiny,” she once told a friend who asked how she thought she would mind having everything she did become a matter of public interest. “I was brought up in a parsonage. Whenever we got a new hat or dress people talked about it.”

How to solve a problem

Her father, Charles Freeman, grew up in Canning, N.S., across the road from her mother, a cousin of billionaire Cyrus Eaton. Dr. Freeman’s forebears were churchmen and teachers since landing at Plymouth Rock in 1620 (migrating to Nova Scotia a hundred and forty years later), and he too took up the nomadic life of a Baptist minister. Olive was born in Roland, Man. She went to school in Prince Albert, Sask., and studied at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. There, in her father’s church, she met a young law student, John Diefenbaker, just back from the war.

The Freeman children, three boys and two girls, learned to live well on little. Mrs. D. once said she never remembered her mother pulling “a poor mouth.” Her father, a gentle scholar, taught them self-reliance. She recalls taking a problem to him one day for advice. Her father re-stated the problem. “I know that,” she said. “What shall I do?” Her father outlined the problem again. Again she asked what to do. On the third time around she said, “Oh, for goodness’ sake!” and made up her own mind. “I know now what he was doing,” she says.

Olive left Saskatoon and came east to McMaster University in Hamilton where she received her BA; she then went to the Ontario College of Education. She taught high school in Huntsville and Guelph, then in 1933 married Harry F. Palmer, a Toronto lawyer. Three years later he died.

In 1936 jobs were scarce, and she had a two-year-old daughter, Carolyn, to support. She located a low-paid high-school post in Arthur, Ont., later moved to Owen Sound so her child could go to an up-to-date public school. There, her feeling that teachers should understand their pupils as well as their subjects drew her into a new movement called guidance. She took a summer course taught by Howard Beattie at McMaster, and returned to Owen Sound determined to prove the significance of her training.

In one case she arranged for a very bright third-year boy to take fifth-year history. Within weeks he headed the class. She suggested he learn to speak better; he formed a three-boy speaking group. She suggested he start a club. I don't like to push myself," he said. "That's just it.” she said, “you don't have to push yourself.” In his final year he was head of the student body. Impressed, the principal put her half-time on guidance.

In 1945 Beattie, by now head of the Ontario Department of Education’s new guidance branch, asked her to join him in Toronto. She took frequent trips, persuading teachers to set up guidance classes, telling them how they could help keep youngsters from drifting out of school, how they could help them assess themselves, choose careers and train for them. At times even her ample energy was exhausted. Night after night she would drive home from whatever school she was working in, sometimes fifty miles or more each way, to be with her daughter.

She learned to speak, to hold her tongue, to handle all kinds of people. When Beattie clashed with the principal of a large school she offered to see him. “No,” Beattie demurred. “He’s a demon. A real dictator. He doesn’t listen to anybody."

She insisted. Entering the principal’s office she shook her finger at him. “Now look here,” she said. “You’re going to listen to me!”

They both laughed. The principal listened, and out of that talk came another guidance class.

The classes spread across Ontario. When Beattie was promoted in 1953 she was asked to become provincial director of guidance. But she had resumed the friendship broken off so long before with the beau of her Saskatoon days, John Diefenbaker, now a prominent politician, a recent widower, and a frequent visitor to Toronto. He, too, had made an offer and when the department pressed for her answer she broke the news: she was leaving to be married.

The marriage, friends think, has had much to do with Diefenbaker’s recent success. Two years before, when his first wife, Edna, died, he had shut himself in his Chateau Laurier Hotel room and read the Bible from cover to cover. His marriage to Olive drew him out of himself. His composure returned. He began once more to enjoy people. He developed amazing political force. He even gained eight pounds on his grinding twenty-thousand-mile campaign last spring.

Olive shared his platform, scribbled notes when he missed a name and packed his suitcases. She backed his judgment in making parliament’s supremacy an issue and is credited with his promise not to forget women.

Asked how she stood the strain, the missed meals, the lost sleep, she said, “If you roll with the ship it's good fun. People would tell me, ‘It must be awful, hearing the same speech night after night.’ It wasn't. Anything can happen at a political meeting. As John talks he can tell how it’s going over. It’s great fun seeing what variations he'll make on the prepared text.”

She missed only six of his hundred and three speeches—when her daughter was giving birth to her first grandson, named John after Diefenbaker.

It was Mrs. D. who gave Allister Grosart, top Conservative tactician, the best regional anecdote of the campaign. They were checking his list of interviews. “Newspaper women,” she said, “keep asking me, ‘What’s your husband’s favorite recipe?’ I don’t know. He’s never told me. So the other day I said. ‘John, you’ve got to tell me your favorite food.’ He thought for awhile and finally said, ‘Oh yes, I know. Potatoes.’ ” The story went over well when Grosart told it in Prince Edward Island.

At one luncheon in the Maritimes Mrs. D. ate lobster with seeming enjoyment, though lobster doesn't agree with her. Diefenbaker, a few seats down, leaned forward to note her achievement. “Have some more lobster, dear,” he said, with mock solicitude.

“No thanks,” she said smiling.

“There’s lots more,” he persisted.

“I could have killed him,” she says.

The electronic eye of TV caught her composure, her grooming, but missed the warmth and astuteness of her politicking. Revenue Minister George Nowlan has called her “probably the best campaigner we had next to John.” “As soon as the train stopped,” a newspaperman recalls, “she'd be off. He’d go in one direction. She’d get her own group around her.” “I’ll vote for your John,” countless women were overheard telling her.

She is usually up before seven-thirty for breakfast with her husband, who has taught her to eat heartily in the morning. Then the PM leaves for work, sometimes walking the first few blocks, with his chauffeur trailing him, and Mrs. D. sits down at her writing desk.

Writing in longhand, stopping to answer the unlisted telephone, she answers ten to twenty letters a day—requests for interviews, pictures, invitations to speak, to attend teas. Letters come from old friends and relatives (“Now they know where to write me”). People send encouragement (“Keep up the good work. We’re praying for you”). Some offer admiration (“You’re wonderful!”). Others want taxes cancelled, jobs abroad, senatorships. To those who want money she explains that she has no private funds, no access to government funds for charity; but often she can suggest the proper agency to go to. Touched by a recent letter, she replied with ten pages of advice.

She likes cooking (her favorite present to young people getting married is a cookbook) but seldom has time to do more than check the menu. The steward deals with the staff: cook and cook’s helper, the two maids, laundress, chauffeur and seamstress.

On her few free afternoons she takes in the House of Commons debates. More often she is the honored guest at a club tea or fashion show. For two days last month she had twelve invitations to open bazaars. “I try not to make dates, such as speaker of the evening, that I might have to break,” she says. “Things can crop up suddenly in politics, and my first responsibility is to do what John wants.”

The PM takes several trips a month and likes to take his wife with him. In forty-one hours last September they flew to Calgary, drove to Banff for a speech to the Bar Association, flew back to Ottawa, switched planes and roles (from party leader, whose party pays his fare, to national leader, with plane supplied) and flew east to speak at Dartmouth University, then Quebec City and home. On such trips she may shake a thousand hands.

Mrs. D. enjoys it, but traveling is hard on the big-brimmed hats that have become her trademark. It is said that if she has a minute she’ll dash out and buy another hat. “That’s not so.” she says. “It takes a lot longer than that.” Why does she wear such broad brims? “They suit me. Last year when hats went big I had a field day.”

At home she wears cottons. She loves color, dislikes sports clothes or rough fabrics. “I like fine fabrics even for daytime clothes.” she says. “And evening clothes can’t be too glamorous.”

She has definite views on most political issues but never airs them in public. She is very much aware that everything she says may be given a significance she doesn't intend. “You talk more and more on the surface,” she says. “Of course, that isn't true for my husband. He's been in politics all his life. He knows what he wants to say. Wives have to be more guarded. We don’t make the decisions. It isn't our right to talk about political problems.”

Recently, during dinner, a cabinet minister tried to draw her out on a current issue. Her noncommittal replies drew a hearty laugh from the PM, who had just briefed her thoroughly on the problem. “I told you she was safe,” he told the minister.

In private and with wifely familiarity, she will sometimes correct her husband’s opinions. “That’s ridiculous,” she has been heard to say. He solicits her opinion, as he does everyone else’s, but he makes up his own mind and not even she can change it.

A minor example was the question of what should be worn at the opening of parliament. Evening clothes, as they do in London, Diefenbaker decided.

"But, dear, do we have to wear evening clothes here,” Mrs. D. protested mildly, “just because they wear them in London?”

“We do.”

“But, dear, women don’t like to wear evening clothes in the afternoon—it makes you feel so bare.” Mrs. D. turned for support to Mrs. Pearkes, the defense minister’s wife, who was standing beside her.

“We’re going to wear evening clothes,” said Diefenbaker.

“I'm going to ask John to change his mind,” Mrs. D. told Mrs. Pearkes. But when parliament opened, evening clothes were worn.

Mrs. Diefenbaker has little time to indulge her taste for classical music, painting, ballet, fiction and poetry. She says, “My recreation is what John likes”—and John likes none of these. He reads only fact. He has been to three movies in five years, one of which put him to sleep. His recreations are fishing and hunting. “When John gets his eye on a duck he departs from this world,” says Mrs. D. “Out the car he’ll go. I’ll say, ‘Shut the door, John.’ He never hears me.” She waits at the wheel, reading or knitting.

Their favorite evening is a quiet one in the pleasant second-floor sitting room where the chairs, newly slip-covered in patterned blue, are the kind a tired man can sink into. The PM seldom arrives home before seven. Often he has friends in tow. He still retains the habit, when someone calls him, of saying, “Where are you? Come on home for dinner.” Sometimes he forgets to phone his wife and on one occasion recently she had to make do with bacon and eggs. Sundays, after church, they’re at home to their friends. “I don’t think on a week end that teapot’s ever off,” says one.

Diefenbaker frequently brings home a bulging briefcase. He works all over the house. The two maids follow him up with the portable TV, for he hates to miss the news, turning the radio on at the same time as the TV. For relief from work he watches the wrestling matches. Later the Diefenbakers set out a snack from the refrigerator in their tiny kitchenette adjoining the sitting room (usually cheese, crackers and milk) and another long day ends.

The prime minister takes pride in his wife, in the way she plays her role. She has changed the capital’s social atmosphere in a few short months and added warmth to affairs of state. But how has the role of First Lady changed her?

"We have a saying in our family,” she says. “ ‘All power corrupts.’ But I don’t think either John or I will change.”