The Other Mrs. Diefenbaker
Contains Illustrations, Index
Randall White is the author of Voice of Region: On the Long Journey to
Senate Reform in Canada, Too Good to Be True: Toronto in the 1920s, and
Global Spin: Probing the Globalization Debate.
What was she like, this “other Mrs. Diefenbaker” — Edna May Brower? Her death from leukemia in 1951 brought a stream of eulogies from the press corps, who regarded her as “the unelected MP.” After that, nary a word. Even when Diefenbaker passed from the scene in the best-planned funeral cortege Canada has ever seen, the obituaries usually carried a brief reference to the fact he had been married before. A chance call from one who had known Diefenbaker and Edna during the 1920s and 1930s alerted Simma Holt, a former Liberal MP, that there had been such a person. At least, that is how Holt begins her study to resurrect the first Mrs. Diefenbaker. She certainly succeeds.
Tapping all the main living sources as well as much written material, she reveals some of the most intimate details of Edna and John’s marriage — many of them provided by Edna’s niece, Sheila Brower, who became their surrogate daughter. Besides showing Edna’s vital role in Diefenbaker’s early career, this study is important for the light it sheds on her husband’s personality. Not surprisingly, Edna comes up smelling of roses while Dief’s stock takes another pounding. Holt shows that Diefenbaker needed strong women around him, starting with his mother, who remained number one until her death in 1961. Another theme is his insensitivity to Edna’s emotional needs, especially when they conflicted with his political ambitions and obligations. Eventually, Edna’s spirit and her health broke and for five months in 1945-46 she was a patient in a private hospital for alcoholics and the mentally ill. Senator David Walker, probably the only Diefenbaker associate who knew where she was, told Holt: “it was the silliest thing I could imagine, her being in Homewood.” He often accompanied Diefenbaker on visits and remembers that Edna had strongly opposed the electric shock treatments she received, which Diefenbaker had authorized. After her release, their marriage seemed outwardly to resume its sunny ways, but according to Holt, things were never the same again. Edna apparently never forgave her husband. She also tried to get him to quit politics, and this may have prompted Diefenbaker’s later resolve after his second marriage to remove Edna from his own and the public’s memory.
Simma Holt’s highly readable study restores Edna to her rightful place as a major influence in Diefenbaker’s difficult early years as a politician. This book should remain an important work for that growing number of Canadians concerned about the sometimes demeaning and often impossible role our society gives to the wives of our politicians and prime ministers.