Aitken, William Maxwell, first Baron Beaverbrook 1879-1964, newspaper proprietor, was born 25 May 1879 at Vaughan, Maple, Ontario, the third son in the family of ten children of a Presbyterian minister, William Cuthbert Aitken, who had emigrated to Canada from Torpichen, West Lothian. The mother was Jane, daughter of Joseph Noble, storekeeper and farmer in Vaughan. The year after Max Aitken was born, his father received a call from St. James's church at Newcastle, a township on the Miramichi river in New Brunswick where the boy spent a happy and adventurous childhood and attended the local school until he was sixteen, but failed in Latin in the entrance examination to Dalhousie University. Instead, he entered a law firm in Chatham, down river from Newcastle, but soon began to sell insurance, then switched successfully to selling bonds at the right moment in the Canadian boom. He found a patron in John F. Stairs, the leading financier and Conservative in Halifax, Nova Scotia, who helped to set him up in a finance company, Royal Securities Corporation.
One of the talents Max Aitken exhibited throughout his life lay in confecting combines and alliances. He used his knowledge of local banking to negotiate the sale of the Commercial Bank of Windsor to Stairs's Union Bank of Halifax, a merger which brought him a personal profit of 10,000 dollars. He was soon venturing too in the West Indies. On 30 January 1906 he married Gladys Henderson, the beautiful nineteen-year-old daughter of Colonel (later General) Charles William Drury, the first Canadian to command the Halifax garrison, Nova Scotia. They moved to Montreal where Aitken acquired a seat on the Stock Exchange. By 1907 the little fellow with the big head was a dollar millionaire. In 1909 he formed the Canada Cement Company, a controversial amalgamation much criticized in some quarters, the echoes of which, much to his righteous indignation, were to reverberate about his ears for years to come.
In the following year the Aitkens came to England. Aided by Andrew Bonar Law, himself the son of a New Brunswick manse, Max Aitken stood as a Conservative in the Liberal-held Lancashire seat of Ashton-under-Lyne and, after a whirlwind campaign, he won by 196 votes, one of the few Unionist gains in the general elections of that December.
He had bounced into the political limelight, but he spoke rarely in the House where he was regarded as a Canadian adventurer; however, he had the friendship of Bonar Law, as well as financial links, and he soon gained the support of F. E. Smith (later the Earl of Birkenhead) [qv.] through whom he came to know (Sir) Winston Churchill. In 1911 Aitken's name appeared in the coronation honours; his knighthood was not universally well received. When Bonar Law, whose resolution Aitken had helped to stiffen (and this was but the first instance in their close friendship), came to succeed Arthur Balfour as Conservative leader, Aitken's political stock, as his intimate, was correspondingly strengthened. He bought a large Victorian country house in Surrey, Cherkley Court, near Leatherhead, where he would entertain friends and leading politicians whilst he continued to expand his Canadian business interests. He refused to eat in other people's houses: he preferred to be the focus of attention from the middle of his own dinner table. After the war he was to acquire The Vineyard, a tiny Tudor house with a tennis court at Hurlingham Road, Fulham, more intimate than Cherkley.
In July 1914 it was Max Aitken, Bonar Law's financier and jackal, as one of Asquith's Cabinet described him, who was the intermediary through whom the abortive Buckingham Palace conference over the Ulster question came to be held: the silhouette of a future political merger.
When war broke out Sir Max Aitken soon became the Canadian Government representative at British GHQ at St. Omer with the rank of lieutenant-colonel in the Canadian Militia—as Canadian eyewitness. He initiated the Canadian Daily Record, which lasted until 31 July 1919, for Canadian troops in Europe, and published a historical narrative, Canada in Flanders, the first two volumes of which he wrote himself. He created the Canadian War Records Office, set up a war memorial fund, and was the first to commission war artists. Impatient at the muddles of the military men, he soon came to spend much of his time in Whitehall. Living in the Hyde Park Hotel, not far from Bonar Law's house in Edwardes Square, by July 1916 he had acquired a room in the War Office, two doors down the corridor from Lloyd George's.
Aitken was to play a special part in the downfall of Asquith, who disdained him, and in the maneuvring which made Lloyd George war minister and then, in December 1916, prime minister. The details of the struggle to overthrow Asquith and to replace him by Bonar Law or Lloyd George, in which Aitken acted as spur and go-between, he was to record in his incomparable Politicians and the War (2 vols. 1928-32) which will remain, despite all carping, the authoritative narrative; nor does the story want in the telling thereof.
Confident, according to his own account, that he would be recompensed with office for the decisive part he believed himself to have played in the new arrangements, Aitken awaited a call from the new prime minister. Instead, since a seat in the Commons was required for Sir Albert Stanley (later Lord Ashfield) [qv.], the incoming president of the Board of Trade, the very post which he himself had his eye on, Aitken hesitated before reluctantly accepting Lloyd George's offer of a peerage, vacating his seat at Ashton-under-Lyne (to which Stanley was promptly elected), and becoming—he was already a baronet (January, 1916)—Lord Beaverbrook, an elevation which he claimed to regret to the end of his days.
Whilst the war lasted Beaverbrook gave what help he could to the Government in his own idiosyncratic way on becoming chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, despite the King's objection, then, from February to November 1918, minister of information. In March 1918 he was sworn of the Privy Council. He was still entertaining freely: It was during Duff's time in France (from May 1918), Lady Diana Duff Cooper (later Lady Norwich) was to write, that the Montagus and I saw almost daily this strange attractive gnome with an odour of genius about him. He was an impact and a great excitement to me, with his humour, his accent, his James the First language, his fantastic stories of his Canadian past, his poetry and his power to excoriate or heal (The Rainbow Comes and Goes, 1958).
Since 1910 Beaverbrook had been a close friend of R. D. Blumenfeld [qv.], who had been editor of the Daily Express since 1904. Although a lively, well-written, and politically influential newspaper, it was losing money and in danger of closing. In December 1916 Blumenfeld on Bonar Law's advice turned to Aitken (who had been interested in the paper at least as early as May), who bought the paper—and its debts—for £17,500 and so acquired not only a platform for his views and additional political leverage, but what was to prove his dominant interest for the rest of his life.
The partnership with R.D.B., who remained as editor-in-chief until 1929 and paterfamilias until he died in 1948, was faithful, fruitful, and at times explosive. Blum, Beaverbrook once remarked, taught me the business of journalism. Beaverbrook for his part taught his editor how to make a newspaper pay. He introduced more money, better management, and, above all, he made the paper controversial. Advertisements became a major source of revenue. Beaverbrook personally sold space to Gordon Selfridge [qv.]. Blumenfeld said that Max was the most gifted natural journalist he had ever met, not excluding Lord Northcliffe [qv.]. Together, they gathered a remarkable team of writers, cartoonists, and business managers into the building in Shoe Lane and set off after the circulation leadership of the Daily Mail. Foremost among them was John Gordon, together with two Canadians, (Sir) Beverley Baxter and, on the management side, E. J. Robertson. After Northcliffe's death in 1922 the struggle for circulation amongst the popular dailies became intense, but eventually by 1936, with Arthur Christiansen as editor (since 1934), the Daily Express, with a two and a quarter million sale, achieved the largest circulation in the world and Beaverbrook by then was the unchallenged leader. By 1954 the circulation was exceeding four million a day. Meanwhile the Sunday Express had been launched in December 1918, and in 1923 Beaverbrook acquired from Sir Edward Hulton [qv.] control of the Evening Standard, in which the cartoons of (Sir) David Low [qv.] achieved their uncensored popularity. Beaverbrook impishly liked to pretend that he left his newspapers to run themselves, but it is evident that the chief shareholder's telephonic interventions were menacingly perpetual and his flair for informed gossip—and malice—unexampled. For good or ill, his newspapers were the extension of Beaverbrook's complex personality and friendships. Amongst those who wrote for them were men as varied as Arnold Bennett [qv.], Dean Inge [qv.], (Sir) Robert Bruce Lockhart [qv.], and Harold Nicolson [qv.], Lord Castlerosse, and, later, Michael Foot. Vicky [qv.] in his day was allowed as much freedom as Low had had when he would portray Beaverbrook's characteristic features with the huge urchin grin lurking in the corner of many of his cartoons. Timothy Healy, the Duff Coopers, H. G. Wells, and subsequently Brendan Bracken, and much later the Aneurin Bevans [qv.], Stanley Morison [qv.], and A. J. P. Taylor, who was to write his biography (1972), were among Beaverbrook's intimates; but nobody could ever replace Bonar Law in his heart. After the war of 1939-45 he eventually resumed his highly personal account of affairs in Men and Power 1917-1918 (1956) and The Decline and Fall of Lloyd George (1963). It was he, for example, who had seen to it that Bonar Law attended the Carlton Club meeting in October 1922 which brought about the downfall of the very wartime coalition which Beaverbrook himself had helped to initiate, a meeting which enabled Stanley Baldwin to reveal those unexpected qualities which were to deprive Beaverbrook—and Churchill—of the influence each, very independently, sought to exert upon Conservative policy between the wars. Years passed before he and Churchill came to work together again—they had crossed tempers during the general strike—and then once again, those ten years later, it was Baldwin who won the day. In 1936 King Edward VIII sought Beaverbrook's advice on the public handling of his decision to marry Mrs Simpson. Beaverbrook, joined by Churchill, strove mightily to delay the issue, advising the King to wait rather than precipitate a clash with Church and Cabinet with an inevitable outcome. It was in vain. After Beaverbrook's death his version of the struggle behind the scenes, The Abdication of King Edward VIII, was published (1966). It is perhaps significant that, whereas both Baldwin and Churchill were most distressed by what took place, Beaverbrook, for his part, had never had so much fun in my life.
Bonar Law's death in 1923 had left Beaverbrook outside the innermost circles of power, and he threw himself into battle after battle with Baldwin over the issue of imperial preferences, which Beaverbrook chose to call ‘Empire Free Trade’, or, again, his ‘Empire Crusade’. He campaigned in by-elections; he wrote at length week after week on a theme which he had made his own, and he used his three papers relentlessly to press his ideas on imperial preferences; the iniquity, in Beaverbrook's view, of Baldwin's settlement of the British war debt to the United States; and the neglect of the Empire, about which Beaverbrook himself knew very little outside Canada. Beaverbrook frankly admitted that ‘S. B.’ defeated him every time and he was intensely irritated by the public image of Baldwin as ‘a quiet, honest country gentleman’, to him a successful travesty. Starting as admirers of Bonar Law, they had soon parted company and they were never reconciled. It was probably Beaverbrook whom Baldwin chiefly had in mind rather than Lord Rothermere [q.v.] when, deeply wounded by the press campaigns against him, he spoke (24 June 1930) in the words of his cousin Rudyard Kipling [q.v.] (who had earlier parted from Beaverbrook over the Irish treaty) of newspaper proprietors who exercised ‘power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages’.
The political merger of 1931 might seem to have been ‘made’ for Beaverbrook, yet he was not involved in the formation of the ‘national’ Government: he seemed to have shot his political bolt. It appeared that Churchill was not the only ‘busted flush’. It was noteworthy, as his biography was to reveal, that ‘no Prime Minister came to Cherkley between 1922 and 1941’.
During the rise of Hitler Beaverbrook used his newspapers to damp down the threat of war. He accompanied Lord Vansittart [q.v.] to Paris in December 1935 and sustained him and Sir Samuel Hoare (later Viscount Templewood) [q.v.] at the time of the Hoare-Laval pact. From 1938 Beaverbrook made Hoare (who had served with him in the Commons before 1914) an allowance of £2,000 a year. He supported Neville Chamberlain over Munich and as late as mid 1939 the Daily Express was busily informing its public that ‘there will be no war this year’. During the ‘phoney war’ he visited President Roosevelt, a kindred spirit, a visit which was to bear fruit. When Churchill became prime minister, Beaverbrook re-entered the arcana imperii and the old intimacy was renewed. On 14 May 1940 he became minister of aircraft production and later a member of the War Cabinet. He accompanied Churchill to Tours whilst France was collapsing, because the premier knew that ‘in trouble’ Beaverbrook was ‘always buoyant’. Beaverbrook's contribution to victory in the Battle of Britain was immense and unique: Churchill and Dowding [q.v.] paid public tribute to it. The hour and the man proved a fit match. By the most ruthless methods Beaverbrook burst through the entrenched conventions of the Air Ministry and long-term plans of ‘the bloody Air Marshals’, as he called them, and demanded successfully that every ounce of the war effort be thrown into producing the fighter aircraft which the Royal Air Force (in which his son and heir was gallantly serving) needed to deny the Luftwaffe control of the narrow seas, without which the invasion of Britain was impossible. His torrential, piratical energy was centred in Stornoway House in St. James's which he had acquired in the 1920s. He made plenty of enemies not only in the Air Staff, but also, for example, Lord Nuffield and Ernest Bevin [qq.v.], but he carried the day. The story of his tempestuous handling of the new Ministry remains an epic. He gave a new and primal urgency to the cycle: production, cannibalization, repair, and dispersal. Beaverbrook, said Churchill, was ‘at his very best when things are at their worst.’ Nothing that he did in his long life was as important as the part Beaverbrook played in winning the Battle of Britain.
Typically, when the battle in the air was won, the man who had done most to make it possible tired of the burden, and in May 1941 he became simple minister of state; in June he succeeded Sir Andrew Duncan [q.v.] as minister of supply¾‘he believes in orderly advance,’ he announced, ‘I am given to immediate methods.’ In August he visited Washington; in September Moscow, with Averell Harriman, to bargain with Stalin over war supplies. He returned to Washington with Churchill after Pearl Harbor to press for more tanks, aircraft, and¾his own significant contribution to the debate¾landing craft. In February 1942 he became minister of production, again in succession to Duncan, but a couple of weeks later ill health¾which was never far away and his asthma may have been partly psychosomatic¾gave him the excuse to leave the Government. He loathed committees. His letters of resignation had become as frequent as those of Gladstone or John Morley. In September 1943, however, he agreed to become lord privy seal and so remained until the war ended. Beaverbrook was never a team man but he was a very present help in time of trouble, especially to Churchill. It was Harry Hopkins who spotted that Beaverbrook was a member of that inner cabinet ‘of the men who saw Churchill after midnight’. They might not always agree. Beaverbrook pressed for an early Second Front, especially after his return from Moscow, just as from 1940 onwards he continued to stress the strategic ineffectiveness of massive bombing. But the court favourite no longer had quite the same influence. Yet it was he who arrived at Marrakesh in December 1943 when Churchill was taken ill there after the Big Three meeting at Tehran, just as it had been Beaverbrook who had been summoned to Chequers when Germany declared war on Russia in June 1941.
Beaverbrook took a leading¾and, in some people's view, a disastrous¾part in Churchill's 1945 election campaign. With 393 Labour seats compared with 189 Conservative, the Carlton Club, which Beaverbrook rarely visited, and the Tory backbenchers whom he derided, turned their wrath on him. He bore it as he always did (with irritated interruptions) with buoyancy, and his friendship with Churchill survived undamaged. Indeed, it was the ‘best of foul weather friends’ who realized that Churchill would feel especially deprived in his moment of defeat and saw to it that a motor car and chauffeur were at his door when the familiar government perquisites had abruptly disappeared. It was typical¾a point which Lord Rosebery was to make at the memorial service at St. Paul's¾of Beaverbrook's many secret acts of kindness when people were down on their luck¾to the Asquiths, or the Snowdens, or, until she died in 1952, Lady Brade, the widow of Sir Reginald, who had befriended him in far-off days as secretary to the War Office. More formally, in 1954 he set up the Beaverbrook Foundation.
Two more campaigns remained for the happiest of warriors: he opposed Maynard Keynes [q.v.] over the American loan in 1947 and Harold Macmillan's attempt in 1961 to put Britain into ‘that blasted Common Market’. Much of his old resilient fire returned and, at the age of eighty-two, with most of his friends long since dead, he waged a tremendous fight against what he believed would mark the end of British independence. He had never really liked allies. When the Common Market proposal temporarily foundered, his headline was a characteristic ‘Hallelujah Hallelujah’.
In his last years, although Maurice Woods who had furnished the first drafts for his political memoirs had died as long ago as 1929, Beaverbrook resumed his career as political historian, a special talent about which he was curiously modest. He was able to draw upon his extensive collection of political papers (now in the House of Lords Library), from those left to him by Bonar Law, Lord Wargrave's papers which he had acquired, and the Lloyd George papers, which he had purchased from the widow together with her diaries. He had already made use of Asquith's letters to Mrs Edwin Montagu and Mrs Reginald McKenna in his Politicians and the War. He had published further books in the series of memoirs, but The Age of Baldwin, the final volume, long-plotted, somehow never seemed to get written.
At the end of his long life Canada came to give him full recognition as one of her foremost sons. Since the war of 1939-45 he had endowed the university of New Brunswick, of which he had become chancellor in 1953, with impatient generosity. He founded scholarships there and provided new buildings, notably the library and the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, which he ensured was filled with masterpieces of every age, few of which he himself appreciated.
On 9 June 1964 at the age of eighty-five, he died at Cherkley of cancer. But a fortnight earlier he had attended a mammoth dinner in his honour given in London by his fellow Canadian, Lord Thomson of Fleet. At the end ‘the Beaver’ rose, old and frail, and held his audience spellbound. He spoke for half an hour, in the inimitable Canadian twang he never lost, of his successes and his failures, what he had hoped for and what he had lived for. ‘And now’, he said, ‘I am to become an apprentice again, somewhere, soon.’ As he walked steadfastly out the six hundred guests, men of all ages, stood and cheered him. It was his farewell, wholly typical of the man, full of wisdom, rich in humour, glowing with courage.
Beaverbrook achieved eminence in three worlds¾finance, politics, and journalism. (Some, perhaps a minority, might add a fourth, as an annalist, of the school of John Aubrey.) In the first and last of these three he was pre-eminent. He made a vast fortune and he owed no man a penny, making money for others as well as himself. He helped to make and unmake prime ministers, yet never succeeded in winning the trust and confidence of the Conservative Party to which, almost by accident, he belonged. He was a radical by temperament, yet he could never have fitted with any comfort into the ranks of radicals or liberals, and certainly not of socialists: he was a lone fighter, in politics as in everything else.
His influence on popular journalism was great, founded as it was on an inborn sense of news values and an unfailing gift for knowing what would interest ordinary men and women. Moreover, the mass circulations he achieved were built on sheer efficiency in a difficult art, and he accepted nothing less than the best of its kind; smut was an anathema to him. His papers sparkled with controversy, and it was his particular genius that made them appeal to all classes of reader, whether or not they agreed with his point of view. The man who read The Times was likely to read the Daily Express as well. Beaverbrook's tendency at times to indulge in personal vendettas, such as that against Earl Mountbatten whom he blamed for the Canadian losses at Dieppe, or his running feud against the British Council, perhaps contradicted the high standards by which he judged himself and other people. The secrets of his long and at times fantastic career were the brilliance and shrewdness of his intellect, the restless energy which only left him in his last year, and the courage and ruthlessness with which he attacked his every objective. In private life he had friends everywhere who throughout the years remained as devoted to him as he to them. His loves and his hatreds came all alike to him, and once generated they seldom changed. Once dropped, a friend remained unforgiven. Not everybody who came under his patronage was improved by the contact. He had an original and at times hilarious wit, stuffed shirts his instinctive target. The son of a Christian minister, he retained from first to last a vocabulary based on the Bible and a strong religious faith, unorthodox, sporadic, but real, to which his little book The Divine Propagandist (1962) bears witness. For his father and mother, for whom from 1902 until their deaths he ensured every comfort, he had a deep love and respect. He himself believed, towards the end of his life, that he had failed in the things he had sought most; if so, it was perhaps because of an impish streak which he enjoyed, and also because, despite his half-century of life in England, he remained at heart a Canadian. Although he loved and admired the British people, he never fully understood their mental processes or the traditions in which their lives were rooted, and in 1956 he wrote: ‘My last home will be where my heart has always been.’
His first wife, who bore him two sons and a daughter, died at Cherkley in 1927. Beaverbrook had often been a neglectful husband. For twenty years, until she died in 1945, Mrs Jean Norton was his most intimate woman friend. In 1963 he married Marcia Anastasia, daughter of John Christopher and widow of his friend Sir James Dunn, first baronet. Beaverbrook's elder son, John William Max (born 1910) succeeded to the baronetcy created in 1916 but disclaimed the barony, maintaining that ‘there will be only one Lord Beaverbrook’.
There is a portrait by Sickert and another (1950) by Graham Sutherland which Beaverbrook bequeathed to his widow. There are also two busts: one by Oscar Nemon on the plinth in the town square, Newcastle, New Brunswick, above Beaverbrook's ashes; the other by Epstein.
Sources: A. J. P. Taylor, Beaverbrook, 1972; Beaverbrook's own writings; private information; personal knowledge.
Contributor: John Elliot