Clare Middlemiss and David O. McKay

In a church hierarchy made up of humans, it is possible for people who we don’t usually think about to have power and influence in ways that aren’t immediately obvious.  During the David O. McKay administration, his personal secretary (Clare Middlemiss) was one such person who has not commonly been discussed, but who had an impact on the Church.  President McKay’s biographer, Gregory Prince, recently discussed Clare Middlemiss in an interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk.  What follows here is a co-post to that interview (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion.

David O. McKay originally took on Middlemiss as his personal sectary in 1935, but his choice to retain her in that role when he became president of the church in 1951 was unusual.  As Greg Prince explained:

It was unprecedented [to have Middlemiss stay on as his secretary]. Joseph Anderson had been the personal secretary to George Albert Smith and, I think, Heber J. Grant, and he assumed he would have the same role when David O. McKay became president.

But, immediately upon moving into the president’s office, McKay announced that Clare would continue to be his secretary, she having filled that role for 16 years by that time. (Joseph Anderson was the secretary to the First Presidency, and as such, he sat in on First Presidency meetings and took minutes of those meetings. Clare never attended those meetings.)

It was the only time in the history of the church that the secretary to a sitting president was a woman, and it did not happen again until 2008, when Thomas Monson retained Lynne Cannegieter as his personal secretary.

To date, Middlemiss and Cannegieter were the only two women to fill that role.

Both as someone who was not already serving as secretary for the president of the church and as a woman, Clare was not the expected choice for President McKay’s secretary.

As mentioned in my introduction, Clare Middlemiss had power and influence that has often been overlooked.  Dr. Prince discussed some of how she used that power and influence:

As President McKay aged, she became the gatekeeper. Access is power, and she wielded that power to the extent that some of his counselors in the First Presidency, particularly Hugh Brown, couldn’t get in to see the president.

That was too much power, and although her intent was to protect McKay, the extremes to which she went did not always serve the interests of the church. She was terminated from church service (retired) within days of McKay’s death.

But her power was not just passive—that is, limiting the power of others by blocking their access to the president. On two occasions, according to reports by those who worked in the office at the time, she was a significant player in major changes in the church hierarchy—in the words of Elder Marion D. Hanks when I interviewed him, “She was a strong hand when the president needed one.”

She was able to exercise a fair amount of control over who met with President McKay.  For example, Hugh B. Brown (with whom she crossed swords frequently over opposite political leanings) was often blocked.  She was also able to give her own input to decisions that President David McKay was making.

In addition to influence during her own lifetime, her efforts to document President McKay’s life made it possible to better understand his life and ministry later on.  Greg Prince described how she impacted his own work in writing the biography David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism:

The biography would not have been possible without her. She worked for 35 years to compile an unprecedented record of a Latter-day Saint president, with much of the work being done at home during evenings and weekends. The record includes some 40,000 pages of typescript diary that she compiled, and over 200 volumes of scrapbooks.

It was her desire to be President McKay’s biographer, but she did not have time to write a biography when he was alive, and after his death her own health deteriorated quickly. She never even outlined a biography.

Shortly before her death, she told her favorite nephew, Bob Wright, that she was leaving her papers to him. The unwritten hope was that he would write a biography.

Several years after Clare’s death, Bob was called to be president of the Washington, DC Mission. While on his mission, he lived in our ward, and that is where we met. I was working on Power from on High, and when I shared draft chapters with him, he asked if I would assist him in writing President David O. McKay’s biography.

We began work on the biography in 1995 (it was published in 2005), but only two or three years into the project, Bob was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. After that, I did all of the interviewing and writing. However, he read and approved the entire manuscript before it went to press. His role—he was co-author of the biography—was as crucial as Clare’s.

Although Clare’s records were indispensable in writing the biography, we went well beyond them by conducting about 200 interviews of people who knew McKay, and examining archival material primarily at the Church History Library archives and the University of Utah Marriott Library.

So, while not the only source that was used to create the biography, Middlemiss’s records were extremely important as a source of information.

For more on Clare Middlemiss and her interactions with David O. McKay, head on over to From the Desk to read the full interview with Gregory Prince.

4 comments for “Clare Middlemiss and David O. McKay

  1. A woman named “Middlemiss” who serves as a gatekeeping secretary? That’s worthy of Dickens. Whoever’s thinking up the names for this narrative is really straining our credibility with this one.

  2. I’m somewhat surprised and confused by the comment Jonathan. Are you suggesting that Greg Prince made the whole thing up?

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