Edward Montague Compton Mackenzie was born on January 17th, 1883, in West Hartlepool, County Durham, England.
As a Mackenzie the family’s recent roots were in the theatre. Many of them used ‘Compton’ as their stage surname, a practice begun by his grandfather Henry Compton, a well-known Shakespearean actor of the Victorian era.
His father, Edward Compton, and his mother, Virginia Bateman, were actors and theatre company managers of the Compton Comedy Company (his sister was Fay Compton who starred in many of J. M. Barrie's plays, including Peter Pan).
Mackenzie was educated at St Paul's School, London before attending Magdalen College, Oxford, where he graduated with a degree in modern history.
Initially Mackenzie worked as an actor, political activist and broadcaster. He also converted to Roman Catholicism in 1914, this he later explored in his trilogy of novels, The Altar Steps (1922), The Parson's Progress (1923) and The Heavenly Ladder (1924).
As a writer Mackenzie had first published a book of poems in 1907 before rewriting his play The Gentleman in Grey into a first novel in 1911. Now began the start of a very prolific career with both Carnival and Sinister Street, among others, being well received, both artistically and commercially. His writing talents were now there for all to see. However, as Europe became enveloped in the horror of World War I Mackenzie found himself to be a skilled operator in the black arts of intelligence. He served with British Intelligence in the Eastern Mediterranean during the war, later publishing four books on these experiences. According to these books, he was commissioned in the Royal Marines, rising to the rank of captain. However, his ill-health made active service on the front-line impractical and he was therefore assigned counter-espionage work during the failed Gallipoli campaign.
By 1916 he had built up a considerable counter-intelligence network in Athens. Greece at that point was neutral territory and a hive of activity for all the warring parties.
While his secret service work seems to have been valued highly by his superiors, including MI6 head, Sir Mansfield Smith-Cumming, his passionate political views, especially his support for the Venizelists made him a somewhat controversial figure and he was expelled from Athens following the Noemvriana in November 1916 when the Allies and the King found themselves on opposing sides. (The Venizelists were a major political group active in Greece from the 1900s to the 1970s. Named after Eleftherios Venizelos, the staunchly pro-Allies Greek Prime Minster from 1910-1916, the three key characteristics were:
One - Opposition to Monarchy. Despite Venizelos' moderation concerning the monarchy, the conflict between venizelists and pro-monarchist conservatives defined Greek politics during most of the 20th century.
Two - Alliance with western democratic countries, especially the UK and France against Germany in the World Wars and the US against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The struggle against King Constantine I to enter World War I on the Triple Entente side was Venizelos' most dramatic (and later, most celebrated) action.
Three - Support of the Megali Idea, Greek nationalism and the pursuit of incorporation of all Greek-majority lands into Greece. It was the annexation of Crete into Greece that propelled Venizelos (a Cretan himself) into Greek politics).
In 1917, Mackenzie founded the Aegean Intelligence Service, and enjoyed considerable autonomy for some months as its director. He was offered the Presidency of the Republic of Cerigo, which was briefly independent while Greece was split between Royalists and Venizelists, but declined the office.
Mackenzie was recalled in September 1917. Smith-Cumming considered appointing him as his deputy, but withdrew the suggestion after opposition from within his own service, and Mackenzie played no further active role in the war.
In 1919, he was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE), and was also honoured with the French Legion of Honour, the Serbian Order of the White Eagle, and the Greek Order of the Redeemer.
Although he shuttled between Greece and London his home since 1913 had primarily been in Capri. Here with his first wife, Faith, they lived at Villa Solitaria. This Italian island near Sorrento was known to be tolerant not just of foreigners in general, but of artists and homosexuals in particular (Mackennzie wrote and treated the homosexuality of a politician sensitively in his novel Thin Ice, published in 1956).
Mackenzie's observations on the local life and culture of the Italian islanders and foreign residents initially led to at least two novels; Vestal Fire (1927) and Extraordinary Women (1928). The latter, a roman à clef about a group of lesbians arriving on the island of Sirene, a fictional version of Capri, was coincidentally published in Britain at the same time as two other ground-breaking lesbian themed novels; Virginia Woolf's love letter to Vita Sackville-West, Orlando, and Radclyffe Hall's even more controversial The Well of Loneliness.
In 1923 he and his brother-in-law Christopher Stone founded The Gramophone, an influential classical music magazine.
Although born in England Mackenzie was forever foraging for his cultural roots. He considered himself Scottish and in 1928 he was one of the co-founders of the Scottish National Party along with Hugh MacDiarmid, RB Cunninghame Graham and John MacCormick.
Certainly a man of many talents he continued to add to them. From 1931 to 1935 he was the literary critic for the London-based Daily Mail newspaper.
Writers are perhaps at their best when their own experiences are seared into their work. Mackenzie decided with the publication of his Greek Memories in 1932 to use his war-time intelligence experiences in his writing. The Government decided he had gone too far and revealed too much. Mackenzie was prosecuted at the Old Bailey under the Official Secrets Act for using materials which the government considered secret.
His account of the trial was vividly described, in Octave Seven (1931–38) of his autobiography: the result was a fine of £100 and prosecution costs of £100. His own costs were over £1,000. It could have been much worse and indeed Mackenzie states that an arrangement had been reached between himself, the judge and the security services, prior to the trial: in exchange for his pleading guilty, he would be fined £500 with £500 costs. However, Sir Thomas Inskip, then attorney general who prosecuted the case, succeeded in annoying the trial judge to such an extent that the penalties were reduced to a far smaller amount.
The actual charge Mackenzie was accused of were for the time, serious and revealing as to how the services went about their work; identifying wartime intelligence officers and exposing that passport control and visa sections of UK embassies were often a cover for the secret service. He also disclosed the existence of a department of the Secret Intelligence Service‚ now known as MI6 but then known as section "M.I.i.c" of the War Office.
Worst of all, Mackenzie revealed that the first head of MI6, the one-legged Captain Sir Mansfield Cumming, was referred to as C. It is a tradition still maintained today. They sign their telegrams and materials‚ sent to the Queen as well as the foreign secretary, with C in green ink. It was only in the mid 1990’s that the original offending book, which had been withdrawn by its publisher Cassells, after heavy government pressure, and replaced by a censored version could be read in its uncensored entirety.
Mackenzie was a strong supporter of Edward VIII, and a leading member of the Octavians, a small society that campaigned in support of Edward VIII and for his return to the UK after becoming the Duke of Windsor. In 1938 an article in Time stated Mackenzie had wished to write a book in support of Edward but abandoned it when the Duke himself asked him not to publish.
Throughout his long career, although detoured by many other pursuits and ambitions, his central theme was to write. It was something he did very well and through it he could communicate across a range of interests to a very large audience. In this highly prolific career, he was to publish almost a hundred books on different subjects, including ten volumes of autobiography: My Life and Times (written between 1963–71). Other genres that he successfully wrote about were history (including titles on the Battle of Marathon and the Battle of Salamis), biography (Mr Roosevelt, a 1943 biography of FDR), literary criticism, satires, apologia (Sublime Tobacco 1957), children's stories and poetry.
Of his fiction, The Four Winds of Love is sometimes considered his magnum opus. However, he is perhaps more famous for two novels set in Scotland; The Monarch of the Glen, written in 1941, and set in the Scottish Highlands, and Whiskey Galore, written in 1947 and set in the Hebrides. The first was turned into a successful TV series and, of course, the latter was a wildly successful Ealing comedy. In the film Mackenzie played a cameo role as Captain of the SS Cabinet Minister.
The novel was based on real-life events involving the wrecking of the SS Politician off the Hebridean island of Eriskay, near Barra, in 1941. Many islanders were involved in a ‘salvage’ operation to liberate some of the 24,000 cases of Scotch on board the vessel.
The success of Whiskey Galore turned him in the public’s mind at least into a whiskey guru. He took part in a series of popular print ads for Grant’s Stand Fast blended Scotch whisky. These took the form of scripted dialogues between Mackenzie and other literary figures, as they mused on aspects of the heritage and lore of Scotch whisky and the specific merits of Grant’s Stand Fast.
As an author he was admired by F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose first book, This Side of Paradise, was written under the literary influence of Compton. Sinister Street, his lengthy 1913–14 bildungsroman, influenced such young men as George Orwell and Cyril Connolly. Max Beerbohm praised Mackenzie's writing for vividness and emotional reality. Frank Swinnerton, a literary critic, comments on Mackenzie's "detail and wealth of reference". John Betjeman said of it, "This has always seemed to me one of the best novels of the best period in English novel writing." Henry James thought it to be the most remarkable book written by a young author in his lifetime.
As we have previously mentioned his other interests were wide ranging. His work was further recognised by the State with an addition to his OBE; he could now add, in 1952, a knighthood.
He was president of the Croquet Association from 1953-66 as well as being president of the Siamese Cat Club. In 1956 Mackenzie was the subject of This Is Your Life when he was surprised by Eamonn Andrews at the King's Theatre, Hammersmith, London.
And although he was by now a national treasure he himself went to great lengths to trace and learn the steps of his ancestors back to his spiritual home in the Highlands. He was deeply attached to Gaelic culture throughout his long and very colourful life. As his biographer, Andro Linklater, commented, "Mackenzie wasn't born a Scot, and he didn't sound like a Scot, nevertheless his imagination was truly Scottish."
Mackenzie was a fervent Jacobite, the third Governor-General of the Royal Stuart Society, and a co-founder of the Scottish National Party. He was rector of University of Glasgow from 1931–34, defeating Oswald Mosley, who later led the British Union of Fascists, in his bid for the job.
From 1920-23, Mackenzie was the Tenant of Herm and Jethou. He built a house on Barra in the 1930s. On Barra he gained inspiration and found creative solitude, and befriended a great number of people that he described as "the aristocrats of democracy".
In his personal life Mackenzie was married three times. In 1905, he married Faith Stone, who died in 1960. In 1962, he married Christina MacSween, who died the following year. His last marriage was to his dead wife's sister, Lillian MacSween in 1965.
Mackenzie was however a fervent supporter of England’s West Bromwich Albion Football Club. Although from the north east of England, he "was influenced in the choice of Albion as 'my' team by the fact that their ground was romantically called The Hawthorns and that they were nicknamed the Throstles".
Upon retiring Mackenzie sold the copyright in 20 of his books for a lump sum of £10,000 arguing that this was a capital receipt and not the proceeds of the business ie royalties. This was a common practice by best-selling authors at the time to avoid the crushing rates of income tax. (Others who engaged in this were Ian Fleming, Georgette Heyer, Dennis Wheatley and Agatha Christie). The Court of Appeal held, in 1952, that this was assessable income as part of the proceeds of his business.
Sir Edward Montague Compton Mackenzie, OBE, died on November 30th, 1972, aged 89, in Edinburgh and was interred at Eolaigearraidh, Barra.