Harold Macmillan, the British political leader and one-time Prime Minister, came to Bloomington when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, a post comparable to our Secretary of the Treasury. On that occasion, he made a speech at a convocation, and we conferred upon him an honorary Doctorate of Laws. He was eligible for this award because, although the University custom is to limit its degrees to those of Hoosier background, his mother, Nellie Belles Macmillan, came from Spencer, Indiana. She was widowed at the age of 18 and sometime afterward persuaded her father to send her to Paris to study music—a daring venture for a young American lady to embark on alone in that era. In Paris she met at a party a young man named Maurice Macmillan, an amateur musician. They fell in love and were married, and she lived the rest of her life in England. Three sons were born of that union, one of whom was Harold.
He was extremely fond of his mother, and she was very ambitious for him. It was frequently alleged that she had decided early in his life that he was to become prime minister one day and so had encouraged him to go into politics. Meanwhile she began to take an active interest in her husband’s family business, Macmillan and Company, and remained close to it through most of her life. It was she, according to her son Harold, who influenced the company to go into textbook publishing which was enormously profitable for them, and it was she who made a number of key decisions which greatly increased the prosperity of the company. He was fond of telling a story that goes something like this: After she had retired from regular activity and was living in the country house at Kent, it was the custom of the editorial department to send her manuscripts to read. On one occasion a stack of manuscripts arrived from the office, and in it was a huge manuscript which she happened to turn to first and began reading, becoming completely absorbed in it. After she had been reading for some hours, she decided to find out what the editors had done with the manuscript. But then she realized it was the weekend and there would be nobody at the office. The first thing Monday morning she telephoned the head of the editorial department and asked, “What did you do with the long manuscript?”
“Why,” he said, “we turned it down, of course, Mrs. Macmillan. It is much too long to publish and too limited in its subject matter.”
She then asked, “How did you send the rejection slip? Did you send it by cable or by letter?”
He replied, “We sent it by letter.” In those days, letters traveled by boat and the rejection would not yet have been received.
Relieved, she directed, “We will publish it, and you will cable today to that author to tell her that we accept the manuscript.”
He said, “Yes, Mrs. Macmillan.” He had to comply because she was the majority stockholder of the company. The manuscript which she in her wisdom caused to be published was Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. Harold Macmillan would say that the book was so popular and went into so many different editions and translations that the profit from it made Macmillan and Company financially secure enough for him to devote his time to politics rather than to the publishing business.
A friend of mine had the idea of writing a musical show based upon Mrs. Macmillan’s dramatic life. The elements in her life were perfect for a musical: a young widow going to Paris from the United States to study music, meeting a handsome young Englishman and marrying him, and so on. But to write this show he had to have the permission of the family. He called on Mr. Macmillan and discussed the matter with him, and as my friend reported to me, Mr. Macmillan was silent for a moment, then exclaimed, “Mother? Mother in a musical? Well, why not?” Macmillan was proud of her and relished every aspect of her background.
The story is told also that when Mr. Macmillan was to be married to Lady Dorothy Cavendish who belonged to the top level of British aristocracy—a level that could bid the presence of the royal family—Mrs. Macmillan was determined not to have her guests overshadowed by the Cavendish guests at this fashionable wedding. So a cable went out to all the distinguished Macmillan authors of that era, among them Somerset Maugham, inviting them to the wedding in a manner that was difficult to refuse. Thus in the Macmillan pews at the wedding was the greatest gathering of literary luminaries ever to be assembled, possibly outshining the British aristocracy present.
During Harold Macmillan’s brief visit here he stayed overnight in the Union Building but he made a sentimental journey to Spencer, saw the Belles home, and placed a wreath on his grandfather’s grave before attending service at the Methodist church where his mother had sung in the choir. Afterwards the party refreshed themselves at the Willis Hickam home before going to McCormick’s Creek State Park to share a southern Indiana fried chicken dinner and reminiscences with elderly citizens who had known the Belles family. It was a nostalgic hour. When we started to leave he turned and waved back and one could tell that he was deeply moved. He was proud that he was half American and in this respect he, of course, was like Churchill, an earlier predecessor in the prime minister’s post.
Through the many years after he was here he always sent me a handwritten Christmas greeting and occasionally a letter attesting to the fact that his trip to Bloomington had meant much to him.
He was an imposing-looking man with a fine expressive face and a leonine head. Although he was austere in appearance, he was warm, gentle, and informal in his personal contacts here.
I witnessed an example of his informality in London. Mother and I were at a black tie dinner at the Dorchester Hotel in London given by the British government for the delegates to the 50th anniversary meeting of the Association of the Universities of the British Commonwealth, as the guests of the Association. The British government, no longer having political control of the Commonwealth countries, emphasized the close cultural ties that bound the former Empire together. And so all members of the royal family and the top officers of government spent a great deal of time at the meetings of the Association; they went very far to extend the official hospitality and in other ways to emphasize the importance of the occasion. This dinner, for example, was designed to serve that purpose, and the prime minister was to give the after-dinner speech. When Mr. Macmillan was introduced, he responded graciously and then began rather laboriously to read his manuscript. After a few paragraphs, he raised his head and said, “Two of the learned dons of my university [he was chancellor of Oxford University] have written this speech which is a work of great scholarship: profound and highly appropriate to this occasion. The only trouble is, I can’t read the damn thing. So I’m just going to throw it away and speak,” which he did and spoke very well indeed.
Further evidence of his regard for his Hoosier ties came after his visit with us when he accepted the invitation to receive an honorary degree from DePauw in 1958 and when he spoke again at DePauw in 1968 and revisited Spencer. Mr. Eugene Pulliam, Sr., late publisher of the Indianapolis Star and other papers, had interviewed Mr. Macmillan on one of his around-the-world reporting trips. On Macmillan’s first and last trips to Indiana, ten years apart, Mr. Pulliam gave a luncheon in his honor. I was unable to attend the first one, but I remember well the second one, at the Athletic Club in Indianapolis, at which Macmillan spoke movingly of how he felt at home in Indiana and of how much he valued being a Hoosier.