20th Century Latter-day Saint History

Who Was Clare Middlemiss?

Clare was the personal secretary to David O. McKay from 1935 until his death in 1970.

Clare Middlemiss was one of only two women to serve as secretary to a president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She sometimes went to extremes in her role as a gatekeeper to President O. McKay, but also had an active influence on the First Presidency—and Church bureaucracy as we know it today. In this interview, Greg Prince explains how Clare Middlemiss left her mark.

Read Greg Prince’s biography about David O. McKay using the papers of Clare Middlemiss.

Table of contents

Who was Clare Middlemiss?

Clare was the personal secretary to David O. McKay from 1935 until his death in 1970. For 19 of those years, he was church president. She served mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints prior to becoming his secretary, I think in Colorado.

Her job was her life. She worked at home evenings and weekends to compile the record of his administration, and she did not take a vacation the entire time she was McKay’s secretary.

Access is power, and she wielded that power.

Why did she never marry?

In those years, any secretary who got married was fired. Although I don’t know the specific date when the policy changed, it was after the death of President McKay. The policy spoke loudly to the secondary status of women in the church.

How did she meet David O. McKay and become his secretary?

A good question, but I don’t know the answer. I assume she was part of a secretarial pool, rather than a direct hire from outside the church bureaucracy.

How unusual was it for President McKay to ask her to stay on after he became the president of the Church?

It was unprecedented. 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.

Why did President McKay think so highly of Clare Middlemiss?

By all accounts, including the one surviving secretary from McKay’s office, she was a superb secretary—loyal, protective (to a fault in McKay’s later years), excellent at shorthand and typing, hardworking and very well organized.

Did other brethren share his opinion of her?

Some did, including Alvin Dyer (who was her cousin), Thorpe Isaacson, Ezra Taft Benson, Marion D. Hanks, Paul Dunn. Outside the hierarchy, Ernest Wilkinson, the president of BYU, was one of her favorites.

Others, particularly Hugh B. Brown, frequently crossed swords with her. Her friendship with Benson and her animosity towards Brown related to her own political leanings, as she was a fervent supporter of the John Birch Society, while not an active member.

Why does Greg Prince say that Clare Middlemiss may have been the most powerful woman in the church?

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.”

Did President McKay ever comment that he would have made her an apostle if she weren’t a woman?

I’ve never seen or heard anything to that effect. I occasionally heard rumors that she was sealed to McKay. I asked her nephew, Bob Wright (see below) about that, and he said there was absolutely no truth to those rumors.

How did Clare Middlemiss impact Greg Prince’s ability to write 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.

Greg Prince talks about his experience writing a biography of President David O. McKay published by University of Utah Press.

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.

Are there any legal or ethical concerns surrounding her photocopies of typescript notes?

No. Each volume of the diaries contains a cover page that includes the phrase, “Prepared by Clare Middlemiss, Secretary.” It was made clear in several places within the diaries that she did the work on her own time and was never compensated for it.

Also, there were several entries quoting President McKay as saying that the diaries were to go to his children, and that the minutes of First Presidency meetings were to be the official, church-owned record of his administration. That wish was not carried out by his successors. In fact, his oldest son, Lawrence, was denied access to the diaries when he was writing a tribute to his father.

Clare kept a copy of the diaries but not of the scrapbooks. I was given full and unrestricted access to the scrapbooks by the director of the Latter-day Saint archives. My interactions with the people in the archives were totally positive. They understood the importance of the biography, and they bent over backwards to assist me.

How did her collection end up in the Marriott Library at the University of Utah?

When we completed the biography, Bob Wright, who owned Clare’s records, asked where I thought they should go. I replied that it was his call, but that I hoped he would place them in an archive that would give free access to scholars.

He had strong ties to the University of Utah, having been an alumnus and a trustee of the university, and so it was a natural thing for him to look in that direction. It was a good move, for the university personnel have done an outstanding job of curating the papers and making them available to scholars without restriction. I believe they consider it to be one of their most important manuscript collections.

What new insights might become available if someone were to write a Clare Middlemiss biography?

I knew very little of her personal life, aside from what Bob Wright would occasionally tell me. Given her prominence within the too-small circle of influential Latter-day Saint women, any insights into her life would be at least interesting, and probably quite enlightening with respect to the inner workings of the hierarchy.

I don’t know how one might be able to compile enough source material for a full biography, but I would love to see someone try.

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About Greg Prince

Gregory A. Prince is president of Soft Cell Biological Research and a Latter-day Saint historian. He is the author of several books, including Power from On High: The Development of Mormon Priesthood, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism, and Leonard Arrington and the Writing of Mormon History.

Further reading

Clare Middlemiss and David O. McKay resources

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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