King, Cecil Harmsworth (1901–87), publisher, was born 20 February 1901 at Poynter's Hall, Totteridge, Hertfordshire, England (home of his grandmother, Geraldine Harmsworth (qv)), second son and fifth child among seven children of Lucas White King (qv) of the Indian civil service and later a professor at TCD, and his wife Geraldine Adelaide, daughter of Alfred Harmsworth, barrister, and Geraldine Harmsworth (née Maffett), whose ten siblings included the future Viscounts Northcliffe (qv) and Rothermere.
King was taken first to India, then back to Totteridge, and from the winter of 1905 lived in Dublin – in Roebuck Hall, Clonskeagh, a large, well staffed Georgian house which displayed the many Indian carpets and Oriental artefacts collected by his father that helped form the son's artistic taste and passion for collecting beautiful things. A solitary child (for three siblings were much older, Enid spent her holidays with Granny Harmsworth, and the two younger were twins), the introvert Cecil made few friends; an exception was Enid Starkie (qv), one of the few catholics in the family social circle, who remained a friend for life. When Uncle Leicester presented the family with a Darracq, Cecil used to accompany the chauffeur, Turley, on expeditions around the slums hunting for tools and spare parts. Educated first by a governess, King was sent to a Surrey prep school in 1911, but his homesickness was so acute that he was removed and sent as a day boy to Strangways in St Stephen's Green, Dublin. From a family of readers, by the time he was 13 and was sent to Winchester he had read all Dickens, Thackeray, Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Walter Scott, as well as translations of the classics and any scientific books he could find.
King's angry reminiscences of what he claimed to have been a miserable childhood, devoid of love, was in stark contrast to the evidence of contemporaries or family correspondence. He would never admit what was likely: that his adolescence was blighted and his character soured by tragedy and survivor guilt. His elder brother, Luke, was killed at Ypres in 1915, and his younger brother Alfred (known as ‘Bob’) on 10 October 1918, drowned when the Leinster, the Kingstown–Holyhead mail boat, was torpedoed by a German submarine. Bob, who was also at Winchester, had been booked to travel on 9 October, with Cecil taking the Leinster; at Cecil's request, they had swapped bookings. His favourite sister, Sheila, would die in childbirth in 1921.
Pace his later belief that being reserved, shy, bookish, uninterested in games (other than tennis), and scornful of school traditions he had a horrible, friendless time at a school he loathed, King did reasonably well at Winchester. His aloofness protected him from the advances a tall young man of his striking good looks might have expected; an innocent, he was baffled by being given the nickname ‘Chaste Minerva’. He was preoccupied by the war and followed its twists and turns obsessively, not least because his Uncle Alfred, Lord Northcliffe, whom he liked and admired more than anyone else in his life, was centre stage as a ferocious critic of the military and political establishment and was courted and dreaded by British governments more than any press baron before or since; many gave him the credit for deposing the prime minister, Asquith in December 1916. King's only exposure to action was at Easter 1916, when he stood on the roof of Mount Anville convent and watched naval shells exploding in O'Connell St.; later he and his father drove around the city inspecting the damage. These experiences would make him prone to deep forebodings about the possibility of civil unrest in England.
In 1919 King went up to Christ Church, Oxford, to read history (with currency, finance, and banking as his special subjects), where his small circle of friends left him plenty of time for the voracious reading that would continue throughout his life; long vacations were spent working in Northcliffe's Daily Mail and The Times. King had already developed the thesis that would dominate his attitude to the past, present, and future and make him such a bleak political analyst. His grandson Laurence King said of him astutely that King ‘tended to see [human] progress in terms of the imposition of new ideas (or a new order) by a great man on an otherwise chaotic situation. It was a very Hobbesian vision, fuelled by his experience of Northcliffe. He saw the natural condition of man as brutal anarchy, on which order and progress had to be imposed’ (Edwards, 38).
He came down from Oxford with a second in modern history; a fiancée, Agnes Margaret (‘Margot’), daughter of Canon Cooke, regius professor of Hebrew and dean of Christ Church, and of his wife Frances Helen (née Anderson); and the ambition to follow in his Uncle Alfred's footsteps, which was dealt a devastating blow by Northcliffe's death that August and the dispersal of his estate, with the Mail going to Rothermere and The Times to John Astor. King's later assertion that he had been Northcliffe's favourite nephew (there were eighteen other contenders) was dismissed by cousins, but certainly Northcliffe had taken an interest in the boy who looked so like him and was precociously concerned with great intellectual, political, and military issues; King's belief that he had been willed the family heirlooms proved unfounded: like all his male cousins, he inherited just £500. To his eternal resentment, the designated heir to what remained of the Harmsworth newspaper empire was Rothermere's surviving son, Esmond.
King's parents had moved to Scotland, and Rothermere (who hardly knew this nephew) arranged for him to work at the Glasgow Record and Sunday Mail. Shy and socially awkward and a dull writer, King was no reporter, but he spent time in all departments and in 1923 joined the London staff of the Daily Mail, first among the accountants and then in the advertisement department. In 1925 Rothermere made him a director of the Empire Paper Mills in Kent and the following year transferred him to the Daily Mirror (which Northcliffe had founded in 1903), of which – along with its sister paper, the Sunday Pictorial – he became advertisement director with a seat on the board in 1929, and began serious plotting.
By 1931 King and Margot, who had married on 23 June 1923, had four children (Michael, Francis, Priscilla, and Colin), but although King enjoyed family life in Berkshire and shooting on the Scottish estate his mother had given him, at work he was desperate for influence and power, ‘tasting the sour fruits of nepotism, biding his time, and trying on dying men's shoes’ (Cudlipp, 54). Yet he had a clear strategic vision of how the failing conservative Mirror and Pictorial could be saved, and through patience, cunning, and ruthlessness he succeeded during the 1930s in getting rid of the human obstacles to radicalising and revolutionising them. He enabled Guy Bartholomew to turn the Mirror into a lively Labour-supporting tabloid, and in 1937, now editorial director of the Pictorial, King presciently staked his future on the appointment as editor of the 24-year-old Hugh Cudlipp, who transformed the paper within a few months. Although Cudlipp was in the army for much of the war, King was turned down for military service because of his severe psoriasis (a torment throughout his adult life) and gradually increased his influence at work; he incurred Churchill's fury for some of the critical coverage of the war effort. Deeply pessimistic – and at times rather attracted by the brutal efficiency of fascism – King believed Germany would win the war, and wrote off Churchill as a has-been.
The King–Cudlipp partnership began again in 1951 after King engineered a brutal boardroom coup that secured him the chairmanship of the Mirror group. Cudlipp was a journalistic genius who knew nothing and could get on with anyone. King had extraordinary foresight and nerve; understood business, money, politics, and history; was, like his uncle, an inveterate traveller with a tremendous grasp of other cultures, but could get on with almost no one. Together this great partnership would make the Mirror the most successful newspaper in the world and build an enormous global publishing empire, the International Printing Corporation (IPC) – formed in 1963 from the Mirror group, the Amalgamated Press (once Northcliffe's), the largest periodical publishing house in the world (acquired in 1958), and Odhams, another huge magazine group, acquired in 1961. King's desire to emulate his uncle led him to expand more than would ultimately prove prudent. As the group expanded, so did King's ego, fed by Ruth Railton, the founder and musical director of the National Youth Orchestra, whom he had met in 1955 at a time when he was desperately lonely. His marriage had disintegrated mainly because the loving and intelligent Margot broke down under the weight of his candour about his sexual infidelity, his irreconcilable demands for honesty and adulation, and the sheer force of his personality. Ruth was brilliant and ruthless as an impresario and adored King, but – behind a façade of sensitivity, kindness and spirituality – was a manipulative and malevolent fantasist whose jealousy caused her systematically to seek (with considerable success) to damage King's relationships with his children and grandchildren and with the niece and two orphaned nephews he had adopted in 1950. King and Ruth Railton lived together from 1956 and married in 1962 after the broken-hearted Margot had given him a divorce; by this time King was coming to believe Ruth's assessment of him as the Messiah who had to save first Britain and then the world.
King believed with some justice that Labour had won the 1964 election because – as editorial director of the Mirror group – Cudlipp had brilliantly applied King's strategic thinking. In the mid 1960s, with access to the most powerful people at home and abroad, both King and Cudlipp were among the most influential people in Britain. Seeing himself – like Northcliffe before him – as the government's best friend and severest critic, King mercilessly harried the prime minister, Harold Wilson, and treated his efforts at appeasement contemptuously. Though he accepted a directorship of the Bank of England, he scornfully turned down the offer of a ministry of state and a peerage; he would accept nothing less than a hereditary earldom, which Wilson could not deliver politically. True to Harmsworth tradition, King requested (and received) a damehood for his wife.
By 1968 his close colleagues believed him to be megalomaniacal; he was neglecting his business responsibilities because of his obsession with overthrowing Wilson and replacing him by a government of businessmen headed by Earl Mountbatten (who rejected the idea). On 10 May 1968 Cudlipp could no longer prevent King from striking: the Mirror front page ran ‘ENOUGH IS ENOUGH’, with a signed article by King damning the government and predicting a financial crisis, which ‘is not to be removed by lies about our reserves’, which exacerbated the fall in sterling and equities; the news that King had resigned from the Bank of England the previous evening only made things worse. On 29 May Cudlipp and the board reluctantly fired the chairman. ‘King's downfall illustrated the elementary truth that, if you want to play Northcliffe,‘ wrote Paul Johnson, ‘you must own the equity’ (Edwards, 424).
In 1969 King's flatly written but frank memoirs caused a sensation; while earning praise for his revelations about his tortured soul, they alienated most of his family by their reckless denigration of almost every relative he ever had, and his viciousness and malice towards many, including his parents (father ‘completely null’ and mother ‘loveless, capricious and occasionally cruel’); Margot escaped, for to placate Ruth he did not mention her at all. In The Cecil King diaries, 1965–1970 (1972) King took his customary indiscretion to such lengths – in disclosing what people had said privately over the IPC dining-table – as to lose him almost every friend and political acquaintance.
Yet King still wanted to make a public mark, and the eruption of violence in Northern Ireland that had begun in 1969 he saw as an opportunity: where Northcliffe had failed to solve the Irish question, King believed he would succeed. The Hobbesian vision allowed no room for the middle ground: King believed Ian Paisley (qv) and the IRA had to reach an agreement. Paisley was a new and uncertain MP, and, like the IRA, was parochial, so both sides erroneously believed they were dealing with seriously influential people. Paisley found the Kings welcoming, and confided in King about his intellectual confusion: was the answer to keep the status quo, to have a federal Ireland, or for him to be prime minister of an independent Northern Ireland? Joe Cahill (qv) (1920–2004) and Daithi Ó Conaill (qv) of the IRA thought Ruth – who was a political illiterate – charming and intelligent and very close to the prime minister, Edward Heath (whom she knew through music). Paisley hoped the Kings would persuade Heath to ditch moderate unionism; the IRA (in 1972 Ruth was speaking of ‘my Provisionals’) thought Ruth could persuade him to get Britain out of Ireland.
King had a tremendous knowledge of Irish history – his slim On Ireland (1973) showed an acute grasp of the harm caused by the British tradition of following ‘half-hearted coercion’ by ‘half-hearted conciliation’ – but he understood little of contemporary Ireland, and his penchant for authoritarianism made him incapable of understanding the inhibitions of the body politic that he had spent his life studying. So no one of influence was interested in his views on that or much else. It was Ruth who decided they should move to Ireland; she believed they would be appreciated there and could more easily continue their work with Paisley and the IRA. (It would have the side benefit of further isolating him from children and grandchildren). She had persuaded King that he had been rejected by the English because of his Irishness and that his place was with his own kind – sensitive, spiritual, and mystical people who would share his (rarely understood) sense of humour.
They moved to Dublin in 1974, where they were soon disappointed. ‘The trouble with the Irish is that they have little sense of time and no idea of organisation’, observed King (Edwards, 411), and, while he found the Irish talked well, his loathing of pubs and his habit of going to bed at 9.30 p.m. made socialising almost impossible. His happiest relationship was probably with a nun at the Donnybrook Magdalene laundry, with whom he chatted frequently on his daily visit to the shops. Ruth, who was a thundering snob, attributed their lack of Irish friends to a shortage of ‘our kind of people’ and moved swiftly from extolling the Irish for their spirituality to denouncing ‘their little minds’ (Edwards, 429–30). They gave tea to Paisley and Daithí Ó Conaill occasionally and separately, but nothing came to anything: King denounced the 1985 Anglo–Irish agreement and continued to predict civil war till his death. He gave the occasional talk and wrote the occasional article; she sat on the board of the National Concert Hall and occasionally adjudicated or encouraged musical children. For the most part, they lived in isolation.
King died 17 April 1987, having dealt with a long illness with great dignity and courage, despite Ruth's histrionics at home and in hospital. His funeral service in St Patrick's cathedral was attended by Paisley, Ó Conaill (now defected to Republican Sinn Fein) and the British ambassador; he was buried in the graveyard at Calary church, Co. Wicklow. Ruth had persuaded King to make a late will leaving everything to her; a beneficiary was St Patrick's, to which she donated a magnificent silver-gilt cross that cost £250,000 in commemoration of King. That and their restoration of the derelict graveyard in Donnybrook were their greatest Irish achievements.
King had formidable gifts, he genuinely wanted to be good, and his aspirations were noble: he wished his newspapers to fight poverty, racism, and snobbery. In Britain he and Cudlipp created a popular press that appealed to the highest instincts of their readers. In Africa, where as director (1948–68) of the Nigerian Printing and Publishing Company he had an almost free hand and was relaxed and at ease, he encouraged an independent press, treated local staff with respect, gave them unprecedented responsibility, and was loved and revered. Emotionally insecure and mostly out of sympathy with the human race, he was ultimately destroyed by his desperate ambition to fill the gigantic shoes of his Uncle Alfred. There is a fine portrait by Graham Sutherland in the National Portrait Gallery in London.