King Poseur

Part 4 of 4

“Practically all women ought to be chloroformed at 35.”
-Aleister Crowley [diary entry, January 3, 1931]


The life of religious seeker Aleister Crowley until his divorce in 1909 was one of relative ease.  Born into money and inheriting a huge windfall upon his father’s death, Crowley ably spent his time travelling the globe after dropping out of Cambridge just shy of obtaining a degree.

His leisure was spent mountaineering, writing poetry, and in sexual promiscuity with men and women.  He was a serious student of the Occult rites (mystic ceremonies from ancient Egyptian times).  He embraced ceremonial “magick” in both its lighter and darker forms.  Crowley’s spiritual guide in his quests was revealed to him with the assistance of his wife, Rose, in 1904.  During a drug-induced vision, Crowley invoked the Egyptian god Thoth (attributed in myth with the invention of writing).  Later, Rose told him it was Horus and a messenger who were eagerly awaiting Crowley’sAleister Crowley (frontispiece)(81176)Credit: public domain divinations. The messenger’s name was Aiwass, and he became Aleister Crowley’s guiding light.

After his divorce, Crowley formed an Occult group, practicing magick of his devising called Thelema. One of his acolytes was a woman named Leila Waddell (known by the group as “Laylah”).  She became Crowley’s first “Scarlet Woman”, a muse and physical embodiment of female sexual energy he called Babalon.  Laylah accepted Crowley’s deviance, even allowing him to brand her between her breasts with a symbol he called “The Mark of the Beast”.

When World War I broke out, Crowley fled England for the safety of the United States.  There he traveled and was a celebrity among the literati and the bohemian contingents. He had many affairs with women there, among them an actress and a poet, both of whom were married (one got pregnant but miscarried).  He lived in Greenwich Village receiving guests, one of whom was a sister pair, Leah and Alma Hirsig, in 1918.  He moved to an island in the Hudson River for meditation and solitude, and in 1919 was re-acquainted with Leah Hirsig.  Their relationship solidified into one of sex and magick, and the married Leah was pregnant with Crowley’s child in May 1919. 

Baby Beast
Crowley’s need for a Thelema homeland of sorts led him to leave the United States in late 1919.

In Fontainebleau, France, on January 26, 1920, while travelling, Leah Hirsig gave birth to Crowley’s third child (and third daughter).  The first girl (born of Rose Crowley in 1904, named Lilith) died of typhoid in Burma (Myanmar) in 1906.  His second daughter with Rose was named Lola Zaza (born June 1906); Crowley named her “Lola” for an actress with whom he had an affair before her birth.  Leah’s production was named the rather pedestrian Anne Leah.  Crowley, though disappointed in yet another girl, took to the baby, and gave her the affectionate nickname “Poupée” (“puppet” in French). Leah’s two-year-old son from her American marriage was with them.

Sicliy (Italy, location map)Credit: American People's Encyclopedia map, 1963

Crowley, Leah, and the children ventured to Sicily.  About 40 miles ESE of the Sicilian port city of Palermo was a town on the Tyrrhenian Sea, Cefalù.  They arrived in the little town on April 1, 1920.  Here they found an old villa called Santa Barbara.  Crowley signed a lease for the property on April 14, 1920, and dubbed it loftily the Abbey of Thelema. 

Crowley’s followers flocked to the Abbey, and the tales spread of the goings-on there were local gossip.  Rumors of perverse orgies, bestiality, and animal sacrifices were whispered in the village.  One of Crowley’s followers, a man named Raoul Loveday, died after consuming contaminated local water (the rumor mill claimed he had died after drinking a sacrificial cat’s blood).  This man’s widow later wrote an exposé of her time at the Abbey, claiming Crowley had compelled Leah, as his ceremonial muse and Scarlet Woman, to have sex with a male goat.  [Although this would not be out of character, considering the bitterness of this woman toward Crowley the allegation is not credible.]. 

Crowley leaned heavily on Leah for moral and spiritual support in his enterprise.  His first contacts with her in New York City had led him quickly, for 'Alostrael' ('Ape of Thoth')Credit: Aleister Crowley, ca 1920whatever reasons, to become smitten with her.  Her importance in the Abbey was recognized by all, yet Crowley still felt she was of an alien nature (as were all women in his mind).  In addition to her more poetic cult name “Alostrael”, he also called her “The Ape of Thoth”.  [In one of the first portraits he drew of her, he rendered her with heavily simian features. His interest in the bizarre and the grotesque was best illustrated by an advert he took out seeking art models: “WANTED—Dwarfs, hunchbacks, Tattooed Women, Fisher Girls, Freaks of all Sorts, Coloured Women, only if exceptionally ugly or deformed, to pose for artist. Apply by letter with a photograph.”].

Crowley’s obsession over Leah sexually was clear. It is perhaps Crowley’s physical satiety with her that kept him enamored.  He claimed she was an ideal magickal partner. However, his reference to a part of her anatomy as “the Hirsig patent vacuum-pump” tends to negate such lofty claims.  He liked sex with her, and he found her vagina exquisite.

He wrote a poem called “Leah Sublime” for her.  There is nothing “sublime” about this work – it is purely prurient.  It is riddled with pornographic and scatological imagery.  It rejoices in references to sexual diseases.  There are juvenile and gleeful lines about oral sex and coprophagy, and exultations of flatulence.  In short, it is not art, it is pure smut. It is the sort of thing one might expect from a teenage boy looking to shock his elders, and the text is beneath Crowley’s abilities as a writer.  The poem runs to about 650 words, and the tamest lines in this ode are the opening ones:

Leah Sublime,
Goddess above me!
Snake of the slime
Alostrael, love me!
Our master, the devil
Prospers the revel.
Tread with your foot
My heart till it hurt!
Tread on it, put
The smear of your dirt
On my love, on my shame
Scribble your name!

Scarlet Woman Gone
Anne Leah (the baby) died in a Palermo Hospital on October 15, 1920.  Less than a week after little Anne’s death, Leah (pregnant with another of Crowley’s offspring) miscarried.  On November 26, 1920, another of Crowley’s followers, Ninette Shumway, gave birth to a child of his, a girl they named Astarte Lulu Panthea (she died in 1928).  Leah’s peak of power and caring about Crowley came and went in 1921. She remained faithful to the tenets of Thelema and still participated in the sexual rites as The Scarlet Woman, though.

A new political force in Italy, however, was not terribly happy with the foreign cult on its soil.  Reports of the deviance, orgies, and drug usage Abbey of Thelema (Palermo, Italy)Credit: wiki commonscirculated not only on the conservative island of Sicily, but on the Italian peninsula as well.  Benito Mussolini had effectively assumed a dictatorship over Italy, and he ousted Crowley and his crew as undesirables in April 1923. [The Abbey fell into disrepair later, and by 2010 was boarded over and mostly derelict, having been abandoned for years.  The locals considered the property cursed and wouldn’t venture near it.  However, it was put on the real estate market with an asking price of ₤1.2 million (roughly $1.8 million).  The only thing to recommend the property was its notoriety as the place of Crowley’s Thelemic temple; objectively, the villa was not worth anywhere near that amount.]

Crowley, with Leah and a handful of disciples, wandered the Continent.  By June 1924, Leah, finally sick of it all, recorded in her diary: “[His] rasping voice so jarred me that I wanted to scream.”  She toughed it out long enough for Crowley to recover from more surgery to ease his asthma, and then she tendered a written letter of resignation, giving up her title of “Scarlet Woman”.  He accepted Leah’s resignation stoically, and immediately replaced her with another “Scarlet Woman”, an American acolyte named Dorothy Olsen. 

Abandoning Leah in Paris, Crowley and Dorothy headed off for Tunisia. Leah wintered in France. She worked as Crowley’s secretary and scribe Leah Hirsig (after Crowley)Credit: public domaininfrequently over the next three years.  [In Paris when Crowley abandoned her, Leah was rumored to have prostituted for survival, but that is not supported by facts.  She married a man named William George Barron and had a son by him in December 1925.  She ultimately returned to teaching in the United States, but her movements afterward are not clear.  She apparently maintained ties to Europe because she died in Switzerland on February 22, 1975.].

In March 1926, Leah’s sister, Alma Hirsig (now a married woman of some “respectability”) published a lurid account of her time with Crowley’s Thelemic sex cult under the hypocritical guise of a morality story: “My Life in a Love Cult, A Warning to All Young Girls”.  This was published as a series of articles in the New York Journal.  Needless to say, in a society where anything other than missionary position intercourse between married men and women was considered lewd or perverse these articles made Crowley out as The Great Beast he always claimed.

Wandering, Wondering
Crowley and she went to Germany after Tunis.  On June 21, 1925, Crowley met a new friend, Karl Germer.  Germer was a member of the Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.; the same group that had bridled at Crowley’s homosexual sex rites years before). By this time, Crowley’s finances were sketchy (having run down most of his inheritance and funds); he leeched off Germer for the next decade, almost bankrupting the man in the process.

Dorothy, like his first wife Rose Kelly, was a raging alcoholic, and Crowley dropped her as tiresome almost as soon as he was settled in Germany with Germer footing his bills.  She left for America, and Crowley recorded in his diary that she came to visit him from October 8 (leaving October 12), 1926, for a few days of wild sex.  Then, she returned to the States.  Crowley kept tabs on her for a while (as he did with all of his former “Scarlet Women”) until Dorothy eventually disappeared from the sight altogether [she is believed to have died in 1951]. He had already replaced her with another Scarlet Woman, Margaret Binetti.

Despite his itinerant lifestyle and advancing age, Crowley seemed not to slow down his quest for religious knowledge nor in his appetite for debauchery.  Although he used women casually and cast them aside, he still preferred the homosexual embraces of men.  In a letter dated January 17, 1929, he wrote to a friend, “Call me a bugger if you like, but I don’t feel the same way about women. One can always replace a woman in a few days.” [His misogyny raged unchecked.  In a diary entry dated January 4, 1931, he wrote, “In Berlin all the whores look like ‘respectable women’; in New York all the ‘respectable women’ look like whores. Reflection: they’re all whores, anyhow.”]

Crowley was expelled from France in April 1929 as an undesirable.  On August 16, 1929, he married a Nicaraguan woman he’d met in Leipzig, Germany.  Her name was Maria de Miramar, and they did not stay together long.  By 1930 they were separated, and would spend the rest of their lives apart without benefit of divorce.  In July 1931, Maria was committed to a mental hospital (where she stayed until she died three decades later).

While in Lisbon, Crowley met the poet Fernando Pessoa in September 1930.  Pessoa translated into Portuguese Crowley’s poem, Hymn to Pan (written years before in Moscow with inspiration gainedAleister Crowley (Sep 1930, Lisbon)Credit: wiki commons by regularly abusing a Hungarian girl, Anny).  Although unclear about motive (whether a childish prank or a serious bid to become persona non grata) Crowley, with the help of Pessoa, faked his own death.  They staged a setting near a rock formation on the Atlantic coast to make it look as if Crowley had cast himself in the sea. He then left Portugal and chortled over the newspaper reports of his “death”.  Three weeks later he exposed the fraud publicly when he showed up at an exhibition in Berlin.

Hoist With His Own Petard
A new Scarlet Woman was engaged on August 3, 1931.  She was a Swiss named Bertha “Billy” Busch. He consecrated her as his Scarlet Woman in September 1931. Even by the bizarre standards in which he wallowed, this relationship was perhaps the most volatile.  The rough sex was there, certainly.  But, there was also violence outside the boudoir.  Billy stabbed him with a carving knife once.  She was also a violent drunk.  Crowley loathed this behavior and wrote in his diary: “Bill drunk again. HELL, I may have to cane her.”

On December 31, 1931 (New Years’ Eve),  Crowley went to a celebratory ball for homosexuals in Berlin.  He left in disgust, calling it “frightfully dull, pretentious, and grotesque.”  His restlessness with life spilled over into his relationship with Billy, and she was fast wearing on his nerves.   She was sent to a mental hospital for women in Brighton, and their relationship was effectively over.  Billy resurfaced occasionally throughout Crowley's diary.

Rose Kelly, Crowley’s first alcoholic wife, died in February 1932.  He did not learn of her death until some months later.  He noted her passing in his diary.  And, as proof that he actually was affected by her death, Crowley wrote nothing in the journal for the next several days although he was fanatical about his daily musings. [Leila Waddell, the first true Scarlet Woman, died the same year without notice.].

An artist named Nina Hamnet wrote a book called The Laughing Torso that was published in 1932. In it, she described Crowley as a black magician and implied he was complicit in the disappearance of a child, probably resulting in that child’s being sacrificed in one of his rituals. In March 1933, the Gnostic Mass Crowley had written (again, years before in Moscow) was performed for the first time publicly.  His star was on the wane, however, and in October 1933, Crowley, “incensed” (read: “broke”) decided to take up arms and sue Nina Hamnet and her publisher for libel over her allegations in The Laughing Torso. The fact this case was brought out of pecuniary desperation is a given: Aleister Crowley reveled in rumors of unseemly behavior, and he certainly would have welcomed the extra notoriety.  He was looking for a windfall, not restoration of his name.

Nina’s defense was flimsy at best, but Crowley’s character had preceded him.  The only defense for libel is proving the alleged “libel” to be true.  Nina did no such thing.  In one part of her testimony, she reported:

 “Although Mr. Crowley did his best to pursue an acquaintance with my brother and myself, I did not at the time wish to know him. But when, later on, I read about the sacrifice of a wretched cat, who was not properly killed during one of the obscene rites he practiced, anger made me wish I had taken the opportunity...” 

Her statement is pure hearsay as indicated by the phrase “…I read about…”. This passage indicates libel was committed even if no other evidence was presented.  However, Crowley did not prevail in the trial.  He appealed the verdict but lost that as well. The transcript proves Crowley, because of his arrogance and smug flippancy, could never win.  On the first day, the following exchange occurred:

Mr. Hilbery: What does ‘Therium’ mean?
Crowley: Great wild beast.
Mr. Hilbery: Do these titles convey a fair expression of your practice and outlook on life?
Crowley: ‘The Beast, 666’ only means ‘sunlight’. You can call me ‘little sunshine’.

“Little Sunshine” did not leave a favorable impression on the court.  In delivering the appellate decision on April 11, 1934, the presiding judge (Swift) exercised something less than impartiality when he issued the following statement from the bench:

“I have been over forty years engaged in the administration of the law in one capacity or another. I thought that I knew of every conceivable form of wickedness. I thought that everything which was vicious and bad had been produced at one time or another before me. I have learnt in this case that we can always learn something more if we live long enough. I have never heard such dreadful, horrible, blasphemous, and abominable stuff as that which has been produced by the man who describes himself to you as the greatest living poet.”

His court costs and attorneys fees, to bring the suit and then appeal it for naught, bankrupted him (the German Karl Germer was still supporting him grudgingly).  Regardless of what one may think of Crowley’s lifestyle, the trial and its appeal were both travesties.  The judge even told Crowley afterward, “Yes, indeed, your trial was quite unfair. But then, you can never get a fair one: so forget it!”

But, typical of Aleister Crowley, the bizarre followed him everywhere.  On the day of the verdict in 1934, a 19-year-old crackpot named Patricia “Deirdre” MacAlpine approached him.  She offered up her services as a brood mare to bear him a son.  He went off with her, duly impregnated her, and she had a boy they named Aleister Atatürk.  Surprisingly, she only wanted the child, and she did not venture into his world of mysticism and religion.  In fact, the two rarely saw each other after the baby was born, apparently a mutually agreeable condition.

Crowley was at loose ends after the libel trial. He was broken in many ways: aging, without a proper Scarlet Woman as a crutch, and destitute.  His drug use (while never modest) increased. He was the model for yet another black magician in a 1935 book called The Winged Bull by Dion Fortune (Crowley met her for the first time in March 1939 – he decided not to sue for libel, and she became a platonic friend).

When World War II broke out there was some silliness discussed between author Ian Fleming (later creator of James Bond) and MI5 officials about possibly using Crowley as a spy for Britain against Germany.  The plan was to supply the German hierarchy (almost all of whom were believers in astrology!) with fake astrological readings cast up by Crowley.  It is unclear what benefit this could have for Britain, but the discussions fortunately went nowhere. 

In March 1944, Crowley wrote a limited-edition volume called The Book of Thoth.  As a collectible it had merit: he only printed 200 copies, these were printed on pre-wartime paper and bound in fine leather, and signed by him.  Within three months he had sold ₤1,500 (about $2300) worth of them.

Aleister Crowley [life-cycle]

Crowley, for economic reasons, had to move into a boarding house in January 1945.  The author Dion Fortune visited him there twice (she died in January 1946 of leukemia). On December 1, 1947, Crowley died of a respiratory infection compounded by years of drug abuse (he had become a heroin addict after abusing morphine for years).  He had suffered from asthma and chronic bronchitis his entire life and had several surgeries for the condition.  His lifestyle before then had not been the healthiest, either – he exposed himself to all forms of disease and dissipation in the name of his hedonistic theosophy, Thelema.  He was 72 years old.

The Satanic Pot Calls the Mystic Kettle Black
Posers have no shame.  Nor do people who tend to cling to the memory or the celebrity of a notorious person.  Crowley, the King of all Poseurs, had his following even in death.  Incredibly, many people stepped forward claiming to have been near him at the time of his death, or who claimed to have heard his last words.

A former landlady claimed he said, “I am perplexed,” before he died though she was not there at his end.   A mysterious “Mr. Rowe” claimed he and a nurse were on hand at the fateful moment, and that Crowley’s last words were “Sometimes I hate myself.”  Still another poser surfaced, a person known only as “Mr. W.H.” who claimed he was a domestic at Crowley’s boarding house.  He was polishing furniture when he heard a crash from Crowley’s room overhead.  Crowley had paced the floor before collapsing.  Mr. W.H. reported no last words, though.

The sperm vessel who bore Crowley his only son, Patricia “Deirdre” MacAlpine, claimed she had visited him that very day with their son and three other children of hers.  She alleged, in true poser fashion, that “a sudden gust of wind and peal of thunder” accompanied his otherwise quiet death. She said he had been bedridden for the last few days of his life, but had been conversant and of light spirits when she had seen him thus. 

Crowley was cremated and his memorial service included the reading of his Moscow-penned poem, Hymn to Pan.  Newspapers, never to miss an opportunity for sensationalism, called the ceremony “a black mass”.  [It was not.].

Immediately after his death Crowley was well on the way into sinking into a well-deserved obscurity as an author of mysticism and a dabbler in the dark arts.  His true claim to fame was his decadence, and even that pales by today’s standards.  [The only thing making Crowley’s behavior outré was the era in which he lived.  The antics of rocker Marilyn Manson, for example, are just as debauched as Crowley, but because standards are less strict, no one notices much]. 

However, Crowley became an underground and somehow deviant icon for many.  As early as 1951 a nice Jewish boy named Howard Stanton Levey began investigating Crowley’s mysticism, specifically as it related to Satanism and ceremonies.  Levey had previously worked as a carnie, as an organist, and at other dubious occupations.  He dabbled in paranormal studies and (knowing of the O.T.O.) he sought out the branch of Thelemic practitioners in Southern California where he lived. This group was in Berkeley, but Levey was disappointed in their mystic pretensions.  He had already digested most of Crowley’s books, and after reading them and meeting the remnants of Thelema, in 1952 Levey concluded that Crowley was nothing more than a substance abusing poseur whose only true accomplishments were as a mountain climber and a poet.

Thus, a new poser was born to take Crowley’s place.  Crowley’s mysticism did not properly address the individual (despite Crowley’s totally self-absorbed “Do what thou wilt” law) as far as Levey was concerned.  He thought materialism was not given its pride of place in Thelema.  He created controversy by claiming to worship Satan, and he created a new “religion” called The Church of Satan in the early 1960s.  He changed his name to “Anton LaVey”, and wrote a book called The Satanic Bible in 1969.  He became a cult figure and underground celebrity like Crowley.  Unlike Crowley, though, his influence was of little merit – when LaVey died in 1997, his Church of Satan struggled to keep up credibility and membership. [Most people see it now as a sort of joke.  Marilyn Manson even took his then-girlfriend Rose McGowan to visit LaVey once before he died.  Neither Manson nor Rose MacGowan became Satanists; it was more like a school outing].

More Crowley posers followed.  Jimmy Paige, legendary guitarist of the iconic band Led Zeppelin dabbled in the Occult, and “re-discovered” Crowley for the posers among musicians.  The band Black Sabbath toyed with Satanic imagery without, frankly, ever being taken too seriously about it (although Sabbath front man Ozzie Osborne early in his post-Sabbath solo career wrote a song called “Mr. Crowley” about the King Poseur).

Use it for Good
Aleister Crowley had many more Scarlet Women other than Rose, Laylah, and Leah.  Those three were the main and most inspirational ones.  He had at least a dozen more, some of whom, like Dorothy Olsen, lasted only a very short time.  Others, like Mary d’Esti and Anna Catherine Miller (when he was in New York before meeting Leah) contributed nothing to his legacy or creativity. Some other women after Leah were Margaret Binetti, Kitty von Hansmester, Jane Cheron, and Kasimira Bass (a Polish woman) – these were likewise inconsequential in The Great Work.  They Aleister Crowley: King Poseur [1875-1947]did, however, serve him as diversions, as sex partners, and as things upon which to vent his more bizarre perversions.

He flouted all social conventions openly and flagrantly.  He questioned Christianity’s validity.  He dabbled in the “dark arts” which many in the mainstream mistakenly construed as “Satan worship”.  Not true – Crowley jumped into everything, and Satanism was tried (and rejected) by him along with many other religious practices.

In jest one might say to another, “If you would only use your powers for good instead of evil…”.  Crowley’s intelligence, curiosity, tenacity in his esoteric pursuits (if his energies had been directed toward more lofty and positive goals) could have produced untold benefits. Instead, he used his vast intellect and charisma in pursuit of swinish pleasures of the flesh; his “powers” were not put to their best use.  This brilliant man’s pose of evil may have deprived the world of a truly gifted artist, writer, and thinker.

Modern day posers continue to find Crowley as something more than he was.  They look toward his mystical writings and try to find meaning that probably is not there (in the same way people try to interpret Nostradamus’ writings within the context of modernity).  His pretensions all served to promote one thing: the enjoyment and happiness of Aleister Crowley.  He hated society’s priggishness.  He was an oversexed satyr, a racist, and a misogynist.  His “religion” gave him a valid excuse to pursue his hedonism.  It let him be “evil”.

[End of series]

Part 1 – Aleister Crowley: Beast of the Apocalypse?
Part 2 – Aleister Crowley: The Wickedest Man Alive
Part 3 – Aleister Crowley: Deviant