His own mother dubbed him the 'Beast', he was a master of the occult and five of his lovers killed themselves. Now a new book asks, was Aleister Crowley really the world's most wicked man?
By Glenys Roberts
THE name of Aleister Crowley still sends shivers down the spine. The self-styled 'wickedest man in the world', or Beast 666, Crowley was one of the most infamous figures of the first half of the twentieth century.
A satanist who claimed he could commune with the devil in drug-induced trances, he started a polygamous religion that indulged in animal sacrifices.
He pursued women relentlessly, including the beautiful painter Greta Valentine, who has just died, aged 91. She knew him as The Magus and he inscribed arcane poems to her and sent her letters sealed with Egyptian hieroglyphics. Crowley once followed Greta from London to the Lobster Pot restaurant in Mousehole, Cornwall, where he persuaded her to share a bottle of Chablis with him. When she refused to sleep with him, he wrote in his diary: 'I will come one day and snatch.'
Five of his many mistresses committed suicide. But he had male lovers too, excusing everything with his creed 'Do what thy will shall be the whole of the law'.
Even for those in his inner circle Crowley's excesses often proved too much. Yet, while some disciples abandoned him, new ones always appeared including, in the Twenties, a young Oxford undergraduate, Tom Driberg who was mesmerised by Crowley.
After the black magician's death in 1947, Driberg, by then a well-known MP, nervously asked for his letters back in ease he would be compromised by the association.
BUT WAS Crowley really the high priest of sin? An astonishing new book reveals a very different character from that loathed by the public. Far from having occult powers, he was a pathetic charlatan, a small, fat, balding man with a sad private life who ended up friendless and broke.
And yet this same reviled man might so easily have enjoyed a respectable life of high achievement. Crowley was a well-educated former public school boy who went to Cambridge and enjoyed a private income. His evil persona was a carefully orchestrated pose.
What marked him out was his interest in Eastern religions and hatred of bourgeois hypocrisy -- characteristics that foreshadowed the Sixties social revolution -- which was no mean feat for a man born 90 years previously.
The Beatles put him on their Sergeant Pepper album cover next to Mae West as one of their 20th-century icons. He inspired the writings of Somerset Maugham and Arnold Bennett, while novelist Anthony Powell based one of his characters on him in A Dance To The Music of Time.
Crowley was born in 1875 in Leamington to a wealthy brewing family who were Plymouth Brethren. He was named Edward after his father, but changed his name to Aleister for effect when he went to Cambridge (his family compromised by calling him Alick).
He adored his father, who died young. He taught the boy to read the Bible by the time he was four, once getting him to highlight every single incidence of the word 'but' in preparation for a lecture on its uses.
As a child, Crowley showed early signs of independence. When his father told him not to walk through stinging nettles, saying 'Would you rather do as I say or learn from experience?' he opted for the latter.
As a young boy, he was taken to see his baby sister Mary's body before she was buried. It was this experience that inspired a lifelong rebellion against the heartless Vietorian manners instilled in him by his mother.
Crowley hated her, particularly for sending him to a series of public schools, including Malvern, where he was mercilessly bullied because he was fat. The only way of persuading her to remove him was by claiming he was being sexually abused.
He was given a tutor, a former Bible Society missionary, who introduced the youngster to racing, billiards, betting and cards. He also took him to Torquay to recuperate from a bout of whooping Cough which, at the age of 15, is where Crowley lost his virginity to a young actress.
The boy concluded, way ahead of fashion, that sexual repression was responsible for most of the world's ills. It was his horrified mother who first called him the 'Beast' after she learned of his Torquay adventure.
In 1895 he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, to read moral sciences, but other distractions proved more seductive than work.
It was the year of the Oscar Wilde trial and Crowley proceeded to model himself on the playwright, dressing like a dandy and generally doing his best to get sent down. He left without a degree, boasting he had spent his time on sexual experimentation.
Crowley wanted instant fame and so decided to become a poet. Though he did all the fashionable things, such as embracing spiritualism along-side the Irish poet W. B. Yeats, notoriety eluded him.
Crowley's desire to shock saw him adopting an increasingly Bohemian, itinerant lifestyle. He was in Mexico when he heard the news of Queen Victoria's death in 1901 and broke into a gleeful dance.
The Queen 'was a huge and heavy fog; we could not see, we could not breathe... England had become a Hausfrau's idea of heaven, and the Empire an eternal Earl's Court exhibition', he later wrote.
He went on to San Francisco, then took a ship to Honolulu, Japan, Shanghai and Ceylon, and had lessons in Buddhism and yoga. He sailed on to Aden and Cairo, where he refused to visit the Pyramids. 'I wasn't going to have 40 centuries look down on me! Confound their impudence!'
Crowley wanted to make his mark here and now.
He ended up in Paris in 1903, visiting his old university friend, portrait painter Gerald Kelly, and within a short time he married Kelly's widowed sister Rose. Crowley was 28, Rose a year younger.
They embarked on a lengthy honeymoon in Paris, Cairo and Ceylon and by the time they reached the Far East, Rose was pregnant.
It was during this trip that Crowley had a vision of himself as the new messiah. At a series of invocations of the supernatural he attended with Rose, he claimed to have received a message from a being called the Angel Aiwass. The angel told him he was to be the herald of a cult which would have its own bible, called the Book of Thelema, the Greek word for will.
Crowley set to writing it with gusto. He had the perfect excuse for a degenerate life doing whatever he wanted.
But there was another, and perhaps more significant, turning point to come. A keen mountaineer since boyhood, in 1905 he set out to climb Kangchenjunga, which, according to Nepalese legend, is the home of the gods. It was an ill-fated mission.
Crowley severely beat his servants and one died. When another slipped and caused an avalanche he refuseds to help dig out his comrades, all of whom perished.
Something happened to Crowley on Kangchenjunga; perhaps he became unhinged by guilt or despair at the role he had played in the deaths or, it is most likely, he realised the cheapness of life.
After the tragedy he wanted no more 'Christianity, rationalism, Buddhism, the lumber of the centuries... I want blasphemy, murder, rape, revolution'.
The consequences of that trip were devastating. Overnight he fell out of love with Rose and rejected his daughter, whom he had christened, with his usual flamboyance, Nuit Ma Ahathoor Hecate Sappho Jezebel Lilith.
'I was no longer influenced by love for them, no longer interested in protecting them as I had been,' he wrote. He abandoned them and took up with an old mistress in Shanghai.
On his return to Britain, he discovered that his daughter had died of typhoid. Blaming his wife, whom he labelled an alcoholic he felt justified in pursuing a life of sexual experimentation, reinforced by religious ritual.
Crowley then launched into a theatrical career, putting on dimly lit displays of heathen rites in which a male disciple -- there were rumours they were lovers -- performed an erotic dance to the god Pan in a London hall while his new mistress, Australian Leila Waddell, played the fiddle.
The advance publicity suggested unspeakable sex acts. The police stood at the ready, but nothing happened. Crowley finally shouted 'There is no God', hoping to get arrested under the blasphemy laws, but the officers turned their backs and left.
Crowley, his career in the doldrums, went off to Europe with several lady friends, smoking hashish, drinking alcohol and using opium all the way.
As World War I was declared, he boarded the Lusitania for the U.S. Crowley later claimed he had been working for British Intelligence, like his friends Somerset Maugham and Gerald Kelly, but there is a mound of evidence to suggest he was really a pro-German activist.
At one point he wrote an outrageous magazine article portraying the courageous British nurse Edith Cavell as a Judas, who deserved her fate at the hands of a German firing squad and would be reunited in hell with Lucretia Borgia, the notorious 16th-century murderess.
In one extraordinary ceremony beneath the Statue of Liberty, he invoked the water to witness him tearing up his British passport (he actually ripped up an old envelope) while Leila Waddell played her fiddle. The British authorities investigated, but in the end they turned a blind eye.
CROWLEY spent the war running through lovers and the last of his family money. He was broke when he returned to Britain in 1919. He had behaved outrageously in New York while millions died in Europe, yet he had always felt strongly about the futility of war.
By then in failing health, he turned to heroin as an asthma cure (it was a popular drug in those days and not outlawed until 1922). He was 44 and, from then on, did not write a single word with a clear head, taking it upon himself to become a leading advocate of the drug culture.
'You children have to learn to make use of drugs, as your ancestors learned to make use of lightning,' he said.
His reputation as a demonic figure rests largely on what happened during the next three years. With his new mistress Leah Hirsig, an avant garde New York beauty, new baby daughter Poupee and her nurse Ninette Shumway, who had her own child, Crowley decided to found an abbey dedicated to Thelema, his self-indulgent cult of the will.
He toured Europe trying to find an out-of-the-way place he could afford -- he was living on a £60 advance (worth £2,000 these days) for his novel Diary Of A Drug Fiend, which argued against anti-narcotic legislation. He found a hilltop villa in Cefalu. Sicily. In a typically outrageous gesture he signed the lease as Sir Alastor de Kerval, while the mother of his child signed herself the Contessa Lea Harcourt, Virgin Priestess of The Sea Grail.
In effect, he had founded an early hippy community in which residents and visitors alike freely took drugs -- including opium, cocaine, ether, morphine, heroin and hashish -- not to mention wine and brandy.
The 'abbey' was not an attractive place. Dogs and children ran round a yard littered with all the paraphernalia of drug-taking and the black arts. There were gaudy cabalistic signs and lewd portraits on the baking walls. No one kept house, there was no running water or flushing lavatory.
EVEN so, the world might well have remained ignorant of the commoners worst excesses had a visitor not died of gastroenteritis. His name was Frederiek Loveday; he had a First in history from Oxford and called himself Raoul.
He admired Crowley's writings and had first sought him out in London, where the two took drugs together. Rediscovering 'the master' in Sicily in 1922 he was enchanted. Not so his wife Betty, an artist's model.
She hated the insanitary life in the commune and, when her husband died she poured her heart out to a British newspaper, telling how Crowley, calling himself the Master Therion invited his disciples to eat black pudding made of goat's blood and even drink the blood of a sacrificial cat. This, she said, had poisoned Raoul.
According to the newspaper report, Crowley's half-starved children were taught to indulge in 'the vilest practices' and made to witness 'sexual debaucheries that are too disgusting to describe, including the ritual violation of a woman who had first been given an aphrodisiacal drug'.
The reputation Crowley had always craved was assured, but it had quite the opposite effect from the one he hoped. His sacrilege only confirmed him as a figure of hate and he was dubbed from then on 'the man we would most like to hang'.
His British publishers, his only source of income, abandoned him. The autobiography -- he called it an autohagiography -- with which he had hoped to justify his experimental life, was never published.
He was also summoned to Cefalu police station and thrown out of Italy. Crowley fled to Tunisia, leaving his women behind. Communal living had proved a terrible failure.
He was to marry once again in 1929 this time in Leipzig, to a middle-aged Nicaraguan, Marie Teresa Ferrafi de Miramar. A year later he took up with a new mistress, l9-year-old German artist Hanni Jaegar, who subsequently committed suicide.
Returning to Brfitain, he spent his last years in and out of court, instigating libel actions, calling himself by dozens of grandiose aliases and finally succumbing to bankruptcy. But his rebellious instincts were fading fast.
As Brfitain entered World War II he started writing patriotic verses. After an air-raid and a minor heart attack, he moved from London to Hastings, where he died in Deeember 1947, aged 72, not in any satanic rfitual but alone in bed, tears streaming down his cheeks
His last words were: 'I am perplexed. Sometimes I hate myself.' It was a pathetic end for the devil's disciple.
He had invoked the black arts to get himself noticed. Perhaps he had even abandoned his fellow climbers on Kangchenjunga merely to generate bad publicity.
His justification for a life misspent was that if he had entered the diplomatic service, as he had planned when a student, no one would ever have heard of him.
o Aleister Crowley: The Beast Demystified by Roger Hutchinson (Mainstream £16.99).
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