9 July 2018

THE WICKEDEST MAN, IN AMERICA

Tobias Churton. Aleister Crowley in America. Art, Espionage, and Sex Magic in the New World. Inner Traditions, 2107.

Crowley has a good biographer in Tobias Churton, as he too is loud and opinionated about his subject. We have had the pleasure of launching several of his books at The Atlantis Bookshop and on one occasion, we stood him on a stepladder out in Museum Street and he declaimed from there for tourists and the passers-by - some of whom stopped to listen!

Crowley and America were made for each other somehow. He was a decadent Victorian who lived publicly like an Edwardian gent did behind his curtains, so he liked to shock the fuddy-duddy East Coast. Although he liked their manners, straight backs, wealth and values but felt he truly belonged in the wild and woolly West as they all lived the Shock of the New. No idea from architecture to health to God went untried. The pre-First World War second and third generations there, were the world’s original Hippies. They half thought it, nearly believed it and tried to make money out of it.

Crowley travelled West with the very splendid Jeanne Roberts Foster with whom he was captivated and her insurance executive husband who was 50. Then 50 was 50 even in California but his stolid nature, wealth and 23 year age gap had been the bundle she’d married five years before when the ceremony stopped her being very clever and dirt poor. She got a good education, became a famous model and a busy actress and then stole Crowley's heart. Hers would not have been on offer if Matlock Foster hadn’t been as dull as we can all presume he was. As Starter marriages go, they both gained from it but the actuary in Matlock must have always known it was doomed. ‘Hillarion’ is long overdue, the dismissive nod towards her as just one of The Beast’s girlfriends being rethought.

There is plenty on his editorship of The Fatherland where he wrote sublimely preposterous articles justifying Germany’s role in the war. He confused everyone on both sides as they all believed that he believed what he’d published himself, and published under several names. By expediently declaring himself to be an English-hating Irishman when things got a bit too intense even for him, he settled for presenting himself as an Irish rebel of the most virulent sort. This was his only ever job and the pressure of responsibility obviously didn’t suit him at all. Crowley was still hard up and trying to sell his manuscripts to a New York lawyer called John Quinn so perhaps that is another reason for his cod Oirish stance.

There are plenty of tales of his sexual adventures which no biography would be complete without. The complexities of his actions and motivations in WWI are far better covered in this book than anywhere previousky. He also had a very hot, hot chocolate drink up in New Hampshire after a day on a lake, as he laced it with six drops of Peyote. You must admit, he was always bang on trend"

The biography deals with Crowley and his friends being knee deep in the Dark Arts. Not just magic but spying and general deceit. It unravels the folklore surrounding the ‘facts’ as have been presumed until now and substantiates answers with documentary proof.

It ends a little way past the death of the only sexy Rocket Scientist ever - Jack Parsons. Crowley in America is a very engaging, readable and useful book. – Geraldine Beskin


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