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Aleister Crowley in England

The Return of the Great Beast

Published by Inner Traditions
Distributed by Simon & Schuster
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• Reveals Crowley’s sex magick relations in London and his contacts with important figures, including Dion Fortune, Gerald Gardner, Jack Parsons, Dylan Thomas, and black equality activist Nancy Cunard

• Explores Crowley’s nick-of-time escape from the Nazi takeover in Germany and offers extensive confirmation of Crowley’s work for British intelligence

• Examines the development of Crowley’s later publications and his articles in reaction to the Nazi Gestapo actively persecuting his followers in Germany

After an extraordinary life of magical workings, occult fame, and artistic pursuits around the globe, Aleister Crowley was forced to spend the last fifteen years of his life in his native England, nearly penniless. Much less examined than his early years, this final period of the Beast’s life was just as filled with sex magick, espionage, romance, transatlantic conflict, and extreme behavior.

Drawing on previously unpublished diaries and letters, Tobias Churton provides the first detailed treatment of the final years of Crowley’s life, from 1932 to 1947. He opens with Crowley’s nick-of-time escape from the Nazi takeover in Germany and his return home to England, flat broke. Churton offers extensive confirmation of Crowley’s work as a secret operative for MI5 and explores how Crowley saw World War II as the turning point for the “New Aeon.” He examines Crowley’s notorious 1934 London trial, which resulted in his bankruptcy, and shares inside stories of Crowley’s relations with Californian O.T.O. followers, including rocket-fuel specialist Jack Parsons, and his attempt to take over H. Spencer Lewis’s Rosicrucian Order. The author reveals Crowley’s sex magick relations in London and his contacts with spiritual leaders of the time, including Dion Fortune and Wicca founder Gerald Gardner. He examines Crowley’s dealings with artists such as Dylan Thomas, Alfred Hitchcock, Augustus John, Peter Warlock, and Peter Brooks and dispels the accusations that Crowley was racist, exploring his work with lifelong friend, black equality activist Nancy Cunard.

Churton also examines the development of Crowley’s later publications such as Magick without Tears as well as his articles in reaction to the Nazi Gestapo who was actively persecuting his remaining followers in Germany. Presenting an intimate and compelling study of Crowley in middle and old age, Churton shows how the Beast still wields a wand-like power to delight and astonish.

From Chapter 2. Never dull where Crowley is.

Vacating Jermyn Street’s Cavendish Hotel on 6 July for a flat at 27 Albemarle St., Mayfair, Crowley informed Louis Umfreville Wilkinson that he’d appreciate a call any morning before 10. Friendly since 1912, Crowley commiserated with Louis over second wife Annie’s death: “Dreadfully sorry to hear of your loss. My own first wife [Rose] died in February, but as I had not seen her for over 20 years, Time had spun gossamer over the wound.”(2)

A few weeks later, writer-performer Jean Ross (1911-1973) surprised Crowley in Hatchett’s coffee house, Mayfair--he’d last seen her in Berlin when her friend Christopher Isherwood joined Crowley on a jaunt round Kreuzburg’s gay bars. Isherwood twisted Jean into the very different “Sally Bowles” in Goodbye to Berlin, inspiration for Cabaret. Fervently anti-Nazi, Jean would soon join the Communist Party. Crowley met another communist sympathizer on 4 August, calling on Mrs. Paul Robeson at 19 Buckingham Street, near Charing Cross Station, to interest her husband in Mortadello, a play he’d sent to film directors G.W. Pabst and Max Reinhardt. Mrs. Robeson complimented Mortadello’s elegant verse drama but regretted that very quality limited its appeal to modern cinema audiences.

Crowley painted his predicament brightly for Germer’s benefit on 25 August:

I am speaking on “The Philosophy of Magick” at a lunch to 600 people on September 15: so hope to do big business. [Christina Foyle of Foyles Bookshop invited Crowley to address her famous Literary Lunch.]

Yorke is intractable so far. I may have to sue him. Can you send me copies of any letters from or to him showing negligence and mismanagement? E.g. his sending the whole of the pictures when we only wanted 75. ... As soon as he finds he can’t sneak off with our £3000 he’ll propose a reasonable settlement, & take credit to himself for his noble conduct. Oh, very English!

His cowardice is revolting. If he had only stuck to his guns, we should all be in clover. Even as it is, things are looking up all round.

I do wish you’d write a really nice letter to Mrs. Busch. It is the only point at issue between us. ... After all, you had nothing but great kindness from her.(3)

Crowley explored every avenue to survive in Britain’s capital, save that of closing ranks with the “white-collar wage slave,” a slight unkindly applied to current O.T.O. “heir” Wilfrid T. Smith in Hollywood, clerk for the Southern California Gas Company.

On 31 August Crowley met Daily Express gossip columnist Tom Driberg for lunch at the Café Royal, Piccadilly Circus. Driberg (1905-1976) first wrote to Crowley at Cefalù requesting advice on useful drugs to assist his Oxford examinations! Not surprisingly, Driberg left university without a degree, but not before co-founding the university’s communist party. Actively homosexual, Driberg became a regular lunch partner, noting the Beast’s eccentric schemes in his new gossip column “These Names Make News.”

Crowley’s artistic interests brought him to composer Leonard Constant Lambert’s studio on 3 September. Recently appointed Vic-Wells Ballet’s composer and music director, Lambert (1905-1951) introduced Crowley to illustrator Joan Hassall (1906-1988) who four days later showed Crowley his old friend Nina Hamnett’s autobiography Laughing Torso. “Abominable libels,” Crowley declared when Nina’s flippant Cefalù narrative mentioned that a baby was said to have disappeared there. Crowley and Leah Hirsig’s baby daughter Poupée died tragically at Cefalù in 1920. Having just served a writ on Gerald Yorke for a supposed £40,000 he would have made had Yorke not been his Trustee (6 September), Crowley called on lawyer Isidore Kerman about Laughing Torso. Nina’s publishers Constable & Co. were notified: an offended Crowley intended to sue.

After a successful speech on 15 September at Foyle’s literary luncheon, Crowley spent the next night getting drunk with Laurence and Pam Felkin.*

[*Son of Dr. Robert William Felkin (1853-1926)--Frater Finem Respice (“Have regard to the End”), leader of Golden Dawn breakaway Stella Matutina--stockbroker Robert Laurence Felkin (1891-1957) joined Crowley’s A...A... in 1912 and appears in Crowley’s diaries as “Christ Child,” inspiration for “Elgin Eccles” in The Diary of a Drug Fiend.]

For a moment, Constable & Co. appeared to “cave in” over Laughing Torso, suggesting an out-of-court settlement, but on the 21st crooked lawyer Edmund O’Connor cornered a habitually sauced Nina Hamnett in a Soho pub and dug up an angle to nobble Crowley’s case: a rare copy of Crowley’s decadent verses, White Stains (1898). Its author doubtless wished the book’s printed warning had been observed: “The Editor hopes that Mental Pathologists, for whose eyes alone this treatise is destined, will spare no precaution to prevent it falling into other hands.”

The case didn’t reach court until 1934, but its tremors disturbed Crowley’s peace of mind for months before it.

On 26 September 1932, he moved into rooms at 20 Leicester Square, meeting philosopher C.E.M. Joad (1891-1953) at a party given by a “Mrs Richards.” Joad would become famous in England during the 1940s for appearances on the BBC’s The Brains Trust, where clever people offered expertise or opinion on pressing questions. But in 1932, Joad was distinguished only by interest in parapsychology and expulsion from the socialist Fabian Society in 1925 for sexual misdemeanors. Disenchanted by Labor government, Joad became propaganda director of Sir Oswald Moseley’s New Party, resigning on discerning Moseley’s fascism. Bitterly opposed to Nazism, Joad favored pacifist causes, something that would have interested Maxwell Knight at MI5.

A curious foretaste of a subject soon to become dear to Crowley’s heart came on 1 October 1932 in a letter from Mulk Raj Anand (1905-2004), author of The Hindu View of a Persian Painting (Faber & Faber, 1930), living in Hendon. Art collector and publisher Desmond Harmsworth was publishing Anand’s new Indian cook book Curries and other Indian Dishes. Anand asked Crowley’s permission to quote from Confessions (Mandrake, 1930): “I have been an admirer of your work for years.” Anand’s book pioneered the introduction to British housewives of Indian cooking, perhaps inspiring Aleister Crowley too. Lawrence and Wishart published Anand’s social realist book Untouchable in 1935 and Anand found success in novels.

Placing Mortadello still preoccupied Crowley. His diary records meeting “Hitchcock” upstairs at the Café Royal on 10 October 1932 --and again at Pagani’s with Driberg for dinner on 22 October; then lunch on 25 October. It’s likely “Hitchcock” was successful English film director Alfred Hitchcock. A report in The Times of 4 April 1932 indicated Hitchcock was devoting the next year to producing, rather than directing films for British International Pictures (B.I.P.), and was on the lookout for suitable vehicles for appropriate directors. A link with Pabst or Reinhardt would have interested Hitchcock, especially as he’d experienced the Berlin production system. Thelema devotee Albin Grau had produced Murnau’s famous Nosferatu. That would have impressed Hitchcock. Crowley was convinced Mortadello chimed in with the German vogue for gaily spun films set in times past about dashing, braided hussars and the like, transporting people from the grime of the times.

Hitchcock only produced one film for B.I.P. (his contract ended in March 1933), Lord Camber’s Ladies, about an aristocrat who falls for a musical comedy star. It was previewed for the Charing Cross Hospital charity at the Prince Edward Theatre on 4 November: a short stroll from the Café Royal. Hitchcock would have welcomed publicity from Driberg. Is there not a Crowleyan influence on Hitchcock’s signature image, as it developed subsequently?*

[*Note a 31 July 1933 letter from Crowley to U.S. devotee, Max Schneider. Crowley wanted his “Gnostic Catholic Mass” filmed in Hollywood. He would play High Priest. The Priestess “would have to be a regular star--Benita Hume or--your man will know at once. Someone with lots of S.A. [Sex Appeal].”4 Benita Hume (1907-1967) played Janet King in Lady Camber’s Ladies, alongside Gertrude Lawrence and Gerald du Maurier. Crowley expected Max Schneider to function as Hollywood agent, while Max’s wife Leota typed up Crowley’s scripts.(5)]

Tobias Churton is Britain’s leading scholar of Western Esotericism, a world authority on Gnosticism, Hermeticism, and Rosicrucianism. He is a filmmaker and the founding editor of the magazine Freemasonry Today. An Honorary Fellow of Exeter University, where he is faculty lecturer in Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry, he holds a master’s degree in Theology from Brasenose College, Oxford, and created the award-winning documentary series and accompanying book The Gnostics, as well as several other films on Christian doctrine, mysticism, and magical folklore. The author of many books, including Gnostic Philosophy, The Invisible History of the Rosicrucians, and Aleister Crowley: The Beast in Berlin, he lives in England.

  • Publisher: Inner Traditions (November 23, 2021)
  • Length: 384 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781644112328

“Aleister Crowley has found the biographer he could have wished for. By staying close to the original sources, Tobias Churton has managed to dive deeply into the emotional life of an unparalleled religious thinker who celebrated life. Aleister Crowley in England is like the man himself--profound, witty, imaginative, and joyous.”

– Frank van Lamoen, assistant curator and researcher, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

“Tobias Churton’s masterful survey of the Beast’s declining years battling ill-health and poverty in England, records not only matters Magickal with the author’s usual scrupulous attention to accuracy and detail but also reveals other aspects of Crowley’s perverse personality, like the luxurious meals he prepared for guests even following bankruptcy, his priapic adventures, seemingly undiminished by chronic asthma, and more. All this is dished up with Churton’s customary eloquence and panache, a triumphant addition to the definitive multivolume biography.”

– Patrick Robertson O.B.E., Historian

“Tobias Churton gives the deluxe treatment to Aleister Crowley’s often-overlooked final years: As a life of magick, romance, controversy, and intrigue draws to a close, the Beast crystallizes his incredible experiences into his most mature works, does his part for the war effort, reinvents the Tarot, and forges relationships that will carry his legacy well beyond his lifetime. Crowley beguiles and endures to the very end.”

– Richard Kaczynski, author of Perdurabo: The Life of Aleister Crowley

“Tobias Churton’s excellent series of books exploring the different phases of Aleister Crowley’s life and work continues here, revealing much of the deeper details often overlooked in the Beast’s later years. Churton has a true gift for finding and correlating the different connections Crowley made with people who were first drawn by his reputation, only to be bewitched by his personal magnetism into staying when they had every reason to shun him.”

– Toby Chappell, author of Infernal Geometry and the Left-Hand Path

“Resettled in the UK, neither financial problems nor failing health could stop the ‘Great Beast’ from creating The Book of Thoth and a multitude of occult classics. Churton’s masterful study of these final decades of Crowley’s life is as revealing as it is entertaining.”

– Carl Abrahamsson, magico-anthropologist, filmmaker, and author of Occulture

“With delightful prose and his ever-present understanding of Aleister Crowley’s humor and humanity, Tobias Churton expertly separates the man, the myth, and the legend, revealing the clearest picture available of the world’s most famous occultist.”

– Tamra Lucid, founding member of the experimental rock band Lucid Nation and author of Making the Ord

Aleister Crowley in England, by scholar Tobias Churton, is a very precious and fascinating work, covering the last fifteen years of the Beast in his native England. It throws considerable light on his final period, not well known and as full of crazy events as his early days. A must-have.”

– Philippe Pissier, French translator of Aleister Crowley

More books from this author: Tobias Churton