Nina Hamnett                         Aleister Crowley

Nina Hamnett, the artist, woman-about-Soho and sometime ‘Queen of Bohemia’,  so opportunistically sued for libel in 1934 by her former friend Aleister Crowley, scored a signal triumph over the Great Beast [FT 231, Jan. 2008] Yet her later life was marked by disaster. Apparently poor Hamnett in her final days of alcoholic paranoia imagined herself a victim of the Beastly Curse. And in fact in 1956 she met a horrid end, defenestrated and impaled on railings 40 ft below her flat. Whether this was suicide, or accidental death – the coroner’s verdict – was never clearly established. 

Curiously and perhaps coincidentally, Hamnett numbered among her Thirties friends the composer ‘Peter Warlock’ and the writer-explorer W. B. Seabrook:  the lives of both these highly talented alcoholics and devotees of occultism and voodoo ended in suicide. Without drawing moralistic conclusions, it does seem strange how often the road of magical excess leads to chaos rather than wisdom. 

I was interested therefore to read of Lance Sieveking’s relatively upbeat, sceptical, and cheerily non-lethal encounters with the Great Beast. But unlike the FT Editor’s more genial father, my own parent dabbled with magical stuff-and-nonsense and consorted with some odd Crowleyites in the mid-1950s. I have a schoolboy recollection from 1956, the year Hamnett died, of a weirdly exotic pair of American scientologists visiting our London flat. They were John Starr Cooke and his wife Mary, over from Tangier. My father was then also involved with dianetics/scientology, something he’d later totally deny. At that time however, he blithely assumed his customary patriarchal role as Sage, warning this wealthy seeker-after-Truth against purchasing Crowley’s annotated tarot pack. He predicted the direst consequences if Cooke did so. 

Cooke went ahead regardless: on the couple’s  return to North Africa, he contracted polio and became permanently wheelchair-bound. Mary promptly left him for his psychoanalyst and I heard no more of Cooke until I read Acid Dreams by Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain (Pan, 2001). In this intriguing social history the authors mention Cooke’s uppercrust CIA connections and his subsequent dubious career in California and Mexico as ‘psychic’, alcoholic and acid-savant, out “to enlighten mankind” and “to psychedelicize the radical left”! 

Ho hum to all such counter-revolutionary hogwash, I reflected in my cynical sexagenarian way… I’ve since resisted the urge to discover what eventually became of  J. S. Cooke. But I question whether his latter days as a guru were honestly more inspiring than Crowley’s own: wasted talents, pathetically grandiose, and settling for substances over substance?

[Letter to Fortean Times, December 2007]