Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Betty May, David Garnett and 'Dope Darling'

Betty May circa 1929 (from 'Tiger Woman')

I have had a long interest in the artists model and bohemian 'it girl' Betty May (1893-mid 1970s?). She is probably best known for her association with the occultist Aleister Crowley which she details in a semi-fictionalized (but certainly ghost written) autobiography 'Tiger Woman' (Duckworth 1929) which has recently been republished as a p/b.

    In it, she recounts her days being bought up in appalling, London east end squalor  before running away to Paris, where she joined an infamous street gang called 'The Apaches' before returning to London and becoming an artists model, thus gaining a entree into the Cafe Royale society which revolved around Augustus John.

May seems to have been a "life and soul" any party she was involved with, "No duck ever took to water, no man to drink, as I to the Café Royal" all aided by vast amounts of cocaine for which she soon developed a serious habit.

Also from 'Tiger Woman'
    She also had time to marry; four times in total. Her second husband was Raoul Loveday, now a semi-forgotten poet, who achieved a posthumous fame of sorts, by dying at Aleister Crowleys Abbey of Thelema at Cefalu, Sicily. Mays' version of this event and the general life of the Abbey takes up the second third 'Tiger Woman'. It is perhaps the best account of it outside Crowleys own 'Confessions' being both strangely conflicted and nuanced at the same time as she appears to have some respect for what he was trying to do despite her obvious loathing of Crowley as a personality, with obvious good reason. Crowley regarded her as headstrong which would seem to be a complement coming from him and reading between the lines it could be construed that there was only space in the Abbey for one 'prima donna'.

    The final third of the book deals with her return to England, another husband and his attempts to 'tame' her. an undertaking which was obviously doomed to failure. The book finishes  in the late 1920s with May back in Bohemia and hinting that may be a subsequent volume in the future, though sadly this never materialized.

    'Tiger Woman'
is a highly entertaining and recommended read as whatever the absolute truth of it seems to capture something of the artistic/decadent milieu of the 1910-20s and Bettys own exuberant spirit.

    May next 'surfaces' in 1934 where she was a witness in the 'Laughing Torso' libel case bought by Aleister Crowley over Nina Hamnetts autobiography of that name in which she stated that Crowley practised "black magic". During the trial May had to testify to the truth of her account that Crowley sacrificed a cat and that Raoul had drunk its blood and that this had led to his death. Crowley argued that the cat story was a fabrication and that Loveday had died from drinking impure water.  Crowley lost his case against Hamnett and was later bound over for two years for receiving letters stolen from May relating to the case.

    I had always wondered what subsequently happened to May, as she seemed so social a character with so many strange friends and, by chance, found myself reading, virtually back to back, two books which filled in a few gaps.

    The first is Jack Lindsays (1900-1990) second volume of autobiography 'Fanfrolico and After' (Bodley Head 1962). Lindsay was the son of controversial Australian artist Norman Lindsay (whose decadent work may well appeal to readers of this blog) and the 'Fanfrolico' of the title refers to the Franfrolico Press, Jack Lindsays' 'fine press' co-run with P. R. 'Inky' Stephenson (later the founder of Mandrake Press and associate of Side Real author Beresford Egan) producing limited edition works of vaguely erotic classic literature.

    Lindsays' volume, follows the penurious period of the late 1920s as the depression began to bite, and the small presses of the period contracted or, in the case of Franfrolico, collapse. It is full of fascinating snippets of information on Bohemia (both characters and lifestyle) with incredible tales of living in huge country piles (rent was cheap) but having no money for food or transport. It intersects with the final third of 'Tiger Woman' during which May was also living in the country (with husband number three) running (of all things!) a sweetshop, the stock for which she made herself. His volume reveals that he conducted an affair with her, and how the fallout from that had a disasterous effect on his own marriage precipitating his own mental breakdown the last of which he relates in quite harrowing detail.

   Mays life from that point onwards was always something of a mystery but is partially revealed in (yet another) excellent book '
Among The Bohemians' (Penguin 2003) by Virginia Nicholson . She reveals that David Garnett (Nicholsons Uncle) supported May at various points throughout her life until her death in a council house in the 1970s.

    Garnett was a big selling author in his day but has fallen into obscurity with perhaps the exception of the book 'Lady Into Fox' (Chatto and Windus 1922) a novella of love and transformation. She also mentions that Garnett  partially based one of the characters in his psuedononimously published first book 'Dope Darling'  (Werner Laurie Ltd. 1919) on May.

Front Cover of 'Dope Darling'

  'Dope Darling' (subtitled 'A Novel of Cocaine')  is an extremely rare book, but the British Library has a copy and so, suitably intrigued I went there and read it.

    I will probably never convince some readers that any book on cocaine called 'Dope Darling' is anything other than brilliant, even Garnett himself regarded it as a "pot boiler", but please believe me when I say that it is awful tosh. The plot is basically this:

    Roy and Beatrice are a nice 'sensible' couple who it is assumed will marry. They go to a nightclub and meet wild crazy party girl Claire. Roy is infatuated, leaves Beatrice and within three weeks marries Claire. He then discovers she is a coke addict and becomes an occasional user himself. When war is declared Roy enlists but returns  to discover that Claire has 'disappeared'. He recovers, returns to the front and is wounded again. It is Beatrice, who has magnanimously stuck by him and is now a doctor, who must operate on him. Roy begs for Beatrice to find Claire, which she does. However Claire has sunk so far into drugs that she is unable to make the journey across London to Roys bedside. As Roy succesfully undergoes the operation that will save him Claire dies.

    There is little to redeem this pulp nonsense bar a few scenes where Claire attempts to withdraw from drugs which have a certain shock value. However one passage struck me as something that could have come from 'Tiger Woman' as an anecdote of her wild bohemian days. Of course there is probably no way we will ever know if it was a true story but one would like to think it just might be true. Enjoy...

    "...Living as the did in the loosest company, she was a novelty, and in the three months before she met Ray, Claire became something of a celebrity. She was always asked to all the parties in the flashy bohemian world in which she moved. No dance, gambling party or secret doping orgy was complete without her, Under the effect of cocaine which she took more and more recklessly, she became inspired with a wild frenzy, and danced like a bacchante, drank off a bottle of champagne and played a thousand wild antics.

    She was absolutely without fear, and even fond of danger. One night, reeling about the floor of the night club, she bet anyone five pounds that she would get out of the window and sit on the ledge outside while the window was shut behind her, and there uncork a bottle of champagne and drink it off without taking it from her lips. A German Count took her bet, and Claire climbed out, with a bottle and a pair of nippers in her hand. A hundred men and women drawn form all classes of society crowded round to watch her and no-one had the decency to interfere. Claire drank the champagne, and then smashed a hole in the window and threw the bottle into the room hitting the German on the head.

    All she lived for was excitement and sensation, yet though she was happiest in insane orgies, she clung to some things with determination. one of these was her love of music. She would go anywhere to hear a good performer. She never sung anything herself but old English airs, and though she was quite untrained, had a really beautiful voice and good taste..."

The above is by far the most exciting part of this dull book but; if somebody has a spare copy going cheap...