The Sydney Morning Herald (26 November 2003) includes a remarkable article on Leila Waddell. Many of us find the lives of Crowley’s companions almost as interesting as his own. This well-informed piece is well worth a read…
Steve Meacham looks at an Australian woman who inspired one of the first of the self-proclaimed drug and sex fiends.
For a not particularly talented vaudeville violinist, Australian Leila Waddell was once called some pretty spectacular names. “Divine Whore”. “Mother of Heaven”. “Whore of Babylon”. The part-Maori beauty makes a cameo appearance in a new book, Magic and Witchcraft (Thames and Hudson), by the Sydney-based author Nevill Drury.
Waddell’s claim to fame is that she was the lover of Aleister Crowley, the black magician once dubbed “the wickedest man in the world”. Much of Crowley’s adult life was spent searching for his “Divine Whore”. He never found her, though he auditioned many women for the role.
Englishman Crowley was a hugely controversial figure during his lifetime. The self-styled “Great Beast 666” believed he was the Antichrist described in the Bible’s Book of Revelations. An enthusiastic advocate of sex and drugs, he founded a black arts order, the Argenteum Astrum.
As such, Crowley merits an entire chapter in Drury’s book, which the author describes as “the first serious overview of the magical traditions since the German surrealist Kurt Selingmann published his History of Magic in 1948”.
Born in Leamington Spa in 1875, Crowley was raised in a strict Plymouth Brethren home and had an unhappy childhood. But his life changed in 1898 when he became a member of the Golden Dawn, an association of freemasons and magicians who included the poet W.B. Yeats. Crowley quickly graduated through the magical ranks, but by 1904 was a pariah because of his devil worship.
That year, in Cairo, Crowley performed a magical ceremony invoking an ancient Egyptian deity. His wife, Rose, supposedly went into a trance, the result of which was to convince Crowley that he was “the Great Beast 666”, selected by the ancient gods to pursue the magic of sexual energy.
Poor Rose didn’t last much longer. By 1909 they were divorced and Crowley had adopted Waddell as his potential “Divine Whore”.
“He called Leila the Mother of Heaven,” says Drury. “They performed various magical rituals together under the influence of mescaline.” Crowley promoted Waddell’s stage career, promoting her vaudeville show, The Ragged Ragtime Girls. “She wasn’t a very good violinist,” says Drury. “More of a trier, really. It was her beauty and interesting personality which attracted Crowley.”
The two once appeared together in a publicity stunt on the steps of the Statue of Liberty, with Waddell playing the violin while Crowley delivered a propaganda speech.
They eventually split, partly because of Crowley’s constant infidelities. “He was a pants man,” Drury says, but he had numerous male lovers, as well. Even Crowley’s signature was phallic: he signed the A in Aleister to resemble a penis.
Crowley’s greatest infamy came during the 1920s when he established a “sex monastery” in Sicily which became notorious for drug-inspired orgies. When Mussolini came to power, Crowley was expelled from Italy, ending his immediate magical influence. He died a rather tame end, in Hastings in 1947.
Yet after Crowley’s Confessions were published in the 1960s, he was adopted as a hero of the counter-revolution. The Beatles featured him on the cover of the Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. David Bowie referred to him in his song Quicksand. And Jimmy Page, of Led Zeppelin, bought Crowley’s former home in Scotland: he still owns one of the world’s largest collections of Crowley memorabilia.
As the author of 30 books about mysticism, witchcraft, the occult and the paranormal published in 15 languages in 21 countries, Drury is ideally placed to talk about the revival of interest in such subjects.
‘The technological age has made people’s lives mechanical,” he says. “A lot of people are looking for a feeling of mystery, to find some area of human life and experience which isn’t defined by technology. Some people gravitate towards the East, to yoga and meditation. Others discover an interest in the occult.”
Part of the reason, says Drury, is that conventional religions are now seen as out of touch. “Western religions are highly formal and the traditions are entrenched. Most religions appeal to some priest or sense of authority. But many people need to feel something sacred in themselves. They don’t want to be told that the church’s path is the only one to the truth.
“One reason there has been a revival of interest in witchcraft since the 1970s is because women, in particular, believe traditions in the organised religions are too male dominated. So many religions were founded by men: Christianity, Islam, Buddhism. The appeal of witchcraft or Wicca is that it is a religion which focuses on the goddess of nature. Many women, particularly those who have come through feminism, were looking for a framework for spiritual experience which honours women.”
And what became of Leila Ida Nerissa Bathurst Waddell? One web site says the Bathurst-born beauty returned to Sydney in 1923 after a 15-year absence, when her father was in failing health. She appeared with the Conservatorium Orchestra and with the Royal Philharmonic Society of Sydney.
Waddell died in 1932.