In 1975, while staying at Hastings, England, with my aunt, I was fortunate enough to be introduced by her to Kathleen (or 'Johnny') Symonds, a charming widow in her 60s, who had not only been Aleister Crowley's last landlady but who was with him when he died in 1947.
Mrs Symonds and I soon established a pleasing rapport, which was sufficient to prompt her to reminisce about her former guest -- a man made notorious by the popular press for the practice of 'sex magick' and other supposedly shocking occult activities -- which she had refused to do with journalists. I met with her again on later visits to the South Coast resort, when she allowed me to tape-record her recollections.
Johnny had owned and run, with her husband Vernon, a large, gabled Victorian guest house named Netherwood. The property stood in its extensive 4-acre grounds, wherein were outbuildings, a lawn tennis court, a large garden, shrubbery and many trees, on The Ridge, a road running across the flank of the upland area behind Hastings, about 500 feet above sea level. Netherwood's situation afforded extensive views of the town, its Norman castle, Beachy Head and the sea, which were doubtless part of its albeit wind-blown attraction to visitors.
Keeping Netherwood going during the Second World War, when there was food, fuel and petrol rationing, had been hard for the couple, but business started picking up in the second half of 1945, once the conflict was over.
Vernon Symonds' disposition helped in this regard. He was a sociable 'arty type', keen on amateur dramatics, good conversation and on mingling with those well-known in the arts and sciences. He used his contacts to tempt down intellectual luminaries like Professor C.E.M. Joad, J.B.S. Haldane, Edith Bone, and Professor Jacob Bronowski to Netherwood, on the understanding that in return for a free stay they gave a talk about their work and ideas to the other guests. Vernon also provided the best cuisine possible in that difficult period and a relaxed atmosphere.
The intellectual and gustatory attractions of Netherwood were made clear by him in the handbook: 'So long as I am here,' he wrote, 'this house will never be a guest house in the ordinary sense of the term. Those seeking a conventional establishment will be able to find better accommodation elsewhere, for my friends care more for fine food than for the ritual of dressing for dinner, and more for culture and the arts than for bridge and poker.'
Netherwood even featured significantly in the musical development of one young prodigy. 'A couple called Caplan,' explained Mrs Symonds, 'frequently brought down a boy named Julian Bream who would play the guitar for the guests. After his recital we would pass the hat around and the money collected would pay for his next lesson. Everyone thoroughly enjoyed themselves.'
It was in this unusual and somewhat snobbish milieu that Aleister Crowley, the Great Beast 666, found his final haven.
At the end of the war Crowley was lodging in cold, cheerless, uncomfortable digs in Surrey, which had acerbated his chronic asthma and depressed his spirits. Finding somewhere else to live was proving difficult, for he was not only a victim of his own notoriety but he lacked a regular income. Worried about him, his old friend Louis Wilkinson, having heard about Netherwood and its eccentric proprietors from Oliver Marlow, who acted with Vernon Symonds in the Hastings Court Players, asked Marlow to enquire if the Symondses would be prepared to take on such an infamous old reprobate.'So my husband came home and asked me, "Do you mind if Aleister Crowley comes and stay with us?"' related his wife. 'So I said, "Whoever is he?" And he said, "He's the wickedest man in the world." "Oh," I said, "I don't care!"'
But if Johnny had never heard of Crowley before, his dramatic arrival soon alerted her to the fact that he was no ordinary mortal.
She explained: 'Eventually we received a telegram which said, "Expect consignment of frozen meat on such-and-such a day and at such-and-such a time," when meat was still on ration -- so the Post Office handed (a copy of) this telegram to the Food Ministry.
'We were somewhat perplexed by this because we hadn't ordered any meat and we were even more surprised when the day arrived and two food inspectors turned up in anticipation of the delivery. While we were talking to them an ambulance suddenly came down the drive, the door opened, and out jumped Aleister Crowley with about 40 or 50 paper parcels (containing) all his books. My husband said, "Well, there you are: that's the frozen meat!" '
That day, she recalled, Crowley looked rather pale and wan, and his hair was cut very short. He was wearing 'rather wide knickerbockers' with stockings, and shoes with big silver buckles. Augustus John's portrait of him, which was drawn earlier in the year, shows him with the same gaunt, somewhat startled appearance possessed by many elderly people. Johnny could not remember the exact date of his arrival, and when we looked in the Netherwood guest book of the period, we found that its first page had been torn out, presumably by someone intent on stealing Crowley's signature. However, as the next date in the book was 8 September 1945, it suggested that he had come to stay at Netherwood either in late August or very early September, about six weeks before his 70th birthday.
There was a choice of rooms and Crowley opted for number 13, which was at the front of the house. 'He wanted to go into that one,' she remembered. 'It was furnished in the same way as most of the other rooms. There was a large wardrobe, a writing table, a bookshelf and a single bed, as well as a bathroom and toilet. He put up quite a lot of pictures, including several he had painted in the Himalayas.'
Crowley brought with him some special gold coins, which he claimed had magic powers and was anxious about keeping safe, and a 'box of (I Ching) sticks'. He made frequent use of the latter. 'When he had an appointment for the dentist, for instance, he threw the sticks in the air. And once he called me and said, "Phone the dentist immediately! The sticks have told me not to go." The dentist was very amazed.'
The Great Beast soon settled into a regular daily routine. At nine each morning the housekeeper Miss Clarke took him his breakfast, and at ten, if the weather was fine, he would take a stroll in the garden, where Johnny kept some beautiful plump white rabbits, which he nicknamed 'The Chrysanthemums' and would love to watch. When the sun shone he would often sit with his hands held heavenwards.
Crowley then spent most of the rest of the day sleeping in his room, where he also took his other meals. His favourite snack was sardines sprinkled with curry powder. He roused himself as darkness fell, and sat up all night either writing letters, reading or indulging in his heroin drug habit.
'He had a ration of heroin which was allowed him,' Mrs Symonds said. 'It used to come down from a chemist called Heppel's in London. But the police knew about it. I've often watched him stick a needle in his arm. He didn't mind.'
The housekeeper Miss Clarke was not very fond of Crowley, whom he teased by calling her a witch and by claiming he had seen her flying past his window at night on a broomstick. Crowley's raillery may have resulted from her clumsiness in nearly losing one of his precious gold coins, which she shook out of the window along with the crumbs from his tablecloth. It fell into the bushes below, where it lay for several hours, much to its owner's consternation, before finally being found.
An amusing incident involving Miss Clarke occurred when Johnny asked Crowley to do her horoscope, but could only tell him that she had been born in the night.
'When he got round to starting the horoscope, he wrote me a little note which he placed on his breakfast tray. The housekeeper peeped at it, and when she saw that it said "Before or after midnight?" she showed it to my husband, thinking that I was planning a nocturnal escapade with Mr Crowley. We all had a good laugh about that.'
Despite his unenviable reputation and the fact that he insisted on greeting everyone with injunction 'Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law', the Great Beast proved a popular addition to the Netherwood household. He had considerable charm, a pleasing personality and was very erudite, which helped make him a good companion and a stimulating talker. He had many long conversations about all manner of subjects with Vernon Symonds.
Crowley joined Hastings Chess Club, where 'nobody ever beat him', and he also took the time to tutor the Symonds's nephew Roland, who later became a priest, in Latin. He sometimes went for walks along The Ridge, where on sunny days he would often stop and lean against a lamp post and hold his hands palms upwards to the sun, and he patronised a health hydro there named Riposo.
'He had many visitors,' Mrs Symonds disclosed. 'He had some people over from Germany who used to bring him lovely wine. And he had somebody who was in the army in Germany, who went afterwards to America.'
Crowley's English visitors included Kenneth Grant, author of Aleister Crowley and the Hidden God, Michael Houghton, the owner of the Atlantis Bookshop, John Symonds, who wrote The Magic of Aleister Crowley, and of course Louis Wilkinson.
'He had many parcels from America with boxes of chocolates (in them) when they were rationed here, and at one time he had boxes of chocolates stacked from floor to ceiling. And he had this very strong (peluke) tobacco made with molasses; and the smell of that tobacco stayed in the room for a long time after Crowley was gone. He also made friends with a local grocer named Mr Watson, who took him out for drives and would come and look after him.'
As far as Johnny was aware, Crowley did not practise any magic, let alone 'sex-magick', at Netherwood, although this was probably because he was by then sexually impotent and physically ailing.
Yet she poignantly recalled that 'there was a film in Hastings called The Wizard of Oz, and he told me he would very much like to see it. But I said, "It wouldn't interest you at all, it's a children's thing." So he didn't go!'
Aleister Crowley's health began seriously to deteriorate towards the end of 1947 -- 'He had a very bad chest, a sort of bronchitis' -- and despite the administrations of Dr Charnock-Smith and the efforts of Mrs Symonds 'he got worse and worse and I think he died of pneumonia', an event which happened on Monday, 1 December. He was cremated at Brighton on the following Friday.
'Mrs Thorne-Drury and myself followed the coffin from Hastings to Brighton. At the crematorium we found only a few mourners, perhaps two or three. I remember that a German lady placed some red roses on his coffin. There was no service. Louis Wilkinson, who had a beautiful voice, read his poem Pan and something else that Mr Crowley had written. When we got back to Netherwood in the taxi there was a tremendous thunderstorm with lightning, which continued for the whole of the night. Louis Wilkinson, who travelled back with us, said: "That's just what Crowley would have liked"!'
According to Johnny, Aleister Crowley was an easy-going, trouble-free resident, who not only spent much of his time in his room, but who rubbed along well with the other visitors and with her and her husband. Indeed, her feelings about him were entirely positive: 'I liked him,' she said. 'He was great fun.'
(Author Rodney Davies' most recent book is Journeys to Heaven and to Hell, published by Robert Hale. His first music CD may be obtained from his www.midpop.com website.)