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by Jason O’Toole

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There is a poem by Aleister Crowley simply titled “Jeanne.” Unlike his best-known writing, it’s a ballad of heartbreak not layered in esoteric symbols or supernatural mysteries. On first read, it might be passed off as sentimental doggerel due to lazy rhymes and confusingly out-of-place, insulting, and repetitive cow metaphors. It begins:

I laid mine ear against your heart,
Jeanne
A masterpiece of nature turned
A masterpiece of art,
With your blanched Egyptian beauty foiled
By the hungry eyes, and the red mouth soiled
By the honey of mine that your greed has spoiled,
Jeanne
The body a corpse and the soul inurned

Perhaps it’s a poem best read aloud to experience the despair and longing contained within. Crowley’s one-time secretary Israel Regardie chose this poem to record, and while some lines are a bit grating, the overall effect is a realization that love, like all creations in nature and art, is anything but eternal. Alternatively, it’s the ravings of a drug addict who, having in his mind found his feminine ideal, venerates her as a masterpiece as he is incapable of respecting her as a real person.

The poem ends ruefully:

Jeanne
For the end of love and the end of art
Is just—my ear against your heart

In either scenario, Crowley gives us a glimpse of his tumultuous inner-life, rife with frustration and disappointment.

Who was this Jeanne? Thelemites and sundry other occultists might know her only as one of the pack of Crowley’s “Scarlet Women” with whom he practiced his notorious Sex Magick rituals. Crowley named Jeanne “Soror Hilarion,” or less formally, “Cat.” Of all his consorts and dalliances, Jeanne was the woman he believed he truly loved and with whom he hoped to conceive a male heir.

She was born Julia Elizabeth Oliver in 1879 to a lumberjack father and a mother who, though educated as a teacher at the Albany Normal School, chose the rugged trail to the North Country. The family homesteaded on the unyielding, rocky terrain formed by the Ice Age. Jeanne spent her formative years in and around Chestertown, New York—a town of three lakes in the Adirondack State Park which, even today, has a population straining to reach 700.

Jeanne Robert Foster

My own family owned a piece of property there where we would spend our leisure time enjoying the solitude of the forest, sipping camp coffee by the cast iron stove in an ancient lumberjack’s cabin. I grew up with descendants of the same hardworking, rough-around-the-edges families who inspired Jeanne’s ballads and folk narratives. For my family, Chestertown was our special place for getaways; an idyllic break from the travails of the city. For Jeanne, it was a place of natural beauty, but nature often proved indifferent to the plight of the families.

Boys might grow up to become farmers, lumberjacks, teamsters, or work the mills along the streams. Prospects for a poor mountain girl were far more limited. Jeanne was promised only that she might make a fine washerwoman for a wealthy family. In her verse, she described the rarity of “love” marriages and describes women being sold as chattel:

Raised on Mormon Hill, where they count women
Less than fat cattle. They used to trade them
Till the government stepped in and stopped it.
(“Silence Davis,” Neighbors of Yesterday)

To escape this bleak future, Jeanne married at eighteen to the much older Matlack Foster. Foster saw to it that Jeanne was able to obtain an education, experience city life, and gave her room to explore rewarding opportunities in modeling, acting, and writing. Her career and Foster’s worsening health gave Jeanne the freedom to align herself with some of the most influential men of her day, sometimes romantically.

Jeanne was raised in a time when some educated people like her mother Lizzie Oliver embraced alternative spirituality in a revolt against the strict Calvinism of their Yankee upbringing. Her mother, a follower of the Transcendentalists, found an affinity with the gods of the Vedas which sparked Jeanne’s interest in Theosophy. Spiritualism had also been popular in the region; so popular that reactionary ministers equated it with devil worship, blaming it for causing civil war. After that conflict, in which nearly every family in America lost at least one of their young men, the desire to communicate with the dead became more widespread. Seances were the best-known means of contacting the deceased (albeit with a heavy dose of parlor tricks). “Psychic medium” families such as the Eddy Brothers of Vermont drew international attention in the 1870s, attracting hundreds of tourists and a few professional skeptics to their rural inn.

John Butler Yeats | Credit: Alice Boughton

Jeanne’s fascination with the darker side of magick began in her youth. One of her family homes was said to have been hexed by its previous resident after he was set out by the landlord. The family felt the lingering presence of this curse and never felt quite at ease there.  In 1906, Jeanne’s lifelong interest in esoterica inspired her to join the New York chapter of Theosophical Society. Her fascination with the occult likely made Jeanne susceptible to the charms of a certain British poet and adventurer with a bad reputation (making him, for a time, the toast of Manhattan) and worsening drug habit. Jeanne struck up a friendship with Aleister Crowley despite warnings from mutual friends. John Butler Yeats, the painter and father of poet William, cautioned that while he found no evidence that Crowley was “the wickedest man alive,” he did drink to excess.

When Jeanne met Crowley, he had already become the sworn enemy of William Butler Yeats. The two poet magickians were on opposite sides of the legendary civil war inside the Order of the Golden Dawn. Crowley confessed to Jeanne that he had written a fanciful account of the fracas under the boastful pen name “Leo Vincey” in The Rosicrucian Scandal. In that tract, magical assassination is threatened against Yeats and others who dared to depose leader MacGregor Mathews, whom Crowley believed to be the immortal King James IV.

When Jeanne met Crowley, she was enjoying a career as a world-traveling New York City-based journalist and influential literary editor, and had published her first collection of poetry, Wild Apples. Crowley was a prolific and respected poet, his writing often appearing in the sophisticated Vanity Fair, which had employed young Jeanne as a fashion model. Like many up-and-coming artists, Crowley enjoyed the friendship and patronage of wealthy lawyer John Quinn—the man who would become Jeanne’s soul mate.

Through her friendship with the Yeats family, Jeanne met many of the heroes who would go on to lead the “nation once again” of her ancestral Ireland. The early twentieth century was a time when poets and magickians were often one and the same. Some, like Yeats, went on to become a nation-building statesman and while never wealthy, a member of the new aristocracy. Yeats’s poems, often drawing on folklore, helped to establish a new national identity. Jeanne threw her journalistic support behind independence for Ireland and later in support of Czechoslovakia and would travel, at great personal risk, to these countries. Jeanne’s close friend Ezra Pound (who claimed to Jeanne to be a superior magickian to Yeats) did not fare as well in his bid to become a poet-statesman in Mussolini’s fascist Italy. Jeanne, ever loyal to her friends may have been influential in his release after thirteen years under lock at St. Elizabeth’s, her written appeal for his freedom being received prior to his indictment being overturned.

To the delight of generations of scholars to come, Jeanne was a faithful letter writer and diarist, dutifully recording conversations with famous friends. Her romances and adventures were also chronicled in detail, betraying the public image of the respectable wife. Although Crowley idealized her as his “Scarlet Woman” and the mother of his mystical child born on the spiritual plane, Jeanne did not appear to share his vision of reality and recorded little of their affair.

Crowley made the conceited claim that he accompanied Jeanne and her invalid husband on a rail trip from the East Coast to California, implying that Jeanne brought Mr. Foster along to spice things up with an element of cuckoldry. In reality, Crowley traveled on his own, leaving New York City nearly a month after the Fosters embarked on their journey. It is possible that the two met for a tryst at least once along the way. Jeanne recorded many of the sights of the trip west, but regarding Crowley (masked in her diary only as “A”), there is but one mention in sparse verse:

—Night—
Moonlight on
water Black?
Lying hills — A
White Nights—

These words precede a Thelemic invocation to her Holy Guardian Angel to protect her from the profanation and degradation of love. Crowley was not “the love of God mirrored in a human being” to Jeanne.

William Butler Yeats. Pencil by John Singer Sargent. 1908.

Several of Crowley’s diary entries and sonnets described his starry-eyed fantasy of Jeanne. Dante had his unrequited love with Beatrice, Yeats his Maud Gonne (whom, his father claimed, never troubled herself to read a word William wrote). Crowley, not to be left out, found and lost his muse in Jeanne. Among the many sonnets published in Vanity Fair was an erotic sonnet, “In the Red Room of Rose Croix,” which alludes to his certainty that Jeanne was his “Scarlet Woman.”

Crowley had attempted to persuade Jeanne to leave her career (and her lover, publisher Albert Shaw) to work for him. Unimpressed that the position he offered was little more than a glorified secretary, Jeanne turned down the offer. Frightened of Crowley’s unpredictable behavior and obsessive love for her, which he splashed shamelessly across the pages of a well-read magazine, Jeanne became disenchanted, to say the least.

Jeanne was an expert at dealing with eccentric friends and unwelcome attention from powerful men and women. After an embarrassing failure to entice her into a ménage à trois with a woman who was not his wife, Ezra Pound and Jeanne were still able to remain lifelong friends, after she set him straight. Breaking it to Crowley that their affair was over proved more difficult. He refused to accept her choice and made a physical threat of violence against Jeanne’s mother. Jeanne was unsure of how Crowley had known that her mother was visiting from up north but was sufficiently terrified to demand her mother spend the night in her bed. Jeanne would later relate that they were visited that evening by the figure of a menacing demon conjured by her spurned lover. Jeanne reported that she cast out the apparition with a banishing spell but this did not stop the unwanted attention from Crowley.

A short time later Crowley, stalking Jeanne on a New York City street, produced a ceremonial dagger while uttering threats against her. On another occasion, Jeanne ran off a female associate of Crowley’s who, evidently under duress, showed up at her apartment to deliver a teary-eyed message that Jeanne must help Crowley or be destroyed.

As time passed, the brilliant Crowley, a true polymath, explorer, and composer of impeccable sonnets, would be remembered by most as little more than the mythical yet one-dimensional caricature of himself. His Golden Dawn nemesis William Butler Yeats would come to have a name synonymous with literary gravitas and respectability. In his eulogy to his old boss, Bush 41, former Secretary of State James Baker recalled the President paraphrasing the final lines of Yeats’s “The Municipal Gallery Re-visited”:

Think where man’s glory most begins and ends
And say my glory was I had such friends.

In contrast, Crowley is jokingly referred to as the real father of Barbara Bush. Knowing what we do about his character and penchant for publicity of any kind, this may have been a welcome development.

Jeanne would age gracefully, balancing the intellectual life with humility and service to others. Through connections in the publishing world, Jeanne was instrumental in the fame achieved on our side of the Atlantic by T. S. Eliot, Ford Maddox Ford, and Ezra Pound, and should be remembered as a champion of Modernism. She saw her unselfish service to the poor and arts and letters as an expression of her love of the divine. As time went on and only Pound remained of her circle of friends; Jeanne kept her belief in Theosophy and the occult under wraps, instead choosing to channel it through good works.

Jeanne had always been interested in housing rights, a subject on which she had written extensively as an investigative journalist. In 1938, at age 55, she obtained a position with the housing authority in Schenectady, New York. She would live out the balance of her years at 1762 Albany Street, a modest home still standing today on what was once her family’s farmland. Jeanne saw it transform into an urban, working class neighborhood which even today suffers from decades of poverty and crime.

Jeanne established Schenectady’s first senior center which now provides services to my own parents. While she may have never achieved the lasting fame her best poems deserved, she would remain worthy of the title “poet” until the end, sharing her talents with poetry classes taught to Schenectady’s seniors. For her selfless service to the community she was honored with the Patroon Award, reserved for the city’s finest. Shortly after receiving an honorary doctorate at Union College, Jeanne left her earthly body on September 24, 1970 at the age of 86.

Aleister Crowley

Jeanne’s unwavering reliance on her own concept of god remained intact even into her last years. Jeanne recorded that her long-departed friend William Butler Yeats, whom she always suspected to be more divine than human, came to her in a lucid dream. This renewed her faith of a life after the one for her that was soon ending. A believer in re-incarnation, Jeanne felt that she and her close-knit circle of artist, writers, and patrons had been here before, and would be here again, growing stronger with each regeneration.

Jeanne was laid to rest under the pines, between her husband and her friend John Butler Yeats, in the historic rural cemetery off route 9 in Chestertown. Her unassuming marble grave marker bears the modest inscription: “Jean Robert Wife of Matt Foster 1970.”

Jeanne, the cosmopolitan intellectual, once heralded as an “international playgirl,” returned, quite literally, to her roots:

I heard the wild loon and the catbird cry
Over Sagamore Lake, and I knew that I
Heard the ancient call of race
Bidding me to my own place.

….

I am the root of the yellow willow,
The stem of the lily leaf;
There cannot come to my marsh-grass pillow
The cry of a human grief.
(“In Dimness,” Rock Flowers)


Reference:

  • Dear Yeats, Dear Pound, Dear Ford: Jeanne Robert Foster and Her Circle of Friends (Writing American Women), Richard Londraville and Janice Londraville. Syracuse University Press; 1st edition (September 1, 2001)

By Jeanne Robert Foster:

  • Wild Apples and Neighbors of Yesterday, 1916.
  • Rock Flower, 1923.
  • Adirondack Portraits: A Piece of Time 1986 (posthumous).

Jeanne Robert Foster Obituary, New York Times, September 25, 1970 accessed here.