I thought it might be interesting to find one anecdote to best encapsulate the strange life of William Seabrook. But, then, his life was so full of incident and he knew so many of the kind of people who are ornaments to any reminiscence that it seemed too daunting a task. I mean, he once walked across Kurdistan and gained weight. Then there was the time he was lost for five months with the Druze militia, the weekend when he and Aleister Crowley, “The Beast,” got drunk together in Georgia, the incident where he fell off a Danish freighter after drinking too much aquavit, or that day in Paris when he pretended to torture Lee Miller for a series of photographs for her lover, Man Ray. Or I might have picked any of a number of stories from a memoir by his second wife, novelist Marjorie Worthington, called The Strange World of Willie Seabrook. He had a cottage built out back of their place in Rhinebeck, New York to which Seabrook had young women delivered from New York City. “They’d stay in there for days on end,” Worthington wrote. “God knows what they were doing.”
Strange? Strange ain’t in it, as they say.
Then, serendipitously, I came across a story told by Wambly Bald, the Parisian newspaper columnist of the 1930s, and supported by Worthington, about how Willie ate a healthy portion of a Parisian transport worker. Had him prepared this way and that, just so.
But I’ll get to that.
Seabrook was born in Maryland in 1886. His father was a preacher. His grandfather had been a circuit preacher who rode around on horseback praising the Lord and nipping from the flask always present in a pocket of his long coat. Willie went to decent schools, earned a Master’s Degree and got on with a newspaper in Atlanta, despite appearing before the publisher all duded up, sporting a cane and a fake beard. He was hired as a cub reporter and promoted to City Editor when, on a slow news day, he jumped out of a balloon wearing a primitive parachute.
He quit the paper, went to Europe to study philosophy and quit that to bum around Europe for two years. When war broke out, Seabrook joined the French Army as an ambulance driver, knew Hemingway and e.e. cummings, and was gassed at Verdun. Returning to the States, he opened an ad agency and gave it up when it started making money. Next, he bought a farm and planted a crop and walked away from it before anything poked out of the ground. He went to Arabia and produced a book about his adventures. It was the last heady days of an era of exotic reportage by dashing intrepids. With his flaming red hair and willingness to go anywhere and do anywhere, and his ability to write like a swashbuckler, Seabrook made out like a bandit.
He wrote books about Africa and Haiti, witchcraft, voodoo and cannibalism, about crossing the Sahara desert and generally just bumming around. One of his books, White Monk of Timbuktoo, about a white man who marries a native woman and becomes revered by the local people, is rumoured to be based on his own experiences. Seabrook pursued Islamic studies and became a Sufi. He lived with Zezides and whirling dervishes. He gave the world, a bright little plaything of a word that could mean whatever you wanted it to mean: zombie. He coined the word in his 1929 travel book, The Magic Island, which was bought for the movies. White Zombie was based on an incident Seabrook wrote about concerning a sugar cane plantation owner who seemed to have had secret power over his robotic workers. The movie starred Bela Lugosi, and not long after it appeared, all North America seemed to have become zombie-crazed.
Later Seabrook would claim that he set about on his escapades not out of any sense of adventure so much as a desire to run away. He never explained that from which he tried to flee.
There were three things that Seabrook loved above all else; one was drinking, one was tying up, shackling, chaining or otherwise inhibiting the free movement of women; the third was having them shackle, chain or inhibit his own movement. Willie dedicated himself to these pursuits wherever he happened to be. As a mere lad, Willie loved to tie up his little female playmates. He said that he loved the desert because the women wore so many bangles and bracelets, and there were all those tent pegs. When he hit Paris, Seabrook became quite popular with the surrealists who made a cult, an intellectual one, of S & M. Here, in their midst, was the real thing. Seabrook was not hesitant to divulge the fantasies that he had realized while many of the surrealists, Louis Aragon, chief among them, seemed to use Seabrook’s exploits as their own raw material.
It is interesting to note that Aleister Crowley, “The Beast” himself, was scared of Seabrook. He left several disparaging comments about Seabrook in his notebooks, but this might have something to do with the fact that Willie lent him plenty of money over the years; money which the Beast never paid back.
The photographer Man Ray notes in his memoir the time he looked after Seabrook’s apartment for a few hours. His fellow American had been called away for a press interview, and Man Ray and Lee Miller went over to, basically, kept an eye on the young woman Seabrook had left tied to the staircase, “in soiled underwear”.
They untied her, Man Ray claimed, so that she could have something to eat, and re-tied her before the master got home.
Another story Man Ray told, about being invited to dinner at Seabrook’s, and being served fricassée à la Parisienne, is probably apocryphal. Man Ray was a guest at a Seabrook party where the host presented a series of tableaux vivants, including a naked woman on a silver platter and others hanging from the ceiling.
In 1933, Seabrook’s friends convinced him to commit himself to the Rockland Institute in New York State to undergo a “cure” for alcoholism. Not long after he was admitted, the doctors introduced him to “the pack.” He was wrapped one way, then the other in a series of tight wet sheets. “Tighter than any kid glove,” Seabrook would write. He immediately began to get “excited, locally”.
After a few nights, the doctors gave up on this treatment, telling Seabrook that he seemed to like it too much. “It occurred to me,” Seabrook wrote, completely deadpan, “that I was probably masochistic”.
His close friends must have gotten a big laugh out of that.
He spent seven months in Rockland, stayed off the booze for awhile after being released, but went back to it. There were other institutions, and Seabrook killed himself in one of them in 1947. He was then the author of a successful new book, his autobiography, No Hiding Place.
This unusual man to whose wayward character a bit of genius adhered has not been totally forgotten. He shows up in footnotes to books on witchcraft, magic and sado-masochism. Williams S. Burroughs was a big fan and there is even a gin-based cocktail named after him and one of his books; it’s called a Willie Seabrook Asylum.
Seabrook had a strict moral sense, no doubt inherited from his hellfire-and-brimstone ancestors. Although he might exaggerate some of his stories, Seabrook fretted about doing so. In his book African Ways, Seabrook mentions taking part in cannibalism. At the time he thought he was eating human flesh but later, while correcting proofs, realized he had been misled, and that he had dined on ape. He left it in his book and, typically, enjoyed castigating himself as a liar.
At the same time, Seabrook didn’t like being a liar so he used one of his contacts at a hospital in Paris to advise him when a choice young person died. And so it happened, according to Marjorie Worthington who was there, that Seabrook appeared at a friend’s apartment one evening with a pound of flesh from the neck of a newly dead transit worker. He told his friend and her cook that it was goat from Africa. The cook prepared the flesh in various ways: fried, stewed, fricasséed, boiled, all of which Willie Seabrook sampled, taking notes after every bite.
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