Tiger-Woman: Betty May And The Abbey of Thelema

In 1922, a young Oxford graduate, Frederick Charles Loveday, published his poem, A Song of Town in Oxford Poetry. Comparing the dark and bleak London he knew to a dragonfly, an ephemeral creature whose life was drawing to a close, Loveday was undoubtedly talented, but he struggled to find a way in which to use his intellect and settle upon a career. Less than a year later, having found himself increasingly drawn to the occult, he adopted the name ‘Raoul’ and accepted a job as a secretary to the occultist Aleister Crowley. The position necessitated his move to Cefalù, on the north coast of Sicily. There, he would live and work at the Abbey of Thelema, which Crowley and his lover, Leah Hirsig had founded in 1920.

The town itself was seeped in legend, its coastline dominated by an imposing mountain known as La Rocca, a mountain believed to be sacred by the town’s early inhabitants. According to a local myth, La Rocca had once been the handsome young shepherd, Daphnis, the product of a liaison between the god Hermes and a local nymph. Daphnis fell in love with a naiad, but betrayed her with a  princess after drinking too much wine. In return for his betrayal, the naiad blinded him and then turned him into the giant rock, where he would be left to rue his actions for all eternity. Centuries later, Cefalù would be the site of another betrayal and the Abbey of Thelema a lasting monument to the ensuing tragedy.

Raoul Loveday did not travel to Cefalù alone. He had recently married Betty May, a noted beauty and a woman far more worldly than her husband. She had been born into a life of poverty in the East End of London, and strove to escape from it as soon as she was able; Loveday was her third husband (or possibly fourth, she could never remember). Her stunning looks enabled her to become a sought after artist’s model, having sat for the likes of Augustus John and being hailed as his muse by the celebrated sculptor Jacob Epstein. However, there were also rumours that she was a heavy user of both cocaine and morphine and occasionally worked as a prostitute. Crowley later stated that, in his view, ‘Raoul should not have married her. It meant the sterilization of the genius of success in life.’ Furthermore, Crowley believed that by inviting the couple to Cefalù he had offered them a chance to escape their miserable existence back in London, which had seen them, ‘living from hand to mouth, with disaster eternally looming ahead, and the whisper of hope more faint and feeble as each effort ended in failure.’

At the Abbey, Loveday’s devotion to Crowley intensified as did his dedication to Thelema. Founded by Crowley, Thelema drew its inspiration from the ancient Egyptians and Greeks and was also inspired by Crowley’s own experiences in Egypt. As a religion, it embraced the notion that the twentieth-century heralded the Aeon of Horus, a period in which old mores and modes of conduct would be cast aside. This was embodied by the phrase ‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law,’ frequently used by Crowley and his disciples.  It is not hard to see how Thelema would have been very appealing to a highly intelligent and free-thinking, yet dissatisfied young man like Raoul Loveday. Betty May on the other hand, remained deeply sceptical and wary of her husband’s mentor.

One February morning in 1923, Betty May’s fears were realised. Raoul and Betty May left the Abbey to visit a monastery some thirteen miles away. As they walked back from their excursion, Raoul became thirsty and drank from a stream that Crowley had warned them to avoid. Almost immediately, he was struck down by a terrible fever and became gravely ill. The artist Nina Hamnett later recalled in her 1932 memoir, Laughing Torso that she had seen the Lovedays shortly before their move to Cefalù. She remembered that Raoul was ‘very good-looking, but looked half dead’ and that he ‘had had been very ill the year before and had had a serious operation.’ With his immune system weakened, Raoul was unable to fight the infection that had taken hold of him. He died on Valentine’s Day, and was buried soon after in a local cemetery. Crowley expressed great sadness at Raoul’s death, believing that he had possessed ‘every qualification for becoming a magician of the first rank. I designated him from the first interview to be my magical heir.’

Devastated by the loss of her husband, Betty May returned to England intent on seeking revenge against Crowley, whom she blamed for Raoul’s death. Several weeks later, in March 1923, the magazine John Bull ran an article denouncing Crowley as ‘The King of Depravity,’ and revealing that, in his care, ‘a brilliant young writer and University man has just died under mysterious circumstances.’ John Bull continued its campaign against Crowley, further pronouncing him to be ‘The Wickedest Man in the World.’

Seeing how the press were turning bitterly against Crowley, Betty May went to the Sunday Express to reveal all about her time at the Abbey of Thelema. The paper recanted her tales with shocked indignation, describing the depraved ‘orgies’ and the abundance of all manner of drugs with abject horror. Of Crowley himself, it was said that he spent ‘his time smoking opium in a room which is really a gallery of obscene pictures gathered from all over the world,’ and dismissed Thelema as nothing more than a belief system that sunk to ‘the lowest depths that human depravity can reach.’ It was even claimed that Raoul Loveday’s death had been the result of a ritual in which he had been forced to drink the blood of a cat that Crowley had sacrificed. Concerned about the rumours of black magic, Mussolini personally intervened and had Crowley deported. The Abbey of Thelema was abandoned and left derelict, its walls covered with Crowley’s artworks, were defaced by angry locals.

Writing about Betty May and what he saw as her betrayal, not only of him but of the religion of Thelema, to which her husband had been so devoted, Crowley later remembered how, after going to the press, she had written to him, ‘expressing the bitterest remorse; but at the same time pleading that they had reported her falsely. I begged her to make amends in the only possible way; by coming forward publicly and testifying under oath to the falsehood of the allegations. Alas, poor Betty! It has been the curse of her life that she cannot act decisively.’

Despite this alleged change of heart, Betty May persisted in her attempts to destroy Crowley and leave his reputation as battered and ruined as the Abbey of Thelema. In 1929, she published her memoir, Tiger-Woman. The book’s title was taken from her own nickname, apparently earned because of her habit of balancing a saucer of brandy on her back as she walked on all fours, like a cat. Five years later, when Crowley brought a libel case against Nina Hamnett as result of Laughing Torso, Betty May, by then Mrs Sedgewick, testified in court. She reiterated the earlier outlandish claims that Raoul Loveday had been forced to drink cat’s blood – an action that possibly brought about his death.

For all her hatred of Crowley, Betty May used her association with him and her time at the Abbey of Thelema to publicize her own book. Nevertheless, whilst contemporary interest in it was considerable, today a copy of her memoir is not easy to come by. The revelations of the infamous “Tiger-Woman” are somewhat forgotten and also largely discredited; seen as the inflated assertions of someone seeking to blame another for their own loss. Perhaps the book, which offered her a means of supporting herself financially at a time of economic instability, can also be seen as a desperate attempt by Betty May to avoid returning to a life of ‘disaster eternally looming ahead.’  As for her ill-fated husband, little did he know that he would be ‘Soon dead too,’ like the dragonfly he wrote of and the London he was so eager to leave behind.

Above: Aleister Crowley – The Poet, taken from The Great Beast Speaks (1920)


Selected Sources:

The Confessions of Aleister Crowley : An Autohagiography – Aleister Crowley (1929)

Laughing Torso – Nina Hamnett (1932)

Aleister Crowley: The Beast Demystified – Roger Hutchinson (2011)