Explorer, travel writer, occultist and cannibal, Willie Seabrook had the sort of lively CV that one doesn’t see enough of in the literary world these days. Although he is largely forgotten now, Seabrook was a best-seller in his time, credited most notably with introducing the legend of zombies to the popular imagination with his book The Magic Island, published in 1929. The Strange World of Willie Seabrook, written by his long term partner Marjorie Muir Worthington and originally published in 1966, is both a memoir of their lives together and a memorial to a bygone artistic age.
A member of the lost generation, living a bohemian, expatriate lifestyle in the South of France, Seabrook was a contemporary of Gertrude Stein, Ford Madox Ford and Edith Sitwell, although he was not considered in the same league as them artistically: ‘Because of the sensational material in his books, the fact that Willie wrote very well was overlooked by most of the literary critics‘. In some ways, Seabrook is emblematic of the faded promise of ‘that alcohol-and-love-bedimmed era’. He had fought in the First World War, and been gassed at Verdun in 1916, but still showed signs of survivor’s guilt, and even though he and his circle were insulated from the worst effects of the Great Depression (‘in our dream life in the South of France we hardly ever read the newspapers‘), the question of how to respond to the trauma they had lived through was an artistic and psychological challenge:
‘It may have been such an unsettled and problem-filled time in history that writers found it hard to dig into their souls for the timeless stuff of which great novels and plays are made… in fact, if you were a very sensitive writer who had escaped, you felt a deep sense of shame and an obligation to do something. But what?’
The books that Seabrook did produce during this time have a strong sense of escapism, and boy’s own adventure. The likes of Adventures in Arabia and The Magic Carpet were best sellers, ‘hair-raising tales about the Druses and whirling dervishes and the practice of voodoo in Haiti’. In proto-Gonzo style, Seabrook put himself at the heart of his writing; Air Adventure, for example, tells the story of Seabrook and Worthington flying in a light aircraft from Paris to Timbuktu to meet a defrocked priest (Worthington, at one point, almost died when she and her driver got lost in the Sahara Desert, after becoming separated from her partner). Worthington shies away from judging his literary merits, saying simply that ‘I was too close to him, too caught up in that powerful personality, to be a good judge of him as a writer. I only know that he wrote some illuminated passages of prose, and that he was, in his own peculiar way, a dedicated artist‘.
This dedication led Seabrook to engage in some notorious escapades, not least his acquisition of a portion of human flesh to cook, in order to add realism to his depiction of cannibalism.
In farcical circumstances, he is ejected from a series of kitchens, and comes dangerously close to serving up the dish to his eventual host’s vegetarian wife. With a mixture of admiration and forbearance, Worthington remarks that ‘his books on Arabia and Haiti and the jungle, although they may not have been literal truths, were better than that’.
Of course, like any lost generation writer worth his salt, Seabrook was plagued by demons, in the form of alcoholism and violent sexual impulses which threatened to derail his relationships and career alike. Generally, Worthington recalls, Seabrook wrote from 5am until midday, completely sober, and then ‘drank as much as he liked, which was often more than he liked‘. Once again, Worthington identifies a deep need for escape in Seabrook’s behaviour: ‘Willie had experimented with drugs, just as he experimented with anything that would move life above or below the normal and respectable. But he was never drawn to any of them, finding in alcohol, which he consumed in gargantuan proportions, sufficient release from whatever he was trying to escape’.
His passion for life ‘above and below the normal and respectable’ was what drove Seabrook’s writing, and made him a captivating companion. However, his drinking was clearly debilitating, and not exactly conducive to digging into his soul for the timeless stuff of which great novels and plays are made: ‘With dread and an utter sense of inadequacy, I would watch the man whose intelligence and strength I loved turn into a babbling child or idiot. I had seen Willie set out deliberately to get drunk, to celebrate a job of work finished. But this was different. This was to deaden an inner anguish so deep a whole ocean of brandy couldn’t touch it’. Eventually, their life in France had to be abandoned altogether so that Seabrook could attempt to dry out in a series of American hospitals, an experience he would later write up in the style of one of his travel books.
Like many charismatic but troubled artists, Seabrook ‘had a way of making a nice woman feel that he needed her, that she alone could help him get rid of the demons that beset him, his drinking and his sadism‘. Worthington is extremely frank about her partner’s sexuality, and the problems it caused. Early on, she notes that ‘Willie loved women, in spite of a deep-seated hostility to his mother, Myra, that compelled him to make them miserable’. This manifested itself primarily in sadism. Although they were devoted companions for long periods, there was no sexual element to their relationship after its early stages, as ‘love-making, for Willie, was a complicated process, all mixed up with his complexes, fetishes and compulsions’, which Worthington had no desire to play along with.
His activities certainly seem like more of a compulsion than a kink. Psychiatrists ‘related his sexual fantasies to a desire to punish his mother, Myra, for some childish hurt’, but there must also have been a self-destructive impulse. At the height of his fame, Seabrook gave a public lecture on his journeys in Timbuktu while a half-naked sex-worker was suspended by her wrists on the balcony. Later, whilst recovering from his hospitalisation in a wealthy village in upstate New York, and ostensibly researching witchcraft and occult rituals, he courted disaster by engaging in marathon S&M sessions with local girls in a barn. Understandably, all this was a cause of friction with Worthington, who was forced to take on the emotional labour of providing a stable home for her recovering partner, who appears never to have considered the psychological impact his behaviour would have on her: ‘He made no secret of his sexual twist. He wanted people to know about his sadism, and to talk about it. I always felt that it was something private and horrid, to be kept out of sight‘.
The tension that clearly exists between Seabrook and Worthington is the most fascinating aspect of the story. While it may be the accounts of his drinking and sexual mores that draw readers to the book, it is most effective as a thinly veiled portrait of a frustrated female artist being pushed into the background by her dissolute partner.
Early on, during a visit to Gertrude Stein, Worthington is vexed at being left in the company of Miss Toklas, whose role was ‘to entertain the wives of celebrities who came to see [her]… I found it disappointing to be considered a “wife”, because I was a writer too, and I knew a lot more about painting than Willie did’.
Later, we see further examples of Worthington being forced to surrender her own autonomy, as so much of her self is bound up in her relationship to Seabrook: at one point, she says, her love for him was ‘so intricately bound up with my breath I breathed and the blood that channelled its way in and out of my heart that only death could have put an end to it. My death, not his. As different as we were in so many ways, we had become one. I was never to be free of Willie, and, I don’t think, to the very end, he was ever free of me’. Experiencing life without him felt ‘as if I were acting in part of a film, the part with Willie in it having been left on the cutting-room floor’. At other times, when Seabrook is drunk and belligerent, it is she who makes herself psychologically absent: ‘I had cultivated an ability to be present with the body and absent with the spirit‘.
We see Worthington struggle to reconcile her bohemian tastes with an innate ‘bourgeois streak… a mile wide’. This contrary nature makes it possible for her to survive in a world without Seabrook, but also makes the prospect seem unbearable: ‘I had been wondering how I could still be alive without Willie. Now I knew I would go on being alive in a world without heroics, a world full of little overcharges for repassage and laundry!‘ Thus, during Seabrook’s research into witchcraft, ‘I tried to keep things running smoothly, while knowing that in the barn studio some rather nice girl had been persuaded to let herself be hung by a chain from the ceiling‘. Mournfully, Worthingon adds, ‘aside from those nerve-wracking sessions, we were leading what was for us an exemplary and incredibly normal life‘ – playing golf and badminton, and working, in relative sobriety.
Ultimately, it is easy to see Willie Seabrook, charismatic but flawed, successful but self-sabotaging, as an emblem of his generation. While their life together had a sheen of bohemian allure, looking beneath the surface shows two frail and damaged personalities: ‘we were supposed to be ultra-sophisticates, but really we weren’t. Willie always remained seven tenths small boy, and I was often as self-conscious and shy as if I had never left home‘. The stories which captivated readers were in many ways the adventures of an overgrown child, but that child was too haunted by memories of his mother to negotiate adult relationships, or to tap into ‘the timeless stuff of which great novels and plays are made’.
Whilst the book’s cover, featuring a masked and bound woman chained to a jewel-studded throne, promises a story of exotic debauchery, what it actually delivers is quite different. Worthington is certainly frank about Willie Seabrook’s life and adventures, but as her narrative progressed, I found my attention being drawn away from its primary subject, and towards the author herself, trying to build a full psychological picture from the hints provided in her text. Whilst Seabrook’s writing has dated and been forgotten, Worthington’s straightforward, conversational tone is still compellingly readable, a forerunner of today’s confessional memoir. The gender politics, revolving around the emotional labour of supporting a wayward, borderline abusive partner, and a woman’s attempts to pursue an artistic career being deemed secondary to her husband’s, are certainly relevant, even if the experience is more hinted at than outright stated. While the outre details of Seabrook’s life jump off the page, it is the subtle description of Worthington’s own experiences which linger in the reader’s mind when the book is finished, allowing her, finally to step out of Seabrook’s shadow.
Marjorie Worthington (1900–1976) was an American novelist, short story writer, and biographer. She met the popular author and journalist William Seabrook in 1926, and they wrote and traveled together throughout Europe and Africa until their divorce in 1941. Marjorie Worthington’s account of her life with Seabrook was her last major published work, which Kirkus Reviews described as an “intense, self-questioning memoir.”
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The Strange World of Willie Seabrook is published by Spurl Editions. Author bio courtesy of the same.