The savant and the occultist

By Richard Boyle

On the publication of my article “This is Serendib in England” (The Sunday Times April 25, 2010), some readers expressed interest in the connection between the savant Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy and occultist Aleister Crowley, which centred on Coomaraswamy’s second wife, a musician and singer from Yorkshire known as Ratan Devi. Crowley describes his vicarious relationship with the Coomaraswamys in his autobiography Confessions (1969). However, independent details of Coomaraswamy’s private life are scanty, so it must be stressed that parts of Crowley’s story cannot be corroborated.

In the early years of the 20th century, Ceylon was visited twice by the most famous and infamous magician of modern times - Aleister Crowley, or the “Great Beast 666” as he styled himself. Although Crowley attended Trinity College, Cambridge, his real seat of learning was the magical society called the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. The Golden Dawn taught and practised ceremonial magic, which incorporated aids such as drugs and sex. As a magician, Crowley was in direct line of descent from such luminaries as Cagliostro, the Comte de Saint Germain, Eliphas Levi, and Madame Blavatsky. He was also a poet, novelist, mountaineer, eccentric, and womanizer.

Both Crowley (left) and Coomaraswamy (right) were keen admirers of the opposite sex. Pic courtesy getty images.

Crowley relates that at the start of the First World War, when he discovered he was unable to serve his country because of phlebitis in his leg, he accepted an invitation to go to New York. With only £50 in his pocket, and disadvantaged by the fact that nobody knew him, things did not go well at first. Writing was one of the few ways he could earn money, but initially nobody wanted to even look at his work. Crowley admits being nearly down and out when he was introduced to Frank Crowninshield, the editor of Vanity Fair. Thereafter Crowley became a regular contributor to this well-known publication, writing on subjects as diverse as baseball and haiku poetry.

It was in New York - just prior to his appointment in 1917 as a specialist in Indian, Persian and Muslim Art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston – that Coomaraswamy made a memorable appearance in Crowley’s life. These two remarkable men were dissimilar in many ways: for example Coomaraswamy’s scholarly and institution-oriented approach contrasted starkly with Crowley’s eccentricity and anti-establishment attitude. Yet they had certain things in common. Both were around 40 at the time, and both tended to dress in a flamboyant manner. More importantly the tall, handsome, debonair Coomaraswamy was, it seems, like Crowley, a keen admirer of the opposite sex.

Although Crowley was not handsome, his physical appearance, especially his hypnotic eyes, made a strong and sometimes long-lasting impression on most people, especially women. But he made an impact on men, too. He had taken Richard Burton’s advice that a star sapphire was universally venerated by Muslims, and on one of his visits to Ceylon had purchased a large and fine specimen of this gemstone. This he used as the centrepiece of a ring with a gold band featuring two intertwined serpents. Once he stopped a violent quarrel among Arabs by drawing occult signs in the air with this ring.

Crowley had one underlying problem with Coomaraswamy - the fact that he was Eurasian. Crowley disliked Eurasians in general, confessing they got on his nerves, and even described them as “anaemic abortions”. At one point in his autobiography Crowley digresses in order to malign Eurasians in more detail. “Even the highest class Eurasians such as Ananda Koomaraswamy suffer acutely from the shame of being considered outcast,” he claimed.

For some unexplained reason, Crowley consistently spells Coomaraswamy with a K, although the name appears correctly in the index. My hunch is that Crowley changed the spelling to avoid having the same initials as the man he ended up referring to as “The Worm”.

Coomaraswamy was then married to the second of his four wives, a musician and singer from Yorkshire with the stage name Ratan Devi. He had recently arrived in New York after a spell in India and wanted to launch Ratan Devi’s career in America. According to Crowley, Coomaraswamy sought his advice, so Crowley invited the couple to dinner at his apartment in order that Ratan Devi might perform part of her repertoire of Indian songs.

Crowley was impressed, for he describes her as possessing “a strange seductive beauty and charm, but above all an ear so accurate and a voice so perfectly trained, that she was able to sing Indian music, which is characterised by half and quarter tones imperceptible to European ears”. Crowley introduced the Coomaraswamys to several influential people and wrote a prose poem about Ratan Devi’s voice for Vanity Fair. Soon afterwards the singer made a successful debut, for which Crowley largely took credit.

Crowley writes that Ratan Devi and he fell in love, a situation that suited Coomaraswamy perfectly. There was even a suggestion of divorce, but when Ratan Devi’s career began to blossom, Coomaraswamy apparently changed his mind. After that the relationship began to develop complications, especially when Ratan Devi became pregnant. Coomaraswamy persuaded her to go to England for the confinement against Crowley’s will. The voyage caused a miscarriage, which is what Crowley suspected Coomaraswamy wanted to happen.

When Ratan Devi returned to America, Crowley was in New Orleans and she wrote daily imploring him to go back to her. Crowley would only do so under one condition: that she make a clean break from Coomaraswamy and the past. This she was reluctant to do, however, which led to the end of the affair.
When writing of his relationship with Ratan Devi some years later, Crowley admitted, “my heart is still not wholly healed”. Nevertheless, soon after their relationship foundered he admits he relieved himself of some of the pain in a calculated act of revenge.

He invented the character of a detective named Simon Iff, whose method of discovering the solution to a crime was “to calculate the mental and moral energies of the people concerned”. The adventures of this detective were published as a series titled “The Scrutinies of Simon Iff” in a little-known New York periodical called The International, a liberal magazine of literature, international politics, philosophy and drama. It so happened that Crowley was the contributing editor of this publication.

According to Crowley, he used his convoluted and colourful relationship with the Coomaraswamys, exact in every detail, as the background for the fifth Simon Iff story called “Not Good Enough”, published in January 1918. Crowley made one superficial change. Coomaraswamy became Haramzada Swami; Haramzada being the Hindustani word for “bastard”. “The publication of this tale came as a slight shock to the self-complacency of the scoundrel,” gloats Crowley.

While the late bibliographer H.A.I. (Ian) Goonetileke was in America in 1973 as a Senior Specialist Fellow of the John D. Rockefeller III Fund he undertook some research at the New York Public Library. Goonetileke informed me he made a request to see The International, but on perusing the relevant volume he found the issue with the damning narrative was missing. Fortunately, however, he was able to acquire a photocopy of the absent pages through the Library of Congress. So it’s possible the narrative was deliberately removed.

Crowley could not resist taking one last swipe at Coomaraswamy before closing the chapter in his autobiography. He claims that the mistress Coomaraswamy was preoccupied with at the time had made a revealing confession to Ratan Devi. The mistress had told how she had been ordered by Coomaraswamy to copy a number of poems from Crowley’s Collected Works and hawk them to a publisher.

When Ratan Devi told Crowley of this deed, he wrote immediately to the firm concerned a letter he described as “the last word in savage contempt”. Crowley’s parting barb regarding the Coomaraswamys sums up his attitude: “So ended my adventures with these fascinating freaks.”

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