"The Wickedest Man in the World" and his shadowy role in British intelligence.
Occultist, poet, painter, novelist, mountaineer, chess master, prophet of the New Aeon, drug addict, alleged traitor: such is a brief CV for Aleister Crowley, who dubbed himself the Great Beast 666. However, there is another accomplishment that needs to be added to this list, a side long obscured by the powers that be and by the man himself- Aleister Crowley, spy.
In his 1929 book Confessions and elsewhere, Crowley made vague references to his intelligence work, notably his 1914-19 mission in the U.S.A. There, he claimed, his public role as anti-British propagandist masked secret service on behalf of His Majesty. Such protestations were mostly dismissed as face-saving fantasies, but they really were the bare tip of the iceberg of the secret life of the "Wickedest Man in the World".
Back in 1999, I was busy working on a book dealing with the so-called Ace-of-Spies, Sidney Reilly. Crowley and Reilly were hanging around New York at the same time, so I was curious about a connection. I discovered a small file on Crowley long-forgotten in the WWI-era files of the U.S. Army's Military Intelligence Division. What leapt out was the conclusion that Crowley "was an employee of the British Government on official business of which the British Consul, New York City, has full cognizance," and that "the British Government was fully aware of the fact that Crowley was connected with…German propaganda and had received money for writing anti-British articles." So, the Beast had been telling the truth, or a least a little of it.
This initial discovery was the basis for a subsequent article which acquired a weird life of its own as it circulated across the internet and God knows where else. This led to further information and suggestions, the main one being that I should dig deeper into Crowley's espionage career. Reluctantly at first, but with growing enthusiasm as the pieces of the puzzle fell into place, I assembled the story of Crowley's connection to the intelligence world and its denizens, including the likes of Everard Feilding, Maxwell Knight and Ian Fleming. The story goes back to his Victorian dalliance with the Order of the Golden Dawn, through his twilight years during WWII, and is revealed in my recently-published book Secret Agent 666: Aleister Crowley, British Intelligence and the Occult.
The story remains in places teasingly hazy and speculative. At least part of the blame rests with the agencies whose files might have provided definitive answers, or at least more perspective, on nagging questions - MI5 and MI6. The latter, as usual, refused to either confirm of deny that they had any info on the Beast, though they did conjure up a list of press references that one might logically infer came from just such a dossier. MI5 at first denied knowing anything about the notorious Mr. Crowley. When confronted with the undeniable fact (discovered elsewhere) that their records had once held at least two files on Crowley, they acknowledged their error but insisted that the files had long ago been destroyed, "we think." Perhaps they had conveniently forgotten what was never supposed to be remembered.
Read about a new exhibition of Aleister Crowley's paintings in the latest issue of Dazed & Confused.