John Symonds

Biographer of 'the Great Beast'


John Symonds, journalist, novelist and playwright: born London 12 March 1914; married 1940 Hedvig Feuerstein (marriage dissolved), 1945 Renata Israel (two sons); died London 21 October 2006.

John Symonds wrote highly regarded children's books illustrated by some of the foremost illustrators of the day, entertaining biographies, a multitude of plays (only a few of which were ever performed), and a host of novels, but will surely be best remembered for his connection, as biographer and literary executor, with the infamous Aleister Crowley.

Crowley - once described as "the wickedest man in the world" by a journalist on the weekly John Bull who clearly had no real understanding of the concept (and whose proprietor Horatio Bottomley was in any case a thumping crook himself) - was the most notorious practitioner of ritual magic, mainly of a sexual nature, of the first half of the 20th century. He was also a pornographer, traitor to his country (in New York during the First World War he propagandised on behalf of Germany), plagiarist (much of his teaching and occult writings were cribbed from other hands), mountaineer, big game hunter, and heroin addict.

He was at one time or another a member of most of the esoteric occult sets of the 1890s and 1900s, including the influential Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (W.B. Yeats, a fellow member, thought him clinically mad), and parted company from most with varying degrees of bad feeling.

His private life was messy. When he was not maintaining he was the incarnation of Edward Kelley the Elizabethan scryer, a pharaonic priest called (incomprehensibly) Ankh-f-n-khonsu, or the French mage Eliphas Levi, he was to be found impregnating numerous females, including his wife, deserting his children, and conducting homosexual affairs. His watchword was "Do what thou wilt", a sentiment he pinched from Rabelais.

All of this - and much, much more - appeared in John Symonds's initial biography, The Great Beast (1952), which, due to its author's vow to paint a true portrait of his subject, caused a good deal of fluttering in the esoteric dovecotes. Crowley also proved a boon to novelists, including Somerset Maugham (The Magician, 1908), Dennis Wheatley and Anthony Powell amongst others.

Symonds had met Crowley towards the end of the Second World War when the self-styled "Beast 666" was at the absolute nadir of his fortunes, eking out a wretched existence in a residential hotel in Hastings. For some years he had been trying to take over the Society of the Inner Light, founded in the 1920s by "Dion Fortune", or Violet Mary Firth, who wrote prolifically on ritual magic as well as sensation novels under the name "V.M. Steele". But, after Firth's death in 1946, Crowley seems to have lost heart and was therefore cheered by Symonds's interest. Before he died (in 1947) he willed all his copyrights to the younger author as well as making him his literary executor, a task Symonds carried out conscientiously for the next six decades.

As a biographer Symonds was certainly attracted to larger-than-life characters who were at the same time more or less charlatans, including the extraordinary Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (born Hahn: usually referred to as Madame Blavatsky), a celebrated medium and founder of the theosophy movement in the late 19th century whose demonstrations of supernatural phenomena in London were even declared bogus by the Society for Psychical Research, a body at the time friendly towards not a few fraudulent operators.

Symonds's biography, Madame Blavatsky: medium and magician, was published in 1959, and was followed by the entertaining account of the Methodist Thomas Brown who, in the 1790s, became involved with the Shakers: Thomas Brown and the Angels: a study in enthusiasm (1961). He also got to know, and subsequently became literary executor to, Gerald Hamilton, whose rackety and scandalous life style was utilised by Christopher Isherwood in Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935). This friendship resulted in Conversations with Gerald (1974).

John Symonds was born in Battersea, London, in 1914, the illegitimate son of Robert Wemyss Symonds, the eminent authority on old English clocks and antique furniture, and the architect responsible for, amongst other buildings, the Middlesex Hospital. Symonds senior refused to acknowledge his son until many years later, and John was brought up in Margate by his mother, Lily Sapzells (later Chappell).

He was largely self-educated, spending much of his spare time in the British Museum after he moved to London in 1930. He became a journalist and frequenter of Fitzrovia, his friends writers and poets such as Stephen Spender, Orwell, Dylan Thomas and Michael Hamburger, and the playwright and novelist Bill Naughton. Exempted from military service during the war, he worked for Stefan Lorant's Lilliput (which he edited for a while) and Picture Post, under Tom Hopkinson.

After the war he settled down at the typewriter turning out children's books as well as a number of novels which reflected his own interest in the outré and the macabre: The Lady in the Tower (1955) was a Gothic love story set among old clocks and antiques; Light Over Water (1963) concerned a journalist's delving into the occult. The Stuffed Dog (1967), aimed at older children and illustrated by Edward Ardizzone, featured the eerie idea of a ventriloquist's dummy found in an attic whose mechanical voice was stolen from the ventriloquist himself.

For his children's books Symonds was remarkably lucky with his illustrators. Ardizzone also supplied charming pictures for Lottie (1957) and Elfrida and the Pig (1959) - the illustrations for which recently surfaced in a London gallery. The Isle of Cats (1955) boasted some deliciously idiosyncratic illustrations (many, unusually for the artist, in colour) by Gerard Hoffnung.

Symonds's last novel, The Child (about a young girl who founds her own religion), was published in 1976. Thereafter he wrote two further books on Crowley - The King of the Shadow Realm (1989) and The Beast 666 (1997), the latter issued when he was in his 84th year. Like Ernest Dudley, another long-living writer, Symonds kept fit, jogging around Hampstead Heath until well into his eighties.

Jack Adrian

Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
art
News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleActor, from House of Cards and Benidorm, was 68
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features staging of a playground gun massacre
Travel
travel
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Voices
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
News
i100This Instagram photo does not prove Russian army is in Ukraine
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
Sport
sportVan Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
Life and Style
Martha Stewart wrote an opinion column for Time magazine this week titled “Why I Love My Drone”
lifeLifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot... to take photos of her farm
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
filmReview: Sometimes the immersive experience was so good it blurred the line between fiction and reality
News
i100
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Environment
Tyred out: should fair weather cyclists have a separate slow lane?
environmentFormer Labour minister demands 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists
News
people
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

VB.Net Developer - £40k - Surrey - WANTED ASAP

£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: .Mid Level V...

Digitakl Business Analyst, Slough

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Competitive Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Dig...

Mechanical Estimator: Nuclear Energy - Sellafield

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Car, Medical, Fuel + More!: Progressive Recruitmen...

Dynamics NAV Techno-Functional Consultant

£50000 - £60000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: An absolutely o...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices