Alcoholism

Literature

The Strange World of Willie Seabrook (Excerpt)

The Strange World of Willie Seabrook

By Marjorie Worthington

“Another Toulon Day”

It was about ten o’clock when we reached the hotel. That was pretty early for Toulon, but the big yellow Victorian palace of a place, with ornate chandeliers and Brussels carpeting, seemed very quiet. We almost tiptoed to the door indicated to us, and knocked. A voice asked who was there, and when Willie answered, “Seabrook,” there was a happy laugh and the command, “Entrez.”

It was not a suite, but just one enormous bedroom, with lots of chairs around, a fireplace, and a bar set up on an ormolu cabinet. The princess had expensive tastes and an income much more modest than that of her friends, and she must have been in one of her economy streaks. 

She was wearing a silk pajama suit, the kind that was worn for afternoons and evenings in the South of France at that time. Her bed was fully made, and she was lying on top of the creamy satin spread. At one side of the bed was a table on which was laid a lacquered tray containing all the paraphernalia for smoking opium: a small spirit lamp, a sticky lump of black stuff, and a long, ivory-colored pipe with a small cup-like thing near one end. The little lamp was lighted and she was rolling some of the black gum into a ball, or pill.

“Make yourselves drinks,” she said, waving to the bottles and glasses with her free hand. “Then come and sit near me and tell me what wonderful and scandalous things you have been doing. I am starving for news of you.”

We did as we were told, and Willie talked, telling marvelous tales, some of them true, most of them not. I sat quietly drinking my drink and listening some of the time, and thinking my own thoughts; but mostly I watched the princess, who spent so much time preparing her pipe for what amounted to one deep puff. Being a rather lazy person, I wondered what there was in that puff to make it worth such a long and complicated process. I decided not to find out.

The room became filled with an acrid-sweet smell that mingled with the fumes of the cognac in the glass I held in my hand. Willie had joined the princess on the bed and she was teaching him to fill a pipe. I felt very drowsy. There was a chaise longue in the room, and I settled myself upon it and waited. A musical clock on the mantel chimed the hours of twelve . . . one . . . two . . . three. . . . 

I remember making, or being asked to make, a pot of tea. I found what looked like a solid gold teapot and put it over the alcohol lamp I found near it, and lit the wick. When I remembered about the tea again, the whole beautiful little gold teapot had melted down into a nugget. Evidently I had forgotten to put any water in it. I was very sad about the teapot and told the princess so, but she was off in some exalted region with Willie tagging behind on his own cloud. And it didn’t matter.

The clock went on ringing out the intervals of hours. Through the cracks in the venetian blinds I could see daylight. The murmur of voices had been going on forever: Princess Telle describing her childhood, then her marriage and her happiness, and then her sorrow. I slept through most of it, almost as drugged, by the fumes, as they were by their pipes. And then it was six o’clock, and Willie was standing up and telling me we must go.

We went out very softly; the hotel was not awake. But as we walked down through the city, people began to sweep the sidewalks before the shops and caf.s, and some of them greeted us with a polite “bonjour,” to which we responded. We reached our studio somehow, I leading a remote Willie by the hand most of the way. I didn’t know how many pipes he had smoked, but I knew they were too many for a neophyte. I was worried enough to become heroic and attack the primus stove by myself. I made a large pot of coffee and kept pouring cup after cup until he had drunk enough, I thought, to counteract the opium. Then we slept for a while, and then we woke up and went to our respective typewriters. Another Toulon day had begun.


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Literature, Publishing

THE STRANGE WORLD OF WILLIE SEABROOK

COMING IN FALL 2017:
MARJORIE WORTHINGTON’s Memoir

This is the somber, quietly stunning account of American author Marjorie Worthington’s life and relationship with William Seabrook. 

A bestselling writer on the exotic and the occult, Seabrook was an extraordinary figure from the 1920s to the 1940s who traveled widely and introduced voodoo and the concept of the “zombie” to Americans in his book The Magic Island

In 1966, years after his death from suicide, Worthington, a novelist and Seabrook’s second wife, cast her eye on their years living in France as lost-generation expatriates; their time traveling in the Sahara desert (where Seabrook researched his book The White Monk of Timbuctoo); their friendships with Aldous Huxley, Gertrude Stein, and Michel Leiris; and the gradual erosion of their relationship. 

Worthington was with Seabrook in France and later New York when his life became consumed by alcohol, and he took the drastic step of committing himself to a mental institution for a cure; though he wrote about the institution in his book Asylum, he remained an alcoholic. He was also fixated by sadistic games he played with women, which he and the surrealist Man Ray photographed, and which he later viewed as a way to initiate altered psychological states through pain.

The Strange World of Willie Seabrook is an intimate look at the complicated, torturous relationship of two writers. Seabrook was a sadist, yet to Worthington he was also enthralling; he was an alcoholic, but she believed she could protect him. Even after he had hurt her emotionally, she stayed near him. In brilliantly depicted moments of folie à deux, we watch Worthington join Seabrook in his decline, and witness the shared claustrophobic, psychological breakdown that ensues.

Literature, Publishing

Excerpt from “I Am Not Ashamed”

From I AM NOT ASHAMED

by BARBARA PAYTON

My rent was overdue a week and I only had one dollar in my pocket. I had had two warnings from my landlady. In my refrigerator there was some American cheese and soda water. Also a can of peaches someone had given me as a joke, I forgot what the joke was. But that would see me through a day or two.

I took the dollar, my last, and went to the movies to see one of my old pictures, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye with James Cagney. I enjoyed it very much but it was ironic that I had been paid so many thousands of dollars to do it and I only had a dollar left to see it.

All during the picture I kept my mind off my troubles – I couldn’t solve them anyway. Then I walked home just thinking about how I loved to act and make movies.

I hadn’t eaten all day so I opened the can of peaches. They were delicious and the whole can filled me up. Then I looked around through all my things to see what I could pawn. There wasn’t anything. I was down to bedrock.

But I still had a telephone. I went through my address book. I had borrowed from everybody. Some, more than once. There were still men who would take me out to dinner. But how do you live on no money at all?

I didn’t answer the knock on my door because I knew it was the landlady and I wasn’t ready to talk to her yet.

I looked in the mirror. To me I looked the same as ever – just as I had in the movie. What had happened? I undressed and looked at myself in the nude – not much change. I could lose five pounds but not more. I put on a dressing gown and washed the peaches dish and spoon.

There was a knock on the door. I opened it this time. It was the landlord, a tall, kindly man browbeaten by his wife. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but my wife says your rent is overdue.” He said it as if his wife had made some mistake.

“Come in,” I said, with what little charm I could muster for the situation.

He came in and stood, looking uncomfortable. “Wasn’t it a lovely day?” he said finally.

I nodded. I knew landlords such as these had heard every excuse in the book but I decided to try one anyway.

“Mr. Gordon,” I explained. “My husband’s alimony check, which is usually here long before this, should definitely be here tomorrow. I can almost guarantee it. I will slip the hundred-dollar check under your door before noon.”

He looked miserable. “My wife said – I have nothing to do with it – that I should either get the rent money or ask you to move out . . . tonight.”

“Don’t look so sad,” I said. “If that’s what she wants, that’s what it will have to be. I really don’t have any money.”

We both just stood there. “Could I . . . lend you five dollars for food?” he said.

I just shook my head “no.” Then, though I had been feeling great and had been smiling just a few minutes before, I suddenly burst into tears, great gulping sobs accompanying them. It seemed as if the whole world was collapsing on me.

Mr. Gordon patted me on the shoulder at arm’s length and tried to give me a handful of crumpled bills. I wouldn’t take them but I put my head on his chest and continued to sob.

“Please,” he said, “don’t cry. I’ve collected other rents and I have some money. My wife won’t know – if you can pay in a week it will be alright.”

A week. It sounded glorious, but what then? It was no silver lining to my black clouds.

I tried to stop crying. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll be alright – honest I will.”

He patted my head. Then he kissed my forehead gently. “I’d help you if I could. My wife . . . ”

I nodded understandingly and went to brush my hair back with my hand. It hit his hand by accident and some of the money fell to the floor. I bent to pick it up for him and when I handed it to him I noticed he was staring. I looked down and my dressing gown was open, showing almost everything I had.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

He swallowed hard. “You . . . ” I don’t know what he wanted to say, but he moved to me as if in a trance and moved his hand from my neck down past my breasts. I didn’t try to stop him.

He kissed me gently again, this time on the lips. “The hundred dollars,” he said, “is in my wall safe. I’ll pay your rent. It’s my fishing vacation money. I need you – to prove I’m a man. To prove to me . . . I mean.”

I would have gone to bed with him for nothing. I had a great compassion for him. I locked the door and dropped my dressing gown.

My rent was paid for one more month.