Jane Wolfe was born in Pennsylvania, a rural community to the northeast of Pittsburgh in the Alleghenies. Eight months the senior of Crowley, she was educated at Eastman Business College in Poughkeepsie starting in 1896 where she intended to become a stenographer, a progressive course for a woman at the time.
Wolfe went to New York City hoping to be involved in theater, but like many performers at the time found herself involved in the nascent motion picture industry. She first appeared in film in 1910 working for Golden Age director Sidney Olcott.
When the industry began to move to Hollywood California, Wolfe did as well, making the jump in 1911. She had a number of prominent roles in silent movies, appearing alongside talent as famous as Gloria Swanson in films by the legendary Cecil B. DeMille. Her most important role is generally considered her appearance in the 1917 Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, starring Mary Pickford and produced by Pickford’s production company. The film is notable for being the product of a female novelist Kate Douglas Wiggin, adapted by famed female screenwriter Frances Marion from a 1910 play by Charlotte Thompson.
Pickford was already fighting the studio system and had forced the distribution of her films through a special unit called Artcraft. She would go on to challenge Hollywood’s elite by founding United Artists.
Already 35 at the time of her entry into film, Wolfe was largely relegated to supporting roles in an industry that, then as now, tended to push young actresses. By 1920 she was 45, and ready to leave the film industry.
Wolfe had begun to study the occult in 1913, starting with Franz Hartmann’s 1886 Magic, White and Black. She became interested in the Ouija Board, the creation in 1892 of Elijah Bond and Charles Kennard in Baltimore, marketed since 1898 by William Fuld. In October of 1918 after a conversation with Sheridan Bickers, a California based student of A∴A∴, Wolfe ordered The Equinox along with Crowley’s Book 4. She began correspondence with Crowley in early 1919 but she was still maintaining a shooting schedule and despite Crowley’s pleas was unable to meet him before June. He planned to meet her in Tunis, but he left after she was delayed and eventually caught up with Crowley and Leah Hirsig in Palermo after a long sojuourn. Crowley had envisioned a movie-star and was disappointed to find a travel worn woman in her forties. Wolfe was unimpressed with Leah’s appearance and in regards to Crowley having “a terrifying vision of a bird trapped in mud.” Misgivings aside, she joined him at the Abbey of Thelema, Crowley’s experiment with a Thelemic Commune, in Cefalu.
It is this dispassionate view of the state of Thelema and its leader, free of hero worship or romantic adoration, which makes Wolfe such an important figure in early Thelema. She was, from the beginning, a seeker of Thelema itself. She saw Cefalu as a formative experience, opining in a letter written to John Symonds “Thank God for Cefalu.”
Her Cefalu Diaries form a key element of understanding that period of Thelemic evolution. The Cefalu period included what must have been very emotional trials. Crowley thought Wolfe lacked a healthy attitude about sex, leading her to apply to the local brothel, turned away because she was not a career sex-worker.
Wolfe’s accomplishments are principally through her administrative, magical and teaching work. Discussions about the A∴A∴ are notoriously political, and often revolve around obscure arguments as two who conferred what degree on what person at what time and circuitous arguments about “legitimacy” based on the paperwork chains of organizations that were irregularly run, kept irregular books, and went through long periods of inactivity, disrupted by time and mortality.
What is abandantly clear is that Wolfe was among a handful of students who maintained a constructive correspondence with Crowley until his death, maintained a constructive relationship with his succesor Karl Germer, and that she was devoted to, and worked on behalf of, Agape Lodge until it ceased holding regular meetings in 1949. She was, for the majority of Thelema’s American adherents the only person, besides Germer, who had a long running acquaintance with Crowley and understood his ideas on Thelema outside of his written ideas. Many of her published letters are core sources for understanding Thelemic ideas and teaching.
Wolfe took Canadian born acting and art student, and later art teacher, Phyllis Seckler as her student in 1940. Seckler continued Wolfe’s role as an organizer, taking responsibility for the transcription of original work by Crowley and eventually working to establish various Thelemic organizations. She has written extensively on Wolfe as have several other notable Thelemic authors, however without a corpus of her own literature, her key role is poorly understood outside the circles of organized Thelema. Even there, her powerful and central role is often minimized in the interest of political arguments revolving around the legitimacy of A∴A∴branches. Her legacy was sweeping and influential.
Wolfe lived through 1958, dying at age 83. In the late 1930s she undertook some acting roles and taught acting, also serving as an officer in the Women’s Club of Los Feliz, an Los Angeles neighborhood heavily associated with the theater industry.
Several full prints of her pre-1928 films exist online, such as Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, in which she appears beside Mary Pickford