When Mary Desti, born in 1871 met Aleister Crowley in Paris in 1911 she was a significant figure in the arts community. Having moved to Paris to pursue a singing career, she was close friends with storied modernist dancer Isadora Duncan, and was introduced to Crowley by Duncan’s pianist and close friend, James Henry “Hener” Skene.
A few paragraphs from Duncan’s 1908 biography serve to give an idea of the Parisian community of the time, and the mood of the social circle around Duncan, who was the model for Lavinia King in Moonchild.
“This chapter might be called ‘An Apology for Pagan Love,’ for now that I had discovered that Love might be a pastime as well as a tragedy, I gave myself to it with pagan innocence. Men seemed so hungry for Beauty, hungry for that love which refreshes and inspires without fear or responsibility. After a performance, in my tunic, with my hair crowned with roses, I was so lovely. Why should not this loveliness be enjoyed? Gone were the days of a glass of hot milk and Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason.” Now it seemed to me more natural to sip champagne and have some charming person tell me how beautiful I was. The divine pagan body, the passionate lips, the clinging arms, the sweet refreshing sleep on the shoulder of some loved one—these were joys which seemed to me both innocent and delightful. Some people may be scandalised, but I don’t understand why, if you have a body in which you are born to a certain amount of pain—cutting of teeth, pulling out of teeth, filling of teeth; and every one, however virtuous, is subject to illness, grippe, etc.—why should you not, when the occasion presents, draw from this same body the maximum of pleasure? A man who labours all day with his brain, sometimes torn with heavy problems and anxiety—why should he not be taken in those beautiful arms and find comfort for his pain and a few hours of beauty and forgetfulness? I hope that those to whom I gave it will remember it with the same pleasure as I do. I have not time to write about them all in these memoirs, any more than I can tell in one volume all the beautiful hours I have spent in forests or in the fields, or all the marvellous happiness I have had from symphonies of Mozart or Beethoven, of the exquisite hours given me by such artists as Isaye, Walter Rummel, Hener Skene and others. ‘Yes,’ I continually cried, ‘let me be Pagan, be Pagan!'”
Heady stuff for 1908. Desti was one of Duncan’s closest friends, and like Duncan tended to wear only a Greek tunic held together by a pin. Kaczynski says “She was a passionate, worldly woman, and her personality and magnetism attracted Crowley straight off. She felt the same profound emotion toward him. He spent the evening sitting cross-legged on the floor, “exchanging electricity with her.”
Desti had already been married twice at that point, the second time to an abusive salesman by whom she had a son, Preston. The son would be Preston Sturges, Academy Award winning Hollywood screenwriter and director. Four of his comedies made the AFI list of “100 Funniest films, and in 1975, he became the first writer to be given the Screen Writers Guild’s Laurel Award posthumously.
When Crowley met Desti in Paris in October 1911, she was freshly divorced from Solomon Sturges, her third husband. Preston, who had taken his adoptive father’s name was in boarding school, and she was free in Paris to be with her friend Isadora. Crowley was 36, she was 40.
Desti’s period of influence in Thelema was brief, but very intense and of great significance. They eventually clicked over literary matters. D’esti had no background in magic, but had written plays. She made a great impression on Crowley but was at first unimpressed.
Crowley was working on the next edition of the Equinox but vacationed with Desti at St. Moritz. Desti saw visions, Crowley saw her as a medium. She spoke of a book, Liber Aba, and in November in and December had a series of visions starting with champagne and sex in which they came to understand they should go into a magical retirement near Rome and write Book 4. Preston, at thirteen visited them and disliked Crowley intensely. Desti found a villa that matched her visions and they settled in to write Book 4. The quarreled most of the time and Desti returned to Paris.
Book Four was not finished until after the War and was not published until 1936. Mary would be titular editor and contributor to the Equinox. She got along better with Crowley when writing together and they co-authored “Doctor Bob,” and “The Tango,” with the Equinox featuring some of her poetry.
Despite her son’s dislike of Crowley, Desti recalled him fondly. Neither was a good partner for the other, Crowley was happy to return to Leila Waddell, Desti had found a new partner, a fortune hunter who would, rather ironically, make her fortune.
Desti’s fortune came about in a rather unconventional way. Kacyznski recounts that she married a Turkish tobacco importer, Vely Bey, each thinking the other was wealthy. Bey’s father was a court physician to the Porte, and had given her a formula for skin cream. She marketed it as “Le Secret du Harem” and founded a perfumery on the Rue de la Paix between the Place Vendome and the Opera, decorated by Isadora Duncan’s friend dressmaker and designer Paul Poiret.
Desti was a cosmetic innovator. In a period when minorities were underserved, still a major issue, she added color correcting tints to her face powders, including an ochre for Hispanic customers. An entrepreneur, she added a salon and other businesses to her “Maison,” and opened a branch at Deauville, making a deal with the well known Ciro’s restaurant chain to use their ground floor. When the war broke out, Desti sent her son Preston to the US in fear that he might enlist. He opened the Maison Desti franchise on Fifth Avenue, with perfumes carried by a number of then prominent department stores including B. Altman, Jordan Marsh, and Marhsall Field’s.
Desti is supposed to have disliked her name, Dempsey, which may have sprung from the inevitable jokes and questions about the reigning world heavyweight champion from 1919. It is very likely that a name which conjured to mind a noted pugilist did little for Desti’s romantic image, in any case she decided that it was a form of the Italian noble name “D’Esti” which she used for her perfumery until the Parisian family of the same name threatened to sue, at which point it was changed to Desti, which is the name she would bear through her obituaries.
With her connections to Turkey obvious through her fourth husband and “Harem” theme, her store in Paris was stormed by a Parisian mob when Turkey entered the war on the German and Austro-Hungarian side. Her U.S. products suffered because ingredients including high quality glass bottles could not be imported and bad decisions by her New York partner forced her to declare bankruptcy and move to a smaller location. She had some success in London and her son built a significant cosmetic manufacturing business in New York, which she is said to have jealously seized the rights to.
In the postwar era she was apparently at least financially solvent, and returned to France where she spent time with Isadora Duncan. She contemplated magazine projects, named “Bright Spots” and “The Londinian,” she drafted several unproduced plays including “Kate Temple,” and “The double image, or What happened in the garden,” with Donald Corley.
Her memoir “The untold story: the life of Isadora Duncan,” is suffers from some ghoulish and Cassandraesque aspects though it has contributed to the immortality of Duncan’s story. published in September of 1929. Desti was present in the Bugatti dealership where Duncan decided to test ride in a new car in 1927, choked to death when her scarf tangled in the wheel.
Desti herself succumbed to Leukemia in 1931. Her papers reside at the UCLA Library, Department of Special Collections.
Her contribution to Thelema is notable. She shares authorship of Book 4 with Crowley, and it is one of the few major magical works in which his partners are credited. Her visions shaped the Thelemic instruction of magic.
But her life was also Thelemic. She refused to be tied by marriage or convention, and pursued her own course at a time when this was wildly risky. She learned of magic from Crowley, but her visions and sense of self-possession was her own. She lived free in the style of Isadora Duncan and would eventually contribute to her immortality.