Deirdre and Patrick

Death in the Seine

Mary Desti Dempsey: Preston Sturges’s Mother of Invention

Another Blogger writes about Mary Desti and Preston Sturges. However no mention is made in this blog of the affair between Aleister Crowley and Mary. Mary herself does not cover the time she spent with Crowley in her writings about the life of Isadora Duncan and the missing years in their on and off intimate relationship.

Under the Hollywood Sign

Preston Sturges, ages one to fourteen. His mother, Mary Dempsey, appears in pictures two and three.

Preston Sturges was born in Chicago in 1898 to a beautiful mother (and fabulist of the first order) named Mary Dempsey and an unreliable father named Edmund Biden, which seems straightforward but wasn’t, at least to Sturges in his early years. Because his  father left the scene when he was an infant, his mother led Sturges to believe his stepfather was his biological father. She also claimed to have been 15 when Preston was born–she was actually 27–and 16 when she entered medical school, which she wasn’t, and didn’t. But those fibs were mere warm-ups for the Big Lie: deciding she was descended from Italian nobility–on the grounds that Dempsey had to be a mispronunciation of the princely “d’Este”–Mary Dempsey opened a cosmetics business in Europe called Maison d’Este. After threats of litigation from the actual d’Estes, she modified the firm’s name to Desti and used it as her middle name. Sturges summed up the situation by writing:

My mother was in no sense a liar, nor…

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Preston Sturges: Part One

Preston Sturges was born Edmund Preston Biden on August 29, 1898, in Chicago, Illinois. He was to become (long after the subject of this blog) the Hollywood director of zany comedies such as “The Lady Eve” and “The Palm Beach Story” among others. Ursini (9) wrote, “ Preston Sturges was and remains to this day baffling phenomenon. “ Preston Sturges died at the age of 60 on August 6, 1959 in New York City. Oddly his children at his death were very close to the ages of Deirdre and Patrick at their death. Ursini (21) wrote that the tragedy of Preston Sturges in his finale was the “fact that he ended his life out of work and out of the mainstream of artistic and financial success.” This is the close that sounds similar to the close of Isadora Duncan’s life thirty-two years before.

His mother was Mary Dempsey (1871-1931) and his father was Edmund C. Biden. Mary Dempsey was also know in her life as Mrs. Solomon Sturges, Mary Desti, Mary d’Este Sturges, Mary Desti Dempsey, Mary D’Esti Sturges, Mary Desti Sturges, and Soror Virakam. It seems that no one paid attention to the order of her four marriages and the names of her ex-husbands appear in various orders. For the purpose of this blog, I will use the name that Mary used when she wrote her Duncan biography and this was Mary Desti.

In Preston Sturges on Preston Sturges (1990), the author describes how his mother got involved with Aleister Crowley. “Mother,” he wrote, “never did anything by halves” (Sturges, Sturges 75). Mary evolved in the environments in which she found her self or into which she inserted herself. Mary “studied“ life so that she was able to quote from the Koran, from the dialogues of Buddha, and from the writings of Confucius. She retold the stories of Greek and Norse gods and demigods (Sturges, Sturges 75). She was surely inspired by the many ideas floating around Europe at the time and was influenced by the various individuals that she knew which for many years included the inner circle of Isadora Duncan.

Sturges wrote that even with all these inspirations, his mother managed to find “black Magic.”  Sturges was referring to the strong influence that Aleister Crowley was able to use on his mother. Sturges bemoans the fact that his mother is mentioned by her true name or under an alias (Soror Virekam) in all books, blogs and writings about Crowley. Indeed, more material about Mary Desti is available in the goggling of Aleister Crowley than in her own search. Mary was the second of Aleister Crowley’s Scarlet Women, muse and sex object, from a period of October 1911 into the winter of 1912. Mary put him into contact with Abuldiz and this was helpful in Book 4.  Together Aleister Crowley and Mary Desti created Magick, Book 4 or Liber ABA. This book is considered to be the masterpiece of Aleister Crowley and is a lengthy exposition on the art of Magick, Crowley’s system of Western occult practices, ideas and rituals.

Later, Crowley said about Desti that she was a “doubtful case.”  However he conceded that he felt that she suffered from jealousy. Who or what Mary Desti was jealous of is not revealed by Crowley. Desti and Sturges removed themselves from the presence and influence of Aleister Crowley in the winter of 1912. By the time that Sturges wrote his autobiography, some of the harsher ideas he had about AC seem to have softened. Sturges claims:

“I wish I could deny this and prevent many of her descendants from being burned at the stake, but unfortunately she not only wrote and signed a small treatise on the subject under the influence of a sinister buffoon called Aleister Crowley”(Sturges, Sturges 75)

Mary Desti died in New York City on April 12, 1931, four years after Isadora Duncan’s fatal car accident. Mary’s death has been posted as being caused by leukemia.

Chronology of Desti and Crowley Venture

  • January of 1911-Solomon Sturges filed suit from Mary charging her with desertion
  • September 1911-Preston changes schools and leaves Lycee Janson to be placed in Ecole des Roches in Normandy (Sturges 71)
  • October 1911-Mary Desti meets Aleister Crowley in party with Isadora Duncan at the Savoy Hotel in London-Crowley and Desti become lovers
  • October 1911 into the winter of 1912-Entire time frame that Mary Desti is with Aleister Crowley
  • October-November 1911- Desti and Crowley leave London for Paris and then Switzerland
  • October-November 1911- Crowley ordered by Abuldiz to go to Southern Italy
  • Fall 1911- Mary “discovers” a Villa Caldarazzo in Posillipo near Naples, Italy
  • Christmas Holidays- Preston spends with his mother and Aleister Crowley in Naples
  • November 1911-the writing of Magick
  • January 1912- Preston returns to school at Ecole des Roches, Normandy (Sturges 78) and Mary separates from Crowley
  • Winter of 1912–1913 Magick is published in The Equinox Vol. VIII of Vol I.

Works Cited:

Sturges, Preston, Sandy Sturges, Ed. Preston Sturges. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990. Print.

Ursini, James. Preston Sturges: An American Dreamer. New York: Curtis Books, 1973. Print.


Accidents in Paris: Automobile

Statistics and other information were just beginning to be kept in New York City pertaining to the number and nature of car accidents. In an article published by Taylor and Frances, Ltd., on behalf of the American Statistical Association, Mr. E.S. Clowes described the “Street Accident (in) New York City.” The article states that in 1912, there were 532 fatal traffic accidents in New York City. In Paris in 1911, there were 236 fatal traffic accidents. In London in 1911, 56 people lost their lives in accidents. Mr. Clowes confirms that by these statistics Paris was the most dangerous and London the most safe of European cities for who records were kept. Paris had a fatality per rate of one million of 81 fatalities due to traffic accidents. This article was published in June of 1913.



The Automobile in Paris 1913

Cars and automobiles and delivery trucks and busses were still new to Paris in 1913 and were causing unanticipated problems in the traffic of the city. In 1900, Paris had three thousand cars. By 1909, the number was fifty thousand and by 1913, the number was one hundred thousand. The Paris Municipal Council had tried to address the ballooning traffic problems and had tried to banish automobiles from some streets in the capital. However there was truly no way to calm the excitement and the love of Parisians for this new mode of transportation. Horrible accidents like the one that is the subject of this blog happened regularly. All this with a “dangerous “ speed of 10 to 15 miles per hour.

(see Rabate, Jean-Michael. 1913:The Cradle of Modernism)

Hener Skene, Pianist and Crowley Follower

mek86keg_mediumJames “Hener” Henry Skene (December 3, 1877-July 14, 1916) was one of the many pianists that Isadora Duncan performed with and traveled with in her lifetime.  However for this story, Skene is important because he was Duncan’s pianist in the time immediately before of the death of her children.  In the winter months before, Hener had accompanied Isadora to Russia.  He had also played for her in the Spring in Paris.  After this date, April 19, 1913, Hener never played for Duncan again and moved away from her life shortly after the tragedy.  Isadora spent the next few years recovering and trying to put her professional and personal life on a path that would enable her dreams to come true.

Isadora wrote about her time working and dancing the accompaniment of Hener Skene.  Isadora writes that “exquisite hours” of “marvelous happiness” were given to her by artists such Hener Skene.  Further, Isadora called Skene “a pianist of great talent and indefatigable energy for work.”  She described spending all day and all night dancing with Skene playing the piano and then finding that the two of them were so involved in their art  that they entered a Hindu ecstasy.  There is debate as to whether Isadora and Hener were intimate lovers, but Isadora had many other admirers around her at this time.

Hener started playing for Isadora in 1908.  That same year Isadora writes in her autobiography, that she had moved into Gervex’s studio at Neuilly Sur Seine “which had a music room like a chapel” and she states that now she went to live there with her children.  However, Isadora’s date is wrong because she did move there with her children but in 1908 Patrick had not yet been born. Patrick was born May 1, 1910, so Isadora must have moved to Neuilly after 1910.

Hener Skene also played a part in the affair that took place between Aleister Crowley and Mary Desti.  In 1911, Aleister Crowley was brought to a party where Isadora Duncan and Mary Desti were present.  The invitation was extended to Crowley by Hener Skene.  At some point, Hener has become a part of Crowley’s followings and there were reports that Crowley was going to include him in a theatrical production.  Crowley was as well interested in the nature and promise of Isadora’s new art form. Crowley apparently did not like Hener and his calling Hener a “prig” is widely reported.  Isadora was also not taken with Crowley, but her companion of this time, Mary Desti, was and this night was the beginning of the Desti/Crowley liaison which resulted in one of Crowley’s most revered books.

Hener Skene was present when Isadora lost Paris Singer for the last time over an incident at a fete when Isadora was caught in a compromised position with Henri Bataille.  Paris Singer walked out and two days later sailed to Egypt with Joan Bates.

Hener is cousin to another intimate of Isadora Duncan, Kathleen Bruce. Kathleen was present for the delivery of Deirdre in 1907 and will provide other information about Patrick because he was sometimes in her care.

As to the drownings of Deirdre and Patrick, what might be the role played by Hener?

Was there a connection between the work of Aleister Crowley and the mentoring of Hener Skene by Crowley? Could Hener have been influenced to cause a crisis in the Duncan household that was not supposed to end in death?    The question was always raised whether the desire of Crowley was to meet Isadora for purposes of romance, theatre collaboration or espionage. Was Crowley disappointed in the lack of interest of Isadora in his version of theatrical productions? Was he slighted?

Isadora had recently toured Russia and was Crowley interested in her travels and possible political reportings about Russia?  Crowley is widely reported to have been involved in espionage for Britain?

Isadora  was, according to all reports, not interested in Crowley.  Why was she not interested?  Why were  Mary Desti and Aleister Crowley  immediately engaged with each other?

Mary Desti and Aleister Crowley broke up with some pressure from the presence of Mary’s son Preston Sturges.  Preston was supposed to be in the car with the children and the nanny and only at the last minute did Mary forbid him to go.  Was Preston the target and not the Duncan children?

Death on the Battlefield

Hener left the presence of Isadora.  The European continent was about to be at war. This talented and experienced artist enlisted apparently from his home in Dorking.


Sometime between 1913 and 1915, Hener lived with Olaf Ranson Cuthbert who was another soldier in North Holmwood in Dorking.  Olaf was killed on July 1, 1913 two week before Hener.

Hener was commissioned  as a Second Lieutenant in October 12, 1915 and assigned to the Princess Charlotte of Wales (Royal Berkshire Regiment.)  Hener went to France on May 26, 1916 according to his Medal Card and was serving in the area of Pas de Calis.  Through June 0f 1916, Hener was active as a leader of night patrols (wiring parties) to cut the German barbed wires and establish a new wire perimeter further away from the men in the trenches.  The trench warfare of WW1 was characterized by the use of barbed wire.  The idea was to cut your enemy’s wire to create gaps and move back the line of your own wire to prevent the enemy from being close enough to throw a grenade or use a machine gun. Because the space between your wires and the enemies wire was not large, wiring parties from either side would encounter each other and hand to hand combat was a possibility every night of the patrol.  Please see for a fuller description of the use of barbed wire.

Through June of 1916, Hener led many of these patrols.  On June 23, Hener’s  patrol had been cutting enemy wires in the trenches and came into close contact hand to hand fighting with the Germans. As Hener was rescuing another soldier, he was bayoneted  in the leg.  For the next three weeks, Hener had this bayonet wound, but continued to lead patrols remaining active in the trench fighting. On July 14, Hener and a party of his men and other officers were able to get through a gap in the enemy’s wire. At the end of the patrol, Hener and twelve additional soldiers did not return and were reported missing.  Three days later, the army made July 14 the official day of Hener’s death.   Dominik Wujastyk who keeps the biography on Geni Pro for James Henry Skene writes that the family stated that Hener was”completely blown up and there was nothing left to be buried.”  Hener was 38 years old.  J. H. Skene was listed as an unidentified soldier on the Dorking War Memorial  where is name appears on the town war memorial and his name is duplicated on the St. Martin’s Church war memorial.  Loos Memorial Panels 93 to 95 also honor him.




From The Eyes of Children

Paris, Saturday afternoon, April 19, 1913, next night a full moon

Weather- Downpour of cold rain, slick roads, wet ground, poor visability

The boy saw the wide eyed look on his nanny’s face and he misunderstood the the look in his nanny’s eyes.  He felt the car bounce and heave as it rolled gently at first and then picked up speed sliding down the embankment.  The movement felt like carousel horse ride to which he had been treated just last week. The boy was so busy remembering the bumpy fun that he could not interpret the fear and dread on the nanny’s face.

The girl, Deirdre, four years older than her half brother, began to sense the panic in the eyes of Miss Annie Sims.  Deirdre did not understand the yelling of her driver, who now was no longer in the front of the car cranking the starter.  When the car jerked forward, she looked out the back window of the car.  There stood Mr. Maurevat, behind the car waving his hands and wailing into the cold afternoon air.  She was still looking back at the driver as the car hit the water and a splash of cold water rippled on the car roof.

Annie Sims, felt utter hopelessness as she saw the situation of the moving car and the closeness of the Seine’s flowing currents.  She quickly assessed what her possible actions might be.  Throw a child out of the car?  The doors were locked. Try to rip out the roof?  She had no tools to cut. Stand up in the car and try to hold the childrens’ heads above the water? Patrick did not like to be touched and was already reacting to the jolting descent of the car.

The car hit the water and floated for four minutes before it began to sink.  On the bank, several people who had been witness to the rolling car and the splash, were still standing there.  A dozen more had responded to the cries and shouts of the original witnesses. The car floated slightly above water for 100 yards and then was lost to sight as it was carried underwater and away.  The rescue of the car from the water took at least one and a half hours.  During this time, rescuers and police  later felt the an air pocket in the roof of the car might have been life sustaining for a while.  In the end, all was lost by the time spent underwater.

There was no guard rail where the car had entered the river.  There were no means of planned rescue for such a strange accident.  Several stunned boatmen in row boats maneuvered their boats along the car’s possible pathway and stuck their oars as deep into the water as possible in hopes of touching the car.  The Seine was approximately thirty feet deep where the car had entered. It was impossible to tell how far the car had travelled.  The car was only later brought to the surface by means of a motored boat which was dragging the river in hopes of catching onto the car.

Later the story would be told that Miss Simms had held the children to the last, wrapping them both in the fur blanket that their mother had insisted that they take with them.  The three bodies were reported to be hugging togther.  The story would also be told that the boy emerged from 45 minutes in the water and showed “some signs of Life.”  The children were taken the the American Hospital and it was there that the  report came in that Patrick has showed some signs of life.

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