Deirdre and Patrick

Death in the Seine


May 2016

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.


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