Chief Justice Charles Darling
“Who is this Greek chap Clitoris they’re all talking about?”
- Lord Albermarle, 1918
The above enquiry was made by Lord Albermarle, the judge presiding over a 1918 defamation action by Maud Allan, one of the forgotten names and identities of history. The story is not only fascinating in its own right, it is also illustrative of the perceptions and thoughts of a past age, of prejudices, pseudo-science and the power of the mob. Have we advanced since then or merely substituted new prejudices? How far have we come?
Maud Allen (1873-1956) was a famous, or more correctly infamous, dancer who was born in Canada as Beulah Maude Durrant, raised in San Francisco, and who later trained in piano in Berlin. When her brother was hanged in 1898 for the murder of two women in San Francisco, the trauma affected her for the rest of her life. She changed her name to Maud Allan, abandoned her career as a pianist and became a dancer.
In 1906 she premiered her production of Vision of Salome, based loosely on Oscar Wilde’s play Salome. Especially notorious was her Dance of the Seven Veils.
She became billed as “The Salome Dancer” and in 1908 took her show to England where she was obliged to put on extra shows to cater to demand, 250 performances in less than one year. From 1910 she toured the US, Australia, Africa and Asia. By 1918, with her popularity declining as younger performers in skimpy outfits attracted greater numbers, she was appearing in Vision of Salome again in London.
Like Isadora Duncan, a contemporary who also danced in brief, provocative costume, her dancing was interpretive. According to Maud Allan in 1908:
"The art of dancing, as understood by the great masses, is a series of regular rhythmical movements requiring a certain music; not so in my work. In that the movements of the plastic poser are inspired by the music.... What one usually only vaguely feels when listening to beautiful music I am trying, through movement and mimicry, to express clearly and deeply - the thought which seems to hover on the wings of the melody."
The New York Times reported on her 1910 performance in the US:
"Bare-limbed and scantily draped in filmy gauzes, diaphanous in texture and unvivid in colour, she floats from one pose to the next, emphasizing the plastic transitions with waving arms and raised legs and sundry poses of the head. Miss Allan in spirit and in the nature of her dances resembles her predecessors. However, she is more beautiful in face and figure than some of them, and she has a grace, a picturesque personal quality, which is all her own."
Noel Pemberton Billing:
Billing was a demagogic pre-Fascist who espoused his racist, xenophobic views from a newspaper he published, originally named The Imperialist and later renamed The Vigilante. Particular targets had been Jews, Germans and homosexuals. In one swoop in 1918 he linked all three. Billing published that the German secret service had a list – the Berlin Black Book - of 47,000 British perverts. These perverts, it was alleged, were preventing the full effort of Britain being applied to the war then in progress in that they were corrupt and/or were being blackmailed by a secret German society known as The Unseen Hand.
The information in the Berlin Black Book comprised:
“..reports of German agents who have infested this country for the past twenty years, agents so vile and spreading such debauchery and such lasciviousness as only German minds can conceive and only German bodies execute.”
According to Billings:
“It is a most catholic miscellany. The names of Privy Councillors, youths of the chorus, wives of Cabinet Ministers, dancing girls, even Cabinet Ministers themselves, while diplomats, poets, bankers, editors, newspaper proprietors, members of His Majesty’s Household follow each other with no order of precedence.”
The reference to “dancing girls” was a reference to Maud Allan.
Billings had heard, and believed, rumours that Maud Allan was in a lesbian relationship with Margot Asquith, the wife of former Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. He also believed that the three were secretly assisting Germany and betraying England.
In February, 1918, it was announced by theatrical producer, Jack Grein, that Maud Allan would give two private performances of Oscar Wilde's Salomé in April. The reason for the private showing was the play was banned from public showing by order of the Lord Chancellor as being blasphemous.
That was followed, in the same month by a blistering attack by Billing on Maud Allan in an article in The Vigilante. Published on the front page under a heading “The Cult of the Clitoris”, he wrote that:
“To be a member of Maud Allan’s private performances in Oscar Wilde’s Salome one has to apply to a Miss Valetta, of 9 Duke Street, Adelphi, W.C. If Scotland Yard were to seize the list of those members I have no doubt they would secure the names of several of the first 47,000.”
It sounds innocuous enough today but not so in 1918:
- From the late 18th century until the early 20th century there was a consistent medical characterisation of the anatomy of a lesbian as having an unusually large clitoris. Furthermore, such thinking held, lesbians were masculinised females, throwbacks to an earlier evolutionary stage, imperfect women who were more concerned with sexual pleasure than reproduction.
- Oscar Wilde was an infamous disgraced author and playwright, considered by society to be a moral pervert. His work Salome was seen as a representation of degenerate sexual lust, sexual crime and unnatural passions, in the words of one writer that it had been “vilified for some 25 years as a degenerate's hymn to Sodom and Gomorrah.”
Translated, Billing was accusing Maud Allan of being a lesbian, of spreading lesbianism and of being part of The Unseen Hand.
In March 1918 Allan commenced criminal proceedings for obscene, criminal and defamatory libel.
Noel Pemberton Billing and Eileen Villiers-Stuart arriving at the Old Bailey
At this time the government in power under David Lloyd George had begun peace negotiations with the German foreign minister. This was opposed by the British generals and by the Far Right. There was talk of postponing the Maud Allan trial and using the Berlin Black Book to smear David Lloyd George and his supporters.
The government hired Eileen Villiers-Stuart to compromise Billing. She was to become involved with him, give him information and sleep with him, then lure him to a male brothel to be secretly photographed and thereafter blackmailed. Villiers-Stuart, a 25 year old bigamist who been the mistress of Asquith’s chief Whip, met with Billings and became infatuated with him. Not only did she flip her allegiance, she became his mistress, told him of the conspiracy against him and became a star witness for him in court.
Background to the trial:
The trial began in May 1918 with Billing appearing for himself. (Billing had graduated in law but not practised).
Petra Rau in her work English Modernism, National Identity and the Germans, 1890-1950, suggests that the perceived perversions at that time were linked with German identity. Recruiting posters portrayed Germans as animal brutes ravishing pure women. Homosexuality was portrayed as a German phenomenon, with Lord Alfred Douglas (who had been Oscar Wilde’s lover and who later repudiated both his homosexuality and Wilde) writing in 1916:
Two foes thou hast, one there one here,
One far, one intimately near,Two filthy fogs blot out they light:The German and the Sodomite.
It was against a backdrop of such public sentiments that the Maud Allan trial proceeded, a Canadian born dancer trained in Berlin, a friend of the rumoured German sympathiser Margot Asquith and performing a work based on the writings of Oscar Wilde, a disgraced sodomite.
Moreover, as Rau points out, it was perceived by those in the know that only medical experts, traitorous perverts (read here lesbians) and Germans knew what a clitoris was. The fact that Maud Allan knew the meaning of the word, coupled with her dancing, was claimed to be evidence of her sexual deviance.
According to Samuel Hymes in his 1990 book A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture, the lack of knowledge of female anatomy and female sexual function at that time prompted Lord Albermarle’s remark, quoted at the beginning of this item, to his colleagues on visiting the Turf Club.
Today we may be incredulous at the 1918 public’s lack of knowledge of anatomy and sexual function so as not to know what a clitoris was but it was quite different in 1918. During the testimony of one witness who used the term “orgasm”, the cross-examining barrister, puzzled, asked if it were ''some unnatural vice.''
Billing’s first witness was Eileen Villiers-Stuart who testified that she had been shown the Black Book by two politicians who had been killed in the war. She claimed that the names of Herbert Asquith, Margot Asquith and Richard Haldane, the former Secretary of State for War and former Lord Chancellor, were prominent in the book. When Chief Judge Darling ordered her to leave the witness box, she declared that his name was in the book as well.
Billing presented Dr Serell Cooke as a witness for the defence. He testified that it was his opinion, and of his Harley Street colleagues, that texts such as Salome stimulated thoughts of perversions in the mind of the reader. Based solely on their intent to stage a private performance of Salome, Dr Cooke diagnosed the theatrical producer Jacob Grein as a secret homosexual posing as a happy family man and Maud Allan as a sadistic prostitute. Asked by the judge ''Have you any opinion where they ought to be?'' the doctor answered ''Locked up.''
Another witness for Billing was Harold S Spencer, a vindictive young man who had been invalided out of the British Secret Service after obviously insane claims of German conspiracies. He maintained that Edward VII’s mistress was a member of the Unseen Hand. He also explained what Maud Allan’s “Cult of the Clitoris” was:
The reason for the article was expressed to as follows:
"In order to show that a cult exists in this country who would gather together to witness a lewd performance for amusement during wartime on the Sabbath... The Cult of the Clitoris meant a cult that would gather together to see a representation of a diseased mad girl."
"Any performance of a play which has been described by competent critics as an essay in lust, madness and sadism, and is given and attracts people to it at from five guineas to ten guineas a seat, must bring people who have more money than brains; must bring people who are seeking unusual excitement, erotic excitement; and to gather these people together in a room, under the auspices of a naturalised alien (Jack Grein), would open these people to possible German blackmail, and that their names, or anything that transpires, might find their way into German hands, and these people would be blackmailed by the Germans; and it was to prevent this that the article was written."
Billing echoed Spencer’s words:
"Such a play.... is one that is calculated to deprave, one that is calculated to do more harm, not only to young men and young women, but to all who see it, by undermining them, even more than the German army itself."
Even Lord Alfred Douglas gave evidence for the defence. He had written a poem referring to Margot Asquith "bound with Lesbian fillets" and during the trial described Wilde as "the greatest force for evil that has appeared in Europe during the last three hundred and fifty years". Douglas made such a nuisance of himself that the judge had him evicted from the court.
Allan’s brother’s crimes were also raised as further evidence that her sexuality was genetically predisposed towards criminal and immoral behaviour. It was argued by Billing that perversion and deviance were in the blood of her family.
Billing was acquitted of all charges. The crowd in the gallery jumped to their feet and cheered, women waved handkerchiefs and men their hats. The reaction was the same by the crow outside the court when he emerged, the path being strewn with flowers.
Cynthia Asquith, daughter of Margot and Herbert Asquith, wrote in her diary:
"One can't imagine a more undignified paragraph in English history: at this juncture, that three-quarters of The Times should be taken up with such a farrago of nonsense! It is monstrous that these maniacs should be vindicated in the eyes of the public... Papa came in and announced that the monster maniac Billing had won his case. Damn him! It is such an awful triumph for the unreasonable, such a tonic to the microbe of suspicion which is spreading through the country, and such a stab in the back to people unprotected from such attacks owing to their best and not their worst points."
Basil Thomson, who was head of Special Branch, and in a position to know that Eileen Villiers-Stewart and Harold S. Spencer had lied in court, wrote in his diary:
"Everyone concerned appeared to have been either insane or to have behaved as if he were."
In September 1918, Villiers-Stuart was convicted of bigamy, and sentenced to nine months' hard labour. In a sworn statement she admitted that, as noted above, the evidence she had given in the Maud Allan trial was entirely fictitious and that she had rehearsed it with Billing and Harold S. Spencer.
Billing retained his seat at the 1918 General Election but with the end of the First World War he was seen as an irrelevance. His reputation was severely damaged when Eileen Villiers-Stewart admitted that the evidence she had given in the Maud Allan trial was fictitious and had been rehearsed with Billing. Knowing that he faced defeat in the next election he retired in 1921 claiming he was too ill to continue.
Allan never returned to dancing and, according to her biographer, by the outbreak of the Second World War "she was living in comparative poverty in a section of the West Wing, a large mansion on Regent's Park". After her house was damaged during the Blitz she returned to the United States. From the 1920’s she taught dance and lived with her secretary and lover, Verna Aldrich. She died in Los Angeles, California in 1956 aged 84.
“Although she has been long forgotten, Maude Allan is one of the most fascinating figures in history.”