A 1918 newspaper article headlined The Cult of the Clitoris destroyed the career of the most famous dancer on Earth. It implied that Maud Allan was both a lesbian and a dangerous femme fatale, undermining the British war effort by encouraging sexual deviance. Total tomfuckery. The suggestion Maud Allan influenced World War I was ludicrous. But she was indeed a lesbian. And a tenuous link to the long-dead but still notorious Oscar Wilde further damaged her reputation during the so-called Trial of the Century.
Born in Canada, Maud Durrant grew up in San Francisco and moved to Berlin in her early twenties. She adopted the surname Allan following a family scandal she feared might hinder her ambition of becoming a concert pianist. But bang away at that keyboard as she might; Maud Allan never achieved fame. So, she reinvented herself as a dancer.
Success eluded her still.
But that changed!
In 1906, she devised a provocative performance piece inspired by Oscar Wilde’s play Salomé.
Wilde’s play retells the tragedy of a stepdaughter (and niece) of the biblical King Herod.
After her lustful step-father promises anything her little heart desires if the princess performs the erotic Dance of the Seven Veils, Salomé demands the head of John the Baptist. She’d hit on the preacher previously, but he spurned her advances, refusing even to kiss her.
Herod orders the Baptist killed and his head brought in. Salomé lavishes kisses on the lifeless bleeding skull.
“Ah! I have kissed thy mouth. There was a bitter taste on thy lips. Was it the taste of blood? But perchance, it is the taste of love. They say that love hath a bitter taste.”
Maud Allan’s Vision of Salome
Oscar Wilde wrote Salomé in 1891. Composer Richard Strauss later knocked off the plot for an opera that debuted in Berlin in 1905.
Maud Allan claimed she dedicated years to devising her Vision of Salome. She spoke of contemplating the compositions of the Old Masters, of delving into archaic manuscripts, studying stone tablets, and researching ancient civilisations.
“Among the wild clans [where] the ancient dances still live, she studied. It was as though within her, the souls of old dancers awoke.”
Promotional twaddle. More probably, the struggling artist saw the Strauss opera and thought, ‘that will work’.
Like Lady Gaga a century later, Maud had her finger on the pulse of popular culture.
And she hijacked a time-honoured tactic of the Old Masters. Depict nudity in a biblical context, and prudes hesitate to characterise it as pornographic.
Maud designed a costume that displayed her magnificent body to full effect. Oodles of pearls, some beads, transparent skirts, and not much else. ‘A diminutive bra… and a G-string of diamonds’, wrote Edward VII’s secretary.
The dancer also crafted a likeness of John the Baptist’s bearded noggin.
Early European performances of the Vision of Salome garnered mixed reactions. Some thought the dance obscene while others scoffed at the tackiness of the paper-mâché head Maud so lovingly caressed.
Still, some fans lauded the enactment as a triumph of artistic expression. But, in truth, Maud’s dancing was not the drawcard. The entertainer about to become the world’s most celebrated and best-paid dancer was not much of a dancer.
Kinder reviewers described her as ‘self-taught’. Others declared she ‘postured’ beautifully or wrote of her ‘uncommonly refined gesturing’.
Nevertheless, the Salome dancer was beautiful, charismatic, exuded raw sensuality through every pore, and… wore next to nothing.
Into the lion’s den
Maud Allan was a superb publicist. Full-page newspaper articles regaled Americans with her exploits. Readers learned of the revenge a wealthy Hungarian nobleman exacted after she pranked him.
Maud had brazenly boasted of her bravery as a performer. A sneering Count Géza Zichy bet 10,000 marks her courage did not extend to dancing in a den of lions. Maud Allan accepted the wager. But she was only 33. Too young to die for her art. Too young to be torn asunder by an apex predator.
And she didn’t need to. The count failed to stipulate any age for the lions. At the appointed time, Maud entered a cage at Budapest Zoo and cavorted with two harmless cubs. Count Zichy appeared amused. He paid up and invited the dancer to perform at his palace.
“It was not long after the Dance of the Lions.
“As Maud Allan swayed like a passionflower, a giant negro brought upon a great platter the head of John the Baptist.
“Her eyes half-closed, the dancer raised her ghastly prize by its dank hair.
“She leaned towards its lips. But then, there shot through her a terrible tremor. Upon her white flesh were red stains, dark crimson clots. It was blood.”
Count Zichy substituted the head of a freshly executed man for Maud’s usual waxen prop.
“The dancer slowly forced her eyes to the face she held aloft.
“It was the face of a man not long dead.
“Not for many days did she dance as Salome after that. Not for many days did she dance at all.
“It is because always when she dances Salome, she sees not the waxen head, but the human head not long severed; it is his dank hair that she grasps, his dead flesh that she sees.”
Viral publicity stunt
The story of Maud Allan and the bloody head went viral, published in newspapers all over the US. Indeed, articles and books in recent years repeat the story verbatim. But the tawdry tale was mere PR bullshit.
The evidence points to either Maud Allan or her agents planting the story. The newspapers all illustrated their features with identical copy and the same photographs — Maud’s publicity shots — and a pic of Zichy seated in a chair with both hands on his lap.
Count Géza Zichy was not only an immensely wealthy nobleman. He was also a practising lawyer and a celebrated pianist. Hungary at the time remained part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a constitutional monarchy with an independent judiciary. It seems unlikely even an aristocrat would escape prosecution for chopping off a man’s head to obtain his still-bleeding head for after-dinner entertainment.
“I just wanted to troll the dancer, Your Honour.”
But more importantly, Zichy achieved fame as a piano virtuoso despite playing exclusively with his left hand. It was the only hand he had. He lost the other in a hunting accident aged 14. Either the pic was of someone else, or, like a lizard’s tail, the count’s hand grew back.
Maud Allan earned enough from her debut performances to afford a more realistic waxen head.
And then, in 1907, she scored a gig dancing before Edward VII during a royal visit to Germany. The notoriously lecherous king praised her artistry. That endorsement gifted the dancer entrée to London’s most prestigious variety theatre. The Vision of Salome earned her £250 a week from the theatre and the same again from private performances. A fortune.
Without the king’s recommendation, it’s unlikely Maud Allan could have performed in England. A peculiar British regulation prohibited the depiction of biblical characters on stage. In fact, the Lord Chamberlain had banned Oscar Wilde’s play almost three decades before.
But Maud arrived with a Royal seal of approval. The Lord Chamberlain bit his tongue.
Madonna-whore, saint, and sinner
There was still occasional controversy. The good burghers of Manchester, for example, refused approval for a performance in their godly environs.
But Maud deftly wielded the Madonna-whore dichotomy. She appeared virtually nude on stage in a performance that included sexual innuendo and elements of necrophilia and incest. But off stage, she dressed with exaggerated modesty, conducted herself as a lady, and rendered regular acts of charity. Poised on the thin line separating saint and sinner, the Salome dancer also cultivated the friendship of people in high places. Margot, Countess of Oxford and the wife of Prime Minister H. H. Asquith, became a particular friend.
Despite the infamy usually accorded ‘erotic dancers’, Maud Allan enjoyed social respectability.
Maud eventually toured her homeland and then the world. The Queensland Figaro sang her praises following a Brisbane performance.
“Her lissom body, beautifully moulded arms and hands, the expressive mobile countenance so vividly picturing different emotions, all joined in poetic rhythm. She was a picture of unforgettable beauty.
“The many emotions of Salome were interpreted with rare fidelity — passion, hatred, revenge, and finally, hideous remorse as she fondles the dreadful severed head of John the Baptist… The audience was spellbound.”
However, after a time, the novelty of Maud’s act wore off. She never came up with another to equal it. Dancers in every corner of the world also imitated her presentation, lessening her novelty appeal.
The Salome dancer’s career went into decline.
But in 1918, Maud Allan was offered the chance to become a legitimate thespian. A London producer planned a private production of Oscar Wilde’s original play for paid subscribers, thereby circumventing the Lord Chamberlain’s prohibition. Maud would star. She would act as well as dance.
Noel Pemberton Billing
Unfortunately, the production coincided with a campaign to bring down the wartime government. A muckraking MP named Noel Pemberton Billing popularised a preposterous conspiracy theory with that aim. It encompassed irresistible gay-for-pay German Adonises and battalions of syphilitic streetwalkers.
Billing had what we might term a varied career. At the age of 13, he thought it best to run away from home after setting his headmaster’s office alight. He worked his passage from England to South Africa. He found employment there as a labourer, mounted policeman, boxer, and actor, all before turning 18. At that age, he enlisted in the British Army and fought in the Boer War.
As an adult, he ran a garage, traded horses, and founded a newspaper. Later, he opened an airport in England where he designed and built planes. His business enterprises all failed, even his crack at earning easy riches as a gambler in Monte Carlo.
Undeterred, Billing launched another aviation enterprise. This time, he constructed some stunning-looking planes — unfortunately — style triumphed over substance. His aircraft barely flew. However, the beginning of World War I and the consequent demand for airpower enabled him to sell the company for a hefty profit.
Billing obtained his election by a time-honoured strategy. He portrayed himself as a true patriot (in contrast to his allegedly treasonous political opponents). He was the disruptive outsider ready to demolish the status quo and expose the seditious seat-warmers of the governing elite.
Sound familiar? Yep! There is indeed nothing new under the sun. People like America’s Donald Trump and Australia’s Pauline Hanson strode the political stage throughout history.
Filed under — What a coincidence, not! — together with conspiracy theories, Noel Pemberton Billing was a fan of Fake News.
The Trial of the Century pitted Maud against Billing. In addition to his parliamentary platform, Billing promulgated his trumped-up bullshit in his own newspaper. The paper published fanciful allegations that Germany deployed homosexuals — ‘urnings’ — to corrupt the British military.
“There is a form of invasion as deadly as espionage: the systematic seduction of young British soldiers by German urnings… When the blond beast is an urning, he commands the urnings in other lands.”
Apparently, the lust for Aryan schlong prompted widespread betrayal of King and country.
The paper did not ignore lesbians.
“In Lesbian ecstasy, the most sacred secrets of State were betrayed.”
Billing’s newspaper disclosed that a ‘Black Book’ contained the names of 47,000 British perverts the Germans were blackmailing. The 47,000 practised “evils which all decent men thought perished in Sodom and Lesbia…
“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 paper then warned of an outlandish form of Biological Warfare employed against soldiers impervious to the charms of Teutonic buggery.
“Germany has found that diseased women cause more casualties than bullets. Controlled by their Jew-agents, Germany maintains in Britain a self-supporting — even profit-making — army of prostitutes which put more men out of action than does their army of soldiers.”
What a brilliant strategy! Ban the bomb. Long live the clap.
By the beginning of 1918, Billing’s trumpian fabrications implicated gays, Jews, and streetwalkers. With the establishment compromised by rampant same-sex perversion, only Billing stood between the British people and a German victory.
The Cult of the Clitoris
After an ad appeared for the private showings of Salomé starring Maud Allan, Billing published a snippet headlined The Cult of the Clitoris.
Mention of that intensely sensitive female pleasure zone caused an immediate sensation in an era when women supposedly laid back and thought of England during sex. Suddenly, the clitoris was on the tip of every tongue. But cunning linguists the English were not. Barely anyone knew what a clitoris was, let alone how to wrap their mouth around it. The Earl of Albermarle inquired of parliamentary acquaintances, “Who is this Greek chap Clitoris they’re all talking about?”
But a furore arose from an assertion that play-goers included some of the fabled 47,000 sexual degenerates listed in the ‘Black Book’. Further, it implied that Maud Allan was a lesbian and that her performance tempted British women into ‘unnatural practices’.
Despairing for her reputation, Maud sued for defamation.
Bad move on several fronts.
Firstly, Britain was at war with Germany, where Maud resided for over a decade. Months before, France executed Mata Hari, another Salome dancer, as a German spy. The French scapegoated Mata Hari to distract from their military failures, and Maud Allan could become her British equivalent.
Secondly, The Cult of the Clitoris referenced a play by the reviled Oscar Wilde. Friends still hardly dared mention Oscar’s name. Ironic! Wilde helped pen the words, ‘the love that dare not speak its name’. That immortal phrase lyrically protested the centuries-old cancellation of sexually diverse people by Right-Wing Social Justice Warriors. Now, Oscar Wilde himself was cancelled.
Thirdly, Maud Allan was a lesbian. Any public acknowledgment of her sexuality would trigger social ruin and career suicide.
But, proud of her hard-won social respectability, Maud Allan danced headlong into the eye of the storm.
The Trial of the Century
In early 1918, WWI was at a critical stage. Billing’s disinformation campaign threatened the strategies of the Imperial War Cabinet. A faction of the government decided to crush the maverick MP.
They hired 25-year-old Eileen Villiers-Stuart to seduce Billing. They tasked her with luring him to a gay brothel where he could be photographed and subsequently blackmailed.
The plot failed. Eileen arranged to meet Billing for lunch. He wooed, screwed, and recruited her before the afternoon was out.
Come on Eileen. Toora loora toora loo rye ay.
Eileen Villiers-Stuart defected to the enemy camp and became a star defence witness in the Trial of the Century.
The ghost of Oscar Wilde haunted the courtroom. Maud hired the son of Wilde’s former lawyer to represent her. And the trial took place in the Old Bailey, the same court where Oscar Wilde found himself condemned to prison.
Having earned a law degree a few years prior, Billing represented himself. (Is there any job this bloke didn’t do?)
Bereft of any genuine defence, Billing simply threw shit and hoped it would stick.
From the moment he began his cross-examination of Maud Allan, Billing transformed a defamation case against himself into the prosecution of Maud Allan for being a depraved lesbian enemy agent.
The Demon of the Belfry
The defendant kicked off the judicial circus by exposing the skeleton in Maud’s closet — the outrage that prompted her change of name two decades before. He produced a book — Celebrated Criminal Cases of America — and asked her to identify a pictured man.
Maud’s adored brother Theodore Durrant, a medical student, was assistant Sunday School superintendent at the family place of worship. Weeks after Maud departed San Francisco, two young female parishioners were found murdered in the church, one in the library and the other in the bell tower. Their murderer, dubbed by the press, The Demon of the Belfry, had sexually abused the girls — after they died.
All the evidence pointed to Theo. Like his sister, Theo relished attention. He gave media interviews and posed for photos during his trial. Reporters implied an incestuous relationship with his mother, Isabella. Correspondence between the pair hinted at the same. Found guilty, Theo went to the gallows in 1898. Isabella Durrant confirmed suspicions when she publicly kissed her son on the lips following his execution.
Years later, when Maud debuted her Vision of Salome, Isabella wrote, advising her daughter how to add conviction to her performance. As she kissed the decapitated head of John the Baptist, she should think of her dead brother.
Although the family loudly protested Theo’s innocence, correspondence between Maud and her mother indicates they privately believed otherwise.
Billing wallowed in the muck, brandishing the numerous parallels between the Demon of the Belfry case and Maud’s Vision of Salome: murder, necrophilia, incest, sexual depravity, and a woman planting kisses on the lips of a corpse.
Judge Darling ruled Theo’s crime irrelevant. Too late. The damage was done. Billing achieved his purpose and convinced the jury that Maud Allan’s genetics predisposed her to depravity.
Come on Eileen
As his first witness, Billing called his mistress Eileen Villiers-Stuart. Eileen claimed that two now dead politicians showed her the infamous ‘Black Book’. She began to name names, including Margot Asquith’s. When Judge Darling, outraged by her blatant dishonesty, ordered her from the stand, she retaliated by shouting that the book also included his name.
Eileen perjured herself during the trial, something she later admitted. The ‘Black Book’ did not exist. Billing coached Eileen before she took the stand.
He specifically targeted Margot Asquith to smear her husband, a political opponent. Although Billing knew of rumours that both Maud and Margot had sexual affairs with other women, he had no proof. Years later, evidence emerged that Margot Asquith paid the rent on Maud’s London house from 1910 until 1928.
Billing’s next witness, an American booted out of the British army for paranoia and delusion, claimed he saw Alice Keppel’s name in the ‘Black Book’. Although widely known as the former mistress of Edward VII, Alice, Camilla Parker Bowles’ great-great-grandmother, was also widely respected. However, Billing perhaps knew of the lesbian affair between Alice’s daughter and writer Vita Sackville-West.
Finally, the star witness appeared — the ghost of Oscar Wilde. Billing saw the Trial of the Century as an opportunity to prosecute the author of Salomè one more time. He called to the stand Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde’s beloved Bosie.
Douglas, a shit of a man who led Oscar Wilde to ruin, now hated his former lover. Desperate to be thought heterosexual, he saw the trial as a chance to redeem himself by crucifying Oscar. Douglas also had a score to settle with Maud Allan. After he wrote an unflattering review of the Vision of Salome years before, the dancer hit him at a party.
Wilde originally commissioned Douglas to translate Salomè into English. Oscar wrote the play in French. But Douglas made such a poor job of the translation, Wilde had to fix it himself. However, Lord Alfred regarded himself as something of an expert on the play.
On the stand, he ranted and raved against both the play and its author.
Oscar Wilde, he raged, was “the greatest force for evil that has appeared in Europe for the last 350 years.”
Eventually, his hysterics became so pronounced Judge Darling ordered him from the courtroom and, when he failed to leave, ordered him dragged out. He returned somewhat sheepishly a little while later to retrieve his hat.
Billing mounted a homophobic tour-de-force in his closing remarks.
“Do you think that I am going to keep quiet… while nine men die a minute to make a sodomite’s holiday?’
As Maud wept, he told the jury, “Miss Allan may be a pervert, or she may not be.”
Maud lost the case and her career. She taught dancing for a while and lived with her female secretary/lover in the house paid for by Margot Asquith. However, Asquith herself ran into financial trouble following the death of her husband. Eventually, Maud moved home to the US, where she died in obscurity aged 83 in 1956.
The British government took a keen interest in the Trial of the Century, concerned that the mere mention of lesbianism might arouse women’s curiosity about such practices. In 1921, the Commons passed a bill to criminalise lesbian relationships, but the government then backed off. They again worried that once women learned about lesbian sex, they’d be unable to resist its lure.
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