Last summer I drove to Westminster, Maryland, in search of anything I could find related to the life of a man named William Seabrook. I’d become fascinated with Seabrook one night during an insomniac crawl through ever narrowing passages of the Internet, when I stumbled upon a description of him as a member of the Lost Generation who, in the late 1920s and ’30s, was a household name in America—an adventurer and travel writer and occultist who smoked opium with princesses and drove an ambulance during World War I and flew a four-seater Farman from Paris to Timbuktu. He rode the Arabian Desert with Bedouin horse thieves and was friendly with Aldous Huxley and Jean Cocteau and Sinclair Lewis and Thomas Mann. When he returned from his reporting trips, crowds of journalists would greet him on the tarmac, eager to report the details of his journeys. Gertrude Stein wrote about him. He tasted human flesh. He introduced zombies to America.
And yet no one remembers him now. Not even, it turns out, in the town where he was born and raised. There are no first-edition copies of Seabrook’s half-dozen books behind glass in the Westminster Branch Library, no National Register plaque beside the door to his gingerbread house on East Green Street. At the Historical Society of Carroll County, in downtown Westminster, an elderly woman at the front desk tells me she has never heard of Seabrook, then sends me down to the basement to dig through the archives. There’s no record of him there, either. In the hometown of William Seabrook—without whom we would not have The Walking Dead or Night of the Living Dead or Dawn of the Dead or Shaun of the Dead—nobody knows who he is.
And yet the reason that zombies shuffle through every corner of our popular culture is because in 1928, on the desolate Haitian island of La Gonave, William Seabrook came face-to-face with one.
Seabrook was born in Westminster in 1884. His father, William L. Seabrook, was a lawyer; his mother, Myra, the beautiful daughter of a prominent Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, family. His paternal grandfather, William L.W. Seabrook, was the editor of Westminster’s American Sentinel newspaper, a powerful local Republican, and reportedly a onetime friend of Abraham Lincoln.
When Seabrook was eight, his father, having felt the call to the ministry, gave up his law practice and entered a Lutheran seminary, taking Seabrook’s mother and younger brother with him and leaving William behind in the care of his paternal grandparents. Years later Seabrook would describe his father as a man with a mediocre mind who dragged his family into the genteel poverty of the ministry in the name of a silly mythology. His resentment against his mother ran even deeper. After giving birth to his younger brother and, later, his sister, she’d gone from being Seabrook’s slender, laughing “girl-mother” to a stout, bossy, chronically dissatisfied minister’s wife.
The only adult figure for whom Seabrook had any affection was his grandmother, Piny, who raised him in Westminster. As Seabrook described her in his writing, Piny was barely of this world. She was born on a Maryland plantation, he wrote, in the caul (the amniotic sac unbroken around her, which was said to impart on a child a supernatural aura), and nursed by an Obeah slave girl. Piny possessed “visions and powers” since childhood but was married off as a teen to Seabrook’s “white-bearded” grandfather, who brought her to Westminster and forced her to live an unhappy life among the tedious bourgeoisie. To feed her opium addiction, she hid a bottle of laudanum in the crook of a backyard tree.
Seabrook believed Piny saw in her odd, morose grandson a kindred spirit: “Another little soul which, like herself, found normal, ordinary life unbearable.” And it was through her that he had his first experience with the “unexplained,” a subject that would occupy him for the rest of his life. He and Piny would often walk together in Shreiver’s Woods, just outside Westminster. Seabrook knew the woods well; he would often go there to gather chinquapin nuts or fish for minnows in the stream. But one day, Seabrook wrote, while he was strolling with Piny, the woods became strange. They arrived at a clearing he didn’t recognize. Suddenly, the trees surrounding him were not trees but the legs of “beautiful bright-plumaged roosters, which were as tall as houses.” Taking him by the hand, Piny led him beneath the legs of the roosters as the enormous birds shuffled and crowed.
On another occasion, Piny took Seabrook up a hill with an ancient stone tower on its summit. Seabrook entered the tower and found a woman sitting on a throne. She wore green robes, golden clogs, and had red-gold braided hair. Her wrists, ankles, and waist were bound by gleaming metal circlets joined by a chain. Seabrook wrote:
Piny let go my hand and I went forward alone to sit by the leather foot-stool and put my arms around the lady’s knees. She pressed my head against her knees and stroked my hair. She led my hands down the soft silk folds to her chained feet and pressed them tightly there until my own hands held and drew the chains tighter. I was trembling with happiness.
Throughout his childhood, Seabrook had been preoccupied by the image of what he called the “girl in chains.” He would spend hours looking through the many art and mythology books in his family’s library, fantasizing over pictures of Venus hanging by her wrists from a tree. He even sent away for an Ivory Soap calendar featuring Queen Zenobia, aware that she’d be pictured in chains. How could Piny have known, he later wrote, that this was his greatest fantasy?
Seabrook began his writing career shortly after college, as a reporter at the Augusta Chronicle. After a short time on the job, though, a habitual sense of restlessness took over, and he left to travel through Europe. He found himself one day sitting on a park bench in Geneva, intently watching a well-dressed young couple as they strolled nearby. He admired the man’s fashionably pointy beard and velvet-collar coat, the woman’s slender ankles and golden hair. He coveted the man’s expensive car, gleaming behind them in the afternoon sun. “Would I ever want a car like that, a girl like that?” he asked himself.
He soon returned to the U.S. and set out to shape a life of normalcy and privilege. He married Katie Edmondson, the daughter of a Coca-Cola executive, and settled in Atlanta, where he founded an ad agency and joined the Rotary Club. It didn’t take long, though, for Seabrook to be overwhelmed by urges his new life could never satisfy. In the middle of one workday, he called Katie and a close friend named Ed and insisted they join him at a local park. When they arrived, he had them pose together, trying to recapture the sense of envy and desire he’d felt that day in Geneva. “There it all was,” he would later write. “The automobile, the girl, the silk, the fur, caught in the afternoon sun’s highlights—and I kept saying to myself, ‘I’m Ed there. I’ve got all that, as Ed has. All that belongs to me, and I can keep it all my life if I want to.’”
But Seabrook couldn’t force himself to fit into that life. In 1916, he joined the American Field Service as an ambulance driver and left to serve in the war. He was 31, older by a decade or more than many of the war’s other notable volunteers—Ernest Hemingway, Malcolm Cowley, E.E. Cummings, and John Dos Passos, all in their teens or early twenties. For Seabrook, the war was more a means of escape than a fight for an ideal. “I was a dog running in circles,” he wrote, “running away from myself.”
In France, his job was to pick up wounded men at the trenches and drive them back to a field hospital. He often worked while German shells fell around him, sometimes going days without sleep. He saw horribly wounded men, some of them burned beyond recognition, writhing in agony in the mud. He later described the experience of handling these maimed soldiers with a slightly chilling remove. Once, he forgot to unload a grievously wounded patient from the back of the ambulance before falling asleep in his tent. When he awoke and remembered, the man was dead. He confessed what had happened to his commander and an Army doctor. They conferred and decided that the man had certainly died en route and the whole incident should be forgotten. Relieved, Seabrook went back to sleep.
His main interest seems to have been using his commander’s typewriter to write a “diary” of the war, which the The Atlantic Monthly agreed to publish in installments. Seabrook was ecstatic when he heard the news—this was his first big break—but the Field Service decided that the material should instead be published as a booklet that could be used to raise funds for the service, a decision that infuriated him.
In 1916, in the midst of the ten-month-long Battle of Verdun, Seabrook was off duty and playing cards in a cowshed when he was struck by a chlorine-gas attack. The experience, he wrote, was as “dull as catching influenza,” but he and the men around him were taken away in a mule cart and sent home. The war would rage on for another two years, but it was over for Seabrook, who would later describe it as “the only adventure I have ever had that was not disappointing.”
Back in the U.S., Seabrook’s father-in-law gave him and Katie a large farm outside Atlanta, where Seabrook could focus on his writing. He tried short stories, war sketches, essays, he sketched out the beginnings of various novels. Mostly, though, he spent his time drinking corn whiskey with the farm’s caretaker, and he grew increasingly preoccupied with thoughts of his “girl in chains.” Socializing at a neighbor’s antebellum mansion, he became fixated on a fluted Corinthian pillar in the library alcove and imagined how a woman would look chained to it. But who would agree to such a thing?
Some months earlier, after a long, alcohol-fueled lunch with friends in New York, he visited the studio of the famous German-American puppeteer Tony Sarg. He met a young woman there, also a puppeteer, whom later in his writings he would refer to as “Deborah Luris.” Her real identity is unknown, though there’s some reason to believe that she had been the mistress of the occultist Aleister Crowley, who was a fixture in the Greenwich Village bohemian scene of the time. Seabrook was drawn to Luris’s frank sexuality and her “broad, animal face,” and now, on a whim, he wrote an agonized letter to her to ask if she’d be interested in taking part in kinky games with him.
“Sure, why not?” Luris wrote back. “Come on up. But why be so solemn and self-conscious about it? It might be fun.”
Seabrook explained all this to Katie, with whom he had what he later said was a largely platonic relationship. With her blessing he took the train up north, purchased locks and chains at Hammacher Schlemmer, and spent a week in the city, during which he barely left Luris’s apartment. “When people uncork parallel or complimentary chimeric wish-fantasies,” he wrote, “sparks generally fly. And so they did.”
Not long after that trip, Seabrook wrangled a job as a reporter for William Randolph Hearst’s empire. He and Katie moved to New York, and Katie opened a coffee house on Waverly Place that soon became popular with Village artists and writers: Marcel Duchamp, Malcolm Cowley, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Sinclair Lewis, among many others. Seabrook, increasingly insecure about his literary talent, took to introducing himself as a “short-story writer,” having sold one piece to H.L. Mencken’s The Smart Set for $17.50. He also cultivated a cartoonish eccentricity, strolling through the Village wearing chamois gloves and carrying a walking stick.
Though he was embarrassed to be thought of as a hack, he’d found a niche writing feature stories about the lurid and the supernatural, and he ghostwrote the memoir of a criminal named Celia Cooney, dubbed “the bobbed-hair bandit” after she stuck up several shops in Brooklyn in the winter of 1924. He was making more money than he’d ever made before, but if anyone called him out on his purple prose, it devastated him.
Among the many writers Seabrook came to know through the coffee house was Theodore Dreiser, a hero of his, who once, while holding court in his vast apartment, muttered something about “yellow journalism” and pointedly ignored Seabrook. He later wrote that the humiliation he felt at Dreiser’s withering dismissal helped catalyze his desire to transform himself into a more serious writer.
The opportunity for transformation came in the form of a Columbia University student named Daoud Izzedin, who liked to linger in the coffee house, telling tales of slaves with jeweled scimitars and descriptions of lava-rock palaces back home in Lebanon. When Izzedin said that his father would welcome any friend of his to Beirut, Seabrook jumped at the chance.
Six weeks later, he was traveling across Transjordan with a letter of introduction to a Bedouin sheik of sheiks. In the Middle East, he remade himself as a gentleman adventurer, with silk pajamas and a case full of aspirin, rare in that part of the world, which he dispensed as favors to the wives of Bedouin warriors. He became an honorary member of the Beni Sakhr tribe and was invited to ride along on their horse-stealing raids. He converted to Islam to please a host. He watched Turkish dervishes whirl themselves into a trance and was offered the services of a bangled slave girl.
Seabrook’s first book, Adventures in Arabia: Among the Bedouins, Druses, Whirling Dervishes, and Yezidee Devil Worshipers, was published by Harcourt, Brace and Company in 1927. Primed by earlier accounts of Arabian adventures, especially those of T.E. Lawrence, the public devoured the book. Critics were less enthusiastic. One reviewer remarked that there was something “Elizabethan” in Seabrook’s lyricism over long-haired warriors and white-veiled harem beauties. Another noted his “melodramatic flair.”
The book established a formula that Seabrook would return to again and again over the next several years: 1) Arrive at impossibly exotic locale. 2) Seek out forbidden location/mysterious ritual/strange cult. 3) Receive warning not to dare go there/do that/talk to them or risk being killed/being cursed/going mad. 4) Defy warning. 5) Find location/ritual/cult fascinating and wonderful, and suggest that, while he of course is capable of debunking the phonily supernatural, the universe is also full of strange and mystical things we don’t understand.
This kind of florid orientalism, retrograde as it appears now, was a sign of progressive thinking at the time. Seabrook saw himself as anti-racist, a son of the South happy to break bread with savages, and this was the persona he’d cultivate over the next several books: the bold white traveler venturing with open heart and mind into the lands of mystery and “darkness.”
“I have a warm feeling toward Negroes,” he told his publisher shortly after the publication of Adventures in Arabia. “They’re perhaps by and large less intelligent than whites—or perhaps only less well educated—inferior intellectually in general if you choose, but I often think they’re superior to us emotionally and spiritually, perhaps superior in kindness and capacity for happiness. I’d like to go down to Haiti or somewhere and turn Negro, if I can.”
This idea, that the “primitive,” nonwhite world was a corrective to sterilized Western culture, was also a product of the time. The 20th century had dawned cold and mechanical, bringing machine guns and mustard gas and shiny metropolises full of dead-eyed worker-drones. To many intellectuals, primitive man had a connection to something more authentic, more spiritual—hot-blooded vitality as an antidote to the Lost Generation’s postwar malaise.
For the past half-century, French colonial expansion into West Africa and the Caribbean had brought a flood of tribal art and artifacts to Parisian markets and given rise to an explosion of primitive-themed art, music, clothing, dance, and writing. Surrealists like André Breton and Man Ray were making works inspired by “negro art.” Josephine Baker, born in Missouri, was doing the banana dance before the likes of Hemingway. Everyone was reading Freud’s work on the “primordial mind.”
By the late 1920s, interest in primitivism had trickled down to the masses. Seabrook’s idea earned him a $15,000 book advance from Harcourt, Brace—over $200,000 in today’s dollars—and in 1928, in the midst of the U.S. occupation of Haiti, he sailed for Cap Haïtien.
Thirteen years earlier, in July 1915, U.S. Marines had invaded Haiti with the aim of restoring order and protecting America’s corporate interests after a series of coups and assassinations had destabilized the country. The U.S. installed a puppet president, Philippe Sudré Dartiguenave, and tried to strong-arm the Haitian legislature into creating a new, pro-American constitution. When the legislature refused, it was dissolved. Over the years that followed, the occupying forces instituted new policies of segregation between light- and dark-skinned blacks, and between light-skinned blacks and whites, infuriating Haiti’s Creole elites. The military also instituted a system of forced labor—essentially slavery—to build new roads and infrastructure.
By 1928, even those Haitians who initially supported U.S. involvement had turned bitterly against the occupation. For a wealthy blan like Seabrook, though, Port-au-Prince, despite the tensions, was a city of possibilities and pleasures. With Katie in tow, he rented a house with “adequate gardens” and filled it with servants—a cook, a butler, a laundress, and a houseboy named Louis.
As Seabrook described him, Louis was a sort of primitive saint who would disappear for days and reappear bearing exotic fruits or armfuls of flowers for Katie, and would stay up late with Seabrook telling him strange stories—about a man who lay dying because an old woman in Léogâne had made a wooden doll in his image, about trees that spoke, about the dead who walked.
Eventually, Seabrook and Louis began venturing into the mountains. In a tiny village of thatch-roofed huts where no white man had been seen in years, Seabrook met Maman Célie, a spiritual leader who treated his voodoo fascination with fond tolerance. “Petit, petit,” she crooned to him. Little by little. Be patient and the mysteries will be revealed. Seabrook lived with Maman Célie for several weeks. She called him her son, a “black man with a white face,” and prepared for him a bag of charms called an ouanga, which he prayed over and which would protect him as long as he did not betray those prayers.
The first mystery she allowed Seabrook to see was a petro, a blood rite in which a small black bull was sacrificed to the sound of pounding drums while villagers threw themselves into ecstatic dance. As Seabrook described it: “In the red light of torches which made the moon turn pale, leaping, screaming, writhing black bodies, blood-maddened, sex-maddened, god-maddened, drunken, whirled and danced their dark saturnalia.”
He next witnessed a young girl turned into a goat. Dressed in a scarlet robe and ostrich-feather headdress, Maman Célie brought forth the animal into the houmfort, the voodoo temple. Then she brought out her youngest daughter, a girl in her teens, anointing her with oil and wine. The girl kneeled at the altar and faced the goat, and the two stared at one another like “marble figures on the frieze of some ancient phallic temple.”
Seabrook watched as the girl’s lips became goat-like and she began to nibble the leaves around her. Her eyes grew wide and glassy and staring. When a priest plunged a knife into the goat’s neck, the girl bleated, leaped, and fell senseless to the ground. The goat was bled into a bowl, the blood used to draw a cross on Seabrook’s forehead. The bowl was then held to his lips and Seabrook drank the “clean, warm, salty” blood. Later, he would recount the incident with his characteristically deliberate ambiguity:
I have earned a deserved reputation for being not too credulous in the face of marvels. But I was in the presence now of a thing that could not be denied. Old magic was here at work, and it worked appallingly. What difference does it make whether we call it supernatural or merely supernormal. What difference does it make if we say that the girl was drugged—as I suspect she was—or that both were hypnotized? … We live surrounded by mysteries and imagine that by inventing names we explain them.
The Magic Island, published in 1929, included all this—the petro, the goat sacrifice, scenes of a hermaphroditic oracle holding a skull and peasants moaning before an altar of human bones. But nothing was more outrageous, or received more attention, than Seabrook’s depiction of his encounter with the walking dead.
No one knows for certain the origins of the word “zombie.” It may come from the Bantu for “fetish,” zumbi, or “spirit,” nzumbi. It may come from a Creole word for “ghost,” jumbie, which likely derives from the Spanish or French word for “shadows,” sombra/ombre. It may be a corruption of the French sans vie, “lifeless.”
In the colonial Caribbean, the zombie was thought to take many forms. It was a disembodied soul trapped in a jar by a sorcerer. It was a person transformed into an animal—a three-legged horse or a dog that stood five feet high. It was a tiny, fairy-like being that hid under the bed to scare naughty children. It was also a corpse raised from the dead—a zombi cadavre.
Seabrook had heard of zombies from Louis and Maman Célie, but it was a man named Constant Polynice, a mixed-race tax collector and local operator on the parched, desolate island of La Gonave, who insisted to Seabrook that they were not just another Haitian legend like fire hags and goat-eating werewolves. They were real, he said. He’d seen them with his own eyes.
Ten years earlier, in 1918, Polynice told Seabrook, Haiti’s largest and oldest sugar operation, the Haitian American Sugar Company, offered bonuses to any employee who brought in new workers to help them harvest the bumper crop. One morning an old farm foreman named Ti Joseph and his wife, Croyance, appeared with a ragged group of men and women they claimed were from the mountains and didn’t speak lowland Creole. They registered them and put them to work. These workers were actually zombies, Polynice explained, recently buried dead that the couple had pulled from their graves.
The zombies worked tirelessly, day after day, as the sun bore down on them. They ate only unseasoned food, as tasting salt or meat, it was believed, would cause them to realize that they were dead. But Croyance took pity on the zombies and decided one day to bring them to a street festival, where she bought them pistachio candies that had been cooked with salt. Awakened to their terrible reality, the zombies set off for their mountain village, moaning and shuffling in a single-file line. When their families saw the animated corpses of their loved ones, they chased and caught Ti Joseph and, Polynice said, “hacked off his head with a machete.”
“You are not a peasant,” Seabrook told him after hearing the story. “How much of that story, honestly, do you believe?”
“Why should I not believe them when I myself have also seen zombies?” Polynice replied.
Some days later the two men rode on horseback across the Plaine des Mapous, a high plateau on La Gonave dotted with stands of mapous, the silvery, wide-canopied tree sacred to voodoo adherents. After several hours, they came to a sugarcane field and dismounted. It was midday, the sun scorching and white overhead. At the far edge of a field, three laborers were hacking at a stony, terraced slope with machetes. Polynice went to speak with the overseer, a “big-boned, hard-faced black girl” named Lamercie, who insisted that “negroes’ affairs are not for whites.” Seabrook stepped forward anyway. Polynice tapped one of the workers on the shoulder and bid him to stand.
The man stood, and Seabrook looked into his eyes. He reached out and grabbed one of the man’s dangling hands. He shook it and said, “Bonjour, compère.” The man stared without replying, his eyes fixed on some distant horizon.
Seabrook scrambled for an explanation for what he was seeing. The man’s eyes reminded him of a lobotomized dog he once saw in a lab at Columbia University. The “zombies” were likely mentally deficient people who had been forced into servitude, he reasoned, but of course he could not be sure.
“The eyes were the worst,” Seabrook wrote. “It was not my imagination. They were in truth like the eyes of a dead man, not blind, but staring unfocused, unseeing. … I had a sickening, almost panicky lapse in which I thought, or rather felt, ‘Great God, maybe this stuff is really true, and if it is true, it is rather awful, for it upsets everything.’”
Over half a million copies of The Magic Island were sold, and Seabrook’s descriptions forever shaped the Western idea of zombies and voodoo. Religious practices involving multiple deities and spirits existed throughout the Caribbean and Latin America; every country had its mythical demons. But after The Magic Island, Haiti would always be viewed as the land of tom-toms pounding in the night and corpses staggering down the road, shaking off dirt from their graves. From the book’s publication forward, the white world would hear almost nothing of the helpful chore-doing zombie, the giant dog zombie, the playful spirit zombie. The only zombie that now existed in the Western imagination was the zombi cadavre.
The Magic Island was packaged to titillate. A 1929 ad for the book in The New Yorker featured a drawing of a shifty-eyed, pipe-smoking Constant Polynice, along with a quote from The Evening Post’s review of the book: “The steam-heated and incomplete orgies of New York’s night clubs usually leave their patrons foolishly futile and with a sense of gyp. … I would recommend to them a session with some real frenzy in this amazing work.”
Reviews were largely gushing, especially in the dailies and in middlebrow magazines. “It is not a twice-told tale, but a vivid record of things seen; it is no ladylike book, but a man’s story written for adult minds,” reported The Bookman, a New York literary journal published by Seward Bishop Collins, a man with the distinction of being both a self-proclaimed fascist and a onetime lover of Dorothy Parker.
Critics praised Seabrook’s willingness to investigate Haiti’s strange rituals with an open mind. “He has penetrated as few white men have done … to the soul of Haiti,” R.L. Duffus wrote in The New York Times.
Black American critics praised the book, as well. The review in Harlem’s Amsterdam News proclaimed it to be “the best book of the year on a negro subject.”
There were a handful of naysayers in the progressive media, especially among those who had a deep understanding of Haitian culture. “Although Mr. Seabrook has seen a great deal more than the average white man sees in the island, he has become so excited about it all that he cannot hope to be taken as an altogether credible witness,” wrote the socialist-leaning British weekly the New Statesman.
The anthropologist and Haitian-studies scholar Melville Herskovits wrote in The Nation: “This book, like others of its kind, is a work of injustice.” Seabrook, Herskovitz argued, had given a shallow and credulous account of Haitian culture, focusing on the grotesque without investigating context or significance. What was Maman Célie’s day-to-day life like? What was the purpose of the goat slaughter? He accused Seabrook of repeating folk tales as fact and argued that The Magic Island’s sensationalism only served to lend credence to the view that Haitians were childlike primitives in need of American protection.
In his memoir, Seabrook described how badly the criticisms wounded his pride. “I had very few things to be proud of,” he wrote, “and one of them was that I knew I was an honest, if sensational reporter.” He even claimed to have refused a $15,000 syndication deal with a magazine that wanted to alter his descriptions of voodoo to make it appear more sinister and provocative. He couldn’t do that to Maman Célie, he said. “Between us was the same bond which bound and binds me still to my long-dead white witch-grandmother Piny,” he wrote.
A decade later, Seabrook would feel vindicated by the publication of Zora Neale Hurston’s Tell My Horse, her account of Jamaican and Haitian voodoo practices, which included supposed firsthand accounts of meeting zombies—though critics would say that Hurston simply recounted certain Seabrook tales. Hurston herself said she was inspired by Seabrook’s work.
Almost immediately after the release of The Magic Island, producers in New York and Hollywood began cashing in on the new obsession with the walking dead. The book’s first offspring was a play—Zombie—written by the vaudeville writer Kenneth Webb, which opened in New York in February 1932. It starred the fading silent-film actress Pauline Starke as an American plantation owner in Haiti whose husband was turned into a zombie. The action revolved around Starke and two scholars trying to find the zombie masters and win her husband’s release.
Zombie was an extraordinary flop. Time called it “wretchedly acted” and “beset with deplorably written dialog.” Audiences found the play more funny than terrifying, and while its New York run lasted only 20 performances, it reopened later that year in Chicago, where it was billed as a comedy.
While Zombie the stage play was still in preproduction, two film directors, the brothers Victor and Edward Halperin, leased space at Universal Studios and began making White Zombie, starring a mono-browed Bela Lugosi, fresh off his turn as Dracula, as the wicked Haitian sugar-plantation owner Murder Legendre. A man of ambiguous racial and national background, Legendre lords over the zombies who toil in his fields. “They work faithfully, and they are not worried about long hours,” he says. He also keeps a crew of zombie servants, each one a former enemy now turned dead-eyed and compliant.
Madge Bellamy, a scandal-plagued B-movie actress, plays Madeline, the young white American woman freshly arrived in Haiti, where her fiancé has been working. Driving through the Haitian backwoods in a carriage, she passes a funeral that is taking place in the middle of the road, replete with drums and strange wailings, a scene lifted directly from The Magic Island.
On her wedding night, Legendre hexes Madeline with a cup of poisoned wine and a wax voodoo doll, “killing” her in the middle of her celebration dinner. She is buried, then dug up and whisked away to Legendre’s seaside castle to become his pliant zombie bride.
Though the movie never credits The Magic Island, its influence is everywhere, from the description of zombies to specific scenes taken from the book to uncredited Seabrook quotes that were used in the film’s press release.
Seabrook seems to have been unconcerned that his stories, his depiction of zombies, even his notoriety was being used without credit or compensation. It may be that he didn’t need or care about the money. Or it may be that the doubts raised about his credibility (including letters from his mother accusing him of embarrassing the family with his made-up tales) so wounded him that he felt he had to distance himself from the schlock culture being produced as a result of his book.
Whatever high-minded criticisms were being lodged against him, Seabrook was now popularly considered to be the premier white chronicler of the world’s dark cultures. The pressing question for him became: What next? How to outdo the scenes he’d witnessed and written about in Haiti?
The idea for his next book came over lunch at the Waldorf Hotel with the French writer and diplomat Paul Morand. In the late 1920s and early ’30s, Morand, too, was at the height of his fame. He’d just returned from an around-the-world trip and had published a book, Black Magic, that exalted the childlike primitivism of the negro. Morand told Seabrook that he must go to West Africa. There are cannibals there, he said, real cannibals, not the nonsense kind who eat flesh only because they’re starving.
A few months later, Seabrook was trekking through the jungle of the Ivory Coast in search of man-eating tribes. He traveled to Liberia with a young “sorceress” named Wamba, meeting witch doctors and panther-tooth-wearing tribesmen along the way. He witnessed rituals in which babies appeared to be impaled upon swords, only to reappear hours later unharmed. He met an old French priest in Timbuktu who had married a native woman and fathered 30 children. He acquired a pet monkey.
And, yes, he ate human flesh. The meat in question, he wrote, was that of “a freshly killed man, who seemed to be about thirty years old.” It tasted like “good, fully developed veal.”
When Jungle Ways was published in 1930, the chapter containing these descriptions scandalized readers across America. “So repellant is the subject that we hesitate to speak of it,” read a typically disgusted editorial, this one in the Montgomery Advertiser. “It is not agreeable to think that an intelligent, educated member of the white race and of the American nation, has voluntarily descended to a scale lower than that observed by these lowly people.”
Seabrook claimed his detractors were more upset by the fact of his dining with blacks than dining upon them.
The truth, however, was that he never actually ate human flesh in Africa. The tribal chief wouldn’t allow an outsider to partake in ritualistic cannibalism, which was rarely practiced anyway, and tried to trick Seabrook by serving him gorilla meat. Seabrook was shown the body of a slain enemy warrior but told that for reasons having to do with the ritual, he couldn’t observe the cooking process.
Years later he claimed to have figured out the deception during the meal, but he had gone to darkest Africa to dine with cannibals, he wrote, and one way or another he was going to have the experience of tasting human flesh. His solution was to go to Paris and convince a friend who had access to a hospital morgue to slip him a piece of thigh from a “healthy human carcass killed by accident.” He then held a dinner party. “I ate it in the presence of witnesses and liked it, no more or less than any other edible meat,” he wrote. (One of the guests at the party would later claim Seabrook didn’t tell them what the main course was, passing it off as a piece of rare game while they chewed unsuspectingly.)
In any case, Seabrook described in Jungle Ways the experience of eating the flesh of another human being, and he later argued that, since he had in fact done it, he didn’t really see why it mattered whether it was in an African jungle or at a dinner party in Paris.
As Seabrook tells it, he and Katie realized early in their marriage that they weren’t suited for each other romantically—she had no interest in his fantasies—but they had stayed together as affectionate companions. She ignored his sexual exploits with other women, he wrote, and she enjoyed coming along on his adventures. When the arrangement finally came to an end, neither was surprised.
At a bridge game in the winter of 1929, Seabrook met an aspiring writer named Marjorie Worthington. Worthington would later recall that even though she was with her husband that night, Seabrook stared at her all evening with a “peculiar” sideways look that made her fumble her cards. The next morning, he sent her a dozen roses with a note that read: “If these are indiscreet, press them against you and throw them away.”
Worthington was tall and angular, with grave almond eyes and a high forehead accentuated by severely parted dark hair. She was as shy as Seabrook was boisterous. Sybille Bedford, Aldous Huxley’s biographer, who knew Seabrook and Worthington in the 1930s, described her as “a stiff, gentle woman with a soft voice and an unhappy face.”
Shortly after beginning their affair, Seabrook left for Africa to research Jungle Ways. When his travels there came to an end, he headed to Paris to work on his manuscript and invited Worthington to join him. She sailed for France with the blessing of her husband, a young advertising executive who held the open attitude toward marriage then in vogue in the Greenwich Village counterculture. When Worthington and Seabrook returned to New York a year later, they discovered that their respective spouses had taken up with one another. They each filed for divorce and then almost immediately sailed off for Timbuktu to research a book about Père Yakouba, the ex-priest Seabrook had met while researching Jungle Ways.
Like the previous trip, this one was arranged by Paul Morand, who had secured a pilot from the French Desert Air Corps to fly them across the Sahara in a four-seater plane with wicker seats. Early on in the trip, while camping in the desert, Seabrook and Worthington took a walk far away from their site. The night was cold and clear, and Seabrook held Worthington’s hand and pointed out the Southern Cross. “This was as beautiful a moment as I have known in my life,” Worthington would later write.
Later in the trip, however, Seabrook impulsively flew off to join a search for a lost French pilot, leaving Worthington to travel for days in a truck belonging to the Trans-Saharan Company. At night, shivering from dysentery, she’d wrap herself in a burnoose and sleep in the sand.
As Seabrook’s literary star rose, he also became aggressively open about his sexual proclivities. He’d been playing S&M games with Deborah Luris in private for years; now, in Paris, he threw an afternoon cocktail party featuring a seminude Montparnasse call girl shackled by her wrists to a post. Worthington tolerated all this but found it humiliating.
“We were physically drawn to each other, and yet I was totally unsympathetic to the business of chains and leather masks and the rest of the fantasies that were so important to him,” she wrote in her memoir, The Strange World of Willie Seabrook, published in 1966.
Undeterred by her reluctance, Seabrook had a studded silver collar designed for Worthington, which she wore in a photograph taken by Man Ray in 1930. She looks miserable in the photo, her eyes hollow and her head held at an unnatural angle.
In Man Ray’s autobiography, the photographer describes an evening in which Seabrook asked him to watch over a prostitute whom he’d hired to act as a submissive slave. She was chained to the stairs in his Paris duplex, Seabrook explained. When Man Ray demurred, saying that he had a date with the photographer Lee Miller, Seabrook told him to bring her along. As Man Ray wrote:
She was nude except for a soiled, ragged loincloth, with her hands behind her back chained to the post with a padlock. Seabrook produced a key and informed me that I was to release the girl only in case of an emergency—a fire, or for a short visit to the bathroom. She was being paid to do this for a few days, was very docile and willing. I was to order dinner from the dining room, anything we liked: wines, champagne, but under no circumstances have the girl eat with us. She was to be served on a plate with the food cut up and placed on the floor near her, as for a dog—get down on her knees to eat. The chain was long enough.
As soon as Seabrook left, Man Ray unchained the woman and invited her to eat. Over dinner she explained that Seabrook never hurt her but simply stood by her for hours, drinking Scotch and staring.
Later, Man Ray would shoot a series of S&M photos called “The Fantasies of Mr. Seabrook,” as well as several portraits of Seabrook and Miller, his own onetime lover, as master and slave.
In the early 1930s, Seabrook and Worthington began spending much of their time in the South of France, in the village of Sanary-sur-Mer, which had become a bohemian outpost between the wars and a refuge for escaped and self-exiled German intellectuals like Bertolt Brecht and Arnold Zweig and Thomas Mann, as well as international literary stars like Aldous Huxley, Jean Cocteau, and D.H. Lawrence.
In Sanary, Seabrook dressed like a French fisherman. He bought a castle. He kept the pet monkey he had acquired in Africa. At his request, Worthington dressed like a local market girl, in a bright, tight-bodiced cotton dress, a bandanna, and arms full of cheap, tinkling metal bracelets. The Riviera boatmen and coral fishermen had a nickname for Worthington, a woman so regal yet so silent and unhappy seeming: La belle esclave. The beautiful slave.
“Sanary is full of the usual Lesbian baronesses,” Aldous Huxley wrote in a letter to Charles de Noailles, the French nobleman and art patron, “all of them in a flutter of excitement to know Mr. Seabrook, because the rumour has gone round the village that he beats his lady friend.”
Huxley and his wife, Maria, were closer with Seabrook and Worthington than anyone else in Sanary. The couples spent many evenings together, picnicking on the peninsula overlooking the sea or listening to Mozart at Huxley’s villa. Seabrook had money and notoriety and famous literary friends, but he didn’t have Huxley’s talent, and the constant reminder of that corroded him. Sybille Bedford described Seabrook at the time as “a man in the clutches of self-doubt and success.” He would boast about his exploits among the savages of Africa and Haiti, Bedford said, then in an instant turn maudlin and self-pitying. “He would lament his lack of intellectual and literary refinement,” she wrote. “He was a craftsman, he would say, a cobbler, and he wanted to write like Tolstoy and like Aldous Huxley.”
Seabrook was supposed to be working on a biography of Père Yakouba, the White Monk of Timbuctoo, but he was unable to write in Sanary. Nights of wild parties gave way to mornings drinking brandy alone in the garden. At some point he stopped seeing people altogether, then stopped speaking much. He went through his housebound days with “automaton motions,” he said, drinking until he passed out.
“I had seen Willie set out deliberately to get drunk, to celebrate a job of work finished. But this was different,” Worthington later wrote. “This was to deaden some inner anguish that lay so deep a whole ocean of brandy couldn’t touch it.”
Worthington tried everything she could to bring back the old Seabrook. She tried drinking with him. She tried not drinking. She tried to amuse him with stories, to drag him to dinners, to fill him with nourishing food. Nothing worked.
“I’m told I’d become like one of my own zombies,” Seabrook wrote.
One morning, in a fit of alcoholic distortion or inspiration, he decided that Gertrude Stein, the patron saint of all expat artists, would know what he should do. It didn’t matter that he had never met her. “When I wanted to do something as violently as I wanted to do that, I could still lay off the brandy until I got it done,” he wrote. He found his way to Stein’s house in the Rhône-Alpes and invited himself in. The two spent the next evening talking, a strange interlude Stein later wrote about in her memoir Everybody’s Autobiography:
After all preachers’ sons will when they begin drink a lot and it wears them out. … It is funny about drinking. Seabrook told me about the white magic of Lourdes and how he wanted to go there and be a stretcher bearer. … He and I sat next to one another and gradually I told him all about myself.
Stein suggested Seabrook quit his life of dissipation and head home to a more rigid, more disciplined life in the U.S. He knew she was right, but he drove home and drank himself unconscious anyway.
Eventually, he sent a cable to Alfred Harcourt, his publisher and friend, in which he confessed to having become a “habitual drunkard” and suggested a “radical and fantastic” plan to cure himself. He would sail back to America and have Harcourt transport him directly to a locked psychiatric ward, a “place which is not comedy, but which has got bars on the windows and locks on the doors, and a competent hospital orderly to sock you on the jaw if you try to smuggle whiskey in.”
Huxley drove Seabrook to the Sanary train station, and he sailed from Cherbourg to New York, where he signed a voluntary commitment order and entered a locked ward at Bloomingdale Asylum (now part of New York–Presbyterian Hospital) in White Plains. He would remain there for the next seven months.
Left alone in Paris, Worthington was so deadened with sadness that she described herself as “one of the zombies Willie had introduced to the world.”
Bloomingdale Asylum had both clay and grass tennis courts. Its gymnasium was as fine as the one at the Racquet & Tennis Club on Park Avenue. Dinner tables were set with linens and fresh flowers. If someone pulled her skirt up over her head during the salad course and ran around the dining room, that was the only difference between Bloomingdale and the Ritz.
Seabrook entered the asylum on December 5, 1933, the day Prohibition was repealed. The hospital did not normally take drunks, but his powerful friends had pulled strings. After a few days in withdrawal, he underwent a regimen of psychoanalysis, hydrotherapy, and rest, lounging on the lawn in his free time, tinkering in the woodshop, and receiving Swedish massages.
After his release he wrote a memoir, Asylum, which was serialized in The Atlantic Monthly. It could be described as the first celebrity rehab memoir. And while he was a petulant and demanding patient, Seabrook also appeared to have developed at least some psychological self-awareness at Bloomingdale. As he wrote at the end of Asylum:
I had run away ineffectually at six to be a pirate as all children do, and instead of getting mature powers of adjustment as I grew older, I had been running away ever since. … Now I knew that all the time I had been running away from something, and that the thing had always been myself. And now I was locked up where I couldn’t run away, either by boat or bottle. I had to stay with myself and look at myself and it wasn’t pleasant.
Seabrook moved to the village of Rhinebeck in upstate New York, where Worthington joined him, and the two were finally married. He spent his days there soberly writing and responding to the hundreds of letters he received from Asylum readers, most of them desperate to find out how they could commit an inebriate loved one.
The book was more influential than Seabrook could have imagined. Bill Wilson, who cofounded Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935, the same year Asylum was released, was known to have read it. How much it influenced him is difficult to say, but the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, the “AA bible” written by Wilson in 1939, features similar epiphanies and conclusions as those Seabrook arrived at in Asylum. These may be universal truths about the nature of alcoholism and its treatment—the sense of lifelong restlessness common to the afflicted, the loss of control that distinguishes alcoholics from heavy drinkers, the pseudo-religious epiphany that sometimes accompanies recovery—but early editions of the Big Book reference Seabrook by name, and it appears that he had a not insignificant influence over this, too, one of the best-selling books of all time.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, who knew a thing or two about drinking, referenced the book derisively in the series of essays, “The Crack-Up,” that he wrote for Esquire about his own alcohol-fueled breakdown. “William Seabrook in an unsympathetic book tells, with some pride and a movie ending, of how he became a public charge.”
The ending Fitzgerald refers to is Seabrook’s philosophy, stated in the book’s final chapter, that alcoholics shouldn’t necessarily remain abstinent forever. “To go out and never be able to touch a cocktail, glass of wine, or highball again would be a poor sort of cure, if it could indeed be termed a cure at all,” Seabrook wrote. The staff at Bloomingdale convinced him to go an additional six months after his discharge without drinking, which Seabrook did, and then:
A fortnight or so after the six months had elapsed, somebody brought out a bottle of Spanish sherry. It occurred to me that it would be a good thing to try first, after so long an abstinence. I had a glass and liked it very much. It brought a pleasant glow. We were soon at dinner. It didn’t occur to me to want more of it. … Months have passed now since I first took those rare drinks, and I still drink rarely. I don’t think I worry much about it. I have other worries. But I am less unhappy than I used to be when I tried to drown them. I seem to be cured of drunkenness, which is as may be.
Marjorie Worthington tells a very different story. After several happy, productive sober years, she says, Seabrook became insecure about his latest book, These Foreigners, a compilation of essays about immigrant groups in America. Critics described the book as tame and boring. One quipped that it should have been called Pollyanna Among the Poles. Seabrook had gone “respectable,” they said, and his writing had much more verve when he was a degenerate.
Seabrook was in his fifties by now, but despite all he’d done and lived through, he still could be brought to his knees by criticism of his writing. Worthington recalled a day when he came home with several bottles of whiskey in a brown paper bag. He put the bottles on the kitchen table and said, “I’m sick of being a cripple. From now on I’m going to prove that I can take a drink or leave it alone, like any other man.”
Bored and aging and far from the limelight, Seabrook grew obsessed with the idea of alternate realities. He wanted to show, in a materialist way, he said, the unknown places the human mind could wander. His scientific exploration consisted of recruiting a succession of young women as volunteers for experiments that he conducted in a barn on his property in Rhinebeck. He dressed the women in bondage hoods and hung them by their wrists from the rafters for hours, their feet barely touching the ground, watching and waiting to see if the sensory deprivation and fatigue would induce their minds to “slip through the door of time.”
Some of these experiments became fodder for a book, Witchcraft: Its Power in the World Today, published in 1940. Possibly written in part by a ghostwriter (likely Maya Deren, then Seabrook’s assistant and later a notable avant-garde filmmaker), the book is a disjointed compilation of Haitian voodoo stories, reporting about Duke University’s ESP lab, and an improbable number of bizarre firsthand tales in which Seabrook meets a young American artist stricken with a craving for human blood (turns out she has pernicious anemia) or helps a London socialite free herself from a voodoo-doll curse (which seems not the least bit credible).
By then readers had tired of the Seabrook formula. The claims of rationalism, undermined by recognitions of doubt, felt disingenuous.
“Willie has always sort of side-whispered that he is hep to an all-fired lot of secrets which he doesn’t tell about because he has sworn not to in his own red blood and might be turned, if he tattled, into a Gila monster or something,” wrote Burton Rascoe in The American Mercury.
Seabrook seemed beyond caring. He’d started writing syndicated newspaper stories again, presumably to pay the bills. The subjects were more lurid than ever. Ghost ships. Mexican caves full of human sacrifices. Sex murders. Dangerous occultist rings and white African rain queens.
On a cold night in January 1941, Seabrook even set out to put a hex on Adolph Hitler, a strange event that was documented by a Life magazine photographer who followed him and a small group of young journalists and recent co-eds to a cabin in the western Maryland woods. The men wore overcoats and trilbies, the women stockings and victory-roll hairdos. Then there was Seabrook, bringing up the back with a parcel the size of a beef shank wrapped in a length of canvas.
Once inside the cabin, he revealed a shiny, flesh-colored dressmaker’s dummy. It wore a military shirt and a peaked cap, both emblazoned with swastikas. On the dummy’s upper lip was drawn the familiar toothbrush-style mustache.
Seabrook, acting as master of ceremonies, instructed the group to chant: “You are Hitler, Hitler is you! We curse you by every tear and drop of blood you have caused to flow. We curse you with the curses of all who have cursed you!”
Then they pounded nails into the dummy and decapitated it with an ax.
Back in Rhinebeck, Worthington grew increasingly despondent over Seabrook’s obsessions. “I tried to keep things running smoothly, while knowing that in the barn studio some rather nice girl had been persuaded to let herself be hung by a chain from the ceiling until she was so tired she hardly knew what she was doing or saying,” she wrote. She referred to the girls as “Lizzies in chains” and did her best to ignore them.
But then Seabrook brought home a red-headed artist in her early thirties named Constance Kuhr, whom he had met during a brief drying-out period at a farm in Woodstock. While Worthington had looked the other way during Seabrook’s many dalliances, even at times allowing mistresses to live with them, she could tell that this woman was different. “I don’t know much about the ‘feminine mystique,’” Worthington wrote. “But I am sure there is some sense a woman has that lets her know when another woman means trouble.”
Unlike the Lizzies, Kuhr was older, was tough-minded, and had her own ideas about how things should be done. To Worthington’s great dismay, she moved into the Rhinebeck house and then decided that she would cure Seabrook of his alcoholism. On a day when Worthington was out of town, Kuhr told Seabrook to roll up his sleeves. She then plunged his elbows into a pot of boiling water, burning him terribly. If you can’t bend your arms, she said, you can’t take a drink.
When Worthington returned home to the scene, she was filled with rage at what Kuhr had done. “Although I have never been able to bring myself to kill a fly or a spider,” she wrote, “I was quite capable of killing her.”
Seabrook suggested that Worthington live in the garden cottage on the property, to be away from Kuhr but still near him. He said his affair with Kuhr might not last. For a while Worthington agreed, cooking stews and sending them to Seabrook in the barn. But finally, wracked with misery, she filed for divorce. She signed the papers alone in a lawyer’s office in Poughkeepsie. “I felt as if I had died,” she wrote, “as if my ghost walked out of that office and got on a bus to nowhere.”
Seabrook published his final book, No Hiding Place, in 1942. The title of the autobiography comes from the old spiritual based on the Book of Revelations, in which sinners are trying to hide from the wrath of God in the mountains, but the rocks give them no quarter. I went to the rock to hide my face / And the rock cried out no hiding place / There’s no hiding place down here.
Time described No Hiding Place as “the year’s weirdest autobiography.” It is by turns pitiful and grandiose, with paragraphs of relentless name-dropping followed by monologues of intense self-denigration. There are several things in the book that are demonstrably untrue (for instance, Seabrook lies about his age throughout, shaving off two years), but it is also unsparing in its depiction of Seabrook’s sadism and his insatiable desire for more.
Grudgingly, he acknowledges that after everything, after all his desire to be taken seriously as a man of letters, it is the zombies that will be his most lasting legacy. “The word is now a part of the American language,” he writes. “It flames in neon lights for names for bars, and drinks, is applied to starved surrendering soldiers, replaces robot, and runs the pulps ragged for new plots in which the principal zombie instead of being a black man is a white girl—preferably blond.”
No Hiding Place ends on a note of melodramatic self-pity. In his late fifties and childless, Seabrook reflects on the cessation of his family name: “And now the book is nearly ended, and so is the male line in which the old brassbound family Bible shows I was the seventh William.”
By the time the book was published, however, Constance Kuhr became pregnant with a son, who they would also name William. In September 1945, when the boy was two years old, Seabrook swallowed several handfuls of sleeping pills and died in his bed.
William Seabrook VIII goes by Bill. He’s a 71-year-old retired elementary school teacher who lives with his wife, Lib, in the old mill town of Burlington, North Carolina. I met him there last summer, after calling him out of the blue and explaining that I’d become somewhat fixated on the life of his father and asking if he’d be willing to talk with me about him.
Bill met me at the door of his modest house and led me into his living room. He offered me tea and asked polite questions about my life. We settled into comfortable, worn chairs and began to talk about his father. He doesn’t remember him, Bill told me, but he’s thought a lot about him over the years.
I asked if he’d read his father’s books, and Bill said that he enjoyed some of the early ones—Adventures in Arabia, especially—but he didn’t much like the occult stuff. “It’s the opposite of Upworthy,” he said, referring to the website that aggregates affirming news and positive messages. “Do you read Upworthy?”
As for the zombies, Bill said, “I could not be less interested in that as a general subject.”
His childhood after his father’s death was not particularly uplifting. His mother was a temperamental artist—“bigger than life,” he said— who didn’t provide much stability. When Bill was a child, she had a baby with a live-in boyfriend, then gave the child up for adoption. Later, when Bill was eight, she dropped him off with guardians and moved to Mexico to marry a Spanish count.
Still, he said, he loved and admired his mother for her sharp mind and survival instinct. She always talked to Bill like he was an adult, telling stories about Seabrook and their bohemian friends. She married twice after Seabrook’s death, first to the count, then to a diesel mechanic. She lived into her late seventies and died in North Carolina, not far from where he lives.
Bill showed me the tarnished, leather-sheathed Bedouin swords his father brought back from the Middle East, which now hang over the doorway in Bill’s dining room. After his father died, he said, Constance sold off most of Seabrook’s possessions—his African masks, his oriental tapestries, the works he’d accumulated from his many artist friends. All that’s left of Seabrook’s years traveling the globe are the swords and a tattered Persian rug.
When I asked him about his father’s darker instincts, the girl-in-chains fantasy, the addiction that ultimately took his life, Bill couldn’t offer much explanation. There have always been drinkers in the family, he said. “As for the bondage stuff, I’m not really interested in that.”
He referred to his father as a “PK”—a preacher’s kid—and that explained his need to rebel. “I think my father was very caught up in the idea of being a writer, with the idea of being different,” he said.
It’s a theory that, in reverse, might also explain Bill, who grew up in fairly extreme, unstable circumstances and turned out about as straight as a man can be. He dotes on his two children and refers to his wife of 46 years as his “best friend.”
The person in his family that he really wishes he’d known is his grandfather, the minister for whom Seabrook had so much disdain. The details of William L. Seabrook’s life suggest that he was a good-hearted, community-minded man. He was president of the local volunteer fire department; when he and his wife married, the fire department paraded down Main Street. He was a member of Maryland’s first bicycle club. He also wrote a book about biblical immortality, which Bill, while admiring the impulse, described as “soporific.”
“He was a person who loved his fellow man and woman,” Bill said. “I would have given the world to have a grandfather like that.”
He dismissed Seabrook’s description of his childhood in Westminster, the fantastical things that happened, his relationship to Grandma Piny and her connection to the occult. “Where he’s coming up with all this esoteric stuff about her is a mystery to us,” Bill said.
According to historical records, Piny, Seabrook’s “little girl goddess,” turns out to be Harriet Philipina Thomas, born in 1837, not on a plantation but on a farm near Frederick, Maryland. She was indeed a teen bride, 18 at the time of her wedding, but she was less than four years younger than Seabrook’s grandfather, not at all, it seems, the ethereal little girl married off to a bearded old man that Seabrook had described. “She was as straight-up and straightforward a person as there ever was,” Bill said.
He rocked back in his chair. “Of all the people in the story, I feel the most for Marjorie,” he went on. “I think she caught the worst of his bizarre side.” He met her once, and she was a “lovely lady.”
Worthington lived until 1976. She had various love affairs, including one with the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Walter Duranty, who was later exposed as a Communist propagandist for lying about his knowledge of famine in the Soviet Union. But she never got over Seabrook. She hoped her own memoir, published nine years before she died, might revive interest in his work, and one reviewer described it as “something Zelda Fitzgerald might have written if she had outlived Scott and kept her sanity.” But Seabrook wasn’t F. Scott, and few readers were compelled to seek out his books.
“He really wanted to be among the big writers,” Bill said. “Why wasn’t he great? Why wasn’t he a Hemingway? Why wasn’t he a Fitzgerald? Did he hold himself back?”
The Seabrook line doesn’t end with Bill. His son, Seabrook’s grandson, William Seabrook IX (he prefers Wil), is a singer-songwriter in Los Angeles who founded Rock for Human Rights, a nonprofit that raises awareness about human-rights issues through music. Wil is 37, and he too has a son, though not named William.
“He does not seem to me like a particularly admirable person,” Wil said about Seabrook when I reached him by phone. “He strikes me as a bit of a victim about his life.”
At one point in the conversation, Wil told me that he practices Scientology. He came to it, he said, after years of searching for “workable truths, and a way to understand the world in a way that made sense to me.”
I mentioned that he didn’t sound so unlike his grandfather when he said that. “I think he was also a seeker of truth,” Wil said. “But I don’t know how much of it he found.”
A few years before he died, when Worthington was still with him, Seabrook received a gift from his old editor at Harcourt, who had just been on vacation to Haiti. It was an ouanga, a cloth packet filled with charms meant for casting a spell. Ouangas could be used for good or ill. You could send a love ouanga to a friend or a cursed ouanga to an enemy. In Haiti all those years back, Maman Célie had made an ouanga for Seabrook and filled it with balsam leaves, lime tree roots, a crucifix, a lock of his hair, and a paring of his fingernail. She had instructed him to say a prayer over the packet before she wrapped it. He’d prayed: “Protect me from misrepresenting these people, and give me power to write honestly of their mysterious religion, for all living faiths are sacred.”
The U.S. military occupation was now long over, and Haiti had become a popular tourist destination. Cruise passengers and honeymooners would come home from Port-au-Prince with souvenir ouangas made of cheap red satin. That’s all this was.
And yet it set Seabrook on edge.
Did he feel that he had betrayed Maman Célie with his sensationalist writing? Did he fear that a curse had finally caught up with him? Or was it simply a reminder of what his life once was and where it had led, the impossibility of escaping ourselves?
Whatever the case, after receiving the package, Seabrook remained anxious and agitated until Worthington finally took the ouanga behind the barn and burned it.
When she returned and told him it was gone, Seabrook was greatly relieved.