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Books: Women in Chains

3 minute read

NO HIDING PLACE—William Seabrook —Lippincott ($3).

With a clank of chains and the mingled aroma of voodoo incense and roasting human flesh, William Buehler Seabrook reveals a story of his life. It is sensational and apparently omits little but the spectacular chunks that went into Seabrook’s earlier personal histories (Asylum, The Magic Island).

Author Seabrook was raised in Maryland’s spooky Pennsylvania Dutch country. Whenever his domineering mother was out of his sight, William moped. One day his half-crazy grandmother (with the help of a delightful little bottle) led the sad child into a clearing in a “new, strange wood.” There he saw “beautiful bright-plumaged roosters … as tall as houses . . . their legs . . . like the pillars of cathedral aisles.” William’s only happiness was “escape into that other dreamworld” until in a moralistic moment Grandfather Seabrook smashed Grandmother’s laudanum bottle. It was too late to smash the hypnotic effects of her drugged mind on young William.

One of Seabrook’s earliest boyish pleasures had been to gaze at pictures of women in chains. One day Grandmother Seabrook had shown him “a throne on which a girl sat, robed in green . . . her ankles bound by shining metal circlets joined by a gleaming chain.” Young Seabrook pressed his hands against her ankles “until my own hands held and drew the chains tighter.” From that time on, William had two ambitions—to be a writer like his grandfather (editor of the American Sentinel) and to chain women. As a boy he lassoed little girls. As a man he spent his earnings on complicated gold and silver chains with which he fastened women to pillars, ceilings, floors. Most of the women seemed to enjoy it, even went to dances with him, tightly chained.

Smart editors exploited young Seabrook’s flair for abnormality. For them he covered deaths, murders, freaks, women bandits, gruesome accidents. Bohemian society was charmed by the thwarted, dark-haired man who shambled about like a hobo, was chummy with Arab sheiks, dined with African cannibals, plunged ecstatically into Haitian voodoo.

Between long periods of melancholy, drunkenness and adventure, Seabrook struggled to write books, short stories, articles. Finally, desperate and dipsomaniac, he went voluntarily to a New York State hospital for the insane (Bloomingdale) where he was forcibly kept from drink for nearly a year. On leaving, he was sufficiently cured to write three books, “to dance with Mrs. Vincent Astor . . . and win the Herald Tribune garden-club prize for the best-kept lawns and flower beds.”

Later Seabrook relapsed, turned the barn at his swagger Dutchess County home into a scientific “research” laboratory. With “research girls” for guinea pigs, Seabrook and his friends “evoked . . . ‘gods’ and ‘devils,’ ” dabbled in witchcraft and clairvoyance. Once more Seabrook began to drink, was cured again by an impetuous girl who forced him to plunge his elbows into boiling water. This treatment shocked him back to reality, made him realize that “the only way to write a book is to apply the seat of the pants to the seat of a chair —and write it.” Result: the year’s weirdest autobiography, which is very readable and, despite its elaborate frankness, somewhat superficial.

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