WHEN I WAS about 26 years old I found myself in London on a newspaper job. Like many of my college classmates, I had somehow gotten hold of the almost impossible to procure books by Havelock Ellis, particularly his seven-volume Studies in the Psychology of Sex, and had come to worship him as a result.
Now I wanted to meet him. So I wrote him in care of his publishers, not mailing my letter until a few days before I had to leave in case he didn't answer me. But he did answer, inviting me to tea at his Brixton flat.
I took a bus to a shabby part of town, climbed some rickety stairs, and after a timid knock found myself looking up at a man of overpowering patriarchal beauty. For he had a white flowing beard, a mane of thick white hair that fell in waves over his forehead, a full sensual mouth and deep-set eyes of cornflower blue. The only disappointment was his voice; it was high and squeaky. But I was welcomed in so courteously, told so quickly how much I reminded him of Margaret Sanger because I too had red hair and was very small, and motioned so gravely to a hard, straight chair from which he swept a pile of books so I could sit down, that we immediately started to talk. Or rather, I mostly talked and he mostly listened, and we continued talking through tea, a supper of tomato soup and apples, and on into midnight, when he surprised me by asking if I wanted to stay over with him.
What really was he asking? Though no innocent, I was afraid to find out, and murmured something inane like the fact I was paying for my bed-and-breakfast by the week so wouldn't save any money, at which point he put on his hat and escorted me to my bus.
What a mistake it was to refuse that invitation! For though I met him several times again on return trips mostly at his cottage at Haslemere where he had a writing-hut that revolved to catch the fleeting English sun, the offer was never repeated. And if I had taken it up I might have been able to help solve one of the chief Ellis mysteries: Was he or was he not capable of normal sexual intercourse? Or was he writing his sex books out of a dream?
For no one can do a biography of Ellis and not delve into this. And Phyllis Grosskurth, who has delved deeply and unearthed a cache of about 20,000 unpublished letters, comes to the conclusion he was probably totally impotent. That with the feminist Olive Schreiner whom he loved passionately, he did no more than caress her naked body. That with his lesbian wife Edith he did nothing at all. And that with his last mistress Francoise he enjoyed mainly mutual masturbation.
Yet all this does not quite jibe. If he did nothing with his lesbian wife, why did she say at one point how much she was "put off by the messiness of contraceptive precautions?" Surely then she must have tried contraceptives with him.
Then he speaks in his autobiography of his "copious seminal emissions" with no dreams or sensations, starting at age 13 "whenever I was alone, for some thirty years." Seminal emissions also include at least partial erections. Yet Grosskurth leaves the point unresolved.
Still, Ellis' anomalies, whatever they were, do not detract from his achievements: his staunch defense of homosexuality at a time -- 1897 -- when no one else in the English-speaking world was defending it. His spirited championship of women's right to sexual fulfillment when no one anywhere was championing it. His acting as a revered mentor not only to Margaret Sanger but to correspondents the world over who turned to him as a healer or guru, answering their letters the same day he received them even though it interfered with his own work.
Grosskurth details all this, yet her style in some places is so pedantic it put me off. She speaks of his building up an "epistolary friendship" with Olive Schreiner. The chapter after his marriage to Edith Lees is headed "married life." Ellis is described as "the supreme type of Victorian amateur polymath" and his Studies as set in "idiosyncratic typography."
Yet, to her credit, unlike the many woman who adored Ellis, she sees his faults plain. His evasiveness, claiming he didn't know when he did know. His dismissal of his wife as "the most difficult woman in England" while she kept calling him her "Havelock Boy." His refusal to come to her aid when she needed him most, then breaking down after her death and crying out about her "My Baby!"
In the end, however, Grosskurth sees his essential quality: his radiance. "In his last letter to Francoise, Ellis told her he believed that those we love don't die because they live on in our hearts. The people still living, who knew him continue to speak of him as a radiance who touched their lives in a way they will never forget." Though he touched mine for only a short time and that long ago, I too am one of those who will never forget.