"The King and I: Sanger Remembers Havelock Ellis," #24, Spring 2000
Margaret Sanger described him as "Olympian" on more than one occasion and referred to him as the "King" only slightly in jest. Cerebral, withdrawn Henry Havelock Ellis (1859-1939), more likely to be seen sunning his long, thin frame on his garden lawn than exerting his influence in any public sphere, was to Margaret Sanger and many feminists and sex reformers in the early 20th century a heroic presence. His writings on human sexuality eclipsed Freud's work in pre-World War I America and helped rouse a generation of women to fight for sexual autonomy. Ellis's six volume Studies in the Psychology of Sex, published between 1897 and 1928, and widely publicized as the result of censorship battles in England, challenged accepted modes of sexual conduct and even the institution of marriage while advocating non-procreative sex as a natural and healthy human function. Ellis securely linked women's sexual liberation and pleasure to social stability, a belief that Sanger heralded, and an equation that she recognized would necessarily require birth control.
Clearly inspired by Ellis, Sanger sought him out in 1914 while in exile in England. They quickly became intimate friends and probably lovers, and began a rich correspondence that spanned twenty-five years without a prolonged interruption. In 1914, Ellis guided Sanger through historical and scientific publications on contraception. More significantly he served as a constant source of intellectual support as Sanger expanded her crusade both ideologically and geographically. She, in turn, celebrated Ellis's life and achievements with the same zeal and devotion Boswell had to Johnson. She turned the Birth Control Review over to tributes to Ellis every February to mark his birthday, instigated biographies and essays about him, dedicated much of her own work and several publications to him, and invoked his name in small-town newspaper interviews and at historic international conferences. From the mid-1920s until his death she also gave him considerable financial assistance in the form of a secretary's salary for his companion (teacher and translator Françoise Lafitte Cyon), and enough money to buy a small country house.
On July 17, 1939, about ten days after Ellis's death, Sanger met with her good friend, the singer and writer Dorothy Gordon, " to pay tribute to Ellis on the national radio program "Let's Talk It Over. The "interview" has a stiff and simulated feel to it; Sanger mostly read from prepared text, even lifting passages verbatim from her second autobiography. She also exaggerates Ellis's mentoring role – he helped her at the British Library for a few weeks, not a year and a half. And she idealizes Ellis's complicated marriage to Edith Ellis, a lesbian who suffered severe bouts of depression. Nevertheless, the transcript does convey Sanger's affection and respect for Ellis and a good summation of her many tributes to him. It also marks the final time she deified him in public as a kind of Saint Francis of Assisi as sex psychologist. Following the posthumous release of Ellis's autobiography, My Life, in 1939, in which he revised the history of his marriage (already troubled when Ellis met Sanger and made worse by Edith's jealousy of her), by reducing his relationship with Sanger to an unremarkable and mildly intimate friendship, a wounded Sanger refrained from further hero-worship.
What follows is a complete version of the radio transcript as originally edited by Sanger, Gordon or some other party (it is not clear who released the transcript). The original broadcast was slightly longer and survives on audio records in the Sanger Collection in the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.
ANNOUNCER: Let's Talk It Over with Dorothy Gordon and Margaret Sanger.
ANNOUNCER: Having two such distinguished women on our program today, leads me to believe the subject matter has some special significance ....
DG: We feel it has. Mrs. Sanger and I want to talk about the contributions that some individuals make to civilization.
ANNOUNCER: Who, for instance?
DG: I was thinking about Havelock Ellis particularly. We all know he has just passed out of this world. I say "this world" because his spirit lives on and will live on for all time. We are fortunate in having with us today someone who typifies, to me and to many others, that same deathless and timeless quality of the human spirit that was Havelock Ellis. I refer to Margaret Sanger – who is uniquely qualified to pay tribute to Havelock Ellis, as one who knew and loved and understood him as few have been privileged to do. She has consented to share that knowledge with us, and to tell us more about that great soul. May I ask you some questions, Margaret?
MS: Certainly, Dorothy.
DG: When did you first meet Havelock Ellis? And how did it happen?
MS: It was Christmas eve, during the dark days of 1914. . . . Many prominent people in England were anxious to learn about my battle with the Comstock laws. I had already begun my effort to construct a new world of my own dreams on the ideas Havelock Ellis had put forth in his works, but to meet that great and universal mind was an unhoped for privilege. . . and then an invitation to call came from him.
DG: That must have been an interesting meeting. What happened?
MS: Well, I climbed up the stairs to his apartment in a modest section of London, across the Thames, and full of shyness and fear and uncertainty, I lifted the huge brass knocker. Ellis himself opened the door. He seemed like a God, with his tall, slender figure, and his great shock of white hair, his massive head, his wide expressive mouth and deep-set eyes, with their humorous twinkle. He welcomed me in. I stuttered with embarrassment but Ellis was silent. I never knew a human being could bo so silent, and yet remain so poised. Small talk was not possible with him. You had to utter only the deepest truths within you. . . . With his own hands he prepared tea and toast and cakes and we sat before a fire and talked and talked and talked . . . .
DG: He wasn't difficult to talk to, was he?
MS: No, indeed. After those first few moments I felt as though I had always known him. I began to realize then that the men who are truly great are the easiest to meet and understand. Havelock Ellis was entirely unaware of the eminence he had attained. He pasted no labels on himself, had no poses, made no effort to impress. He was simply, quite unselfconsciously, what he was. . . .
DG: Was he already well-known at that time?
MS: Yes, his work and fame in the field of sex psychology had already won him universal recognition, but he was as indifferent to applause and praise as he was to the abuse and criticism that previously had greeted his monumental works in England, forcing him to publish them in America. Like all great thinkers, Havelock was content to live simply and in what many might consider poverty and obscurity, refusing to even consider the invitations that poured in upon him to tour and lecture in various countries that wished to honor his genius . . . .
DG: What a contribution he made to humanity.
MS: Yes, there is no doubt that generations yet to come will honor him as the one who opened the spiritual portals of the 20th Century and revealed sex as a spiritual factor in the lives of men and women, bringing to both alike a better understanding of their physical, mental and creative functions. His labors, unique in history, raised this question from the obscurity and secrecy where it had been thrust for centuries, and lifted it to its proper plane of dignity and science. Nothing human was alien to his sympathy. His knowledge was broad and deep; his wisdom even deeper. He never made any strident, blatant attempt to cry aloud his message, but yet in ever increasing numbers, men and women have paused to listen to his serene voice.
DG: But he, like yourself, had to face public abuse and criticism, didn't he?
MS: Yes, but here we see a phenomenon as amazing as radio. Despite all the obstacles and obstructions that hindered his expression, the legal battles and charges against him, his truth
filtered through to minds ready to receive it. His philosophy, if it can be reduced to its essence, was that happiness must be the fruit of an attitude towards life, that it is in no way dependent upon the rewards or the gifts of fortune.
DG: You speak now of the great scientist and philosopher that he was. I feel that our audience would like to know more about Havelock Ellis as his friends know him. Wasn't he exceedingly shy?
MS: Oh very. Yet he loved sauntering through the highways and byways, wherever people gather, but his shyness overtook him when he was noticed, and then like a faun in the dawn, he would quickly escape and be lost again.
DG: A faun? That's interesting, because I remember his eyes had that soft look of the faun. . . .
MS: Yes, but don't forget that mischievous twinkle in them too, and his sense of humor, and his ever constant memory for the little things that please. . . the kind of olives you liked, or the kind of bread or fruit you preferred, or your favorite desert, which, by the way, Dorothy, he often made himself.
DG: With his usual simplicity?
MS: Yes, he was as much an artist in his kitchen, as he excelled in other fields, and we all know that many a profound subject or problem was thought through by him while he prepared some dish for a fortunate guest.
DG: You say he excelled in other fields – meaning?
MS: Yes, he was not only a physician, he was also a poet, and an artist, a philosopher, a sociologist, psychologist and scientist, embodying a combined knowledge of all these subjects in whatever he wrote or said.
DG: It interested me especially to see the great love that Havelock Ellis had for music, and his knowledge of the Masters in all the arts.
MS: That is true. . . it was all an expression of his great understanding of humanity. He was a seeker after truth in all its forms; and he welcomed it wherever he found it, believing that truth must be realized and recognized if we are to have a happier mankind. He wanted to set mankind free from the inhibitions, prejudices and the ignorance which have caused so much unnecessary hardship and suffering almost from the dawn of history.
DG: He was so shy, and yet he loved people, didn't he?
MS: Yes, he loved the world and particularly the old and mellow things of life. He would roam and saunter about the old parts of Paris, and he especially loved Spain, with its old and winding streets, its people with their old customs, their folk-lore and their joyous dancing – that was why you, Dorothy, with your merry impersonations of these songs and dances, struck such a sympathetic chord with him. . . His book, "The Soul of Spain" remains one of the best ever written about that now unhappy country.
DG: Yes, that was a wonderful book, and also his "Dance of Life." He was such a prolific and such a varied writer. How could one man accomplish so much in just a lifetime?
MS: Because he did not scatter his ideas and energies as most of us do, but captured them as they were created.
DG: How did he capture them?
MS: He carried a little notebook, and regardless of where we were, whether in a street car, walking together, or in a restaurant, he would suddenly stop to jot down his ideas or impressions, later storing them away in little envelopes. By the time the envelope became too bulky for comfort, a book had emerged!
DG: There's your sense of humor, one of the things that Havelock Ellis loved about you, so was your laughter . . . in fact, one of the greatest compliments I have ever received in my life was to have him say that I reminded him of you, because I too laughed a lot with him. . . but tell me, Margaret, you met Havelock Ellis in 1914. American women did not have the vote then. You were an ardent feminist. What was his attitude towards "votes for women" and feminism?
MS: Havelock Ellis helped to usher in a new day of womankind. To all his great gifts of scientific investigator, philosophic thinker, poet, and literary artist combined in one, was added a peculiarly sympathetic insight into the nature and needs of women. He threw the weight of his vast knowledge and influence into advancing the cause of women's freedom, and to women everywhere he seemed a heaven-sent liberator. But he believed whole-heartedly in a 50-50, give and take basis, and that women were as equal to men, as men were to men. In all of our relationship, there was never any catering, any inference that women belonged to the so-called weaker sex, or that they were inferior in any way. He believed that women should pay for their own requirements through the efforts of their own minds and brains just as men do. Unless I was especially invited to lunch or dinner with him, I never imposed but always paid my own share of expenses, whether for carfare, in a restaurant, or for a taxi.
DG: That reminds me, of our mutual friend who wanted to lunch with Havelock regularly. . . tell us the story, you know the one I mean.
MS: Oh yes, this friend wanted to set a certain day once a week, or once every two weeks, to lunch together in London with Havelock, just to keep that close contact of the mind. . . But Ellis replied that anything of the spirit could not be hedged in by the limitations of time, and days in the week. . . . He would rather have their meetings a spontaneous desire and a spontaneous joy, than a regulated duty.
DG: Well, with ideas like those, what did he think about marriage? Did he believe in that?
MS: Most certainly. But he was wise enough to know that if a marriage is to remain strong, there must be freedom, freedom for both individuals, the man and the woman, in order to attain his freedom and to keep his own identity and to allow his wife, Edith, to develop along her own lines, they maintained two households. He had an apartment in London, she lived on a farm and made farming pay.
DG: Tell us something about Mrs. Ellis.
MS: Edith Ellis was a vivacious, charming, energetic woman with a mind of her own, practical and capable as well. She ran this farm in Cornwall, but had always ready a suite of rooms for her husband. There she kept his special books, his special clothes and personal belongings, and flowers, blooming and fresh always, in his room, where he was free to go and come any time that he wished. On the other hand, he kept a suite of rooms for her in his apartment in the city with her special city and evening clothes, her special books and flowers, and a cheery fire ever ready to greet her. They believed that the way to keep their love alive in marriage was to be ever alert in the little things, courtesies, considerations, and to continuously woo each other as they did in courtship. It was a beautiful friendship, a continuing courtship until her death in 1916. He lived what he believed. His principles and theories were put into practice. . . and they worked.
DG: Havelock Ellis influenced you and your own special work a great deal, did he not?
MS: Oh yes, he guided my early studies and directed my reading for a year and a half in that famous historical spot, the British Museum. Regularly each day we met in the reading room, and he mapped out lines of study for me to follow. He believed so strongly in my case that he wanted to see me avoid all possible mistakes. I have never felt about any person as I do about Havelock Ellis. Id developed a reverence, an affection, and a love which have strengthened with the years. To know him has been a bounteous privilege; to claim him my friend the greatest honor of my life.
DG: How grateful I am, that thru you, Margaret, I also had the privilege of meeting that great spirit . . . . The World will miss him, and we, his friends, feel very sad. Is there anything that can help to make his loss a little less poignant?
MS: Yes, we who loved him, must be grateful that he has been released from the increasing pain and physical limitations of these latter years; that he had made the world infinitely richer by his presence in it; that he has become part of the heritage of all mankind; and lastly, we can draw strength, and courage, and inspiration from his own sublime statement, written to a friend during an almost fatal illness some years ago. He wrote: "I find I remain serene - even cheerful. For some years past I have accommodated my arrangements to Death and guided my activities accordingly, even though I may not yet have completed everything I planned of my Day's work in the world. My faith has carried me so far, and will accompany me to the end. Death is the final Master and Lord. But Death must await my good pleasure. I command Death because I have no fear of Death . . . but only Love."
And so it proved. The cable that came to me from Madame Françoise Cyon – that dear and devoted friend who was with him when he died, read:
"Havelock passed on quietly Saturday night. It was beautiful."
DG: Yes, the passing of Havelock Ellis was as beautiful as his living. Thank you, Margaret Sanger, for bringing us your lovely memories of him. They will live on just as he and you will both live on in the lives of generations to come.
Revised: November 14, 2002