C.K. Stead on the attempted murder of D’Arcy Cresswell
The suppressed history explored in Downfall: The Destruction of Charles Mackay by Paul Diamond, shortlisted for the 2023 Ockham NZ Book Awards.
Charles Mackay was a prominent and successful lawyer and Mayor of the city of Whanganui, known as a devotee of the arts and, among other things, for the establishment of the Sarjeant Gallery there. In May 1920 he had dinner at a hotel with Walter D’Arcy Cresswell, an unusually handsome returned soldier visiting Whanganui from his home in Canterbury. In the two or three days that followed some kind of homosexual exchange occurred between the two men.
‘I purposely encouraged him to display qualities in his nature which I expected,’ Cresswell said in a police statement, which Mackay acknowledged as truthful. ‘On making that discovery I told him that I had led him on, on purpose to make sure of his dirty intentions, and told him […] that he must resign the mayoralty at once.’
Mackay attempted to excuse his behaviour as a medical condition for which he had sought a cure. Cresswell insisted on the resignation but agreed to the suggestion that they meet again in Mackay’s office to discuss it further. There the pleading by Mackay continued, saying his wife and two daughters would be unbearably affected and his own career utterly ruined if Cresswell should expose his homosexuality. When Cresswell remained adamant, Mackay took a revolver from his desk and shot him.
The shot missed the heart and passed through the lung. Cresswell fainted, and Mackay, thinking him dead, forced the revolver into his hand to suggest suicide. But Cresswell regained consciousness, struggled up, hurled a chair through a window and called down to the street below for help. Mackay tried at first to say it had been an accident, but soon gave that up and, when Cresswell survived, pleaded guilty to attempted murder. For this he was sentenced to 15 years jail.
The newspapers hailed Cresswell as a clean-living young returned soldier-upholder of virtue, and deplored Mackay now exposed as a ‘pervert’ (the present day meaning of ‘gay’ was not yet in use) and a would-be killer.
Several puzzles go with this story. Why had Cresswell ‘expected’ to encounter these qualities in Mackay whom he had not previously known; and why should he so vindictively insist on the resignation when Whanganui’s civic affairs were none of his business? This suggests he might have been engaged by some of Mackay’s public enemies to help them be rid of him. It is also possible that Cresswell was trying to prove to himself (and the world) that he was heterosexual. Though he did subsequently marry and father a child, he was very soon divorced and propounding the virtues of ‘the Greek way of love’. He was indeed to make a name for himself (though a wobbly one) as a gay New Zealand poet. It must be assumed therefore that he could read the signals from Mackay and respond to them in a way which made the entrapment relatively easy. This is a fact which makes Cresswell’s homosexual disloyalty (not to mention his brutality and lack of human sympathy) even more culpable. Mackay was also culpable, but he was to pay a price for that.
Questions of this kind are considered in Paul Diamond’s excellent book. Another no one appears to have asked is why Mackay did not face his accuser down and, if Creswell went ahead with the exposure, simply deny it. He could even have reversed the threat, that he would say it was D’Arcy who had tried to seduce him. Some of the mud would have stuck, but there was no real evidence either way, and the extremes of the outcome for Mackay would have been avoided. I suppose it is a measure of how disreputable homosexuality was at the time considered to be that it should have produced in Mackay such panic and desperation.
I heard a lot about this story from Frank Sargeson, who knew Cresswell as D’Arcy and admired him for his prose writing (much less for his florid poetry) but mostly for his commitment to the role of ‘Poet’, which is how he always described himself publicly. I have on my shelves Cresswell’s two autobiographical prose works, The Poet’s Progress, published by Faber in 1930, and Present Without Leave, 1939. Diamond records that Faber’s acceptance of The Poet’s Progress was against the wishes of T.S. Eliot, unsurprising in that in it Cresswell declares ‘no poetry [apart from his own] was written in England now’. To offer a book carrying such an opinion to Faber, where Eliot ruled, was audacious; to have it accepted there, remarkable.
I have also his Poems (1921-27) in which he introduces himself as a ‘Colonial’ offering his work to ‘an older country’ and hoping for its approval. On the title page of this collection he affixes the quotation
But I, no shame
Can ever touch. I am Fortune’s child,
So far as I know these three are the only of Cresswell’s works published in the UK, where he lived after his Whanganui adventure. I bought the third of them in Bristol in 1958, marked down from 7/6, to 5/-, to 1/6, to 1/-. The poems I bought for 5/- in London in 1960; and the Faber publication in 1965 – all from second-hand bookshops. There had been no reprints and clearly the ‘Colonial’ was having no great literary success; but he did gain some access to Lady Ottoline Morrell’s Bloomsbury set, and an exchange of letters with her, edited by Helen Shaw, was published in New Zealand in a beautiful little hardcover as Dear Lady Ginger in 1983, twenty-three years after his death. He also claimed to have had a friendship with Edward Marsh, famously editor of the Georgian Poetry anthologies, and to have given John Gielgud the benefit of his wisdom on how Shakespeare’s blank verse should be delivered.
His other books – a collection of letters, one of sonnets, and a book-length ballad, The Voyage of the Hurunui – were all published in New Zealand. The Foreword to the ballad, a fine Caxton Press publication (1956), declares that its author is, as always and proudly, ‘tone deaf’ to the ‘loose slangy uproar’ of ‘fashionable verse making’. In the Notes he records that the New Zealanders to whom he sent a copy of the ballad ‘would have none of it […] having their eyes fixed on the far Horizon’ [the fashionable London literary quarterly] ‘and their ears wholly inclined to Great Turnstile’ [the editorial address of The New Statesman].
Tucked into my copy, given me by Sargeson, there is also the programme for a play of Cresswell’s, The Forest, produced by ‘The New Independent Theatre’ in the Auckland Art Gallery some time in the 1960s. This was the group that also put on two of Frank’s plays, The Cradle and the Egg, and A Time for Sowing, with sets painted by Colin McCahon. The Forest, Cresswell once told a friend, contains ‘a tremendous defence of homosexuality.’ Geoffrey de Montalk (see below) describes that part of it as ‘homosexual rant’.
Sargeson aroused Janet Frame’s interest in the Creswell-Mackay story, and I have a number of copies she made of newspaper reports and police records, no doubt with the idea of writing a novel about it. I have also one of several accounts of the matter written by Frank’s friend Bill Mitchell who tried to make a book of it but seemed unable to organise the large amount of material he had collected. Diamond’s book reminds me that I too once intended to make a novel of it, but gave this up when Maurice Gee published his novel The Scornful Moon which reinvents a version of the story in a Wellington setting.
Although Mackay’s 15-year sentence was brutal and the jail experience very hard on him, he was released in 1926 after only 6 and a half years, and went at once to London, leaving New Zealand behind. In the meantime his wife had divorced him and changed her own and their daughters’ name from Mackay to Duncan, and Whanganui had gone to great lengths to erase his name from public records. Mackay’s mother and siblings, however, remained loyal to him, and his sister accompanied him to London where, Diamond assumes, he took up the life of an active homosexual, cruising the well-known parks, pubs, theatres and urinals for gay assignations. Areas close to military or naval barracks were also popular sites; but it was risky, and a great deal of London police time and energy in the 1920s was spent watching for and arresting gays for their unlawful practices. There is not a lot of real evidence for Mackay’s involvement in these activities. Diamond is probably right in his guesswork here but, only recently released from jail, Mackay would have had to be cautious.
After a year or two Mackay’s friend Hector Bolitho, another New Zealand expatriate, and also gay, wrote of him, ‘England had given his life a benison, soothing him for all he had suffered. […] His pride and laughter came back to him.’
In London Mackay, ever resourceful, found work as a journalist and in advertising. In November 1928 he moved to Berlin where he was to work as a correspondent for a London paper, and as a teacher of English. It was an exciting city, as Diamond points out, alive with new art (Klee), music (Brecht and Weil), movie-making (Marlene Dietrich, Billy Wilder), and of political conflict (Nazis versus Communists, Communists versus Social Democrats); of extraordinary police brutality, but a seeming haven for homosexual awareness and action. It was a city especially attractive to gay British writers like Auden, Isherwood and Spender, and Harold Nicholson.
From Berlin Mackay began to send despatches to his paper in London, but also to New Zealand, and even Whanganui, using a pseudonym. In one he summarised what he considered to be German aspirations:
The incorporation into the [German] Republic of all the surrounding territory that can be considered Germanic, including Austria. The overlordship of the countries further east, such as Poland. The re-establishment of German influence in Russia, and the development of her riches by German capital and skill. After that a final settlement of accounts with France and the incorporation of Alsace-Lorraine – and more – of Lombardy. In fact the Empire of Charlemagne once more.
A decade before the start of World War II, this is superior well-informed reporting. Had he been reading Hitler’s Mein Kampf? He must at least have been listening to what the Nazis were shouting about how they wanted (in effect) to ‘Make Germany great again’.
When riots and demonstrations broke out in May 1929, Isherwood had recently been welcomed to Berlin by his friend Auden who wrote a long poem, ‘1929’ (‘It was Easter as I walked in the public gardens’), addressed to him: it was full of their sense of the violence that was occurring around them, and of its historical significance. Towards the end come these lines:
You whom I gladly walk with, touch
Or wait for as one certain of good,
We know it, know that love
Needs more than the admiring excitement of union
Needs death, death of the grain, our death,
Death of the old gang.
On May 3 Mackay was covering the riots and demonstrations with his Australian-born British colleague Sefton Delmer who would write many years later ‘Berlin in 1928 had everything the editor of a popular paper yearns for – sex, murder, political intrigue, money, mystery and bloodshed. Particularly bloodshed.’ Through that day the violence continued. The two journalists filed their reports and then dined together at Delmer’s flat.
Around 9 p.m. Mackay returned to the scene of the fighting which the police had cordoned off. Whether he consciously broke the cordon or strayed there by accident doesn’t seem clear, but he was standing watching the action when a police sniper shot him from a rooftop. He was hit in the stomach and bled to death.
Next day Sefton Delmer saw him on a slab in the morgue, ‘his shoes pointing stiffly skyward showing the holes in their soles.’ The German police had made a meticulous list of the contents of his pockets which included ‘1 talisman’. This was a tiki given him by Whanganui Māori.
A surprising number of people, representatives of Government and police, foreign press association and teachers of foreign languages, journalists and embassy people, attended Mackay’s funeral at St Matthaus Church. There was one New Zealander, the oarsman Tom Sullivan, about whom Mackay had written a column.
The death was widely reported in Germany and Britain, but also in New Zealand where the ‘unsavoury’ circumstances of his departure from the Whanganui mayoralty were skidded around. A headstone was provided for the grave, inscribed only
CHARLES EVAN MACKAY
MAY 3RD 1929.
The grave has since vanished, but Paul Diamond has found a photograph of the stone.
Diamond’s carefully researched and well-told account, especially remarkable for the quality of its photo record – including high quality full-page and sometimes double page shots of street scenes in New Zealand and Germany – is primarily focussed on Mackay; but it is also Cresswell’s story. Although D’Arcy achieved some small (and now dwindling) literary recognition in New Zealand there was none, apart from the Bloomsbury association, where he wanted it most, in England. Sargeson’s admiration was limited, and probably of the kind he offered to another expatriate gay writer, James Courage, when he said one of his novels deserved ‘heavily scented brick-bats’. Allen Curnow included Cresswell in both his anthologies of New Zealand poetry, but struggled in the introduction to the first to place him critically, and in the second largely avoided the problem.
In the introduction to his UK-published collection of poems Cresswell’s tone is self-abasing, almost pleading. But in his two autobiographies it is very different and tends to be grand and admonitory. New Zealand is ‘my homeland’ and ‘my country’, but its inhabitants are ‘they’, not ‘we’. There is a sense in which the personality revealed in those two books is insufferably self-regarding, self-advertising and long-winded – but there is also sometimes a wink in the prose, a sparkle, a kind of wit, a faint suggestion of tongue-in-cheek. It’s the prose of a man who is not looking over his shoulder asking himself, ‘What will they think if I say this?’
I notice that I carefully annotated my one-shilling copy of Present Without Leave when preparing for one of Auckland University’s Winter Lecture series in 1961; and when I look at that book again now, I feel I should not write a word about it, or about its author, until I have read it again, and carefully.
Count Geoffrey Wladislav Potocki de Montalk, a poet who was born and grew up in New Zealand but despised democracy as a system of government and claimed to be heir to the Polish throne, said in his Recollections of my Fellow Poets (1983):
I would say [Cresswell] was a good poet of a very restricted scope. Some of his pronouncements, however pontifical, are decidedly entitled to consideration. All in all he was more gifted and more interesting than the English-born big wigs of poetry, who were battening on the prestige of past generations. Few or none of them were Cresswell’s equals, either as writers or as individuals. […] There is material for a Cresswell legend. […]
There was, of course, the business about the Mayor of Wanganui! In a way, through his Sir Galahad goings-on, Cresswell was responsible for his death. […] Certain of the literati in New Zealand know all about it, and would perform a service to New Zealand literature and history, by putting it on record.
This Paul Diamond has now done. It would be strange if an effect of Diamond’s book should be to arouse more interest in Cresswell than in Mackay. D’Arcy is, after all, the one who has left a written record. In the meantime he is at least a marker of a point of terrible uncertainty in our intellectual and literary history; and no one who writes about him is likely to look past what he did to Mackay, a man whose plight he should have understood and sympathised with.
A Postscript on Maurice Gee’s The Scornful Moon: This novel builds on the Mackay-Cresswell story but changes characters’ names and moves it to Wellington and to national rather than local-body politics. It fills in what is unexplained in its subject – was D’Arcy engaged by Mackay’s enemies to entrap and ruin him, and if so by whom? This makes the story more complicated, and perhaps slightly less plausible. It also leaves out entirely what became of the Mackay character after his jail term was served. It’s a good novel of the kind I used to call ‘conventional fiction’ and spent many years trying, not altogether successfully, to avoid writing. This mode is not in itself either good or bad, and like any other can be done well or badly. Gee does it very well. He is so inside his dialogue, so relaxed and cool and competent in the mode.
I had reviewed in Landfall his previous novel, Ellie and the Shadow Men*, and had concluded that Gee as novelist was essentially ‘a moralist’. I cited Stendhal’s idea that a novel should be a mirror walking down a road, and went on…
When Gee’s writing falls a notch or two below its best it is usually because moralism has got the upper hand. […] Better that the novelist should not think too much about justice and virtue, should put aside moral indignation and get on with making the picture as true to life, the language as generous and exact, as talent and the story will permit. Say how it looks, report what they do, and get the words right. The realist’s mirror is safer, and ultimately more charitable, than the moralist’s lamp.
As if in answer to this, Gee gives The Scornful Moon the sub-title A Moralist’s Tale. His narrator, Sam Holloway, is indeed a moralist – a Puritan, a moraliser who can’t quite face the realities of the present. In that sense he is distinct from Gee, who may be (and is) inclined to ‘point a moral’ in his fiction, but is more liberal, less shockable, more worldly than his character.
C.K. Stead is a poet, novelist, scholar and critic. His most recent book is Say I Do This: Poems 2018–22 and and the memoir What You Made of It.
* See my Kin of Place: Essays on 20 New Zealand Writers, 320-329
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