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My dear Douglas, Mary Butts and a performance of letters

The Poppy Drug

"What do I love, outside writing & clothes & opium & the weather & my friends?"

– Mary Butts

Drawing by Jean Cocteau and Mary Butts

Opium: The Fuel of the Artist

Think of a famous artist and you may very well be thinking of an opium addict. Jean Cocteau, Alex Waugh, Pablo Picasso, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Charles Dickens, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Andy Warhol, and of course, Mary Butts were all addicted to the juice of the poppy flower. For many of these artists, opium drove their lives and sparked their creativity. For some of them, it was to blame for their deaths.

“Everything one does in life, even love, occurs in an express train racing toward death. To smoke opium is to get out of the train while it is still moving. It is to concern oneself with something other than life or death.”

– Jean Cocteau, "Opium: The Diary of His Cure"

The Journals of Mary Butts : A Story about Opium

A story: half a crew wanted to smuggle opium into Marseilles: the other half of the crew might have wanted to, but weren’t on to it. The police wanted no opium smuggled into Marseilles, (except half the police were in with the sailors who wanted to). The other half of the police did not know that half of the sailors did not know enough to want to or not.

So the half of the sailors who wanted to, took the opium & tied it in rubber bags & let it out of the portholes by strings. This generally worked, while the police searched the ship previous to unloading. But some day one of the sailors, who wasn’t in with the sailors who wanted to smuggle opium into Marseilles, nor one of the half of the sailors who hadn’t got hold of the idea, told the police, & they went on board to poke their heads out of every porthole looking for strings. But the half of the sailors who knew what they wanted, managed to man every porthole & cut the strings. But the solitary sailor, who had by now almost inadvertently taken sides, told the police that strings had been cut at as many portholes as there were in the ship.

So the police sent down four divers in their suits to look at what had happened at the part of the bottom of the sea which is called Marseilles Harbour.

But two of the divers were in with the half of the sailors who knew what they wanted, & two were plain divers, part of the police who knew what they ought to want. And the four met at the bottom of the sea which is called Marseilles Harbour. Then all four found as many india-rubber sponge-bags as there were portholes in the ship, full of opium. And two of them wanted to pick up the sponge bags & give them to the police to do what they like with. But the other two wanted to pick them up & give them to as many sailors as there were portholes in the ship. So they began to fight each other, & which two picked up the most opium in bags & gave it to which side, I do not know. But there is still a lot of policemen hunting it, & still a lot of opium about for them to find.

Mary Butts and Opium

It is difficult to pin down how Mary Butts first developed her opium addiction. Most scholars believe that her addiction began in mid-1921, following her and Cecil Maitland's visit to the Abbey of Thelema, the habitude of the notorious occultist Aleister Crowley. Butts and Maitland stayed at the Abbey for around twelve weeks. They were encouraged by Crowley and his students to use drugs in order to get closer to the spiritual world. In the end, the pair found the practices at the Abbey so shocking that they left, disillusioned and forever changed. By the mid-1920s Butts was a fierce opium addict, her habits only exacerbated by her friendships with Cocteau, Waugh, and Cedric Morris.

"Most of the things we do are not wrong, it is our way of doing them. They are very good things—pæderasty & jazz & opium & research.”

– Mary Butts

Malaria - The Code for Withdrawal

Despite it's popularity among artists and writers, opium nonetheless carried with it shame and stigma. The 1910's were a time of ever expanding drug legislation in both France and England. By the time Mary Butts was living and smoking in Villefranche, France had placed "strict controls on the commerce and consumption of opium" (Padwa 347). As such, it is difficult to find letters in which Butts, or other modernists like her, specifically reference their opium usage. Instead, they choose to speak in codes. In her letters to her aunt Ada Briggs, Butts frequently references being sick with "malaria". This was in fact a secret way of complaining about opium withdrawal.

"My favourite breakfast, opium and strawberries"

– Mary Butts, "Fumerie"

“The Poppy Drug”

The Poppy Drug is calling

For those who need relief

London Bridge is falling

We’re drowning in our grief

Within the ruins of empire

A bright red flower blooms

To make the stakes less dire

When future conflict looms

The flower breeds creation

Joy of a different kind

It cannot mend a wounded nation

But(ts) may heal a broken mind

Beware the crimson siren

Though its scent is sickly sweet

The poppy is a tyrant

Who peddles in deceit

In its seeds, loss is banished

It makes the dreamer whole

The pain is never vanished

But(ts) wedged deeper in their soul

-Thomas Armstrong (UVIC)

Mary Butts - Fumerie (full pdf)

Mary Butts - "Fumerie"

This short story was written by Mary Butts in late 1927, while she was living in a flat in the Rue de Monttessuy, Paris. The story is a mix between a technical manual instructing the reader on how to make and smoke opium and a comedic essay about the joy of drug use and the frustrations that come along with it.

While Butts never published the work, her personal journals frequently muse about its creation and include several lines that make in into the eventual story. In an entry dated March 29th, 1927, Butts makes note of the image of “a bead of opium boiling over the flame, the needle humming and the bubble trembling.” This image can be seen on pages 182 and 187 of the eventual story. In other letters, she laments on how the scarcity of opium has led to people “re-corking the dross, distilling the once cooked dross, drinking it in coffee." These are all phenomena which she includes in "Fumerie."

During her time in Paris, Butts worked and lived amongst Jean Cocteau, Douglas Goldring, and American composer Virgil Thomson. She confesses in a 1927 journal entry that it is the happiest she has felt in years. Her time in Rue de Monttessuy was marked by “less financial trouble… love, friendship, a little work, some cash (much less opium needed).” Her friendships almost certainly informed "Fumerie." The French character Andre can be read as a stand-in for Cocteau, and in fact appears in other Butts short stories as well.

Despite Butts being relatively happy during the year of 1927, she nonetheless has days that are adversely impacted by drug. A journal entry dated November 20th, 1927 shows Butts in a state of self-disgust, as she exclaims that “I am ashamed of myself. Taken too much opium dross. Not done enough work, played with the idea instead of getting to it.”

While it is easy to romanticize the lives of Cocteau and Butts – partying, writing, and living in Paris during “les Annees follees” (referred to in the United States as the Roaring Twenties), one must not forget the major issues that pervaded Butts life, including an ever-challenging addiction to opium.

The Welcome Hotel and the Allure of Opium Parties

Hotel Welcome, Villefranche (1920s)

The Welcome Hotel - Villefranche

"A haunted hotel was the Welcome Hotel in Villefranche. It is true that we did haunt it, as it was not meant to be. There was actually the Obscure street. There were the battlements and the barracks that, in the evening, bring to mind the absurd impressiveness of the dream. Nice was effectively there on the left, Monte-Carlo on the right, with their shifty architectures. But the Welcome Hotel was simply charming and seemed to have nothing to fear. Its rooms had an enamel paint. A coat of yellow paint had been applied on the Italian style trompe-l’œil of its frontage. The gulf sheltered the squadrons. Fishermen were repairing the nets and sleeping in the sun..."- Jean Cocteau, "The Difficulty of Being"

In the 1920s, the Welcome Hotel was owned by the Vigouroux brothers, who were devoted patrons and supporters of French Modernist artist and poet Jean Cocteau. In fact, it is said that they were his first ever patrons in the French Riviera, as they allowed him to stay at the Welcome for two years free of charge. The Welcome quickly became a meeting place for a variety of iconic figures, including French model and painter Kiki de Montparnasse, renowned dancer Isodora Duncan, and celebrated creatives such as Alex Waugh, Christian Berard, Georges Hugnet, Glenway Westcott, and of course, Mary Butts.

Many of these figures were habitual drug users who frequently consumed opium, cocaine, and hashish. Many of them were gay and used Villefranche and the Welcome Hotel as a place to be with their partners and companions free from judgement and prosecution. The openly gay American poet Glenway Westcott, for example, lived in Villefranche for many years with his life partner Monroe Wheeler.

Jean Cocteau occupied two rooms in the Welcome hotel. His official residence – room 22, which has since been termed “the Cocteau room” and decorated as tribute to him – was where he ate and slept. However, he also kept a second room devoted purely to opium. The extra room was set up so that the constabulary could not smell the opium smoke in Cocteau’s regular living quarters.

The Welcome Hotel became known not just as a location where great art was being created, but where great parties were consistently being held. In her journals, Mary Butts references the night of March 3rd, 1925, also known as opium night. She speaks of an evening full of smoking and bliss. Cocteau painted her portrait while the famous French composer Georges Auric crawled around on the floor. These sorts of parties were a staple of Butts’ life in Villefranche.

Letter from Mary Butts to Douglas Goldring, September (?) 1923

Alex Waugh's "Super-Party"

In a letter to Douglas Goldring, Butts mentions Alex Waugh's "super-party", which was held on the 29th of September 1923 at 9:30pm, and was filled with "unlimited drink, dancing, female attractions, secluded corners, breakfasts, and all our love." Waugh, a prominent opium user, was likely using and sharing the drug during this event.

Works Cited

  • Butts, Mary, and Nathalie. Blondel. The Journals of Mary Butts. Yale University Press, 2002.
  • Cocteau, Jean. The Difficulty of Being. Owen, 1966. COPY CITATION TO CLIPBOARD
  • Cocteau, Jean, and Margaret Crosland. Opium : the Illustrated Diary of His Cure. Peter Owen, 1990.
  • Mary Butts, et al. “Fumerie.” Conjunctions (New York, N.Y.), no. 31, 1998, pp. 178–88.
  • Padwa, Howard. “National Security and Narcotics Control in France, 1907-1920.” Proceedings of the Western Society for French History, Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 1 Jan. 1970,
  • “The Welcome Hotel Through the Years.” Welcome Hotel,,and%20two%20floors%20of%20rooms.
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