Dennis Wheatley was the eldest of three children born into a prosperous middle-class family in 1897. His father was a successful wine merchant based in Mayfair, London. After serving in the First World War, where he was gassed in a chlorine attack during the battle of Passchendaele, Wheatley joined the family business in 1919. He proved highly successful as a vintner.
He sold liqueurs and ultra-rare brandies, and at its peak the business counted not only the Duke of York (later King George VI) but a total of ‘three Kings, twenty-one Imperial, Royal and Serene Highnesses, twelve British Ducal Houses, the Archbishop of Canterbury and a score of millionaires’ among its clientele.
The work allowed him to socialize with those of a higher standing, which gave Wheatley pretensions towards a more aristocratic lifestyle. However, in 1931 during the Great Depression, he was almost undone by near fraudulent activities which badly over-extended the family business. Facing near bankruptcy, Wheatley quickly sold the business. He then decided to write his way out of debt and possible financial ruin.
Wheatley’s first novel Three Inquisitive People was accepted by the publisher Hutchison but was not published until later in his career. The book introduced one of his most famous characters, the Duke de Richleau. He also presented his publishers with a second novel The Forbidden Territory which became his first published novel. This book brought him instant success and was reprinted seven times during its first seven weeks in 1933.
The following year, he wrote The Devil Rides Out, which cleverly mixed the crime thriller with a story of the occult. Wheatley had read extensively about esoteric beliefs and various occult practices but relied on contacts he met through the politician Tom Driberg like Aleister Crowley, the Reverend Montague Summers, and Rollo Ahmed, to bring his knowledge up to date.
The Devil Rides Out was hailed as “the best thing of its kind since Dracula” and firmly established Wheatley as the “#1 thriller writer.” Since its publication, The Devil Rides Out has never been out of print and was made into a highly successful movie with Christopher Lee as Richleau and Charles Gray as the Crowley-inspired Mocata in 1968.
Over the next forty years, Wheatley wrote 65 novels and sold an estimated 70 million books. His tremendous success allowed him to cultivate the image of the distinguished gentleman he had long desired. To some, like the novelist Anthony Powell, this image seemed at odds to some of the “conscious drivel” Wheatley produced as a writer. His books mixed far-fetched comic book adventures with utterly gripping plotlines. Though his work was sometimes denounced for its ridiculous characters and racist stereotypes, Wheatley was often sought out by writers like Powell to give advice on plot structure and narrative.
That ole devil himself: Wheatley with his books and his war medals. (Photo by Alan Warren).
Despite a reputation for writing racy occult novels like The Devil Rides Out, To the Devil a Daughter, and The Satanist, and to an extent some of his more crackpot right-wing ideas (like a belief of an inevitable Communist revolution in swinging sixties England), Wheatley had a taste for the finer things in life. He kept an impressive library of books (mainly classics and works of non-fiction) and a well-stocked cellar of wine. His knowledge of the drinks trade led to him being commissioned to write The Seven Ages of Justerini’s, a history of the respected wine merchants Justerini & Brooks in 1949. This book included recipes for some of Wheatley’s favorite cocktails like this one for Nectarine Gin, which is an overly sweet recipe as “Wheatley had a notoriously sweet tooth and liked to serve it to as an after-dinner liqueur at Grove Place, his country house in Lymington, Hampshire.”:
Prick your Nectarines all over with a fork and put them in an open vessel. Pour upon them as much Gin as will cover the fruit, and add a quarter-of-a-pound of soft white sugar with each quart of Gin. Cover the vessel with a cheesecloth and leave to stand, Give the contents a stir twice or thrice in the next forty-eight hours, then strain off the liquor and bottle it.
He also had one for a “meaty” Bloody Mary:
Dennis Wheatley’s Bloody Mary
One nip Tomato Juice, one Sherry glass Vodka-Smirnoff, one Sherry glass Campbells Beef Bouillon, one nip Worcester Sauce, half glass- Lime or Lemon- fresh, ice- shake until froth appears- serve.
I know what I’ll be drinking tonight while reading The Devil and All His Works.
Via the Greasy Spoon.