Charles Mackay and D'Arcy Cresswell
Saturday, May 15, 1920, was an unlucky day for Charles Mackay, Mayor of Wanganui. Only five days before, he had been introduced to a handsome young poet, D'Arcy Cresswell. Little did he know, he had been set up. That morning he shot the poet, and his life fell about him in ruins.
Mackay was 45, Nelson born, married with two children, brilliant, having gained a BA at the age of 19 and an LLB six years later. At 30 he had been elected to the Wanganui Borough Council, to the Mayoralty a year later. He held that position with one short break until this near-fatal morning.
Cresswell was 24, one of a prominent Canterbury family, an architecture dropout, wounded in the Great War. He was convinced he was a poetic genius, determined to live by his gift:
Dear books, be all the nourishment I need!
I am so poor I scarce have means to buy
One meal a day. Alas! I must rely
On your fair thoughts for all my winter feed.
(Throw him a bale of silage!)
One day at last, like Venus' doves, you'll draw
My happy soul t' the star-empurpl'd glen.
With a gift like that, it is hardly surprising that in fact he lived off his family.
Mayor Mackay had not wanted a separate reception by the Returned Services Association for the Prince of Wales on his visit on May 3. Ill-feeling against Mackay (who had not fought in the Great War) had reached the point of death-threats, and he carried a revolver.
A cousin of Cresswell's had introduced the two men the previous Monday, apparently intending most of what followed. (The cousin has never been named.) Mackay invited the cousins to dinner at an hotel the next night, and Cresswell was host at another on the Thursday. It was then that Mackay invited Cresswell to visit the Sarjeant Art Gallery privately with him on the Friday. As a founder of the gallery, Mackay had his own key, and inevitably they must have spent time at the gallery's pride and joy, its marble reproduction of the ancient Greek nude "Wrestlers".
Mackay took Cresswell back to his office, and showed him his collection of (female) nude photographs. What exactly happened then is shrouded in Cresswell's self-serving account (signed by Mackay), but Cresswell demanded that Mackay resign as Mayor, or else be exposed as a "pervert". In Cresswell's defence, perhaps he too was being blackmailed. Mackay begged and pleaded for a delay at least, but Cresswell demanded they meet again in the morning, when he would tell him when he must resign.
At half past nine on the Saturday morning, in Mackay's office, Cresswell gave Mackay a week. Mackay pleaded for hours, threatened suicide, begged Cresswell to spare his family. Cresswell forced him to write a confession, then, after further bargaining, a letter of resignation to be held in safe keeping for a month. They turned to leave.
"This is for you!" shouted Mackay, and shot Cresswell in the chest. Then he put the revolver in Cresswell's hand to give the appearance of suicide. As he was leaving, the "dying" man rose and pointed the revolver at him. Mackay slammed a door between them. Cresswell could not open it, so he flung a chair through the window and called for help.
Mackay rushed back and begged Cresswell to shoot him, but Cresswell discharged the revolver harmlessly. Passers-by rushed in. Cresswell said he had "discovered a scandal" before he lost consciousness, and Mackay surrendered to the police.
He at first claimed the revolver had gone off accidentally when he was showing it to Cresswell, but the chair through the window quickly put paid to that story.
Cresswell soon recovered (the bullet stayed lodged in his lung for 12 years) and gave the police a statement in which he claimed to have discovered "a certain disgusting feature" of Mackay's character, and led him on.
Mackay pleaded guilty to attempted murder on May 27 and was sentenced the next day. His lawyers said he had sought treatment from doctors and "metaphysicians" (presumably clergymen) for "homosexual monomania". As well as Cresswell's harassment, Mackay had seen his lawyer the day before the shooting about an item in a local newspaper that "threatened him with exposure".
He was sentenced to 15 years at hard labour and served seven, during which he was declared bankrupt and divorced by his wife, Wanganui's Mackay Street was renamed Jellicoe Street, and his name was removed from the Sarjeant Gallery's foundation stone. (It was replaced in 1985.)
On his release, Mackay went to England, became a successful journalist and was killed by mistake by a Berlin policeman while he was covering a riot in 1929.
The publicity had been entirely in Cresswell's favour (we would say nauseatingly so: he was called a "wholesome-minded young man" while Mackay was excoriated in "Truth" newspaper for his "perverted and putrid 'pleasures'"), but Cresswell went to England immediately after the trial, and continued to live off his family.
He married briefly and unsuccessfully, though one observer, Ormond Wilson, recorded that he liked "'rough trade'." Another, Geoffrey de Montalk, Count Potocki, knew him when he was living and sleeping with a young man called Edward. Potocki tells of Cresswell pointing out a beautiful young man to a friend. "But what on earth would one say to him?" asked the friend. Cresswell answered "I'd say, 'How much?'"
He took up with the Bloomsbury set, having an extensive correspondence (since published) with Lady Ottoline Morrell.
Returning to New Zealand, he stayed at Eccleston Hill, Wellington, near Parliament, where he was visited by Charles Brasch in 1938, who was impressed by his "fine features and his manliness." He also impressed poet Mary Ursula Bethell, and Frank Sargeson, who had had his own brush with the law.
He published several volumes of poetry, written in a doggedly archaic style, not taken seriously then or now. To his credit, his verse comedy, "The Forest" (c. 1950), defends male homosexuality when that was outrageous and risky:
I'll never love a woman as I love George.
Mrs S. (in an altered voice):
I hope you're not like that!
This craze for George has gone on long enough.
It gets unnatural.
Clive (disengaging his arm):
Say it's unusual, regrettable, absurd,
Immoral, if you like; but never say
Unnatural! Why, it's Nature's strongest card,
Her ace, her trump! There's not an answer to it!
There's laws against such nonsense!
You bet there are!
The Devil sees to that, and men like Bishop!
Such laws are food for lawyers and blackmailers,
And cross-eyed stipend'ary magistrates,
For wowsers, womanisers, masturbators,
And married men with daughters. There's laws all right!
What does love cares for laws? You ought to know!
Two men in love can laugh at all the World!
It isn't always love, Clive, so I'm told.
It can be love, whatever else it is:
The only love that's equal on both sides,
The only love that can be innocent,
Or free of every interest but itself.
"The Forest" (not surprisingly) also reveals a misogynistic streak:
Where men see first, women see further yet,
But left to themselves, their eyes are only gross.
It's when the Devil's their interpreter
That they see best of all!
His prose - as archaic as his poetry - includes two volumes of autobiography, "Present Without Leave" and "The Poet's Progress" in which he sets out his world-view, rejecting science (including the Copernican theory). He mentions the bullet in his lung, but not how it got there.
He died in 1960 by gassing, the coroner returning a charitable verdict of accidental death.
- Largely based on an account by Phil Parkinson in Pink Triangle, Issue 56, Nov/Dec 1985, with material from the Dictionary of National Biography (Vol 3) and the works of Brasch, Sargeson and Cresswell.
The original "Wrestlers" is believed to be the work of an anonymous Greek sculptor of the 3rd century BC. It was found in 1583 near the gate of St John Lateran in Rome, and acquired by Cardinal Ferdinando de Medici in 1677. It is now on display in the Tribune of the Uffizi in Florence. (It appears in Zoffany's painting No 162.)
The Sarjeant Gallery's copy (by Raffaello Romanelli, 1856 -1928) was acquired about 1915 (when Mackay was Mayor). At that time the NZ Herald described it as "a fine sculpture group". The men's struggle naturally emphasises their musculature, and it may count among the top three homoerotic sculptures in New Zealand, along with the Eros at the Park Road gates of the Auckland Domain, by the hospital, and the sculpture on Harry Holland's grave in Wellington.
- Thanks to Raewyn Johnson of the Sarjeant Gallery.
Written by Hugh Young.
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