Wednesday, January 26, 2011

City of heretics

Aimee Semple McPherson in 1923

"Paradoxical in all things, Southern California is a land of exaggerated religiosity and also of careless skepticism, where old faiths die and new cults are born.” – Wrote journalist and historian Carey McWilliams in his book "Southern California: An Island on the Land."

L.A. has a reputation as a place where people embrace wacky ideas, strange religions, arcane philosophy, peculiar diets and odd disciplines. Cults and communes, communities and teachers devoted to disciplines expanding the mind, transforming the body, and inspiring spiritual thought have made their homes and lots of money here in Southern California. It's not surprising in a town where the biggest industry is creating fantasy, that some will create fantastic ways of life.

These efforts are deeply rooted in the city's history. Right from the start, Southern California was marketed as a place that would transform your life. Sick people came here for the cure. People who lived in chill, dreary Eastern cities came for tropical paradise. People who wanted to remake themselves found plenty of opportunities. People who want to make money off those people found an equal number of opportunities.

The magician Satani, with a crystal ball, in 1925 from a photo at the Los Angeles Public Library

In 1913, Willard Huntington Wright, editor of the literary magazine “Smart Set” did not think well of early Los Angeles. In one essay called "Los Angeles- The Chemically Pure", he called it a city without a heritage. The rapid growth and the influx of rootless people overran its historic Spanish heritage, and in its place people who sought to belong turned to
faddists and mountebanks, spiritualists, mediums, astrologists, phrenologists, palmists and all other breeds of esoteric windjammers… Whole buildings are devoted to occult and outlandish orders – mazadazan clubs, yogi sects, houses of truth, cults of cosmic fluidists, astral planers, Emmanuel movers, Rosicrucians and other boozy transcendentalists.
Photo by A Eisenstaedt, from Life magazine, 1929

The occult was very popular in the early decades of the Twentieth Century, especially among show people. In 1919 the author Aleister Crowley described a “cinema crowd of cocaine-crazed sexual lunatics, and the swarming maggots of near-occultists.” He would know.

Magic store, Hollywood, 1926

The Hollywood culture of hucksterism was adopted even by what most thought to be mainstream religions. It was the era of the celebrity evangelist, and the most famous of all was Aimee Semple McPherson, who brought her theatrical brand of Christian revivalism to Los Angeles in 1920 or thereabouts. She was so popular she built a huge church in Echo Park, called the Angelus Temple. It could accommodate 5000 adoring worshipers, and McPherson's church-owned radio station could reach tens of thousands more.

Aimee had her perks, L.A. style - reserved parking. Photo from the Los Angeles Public Library

In 1926, H.L. Mencken, when asked to comment on the popularity of Aimee Semple McPherson, replied
there were more morons collected in Los Angeles than in any other place on earth….it swarmed with swami spiritualists, Christian Scientists, crystal-gazers and the allied necromancers.
A personal scandal in 1926 tarnished Aimee's reputation, and a new marriage - her third - to an actor damaged her brand further when it fell apart over accusations of cheating. She died in 1944 from an unintended overdose of sleeping pills.

Her shameless self-promotion inspired the creation of memorable literary characters, including the preacher Eli Sunday in Upton Sinclair's novel "Oil!" - which was adapted for the recent film "There Will Be Blood."

"Apparition Over Los Angeles" - Barse Miller

In 1930, artist Barse Miller was awarded a prize for his satirical painting, "Apparition Over Los Angeles" which showed McPherson, her mother, and her husband as a holy trinity hovering in the clouds above the Angelus Temple, along with a pile of heavenly money-bags. It was deemed so controversial it was withdrawn from the exhibit.

Los Angeles was a place where nothing was too wacky to be believed.

Nathanael West, in his novel “Day of the Locust” creates a fictional version of the cults he observed in Los Angeles, including
the Tabernacle of the Third Coming where a woman in male clothing preached the Crusade Against Salt and the Temple Moderne, under whose glass and chromium roof "Brain breathing, the Secret of the Aztecs’"was taught.
Lest we think West exaggerates, Carey McWilliams relates his own experience:
In Los Angeles, I have attended the services of the Agabeg Occult church, where the woman pastor had violet hair and green-painted eyelids; of the Great White Brotherhood, whose yellow-robed followers celebrate the full moon of May with a special ritual; of the Ancient Mystic Brotherhood of Melchizedek, of the Temple of the Jeweled Cross….of the Self-Realization Fellowship of America,which proposes to construct a $400,000 Golden Lotus Yoga Dream Hermitage.
He offers as example the directory of tenants of a single office building in downtown L.A.
Spiritual Mystic Astrologer; Spiritual Psychic Science Church…; Circle of Truth Church; First Church of Divine Love and Wisdom; Reverend Eva Coram, Giving her Wonderful Cosmic Reading; Divine Healing Daily; Spiritual Science Church of the Master, Special Rose Light Circle.

The former Chateau Elysee

What was it about Los Angeles that seemed to draw them all here? That still seems to draw seekers to the city?

One writer of the time, Emma Harding, in a history of spiritualism, thought that cults thrived on the Pacific coast because of the mineral magnetism from California's gold mines, which caused beneficial vibrations. The strong enthusiasm of the long-dead spirits of the miners also contributed to the attraction, apparently.

The Theosophists who founded the colony at Krotona in the Hollywood hills were part of this wave of spiritual seekers, and though they may have been sincere, their colony fell prey to the natural tendency for corruption and conflict that afflicts all human organizations.

Vintage postcard of the Theosophist colony in Point Loma near San Diego.

Another Theosophist colony had been established near San Diego, and were viewed by suspicion by the members of the Krotona colony, because of rifts between their leader and Mrs. Annie Besant, the "Dear Mother" of Krotona. This rivalry is revealed in snarky and gossipy asides in letters between the colony and Mrs. Besant. The fact that they believed in reincarnation lent an extra dimension to the gossip, bringing otherwordly creatures into their petty spats:
Mrs.Tingley's persecution of Mrs. Besant has been so steady and so heartfelt, that it makes one believe that she must be an old persecutor, probably one of the Catholics in the past who have given our beloved leader so much trouble.
- A. P. Warrington to C. Jinarajadasa, 2/13/1913
Theosophy was even ripped off in the 1930s by a pair of grifters named Guy and Edna Ballard. Ballard claimed to have encountered one of Theosophy's great masters while on a hike on Mt. Shasta. He and his wife formed a movement they called the "I AM" movement, that expanded on Theosophy's ideas with some profitable extras, including tokens, rings, signed photos, special charts, and even a New Age Cold Cream you could get by mail order. Ballard claimed to be the reincarnation of George Washington, an Egyptian priest, and a French musician. They were so popular they drew a crowd of 6000 to the Shrine Auditorium in 1935.

It's funny to learn that one of the contemporary figures trying to debunk the fad of the occult was none other than the famed magician Harry Houdini. Houdini, who used physical skills to perform his sensational acts of dare-devil escape, despised self-proclaimed mediums and spiritualists, and after his beloved mother died in 1920, he dedicated himself to debunking the fakes.

Ironically,when Houdini died of peritonitis in 1926, his grief-stricken wife Bess spent the next ten years holding seances to raise him from the grave. She finally quit, after a media-staged attempt held at the Knickerbocker Hotel resulted in the usual failure.

Well, that's Hollywood for you.

L.A.'s other Theosophists - Theosophy Hall on Grand Street south of downtown

Although it was written in 1946, Carey McWilliams' book is still fresh today. Anyone who's interested in the history of Southern California should read it. The ability of California - and Los Angeles in particular - to allow its residents to delete their past, to create new realities, is one of its strangest qualities.

In writer Frank Fenton's first novel "A Place in the Sun", the author elaborates on the paradox that Carey McWilliams puts so succinctly in the quote that opens this post:
This was a city of heretics. A themeless city with every theme. Chicago, St. Louis and Denver had each been different; each had its own sordidness and strength and fury. Each was lusty and titanic in its own way, joyful and somber in its own way, and each was indubitably American. But not this Los Angeles. It had an air of not belonging to America, though all its motley ways were American. It was a city of refugees from America; it was purely itself in a banishment partly dreamed and partly real. It rested on a crust of earth at the edge of a sea that ended a world.
It was in this environment of personal and institutional re-invention that the Krotona colony came to Hollywood. And just like all other Hollywood newcomers, they adapted and became part of this new culture that created its own mythology, over the next few decades.


Cheri @ Blog This Mom!® said...

Simply fantastic account.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

This is a fun post- the "pulp" author Fritz Leiber wrote an article on the Theosophical roots of a lot of the "Weird Fiction" of the early 20th Century.

One of my all-time favorite novels, Masters of Atlantis by Charles Portis, pokes gentle fun at these "truth" seekers and the grifters that attach themselves to these movements.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Come back to Ohio, Aunt Snow!

Everyone here is totally sensible...

Jackie Owens said...

This trend does indeed extend along the coast ... Acocunts of San Francisco are similar (though I'm sure that each city has it's unique brand of spiritualism). Many people moved from the East to the West, especially the Pacific Coast, to start over, and certainly Seattle, LA, San Fran and San Diego really show this in their roots and history. Great post!

Janet said...

I find this so interesting! My Grandmother drove from Boston to CA to visit the Rosicrucian Temple in the early 1900s. She spent some time there, met her husband, had my father, divorced her husband and came back to Boston.