Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Diva of Krotona

Marie photographed at Krotona Court

Krotona of Hollywood, that short-lived experiment in Utopian living nestled in the Hollywood Hills, would not have been realized if not for the efforts of some forceful people. A.P. Warrington, a mild-mannered lawyer from Virginia, was the main promoter and fundraiser for the new colony, but he had help from others.

One of those people was Marie Russak Hotchener, and she’s my absolute favorite character in this peculiar history.

An opera singer turned activist, a protégé of Annie Besant, leader of the Theosophical Society of America in Adyar, India, Marie was larger than life. A drama queen, opportunist and relentless self-promoter, she was a Diva in every sense of the word. She made herself the center of attention, and though she often over-reached, she always managed to stay on top of her game.

View of Theosophical Society Headquarters in Adyar

It seems she knew almost everyone, and managed to be, Zelig-like, on the scene for important developments. Appointed Colonel Olcott’s Honorary Secretary after she met the aging society founder in 1906, she traveled with him to India, and was present at his deathbed there in 1907. She witnessed the supposed materialization of the Master appointing Annie Besant the leader of the society – and forgiving her colleague Charles W. Leadbeater for his sexual scandal.

Marie had gained the inner circle – in Leadbeater’s “Rents in the Veil of Time”, naming the timeless entities reincarnated as the Theosophic elite, she is given the code name “Helios.”

A few years later, when the young Krishnamurti experienced his first Initiation, it was Marie Russak who wrote down the memories of his astral experience as he dictated them to her. Marie was the only woman deemed spiritually pure enough to clean the young boy’s room.

She was present in London in 1912, when Mrs. Annie Besant gave a public lecture at Queen’s Hall that galvanized the Theosophic community. Russak described how the Great Spirits were present in the auditorium, charging the room with magnetism and “a mass of searchlights flashing brilliantly in and through the transparent rainbow clouds.” Whether it was spirit lights or just great stagecraft, Marie knew how to work it.

Untitled painting by Mabel Alvarez, a painter who stayed at Krotona during the 'teens.

When Krotona was still a mere idea, A.P. Warrington went on a lecture tour throughout the U.S., fundraising with Marie Russak in tow. She was already a celebrity, known as an opera singer with a repertory of Wagnerian principal roles. Contemporary reports of their lecture tour describe her presentation as “a delightful and instructive description of Adyar…illustrated with stereopticon views and flashes of wit and humor,” and Marie as "most charming." She wore a sari during the presentation.

They travelled by train and motorcar. They spoke at the “beautiful Ebell Auditorium” in Oakland. There, even though it rained, she was a big hit. One reviewer said
The lady had the audience with her from the start and the members are hers to a man. [She came, she saw, she conquered. Perhaps if I said she came, we saw and she conquered it would be nearer the truth.]

Photo of Marie that appeared in newspapers during her 1910 - 1912 lecture tour

At a Pasadena talk, Marie spoke on the topic of
Masonry in old Atlantis and in ancient Egypt, illustrated by two ground plans of the temple, received by her under exceptional conditions.
Her lecture tours took her all over the country, and newspapers reported her sayings. At one presentation in Chicago, in 1913, she revealed to the audience that the average weight of the human soul was four and eleven-sixteenths ounces. “The soul,” she claimed, “does not improve with weight. It is like a spongecake. A heavy, soggy soul is an inferior one.”

At another gathering, while taking questions from the audience, she diagnosed the cause of a young man’s stuttering. He must have lied to his wife in a previous incarnation, she said. “Any one who habitually told untruths in his former incarnations suffers that way — justly, too."

Describing the principles of reincarnation in 1912, she claimed “Death is as simple a process as slipping off a glove.”

Rochester's New York Central Terminal waiting room

She was quite a grandstander. Architect Claude Bragdon, who embraced Theosophy and included principles of musical structure in his building designs, invited her in 1914 to tour the completed New York Central Terminal in Rochester, New York, in the days before its opening. According to Bragdon,
As we were standing in the gallery overlooking the waiting room, she ran up the notes of the diatonic scale in her full, powerful voice. At the utterance of a certain note the entire room seemed to become a resonant chamber, reinforcing the tone with a volume of sound so great as to be almost overpowering: the walls, the ceiling, the entire building seemed to cry aloud. “There!” said the singer as the sound died away in overtones. “Now your railway station has found its keynote - now it is alive!"
British composer Cyril Scott dedicated his piece “Carillon, Egypt (An Album of Five Impressions)” to her, writing that it was only with her help that he was able to connect with his former incarnation as an ancient Egyptian, which inspired the piece.

Design by Claude Bragdon

Although Marie was a significant player in the founding of Krotona, she doesn’t strike me as someone who’d get her hands dirty, slogging up the muddy hillside or sitting on the floor to eat in unfurnished bungalows, as the earliest settlers of Krotona did. Married to a retired banker living in France, she lived well when she came to town, staying in the Hotel Hollywood, or in the beautiful Ternary Building with other Theosophical VIPs.

Entry to the Ternary Building today

She enjoyed a warm relationship with her Theosophic colleague, Henry Hotchener. Twenty years her junior, Hotchener was a New York lawyer who seems to have functioned as a canny “fixer” when the Society’s leaders needed one. He had outraged Mr. Leadbeater by representing the faction that demanded his resignation, yet years later when another sexual scandal arose, Hotchener’s duties helped smooth it over, protecting Leadbeater.

Hotchener saw Hollywood’s real estate growth as an opportunity, and the Krotona colony as an specialized niche market. He purchased lots west of the colony, toward Beachwood Canyon, and sold them to wealthy enthusiasts of the Theosophic and occult arts. In 1914 Hotchener built Marie a villa at 6101 Scenic Avenue, and a home for himself on Gower.

Marie's villa at Scene Avenue

The popular lecturer William Levington Comfort spent some time at Krotona during the ‘teens, and later his daughter wrote a novel that includes a fictionalized account of the colony. In it, the family is met at the train station by a large car driven by her father’s patroness, who could easily be modeled on Marie Russak Hotchener. Swathed in a white veil that covers her short grey hair, Mrs. Beckner wears a necklace of amber beads “large as acorns”. They learn that her “chosen name” is Natasha.
Mrs. Beckner often referred to others by their astrological distinctions: ‘My friend Uranus in the Ascendant,’ or ‘My little Pisces friend.’....her whole life had changed when she began using Natasha in place of Clara, which really did not belong to her.
Mrs. Beckner’s home is described as having a “private adytum, a room made mystic with black and gold wallpaper, shrines, incense and a celestial map,” and a roof-top solarium where she encouraged her guests to sunbathe in the nude.
In the rear of Mrs. Beckner’s house rose the hills of Krotona where the temple was and the lotus pond and the vegetarian cafeteria. There were several small tabernacles as well, a metaphysical library, a Greek Theatre where ‘The Light of Asia’ was being played, and numerous dwellings cut into the hillside above and below the winding road. It was all very beautiful, but Paula, perversely, disliked it. Krotona gave her an indoor feeling; peoples’ faces had a consciously sanctified look; her father’s friends struck her as queer.
Frank Russak

In December of 1914, word came that Marie’s estranged husband Frank Russak had died of heart failure, on board the steamship Minnetonka on the passage from England to the U.S. One wonders what Frank thought of his flamboyant wife and her adventures. Just two years before his death, he wrote a melancholy response to the Harvard alumni association:

You ask whether I still play the Hungarian Rhapsody No.2. I still play this, but very infrequently. And when I do, it is not without thought of my Harvard friends who lent me encouragement in my musical pleasures and relaxations. I regret to say that I do not give attention to music that I should like to give….in recent years my life has undergone a great change and to the detriment of some of the idealities of life that are so well expressed through music. Perhaps I have lived too long in the realm of the ideal, and now I see life as it is.

Entrance to Krotona Court today

Despite the difference in age, Marie and Henry Hotchener married in 1916. She published a magazine called “The Channel.” Henry was put in charge of the Krotona book publishing business. They moved house frequently, living in the properties they built and sold, and also staying at the Hotel Hollywood. They finally settled in a villa she designed at 6137 Temple Hill Drive.

They continued their interest in the occult – The couple is said to have exorcised the spirit of Mark Twain that possessed a troubled young man.

6137 Temple Hill Drive

When the colony dwindled and moved to Ojai, Marie and Henry remained in Hollywood, and reinvented themselves a whole new and fascinating life - in the most important business in town.

Show business? No.

Real estate, of course. Stay tuned for more.


21 Wits said...

Great tons of info here...and yes isn't all about the real estate....or SHOW me the Money!

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Nicely researched, Aunt Snow.

Whether it was spirit lights or just great stagecraft, Marie knew how to work it.


Sunyata said...

Jiddu Krishnamurti telling a joke...

“There are three monks, who had been sitting in deep meditation for many years amidst the Himalayan snow peaks, never speaking a word, in utter silence. One morning, one of the three suddenly speaks up and says, ‘What a lovely morning this is.’ And he falls silent again. Five years of silence pass, when all at once the second monk speaks up and says, ‘But we could do with some rain.’ There is silence among them for another five years, when suddenly the third monk says, ‘Why can’t you two stop chattering?”

Anonymous said...

One of the best accounts of Marie I have seen in years. Anyone who has read about how she met Col Olcott, President of the Theosophical Society is very fascinating.