California has always been the hot spot for alternative spirituality, but most people think it dates back to the 1960s. Those flower children were just repeating what the free-thinking occultists, astrologers, and other esoterica junkies did forty years earlier: flock to L.A. and the kindred spirits (and open checkbooks) of Hollywood.
One such free-thinker was the brilliant Manly P. Hall. An 18-year-old Hall, accompanied by his maternal grandmother, moved from Canada to California to reunite with his mother in 1919. Mom was a Rosicrucian (a secret philosophical society, Wiki definition here) and a practicing chiropractor. Chiropractic was still in its infancy then, having only been founded in 1895; early on it was still considered a pseudoscience of sorts, containing heavy doses of metaphysics and spiritualism, so she fit in beautifully. Hall was fascinated and jumped in with both feet, becoming a student of Sydney J. Brownson, a “doctor” of phrenology (yup, the “bumps on the head” thing). Although he only possessed a sixth grade education, he was extremely bright, with a voracious appetite for all things arcane. The intense young man took over as preacher for Church of the People in 1919, and became permanent pastor only a few days after his ordination in 1923.
Hall was already a well-regarded lecturer before the age of 21, and wrote over 200 books and pamphlets on mystical and spiritual topics between 1920 and 1950. It was one such book that created his legacy: The Secret Teachings of All Ages (1928), a GIGANTIC volume spanning almost every metaphysical topic known to man. It is still incredibly popular — over one million copies have sold to date — and it has never been out of print (Have a look at this online edition). Hall was brilliant, not only in the book’s contents, but in its marketing; he created one of the first crowdfunding campaigns, offering copies at a reduced rate for contributions. He funded Secret‘s $150,000 publication fees purely through these ads and word of mouth. The book made him a superstar. He founded the Philosophical Research Society in 1934 — an organization devoted to “providing resources for the study and research of the world’s wisdom literature.” It is still active today.
But what is the Hollywood connection?
When Were You Born? (1938) is a crime mystery starring Anna May Wong as Mei Lee Ling, an astrologer who uses her knowledge of the zodiac to solve one murder and possibly prevent others. Hall wrote the original story for the film, which did terribly on release but has since become quite the cult movie. TCM shows it from time to time. Hollywood not only knew him, he was friends with most of them. Elvis was a huge fan. Ronald Reagan borrowed much of his later political posturing from him. He even officiated at Bela Lugosi’s wedding!
Hall’s private life was nowhere near as successful; he married twice, the first ending in suicide, the second an unhappy one with a woman biographer Louis Sahagun refers to as “emotionally abusive.” There was also speculation about his assistant, Daniel Fritz, who surreptitiously rewrote Hall’s will. Manly P. Hall died August 29, 1990, and his body was found days later in a grotesque state, hundreds of ants streaming out of his nose and mouth. He was 89.
Another mainstay of the cosmic Cali atmosphere was Dareos. If you were an actor in the 1920s, or just hung around with them, chances are that someone would eventually drag you along to visit a fortune teller or psychic. The most famous of the “hocus-pocus peddlers” was Dareos, about whom there is maddeningly little on the internet. I couldn’t even find a photo to reproduce here, although Diane Arbus made a subject of him. Photoplay investigated:
This Dareos’ full name, by the way, is George Dareos. He has a rambling suite of rooms in a two-story building, over a branch bank in Ocean Park – a beach town near Hollywood. He is listed in the phone book as “Dareos, George, psychoanalyst,” but he tells you frankly that he just senses things about his clients…
“[I] lived for a long time in the East and in Europe. My people thought I was going to be a lawyer, but I didn’t want to. It was in 1916 that I first took up this psychic work…[I] went into a fortune-teller’s tent, and…I had told his fortune instead of him telling me mine.”
The only other background I could find is by Irving Shulman, in his 1970 book Jackie: The Exploitation of a First Lady:
[M]any of these stellar people were clients of George Dareos, formerly butler to a Hollywood star addicted to frequent consultation with a Pasadena medium. After Dareos compared his earnings as a manservant with the medium’s takings, he decided to set himself up as a seer.
Which of these stories is true? Who knows? At any rate, Dareos’ prophetic skill was legend in and around Tinseltown; he advised Pola Negri, Charles Chaplin, Mae Murray, Mabel Normand, and a multitude of the silent cinema elite. One of his most infamous clinets was Rudolph Valentino, whom he told to never marry again after his marriage to Natacha Rambova fell apart.
How was his accuracy? Well. He said Joan Crawford would never marry Doug Fairbanks Jr. (they were married with much fanfare in 1929); he said Jean Harlow would have a wonderful 1937 (she died that year of uremic poisoning at age 26); he foresaw the Vatican moving to Spain by 1990; and my personal favorite, that Elvis would live well into his 70s and become a motion picture producer – as long as he stayed away from private planes.
Our friend was about as intuitive as a Ouija board at a third-grade sleepover. And, like that toy or the Magic 8 Ball we managed to lose, he disappeared – after 1969 his public trail goes cold. Very strange for a man who seemed such a ubiquitous part of Hollywood’s gold-plated façade. It’s as if he vanished. (I wonder if he foresaw it?)
Lang, Harry. “Exposing the Occult: Hocus-Pocus in Hollywood.” Photoplay, December 1928
Magazine images courtesy the Media History Digital Library.