Thursday, January 9, 2014

Manly P Hall and the Mysticism of 1920s California

This is Manly Palmer Hall.  He was born in Ontario, Canada, on March 18, 1901.  Striking, no?

[image courtesy The Manly P Hall Archive]

Young Manly, accompanied by his maternal grandmother, moved to California to reunite with his mother  in 1919.  (He never knew his father.)  California then was just as much Hippieland USA as it was in the 1960s, maybe even more:

The Victorian Era started the ball rolling with Spiritualism, Theosophy and The Golden Dawn. Between these, all the concepts that would grow and be experimented with through the 20th century emerged: mediuimship/channeling, clairovoyance, astral projection, astrology, mixtures of eastern and western religious concepts, past lives, ceremonial magick, cabalic esotericism for non Jews, the list is endless.

During the 1800s Lodges were how it was done. But in the new 20th century things were changing. People with interesting systems of alternative spirituality were discovering a way to actually achieve stability was to form a little hub in LA...[o]ver the decade as Los Angeles’ reputation grew, it attracted droves of occultists and those wanting to start their own systems of alternative spirituality as well as all the young Hollywood fodder.  ["Los Angeles and the 1920s Occult Explosion", A STEAMPUNK OPERA]

Mom fit in perfectly -- she 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 it fit in beautifully to the cosmic Cali atmosphere.

Manly 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 occult and esoteric.   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.  Manly was brilliant, not only in the book's contents, but in its marketing; he created one of the first Kickstarter 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.  

[image courtesy Amazon]

The book made Hall a superstar.  He continued collecting metaphysical knowledge, crossing the globe for rare books and manuscripts.  His trips were funded by benefactors and members of his congregation.  One such benefactor, Carolyn Lloyd (and her daughter Estelle), had been sponsoring Hall since the early 1920s, and upon her death left him a home, $15,000 in cash, and a $10,000 annuity.

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.  Click the logo to visit.  

"But Jen," I hear you asking,  "where's the Hollywood connection?" 
Ah, dear Readers, it's in the stars...

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 (as you can imagine -- I mean, look at that glorious prologue!).  TCM shows it from time to time, I really want to catch this one.

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!

[image courtesy The Wild Hunt]

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".  

Manly P Hall died August 29, 1990, aged 89, under grotesque and suspicious circumstances:

In the ultimate, final tragedy, this man who believed in reincarnation and who had planned to leave the earthly plane consciously, might have been the victim of a greedy plot devised by his assistant Daniel Fritz, who rewrote Hall's will. Hall's body was found under suspicious and horrifying circumstances, apparently dead for hours and with thousands of ants streaming from his nose and mouth. The case was never solved. [Steffie Nelson, "Charting the Man Behind a Mystical City", Los Angeles Times, June 21 2008]


Caftan Woman said...

Fascinating. People aren't really that much different when we look at the passing centuries. All looking for something and always someone to provide the answers.

"When Were You Born" is a dandy little programmer for fans of that sort of thing (I am). The lead character was intriguing enough that I would have liked a sequel.

Page said...

His private life was no bed of roses and it sounds quite depressing. With that said, I really enjoyed reading this and his connections to the movers and shakers of Hollywood during that time.

How long have you owned this book? Admittedly I haven't read a lot of books on this topic. You mention he was striking so is it wrong of me to say that glare and those eyes creeped me out a bit? Like Conrad Veidt glaring at me before stealing my soul.

Enjoyed reading this and getting a look at what interests you. : )

Flapper Flickers + Silent Stanzas said...

CW, where were you able to see this? It looks like so much fun. :)

Page, you are absolutely right about that Connie soul-stare! He has the same penetrating eyes.
I don't actually own "Secrets" but I've perused some of it online, and it's fascinating. Yes, parts of it are outdated, but as a whole it's still a great resource on all things esoteric.
As for the Hall bio, I haven't gotten a hold of it yet but it's firmly on my TBR list. :)