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A Philosopher and His Soap : Bronner Has a Mission, a Message and an Unusual Medium

July 28, 1987|ANN JAPENGA | Times Staff Writer

It was an ordinary "typist wanted" ad in the local paper, the sort temporary typist Linda Bruun had responded to many times before.

Bruun went for her job interview to a ranch-style redwood house surrounded by avocado trees in a pretty, semi-rural neighborhood of Escondido. The entryway smelled of peppermint.

Bruun knew this about her potential employer: He makes Dr. Bronner's Peppermint Soap, a product adored since 1949 by natural-food devotees, backpackers and hippies. The soap claims to be good for a multitude of uses, from washing the car to repelling mosquitoes and shining dentures. But what many people like best about the aromatic potion is that it's a good read.

Crammed on the blue-and-white label is Bronner's hodgepodge philosophy, his "Moral ABC"--6,000 words of it on the peppermint quart label alone. (He also makes almond, eucalyptus and lavender soaps as well as a line of health food, and every type of bottle has a completely different text.)

When he showed up for the interview, Emanuel Bronner turned out to be a gaunt blind man, 79 years old. What little flesh covered Bronner's frame had been cooked sepia by the sun.

Bronner raised Brunn's ire right off when he told her that Halley's comet is the Messiah.

"I asked why he would place more emphasis on a comet than he would in Christ," the 28-year-old typist said. (The theory "upsets the average person," Bronner conceded.)

The issue was apparently resolved to Bruun's satisfaction, because she took the job. Like a multitude of secretaries before her (who had left in exhaustion), Bruun was soon transcribing Bronner's thoughts on Halley's comet, birth control, garbage disposals, toothaches, lovemaking and other topics, with assists from thinkers such as Einstein, Mark Spitz, Oprah Winfrey, George Washington, Confucius, Buddha, Carl Sagan and Jesus.

According to Bronner's son, Ralph Bronner, a seventh-grade teacher who lives in Milwaukee, many people who bathe with Dr. Bronner's peppermint soap assume Dr. Bronner is like Dr Pepper--a mythical figure thought up by an ad agency.

There have been times when Ralph Bronner must have wished that were the case. Times when he couldn't bear to hear another word about the Moral ABC or the liquid soaps that sell at a rate of 400,000 gallons a year. (Bronner's company, All-One-God-Faith Inc., also sells 600,000 pounds of Dr. Bronner's Magic Bar Soap annually.)

The elder Bronner spends much of his time chanting, speaking and ranting infinite variations of the Moral ABC into a dozen or more tape recorders placed strategically around the house. A human audience--whether it's his son, a secretary or a reporter--is little more than another tape recorder to Bronner, something in which he can spill his urgent philosophy.

The soap maker, for example, telephones his son three or four times a week in Milwaukee to discuss developments in the Moral ABC.

"I used to get upset sometimes that he'd wake me at 6:30 in the morning, until I realized it's 4:30 in California," Ralph Bronner said during a recent visit to Escondido. "Then I thought, 'What am I complaining about?' "

So intense is his father's devotion to his cause, Ralph Bronner said, that it's like having Einstein or Beethoven as a dad. He said he admires Bronner's fourth wife, Gladys, for sticking by the philosopher for 26 years: "People who are obsessed with ideas are really hard to live with. To interrupt finding full truth to get a meal on the table isn't easy."

The obsessiveness is clearly not a manifestation of old age. His son confirms that even as a young man, Bronner was opinionated. His outspoken notions about politics and religion aggravated his father, a soap maker who owned a large factory in Heilbron, Germany.

(Bronner does not have a medical degree but is a "soap maker master chemist," the German equivalent, he said, of a Ph.D. in chemistry.)

At age 21 and on the outs with his father, Emanuel Bronner immigrated to Milwaukee where he got a job making soap and married the illegitimate daughter of a nun. They had three children, one of them Ralph Bronner.

Here the soap maker's history turns tragic. He said his parents were gassed in a concentration camp. Soon after, he added, his wife suffered a nervous breakdown and eventually died--after being tortured by guards--in a mental hospital.

A Quest for Truth

The children, Ralph among them, went to live with a farm family. Bronner set out on his quest to find "full truth." He began speaking publicly for peace, against fluoridation and on other topics he saw as related.

As an example of what an impact Bronner, the public speaker, has had on people, Ralph Bronner recalled the time, in 1945, when a man tried to crucify himself in Chicago. The man told the police officers who pulled him down off his post: "I'm dying for Dr. Bronner's peace plan." (He lived.)

It was while presenting his "one-world peace plan" at the University of Chicago the following year that Bronner apparently aggravated the wrong person and was arrested.

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