It was a triumph of galactic proportions: Science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard had discarded the body that bound him to the physical universe and was off to the next phase of his spiritual exploration -- "on a planet a galaxy away."
"Hip, hip, hurray!" thousands of Scientologists thundered inside the Hollywood Palladium, where they had just been told of this remarkable feat.
"Hip, hip, hurray! Hip, hip, hurray!" they continued to chant, gazing at a large photograph of Hubbard, creator of their religion and author of the best-selling "Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health."
Earlier that day, the Church of Scientology had summoned the faithful throughout Los Angeles to a "big and exciting event" at the Palladium. They were told nothing more, just to be there.
As evening fell, thousands arrived, most decked out in the spit-and-polish mockNavy uniforms that are symbolic of the organization's paramilitary structure.
The excited assemblage was about to learn that their beloved leader, a man who dubbed himself "The Commodore," had died. Yet, death was never mentioned.
Instead, the Scientologists were told that Hubbard had finished his spiritual research on this planet, charting a precise path for man to achieve immortality. And now it was on to bigger challenges somewhere beyond the stars.
His body had "become an impediment to the work he now must do outside of its confines," the awe-struck crowd was informed. "The fact that he
The death certificate would show that Lafayette Ronald Hubbard, 74, who had not been seen publicly for nearly six years, died on Jan. 24, 1986, of a stroke on his ranch outside San Luis Obispo.
But to Scientologists, the man they affectionately called "Ron" had ascended.
The glorification of L. Ron Hubbard that brisk January night wasnot surprising. Over more than three decades he had skillfully transformed himself from a writer of pulp fiction to a writer of "sacred scriptures." Along the way, he made a fortune and achieved his dream of fame.
"I have high hopes of smashing my name into history so violently that it will take a legendary form, even if all the books are destroyed," Hubbard wrote to the first of his three wives in 1938, more than a decade before he created Scientology.
"That goal," he said, "is the real goal as far as I am concerned."
From the ground up, Hubbard built an international empire that started as a collection of mental therapy centers and became one of the world's most controversial and secretive religions.
The intensity, combativeness and salesmanship that distinguish Scientology from other religions can be traced directly to Hubbard. For, even in death, the man and his creation are inseparable.
He wrote millions of words in scores of books instructing his followers on everything from how to market Scientology to how to fend off critics. His prolific and sometimes rambling discourses constitute the gospel of Scientology, its structure and its soul. Deviations are punishable.
Through his writings, Hubbard fortified his clannish organization with a powerful intolerance of criticism and a fierce will to endure and prosper. He wrote a Code of Honor that urged his followers to "never desert a group to which you owe your support" and "never fear to hurt another in a just cause."
He transmitted to his followers his suspicious view of the world -- one populated, he insisted, by madmen bent on Scientology's destruction.
His flaring temper and searing intensity are deeply branded into the church and reflected in the behavior of his faithful, who shout at adversaries and even at each other. As one former high-ranking member put it: "He made swearing cool."
Hubbard's followers say his teachings have helped thousands kick drugs and allowed countless others to lead fuller lives through courses that improve communication skills, build self-confidence and increase an individual's ability to take control of his or her life.
He was, they say, "the greatest humanitarian in history."
But there was another side to this imaginative and intelligent man. And to understand Scientology, one must begin with L. Ron Hubbard.
In the late 1940s, Hubbard was broke and in debt. A struggling writer of science fiction and fantasy, he was forced to sell his typewriter for $28.50 to get by.
"I can still see Ron three-steps-at-a-time running up the stairs in around 1949 in order to borrow $30 from me to get out of town because he had a wife after him for alimony," recalled his former literary agent, Forrest J. Ackerman.
At one point, Hubbard was reduced to begging the Veterans Administration to let him keep a $51 overpayment of benefits. "I am nearly penniless," wrote Hubbard, a former Navy lieutenant.
Hubbard was mentally troubled, too. In late 1947, he asked the Veterans Administration to help him get psychiatric treatment.