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COVER STORY : The Power, the Glory, the Glitz : Marianne Williamson, an ex-nightclub singer, has attracted many in Hollywood with her blend of new-time religion and self-help--and alienated more than a few

February 16, 1992|TERRY PRISTIN | Terry Pristin is a Times staff writer. and

Wearing feathers in her hair, spike heels and a strapless evening gown, Marianne Williamson, New Age guru of the hour, is seated on a hotel ballroom stage in Marina del Rey, shoulder to shoulder with unmarried soap opera actors and other eligible and glamorous singles. Amid much banter and giggling, they will be "auctioned off" by talk-show host Cyndy Garvey and producer-director Garry Marshall.

Laura Dern and Linda Blair are no-shows, but Williamson, on the verge of becoming almost as famous as they are, will wait patiently for two hours until it is her turn to go on the block. She will answer politely when Garvey asks her how to pronounce Muse, the name of the restaurant where she plans to take her date. She will urge Marshall to tell the well-toned crowd that she is "very interesting." In exchange for an evening in her company, a man from the Midwest will contribute $1,200 to the Family Assistance Program, a charity for the homeless.

Although on other nights she exhorts her followers to give themselves up to God, there is nothing incongruous in her now offering herself up at a bachelor-bachelorette auction. This, after all, is Hollywood, and Williamson, who has been mentioned in the same breath as Mother Teresa for her work on behalf of people with AIDS, is no stranger to the combined worlds of glitz and good causes.

In a field crowded with purveyors of spiritual wisdom, the 39-year-old tough-talking, quick-witted former nightclub singer from Texas has blazed her way to the top. She has been captivating standing-room-only audiences in West Hollywood, Santa Monica and New York with her blend of religion and self-help drawn from a three-volume work known as "A Course in Miracles."

Williamson is also the latest mystical sensation in Hollywood, where many work assiduously to cultivate their souls, often with the same devotion they apply to their physiques. Anthony Perkins, Lesley Ann Warren, Tommy Tune, Cher and Roy Scheider go to her lectures. David Geffen and Sandy Gallin listen to her on tape and have sought her private counsel; she lunches with the likes of Barbra Streisand and Dawn Steel, and last summer she officiated at the wedding of Elizabeth Taylor and Larry Fortensky. "Her sense of spirituality triggered off my own," the bride said recently through a spokeswoman.

Many of the entertainment industry's biggest names have helped raise money for Project Angel Food, a service launched by Williamson in 1989 that now delivers more than 300 hot meals a day to housebound AIDS patients in Los Angeles.

Since the turn of the century, when Katherine Tingley established her exotic Point Loma Theosophical Community near San Diego and became known as the Purple Mother, Southern California has been a magnet for prophets promising to unlock the secrets of the metaphysical and the occult. From Krishnamurti to Aimee Semple McPherson to the so-called I AM cult, they found easy acceptance in a land populated by migrants eager to rid themselves of their ties to the past and exorcise "the nameless fears which so many of them had acquired from the fire-and-brimstone theology of the Middle West," as journalist Carey McWilliams wrote in 1946.

While Williamson's gift for showmanship sometimes calls to mind Sister Aimee, there is no evidence the theatrical and controversial faith healer had a Hollywood following. It was left to other guides to the spiritual and supernatural to attract such figures as Greta Garbo, Mae West and Aldous Huxley.

Many more celebrities have since heeded the call. These days, Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson say their mantras with the spiritual heir to the Swami Muktananda, Swami Gurumayi Chidvilasananda; Sharon Gless and Michael York are devoted to Lazaris, a "non-physical entity" whose message is "channeled" through a wealthy former business executive in Florida named Jach Pursel; while Streisand and Richard Chamberlain have participated in "transformational" workshops in Arizona led by a former practicing physician, W. Brugh Joy.

But no spiritual master is more talked-about than Williamson.

Slim and stylish, with dark shiny hair, flawless skin and angular features, Williamson now hopes to add "best-selling author" to her list of accomplishments. Her just-published, "A Return to Love," recently got a big boost when Oprah Winfrey snapped up 1,000 copies and told her television audience she had experienced 157 miracles after reading it. Norman Lear was scheduled to host a party last week in Williamson's honor.

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