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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

To Williamson, every problem can be solved by consulting the course. "(It) is a complete system," she said. "It has no holes in it."

She advises one woman who wants to shed pounds to refrain from dieting and pray to God instead to eliminate her craving for food. The woman has a role in a play that opens in 30 days. "You'll be gorgeous," Williamson promises.

Williamson believes her wide-ranging experience as a child of the '60s comes in handy now. "Anything anybody's done I've probably done it," she said.

The "spoiled child" of a Houston immigration lawyer, she dropped out of college in her junior year and roamed around the country, leading a dissolute life as a singer, cocktail waitress, office temp and bookseller and getting involved in a series of unhappy relationships. She was married once, she says, "for a minute and a half."

In her early 20s she spent a year working as an assistant to Albert Goldman, the biographer of Lenny Bruce and John Lennon. "She was very, very profoundly confused and had no conception of what to do with herself," said Goldman, who remembers her shedding copious tears over a failed romance. "She was a woman of emotion, like an actress in an Italian movie."

During these troubled years, she sought help in various New Age and Eastern religions and self-help programs.

She was living in New York when she encountered "A Course in Miracles" but did not immediately take to it. For a Jew, the references to Jesus were tough to swallow. A year later, however, she happened to pass the building where the books are published and resolved to get herself a set. That night, she said, she found them on her dining room table, a gift from her boyfriend. "He said to me, 'I think it's time,' " she recalled, citing the Eastern adage that "when the student is ready, the teacher appears."

By then, she said, "I was so depressed that I didn't even notice the (Christian) language," she said.

She spent the next year reading the course "passionately." What finally grabbed her was its message about forgiveness. "I never realized you can't find peace in your life without forgiving other people," she said. "I never knew how many of my problems stemmed from my fear of other people."

Williamson, who attends High Holy Day services "to make my mother happy," no longer feels that the "Christic" imagery, as she calls it, poses a problem. The words are used for their psychological rather than their religious significance, she said, emphasizing that the course has nothing to do with Jews for Jesus. "No religion has a monopoly on the greatest story ever told," she added.

Williamson's career as a lecturer began in 1983, when she moved to Los Angeles and began working at the Philosophical Research Society, a center for metaphysical study. Kent Black, a colleague at the time, remembers "a brassy, sassy Texas woman climbing out of a big desert cruiser" in front of the society's office.

"She was wearing cowboy boots and her trunk was filled with books of miracles," Black said. "She was the epitome of a Southern snake oil salesman. I thought she had a lot of chutzpah. She just elbowed her way in."

It was a smart move, Black said, noting that the link to the society gave Williamson legitimacy. She readily agreed when she was asked to lecture on the course. One day, 75 people showed up to hear her and she was on her way.

Today, she lives modestly in a two-bedroom apartment in Hollywood with her 21-month-old daughter, India Emmanuelle, known as Emma, whose father she refuses to name. Williamson, who has dated producer Howard Koch Jr. and the actor Dwier Brown ("Field of Dreams"), is equally reticent about discussing the man she is currently seeing.

Even at home, wearing an oversize sweater and loose pants and no makeup, she is on stage, continually jumping up from her chair to move around the room. Suddenly, she is sitting cross-legged on the coffee table, jabbing a visitor's knee with her bare toes to emphasize a point. The next moment she has slid across the table and is lying on the couch. "She has schpilkes ," said Dawn Steel, using a Yiddish expression meaning antsy .

Bringing the same theatricality to the discussion, Williamson raises her voice to a fevered pitch to discourse about the failures of the education system or the need for people to treat one another with respect. Many of her sentences begin, "The problem with America today. . . ."

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