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A Materialistic Fate for a Philosophical Legacy

December 22, 1994|BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A bitter fight over books filled with the secrets of harmony and inner peace has ended--four years after the mysterious death of a Los Angeles scholar who spent a lifetime roaming the world to collect them.

Most of Manly P. Hall's library of 18,000 books and artifacts will stay where he put them, at the nonprofit Philosophical Research Society he created and ran for 56 years.

The dispute over ownership of the unusual cache of writings on such subjects as Chinese metaphysics, Zen Buddhism and Hermetic wisdom had raged between Hall's 89-year-old widow and the man who took over the library and control of the society after Hall's death in 1990.

The court fight turned out to be a costly one for the legacy of Manly Hall.

Besides soiling the final memory of the gentlemanly, pipe-smoking scholar, Hall's supporters say the legal wrangling cost $2 million and has come close to putting an end to the Philosophical Research Society library in the Los Feliz district, where Hall spent six decades gathering the secrets of mankind's most revered thinkers.

"It's ironic that all of this could come down on someone who had so much integrity when he was alive," said Ron Garner, a Huntington Beach mortgage banker and a society member since 1963. Garner said that participation in society activities has dwindled and that followers were concerned that if the books landed in the wrong hands they might be sold for profit, further diminishing the impact of Hall's lifetime of work.

"This whole episode has been such a contradiction to Manly's life," said Irene Bird, a real estate broker from Los Alamitos with a 30-year society affiliation.

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By all accounts, Manly Hall would have been mortified by the scramble caused by his death on Aug. 29, 1990--six days after he signed his estate over to an assistant who was helping with the day-to-day operations of the Philosophical Research Society.

Widow Marie Bauer Hall went to court to overturn the will, alleging that Daniel Fritz and several associates had conned her husband of 40 years into signing over personal and society property worth $10 million after he had become senile.

She contended that Fritz, a banker who had worked in computer marketing and said he was an ordained minister, befriended her husband in 1987 and represented himself as an "Oriental priest" who could help the aging Hall "improve his health."

Fritz denied any wrongdoing. He asserted that Manly Hall was mentally alert to the end and signed the new will of his own accord. Fritz also said Hall had designated him to run the research society after his death and handle its affairs.

Pretrial wrangling took 30 months, with lawyers cranking out more than 325 motions, declarations and depositions.

The trial itself started in mid-1993. A handful of followers of the charismatic Hall listened glumly as details of his final days and his death--a coroner's report blamed heart disease--were discussed.

It was a far cry from the days when hundreds would attend Hall's lectures on ethics and morality, comparative religion and medieval philosophy and listen intently as he spoke for 90 minutes at a time without pausing to look at notes or to take a sip of water.

Fritz was removed from his society position after Superior Court Judge Harvey A. Schneider invalidated Hall's will in August, 1993.

"Did Mr. Fritz effectively steal from Mr. Hall? I think the answer is clearly yes," Schneider said in court. "The evidence is overwhelming that Mr. Fritz exerted undue influence over Mr. Hall . . . the whole thing just doesn't pass any reasonable person's sniff test."

But the dispute over ownership of the library's 16,500 books and other treasures--such as Babylonian tablets, an ancient Japanese sutra written in blood and the bones of a 3,000-year-old Chinese oracle--continued into this year, with periodic hearings in Schneider's courtroom.

Last week, lawyers for Marie Hall and for the society finally hoisted white flags.

It was agreed that she would drop any claim to the collection in exchange for free title to the Hillhurst Avenue home she and her husband had shared, plus the return of works of art the pair had collected.

The society also agreed to pay her $50,000, return her husband's stamp collection valued at $270,000 and give her 214 volumes of Rosicrucian and alchemy books from the society library so she can sell them to a European collector. Those volumes are valued at $804,000. Fritz also agreed to pay her $120,000.

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The settlement is worth $1.9 million, according to her attorney, Martin J. Kirwan of Carpinteria. "I'm glad to see it over for Marie's sake," said Kirwan, who will be paid $600,000 out of the settlement.

According to Kirwan, society officials have acknowledged spending about $1.1 million on the case.

Richard Odom, a Los Angeles lawyer who represented the society, declined to comment. Fritz could not be reached.

But Walter Hansell, a San Francisco lawyer who serves as general counsel and trustee of the society, said the group and its 23,000 supporters nationwide want to put the nastiness behind them.

The society "was very disrupted by Mr. Hall's death and the controversy with his widow," Hansell acknowledged. "It's certainly fair to say that the nature of the litigation process is at complete odds with Mr. Hall's essential philosophies."

For her part, Marie Hall said there are still some loose ends that need tying up. Manly Hall's death, for one: Los Angeles police homicide detectives say the case is still open.

"I firmly believe it was murder," she said in an interview.

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