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A Hushed Death for Mystic Author Carlos Castaneda

Culture: Best-selling chronicler of shaman Don Juan 'left this world' two months ago in Westwood, agent says.

June 19, 1998|J.R. MOEHRINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Carlos Castaneda, the self-proclaimed "sorcerer" and best-selling author whose tales of drug-induced mental adventures with a Yaqui Indian shaman named Don Juan once fascinated the world, apparently died two months ago in the same way that he lived: quietly, secretly, mysteriously.

He was believed to be 72.

Castaneda died April 27 at his home in Westwood, according to entertainment lawyer Deborah Drooz, a friend of Castaneda and the executor of his estate. The cause of death was liver cancer.

Though he had millions of followers around the world, and though his 10 books continue to sell in 17 different languages, and though he once appeared on the cover of Time magazine as a leader of America's spiritual renaissance, he died without public notice, without the briefest mention in a newspaper or on TV.

As befitting his mystical image, he seemingly vanished into thin air.

"He didn't like attention," Drooz said. "He always made sure people did not take his picture or record his voice. He didn't like the spotlight. Knowing that, I didn't take it upon myself to issue a press release."

No funeral was held; no public service of any kind took place. The author was cremated at once and his ashes were spirited away to Mexico, according to the Culver City mortuary that handled his remains.

He leaves behind a will, due to be probated in Los Angeles next month, and a death certificate fraught with dubious information. The few people who may benefit from his rich copyrights were told of the death, Drooz said, but none chose to alert the media. The doctor who attended him in his final days, Angelica Duenas, would not discuss her secretive patient.

Even those who counted Castaneda a good friend were unaware of his death and wouldn't comment when told, choosing to honor his disdain for publicity, no matter what realm of reality he now inhabits.

"I've made it a lifetime practice never to discuss Carlos Castaneda with anyone in the newspaper business," said author Michael Korda, who was once Castaneda's editor at Simon & Schuster Inc.

Castaneda's literary agent in Los Angeles, Tracy Kramer, would not return phone calls about the Thomas Pynchon-esque author's death but issued this statement: "In the tradition of the shamans of his lineage, Carlos Castaneda left this world in full awareness."

Carlos Ce'sar Arana Castaneda immigrated to the U.S. in 1951. He was born Christmas Day 1925 in Sao Paolo, Brazil, or Cajamarca, Peru, depending on which version of his autobiographical accounts can be believed. He was an inveterate and unrepentant liar about the statistical details of his life, from his birthplace to his birth date, and even his given name remains in some doubt.

"Much of the Castaneda mystique is based on the fact that even his closest friends aren't sure who he is," wrote his ex-wife, Margaret Runyan Castaneda, in a 1997 memoir that Castaneda tried to keep from being published.

Whoever he was, whatever his background, Castaneda galvanized the world 30 years ago. As an anthropology graduate student at UCLA, he wrote his master's thesis about a remarkable journey he made to the Arizona-Mexico desert. Hoping to study the effects of certain medicinal plants, Castaneda said he stopped in an Arizona border town and there, in a Greyhound bus depot, met an old Yaqui Indian from Sonora, Mexico, named Juan Matus, a brujo, or sorcerer, or shaman, who used powerful hallucinogens to initiate the student into an occult world with origins dating back more than 2,000 years.

Under Don Juan's strenuous tutelage, which lasted several years, Castaneda experimented with peyote, jimson weed and dried mushrooms, undergoing moments of supreme ecstasy and stark panic, all in an effort to achieve varying "states of nonordinary reality." Wandering through the desert, with Don Juan as his psychological and pharmacological guide, Castaneda said he saw giant insects, learned to fly, grew a beak, became a crow and ultimately reached a plateau of higher consciousness, a hard-won wisdom that made him a "man of knowledge" like Don Juan.

The thesis, published in 1968 by the University of California Press, became an international bestseller, striking just the right note at the peak of the psychedelic 1960s. A strange alchemy of anthropology, allegory, parapsychology, ethnography, Buddhism and perhaps great fiction, "The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge" made Don Juan a household name and Castaneda a cultural icon.

Many still consider him the godfather of America's New Age movement. In one of the few profiles with which Castaneda cooperated, Time magazine wrote: "To tens of thousands of readers, young and old, the first meeting of Castaneda with Juan Matus . . . is a better-known literary event than the encounter of Dante and Beatrice beside the Arno."

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