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Charting the man behind a mystical city

June 21, 2008|Steffie Nelson | Special to The Times

Last Sunday evening at the Silent Movie Theater, a clip from the 1938 astrological murder mystery "When Were You Born?" was shown as part of an "Occult L.A." program curated by the author Erik Davis. In the clip, legendary occult scholar Manly P. Hall, who had also written the movie's script, appeared on screen to introduce the concept of astrology. With penetrating blue eyes, thick dark hair and a rakish mustache, Hall had the looks of a silent film star, and he radiated intensity as he explained the various personality traits of the different sun signs -- Leos are loyal, Capricorns are brave, and so on. But that's not all: "Astrology can solve crime!" he exhorted. "It has solved many crimes in the past."

At this the audience burst into laughter: Yet another absurd Hollywood twist. It wasn't the late Hall's finest moment -- in fact, he'd done the scene reluctantly. But afterward he held out hope that "When Were You Born?," the first major motion picture to treat the subject of astrology seriously, might help "open the way for a great cycle of occult philosophy," he wrote.

The film was a bomb, but the fact that this obscure clip was being screened before a sold-out crowd of artists, intellectuals and spiritual seekers shows that the cycle of Hall's influence continues. And it may grow in the coming months, for Process Media has just published "Master of the Mysteries," the first biography of Manly Palmer Hall, written by Louis Sahagun (who is a staff writer at The Times).

In his lifetime, Hall befriended notables as disparate as Bela Lugosi and John Denver. For his writings alone he was made an honorary 33rd-degree Freemason (the highest honor), and even Elvis was a fan, sending Priscilla Presley to one of the world renowned orator's lectures because he was afraid of getting mobbed himself.

Aimed to be 'high priest'

Hall died in 1990 at age 89, and it wasn't until a few year later that Sahagun, who'd written his obituary, began to delve deeply into his history and body of work -- which includes more than 200 books, most notably his magnum opus, "The Secret Teachings of All Ages."

"It turned out he was a pretty darn good writer," Sahagun said. "His books were strange and absolutely fascinating, and his whole raison d'etre was applying ancient philosophies to solve modern problems. . . . He wanted to be the high priest, the hierophant, of Southern California."

The year Hall arrived in Los Angeles, 1919, was the year the city started to boom. "It's a fascinating parallel," Sahagun said. "Southern California in general was the last best place, a place of new beginnings." To Sahagun, Hall's journey was "the spiritual equivalent of the California dream," and when he decided to write "Master of the Mysteries," he wanted it to be as much a history of mystical Los Angeles as a biography.

Jodi Wille, the editor of "Master of the Mysteries," said, "I learned so much working on this book. Not only was Manly P. Hall this incredible thinker, but Los Angeles was this remarkable city run by wild bohemian visionaries who were totally tuned in. It makes me just want to turn everybody on to it so we can know what our real roots are. Our roots are not Britney Spears."

A junior high school dropout from a broken home, Hall was regarded by many as a magician, but to Sahagun he was really a "one-stop scholar of ancient ideas." One of Hall's first friends was Sydney Brownson, a phrenologist with a booth on the Santa Monica Pier, who shared his knowledge of Hinduism, Greek philosophy and Christian mysticism. Hall, who had a photographic memory, furthered his studies of ancient religions and soon was speaking at the Church of the People downtown. By 1920, only 19 years old, he was running the church and delivering Sunday lectures about Rosicrucianism and Theosophy, the mystical philosophical system founded by Madame Helena Blavatsky; as well as the teachings of Pythagoras, Confucius and Plato.

And he was not addressing some fringe contingent. At this time Los Angeles was alive with esoteric ideas and populated by spiritualists with names like Princess Zoraida and Pneumandros. As Sahagun put it, "Even flamboyant holy roller Aimee Semple McPherson, who arrived in Los Angeles in 1918, was milquetoast compared to others setting up religious shops in town."

Hall became the beneficiary of Caroline and Estelle Lloyd, a wealthy mother-daughter duo from Ventura, and in 1923 their generosity enabled a trip around the world that would provide the inspiration -- and the information -- for his encyclopedic masterwork, "The Secret Teachings of All Ages." The publication of this lavishly illustrated, oversize text, which sold for $100 in 1928, turned Hall into an icon -- no doubt partly thanks to the dramatic portraits done by his friend William Mortensen, a Hollywood cameraman who had also photographed Jean Harlow and Cecil B. DeMille.

Place for 'truth seekers'

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