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Charting the man behind a mystical city

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

In 1934, Hall founded the nonprofit Philosophical Research Society. He purchased a plot of land near Griffith Park for $10 and commissioned architect Robert Stacy-Judd to design a Mayan-inspired center with a library and auditorium, which is still active today. A plaque in the courtyard, near where the current Sunday lecture schedule is posted, reads, "Dedicated to Truth Seekers of All Time."

Yet for all his mental discipline, Hall was in terrible physical shape, with great folds of sagging flesh around his middle (Sahagun describes him as "avocado shaped"). According to Sahagun, Hall, when asked what he would wish for if he were given one wish, said that he would like to be placed in a swimming pool full of chocolate pudding so that he could eat his way out.

Nor did his vast knowledge help his personal relationships. Hall was married twice, the first ending with his wife's suicide; the second, almost 20 years later, was to a woman who was emotionally abusive and was classified by the FBI as a certifiable nuisance. Both marriages were childless. Sahagun doesn't believe Hall's second marriage was ever consummated, and there were rumors that he might have been gay. Whatever the case, this was a man who lived primarily in the world of books and ideas, and also one, it's important to note, who had always warned of the dangers of putting spiritual leaders on a pedestal.

"All followers who offer to adorn and deify their teachers set up a false condition," Hall wrote in a 1942 essay. "Human beings, experience has proved, make better humans than they do gods."

"That sets him apart from, say, a Deepak Chopra, who titles a book 'Defying the Aging Process,' " Sahagun said.

Sadly, Hall and Los Angeles grew out of step with each other. His work might have been "the very soil that grew stories and myths like 'Star Wars' and 'Raiders of the Lost Ark,' " but by the time George Lucas came along, Sahagun noted, "Manly's trove of ancient notions just seemed so dusty and out of touch." (Not so today, when Tarcher Penguin's 2003 reissue of "The Secret Teachings" is already in its 16th printing.)

In the ultimate, final tragedy, this man who believed in reincarnation and who had planned to leave the earthly plane consciously, might have been the victim of a greedy plot devised by his assistant Daniel Fritz, who rewrote Hall's will. Hall's body was found under suspicious and horrifying circumstances, apparently dead for hours and with thousands of ants streaming from his nose and mouth. The case was never solved.

Not surprisingly, this was the beginning of a low point for the Philosophical Research Society, which sold rare alchemical texts to the Getty to pay for some of the legal fees incurred by Hall's widow.

Today, however, the center is on an upswing. In 2002, the society formed a distance learning university, offering a master's degree program in consciousness studies, with faculty including Jonathan Young, a protege of Joseph Campbell, and Vesna Wallace, a professor in the religious studies department of UC Santa Barbara. This January, the university received national accreditation. The library, featuring some of the rarest philosophical, religious and occult texts in existence (books on black magic and Satanism are stored under a Buddha to balance the energies), remains open to the public every Saturday and Sunday.

Explore with a book

"People are hungry for the material," said society librarian Maja D'Aoust, who co-authored the alchemical primer "The Secret Source" with Adam Parfrey and lectures most Sundays.

D'Aoust conceded that some might find the prospect of thumbing through 30,000 volumes intimidating, and she suggested just starting randomly. "There are very interesting synchronicities surrounding the research that happens in this building," she noted. "Just pick a book, any book. Even if you don't know what you're looking for, it will probably find you."

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'Master of the Mysteries' book release

Featuring a lecture and slide show by author Louis Sahagun and a talk on L.A.'s Freemasonic heritage

Where: Philosophical Research Society, 3910 Los Feliz Blvd., Los Angeles

When: noon to 3 p.m. today

Price: $1

Contact: (323) 663-2167

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