by Rich Moreland, June 2016
With only a superficial knowledge of the occult, I approached Louis Sahagun’s biography of Manly Palmer Hall as an opportunity to learn something new. I was more than pleasantly rewarded. The updated version of Master of the Mysteries: New Revelations on the Life of Manly Palmer Hall is expertly researched and an easy read with language that dances along through a menagerie of people and wacky goings on.
Especially enlightening is the collection of original source material presented visually within the pages. Letters, flyers advertising Hall’s appearances, photos, drawings, and the like, breathe life into the story.
The Age of Ballyhoo
Master of the Mysteries is a rapidly paced primer for readers who are unfamiliar with spiritualism as it developed in Los Angeles from the 1920s through the post-war period. The offbeat personalities who were intrigued by the mystical and bizarre fill every page. Take for example, the story of Jack Parsons, Pasadena scientist and “secret practitioner of sex magic.” In 1952, he unintentionally self-evaporated in a garage explosion fooling around with “mercuric fulminate.” To add a macabre flavor to the account, Sahagun explains that Parsons, who was interested in conceiving a “‘magical child’ on a black altar” at his house, was a student of Aleister Crowley, the occultist “who called himself ‘Beast 666.’” Manly Hall owned a collection of Crowley’s work, one of many sources for his self-education on ancient religion, reincarnation, and every stop in between.
What makes Master of the Mysteries fascinating is the laundry list of Hollywood/LA types who counted Manly Hall as an acquaintance. Included are Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Glen Ford, Rhonda Fleming, Cecil B. DeMille, and many more. As a young man, Hall’s future took shape when he met Harry Houdini (who copied his tricks from “Asian jugglers and magicians”) in New York. Deciding to move to California, the soon-to-be occult superstar arrived in LA just as The Age of Ballyhoo nurtured the metaphysical beliefs and whimsies that were the stuff of parlor games and lectures during the Victorian Era.
The Southern California climes nurtured all manner of the theatrical, among them Sister Aimee Semple McPherson, whose 1920s evangelical empire came unglued when she staged her own kidnapping to cover a lover’s tryst. As for Manly Palmer Hall, he was perfect for the emerging Southern California pop culture. Young, dynamic, and impressive in physical build and social stature, he became pastor of the “Church of the People,” leader of the Philosophical Research Society, and a Freemason to boot.
In his exploration of Hall’s early years, Sahagun’s narrative is a hodgepodge of seers, predictors, religious salesmen, and hokum truth sayers that dominated the LA landscape in the 1920s and 30s, establishing today’s “Left Coast” moniker that describes the region. Manly Hall was ideal for those between-the-wars decades, a self-made man who became “one of the most celebrated spiritual figures” of his time.
Hallucinations and Mood Swings
Then there are Manley’s marriages, particularly the second one to Marie Bauer (his first wife having offed herself with the tried and true exhaust pipe method). Marie had her own set of loony ideas, particularly her fascination with the mystical Bruton Vault in the Bruton Parish Church in historic Williamsburg, Virginia. In it were the supposed revelations of Sir Francis Bacon and the wacky brunette spent her lifetime rambling on about their secrets. Oh yes, she also claimed to be aware of Hitler’s “deadly” thing, whatever that was. What’s more, Sahagun reveals the U.S. government’s post-war dossier on the delusional Marie who was trying to arrange meetings with J. Edgar Hoover.
The chapter on the love letters between Marie and Manly is revealing. When Hall first met Marie, she was “prone to hallucinations and mood swings.” Ignoring her quirkiness, the distinguished looking Manley found Marie to be “attractive” and “energetic,” though she admitted to failing as a wife and mother (she eventually divorced her husband). In 1950 they married, but turmoil always seemed to rule the household. “Her paranoia and temper kept friends and relatives on edge,” Sahagun tells us, and, not surprisingly, the loving couple slept in separate bedrooms. Marie always insisted Manly was bisexual.
The contrast between Hall and Marie is stunning. Petite and considered a beauty, Marie was the opposite of her husband who was tall, had a penchant for sweets and was plagued with obesity due to thyroid problems. His eyes, according to Marie, were “piercing but cold.” She also claims they never consummated their union. The letters reveal a Marie who sometimes had it together and other times was drifting in her own space without an intellectual compass.
Prone to extensive illness in his final days, Hall died mysteriously at eighty-nine. Marie and others suspected murder, a likely possibility, Sahagun suggests. Marie passed at age 100 and Clarita Woolridge, the nurse with her at the end, remembers that “an awesome invisible presence and a palpable sensation of peace filled the room.” Such was the story of Marie and Manly. Their “presence,” here and in the hereafter, could still inspire the faithful. By the way, Ms. Woolridge entered the seminary as a result of her experience that day.
Speaking of the end, Hall’s death is superbly assigned to Chapter Thirteen, a hint of the author’s subtle humor that floats to the surface every now and then.
The Big Book
Overall, Masters of the Mysteries is the legacy of Manly Palmer Hall and his Philosophical Research Society. For the record, Hall published his own seminal work. Simply referred to as The Big Book, it’s “a gorgeous dreamlike book of mysterious symbols” completed when he was only twenty-eight. Sahagun describes the literary opus as follows: “Hall freely sorts through a tossed salad of spiritual imagery from disparate times and place and discovers common ground and patterns” that drive the universe.
Sprinkle in doses of the Freemasons along with the “fantasies and mythical horror stories” that permeated Hollywood (Walt Disney’s fanciful films are mentioned) and the psychedelic 1960s to spice up an already fascinating story, and Louis Sahagun’s account is a five-star winner.
A mystery on many levels in its own right, Master of the Mysteries is quite literally a page turner.
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Product details as posted on Amazon:
- Paperback: 330 pages
- Publisher: Process; Enlarged edition (June 14, 2016)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1934170631
- ISBN-13: 978-1934170632