ANDREA RICHARDS

WHAT YOU CAN’T LEARN COLLECTING ESOTERIC BOOKS

WHILE OCCULT LIBRARIES CAN REVEAL MUCH ABOUT THEIR OWNERS, THEIR BOOKS’ SECRET TEACHINGS REMAIN TANTALIZINGLY INCOMPREHENSIBLE

DISCUSSED: The Marlboro Man, How to Live Life Like a Lord without Really Trying, Zionist Conspiracies, Rickshaw-Dodging, Women as Figs on a Pumpkin Vine, Aztec Codices, Bisexual Gods, Alchemically Bound Books, Einstein’s Secret Doctrine

No person did more for the dissemination of occult wisdom in America than Manly P. Hall, who popularized much of what we now call New Age philosophy long before the age of Aquarius began. A Canadian who in the early 1920s found his way, like so many mystics, to Los Angeles, Hall was a self-taught lecturer on a variety of subjects, from reincarnation to freemasonry, astrology to psychology. During his lifetime, Hall delivered thousands of public talks and authored more than fifty books covering a wide range of arcane subjects; he also managed to toss off a script for Warner Bros., befriend Bela Lugosi, and establish a nonprofit society, the Philosophical Research Society (PRS), which would later develop its own press and university. Though relegated to the fringes of intellectual history, Hall’s mission to “bring mysticism down to earth” made him one of the most interesting and colorful characters of the twentieth century, as Louis Sahagun’s terrific biography, Master of the Mysteries: The Life of Manly Palmer Hall, attests.

Sahagun describes Hall as “a huge avocado of a man” whose theatrical looks and black capes transmitted a magus-like air. The billowing clothes also worked to conceal Hall’s ample midsection, the product of a gluttonous addiction to sugary sweets. While the image may have been calculated (film-studio photographers were used to shoot his publicity photos), Hall’s interest in ancient myths, rituals, and symbols was authentic. After his introduction to the occult sciences through a chance encounter with a phrenologist on the Santa Monica Pier, the eighteen-year-old Hall was a quick study. Within six months, he was lecturing on human auras and reincarnation; soon, a six-hundred-member metaphysical church appointed him pastor. Thanks to a photographic memory, Hall could lecture for a solid ninety minutes without notes. Along with elucidating forgotten philosophical systems and extracting practical applications for these ideologies, Hall threw in jokes and spoke to current events. A charismatic man whose looks were as curious as his subject matter, Hall had an authoritative demeanor that drew a slew of followers, fans, and benefactors. Fortunately for him, two of these supporters were the wealthy heiresses of a vast oil fortune who, as Sahagun explained it to me in a phone interview, “told Hall when he was twenty-one years old, ‘Young man, you will never worry about money.’ And he never did.”

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Andrea Richards writes about outdated media, film history, lost lands, and forgotten philosophical systems. She is the author of two books and is at work on third, concerning occultism in the early Hollywood film community. She lives in Los Angeles.

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