February 16, 2011 § Leave a comment
In 1896, Augustus Knudsen left Kaua’i for San Francisco. From there, he intended to travel to India and study Hinduism. But in San Francisco, fate intervened when he met the president and co-founder of the Theosophical Society, Henry Steel Olcott.
Olcott (1832-1907) was famous not only as Madame Blavatsky’s partner in the Theosophical Society (which he served as lawyer as well as spiritual leader) but as the best-known, and probably first, person of European descent to convert to Buddhism. Before he embarked upon this unorthodox path, Olcott was a Civil War veteran who fought graft and investigated Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. In 1874, he was hired by the New York Sun and New York Graphic to investigate “spiritual manifestations” at Eddy Farm. There he encountered Madame Blavatsky, a meeting of minds which led to the founding of the Theosophical Society the following year, and to the establishment of its worldwide headquarters in Adyar, Madras (now Chennai) in 1883.
The late 19th century was a boom time for new religions, many of which were concerned with signs of life after death. Olcott’s social stature was shared by many fellow seekers: among his contemporaries who studied Theosophy were William James and Thomas Edison. Olcott’s background as a soldier, lawyer and patriot no doubt boosted the image of Theosophy for those who otherwise would have been skeptical of some of its tenets.
What attracted Augustus Knudsen to Theosophy was the same thing that drew Olcott’s attentions away from Buddhism: psychic phenomena and occult rituals like seances. In 1896, the newly converted Knudsen traveled to Adyar, where he studied with Madame Blavatsky. By 1898 he was back in San Francisco, where he married Margaret Russell, a Californian with Southern roots.
After their daughter Ruth was born in 1901, Augustus and Margaret returned to Kaua’i. Valdemar had died in 1898, and with only his brother Eric left to run the family businesses, Augustus had a role there. (The youngest Knudsen brother, Arthur, suffered a mental breakdown in his 20’s and remained institutionalized in Boston.) But the marriage foundered when Margaret, a late-in-life mother, became physically and emotionally incapacitated by menopause. According to Ruth,
[Augustus] kicked her out of the house. And told me later that her illness had interfered with his spiritual development.
The calamity of divorce allowed Augustus Knudsen to make a final break with his life on Kaua’i. Placing Ruth in the care of her grandmother, Anne Sinclair Knudsen, he left Hawai’i, remarried and settled in Hollywood. The house he commissioned on Vista del Mar Avenue would be the gateway to the Krotona Colony, a utopia made real by his devotion to Theosophy–and the family fortune made on Kaua’i.
Oral History of Ruth Knudsen Hanner, Courtesy Kauai Museum.
Theosophical Society Headquarters, Adyar. http://www.ts-adyar.org/
For more about the Krotona Colony, purchase the documentary “Under the Hollywood Sign” at http://hopeandersonproductions.com/?page_id=3361
The film is also available for rent at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/uths
October 2, 2009 § 1 Comment
The seance–Victorian ladies and gentlemen gathered around a table to speak to spirits through a medium–is a cliche of countless movies and old photographs. But it was also a huge fad throughout the western world during the second half of the nineteenth century. Modern seances are generally attributed to the Fox sisters of upstate New York, whose recounting of their communications with a household spirit led them to popular stardom.
Seances fascinated not just social outsiders and the bereaved but people of all socio-economic backgrounds and educations. The Society of Psychical Research, founded in England to investigate “allegedly paranormal phenomena using scientific principles,” counted among its members William Gladstone, John Ruskin and William James.
Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891), a founder of the Theosophical Society, not only found seances appealing but practiced them to great effect before audiences in New York and Adyar, India, where she moved the T.S. headquarters in 1979. The conjuring of spirits drew potential converts to Theosophy; Blavatsky in turn gave seances an intellectual sheen by investing them with Theosophy’s mix of Western philosophy and Hindu and Jewish mysticism. According to Matthew Mulligan Goldstein, Blavatsky’s injection of intellectualism “turned spiritualism away from what had seemed in the 1850s its anti-authoritarian, anti-institutional direction, and set [it] on a path toward hermetic elitism.” (www.victorianweb.org)
So sensational were Blavatsky’s Adyar seances that the Society for Psychical Research sent Richard Hodgson to investigate in 1883. When he reported back that her spirits were conjured from bedsheets, mirrors and the like, Blavatsky was discredited. In 1885 she moved back to London, where she spent her remaining six years writing The Secret Doctrine, her spiritual masterpiece. She also found time to convert the woman who would succeed her as the leader of the Theosophical Society, the feminist and political radical Annie Besant.
In the Krotona Colony, seances seem to have had a divisive effect, since some Theosophists practiced them while others did not. They also seem to have alienated some potential converts–people who were drawn to the intellectual power of Theosophy but not its occult aspects.
Beachwood Canyon has a number of buildings that are said to be haunted; some of those were part of the Krotona Colony. Whatever one thinks of seances, it’s hard not to wonder about the relationship between occult rituals and paranormal phenomena.
In a future post, I’ll return to the subject of Beachwood’s haunted houses.
July 6, 2009 § 7 Comments
Moorcrest stands on a hill overlooking Beachwood Drive. Its hybrid Moorish-Mission architecture, imposing size and prominent location lead many people, even Beachwooders, to assume it is a public building rather than a home. When I was working on my documentary, “Under the Hollywood Sign,” people kept asking if I had filmed the “temple” on Temple Hill Drive. They were surprised when I told them it was called Moorcrest and always had been a private home. (The Theosophical Society’s actual temple–the Temple of the Rosy Cross–is now part of the Krotona Apartments on Alta Vista Street, just to the south.)
Those who know Moorcrest is a home tend to call it “The Charlie Chaplin House.” While Chaplin did briefly live in Moorcrest, he was a renter and soon moved on, to a house he had his set builders construct for him (the infamously nicknamed “Breakaway House”) in Beverly Hills.
Retiring from the stage, Marie Russak began a new life as a rich Upper East Side matron but soon turned her sights to the wider world, moving to Paris with her husband in 1901. She had become a Theosophist in 1898 and deepened her commitment by relocating to the Theosophical Society’s headquarters in Adyar, Madras, India in 1906. (No word on what happened to her marriage, as Frank Russak seems to have stayed in Paris.) Her four years in India, where she studied under Annie Besant, not only schooled her in Theosophy but sowed the seeds of a new avocation: architecture.
In India, Marie Russak no doubt saw magnificent examples of the Mogul style that would inspire the Theosophist buildings of Beachwood. The arches, keyhole windows and domes of the Krotona Colony are directly inspired by India’s Islamic architecture of the 16th-18th centuries, the best-known example of which is the Taj Mahal. The Theosophical Society’s headquarters in Adyar, Madras (now Chennai), a hybrid of Indian and British Colonial styles, probably inspired the ecclecticism of the Beachwood’s Krotona Colony, whose buildings were as much Italianate and Spanish as Islamic in their derivation.
In his otherwise excellent study of Krotona architecture, “The Surviving Buildings of Krotona in Hollywood,” (Architronic vol. 8, 1998), Alfred Willis bemoans Marie Russak Hotchener’s lack of architectural training, dismissing her proportions as “awkward” and her interiors as “rather garish.” Further noting that all her houses were “somewhat vulgar,” he concedes that they reflect “their designer’s own middle-class taste but also the vulgarity increasingly evidenced in the commercial and domestic buildings of boomtime Los Angeles in the 1920’s.” That the hardly middle-class Marie Russak Hotchener was reaching for an architectural style as unique and hybridized as Theosophy itself apparently never occurred to him.