Peter the Hermit, Sage of the Hollywood Dell
November 9, 2010 § Leave a comment
Peter Green has written a fascinating account of his 1963 encounter with his great-uncle Peter Howard, aka Peter the Hermit, that answers many questions about this famous local character. (http://peterhgreen.com/blog) Then 85 years old, Peter the Hermit was living in a bungalow near the 101 freeway, in the Hollywood Dell. When not appearing in biblical movies or posing for pictures, he worked as a spiritualist, dispensing advice to a famous clientele. He explained:
The actors and actresses all come to me for advice: Jane Russell, Lana Turner, Marilyn Monroe. They come to me to learn of the higher spiritual world and to be healed.
His sideline was in keeping with the local tradition of alternative religions. Hollywood’s embrace of unconventional spiritual practices began with the Theosophical Society’s relocation to Beachwood Canyon in 1911. (For background, see my post from June 2, 2009, “Alternative Religions, from Theosophy to Scientology: A Hollywood Tradition.”) Actors such as John Barrymore and Charlie Chaplin soon took notice of the Krotona Colony, whose artistic, bookish members welcomed rather than shunned them as “movie people.” For denizens of the nascent film industry, the appeal of Theosophy probably stemmed both from its relative lack of dogma and its occult aspects. Seances, a happy combination of mysticism and theatrics, quickly became a Silent Era fad, attracting practitioners who had no interest in Theosophy, or any other system of belief.
In counseling movie stars, reading auras and offering mystical platitudes, Peter continued a Hollywood tradition, but his canny entrepreneurialism was a break from the past. Unlike the Theosophists, who relied on wealthy benefactors, Peter the Hermit knew how to make a living from his spiritual talents. Though he resembled a Biblical prophet, his business model was distinctly modern, pointing to the present day. In contemporary Hollywood, agrarian utopias like the Krotona Colony are unknown, after all, but self-made spiritual advisors abound.
November 7, 2009 § 1 Comment
Several years ago I met a woman who had unwittingly rented a haunted apartment in an old building on Hollywood Boulevard. After a month of torment by voices and things flying around the room, she moved out. Her theory was this: “A lot of people came to Hollywood to be in the movies and when things didn’t work out, they killed themselves.”
Hollywoodland has its fair share of paranormal activity too, but it seems to have to do less with tormented souls than people who liked living here and don’t see the need to move out simply because they’re dead. (See my previous piece on Felix Adler.)
My closest encounter with Hollywoodland’s spirit community came in 2006, soon after I moved in, when neighbors invited me to see their castle-like home. A monument to storybook architecture, the four-story house features crenelated towers and numerous balconies. Like most of Hollywoodland’s original houses, it has enormous walls of granite quarried in Bronson Canyon and a fairy tale atmosphere.
It was a very hot 4th of July; as the house was not air-conditioned, the many rooms I toured were uncomfortably warm. The notable exception was the library, which was at least 15 degrees cooler than the rest of the downstairs and probably 25 degrees cooler than the upstairs. Cool air flowed from an unseen vent, prompting me to comment on the room’s air conditioning.
“It’s not air-conditioning,” said one of my hosts.
I had already heard about the female ghost flying down a hallway toward one of them when they moved in. A mysterious figure in 1920’s clothing, she made periodic appearances until they renovated the library, which originally was so frigid that the carpenter wore a down jacket to do the work, until he quit out of fear. The owners finished the job themselves, after which the place warmed up considerably.
The ghost didn’t entirely disappear, however, because she took a liking to one of the owner’s visiting sons. The teenager would wake up in the morning to find small gifts–previously unseen silver spoons, napkin rings and lamp finials–on his bedside table, a pattern that continued after he started bolting the door from the inside. The spoons and napkin rings were engraved in a feminine font with three initials. My hosts had made a collection of the objects and showed it to me.
By then the ghost had stopped her visits. Perhaps because the boy had grown up, there were no more unexpected trinkets left in the night. The owners speculated the ghost was the original owner, perhaps a murder victim (they’d found a stain in the garage), but old newspapers turned up no accounts of a crime.
Because the house looks like an English castle rather than a Mogul palace, I walked by it hundreds of times before realizing it had been built for Theosophists. The cut-outs of crosses on the garage doors seemed merely decorative before I noticed, high on one of the towers, red lotuses on the stained glass windows and Moorish arches outside them. As far as I know, the castle is one of two Theosophist houses in Hollywoodland; all the others are below the gates, the bulk of them in the southwest corner of the Canyon, where the Krotona Colony was located.
The occult fads of the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries appealed to Theosophists and early Hollywood film stars alike, as both groups searched for existential answers. More than one Beachwood resident has told me stories of seances held during the teens and twenties in certain houses that have unexplained events to this day. And a psychic who lives in the Canyon has had vivid dreams about Peg Entwistle, who said in one, “There’s more life after death than you can imagine.”
Madame Blavatsky’s Seances: Theosophy’s Connection to Popular Occultism
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.
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