STARS AMONG US: THE OCCULT MAGICK OF OLD HOLLYWOOD
By: Philip Deslippe
While it will be next-to-impossible to know what superstitions or practices of good fortune nominees in the upcoming eighty-ninth Academy Awards will be indulging in, there is no doubt that the classical Hollywood era was awash in superstition and the supernatural. Two of the most well-known features of Los Angeles— its film industry and its eclectic spiritual beliefs— have a shared and intertwined history. In 1930, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times (after noting how common it was for all manner of “picture folk” to visit fortune tellers) wondered aloud if “any other community in the world, civilized or uncivilized, ever supported such a proportion of mystics as does Hollywood.” One actress told a columnist in the same year that she did not “know anybody who doesn’t go to a mystic now and then.”
While some described patronizing fortune tellers as harmless entertainment, there were many more in Hollywood who took psychic counsel as a deeply serious matter. Numerous high profile stars were known to make decisions based on dreams, intuitive hunches, and the advice of psychics. Lucky talismans and personal superstitions were found in abundance on both sides of the camera. Others chose their stage names based on the advice of numerologists. Several big budget film shoots began at odd and precise times to place production under the most auspicious astrological alignment or saw their casting shift under the advice of a psychic or fortune teller. One famous account claimed that the Players Directory published by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences saw a fourteenth edition published immediately after the twelfth when over a thousand actors called to protest against the possibility of their names being published in a forthcoming unluckily numbered thirteenth edition.
If Hollywood seemed dependent on a legion of fortune tellers to operate, there was also evidence that the reverse was true and the many astrologers, psychics, palm readers, and crystal ball gazers of Los Angeles needed the local film industry to stay afloat. The mutual relationship was so strong that some saw fortune tellers as just another facet of the vast industry like the newspaper that listed “numerologists, palmists, crystal-ball gazers, astrologers and spiritualists” alongside the stage hands who “make a living just by playing a phonograph or holding up a blackboard.” The columnist Lloyd Pantages was blunter in his assessment of the “mystic racketeers of every description” who lived “off the fat of the land in Hollywood, where practically everybody is superstitious.”
Some fortune tellers made enough money and could count enough powerful and famous clients that they became celebrities in their own right. The British-born palm reader William John Warner, known to the public as “Cheiro” from the word for palmistry “cheiromancy” spent his final years in Hollywood seeing up to twenty clients a day and was eulogized in Time magazine after his death. The astrologer Myra Kingsley was profiled as the “No. 1 U.S. woman astrologer” in a large, photo-rich spread in LIFE magazine in 1939 that featured her connections to Hollywood. Several others, such as Norvell and Blanca Holmes, are mostly forgotten today but were staples of movie columns and the Hollywood scene of their time.
The attention given by tabloids and the media on every aspect of the lives of Hollywood celebrities included their mystic pursuits. The rest of America’s sense that those in Southern California were different, if not downright bizarre, was confirmed by a steady stream of reports on examples such as Joan Crawford keeping a Dictaphone by her bed to record her dreams, Basil Rathbone’s psychic hunches, and the comedian Joe E. Brown’s reliance on a hermit who used automatic writing. Mae West alone was connected to crystal gazing, séances, and two different Hindu mystics. Beyond mere gossip, it is also worth considering the significant role that Hollywood played as a popularizer of American spiritual innovation in everything from astrology to yoga through the well-reported dalliances of its celebrities.
Several observers during this period offered explanations as to why there was such a strong connection between the film industry and the supernatural. The charisma of stars and trance-like states of inspiration that actors and writers entered into were imagined as being close to the supernatural. The pulp magazine Fate told its readers in 1948 that “people in the limelight are more prone to belief in charms, premonitions, dreams, fortune-telling and other mystic superstitions.” Others imagined that the intense competition of Hollywood and the difficulty of predicting what a fickle viewing public would enjoy led actors and producers to seek out any possible advantage, even magical ones, to give them an edge over their competition or greater likelihood of success.
Perhaps the best insight on the connection between Hollywood and fortune telling comes from 1941 book Hollywood: The Movie Colony, The Movie Makers by Leo Rosten. In a chapter titled “Horses, Gifts, and Superstitions,” Rosten tried to explain three of the most unusual features of Hollywood life with a combination of humor, sympathy, and insight. The obsession shared by film producers and movie stars of the time with horse racing made sense in light of how similar gambling was to the mercurial film business, along with the combination of prestige and publicity that came from owning a stable or being seen at the Santa Anita racetrack. The extravagant gifts that actors would routinely shower on their co-stars and film crews made logical sense in an industry that was so heavily networked and where employment often hinged upon being seen as collegial and easy to work with.
Similarly, Hollywood’s dependency on fortune tellers and superstitions also had its reasons, even at its most extreme, when some of its most famous and charismatic persons were dependent on a tiny lucky charm or when major productions ground to a halt over bad astrological timing or the phobias of a leading man. The nature of the movie industry was (and still is) mercurial and volatile, and Rosten saw the superstitions of Hollywood as an attempt to have some measure of control over an uncertain future and indeterminate public. “We can better understand the weakness of the movie people for superstitions,” he wrote, “if we remember that their entire careers have sprung from talents which are unique, obscure, mysterious— talents which defy exact analysis.” Rosten noted that others— from aviators to industrialists and politicians— relied on similar beliefs, and that superstitious beliefs were perhaps a basic part of the human condition.
“The mechanisms of magic, Freud has pointed out, are remarkably close to those of obsessional neurosis,” Rosten concluded, “(and) neither is rare in Hollywood.”