The Maestro and the Boy: The Kindness of Manly P. Hall

from The net is a wonderful resource, a worldwide flea market, a massive if haphazard library of Alexandria, offering insights from every culture, and cult on planet Earth, and many that claim to be extraterrestrial.  But the Internet offers more misinformation than fact.  Out of context illustrations and quotations are used by careless researchers to allege satanic cults and malevolent political plots.  Further complicating the situation, popular definitions of key words have changed.  When Manly Hall wrote about the illuminati he meant something roughly equivalent to “the most enlightened of every age,” western bodhisattvas, no one could be more devoted to the good of human beings.  Today illuminati usually refer to a secret organization of elite oligarchs with nefarious plans whose influence behind the scenes of history has caused terrible suffering.  The meanings could not be more opposed.  But with his knowledge of the ironies of history MPH would not have been surprised to find himself on the black list.

I knew Manly personally near the end of his life.  He worked his alchemy on me in a most daoist way.  His friendship transformed me from an angry and despairing devotee of nihilism to a seeker of truth and harmony.  The biographical writing about him available online and off, including his own, fails to convey a sense of the man I knew.  Even simple facts are missing.  For example, none mention that Marianne Williamson, founder of Project Angel Food, the Peace Alliance and Sister Giant, began her career at the Philosophical Research Society where she honed her oratory skills under the wing of the man who was one of the great extemporaneous speakers of his time.  Consequently I find myself confronted with the task of breaking a promise I made to him.

When his personal secretary and his head librarian both decided that “the boy” as he usually called me would someday write the great man’s life story, I asked him if he thought I should.  He shook his head no and told me to let his enemies write his biography.  Though I was fiercely intent on devoting myself to him and to his teachings, throughout our friendship he took care to keep me on the path to my own way in life.  So I’ve arrived at a compromise.  I won’t write his biography.  But I will share a few vignettes of my experience with him that I hope will convey his genuine wisdom and kindness.

By age fifteen I was a feral terror.  Raised by immigrants who had untreated mental health issues caused by being children in a war, I was locked up at home, when I wasn’t at school, and in both places I was ignored, unless being bullied.  As far as I could see the social contract had failed me.  By age thirteen I was a monkey wrencher leaving Earth First tags on my handiwork.  Despite my high-minded rejection of corporate corruption I was blind to my own.  In middle school I was a skilled liar and a practiced sneak thief.  In high school I used my car like a weapon, not just playing chicken, but to attempt mayhem. After high school I crashed into an oncoming car for the fuck of it.  I drank ridiculous amounts of hard alcohol, but never really got drunk, perhaps because I was chain-smoking nicotine rich Black Russian cigarettes.  My ambition to become a cat burglar was replaced by the goal of being the lead singer of what I hoped would be the most nihilistic band ever.  I relished my talent for horrifying decent folk.  I was devoted to disillusioning optimists.

As a teen with transiting Pluto conjunct my midheaven I fronted my dream band for sold out audiences of over a thousand in Los Angeles.  Our guest list always included “anyone with the colors of the Satan’s Slaves or Devil’s Henchmen.”  The club had to hire off duty police officers to double security at our shows, but they booked us because they made so much money on booze, and our manager was bribing the right people with sex and drugs.  I added violence to my repertoire of vices, pulled knives in fights; I even attacked a member of my own band with a black steel-hunting blade.  I’m grateful I was never able to acquire a gun, and that no one including myself ever got seriously injured by my antics.  Eagerly reading books on mind control, black magic, and naturally, Hitler, I was intent on creating a nihilist movement for the angry and sad, our revenge on our party hardy peers.  At live shows big redneck guys with their arms folded took up position on either side of the stage to protect the band.  When I passed a liquor bottle around it caused a communion of thrown fists.  Girls who touched me pulled back their hands in slow motion making a hissing sound as if they’d been burned.  We were a white power rock inversion of Public Enemy.  I was well on my way to being at the wrong end of a very bad scene.

Fortunately, I fell in love.  I had broken up my band in a fit of paranoia and was now struggling through solo gigs.  The night I met her my drummer and I were on a mission to reunite the band.  But within a few days the band wasn’t nearly as important.  Somehow she saw past all the fury and pretence.  Not only did she bring cats, plants and mismatched silverware to my bleak Hollywood bachelor, she also helped me become more honest, with myself and with others.  But she was almost as feral.  We had no culture.  No awareness of history.  No spiritual life.  We scoffed at the stupidity of religions and careers, and while we liked a good story, we thought intellectuals losers.  We agreed that the world was on a quick slide to destruction.  Our plan was to have fun on the way.  I said goodbye to the music business, or so I thought.  Allergic to work I tried several underhanded schemes.  I had no talent for selling drugs and quickly put myself out of business.  I was good at finding ways to skim money, but too contrary to do any better than barely get by.  We lived on debt and hand outs from relatives.  She wanted to work, but I refused to allow it.  I was the bully now.

In California at least once a year fear infects residents like a seasonal flu, aroused by some current or ancient prediction, or whatever kind of weather is earthquake weather for a given subculture.  A former carney family I knew were preparing to move to Virginia Beach because of Edgar Cayce’s prediction of earth changes that would put California under the Pacific and lift Atlantis from the Atlantic.  As soon as I gave up the band, the vehicle my shadow had so carefully created, I was prey to emotional mania.  My lack of direction in life, utterly dysfunctional family, and general sense of apprehensive confusion, or was it fear of karmic retribution, soon developed into an obsessive anxiety about an imminent earthquake.
Then a book changed my life.  Browsing with my girlfriend at the Bodhi Tree bookstore used branch, eager to misspend birthday money intended for a haircut, I found an old hardcover copy of An Encyclopedic Outline of Masonic, Hermetic, Qabbalistic and Rosicrucian Symbolical Philosophy, the closest thing to a wizard’s tome I had ever seen.  With marbled covers and a red label on a black spine the book contained thick pages full of black and white illustrations, and text in tiny columns of print bristling with strange names and dates.  Back home, reading on my bed, my hair stood on end as like the author of the book I came to believe in what he called “the rational soul of the world.”  Each chapter I read left me feeling what I can only describe as an expansion of consciousness.  It was better than getting high.  Getting high was trying to reach this, the awakening of a greater awareness.
Soon after, Loreen, the matriarch of the family that moved to Virginia Beach, a plan I was still eager to follow myself, stunned me with the revelation that the author of the old tome was not only alive, but I could go see him talk any Sunday in Los Feliz.  She also had some off color tales about ladies who were friends of hers who had affairs with him when he was young and famously handsome.  It took me months to work up the guts to go see him lecture.  With my history up to that point I didn’t feel worthy, or rather I felt that he’d see right through me, everyone there would see right through me, to the despicable street kid.  But at last one Sunday my girlfriend and I wandered into the pseudo Mayan architecture of a monument of American Metaphysical Religion, the Philosophical Research Society.


I was about to meet the Kobe Bryant of the self-reliant.  Besides his epic desire to inspire, his stats are off the charts: in a seventy year career he wrote over 150 books and pamphlets and delivered more than eight thousand lectures.   He got his nickname, the Maestro, when in his early days he had experimented with music to explore the byways of Pythagorean theory of harmony.  His personal library grew to fifty thousand volumes shared with the public at the Philosophical Research Society, a cluster of buildings custom made for him thanks to the support of his many admirers: a gift shop full of his books and pamphlets but also the occasional art treasure, a shipping area for international distribution via post, the two story library with offices and upstairs lecture room, and the auditorium he filled every Sunday afternoon for decades.

Wandering through what appeared to be a museum filled with Asian religious artifacts and books on every subject related to spiritual development, I was struck most by the serenity of the place.  As we filed in the auditorium filled up.  Every race was represented, and the fashion sense of the listeners was as varied as the range of emotions visible on their faces, though most seemed to be in a state of happy anticipation, as if about to receive a favorite treat.  A big comfortable looking empty red and gold chair waited on the stage.  The very large very old man ambled over and with difficulty sat down.

I listened spellbound as he lectured without notes for ninety minutes in a torrent of eloquence that included names and dates.  It was the first of many times when my misconceptions about old age were challenged.  But more important than his good example was the philosophy of life I heard for the first time that gave me hope for myself and awakened insatiable curiosity about the spirituality and art of every culture.  History was transformed from a collection of boring facts to be memorized before the final exam to a great field of treasures to be discovered.  Life, which I had thought was a pointless biological accident, was now an adventure of the infinite exploring the finite.

Many have reported a strange skill he had.  I experienced it at that first lecture.  He looked right at me and spoke about people who are afraid of earthquakes and other disasters because they won’t deal with their real problem, finding a mission in life.  I later realized that he could not possibly have seen me, his vision was very poor by then, but nevertheless he delivered those words right to me.  He had a knack for serendipity.  I decided then and there that I had to somehow become involved in his society.  Though I had no skills, I was willing to scrub toilets or empty trashcans if I could hang around the place, as I told the woman who ran the gift shop the very next morning.  She led my girlfriend and me upstairs to the two skeptical looking women who handled the business side of PRS.  They didn’t have any use for me.  Though they were interested in my girlfriend’s office skills and offered her a job, I was still the bully and I didn’t think it right that she should work while I stayed home.  They took my number just in case.  Imagine my shock when the next day I received a call.  The great man himself wanted to see me.  I could not then imagine the adventure I was about to begin.



The next day the two businesswomen asked me if my girlfriend was interested in the job.  I said no on her behalf, knowing that she was.  Then they asked me more questions about my knowledge of languages.  I explained I had grown up around various languages but couldn’t speak them very well.  Apparently that was good enough, though they remained skeptical I was shepherded past the door in the library that led to the inner sanctum.

His office was a large room filled with beautiful objects, art and books.  He sat behind an ornately carved Chinese desk of rich dark wood that looked like a dragon about to uncoil into the sky.  Symbols of Buddhism predominated on his walls and shelves but a careful eye could find every religion represented somewhere in that accumulation of history of spiritual creativity.  Perhaps the most striking object was a huge Chinese carved wood altar filled with intricate statuettes, yab yum and otherwise, dusted with dried flowers and ashes from incense.  But there was something else about that room: an atmosphere of deep serenity.

The old man was surrounded by a phalanx of formidable old women.  They were looking through me in just the way I had feared.  But his huge clear blue eyes were warm as with a hint of W.C. Fields in his voice he issued an invitation: “sit down and make yourself miserable.”  He pushed across his desk the galleys and notes for a bibliography of his famous collection of alchemical manuscripts.  He wanted me to edit the pages, under his supervision.  I didn’t know what to think.  That was a responsibility certainly outside the range of my sense of self at the time, so I was more relieved than disappointed when after the brief meeting the papers were snatched from my hands by a fierce old woman who insisted that the old man had not been properly briefed on my lack of qualifications.

But the next day I was called back for another visit with him.  As I sat across from him he gave me the galley and notes again.  He told me to ignore what anyone else told me to do; I was to answer only to him.  For many of his followers this relationship between the teacher they called the Maestro and the boy they didn’t even know was a clear sign that I had been selected to carry on in his place after his time was over.  Perhaps that is why some members of the society seemed to dislike me from the start.
The first time he mentioned astrology to me I couldn’t hide my disappointment.  “So, you don’t believe in astrology?” he asked.  I told him with all due respect I thought it was a pretty stupid idea.  That made him chuckle.  He proposed that I work for a few weeks with an astrologer friend of his, a vivacious woman named Peggy Fatemi, with the custom license plate Pluto 9, who would acquaint me with enough of the principles of the art that I could then debate him about it.  The idea that he was willing to debate me about anything filled me with a sense of self worth.  But we never debated astrology.  When Peggy read my chart, and then taught me how to read it myself, I could tell something was going on with the art of star reading, something similar to what I would later discover exploring the I Ching.  That knack for serendipity.  Instead of arguing that astrology makes no sense I asked him about fine points, such as how to judge the most important aspects, and what has the most influence, transits or natal planets?  The chart, he explained, had to be looked at like a mandala.  Each individual element had to be understood.  Then they must all be understood in relation to one another.  Then the pattern can be understood at a glance.  Easy for him to say.
The actual work of editing the alchemical bibliography consisted of correcting typos, adding references or interesting facts MPH provided, and removing references to human body fluids used in alchemy experiments from the notes made by Gilbert, the true editor, who had so fallen out of favor he walked away from his epic bibliography in disgust.  Several times I asked to have his name restored as editor, or at least for an acknowledgement in a thank you, or failing that in code.  But his work was regarded as contract work under hire and that was that.
The best part of the editing job was that I had to check the title pages of all the entries to proof read titles, names and dates.  That meant I had access to the vault.  The vault was the size of a large closet.  MPH could sit comfortably on the sofa chair in there with two or three standing guests.  I was allowed to sit with him while he nibbled on cookies and told me about the works I was proofreading.  He told me of his regret that many rare books and manuscripts of the esoteric history he so loved were lost in World War 1 and then again during the Nazi bonfires, London Blitz, and the occupations of Paris and Prague.
He reminisced about his travels to London, where bankrolled by his metaphysical church and a few wealthy patrons he bought most of the treasures of his collection from shops standing amid the ruins of World War 2.  No one was interested in old alchemy and astrology manuscripts and tomes.  They were considered the remains of an era of scholarly nonsense, artifacts of delusion.  So he was able to acquire rare and precious items at prices unbelievably low even then.
The art of the bookbinders of five centuries filled the shelves of the vault.  The hand painted alchemical drawings in the orange leather bound Bacstrom Manuscripts illustrated a collection of alchemical notes by a sea captain of the nineteenth century.  The ink and watercolor illustrations of a Theosophist who carefully hand painted auras, was preserved in his personal journal over a hundred years old.  The engraving laden works of Robert Fludd and Athanasius Kircher sought to reveal the dynamics of every art and every function of nature, human and cosmic.  Rosicrucian literature in several languages, including first editions of the original manifestos, showed how widely spread was the radical idea of a society informed by science and free from Rome just before the beginning of the Thirty Years War which unleashing the plague decimated the population of Europe.  The five tomes of the William Law Boehme translation had hand colored cut out diagrams to peel back layer after layer of engraved symbolism.  I was deeply moved by this accumulated evidence of so much courage in the face of persecution, so much hunger for truth, so much art in the name of spiritual understanding.

Digging through the dusty cabinets of the library I saw photographs and other souvenirs of visits from Native American chiefs, a Greek Orthodox bishop, Tibetan lamas, mayors, famous actors, Edgar Cayce’s son Hugh Lynn Cayce, millionaire collectors of rare alchemy manuscripts, honored masons, even Elvis, whose request for a private meeting was turned down but his request for a signed copy of The Secret Teachings of All Ages was granted.   According to society veterans Elvis sent Priscilla to Mr. Hall’s Sunday morning lectures before she became a Scientologist.

When we’d go over specific entries in his bibliography, he would often send me off to find a certain book he wanted to quote from.  He would tell me exactly where to look in his huge two-story library right down to which side of the shelf and the color of the book.  Then he’d find the quote quickly, the pages held close to his face.  I noticed how many rare volumes were sitting on shelves that anyone could access unsupervised.  A stranger could wander in and make off with thousands of dollars of rare books.  I didn’t care what they were worth.  I just wanted them.  He had so many.  The library didn’t consider them rare or valuable but to me they were treasures.  I was a thief, after all.  Soon after he suggested that I could take home any books I wanted to study.  How easy it would have been to sneak out one book under the two approved.  I was sorely tempted.  At first I took no books home.

 Then I took only books I didn’t covet.  Finally I dared see the objects of my desire on the shelf in my own apartment.  But I always brought them back.  Thievery has never returned to tempt me since.
I reported to the librarian that I could identify dozens of books that should be kept safely in the vault.  That became another of my jobs.  MPH approved my keen eye for rare books, and my desire to protect the collection.  He invited me to have lunch with him every day in his office, to talk over life, listen to his jokes, and he’d answer any questions I might have.  I was overjoyed but this only contributed to the perception that I had been chosen to succeed him. I began to learn about the factions that divided a society made harmonious only by his presence.  Among the rare books bound for the vault I found first editions of Thomas Taylor translations of the Neoplatonists, an exquisitely bound 19th century collection of Pythagorean aphorisms, hand painted notebooks by alchemists.  First editions of A.E. Waite’s Hermetic Museum and Hermetic and Alchemical Writings of Paracelsus turned out to be duplicates.  The extra copies were sold to me so cheaply they were really gifts.   I donated them back several years later to be auctioned to raise funds for the library, but that is a story about a different teacher.

Then my girlfriend and I were delighted to receive an invitation to dinner with the Halls.  The evening ended with MPH telling this joke.  In early California a priest served in a small, broken down mission with a poor parish of native villagers.  One night, while he was praying to Saint Dominic, he saw a stranger approaching across the field.  The man looked like an American outlaw.  He was wounded.  “What’s your name?” the priest asked.  “I ain’t sayin’” the cowboy replied. “What happened to you?” the priest questioned further.  “I ain’t tellin’.” “Well we must call you something so I will call you Dominic, since I was praying to Saint Dominic when I saw you.”  “What were you praying for?” the newly minted Dominic asked as the priest saw to his wound.  “I have a dream,” the priest responded, “to repair this mission and to provide a shelter for the needy.  Next month all the greatest families of California will be here since it is my turn to lead the liturgy.  I must inspire them to be generous.”  The outlaw had no comment, as was his way.  Unasked, as he healed Dominic began to do chores around the mission.  When the big day came the priest performed splendidly ending with the blessing Dominus vobiscum, the Lord be with you.  But his happiness was short lived, as he watched the last of the visitors leave he realized that he forgot to pass the plate.  He berated himself, tears streaming down his cheeks.  He would not see such a gathering of the wealthy again for many years.  He had failed his mission and his community.  Dominic strolled over: “What’s wrong, padre?”  “I am such a fool,” the priest answered, “I never asked for the donations to my mission.”  “Sure you did,” Dominic replied.  “I didn’t!”  Dominic walked away, returning with a bag full of money and jewelry, a small fortune, enough to build a new mission, a shelter for the poor, enough to buy farm tools and animals to give the community a better future.  “But how did this happen?” the suspicious priest asked Dominic.  “Well,” the cowboy answered, “you said Dominic go frisk ’em, so I did.”

Later my girlfriend pointed out that the joke suggested my fear that he would see right through me may have been realized.  Or had it?  As with all my experiences with his knack for serendipity I was left wondering if he was psychic, or simply a shrewd judge of character, or perhaps all the synchronicities were mere coincidences.

It some ways going to work each day felt like walking into a time warp, or into a school in heaven, or a set in old Hollywood.  From the Mayan inspired architecture to the double doors of the library carved with figures of Plato and Confucius, from the large black metal statue of Buddha, clustered by small buddhas emerging like emanations, to the huge Tibetan prayer wheel, the library was an elegant accumulation of past centuries.  Theosophists from the late 19th century would have felt right at home.  But this atmosphere was more than the collection, or his presence, it was all of this, and the community that had grown up around his decades of daily service at this humble yet odd location.  Whenever he needed to raise a little extra money, MPH would pick out some treasure acquired during his travels, or a gift from long ago, to allow some lucky browser in the society gift shop the find of a lifetime.  A gesture of appreciation for all the affection and support he received.

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He was generous to me.  He gave me a duplicate copy, with his own pencil notes intact on the inside front cover, of A.E. Waite’s The Rosicrucian Brotherhood.  He gave me a first edition of his mighty book of symbolism, with slipcase, certainly one of the masterpieces of publishing.  He gave my girlfriend three rare Japanese woodblock prints of temple musicians, which later made her look back and wonder if this was another of his serendipitous jokes.  But his best gifts were given by example.
Apollonius Tyanus has not fared well in history.  Once a rival to Jesus he is now rarely encountered even along the most obscure paths of learning, except perhaps among the Baha’i.   Many scholars argue that Apollonius of Tyana was a fictional character constructed to be a pagan rival to Jesus. I first encountered the story of Apollonius in the PRS library.   G.R.S. Mead was the best scholar among the theosophists of the golden age of Theosophy.  A first edition of his work on Apollonius of Tyana was one of a small pile of ever changing titles I brought home for close study.  I found Apollonius admirable, a Pythagorean bodhisattva.  But some of the stories about him seemed far-fetched, for example, that he had calmed an entire riot by simply standing serenely by.

Manly had a particular restaurant he liked even after it changed names and owners.  They knew him there not just from decades of history with them, but also because his library was just down the street and his well attended Sunday morning lectures brought them steady business.  About once a week Manly and his wife invited my girlfriend and me to join them for supper at the restaurant.   This time there was a line to get in.  He was a very old man, a very tall, very large old man, who moved slowly and used a cane, but he didn’t mind standing in line.

I wanted to ask him about Apollonius.  But he didn’t like to discuss work outside the office.  He never knew which books I was borrowing, but the ones I had questions or comments about I’d bring to his desk before returning.  I planned to do that with the G.R.S. Mead book.

A woman trying to be polite held up the line waiting to see which direction my teacher would move.  Her husband erupted into an irate tirade.  Face contorted with anger, flushed red, he grabbed her hard by the arm.  None of us in line were willing to face down his rage.

I watched Manly carefully maneuver himself between the irate husband and the frightened wife. Whenever the husband adjusted, so did he.   The battered woman soon got the rhythm.  She broke free of her husband and managed to avoid his grasp.

The old man never looked at him or her or anyone.  His dignified face was composed and serene, as he seemed to stare off at an invisible horizon.  At last the abuser realized what was happening.  Red faced and spitting obscenities he turned on Manly, leaning up and close to deliver his insults and threats.  But he only managed a few words before something he saw in Manly’s eyes stopped him in his tracks.  I saw shame overcome him.  All his anger melted away.  He glanced around at all of us with a pitiful expression. He gently took his wife’s hand, apologized to her and to us, and they walked away.

We had a pleasant dinner and the subject was never brought up.  As she drove me home my girlfriend and I talked about how person-by-person a riot could possibly be pacified by the presence of a great soul.   I never asked him about Apollonius.

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