40 Million Readers : Horoscopes: Fans Bask in Sun Signs
The phone rang at Carroll Righter’s Hollywood mansion and the 85-year-old astrologer answered it himself. His normally cheerful demeanor quickly changed to a serious one as he listened.
Then, leaning out of a 17th-Century antique chair, the oldest American astrology columnist leafed through a book that lists daily positions of Mars, Venus and the other planets in the sky. Frowning, he turned back to the phone:
“I think you should have done that the day before yesterday.” Righter listened some more, looked in the book again, and said: “Yes. This afternoon. After 1 p.m.” He hung up.
“A star,” Righter said of the caller, declining, with an air of mystery, to say who. “He wanted to know about buying a car.”
On a nearby Venetian table were pictures of several celebrities who have been clients and friends of Righter--Marlene Dietrich, Rhonda Fleming, Joan Fontaine, the late Princess Grace of Monaco--since he became an astrologer 46 years ago.
He usually writes his daily “Astrological Forecast” from this room and keeps an old manual typewriter there, out of place in the elegant surroundings, on a card table.
Righter is one of about 20 astrology columnists whose predictions appear in American newspapers. As individuals, they are usually not well known, but as writers dispensing advice on domestic dilemmas, sticky situations and promising opportunities, they are a daily addiction for an estimated 40 million people.
About 1,200, or 71%, of the 1,688 daily newspapers in the United States carry astrology columns. Although criticized by scientists, ridiculed by astronomers, scorned by editors and professional astrologers, they have the only fans they need: readers who are extremely intense and loyal.
Strong Public Demand
“If you took it out, you’d probably hear from every single one of them,” a Philadelphia editor said. Another in Palm Beach, Fla., said, “I wish we didn’t have one, but dropping an astrology column is an invitation to getting your building burned down.”
Although astrology columns might seem to be a remnant from ancient times that somehow survived into the Space Age, they are actually a product of the 20th Century and barely more than 50 years old.
The classification of personality types by sun signs roughly based on the month of birth became popular, and the signs became household words, because of newspaper astrology.
Professional astrologers say that although astrology goes back 5,000 years, sun sign horoscopes were little known, even in their field, until they started appearing in newspapers. And newspapers did not start carrying them until the 1930s.
Today’s astrology columnists are a varied group. The most widely read, according to a study done by Feature Research Inc. of Garland, Tex., include psychic Jeane Dixon, who gained fame in the 1960s because she is said to have predicted the death of President John F. Kennedy and who appears in about 300 papers; Sydney Omarr, a former journalist and editor with United Press, the Hollywood Reporter and CBS, in more than 200 papers, and Joyce Jillson, a former movie starlet best known for a role in television’s “Peyton Place,” whose column runs in about 60 papers.
The oldest columnist is Righter, who started his column in 1951. A former Philadelphia lawyer who moved West in the late 1930s for health reasons, he became personal astrologer to a host of Hollywood legends, including Dietrich, Lana Turner and Clark Gable. Another, reputedly, has been President Reagan. Asked about this, Righter said, “No comment.” The White House would neither confirm nor deny it.
His forecasts run in about 150 papers, including the Los Angeles Times, the San Diego Union and the Boston Globe, and he has written five books. He tends to address acquaintances by sun sign, such as “Miss Virgo” or “Mr. Leo,” rather than by name. To many longstanding clients, with whom he maintains a kind of doctor-patient relationship, he is known as “C. R.”
The biggest celebrity is Dixon, who has parlayed her fame as a psychic into several areas, of which the column is one. The column, which she started in 1965, appears in the Washington Times, Orange County Register and Long Beach Press-Telegram, among other papers, and has the largest total circulation, with more than 8 million readers. She has also written six books, sponsors a telephone horoscope called Dial Jeane Dixon Horoscope, which operates in 11 cities, including Los Angeles, and writes quarterly predictions that appear regularly in the National Star.
A wealthy woman and compulsive worker, Dixon lives in Washington, where she runs her late husband’s real estate business. She also keeps a secluded office she calls “the hideaway,” so that prominent political figures and church leaders, whom she refuses to name, may consult her, without charge and without being seen.
“That’s very, very confidential,” she said recently, “and means more to me than money.”
The most widely syndicated columnist is Bernice Bede Osol, a relatively unknown astrologer whose “AstroGraph” runs in more than 500 newspapers, including the Rocky Mountain News, Antelope Valley News and Whittier Daily News.
Osol started the column in 1972 after becoming interested in astrology while doing a college term paper on the effects of the moon on human personality. Married and living in a suburb of Cleveland, she also writes children’s stories and recently completed a cookbook. She said she has frequently been consulted by corporations wanting horoscope charts on potential executives.
Other syndicated astrological offerings include “Star Gazer,” an astrology puzzle written by a Florida writer; Stella Wilder, a pseudonym for Sally W. Fayon, a college professor’s wife in Northern California; Patrick Walker, a former accountant from New Jersey now living in Greece, and Frances Drake, a pseudonym for an unknown writer who took the name of a pioneering American astrologer.
Originated in England
Although astrology columns themselves appear to be an American invention, the commercial value of astrology dawned first on newspaper editors in England. According to historian Ellic Howe, it was an accidental discovery, resulting from an attempt to think up a fresh angle for a story on the birth of Princess Margaret Rose, sister of Queen Elizabeth II.
The royal birth took place on Aug. 21, 1930, Howe recounted in his book, “Urania’s Children.” The editors of the London Sunday Express wanted a feature story on the subject the next Sunday but could not think of anything new to say.
So they asked London astrologer R. H. Naylor to do the princess’ horoscope and predict her future.
Naylor wrote a story, adding a few paragraphs on what lay in store for others born that week.
The public response was so great that Naylor was assigned to write another the next week, called “Were you born in September?” This was a sell-out too, and Naylor was soon writing regularly.
Newspaper astrology was born, and within a year it had crossed the Atlantic and turned up in the now-defunct Boston Record, in a column written by Frances Drake.
Format Emerged in 1936
The sun sign format so common today, with short predictions listed under the 12 birth symbols, is believed to have been started in 1936 in the New York Post, in a column written by Edward A. Wagner. A former reporter who began investigating astrology for the purposes of an expose, Wagner instead got interested in the subject and became an astrologer, publisher and editor of astrological journals.
Newspapers in Philadelphia and Dayton, Ohio, soon followed with daily columns, and by 1951 other large newspapers, including the New York Daily News and Los Angeles Times, had their own columns. Their numbers increased as astrology grew more and more popular, reaching a peak in the 1960s.
During that decade, the song “Aquarius” from the Broadway musical “Hair” was a hit record, and Linda Goodman’s “Sun Signs” became a best seller. Stores sold sun sign clothing, perfume manufacturers brought out zodiac scents and hairdressers even created sun sign hairdos.
Now as common as bridge columns and crossword puzzles, astrology columns can be found in feature sections, on the comic pages or buried among classified ads. Editors, though critical, tend to blame their presence on readers, who may even include the papers’ owners.
“It has no place in a great newspaper,” said Howard Simons, former managing editor of the Washington Post, now curator of Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism, who battled the Post’s decision to begin running Sydney Omarr in 1981.
“Here we are in an age of science, an age of inquiry, publishing material that is very suspect, at best pseudoscience,” he said. “You might as well print fortune cookies.”
But Post Executive Editor Benjamin C. Bradlee said: “I got tired of Mrs. (Katherine) Graham (chairman of the Post’s board) telling me we should have an astrology column, so I got one. I think they’re all pretty trashy, but people like them, so what the heck.”
“I don’t believe in it and, in fact, I never read it,” Times Editor William F. Thomas said of his paper’s Righter column. Although that might spell doom for any other kind of feature, he added that he is unlikely to remove it. “I don’t think the fuss is worth it.”
Indeed, avoiding fuss from readers has led some editors to hurriedly pen a substitute astrology column if the columnist’s copy does not appear on deadline. One former editor for a Midwestern daily admitted writing the column for a couple of days when the copy was lost.
Better Than Phone Calls
Former Times Editor Nick B. Williams Sr. said that a number of years ago this happened once in a while at The Times. “It was a lot better to do that than to answer the telephone the next day,” he said.
Nowadays, astrology columns are written two months to a year in advance and usually distributed by syndicates. Newspapers pay these syndicates fees that may range from $5 a week to $200, officials say, with the writer usually getting half. The top columnists are believed to earn between $500 and $1,500 a week.
Editors are often at a loss to explain how one particular astrology columnist was chosen over another. “Probably somebody’s nose twitched when they read it,” joked David Lipman, managing editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which carries Dixon.
“She’s an attractive woman,” Indianapolis Star Managing Editor Lawrence S. Connor said of his paper’s choice of Joyce Jillson. “We carry her picture.” The column is also short, he added, and therefore takes little space.
Reader loyalty to astrology columns has been borne out by marketing surveys. According to New York-based public opinion researcher Ruth Clark, an average of 25% to 30% of a paper’s readers are horoscope fans.
‘Reason ... to Read’
For those readers, said Tom Wark, associate managing editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, the astrology column “can be a reason in and of itself . . . to read a paper.”
He added, however, that his paper’s surveys indicated that it does not matter whose astrology column is used, as long as there is one. “I don’t think it makes a heck of a lot of difference,” he said. “I think astrology readers will read them, no matter whose they are.”
Another survey, done by the Minneapolis Star and Tribune in 1984, found that astrology readers were primarily women of all ages and men over 55. That study also found that the horoscope was among the 10 best-read columns in the paper.
Los Angeles psychiatrist Paul Logan said he believes that the columns provide a “security blanket. Most people feel inadequate to cope with the world, and astrology gives people a way of interpreting what goes on.”
The column writers, Logan added, “almost always point out positive things. So it becomes a boost for people.”
Professional astrologers say the columns publicize astrology but give an inaccurate impression of what it really is. Robert Hand of Cape Cod, Mass., author of several astrology books and founder of a company that manufactures computer programs for astrologers, said the columns thus both “help and hurt. They keep people aware of the existence of astrology, but astrology’s strength is that it deals with the uniqueness of individuals. Sun sign astrology makes it look like we treat all people as one of 12 types.”
Omarr, however, said sun sign horoscopes are the only way “to reach the mass market.” Because of their popularity, he added, “they’ve kept astrology going.”
Michael Jura, vice chairman of UCLA’s department of astronomy, said he believes that astrology is “nonsense” and puts the columns “somewhere in between harmless entertainment and irresponsible journalism.”
“I think we understand why and how planets move as they do,” Jura added, “and that has absolutely nothing to do with the biochemistry of the human body as we understand it.”
A group of 45 scientists, called the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal--including astronomer Carl Sagan, psychologist B. F. Skinner and biologist Steven Jay Gould--sent a letter to U.S. daily newspapers late last year. The letter asked that a disclaimer be published with astrology columns, saying they “should be read for entertainment only. Such predictions have no reliable basis in scientific fact.”
Few Papers Agreed
Only a handful of papers agreed, among them the Indianapolis Star.
The paper’s editors had been reluctant even to have an astrology column for a long time, Managing Editor Connor explained, for fear of objections from fundamentalist religious groups. The editors changed their minds in 1984 and decided to run the Jillson column, he said, out of a perception that “every paper’s got one.”
Aside from a few letters, the paper did not get the negative reaction feared, Connor added. Nevertheless, when the scientists’ letter came, he said he thought, “Surely nobody believes this stuff. But then I thought that’s not a bad idea.”
The Star’s disclaimer reads: “This column is for entertainment only.”
A favorite disclaimer among astrologers is one Righter submits with every column he writes, although some papers delete it.
“The stars impel, they don’t compel,” it says. “What you make of your life depends on you.”
ASTROLOGICAL FORECASTS Astrologers and the sun signs under which they were born. Sydney Omarr Gemini (May 21-June 20) Romance, it’s wonderful! But remember to protect yourself in those emotional clinches. Define the terms, refuse to give up something of value for a mere whispered promise. Young person could become valuable ally. Carroll Righter Gemini (May 21-June 21) You want to have a good time so go along with the ideas of buddies you like and be happy. Jeane Dixon Gemini (may 21-June 20) Employment affairs are of a more productive course now. Take advantage of a friend’s offer to help out in an emergency. A new pal adds glamour to your social life. Joyce Jillson Gemini (May 21-June 21) Working at home is most successful. Routine jobs can be cleared away at last. Go through yor residence and start cleaning closets and drawers. Recycle possessions Bernice Bede Osol Gemini (May 21 - June 20) Regardless of how well you conduct yourself today you will still be judged by the company you keep. Avoid people of questionable repute. Know where to look for romance and you’ll find it.