Outside the mostly secretive world of esoteric sciences and the occult, few people are familiar with Manly P. Hall, the man his followers call "the last remaining Western mystic."
Despite the hundreds of books he has written and the thriving institution he founded in Los Feliz 55 years ago, Hall's life story remains largely a mystery. He has written extensively about his afterlife but not a word about his past--a subject that seems forbidden even to his closest aides.
"We don't have any information about his youth," said Mike Mitchell, Hall's official spokesman.
At age 88, the guru is still going strong. His biweekly Sunday lectures regularly attract 200 to 300 people to a pale pink Art Deco building complex that is home of Hall's Philosophical Research Society, or PRS. His books, which cover everything from reincarnation to Pythagorean philosophy to alchemy and black magic, sell by the thousands.
While the PRS gift shop is stocked with volumes on witchcraft and the institution's library displays pictures of nightmarishly evil deities, Hall's lectures are anything but frightening.
Hall recently closed his spring lecture cycle with "The Migrations of the Human Soul." It was a fitting season finale for a man in the last stage of his life.
Sitting in a throne-like gray velvet chair at center stage of the spacious PRS auditorium, impeccably dressed in a blue suit, his full head of slick, white hair combed back, eyeglasses adding to his dignified appearance, Hall preached in a soft, soothing monotone:
"The individual as a being never dies, the body becomes exhausted of poten- tial. . . ."
Most listeners closed their eyes and meditated. Others avidly took notes. A few stared intensely at Hall. Still others nodded in agreement and whispered "Yes, yes!" every time he made a point.
"When we damage our bodies, we are wearing out unnecessarily the light bulb that represents our spirit," Hall said. "It is essential for the mystic, as for the individual seeking spiritual growth, to strengthen his heart with acts of charity, kindness and love of nature."
Remarkably, Hall spoke throughout the entire lecture without hesitating once, never retracting a word or pausing to structure thoughts. He went from Christ to Buddha to Vishnu to lesser gods without missing a step, always emphasizing that the only way to change the world is through individual spiritual growth.
His positive, feel-good message, a cocktail of ancient philosophy, world religions, mysticism and, most of all, old-fashioned common sense, attracted a clean-cut crowd of yuppies in jogging sweats, dignified-looking schoolteachers and good-humored senior citizens in their Sunday suits and dresses.
A firm believer in reincarnation, Hall uses poetic images to make death seem like a pleasant trip from a worn-out machine to a new body waiting to be used.
When a person dies, Hall calmly told his audience, the spirit travels up the spinal chord and "enters the thousand-petal lotus, then leaves the body forever." Once the spirit leaves the body, Hall added, a "white horse carries the soul" until it finds a new body, and the process continues.
Hall's two-hour dissertation drew rave reviews from the audience.
"He's got a lot of insights, he knows different religions," said housekeeper Olivia Kline, 34.
"He has the answer to peace and the good life," said Josephine Bridges, 88, a retired schoolteacher.
"He has such a depth in the understanding of knowledge," said Judith Mitchell, a 62-year-old receptionist from Camarillo who had come to the PRS with her husband and daughter.
An extremely private man, Hall is rarely seen outside the auditorium by any but a few of his closest followers. During a recent interview, Hall's assistants screened questions and answers, and determined the length of Hall's ability to carry a conversation, while recording on videotape his every word.
Hall would not discuss his private life other than to say: "I've been married for more than 40 years, and my wife and I are still on speaking terms."
'Only a Vacation'
He said that he is looking forward to his next life, and that he's not particularly worried about what form he will take. "I want to have fun, and it doesn't look like it's going to happen in this life," he grinned, while his aides laughingly celebrated his answer. Then, suddenly turning serious, Hall added: "I'm not worried about death because it's only a vacation." Hall's assistants seemed confused, apparently wondering whether to laugh.
Next, Hall addressed black magic, witchcraft and the occult. "They are unpleasant forms of self-dilution," he hissed, shaking his head in disgust. "I don't endorse that."
When asked why his bookstore and library are stocked with volumes dealing with the very subjects that Hall had just condemned, he sharply replied: "Because people want to research these subjects."
A self-taught man with no university experience, Hall refused to discuss the work of contemporary scholars and does not speak kindly of institutions of higher learning, which he accuses of being too concerned with turning out "financially and academically successful students, but not good persons. They don't teach honor and integrity."
Nor does the academic establishment seem particularly interested in Hall's brand of science.
'Never Heard of Him'
"I've never heard of him," said Prof. Warren Quinn, acting chairman of UCLA's Department of Philosophy. "A lot of what goes by the title of 'philosophy' doesn't have much to do with academic philosophy, but with a kind of inspirational folk philosophy. There's a big difference."
Another UCLA philosopher, Rogers Albritton, said he had read books by Hall and visited the PRS "many, many years ago." Albritton said Hall is "not much read in academic philosophical circles. His studies are on the borderline between philosophy, religion and occult studies . . . Our interests and his overlap, but not much."
He added: "Hall does have a following, obviously, and a rather beautiful building."
Regardless of what academics may think of him, Hall is a highly regarded, best-selling author in his field, the manager of a trendy Santa Monica bookstore specializing in New Age mysticism and esoteric sciences admiringly said.
"He's one of the bastions of the Western esoteric tradition," said Donald Heidinger, who manages the Phoenix bookstore on Santa Monica Boulevard.
"Among the older authors, he's right up there with Paramahansa Yogahanda and Krishnamurti," Heidinger said.
About a dozen of Hall's publications are prominently displayed in the bookstore's shelves, and a recent color portrait of Hall is among a dozen or so pictures of gurus and images of angels and saints that adorn a wall behind the cash register.
'New Age Movement'
"Hall provided a lot of fuel for the New Age movement that emerged in the '60s," Heidinger said. "He believes that knowledge in every culture comes out of a perennial tradition, the West no less than the East."
Heidinger said that while Hall cannot compete in book sales with new writers now in vogue, his books throughout the years have been among the store's steadiest movers, at a rate of from two to five a week.
Like many of the New Age mystics, Heidinger said, Hall embraces only the positive aspects of the esoteric sciences. "While the esoteric tradition looks at both the good and the evil, the New Age acknowledges both aspects but emphasizes the positive, you know, white light, lots of colors, rainbows and that lighthearted kind of stuff."
While the PRS gift shop carries hundreds of titles written by Hall, there are no biographies of the author available.
The PRS founder was born in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada. Hall, Mitchell said, was raised by his grandmother and throughout his youth traveled in Canada and the U.S.
"It doesn't appear that Mr. Hall had parents," said Mitchell, who runs his own public relations firm and donates his time to Hall and the PRS.
Mitchell said Hall arrived in Los Angeles at age 18 when his grandmother died and began lecturing a year later. "His first lecture was in a bank building at the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Third Street," Mitchell said. "He received 65 cents in donations."
From then on, Mitchell said, Hall never looked back. By 1934, Hall had raised enough money to buy the Los Feliz property. A year later, the print shop were completed--paid for, Mitchell said, by Hall's lecture fees and book royalties.
Hall also paid for the library building, built in 1950, and the auditorium, which was added nine years later, so he would no longer have to lecture in clubhouses or theaters, Mitchell said.
Fifty years ago, Hall married German-born Marie Brauer Hall, the head of an institution called the Veritat Foundation, which Mitchell said is dedicated to studying "the origin of the Founding Fathers of the U.S., and things like the symbolism in American money and the flag." The Halls have no children.
For 55 years, the PRS has functioned as a nonprofit educational institution. The PRS operates on a $500,000 annual budget, Mitchell said, with "less than 10%" coming from donations. The rest derives from gift shop sales and lecture admission fees, he said. The PRS sponsors about 400 lectures each year, attracting nearly 40,000 people. The library holds about 50,000 volumes, including about 300 written by Hall, and 5,000 works of art. All proceeds are spent on new editions of Hall's books, Mitchell said. "We break out even."
The PRS buildings sit on a slope, clustered between a row of apartments on Los Feliz Boulevard and partly hidden behind trees and bushes. A sign in the main building invites: "Philosophical Research Society, Visitors Welcome." The PRS entrance is through a narrow corridor between the library and auditorium, which leads to a sunny, landscaped patio with stone benches and statues. A bust of young Hall stands in one corner, a sculpture of what looks like a Chinese demon on another.
Three buildings encircle the patio. One houses the gift shop, where Hall's books and cassettes are sold along with incense, crystals, Oriental bells and other good-luck charms, as well as an eclectic collection of books on witchcraft, mythology, alchemy and Eastern religions.
Behind the store is the PRS storage room and offices, where 20 computer-aided PRS employees market, ship and sell thousands of Manly P. Hall books, booklets and cassettes to about 1,500 subscribers and bookstores nationwide.
The second structure houses the PRS print shop and the library, which has an impressive collection of largely unknown medieval writers, centuries-old Chinese manuscripts, ancient paintings of angry Hindu gods and goddesses and hand-carved wooden furniture with monster-shaped armrests.
The third building's entrance leads to a flower-covered, 300-seat auditorium, where Hall and assorted guest speakers deliver lectures on everything from "Tarot in the '80s" to "Mani, the Prophet of Light."
Mitchell said that after Hall's death, the PRS will remain unchanged and continue to function as a "mom-and-pop" institution primarily dedicated to publicizing its founder's work. There is no heir-apparent to Hall's kingdom, Mitchell said.
"Mr. Hall is working very hard with the PRS board of directors to insure the continuity of the PRS after he leaves us," he said. Having thus ensured that his body of work will live on for at least another generation, Manly P. Hall is ready for his next incarnation.