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Entertainment & Arts

COVER STORY : The Power, the Glory, the Glitz : Marianne Williamson, an ex-nightclub singer, has attracted many in Hollywood with her blend of new-time religion and self-help--and alienated more than a few

Marianne Williamson
Marianne Williamson as a congressional candidate in 2013.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
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Wearing feathers in her hair, spike heels and a strapless evening gown, Marianne Williamson, New Age guru of the hour, is seated on a hotel ballroom stage in Marina del Rey, shoulder to shoulder with unmarried soap opera actors and other eligible and glamorous singles. Amid much banter and giggling, they will be “auctioned off” by talk-show host Cyndy Garvey and producer-director Garry Marshall.

Laura Dern and Linda Blair are no-shows, but Williamson, on the verge of becoming almost as famous as they are, will wait patiently for two hours until it is her turn to go on the block. She will answer politely when Garvey asks her how to pronounce Muse, the name of the restaurant where she plans to take her date. She will urge Marshall to tell the well-toned crowd that she is “very interesting.” In exchange for an evening in her company, a man from the Midwest will contribute $1,200 to the Family Assistance Program, a charity for the homeless.

Although on other nights she exhorts her followers to give themselves up to God, there is nothing incongruous in her now offering herself up at a bachelor-bachelorette auction. This, after all, is Hollywood, and Williamson, who has been mentioned in the same breath as Mother Teresa for her work on behalf of people with AIDS, is no stranger to the combined worlds of glitz and good causes.

In a field crowded with purveyors of spiritual wisdom, the 39-year-old tough-talking, quick-witted former nightclub singer from Texas has blazed her way to the top. She has been captivating standing-room-only audiences in West Hollywood, Santa Monica and New York with her blend of religion and self-help drawn from a three-volume work known as “A Course in Miracles.”

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Williamson is also the latest mystical sensation in Hollywood, where many work assiduously to cultivate their souls, often with the same devotion they apply to their physiques. Anthony Perkins, Lesley Ann Warren, Tommy Tune, Cher and Roy Scheider go to her lectures. David Geffen and Sandy Gallin listen to her on tape and have sought her private counsel; she lunches with the likes of Barbra Streisand and Dawn Steel, and last summer she officiated at the wedding of Elizabeth Taylor and Larry Fortensky. “Her sense of spirituality triggered off my own,” the bride said recently through a spokeswoman.

Many of the entertainment industry’s biggest names have helped raise money for Project Angel Food, a service launched by Williamson in 1989 that now delivers more than 300 hot meals a day to housebound AIDS patients in Los Angeles.

Since the turn of the century, when Katherine Tingley established her exotic Point Loma Theosophical Community near San Diego and became known as the Purple Mother, Southern California has been a magnet for prophets promising to unlock the secrets of the metaphysical and the occult. From Krishnamurti to Aimee Semple McPherson to the so-called I AM cult, they found easy acceptance in a land populated by migrants eager to rid themselves of their ties to the past and exorcise “the nameless fears which so many of them had acquired from the fire-and-brimstone theology of the Middle West,” as journalist Carey McWilliams wrote in 1946.

While Williamson’s gift for showmanship sometimes calls to mind Sister Aimee, there is no evidence the theatrical and controversial faith healer had a Hollywood following. It was left to other guides to the spiritual and supernatural to attract such figures as Greta Garbo, Mae West and Aldous Huxley.

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Many more celebrities have since heeded the call. These days, Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson say their mantras with the spiritual heir to the Swami Muktananda, Swami Gurumayi Chidvilasananda; Sharon Gless and Michael York are devoted to Lazaris, a “non-physical entity” whose message is “channeled” through a wealthy former business executive in Florida named Jach Pursel; while Streisand and Richard Chamberlain have participated in “transformational” workshops in Arizona led by a former practicing physician, W. Brugh Joy.

But no spiritual master is more talked-about than Williamson.

Slim and stylish, with dark shiny hair, flawless skin and angular features, Williamson now hopes to add “best-selling author” to her list of accomplishments. Her just-published, “A Return to Love,” recently got a big boost when Oprah Winfrey snapped up 1,000 copies and told her television audience she had experienced 157 miracles after reading it. Norman Lear was scheduled to host a party last week in Williamson’s honor.

But just as nationwide fame is within reach, there are signs that Williamson, who preaches a message of love and forgiveness, has become carried away with her own success and has alienated some of the very show business figures who were catapulting her to stardom. Last year, director Mike Nichols and other prominent New Yorkers defected from her Manhattan charity and set up a rival organization. She has had major blow-ups with producer Howard Rosenman and photographer-producer Michael Childers, among those most responsible for pulling in big names like Bette Midler, David Hockney, Meryl Streep and Anjelica Huston to her star-studded fund-raising events.

And last month, the staff of her Los Angeles AIDS charity revolted after she fired the most recent in a series of executive directors.

Feared in some quarters for her explosive temper, Williamson acknowledges that she often comes across as “the bitch for God.”

Nevertheless, she remains revered by legions of followers, many of whom regularly flock to the Harmony Gold auditorium on Sunset Boulevard or the Unitarian Community Church in Santa Monica, paying $7 each to have her lead them in prayer and meditation and to soak up the “spiritual psychotherapy” she dispenses on such topics as relationships and careers.

Speaking without notes and in her Texas accent, Williamson laces her talks with allusions to movies--"Grand Canyon” is a current favorite--a sprinkling of philosophy, and references to her own troubled and directionless past. Her fast-paced delivery is so fluent and her hold over the audience so complete that many describe her as charismatic and spellbinding.

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“She’s one of the most brilliant extemporaneous speakers,” said Gary Dontzig, supervising producer for “Murphy Brown,” and the owner of about 25 of Williamson’s taped lectures. “She gets up there, takes a topic, just runs with it and makes complete sense.”

“Every time I’m here I feel better,” said Randy Mogg, a 40-year-old sculptor, after listening to a Williamson lecture. “Her message is very positive.”

Williamson is such a powerful communicator, said movie producer Lynda Obst, Williamson’s roommate at Pomona College, that “I tell her she could be working off the telephone book.”

Instead, this self-described “Jewish unwed mother” has become the foremost interpreter of “A Course in Miracles,” the 1,200-page tome she first noticed on a friend’s coffee table about 15 years ago, not long after it was published. “Students” of the course, which has sold 750,000 copies, are told that it was dictated by Jesus Christ himself over a seven-year period to an emotionally tortured psychologist named Helen Schucman.

The course offers a variation on so-called New Thought, the American metaphysical movement that dates back to the 1880s, said J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara. Resting on the belief “that the only reality is God, and that negative things like poverty, sickness and fear are unreal,” as Melton put it, the course advocates “surrendering” to God’s plan and approaching life in a loving, non-judgmental way. The change in perception is said to produce miracles.

To the skeptical, much of what Williamson has to say sounds like platitudes gleaned from women’s magazines and daytime television--Dr. Joyce Brothers with a spiritual overlay. But it is an appealing message for an industry racked by the AIDS epidemic and, not surprisingly, a large proportion of Williamson’s West Coast audience is gay. Many feel excluded from more established religions, with their emphasis on sin and their intolerance for homosexuality.

Though not a follower, Obst believes Williamson came along at just the right moment. “There was a wonderful confluence of what Marianne had to say and what this community needed to hear,” the producer said.

Some of Williamson’s listeners also attend her weekly support group for people with the HIV virus, where she counsels them that “your soul is not sick.”

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The lectures are also available on cassettes, offered under such titles as “Fear of Abandonment” and “Fear of Intimacy.” “So many people have been affected by those tapes,” said Steve Sager, an agent and real estate developer who helped Williamson set up the tape business and acquire her Hollywood connections. “It’s the thing in the morning that gets them going.”

After her lectures, Williamson fields questions from the audience, working the auditorium or church like Phil Donahue, advising them on their troubled love affairs and job-related anxieties and often bringing down the house with her self-revealing rejoinders.

One woman tells her she once made a list of all the qualities she desired in a mate and eventually married just such a person.

Williamson herself once made a list like that, she confides to her audience. “The only trouble was, I forgot to say, “Please God, he should not be a heroin addict.”

To Williamson, every problem can be solved by consulting the course. "(It) is a complete system,” she said. “It has no holes in it.”

She advises one woman who wants to shed pounds to refrain from dieting and pray to God instead to eliminate her craving for food. The woman has a role in a play that opens in 30 days. “You’ll be gorgeous,” Williamson promises.

Williamson believes her wide-ranging experience as a child of the ‘60s comes in handy now. “Anything anybody’s done I’ve probably done it,” she said.

The “spoiled child” of a Houston immigration lawyer, she dropped out of college in her junior year and roamed around the country, leading a dissolute life as a singer, cocktail waitress, office temp and bookseller and getting involved in a series of unhappy relationships. She was married once, she says, “for a minute and a half.”

In her early 20s she spent a year working as an assistant to Albert Goldman, the biographer of Lenny Bruce and John Lennon. “She was very, very profoundly confused and had no conception of what to do with herself,” said Goldman, who remembers her shedding copious tears over a failed romance. “She was a woman of emotion, like an actress in an Italian movie.”

During these troubled years, she sought help in various New Age and Eastern religions and self-help programs.

She was living in New York when she encountered “A Course in Miracles” but did not immediately take to it. For a Jew, the references to Jesus were tough to swallow. A year later, however, she happened to pass the building where the books are published and resolved to get herself a set. That night, she said, she found them on her dining room table, a gift from her boyfriend. “He said to me, ‘I think it’s time,’ ” she recalled, citing the Eastern adage that “when the student is ready, the teacher appears.”

By then, she said, “I was so depressed that I didn’t even notice the (Christian) language,” she said.

She spent the next year reading the course “passionately.” What finally grabbed her was its message about forgiveness. “I never realized you can’t find peace in your life without forgiving other people,” she said. “I never knew how many of my problems stemmed from my fear of other people.”

Williamson, who attends High Holy Day services “to make my mother happy,” no longer feels that the “Christic” imagery, as she calls it, poses a problem. The words are used for their psychological rather than their religious significance, she said, emphasizing that the course has nothing to do with Jews for Jesus. “No religion has a monopoly on the greatest story ever told,” she added.

Williamson’s career as a lecturer began in 1983, when she moved to Los Angeles and began working at the Philosophical Research Society, a center for metaphysical study. Kent Black, a colleague at the time, remembers “a brassy, sassy Texas woman climbing out of a big desert cruiser” in front of the society’s office.

“She was wearing cowboy boots and her trunk was filled with books of miracles,” Black said. “She was the epitome of a Southern snake oil salesman. I thought she had a lot of chutzpah. She just elbowed her way in.”

It was a smart move, Black said, noting that the link to the society gave Williamson legitimacy. She readily agreed when she was asked to lecture on the course. One day, 75 people showed up to hear her and she was on her way.

Today, she lives modestly in a two-bedroom apartment in Hollywood with her 21-month-old daughter, India Emmanuelle, known as Emma, whose father she refuses to name. Williamson, who has dated producer Howard Koch Jr. and the actor Dwier Brown (“Field of Dreams”), is equally reticent about discussing the man she is currently seeing.

Even at home, wearing an oversize sweater and loose pants and no makeup, she is on stage, continually jumping up from her chair to move around the room. Suddenly, she is sitting cross-legged on the coffee table, jabbing a visitor’s knee with her bare toes to emphasize a point. The next moment she has slid across the table and is lying on the couch. “She has schpilkes ,” said Dawn Steel, using a Yiddish expression meaning antsy .

Bringing the same theatricality to the discussion, Williamson raises her voice to a fevered pitch to discourse about the failures of the education system or the need for people to treat one another with respect. Many of her sentences begin, “The problem with America today. . . .”

In 1987, she put into practice her longstanding social concerns by asking her friend and fellow metaphysician Louise Hay to help her create the Los Angeles Center for Living. As a result of her lectures, Williamson had counseled a number of people with “life-challenging illnesses,” as she calls them, especially AIDS, and envisioned a place where “the natural forces of healing” could be stimulated. The controversial Hay, a minister of the New Age Church of Religious Science who claims to have healed herself of cancer, had been holding weekly inspirational hayrides for people with the HIV virus.

Urging her audience to get involved in charitable activities, Williamson was able to draw hundreds of volunteers to the nonprofit center, which offers a variety of non-medical services. Two years later, she founded a similar organization in New York.

Each week Williamson herself leads a 90-minute support session for people with the AIDS virus at the Los Angeles center’s office on Robertson Boulevard. She claims the meetings can prolong a participant’s life. “People who attend support groups who have been diagnosed with a life-challenging illness live on average twice as long after diagnosis as people who don’t,” she said.

At the support groups, Williamson steers the discussion away from medical issues, zeroing in on the spiritual. She is uncertain about reincarnation but believes that the experience commonly thought of as dying is actually a “transition” to another “plane.” The word death is not supposed to be uttered.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, 30 people crowded together in a light-filled room with salmon-colored walls, where a young man is talking about how life was “gorgeous,” despite the illness that is taking over his body.

“I love Marianne so much,” the man says. “AIDS is just a word, and I’m going to go roller-skating tonight.” As the group applauds, Williamson observes that the “spirit is impervious to illness.” (Williamson asked that participants’ names be omitted.)

An older couple, newcomers to this group, disclose that the husband’s illness, stemming from a blood transfusion, is causing strains in their marriage. Frustrated because he is almost always too tired to be good company for his wife, the husband has withdrawn from her.

Never at a loss for a quick response, Williamson advises the husband, a retired aerospace administrator, that his illness need not impinge on his relationship with his wife. He can still listen to her fears and concerns, Williamson says; letting her express them will make her feel better.

“The AIDS virus is not more powerful than God,” Williamson assures the couple in her throaty voice, asserting that the man’s “transition” will not be “the end of the story.” The tension clouding the woman’s face disappears. “She really helped us,” the woman says after the meeting. The husband is smiling. “She knew exactly where to shoot that arrow,” he said.

Even Williamson’s critics concede she can rise to great heights of generosity. She took in a friend who had terminal cancer and often appears at the bedsides of the dying.

When his psychiatrist was out of town, Steve Sager went to see Williamson instead, free of charge. “Marianne was very available to me,” he said.

At the same time, disenchantment is widespread and building, especially since Jan. 7, when former West Hollywood Mayor Steve Schulte became the Los Angeles’ center’s third executive director in five years to be dismissed. Although Schulte was fired by the board of directors, it is widely believed that the decision was Williamson’s and she concedes she was eager to see him go.

Like some of the others who have clashed with Williamson, Schulte did not buy into her spiritual program--a factor widely believed to have increased tensions between them.

Rallying around the popular Schulte, the staff has called for his reinstatement to the $60,000-a-year post and for Williamson’s resignation as chairman of the board of directors. A majority of the 18-member work force has voted to join a union. They also want the current board--all Williamson loyalists--replaced by people without ties to her. Several complained that last September’s elaborate and time-consuming “Divine Design” auction, although it netted $700,000, fell considerably short of its goals--an assertion Williamson does not dispute.

Many people who have worked with her say she has an explosive temper that erupts indiscriminately even in front of sick clients. They contend she is a “control freak” who insists on becoming involved in every detail and cannot bear to be upstaged or challenged. “If you don’t agree with Marianne you’re not going to be around very long,” said Dick DeVogeleare, a dismissed executive director who sued the center for breach of contract and later settled.

“Marianne is someone who likes to control everyone around her,” said journalist Jean Halberstam, formerly on the Manhattan center’s board.

Stung by the criticism, Williamson believes much of it is unfair and attributable to her high standards, her unwillingness to suffer incompetence and the pressure of staging high-profile fund-raising events. But acknowledging she has “a style that needs work,” she vowed to try to improve her interpersonal relationships.

“I understand the irony of the bitch for God,” she said. “This has not escaped my notice.”

Some employees defend her. Said John Campbell, a member of Williamson’s lecture staff: “Granted, she has a dramatic personality. But if you’re competent, she gives you the longest, loosest rein.”

The first casualty of Williamson’s penchant for drama may be the 3-year-old Manhattan center, now competing for donations with another nearby organization that provides similar services to people with AIDS. Cynthia O’Neal, an actress and the wife of actor and restaurateur Patrick O’Neal, had brought in close friends, such as Mike Nichols, Stephen Sondheim and Halberstam to serve on the center’s board. But Williamson clashed with O’Neal and others over the center’s management and the New Yorkers’ seeming dismissal of her religious principles.

“Someone said you would hear checkbooks slamming shut all over Sotheby’s (site of a fund-raising auction) if Marianne got up and led everyone in prayer,” Halberstam said. “I think she felt insulted.”

Not willing to be treated as expendable, Williamson fired her board and O’Neal wound up founding her own organization, now called Friends in Deed, taking Nichols and her other allies with her. As one indication of what Williamson has lost, Nichols and Elaine May recently announced plans to revive their 1950s comedy act for one night as a fund-raiser for the new organization. Williamson said O’Neal turned down her offer to consolidate their groups, but the two women maintain they are now on cordial terms.

While the conflict in New York was coming to a boil, Williamson was antagonizing some of her most important supporters in Los Angeles, including independent producer Howard Rosenman (“Shining Through,” “Father of the Bride”), photographer Michael Childers and decorator Waldo Fernandez--all people she could count on to attract famous names to the center’s auctions.

According to a number of sources, Williamson and Rosenman have been feuding ever since he provoked her wrath by telling Vanity Fair magazine that she wants to be famous. Rosenman refuses to discuss Williamson publicly, saying only, “She does great work.”

Last fall, in what appeared to others a preemptive move, Williamson purged her Los Angeles board of Rosenman, Childers, Fernandez and other members whose confidence she was losing. She said the change came about for a different reason: She herself had elected to step down as president and needed to ensure that her successor would be able to make a fresh start. Childers and Fernandez also declined to comment.

While Williamson currently holds the title of chairman, the smaller board is said to be entirely under her control. But board president David Kessler, who runs a nursing home for AIDS patients in West Hollywood, labeled this characterization “insulting.”

As her problems with the board escalated, Williamson was having trouble getting along with Schulte, whom she accused of undermining her authority with the staff and ignoring urgent phone calls.

Williamson said she and Schulte, a Catholic who never developed an affinity for “A Course in Miracles,” had different approaches to running the center. He insisted on business plans, goals and memos “while I pray and ask God for wisdom of the heart,” she explained.

She expressed the hope that the next director will be someone who understands “the spiritual principles we’re trying to come from . . . I am not apologizing for God in this organization.”

Several staffers accused Williamson of disregarding those principles herself in her dealings with them. “She talks that talk but she don’t walk that walk,” said one center employee, who wished to remain anonymous.

For her part, Williamson alternates between contrition and defensiveness when discussing these problems. “I have a gruff side,” she said. “This is not exactly news. . . . At the same time, anyone who wants to judge me for this can walk a mile in my moccasins. And then we’ll talk.”

Times research librarian Dorothy Ingebretsen assisted with this article.


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