Newsletter: The uniquely California rise of Marianne Williamson

Democratic presidential hopeful Marianne Williamson.
(Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Wednesday, July 31, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

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There was only one presidential candidate on stage during last night’s debates who has ever lived in a geodesic dome, led a room of hand-holding moguls in prayer at David Geffen’s 48th birthday party or officiated a wedding at Neverland Ranch. The bride was Elizabeth Taylor (entering her eighth and final union, with a Teamster she met while both were drying out at Betty Ford), and the candidate in question is, of course, Marianne Williamson.

Williamson, who is based in Los Angeles (though she recently set up shop in Des Moines) and has spent the better part of her adult life in the state, is a uniquely California creature.

She operates at the nexus of celebrity, pop psychology and potential salvation, where shrewd business acumen and astral planes collide. The 67-year-old is a self-help author, motivational lecturer and new age guru who believes that performing miracles is her life’s work, and delivers her love-based philosophy at sold-out seminars.


Like most California eccentrics, Williamson hailed from elsewhere (Houston, in this case), wandered lost and then was found.

Southern California has long drawn prophets and gurus like moths to sun-drenched light. Our shores are an oddly fertile breeding ground for all manner of cultists, mystics and new religious movements.

In his indispensable 1946 volume “Southern California: An Island on the Land,” historian and social critic Carey McWilliams penned the ur-history of the region as world capital of woo woo, and dated the emergence of the phenomenon to roughly the turn of the last century, when Katherine Tingley, “the first major prophetess of the region” established a Theosophical community near San Diego in 1900.

It’s not exactly a direct line from Tingley to Aimee Semple McPherson to Williamson, but the path is there.

Williamson typically speaks as if she’s delivering the answer to a riddle at a dinner party hosted by Tom Wolfe. She has written seven New York Times bestsellers, including the 1992 debut “A Return to Love” that launched her career into the mainstream with Oprah’s ringing on-air endorsement.

She came west in 1970, for a two-year stint at Pomona College that helped shape her very California candidacy. “We read Ram Dass and Alan Watts in the morning,” she recalled to the audience at an L.A. event, according to a recent profile. “And went to Vietnam antiwar protests in the afternoon.”


Williamson, who was raised Jewish, first encountered “A Course in Miracles,” the thousand-plus page spiritual tome that has shaped her teachings, on a friend’s Manhattan coffee table in 1977.

Los Angeles — a city that specializes in the brand of post-denomination, choose-your-own-adventure spirituality necessary to casually accessorize a red string Kabbalah bracelet with a crucifix necklace — was a natural destination for a Jew to riff on a book that purports to be the words of Jesus, as dictated directly to a New York shrink. (Yes, that is literally the background on “A Course in Miracles.”)

Williamson began giving her talks in 1983 at the Philosophical Research Society on Los Feliz Boulevard (the nonprofit, which gets a name-check in McWilliam’s chapter on the abundant flowering of Southern California occultism, is still in operation). She started to gain an L.A. audience in the mid-’80s, particularly with Hollywood’s gay community in relation to her AIDS activism.

She launched her political career in 2014 with a glitzy bid for California’s 33rd Congressional District (Henry Waxman’s old seat, now represented by Ted Lieu). The campaign was unsuccessful but drew support from multiple Kardashians and spawned “Mermaids for Marianne” lawn signs.

In the crowded race for 2020, Williamson remains a long-shot candidate who has been polling at less than 1%. Her wacky and extremely meme-able performance during the first round of debates last month brought her outsize attention, though much of it was as a punch line. She’s been derided as a “dangerous wacko” and made deeply controversial statements on vaccines, weight loss and mental health, among other things.

“In many ways, Williamson is the left’s answer to Trump — an outlier candidate who celebrates her lack of political acumen with the language of popular culture and believes, at some level, that feelings are the same as facts,” my colleague Mary McNamara wrote in a column last month. In an election season with an incumbent president who has never before held elected office, McNamara suggested that Americans ignore Williamson at their own peril.


And on Tuesday night, Williamson delivered the most surprising performance of all: that of an eerily near-viable candidate, who spoke powerfully on race and dominated Google search traffic.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:


President Trump will be ineligible for California’s primary ballot next year unless he discloses his tax returns under a state law that took effect immediately Tuesday, an unprecedented mandate that is almost certain to spark a high-profile court fight and might encourage other states to adopt their own unconventional rules for presidential candidates. Los Angeles Times

In a blow to the bullet train, key California lawmakers have devised a plan to shift billions of dollars from the Central Valley bullet train to rail projects in Southern California and the Bay Area. Los Angeles Times

Sleeping overnight in cars, vans and RVs will be prohibited again in many parts of Los Angeles, after the City Council voted Tuesday to reinstate rules that limit where people can live in their vehicles. The decision extends the L.A. regulations, which had expired at the beginning of July, until January. Los Angeles Times



Here are 50 of the best places to get ice cream and gelato in L.A., collected in a beautiful and delicious interactive map. Los Angeles Times

Hollywood’s two biggest public relations agencies — Rogers & Cowan and PMK-BNC — are merging into a mega-company, in the latest example of consolidation to hit the entertainment industry. Los Angeles Times

From L.A.-based Tyler, the Creator to Lil Nas X, hip-hop has never had so many stars who identify as gay or bisexual. Is this a blip, or a turning point for the traditionally macho genre? Los Angeles Times

Producer Robert Evans and Paramount have parted ways after more than five decades. The Hollywood Reporter


“Once Upon a Time” moviegoers meet Bruce Lee on a 1969 Hollywood movie set. But is the faux-cameo an homage or insult? Here’s why his family is deeply offended. Los Angeles Times

“Suspect wore a hoodie”: Examining how a racially charged clothing item shows up in LAPD data. Crosstown LA

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The Trump administration has separated more than 900 migrant children from their parents at the border since a San Diego federal judge last summer ordered an end to the systemic practice, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Los Angeles Times



The vehicle that McFarland City Manager John Wooner was last seen driving was found submerged in the Kern River on Saturday. Wooner has been missing since May 14. Bakersfield Californian


As authorities try to determine the motive for the Gilroy Garlic Festival attack, investigators believe their best chance is through the digital footprint of the 19-year-old gunman. Los Angeles Times


The Tucker fire in Modoc County has burned more than 14,000 acres, making it the largest wildfire in California so far this year. Los Angeles Times



For more than three decades, this woman developed a vision for nearly every poster that went out the door at San Francisco’s Fillmore, working with local artists to create iconic designs for musical legends. San Francisco Chronicle

Here’s what it takes to be “rich” in every Bay Area city. SF Gate

The city of Malibu will be holding a surf swap this weekend, where participants can buy, sell, trade or donate surfboards, boogie boards, wetsuits and other beach-related items. Santa Monica Daily Press


Los Angeles: sunny, 82. San Diego: partly sunny, 74. San Francisco: sunny, 66. San Jose: sunny, 82. Sacramento: sunny, 92. More weather is here.



“So leap with joy, be blithe and gay, / Or weep, my friends, with sorrow. / What California is today, / The rest will be tomorrow.”

— — poet Richard Armour, 1962

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.