I do a better business when things are bad. I think the churches find the same thing is true.
—ZOLAR FROM “DEAN OF ASTROLOGERS,” THE NEW YORKER, 1959
The European occult lodges of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries could seem to cling to secrecy almost as an end in itself. Theosophy’s Annie Besant never tired of creating elite offshoots of the organization: orders within orders and inner lodges, each with its own badges, seals, and ceremonies. The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the preeminent organization of Europe’s occult revival, required that initiates pass through a grueling series of degrees before being allowed in on its inner doctrine and ceremonial rites.
Starting in the 1920s in America, however, that approach to the occult was blown to pieces. A generation of teachers and impresarios, who arose from ordinary backgrounds in cities and farming communities, wrestled occult ideas away from secretive lodges and exposed them to so broad an audience that, by mid-century, practices like astrology and numerology became as widespread as bridge games and crossword puzzles.
The revolution began around 1900, when a pole-thin, intellectually curious teenager named Paul Foster Case was struggling to make a living on the American vaudeville circuit. Born in 1884 outside Rochester, New York, he began his stage career at sixteen. Case’s mother, Ella, had died three years earlier, probably of typhoid. His father, Charles, planned to remarry and move away, and told the boy that it was time to prepare for life on his own. Case visited a Rochester talent agency and found work as a performer of card tricks and as a piano player. He had learned the organ at his community church and otherwise pulled together his own education—and probably his early stage act—from the books he found at the local free library, where his parents had been custodians.
A chance encounter soon altered the course of his life. In 1901, as Case recalled it, he was performing at an area charity benefit when backstage he met a publisher and architect, a man who had designed several prominent buildings in Rochester: Claude Bragdon. Bragdon was an American patron of mysticism who befriended Manly P. Hall and helped translate work by the influential Russian mathematician and philosopher P. D. Ouspensky. The older man asked Case a simple but pivotal question: Where did he suppose ordinary playing cards came from, the kind he used in his magic act? For a bookish teen whose education had been cut off, the question presented an enticing challenge. Case began an intensive study of playing cards, a move that led him to learn about the Tarot, a seventy-eight-card deck of mysterious images—such as Death, the Juggler, and the Tower—that appeared, without obvious precedent, in early-fifteenth-century Italy. European occultists later extolled Tarot as everything from an oracle to a record of hidden wisdom.
For several years, Case balanced between the study of occultism and his stage act—until another fateful encounter, far more dramatic than the first. In a scene now recognizable from the mythos of American occultism, Case described meeting an imposing stranger who called himself a messenger from a “Master of Wisdom.” The man approached him on a Chicago city street in 1909 and declared that the vaudevillian was now at a “crossroad” and had to choose between a life devoted to the stage or the serious pursuit of occult knowledge. A stage career would be easy, the stranger said, while an occult career would be filled with difficulty and require “dedicating yourself to fully serve humanity and play a vital part in its evolution for this coming Aquarian Age.” It was a reference to an era of spiritual growth that some astrologers forecast for the late twentieth century, when the mystical constellation of Aquarius appeared at the spring equinox.* Case chose the hard path.
He remained in Chicago, a great city for a budding occultist in the early twentieth century. Chicago had been home to the influential New Thought teacher Emma Curtis Hopkins and had bustling subcultures in “mental science” and metaphysical publishing. A Chicago lawyer named William Walker Atkinson produced an imaginative array of occult books from his Yogi Publication Society based in the twenty-two-story Masonic Temple Building, once a jewel of the city’s skyline and later demolished. Atkinson himself wrote many books, under the pseudonyms Yogi Ramacharaka, Magus Incognito, and, most famously, Three Initiates. The Chicagoan used the last of these aliases in 1908 to publish his most successful book, one of the occult classics of the twentieth century: The Kybalion. This compendium of “lost” Egyptian–Hermetic wisdom read a lot like New Thought principles recast in antique language but nonetheless enthralled readers, partly due to the secrecy of its authorship. A long-standing rumor, which now abounds online, named Case as one of the Three Initiates. But The Kybalion reads to the letter like Atkinson, and it was published before the two men would have been likely to meet.†
Back in New York in 1920, Case found his way to a remnant of the storied Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. In earlier decades, the Golden Dawn had attracted a remarkable range of artists and intellectuals: Aleister Crowley was a member; so were W. B. Yeats and Constance Wilde (the wife of Oscar); and there were many others, less known but highly influential, such as the writer–occultist Arthur Edward Waite. The Brooklynborn and British-bred Waite codesigned the twentieth century’s most recognizable Tarot pack, the Rider–Waite–Smith Deck.
By the time Case joined the Golden Dawn in 1920, the order was on its last breaths. Its prime mover, British occultist S. L. MacGregor Mathers, had died of flu in Paris two years earlier. His widow, Moina, the sister of philosopher Henri Bergson, possessed a suspicious and emotionally delicate nature and often found herself struggling to control the factional fighting that followed her husband’s passing. When Case arrived, American initiates were in open revolt, complaining that they were not receiving the proper manuscripts for their training and advancement in the order’s coveted ranks and degrees. Worsening matters, Moina Mathers—who advocated celibacy as a tool for spiritual growth—became incensed over a love affair between Case and another American recruit, Lillian Geise. In a 1921 letter, Case diplomatically (if peculiarly) acknowledged the relationship: “The Hierophantria and I were observed to exchange significant glances over the altar during the Mystic Repast.”
And there were still other sources of Mathers’s discomfort. Case was rapidly developing into a respected teacher of the occult arts, attracting a small following of his own and further threatening her hold on the American branch. Rather than viewing Tarot strictly as a book of coded symbolism, Case tended toward a more psychological interpretation of the cards. He taught that by meditating on a certain image, you could embody its virtues, such as the gentle power of the mistress on the Strength card or the self-control of the angel on the Temperance card. “We become what we contemplate,” he later wrote. “Contemplate these pictures in spare moments, and they will alter your whole life in no time.” Case’s approach appealed to the practical, do-for-self style of American acolytes. And it typified the New Thought influence on American occultism and the later spiritual ideas of the New Age: that the mind is an instrument of Divine power, through which outer circumstance can be shaped.
Tempers fraying and jealousies growing, Mathers expelled Case and Geise from the Golden Dawn in January 1922. To many, it was a fatal misstep. Case was the kind of attractive American teacher whose leadership the order desperately needed. “When you got rid of Mr. Case,” a Philadelphia member wrote to Mathers, “you ‘killed the goose that laid the golden egg.’ ”
For Case and Geise, however, their expulsion was like the unlocking of a door. They had grown tired of the Golden Dawn’s oaths of secrecy and Old World hierarchy. The couple wanted to teach magic their own way—and offer it to all comers. “I am convinced,” Geise wrote Mathers in a mood of revolutionary zeal, “that no Order can claim the ‘private ownership’ of ways to perform magic. Apparent disappointments have turned out to be blessings in disguise and now our freedom from an old alliance is another step towards realizing what we now consider our life’s work.” It was very nearly the end of the Golden Dawn in America—and the coming of a newer, freer form of American occultism.
Joined as newlyweds, Case and Geise laid plans in 1922 for an organization of their own. They produced a series of carbon-copied correspondence lessons offered by the School of Ageless Wisdom. Their simple, hand-typed lessons in Tarot interpretation and number symbolism reached students through ads in occult journals and by word of mouth. It was a bare-bones operation: The carbon copies had to be retyped each time they ran out. But the couple had found their freedom. It ended too suddenly. In 1924, Geise died of causes that are unclear. Once more, Case was on his own.
The taste of producing his own lessons, however, spurred him to more ambitious plans. Although struggling for money and living in the late 1920s in a Boston rooming house, Case launched a new “school of wisdom.” He called it Builders of the Adytum (Greek for “inner temple”), or B.O.T.A. One of his first public references to B.O.T.A. appeared in 1927 as a brief, understated notice at the back of one of his Tarot pamphlets inviting readers to contact him at his Boston address. B.O.T.A. was Case’s breakthrough. His well-organized and broad-ranging correspondence lessons—encompassing Tarot, astrology, number mysticism, and Qabalah (as he spelled it)—gained a reputation as the most in-depth mail-order materials of their kind. They circulated through the hands of thousands of ordinary people, from students to homemakers to laborers—anyone willing to pay a modest monthly fee. He became the Charles Atlas of home-study occultism, and his B.O.T.A. lessons commanded a following that has continued to the present day.
Although he had chosen the occult path, the esoteric scholar never fully left behind his career as a stage magician. In the early 1930s, Case relocated to Los Angeles—a town large enough and sufficiently hospitable to magic as a spiritual pursuit and as stagecraft for him to cultivate both careers at once. Case joined the International Brotherhood of Magicians and occasionally performed with his B.O.T.A. protégée and successor, Ann Davies. Notes from a 1946 brotherhood meeting recall the pair in “a well worked out mindreading routine.” The Linking Ring, a professional magician’s magazine, complimented Case’s “outstanding” cards-up-the-sleeve routines.
Case was a rarity among professional magicians. He meticulously separated his career as a stage performer from his role as an occult teacher. Offstage, Case never used mentalist tricks or hoodwinked his followers for money. In fact, his finances were so precarious during the 1940s that friends were asked to bring meals to the bungalow-style home Case shared with his last wife, Harriet, in a working-class section of Central L.A. Though he pursued his occult studies with integrity, Case probably felt constrained to keep that side of himself quiet around his stage friends. Ever since Houdini began exposing fraudulent mediums in the 1920s, magicians tended to consider themselves sworn foes of any who claimed traffic with the supernatural or esoteric. Case’s colleagues in the world of professional magic appeared to have had an inkling that he was involved in occultism but were otherwise little aware of his double life. In a December 1972 column in Genii, another magazine for stage professionals, Los Angeles magician Charlie Miller recalled:
Years ago I was very friendly with Paul Case. Paul Case was an expert on Tarots, although at the time I never paid much attention to this. Paul was a modest man and seldom mentioned it.… Paul was a very good magician. He used to give lectures or talks on psychology. I never did quite know the name of the lecture that he gave.
A Magician’s Legacy
Every artist dreams of a magnum opus, and in 1947 Case completed his. Building on his lessons and pamphlets, he published a book with a Freemasonic press in Virginia, called simply The Tarot. The sum of his life’s work, The Tarot rendered public many of the Golden Dawn’s most closely held ideas, along with Case’s own psychological insights and mapping of correspondences among mythical symbols.* The book explored Tarot’s theoretical connections to Hebrew letters, natural elements, musical tones, astrological aspects, Scriptural passages, ancient myths, numbers, colors, and even ethical philosophies. While its ideas are sometimes speculative and self-referencing, Case’s opus is notable for the concision with which it attempts a complete cross-collating of world religious concepts. It shows a consistent internal theology and probably stands as the single highest expression of the various philosophies that emerged from the European occult revival. The book has never fallen out of print, and in the early twenty-first century it appeared for the first time in paperback with a trade publisher.*
In 1954, seven years from The Tarot’s appearance (a portentous number in occult terms), Case died while on vacation with his wife Harriet in Mexico. In the end, he was an accomplished magician in two worlds. The man who began his career as a teenage performer from small-town America had successfully torn down the curtain of secrecy from Europe’s leading occult order. The inner doctrine of the Old World was now available to anyone who knocked on the temple door.
Case’s correspondence lessons were part of a growing phenomenon. In the early decades of the twentieth century, the U.S. Postal Service was handling a huge flow of mystical and self-improvement literature. In addition to B.O.T.A.’s program, some of the most popular correspondence lessons emerged from the self-styled Rosicrucian Order, or AMORC. The organization even developed its own impressive, Egyptian-styled campus occupying a whole city block in San Jose, California. But AMORC could place the same kind of premium on organizational rank and claims to ancient lineage that marred the European occult. The order spent too much time arguing with rivals over who represented the “real” Rosicrucians, when history has left open the question of whether there were any Rosicrucians to begin with. But a contemporary of Case, and someone who shared his democratic ideals, devised a mail-order school that saw occultism as a new kind of progressive faith for the broadest possible public.
Born in 1882 in Adel, Iowa, Benjamin Williams was two years Case’s senior and his physical opposite. A tall, powerfully built athlete and outdoors enthusiast, Williams had an unlikely affinity for the arcane. As a voraciously curious adolescent, he witnessed the work of a traveling Mesmerist—or hypnotist, as the term was increasingly known—and discovered his own talent for entrancing neighbors. His next challenge was the study of astrology. Ordering pamphlets and books by mail, he learned enough to cast horoscopes for his Adel neighbors. After reviewing the birth charts of friends and relatives, Williams concluded that astrology offered authentic insight into human character. He was enthralled to find an ancient art that really seemed to work in the present.
To avoid embarrassing his religiously conservative parents—his father was a physician and a deacon at a Disciples of Christ church—Williams began corresponding under the alias Elbert Benjamine (probably adopting the first name from the motivational hero Elbert Hubbard). Anxiously searching for a school or organization to advance his metaphysical studies, he traveled to Denver in 1909 to meet fellow Westerners who claimed to be the surviving remnant of a highly secretive European occult order called the H.B. of L., or the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor.
In the 1880s, the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor was locked in a kind of rivalry with its contemporary organization, Theosophy. The H.B. of L. founders—who ranged from serious scholars of mysticism to one mail-fraud felon—believed that Theosophy had failed to train its members in “practical occultism,” such as the uses of oracles and clairvoyance. The H.B. of L. seized upon this educational mission as its aim. One of its early sources of inspiration came from an American of mixed African and Caucasian ancestry named Paschal Beverly Randolph. In his books and pamphlets, Randolph promulgated the motto Try! as an injunction to occult experimentation. Randolph, along with his admirers in the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, believed that magic had to be a hands-on, visceral affair. He advocated the use of “sex magic”—the harnessing of sexual energy as an ethereal force to further one’s will—a method later adopted by Britain’s Aleister Crowley. Randolph’s practices included invoking prayer for a specific wish before reaching orgasm. Randolph died in 1875, just before the Theosophical tide hit America, but his personal slogan Try! reappeared in the letters of Theosophy’s Mahatmas, as an injunction to Henry Steel Olcott and others.
An intriguing “secret history” is theorized about the dawn of the American occult and organizations like the H.B. of L.—one that found its way into the work of the respected French religious philosopher René Guénon in the early twentieth century and was later written about by Joscelyn Godwin, a noted musicologist and historian at Colgate University. Like Theosophy, the H.B. of L. claimed to receive guidance from secret adepts. These superinitiates were said to have induced the early phenomena of Spiritualism in order to interject mystical ideas into a culture choking on intellectual materialism. This, says the “hidden hand” theory, ignited a new era of learning and discovery. Or, depending on various versions of the theory, it led to a disastrous wrong turn in which the bump-in-the-night spectacles of Spiritualism turned into an out-of-control Frankenstein monster, which Madame Blavatsky was sent to America to correct. Such was the mythos that connected Spiritualism to the occult flowering of later decades.
The Religion of the Stars
In Denver, the remaining American hangers-on of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, probably acting in isolation, told Benjamine that their “inner lodge” had a special task for him: The young man was to write a series of metaphysical lessons that would bring occultism to the lives of everyday people. He was at first reluctant, but in 1910 he accepted the challenge upon receiving his own private communiqué from the Masters. Once more shedding his name, he adopted the alias C. C. Zain (the surname is Hebrew for “sword”). The Iowan moved to Los Angeles to begin writing a program of twenty-one correspondence lessons and formed his own organization, the Brotherhood of Light.*
Although Benjamine proved gifted at the mathematics required of an astrologer in an age before computer programs, he tended toward excessive credulity. In his first lesson plan, “Laws of Occultism,” he enthused over the “authentic photographs of fairies” that had appeared in Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1922 book, The Coming of the Fairies. Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, was a committed though sometimes less-than-meticulous advocate of Spiritualism. After World War I, the storyteller had grown enthralled with a series of photographic plates taken by two English schoolgirls that showed winged fairies frolicking in the Yorkshire countryside. Seen through contemporary eyes, the black-and-white prints hauntingly mirror the hopes of Doyle, Benjamine, and others of the World War I generation for a mythical, childlike world where hidden beings abound and the dead are never really gone. But the images were also appallingly fake: Some of the angelic fairies sported stylish Parisian hairdos (they were cutouts from fashion magazines) and, on close scrutiny, one figure could be seen with a hat pin protruding from its middle.
In another of Benjamine’s lesson plans, “The Sacred Tarot,” he uncritically stated that the twenty-two major trumps of the Tarot deck were reproductions of images that lined the walls of an Egyptian mystery temple. He seems to have adopted the concept from nineteenth-century French occultist Paul Christian, who fatuously attributed it to Neoplatonic philosopher Iamblichus. The Church of Light advertised Benjamine’s Tarot deck as “painstakingly designed from description of the figures seen on the walls of the Ancient Egyptian Initiation Chamber.” Many of the images were actually painstakingly copied from those published in 1896 by still another Frenchman, René Falconnier. An actor by profession, Falconnier had enticingly reconstituted the medieval-era figures of Tarot into Egyptian-style characters that resembled early costume designs for a Cecil B. DeMille movie. In fairness to Benjamine, he probably considered the Falconnier images authentic replicas of the “Egyptian” originals and was not trying to copycat another’s work.
What Benjamine’s writings lacked in scholarly rigor, they made up for in a surprising tone of civic-minded ethics. In his 1934 volume, Predicting Events, Benjamine emphasized the “Responsibility of the Astrologer to His Client.” He inveighed against manipulation and fatalism, and insisted that the soothsayer should “ever bear in mind the power of suggestion” and always “point out the path of constructive endeavor” so that each reading would urge recipients to “CONTRIBUTE THEIR UTMOST TO UNIVERSAL WELFARE.”
In the midst of the Great Depression, Benjamine conceived of a universalist belief system he called the Religion of the Stars. He saw it as an occult religion that could unite humanity under a peaceable, nonsectarian creed based in the study of ancient astrology and the pursuit of social welfare. Benjamine reasoned, quite cannily, that the festivals and cycles of most historic religions—from solstice celebrations to Christmas—coincided with astrological phenomena. Hence, he believed the ancient art could form the basis of a primeval, ecumenical faith. His 1930s print ads for the Religion of the Stars reflected the social values of Henry A. Wallace’s “New Deal of the Ages.” One showed a torch-bearing horseman riding a winged steed labeled The New Civilization and holding a flag that echoed Benjamine’s motto: CONTRIBUTE YOUR UTMOST TO UNIVERAL WELFARE. The horse and rider leaped over the words WANT, FEAR, CENSORSHIP, ATHEISM. It was a stark counterpoint to contemporaneous ads by fellow occultist and neo-Nazi William Dudley Pelley, who advertised his “Silver Rangers” with another flag-bearing horseman, this one encircled by ominous slogans like: Take Back the Nation from the Alien and Liberty Under Law.
In the late 1940s, Benjamine traveled on lecture tours up and down both American coasts, attempting to recruit converts to his cosmic religion and its ideals of astrology, social welfare, and self-awareness. Shortly before his death in 1951, Benjamine wrote: “It seems inevitable that The Religion of the Stars shall become the world religion of the future because it includes all significant demonstrated facts of both the outer plane and the inner plane.” If Benjamine never attracted quite the membership for which he hoped (his newsletters reached a peak of sixteen thousand people), he succeeded in imparting his style of liberal values to the American occult. Paul Foster Case’s B.O.T.A. came to voice similar aims to those of the Religion of the Stars, defining itself as a “religious organization whose major objective is the promotion of the welfare of humanity through the realization of the potential inherent in each and every human being, utilizing the methods of the Western Mystery Tradition.” It was as though the reformist and occult ideals of the Burned-Over District had migrated west, resulting in a progressive tone that marked the metaphysical culture for the rest of the century.
Go West, Young Magician
A prophet, Christ observed, is never honored in his homeland. So it was that America’s occult prophets often traveled, and more than anywhere else they sought (and frequently found) popularity on the West Coast. Ever since the days of the California Gold Rush, the coast had attracted a steady stream of soothsayers, seers, mediums, and dowsers, the first of whom arrived to assist miners hunting after claims. Historian Fawn Brodie observed that Westerners traditionally “demanded personality rather than diplomas from the men who called them to God.” Metaphysical teachers journeying from the east in the twentieth century found that they faced little scrutiny concerning educational credentials. Science of Mind’s Ernest Holmes was a playground instructor and purchasing agent for Venice, California. The scribe of the Masters of the Far East, Baird T. Spalding, was a gold prospector. William Dudley Pelley, who spent “seven minutes in eternity,” was a screenwriter. Psychiana’s Frank B. Robinson was a druggist. Levi Dowling, author of The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ, was a homeopathic healer. Spencer Lewis, founder of the Ancient and Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (AMORC), was a commercial illustrator. These were entirely self-made religious leaders. But this is not to say that they were less than able. The occult denizens of the twentieth century, particularly those who found audiences on the West Coast, were extremely capable and often displayed an admirable fluidity to shatter the bonds of social position that might have held back earlier generations.
Occultists had influence in every stratum of California society. In the 1950s and 1960s, the political power couple Ronald and Nancy Reagan openly consulted astrologer Carroll Righter and psychic Jeane Dixon. Dixon, the wife of a wealthy real-estate dealer and a favorite among conservative politicians, had built her reputation on predicting the Kennedy assassination. In an article about Dixon on May 13, 1956, Parade magazine reported: “As for the 1960 election, Mrs. Dixon thinks it will be dominated by labor and won by a Democrat. But he will be assassinated or die in office ‘though not necessarily in the first term.’ ” Dixon also made a vast catalog of spurious political and social predictions, some involving communist conspiracies and Israel converting en masse to Christianity.
As governor-elect, Reagan raised eyebrows in 1967 when he scheduled his first inauguration at the otherwise inexplicable hour of 12:10 A.M., prompting persistent questions—which continued throughout his presidency—over the extent of the couple’s devotion to astrology. Reagan would admit only that “Nancy and I enjoy glancing at the daily astrology charts in our morning paper.” But testimony from friends and political allies and even passages in Reagan’s own memoirs attest to the seriousness with which the couple took the occult art and the degree to which they sought the advice of California stargazer Righter, who decided on the midnight inaugural.
While largely forgotten, Righter was once the undisputed dean of American astrology. Born to a prominent Philadelphia family, he began his career as an attorney in the 1930s at a large Pennsylvania law firm. It was a respectable if colorless role in which he probably would have remained, were it not for the influence of New York astrologer Evangeline Adams. A family friend and famous stargazer who briefly hosted her own radio show until her death in 1932, Adams had encouraged Righter in the art since he was a teen. Bored with his legal career, Righter spent much of the Great Depression casting horoscopes to help the unemployed find work. Looking at his own stars, he determined that the West Coast would improve his fragile health, and he set out for Los Angeles in 1937. Once out west, he dropped his legal career and made his hobby of stargazing into a full-time profession. With his society manners and natty style of dress, Righter quickly attracted an upper-crust clientele in Hollywood, including Marlene Dietrich, Lana Turner, and Princess Grace. On March 21, 1969, he became the only astrologer to appear on the cover of Time magazine, staring out pale and gray, as though never touched by California sunshine.
If Righter was the stargazer to the rich and famous, he had a rival in another California arrival, Sydney Omarr, who in the 1950s and ’60s was considered the thinking man’s astrologer. With his gaunt frame, pencil-thin mustache, horn-rimmed eyeglasses, and intense gaze, the younger man could have been taken for a comic-book villain—the kind of mad scientist who vows, Those fools at the university will never laugh at me again! To Omarr, the future of astrology belonged to “ethical astrologers,” as fluent in psychology as in the stars. The same issue of Time that anointed Righter the high priest of American astrology called Omarr a less flamboyant, “highly intelligent younger astrologer who has given up most of his private practice to devote himself to writing and promoting the cause.” While Omarr actually maintained his private practice and, like Righter, published a popular newspaper horoscope column, the bookish forecaster did commit a fair amount of time to debating scientists and critics. He also made inroads with people not often associated with astrology. In 1960, Omarr wrote a short, intriguing book on the theme of astrology in the life and work of writer Henry Miller, titled Henry Miller: His World of Urania. Miller, who considered himself a practicing skeptic of astrology, took the book seriously enough to contribute a substantial foreword, calling astrological analysis “of inestimable aid to those who are tormented by the question of their proper role in life.”
The Magic Boardwalk
Like Righter, Sydney Omarr was a native of Philadelphia, though possessed of a more modest background: He was born in 1926 to a clan of Jewish grocers with the family name Kimmelman. Sidney (as his name was then spelled) hung around local magic shops during the school year and spent summer vacations with his mother and sisters in Atlantic City, New Jersey, an urban beach town with a similar pedigree to Coney Island. Wandering the boardwalks at age fourteen, he discovered the same Professor A. F. Seward who had inspired the astrologer Zolar. Sidney loved watching the “scholarly-looking” Professor Seward sell dollar horoscopes to vacationers. And those dollars added up: Damon Runyon reported in a 1937 column that Seward owned a hotel and several apartment buildings in Miami Beach.
Seward attracted attention wherever he went, in a specially customized thirty-two-foot “land cruiser” sporting astrological symbols, brocade draperies, wooden griffins, and seven Magnavox loudspeakers. Behind the wheel, Sidney saw the image of the man he wanted to be. At fifteen, Sidney Kimmelman changed his name to Sydney Omarr, adopting the surname from Doctor Omar, a fez-wearing rogue (and “Doctor of Nothing”) portrayed by movie idol Victor Mature in a 1941 caper, The Shanghai Gesture. The teenage occultist hit upon the unconventional spelling—adding an extra y to his first name and r to his last—through the magic of numerology, a hugely popular occult practice whereby names were converted to numerals (which had their own mystic interpretation) and sometimes altered to effect a desired outcome. Sydney probably never realized that the “ancient” art behind his new name also originated from his family’s New Jersey vacation spot.
Number mysticism had its earliest roots in the Hebrew and Greek cultures, where numerals and letters shared common symbols and were sometimes seen to harbor hidden meaning. The dilemma for curious Americans was that English letters had no numeric equivalents. But an Atlantic City metaphysician remedied that. The first record of modern numerology (though it was not yet called that) appeared in the early 1900s in the writings of Sarah Joanna Dennis Balliett. Married to a local homeopathic physician, she was better known for her byline, Mrs. L. Dow Balliett. A woman of angular beauty, with high cheekbones and intelligent eyes, Balliett was widely respected in Atlantic City for her civic activities, such as the founding of a Women’s Research Club, and for her impressive range of books on music, mysticism, and movement therapies. A self-professed student of “Pythagorean number mysticism,” Balliett was the first intellect to assign numerals to the letters of the English alphabet. Based on the occult system of multiple digits reducing to single numerals (i.e., 10, as 1 + 0, equals 1), Balliett numbered the alphabet in a repeat pattern of 1 to 9, creating a formula to reveal and interpret the inner meaning of names, dates, and places in the manner of the ancient Greeks and Kabalists (or sort of).
The “Balliett System of Number-Vibration” achieved tremendous popularity under its more memorable name: numerology. The term seems to have been coined in 1871—with no occult connotation at all—by an American anarchist and cosmological philosopher, Stephen Pearl Andrews. He used it to refer to a universal philosophy of numbers. (Andrews also made the first use of the term scientology, again to define an all-compassing theory of life.) By the 1920s the term, which had appeared in several other contexts, was finally, and fatefully, attached to Balliett’s system by one of her most industrious students, Julia Seton, a dentist and New Thought lecturer. The name stuck, and the practice inspired thousands of books and a widespread industry in modern number mysticism—all of it emanating from the sands of Atlantic City, the Alexandria of pop occultism.
Have You a Problem???
Back home in Philadelphia, the newly anointed Sydney Omarr flummoxed his parents, a couple with the unexotic names of Harry and Rose. But Omarr saw the future in more ways than one. He produced mimeographed editions of “Sydney Omarr’s Private Course on Numerology,” which sold for $2 at Philadelphia’s famous book mart, Leary’s. He began writing for astrology magazines, trading articles for classified ad space announcing: Have You a Problem??? … Let Sydney Omarr Help You Solve It. He charged $2 for a personal astrological and numerological profile. “My father, Harry, a grocer, and mother, Rose, a housewife, stopped worrying about me when the checks started coming in,” Omarr recalled.
At seventeen, he joined the Army during World War II and attained the only official military post in astrology, though as an entertainer rather than a stargazing strategist. During the war, Omarr hosted a popular program on Okinawa Armed Forces Radio, where he predicted the results of horse races, boxing matches, and sporting events. His Army career coincided perfectly with the period when astrology was translating into mass entertainment, especially in the form of newspaper columns.
The horoscope column appears to have been born in England on August 24, 1930, when prognosticator R. H. Naylor cast a star chart for the infant Princess Margaret in the Sunday Express. Naylor’s article included “a few hints on the happenings of this week” and general forecasts for upcoming birthdays. Readers loved it and wrote in for more, leading to a widely read weekly feature. America’s newspaper empires took notice. The now ubiquitous “sun sign” columns, in which twelve short daily predictions are pegged to zodiacal birth symbols, probably got started in 1936 in the New York Post, which began running a feature by Edward A. Wagner, a reporter-turned-stargazer. By 1945, about 150 newspapers—still fewer than ten percent of all U.S. dailies—ran astrology columns. In the decades ahead, the trend exploded to the point where, by 1968, about 1,250 out of 1,750 daily papers included sun-sign columns. Reaching millions, the columns were dominated by the cohort of Omarr, Righter, and psychic Jeane Dixon (who Omarr complained to The New York Times wasn’t “running a legitimate astrology column”).
For Omarr, the 1960s and ’70s were a time flush with regular appearances as the “house astrologer” on The Merv Griffin Show, high-flying parties, Santa Monica sunshine, and his own stable of movie-star clients. But, as he aged, the astrologer faced deep difficulties, physically and perhaps in other respects. By the early twenty-first century, in his seventies, he had been blinded and paralyzed by multiple sclerosis, diagnosed three decades earlier. His tone coarsened, as he bragged to biographers of once victimizing a weaker schoolmate. Toward the end of his life—possibly in need of funds or just entertaining a late-career thrill—the thinking-man’s astrologer licensed Sydney Omarr’s Horoscope Slot Machine to Las Vegas casinos. “Other business proposals riding on Omarr’s name recognition are in the works,” reported the Los Angeles Times—proposals that included the postmortem production of his books and columns by ghostwriters. It was not the legacy foreseen for the stargazer that Time had once called astrology’s “most skillful and sober public protagonist.” With success came a new temptation to the American occult, or at least to its biggest names: selling out.
* Astrologers strenuously disagreed among themselves about the timing of the zodiacal phenomenon.
† The Kybalion is often misdated to 1912. But the copyright and first edition were actually from 1908. The error arose from a 1940 edition in which the publisher listed the initial registration as 1912, almost certainly in an attempt to reassert control over a copyright that had fallen into public domain after failing to be renewed at the required 28-year interval.
* Case was not alone in airing Golden Dawn philosophy. Israel Regardie, a former secretary to British occultist Aleister Crowley and an accomplished intellect in his own right, published a four-part series of Golden Dawn documents from 1937 to 1940. Regardie’s volumes are broader, though less accessible, than Case’s.
* The edition was published by the present author.
* In 1932, the brotherhood reorganized itself as the Church of Light, seeking legal protection when Los Angeles County passed anti-“fortune-telling” ordinances, similar to those in New York, which curtailed the commercial practice of astrology.