Alchemy is generally dismissed as pseudoscience, and its connection to art history may be hard to discern. But the Getty Research Institute has a major collection of alchemy manuscripts and books, on view in “The Art of Alchemy.” The core of the collection is a set of 243 alchemy manuscripts acquired in 1995 from the collection of Manly Palmer Hall (1901-1990). That name probably doesn’t ring a bell, but he was once a celebrity L.A. author and guru, friend to notables ranging from Boris Karloff and Harry Houdini to Sam Yorty and John Denver. Hall officiated at the weddings of Bela Lugosi and Charles Bukowski. Architecture buffs know him as one of the owners of Frank Lloyd Wright’s ever-crumbling Ennis House.
Another friend of Hall’s was photographer William Mortenson (his 1935 portrait of Hall is at top of post). Mortenson is remembered because the f/64 group regarded his style, an amalgam of Pictoralism and Hollywood kitsch, as anathema.
Manly Hall was, like his contemporary Aimee Semple McPherson, a Canadian who moved to L.A. and struck it rich in the alternative religion game. Oil heiress Carolyn Lloyd gave Hall a generous stipend, financing a grand tour in which Hall was able to educate himself in the wisdom of the ages. The result was his book The Secret Teachings of All Ages: An Encyclopedic Outline of Masonic, Hermetic, Qabbalistic and Rosicrucian Symbolical Philosophy (1928). This and other of Hall’s books on esoteric spiritualism were read by H.P. Lovecraft, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Elvis.
Hall poured some of his growing wealth into a collection of rare books, manuscripts, and artifacts, many purchased for rock-bottom prices in the 1930s. The alchemy manuscripts at the GRI are just one small component of the collection. Among the works, and the centerpiece of the GRI show, is a spectacular, 20-foot-long copy of the Ripley Scroll, about 1700.
It’s named for George Ripley, a 15th-century English alchemist who (probably) created the now-lost prototype. The scroll is known through about 23 hand-written and painted copies. Shown is “The Serpent of Arabia,” an dragon-ouroboros biting its tail, and “The Scribe,” which may represent Ripley himself.
In 1934 Hall founded a nonprofit library, the Philosophical Research Society, to house his collection. It’s at 3910 Los Feliz Blvd and is still in business (also billed as the University of Philosophical Research). Though rather overlooked nowadays, the Society has over 50,000 volumes and is open to the public for lectures and events. The most dangerously occult manuscripts are stored under a Buddha, to neutralize them.
How did the alchemy manuscripts end up at the Getty?
The answer involves one of the more sensational of L.A. crime cold cases. Hall was married twice. The first wife committed suicide; the second was, in the opinion of the FBI, a nut case. It’s not clear that either marriage was consummated. Second wife Marie Bauer said Hall was super-gay.
That’s not to say that Marie was a reliable narrator. She was obsessed with the notion that Francis Bacon had written the Shakespeare plays. She also believed that Bacon encoded clues in the Shakespearean canon pointing to a buried treasure in Williamsburg, Virginia. This supposedly contained gold chalices, unpublished “Shakespeare” plays, a plan for establishing heaven on earth—plus treasure maps to further prizes. Marie pestered the FBI to investigate the matter, insisting the treasure was vital to national security. The Feds told her to buzz off.
Marie couldn’t help boasting, to anyone within earshot, that her husband’s Philosophical Research Library contained a collection worth $300 million. One who heard that was Daniel Henry Fritz, a handsome jack-of-all-trades. Fritz told people he was a reincarnated prince of Atlantis. His day job was running a colonic-irrigation center in Santa Monica. Fritz quickly took an interest in Hall, becoming a live-in caregiver. While employed, Fritz took out large business loans that were not repaid. It was also noticed that valuable objects disappeared from the Philosophical Research Library when Fritz visited.
According to Marie, Fritz’s care included giving her husband hand jobs during colonic irrigation. On Aug. 23, 1990, Hall signed a will bequeathing his entire fortune to the Philosophical Research Society. He had already named Fritz director of the society, so the will effectively gave everything to Fritz. Marie and stepchildren got nothing.
Six days later, Fritz called to report that Hall was dead. Authorities found Hall’s body in bed, stiff and stone cold, with ants streaming from his eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. The coroner ruled that foul play was a strong possibility, but no charges were filed.
Marie Hall launched a legal battle to overturn the will. She succeeded in getting custody of much of the assets. In 1995, to defray legal bills, Marie sold the alchemy material to the Getty Research Institute for $750,000.
Fritz died in Reno in 2001. Marie died in L.A., four years later, at age 100.
It’s generally assumed that Fritz murdered Hall for financial gain. The ants suggest Hall died outside and the body had been laying on the ground for some time before someone moved it to bed, figuring that would raise fewer questions.
There is another theory, and it involves alchemy. Louis Sahagun, author of Master of the Mysteries: The Life of Manly Palmer Hall (2008) told the Heathen Harvest blog,
“Manly Hall was an ardent supporter and proponent of magical notions and prescriptions dispensed by people like [16th-century Swiss-German alchemist] Paracelsus. Much of what Hall wrote had been deliberately edited to exclude things he thought might make people uncomfortable. One of those things, for example, was the Paracelsian notion that ants carry away negativity from the human body like little pack mules. So after he died and he’s covered with ants and they’re pouring out of his head and no one can answer why that is, why do you think it was? Because when Manly died, someone carried him out with molasses stuffed in his ears, nose, and mouth and rolled him around on anthills so that the ants would take away the bad vibes. Afterwards, they put him back on his bed and called the doctor to say he’d died.”
Fritz may have killed Hall, but he gave him an alchemist’s last rites?
Hall’s influence lives on in unexpected ways. The GRI is showing a 1957 experimental film, Early Abstractions–Number 10 by beat-generation polymath and musicologist Harry Smith. The film’s imagery is inspired by that in Hall’s Secret Teachings of All Ages.
Among the many Hollywood actors who fell under Hall’s spell was Ronald Reagan. When he turned to politics, Reagan cribbed a favorite anecdote and some language from Hall in his speeches. Reagan insisted on taking his oath of office as California governor at 12:10 AM, the witching hour, for its mystic significance.
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