Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Secret Life of a Satanist's Grandparents: Leon Levy

I begin with the Anton LaVey genealogy prepared by noted amateur genealogist William Addams Reitwiesner.  Reitweisner cautions that this material "should not be considered either exhaustive or authoritative, but rather as a first draft." Accordingly, I've done as much checking and cross-checking as possible.  Genealogy generally involves a whole lot of speculating, a good bit of informed guessing, and occasional wild leaps of faith.   This is especially true when dealing with Anton LaVey. Dates can be off by a decade or more: we frequently run into spelling variants and multiple addresses which may be residences or offices.  So like Reitweisner I must consider these efforts a work in progress: I welcome any corrections or additions by knowledgeable people.

On October 7, 1888 the Omaha Daily Bee informs us "Miss Emma R.H. Goldsmith is to be married to Leon Levy on Tuesday, October 23." The October 28, 1888 edition contains this wedding announcement:
Leon Levy, of Bennett, and Miss Emma R.N. Goldsmith were married at the synagogue on Tuesday evening. The reception and supper were given at the Esmond hotel, and dancing continued until 2 a.m.
Bennett was approximately 50 miles (80km) west of Omaha, and is presently a suburb of Lincoln. Was Leon just passing through on his way to visit relatives when he met the pretty young girl from Louisville, Kentucky?  (There are Levys, Levis and Leveys located throughout the region, many from the sizable Jewish community in Metz, France).   Did the sophisticated man with the adorable French accent sweep the young girl off her feet?  We can imagine all sorts of romantic scenarios but the exact story of their meeting will likely remain one of those mysteries Leon's grandson so treasured.

Instead of moving on, Leon and his new bride stayed in Omaha. The city had seen a dramatic boom as settlers flooded Nebraska. Leopold Goldsmith, Emma's father, had been a junk dealer back in Kentucky before moving to Nebraska at some point in the 1880s.  There the Goldsmiths had thrived. The 1914 Omaha city directory lists his sons Louis and Samuel (d/b/a Goldsmith Brothers) as partners in several business ventures, including dry goods and real estate.  There were fortunes to be made on the prairie and so Leon and Emma Levy settled down to the business of making theirs.

Based on the census evidence, they did quite well.  In 1900 the U.S. census lists Leon Levy as a "cigar merchant" (and lists an eight-year old student named Michael, better known today as Anton LaVey's father).  The 1910 census lists him as a "Retail Merchant/Grocery Store:" his son Michael is listed as a clerk in a real estate office while his older son Ike (a graduate of the Creighton University School of Pharmacy) is listed as a "druggist."

But perhaps Leon's most profitable sideline was as a liquor merchant.  And here he ran headlong into a midwestern phenomenon which was big and only getting bigger -- the Temperance Movement.  When crusaders against the evils of drink couldn't ban Demon Rum outright, they set out to harass tavern keepers, pharmacists and other Agents of Drunkenness with taxes, regulations and measures designed to drive them out of business.   In Nebraska the Anti-Saloon League lobbied for Sunday closure of taverns throughout the Commonwealth.  On November 25, 1908 we find this article in the Omaha Daily Bee:
That Number of Indictments Returned on Twenty-Third Day of Month by Grand Jury 
Twenty-three indictments on the twenty-third day of the month against saloon-keepers, druggists and keepers of houses of ill fame for alleged illegal sales of liquor, were returned by the county grand jury yesterday. The saloon keepers were all charged with selling liquor on Sunday: the druggists with failing to keep a register for the recording of liquor sales, and the keepers of houses of ill fame, for selling without a license... 
George McArdle, William Silk, Leon Levy, William Hartman, William C. Paulsen, William Burke, Mrs. L. Burke, Max Grim, Charles Palmtag and Frank Bauer are in the list of saloon keepers.
Leon Levi Gets Ninety Days When He Fails to Pay Fine for Lid Lifting 
Upon his faiure to pay a $200 fine which was imposed by Judge Crawford, Leon Levi, who conducts a cigar store at 709 North Sixteenth Street, was sentenced to ninety days in jail Tuesday on the charge of selling liquor without a license.  Levi was arrested Friday night, when the police raided his place of business and confiscated a quantity of liquor.
Things weren't going so well for Leon at home either.  In a May 1911 divorce hearing Emma Levy testified loudly "I would rather go to the pen for twenty years than stay with my husband one day!" The divorce decree was finally signed in late May. Leon left to spend some time in Salt Lake City, where his brother Adolph owned the Vienna Bakery.  Perhaps he was hoping to make a new start: perhaps he wanted to take some time to recoup from what had obviously been a rough year.  Whatever his plans, they were cut suddenly short.  On July 5, 1911, at the age of 54 years, Leon Levy died suddenly of an unexplained disease.

Because Leon died before the sixty-day period in which the decree was to be finalized, Emma Levy's attorneys were able to get a decree abating the divorce. This put her in line to inherit Leon Levy's property, which consisted primarily of some real estate and a $2,000 life insurance policy from the fraternal order Woodmen of the World. (Both Levy and his wife were members of WoW: Emma Levy belonged to the auxiliary "Woodmen Circle").  But for whatever reason Emma did not live long to enjoy her inheritance: by April of 1912 she was also dead and at 21 years old, Michael Levy found himself an orphan.

1914 finds Michael Levy still in Nebraska, working as a travel agent in Grand Island.  Sometime after that he moves to Chicago, where he meets a news stand owner's daughter named Gertrude.  But that is a story for another time.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Satanism: The Story of a Reluctant Antichrist and the Hell he Raised

My most recent post on Anton LaVey spawned a fair bit of conversation on Facebook.  There was particular interest when I floated the idea of a book on Satanism as an American cultural movement ala New Orleans Voodoo. Hence my latest project, tentatively titled Satanism: the Story of a Reluctant Antichrist and the Hell he Raised.  

On one hand the research is easier than The New Orleans Voodoo Handbook.  New Orleans Voodoo has a 250+ year history spanning multiple continents. Satanism as we know it today can be traced to one time (the mid-1960s), one place (San Francisco) and one man (Howard Stanton "Tony" Levey, better known by his preferred monicker of Anton Szandor LaVey). On the other hand, things are a lot more complicated.

At the time of his death LaVey was embroiled in a number of personal controversies. He had also acquired a number of competitors who wanted to discredit him.  This meant that a cottage industry arose in material which painted LaVey in the worst possible light.  Accordingly, people close to Anton LaVey tend to be instinctively wary when questioned: people who hated him are only too happy to share their grievances.

I have no desire to write a salacious tell-all, especially since LaVey's life doesn't appear to have been all that salacious.  (He's certainly got nothing on transvestite meth-head priests).  I won't hide unflattering information if it is important to his work, if it sheds light on his philosophy or influence. But I'm primarily concerned with his failings insofar as they shed light on his accomplishments.  Tragic flaws interest me: petty ones not so much.

When I started this project I had LaVey pegged as an entertainer, a comedian whose tongue was always firmly in cheek.  I still think there's a great deal of truth to that: many of his followers and detractors alike take him WAY too seriously.  Anton LaVey as an artist, writer and performer is comparable to people like William S. Burroughs and Andy Kaufman.  As a religious leader he all too often gets judged in the light of clowns like Grand Magister Malodorous and High Priest Gorgoroth of the Temple of Eternel (sic) Evil.

Then I saw a throwaway line where LaVey told Lawrence Wright that he hadn't done a Black Mass in over twenty years.  And I realized that here's a guy who could have made a tidy living working the lecture circuit.  Hell, I'm imagining LaVey with robe and hood, holding up a sword and proclaiming  "In this arid wilderness of steel and stone I raise up my voice that you may hear. To the East and to the West I beckon. To the North and to the South I show a sign proclaiming: LIVE FROM NEW YORK, IT'S SATURDAY NIGHT!!!"

But he didn't do that.  Instead he watched like Sauron from Barad-Dur as others ran with his ideas (and more often than not got them spectacularly wrong). For a good part of Satanism's story Anton LaVey is conspicuous by his absence. Those aren't the actions of someone who was doing this as a performance, someone who was just looking for a quick buck.  There are many religions founded by conmen pretending to be prophets.  Anton LaVey was a prophet pretending to be a conman. He may have played a little fast and loose with the facts, but he believed everything he said.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Anton LaVey, Lawrence Wright and the Semi-Reliable Narrator

My favorite LaVey/Barton picture
In a 1991 Rolling Stone article entitled "Sympathy for the Devil: It’s not easy being evil in a world that’s gone to hell," Lawrence Wright found several of Anton LaVey's autobiographical claims to be partially or wholly untrue. Since that time his findings have been reproduced in various documents intended to "debunk" LaVey: estranged daughter Zeena's "Anton LaVey: Legend and Reality" is probably the most notorious and widely distributed. Most of these pages are obvious hatchet jobs which are best ignored. But for those who wish to study LaVey and his cultural impact Wright's research is not so easily dismissed. Like Burroughs and Warhol, LaVey's persona is a major part of his oeuvre. How do we determine where facts end and fiction begins -- and when does it matter?

LaVey long claimed experience as a lion tamer and calliope player in the 1947 Clyde Beatty Circus and later work with an unnamed carnival through 1948. Contacting the Circus World Museum, Wright finds no evidence placing him with Beatty at that time, but notes that several of the acts LaVey allegedly played for actually worked with Ringling Brothers. Let's put aside for a moment the possibility that LaVey traveled with a smaller show -- there were many traveling the California coast in 1947 and 1948 -- and assume LaVey made the whole thing up. Why? What did he hope to gain from presenting himself as a carny and, indeed, from making it a central part of the Anton Szandor LaVey persona?

The carny is charming, fascinating and not to be trusted: exaggeration and hyperbole are all part of his game. Like any barker, we can hardly expect LaVey to let the facts get in the way of a good spiel. This is an easy enough way to dismiss the whole problem -- and LaVey. But it is more useful as a clue in how one should read LaVey's work. He may use colorful language or fanciful stories, but it is all in good fun. The boasts will typically be benign, impressive-sounding but empty upon close reflection. Much of LaVey's so-called fraud is mere puffery. Consider this example from Wright:
[LaVey] said he was the official organist of the city of San Francisco until 1966, playing “the largest pipe organ west of Chicago" in the Civic Auditorium, where so many conventions were held. "I played official banquets, political functions, basketball games.” (There actually was no position as city organist in San Francisco, according to Julie Burford at the Civic Auditorium. Carole LaVey's divorce pleadings state that her husband's sole income was $29.91 per week, derived from playing the Wurlitzer organ at the Lost Weekend nightclub and "various infrequent affairs at the Civic Auditorium.")
LaVey may have granted himself an imaginary title, but those divorce papers show that he did in fact play the largest pipe organ west of Chicago on multiple occasions. And while others have questioned the nature of his relationship with Jayne Mansfield, consider this comment from a retired San Francisco police inspector (and yes, that's his real name):
"I remember Jayne, all right," says Jack Webb. In the early days of the church, Webb used to drop by for some of the rituals, along with several other San Francisco cops. "One night she was lying naked on Tony's grand piano. I'll never forget that sight."
While we still have no clue as to what Mansfield and LaVey did or did not do in bed, that unofficial police report suggests their relationship may well have been more than friendly. I've found a similar trend in cases where records are available -- and keep in mind some of these incidents happened 70 years ago: more often than not the data supports LaVey's claims .

Sometimes names are changed to protect the innocent: he called his parents "Joe and Augusta" rather than "Michael and Gertrude" because he wanted them kept out of the spotlight. (Seeing as how Lawrence Wright contacted LaVey's 87 year-old father in the course of this interview, we can understand his concern). And, unsurprisingly, the man who wanted "total controlled environments" also wanted total control over his personal image. Even more than the typical man of his era, LaVey hated showing weakness. Yet for all that he was surprisingly honest and self-effacing as often as boastful.

Wright is a decent writer and a competent journalist. I can't fault his research skills or his turn of phrase. And there is one transcendent moment where he almost Gets It, the point when he realizes "'Anton LaVey' was itself his supreme creation, his ultimate satanic object, a sort of android composed of all the elements his mysterious creator had chosen from the universe of dark possibilities." But he never takes the next step, never realizes "Hey! Lawrence Wright can be MY supreme creation." Instead, because he can't figure out LaVey's theology or grasp some Great Truth, he concludes "LaVey is like so many other self-created American legends; the whole point of his existence is to be understood immediately."