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."