It’s not easy being evil in a world that’s gone to hell
September 5th, 1991
By Lawrence Wright
Photographs by Mary Ellen mark
Anton LaVey, High Priest of Satan
Is the Devil real? This certainly looks like the Evil One himself getting out of a black Jaguar and coming through the glass doors of a restaurant with a blonde on his arm. It's an interesting proposition and one that, after all, millions of Americans believe: Satan lives, and his real-life incarnation is the person of Anton Szandor LaVey.
His devilish appearance is cultivated, of course: the shaved head; the black slacks, black shirt and ascot, black leather jacket and black fisherman's cap; the Leninesque goatee, sun shimmeringly black, although LaVey is now sixty-one years old; and the tiny gold ear loop in his left lobe. That much, however, would describe most of the leftover beatniks still wandering around San Francisco. No, there definitely something more, something innately sinister about this man.
His ears, you notice, are slightly pointed, and when he doffs his cap, you see his head is as well. He has a peculiar walk -a splayfoot, simian shuffle he says he picked up during his days in the circus and the carnival. Pale skin, which you would expect in a man who never sees the sun, but unnaturally youthful and lightly flecked with freckles. A gap-toothed smile that is missing an upper-left incisor. Amber eyes that scarcely look human - more like the eyes of a big cat, with a cat's sleepy intensity and implacable indifference. It is a wicked face, which is to say that it is charming, defiant, jaded, beguiling, humorous, bitter, knowing and even a bit insouciant. How else would the Devil appear?
LaVey's reputation as the Devil incarnate began with his establishment of the Church of Satan, in San Francisco in 1966, and was enlarged through his writings - most notably The Satanic Bible, which was published in 1969 and has sold more than 600,000 copies through thirty printings. It was this book - a romantic celebration of indulgence, vengeance and existential doubt- that earned him the reputation among many religious believers as the “evilest man in the world." It also made him a dark hero to the disaffected, the alienated, the marginal personalities, for whom his philosophy rang chords of recognition and identity.
“Anton LaVey is the pivotal figure in the growth and dissemination of satanic theology in America - he is the Saint Paul of Satanism," says Dr. Carl Raschke author of Painted Black, which surveys the spread of satanic activity amid the young and the phenomenal rise in reported cases of ritual abuse. And yet, as LaVey points out, “I've never presented myself as having spoken directly to Satan or God or being in touch with any sort of divinity or having any sort of spiritual mandate. I just feel that what I'm doing is part of my nature."
Reviled as a despoiler of youth, dismissed as a con man and a carny trickster, pursued by thrill seekers and Bible thumpers and occult weirdos, LaVey has become increasingly reclusive over the years. Indeed, he is often rumored to have died long ago. His church, which once boasted “grottoes" in many major cities in the country, is now largely disbanded. During the Sixties, LaVey fashioned himself into an archetype of our depraved unconscious; he hobnobbed with movie stars and boasted of affairs with Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield; he was our libido let out of its cage; he was the Black Pope, raging and blaspheming and flaunting our taboos. Back then Satanism was new and shocking, and LaVey was its most conspicuous practitioner. The post office would deliver mail to him addressed only to Satan.
Now, in the Nineties, satanic cults are springing up, it seems, in every little township and crossroads in America. Rock groups openly worship the Devil. Police departments all over the country are coping with rumors of human sacrifice and hospitals with survivors of ritual abuse. The signs of satanic activity can be found not only in the graffiti on subway trains but in the growing number of teenage suicides and actual cases of ritual murder.
Meanwhile, the spiritual father of this movement has retired to his gloomy house in the Richmond district of San Francisco, where he lives a self-consciously ascetic life, surrounded by his books, weapons and keyboards, by his pets and magical artifacts, and by Blanche Barton, his Boswell and omnipresent blond companion.
I had read increasingly sketchy reports about LaVey's existence and wondered whether he was sick or in hiding, or even if, in some secret fashion, he was reformed. I suppose I hoped for that. He has made a career out of exploring the shadows of the human psyche. “I am all that is vile, reprehensible and evil in the world," he has boasted. "I am people's worst nightmares.” Despite the absurdity of the claim, I felt more than a little anxiety about our meeting. After all, the danger that LaVey represents to society is not who he is but who we are.
“WHAT DRESSING WOULD YOU LIKE ON YOUR SALAD?" the waiter inquired.
“Blue cheese," I said.
LaVey and Barton exchanged a look, then returned to their menus. Unknowingly, I had just failed the LaVey Salad-Dressing Test. According to The Satanic Witch, his guide for lovelorn sorceresses, "dominant, masculine archetypes [like LaVey) prefer sweet dressings, such as French, Russian, Thousand Island," because the smell resembles the odor of a woman's sexual organs. Blue cheese, on the other hand, is “reminiscent of a locker full of well-worn jockstraps." It is suitable, really, only for wimps and submissive females. LaVey ordered the twenty-two-ounce porterhouse steak, rare.
We were talking about violence and the corruption of art, which LaVey blames on television. "But a lot of what has been unleashed is because of the Church of Satan," said Barton, a plump and intensely pale young woman with little spit curls poking out from under her blue pillbox hat - a sort of blond Betty Boop but with a Phi Beta Kappa pin on her dress.
LaVey agreed: "I promoted the idea where everybody is a god. That's the Pandora's box I'm partly responsible for opening. I helped create this big-shot-ism in everybody.”
“And are you glad you opened Pandora's box?" I asked, innocently enjoying my salad.
Yeah, because things have to get worse before they can get better," said LaVey. "But I think we've already reached the lowest level of artistic expression as a result of this new-found sovereignty in every man." Although he spoke quietly, a terrible cloud had come over his face. “Here we're really dealing with the ‘dignity’ of the human animal. I find more dignity in the movement of a fish, the shape of a horse...”
He was off on one of his misanthropic rants. I would hear that theme played again and again over the two weeks we would spend dining together and hanging around the parlor of his famous black house. During those sessions, which lasted until I staggered away in exhaustion, usually around four in the morning, I often wondered what it was that had caused him to become so alienated from the human race. I thought if I could get to the bottom of LaVey's rage, then I would find some great truth about the human need to pursue evil. Later I would realize that the notion that one could find truth and perhaps even salvation through the exploration of repressed human needs was itself a satanic idea - perhaps the ultimate satanic idea.
“I actually have more respect for vegetables than I do for people - I hate to even leave a pea on my plate;” LaVey said as he pronged one with his fork. "This little pea died for me. I know I'm beginning to sound like Albert Schweitzer, but for this pea to be able to grow and fulfill its purpose on the planet; that's more than most humans ever accomplish."
LaVey and companion Blanche Barton, author of his biography, 'The Secret Life of a Satanist'
"Do you believe peas have souls?" I asked.
"Well, I wouldn't use the word soul, but I do believe there are living entities beyond what we normally understand. Anything can have life bestowed upon it - a car, a good faithful car; a typewriter; a house, certainly, becomes a living entity. Who can say these objects are not alive?" With that the pea moved on to its final reward.
“I'VE ALWAYS BEEN FASCINATED BY THE UNDERBELLY of humanity," LaVey told me in one of our early morning discourses in his purple parlor. He was sitting in his armchair, beside a bookcase predictably filled with obscure occult literature, but there were also a number of coffee-table books on Hollywood, biographies of Marilyn Monroe, books on circus and carnival lore. noticed Yeats's Memoirs, as well as several books by one of my favorite authors, Ben Hecht. Also The Complete Jack the Ripper, Eros and Evil and My Father, by Maria Rasputina, which was inscribed “Happy winter solstice, To my father, Love, Karla."
On the mantel above the fake fireplace (it was actually a secret entrance to a ritual chamber) were pictures of his daughters, Karla and Zeena. Karla is like her father, with black hair and humorous black eyes. "I've always been conspicuous" she confessed when we met. "Like my teachers would tell us to write a story about our pets, and I would write about my pet tarantula and the leopard who slept in my bed. We were really like the Adams family." Karla is now a realtor in Marin County and an occasional lecturer on witchcraft.
Zeena, LaVey's younger daughter, is an exotic pale blonde who has become a notorious spokesperson for Satanism in her own right. She has appeared on a number of talk shows, usually with her boyfriend, Nikolas Schreck, a member of the band Radio Werewolf. "Zeena is trying to gain recognition," LaVey told me with obvious mixed feelings. “She feels she has a legacy to gain. I think she's got a father fixation."
There were no windows in this parlor. The only light came from what I supposed to be a twenty-five-watt bulb in the lamp behind LaVey's chair. He claims to be photophobic, one of his many vampiric qualities, which include an allergy to garlic. When he reads, even in this light he wears a pair of bifocal sunglasses. Beside him, on one side of his chair, were his crystal ball and bullwhip; on the other, a stuffed armadillo and a machine gun. "I guess,” LaVey said, “I’ve lived a sort of noir existence since I was a kid."
He was born, he said, Anton Szandor LaVey, on April 11th, 1930, in Chicago, to Joe and Augusta LaVey - although even these initial details have been the subject of some dispute. (There is no such name as LaVey listed in the Cook County birth records; however, there was a Howard Stanton Levey born on that day to parents Mike and Gertrude.)
He had what he called a "subjective childhood." His parents were "very normal," with no interest in the dark side. “The story of my father's life was to blend into the woodwork. My mother was the same way. They were very paranoid about the neighbors and what people thought of them. In a way it was good. I was allowed to take my own lead. In that sense, I couldn't have chosen better parents."
His religious background was “every iconoclastic and extremely permissive," he said. 'My own family were nonparticipants. I was never pushed into a religious formula. The only thing I ever heard about religion was "Another name for God is nature.” We did have relatives who were Christian and Jewish. I had an aunt who was a Christian Scientist and an atheist uncle. You could say I grew up a second-generation nonbeliever or cynic."
According to LaVey, most Satanists are stigmatized as youths. When I asked him about the stigmas of his own childhood, he spoke vaguely about his unpopularity with other kids and his inability to dance. “My life wasn't awful - my only stigma was up here” he said, pointing at his face. I was odd looking. By today's standards I would have looked fine, but in 1939 I was not cute. I was certainly not a Van Johnson or a John Wayne." He did talk about his horror of going to gym with the other boys, which was so great that he managed to get a doctor's excuse to avoid it. He said he spent his gym periods in the clinic eyeing the sexy school nurse.
Frankly, these did not seem like such traumatic experiences that they would catapult a person into Satanism. I was still groping for some telling incident in LaVey's childhood as I read the manuscript of Barton's authorized biography of him, The Secret Life of a Satanist (since published by Feral House). There I ran across this passage: "Had tail removed. Extra vertebra removed near the end of Tony's spine which formed a prehensile tail, a caudal appendage, which seems to occur about 1 in every 100,000 births."
"You had a tail?"
"Yeah. I had it removed when I was thirteen or fourteen, under very painful circumstances."
"Don't you think that might have been stigmatizing ?”
"I never thought about it," said LaVey, "although it really was profoundly disruptive to everything I did. I couldn't sit straight in a chair because it would get inflamed. Several times it had to be lanced and drained. The last time it happened we were camping on rocky terrain. I rolled around and must have banged it. Next day it started itching. Two days later it really flared up.” It was wartime, and there was a shortage of hospital rooms and anesthesia. He said he was operated on, on a gurney in the hospital hallway, with a local anesthetic that was not very effective. He recalled biting through the rubber cover of his pillow.
World War II was in many ways a thrilling period in LaVey's life. He would wear military outfits to school, and occasionally he got to go on submarine patrols in a boat owned by his uncle, who had been recruited by the Coast Guard Reserve. “The Second World War and its permissiveness were not lost on me,” LaVey said. "Prurience was the order of the day."
He had already experienced what he would later term in E.C.I. (for Erotic Crystallization Inertia) when he was five years old. A girl at a birthday party invited him into her room. When her mother suddenly came to find them, the little girl was so upset she peed in her pants. “The E.C.I. is the split second of sexual awakening," LaVey explained. "A switch goes off inside." After that, the sight of women urinating became a particular fetish for LaVey. He associated it especially with carnivals, because that was a place where girls became giddy and excited on rides; it felt like a lustful environment.
When he was eleven, he was earning money picking up bottles around an outdoor dance pavilion, and he discovered a hole under the ladies' restroom. "Tony made sure he was front and center whenever he spied an interesting woman going to relieve herself” Barton notes.
When he was sixteen he experienced another E.C.I. He was at a party; some of the kids were wrestling, and a girl's dress was hiked up so that LaVey could see her plump thighs and pale skin. She was a blonde. “She was just another schoolgirl," LaVey said. "I wasn't even interested in her." But forever after, blondes were it for him - an unending source of love and trouble.
WE HAD MOVED IN THE KITCHEN WHERE LAVEY KEPT his eight keyboards, his two house cats and his pet boa constrictor, Boaz. Music has always been at the center of LaVey’s life and his magic as well. "I play kitsch music -bombastic, schmalizy, corny- the kind of music you hear in the background of cartoons," he said unapologetically as he took a seat inside his nest of synthesizers and samplers.
"Satanic music is not heavy-metal rock & roll," he said. In his opinion, the music of supposed satanic groups such as AC/DC and Slayer is not really occult because millions of people hear their songs on records and in concerts. What is really occult is what no one ever listens to anymore, songs that were popular but now are long forgotten, such as “Telstar" and "Yes We Have No Bananas." LaVey keeps a list of such lost songs. He believes that by playing them, he releases their power.
"Music is a magical tool, a universal language," he said. “If you wanted it to rain, for instance, you could play every song with rain in the title. If no one else is playing those songs, there is still a certain charge in them. It might just rain."
That sounded pretty tame to me although LaVey has claimed in the past that he went cuckoo on the keyboards one night and caused the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City.
His musical career began, LaVey said, at the age of five, when he went into a music store with his mother and spontaneously picked out a tune on a harp. Soon he was studying violin, then drums and oboe. By the time he was fifteen, he said, he was sufficiently accomplished to play second oboe with the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra. (According to the San Francisco Performing Arts Library, there was no such orchestra in 1945. The ballet employed the local symphony for its performances, and none of the three oboists was named LaVey or Levey.)
The kitchen was painted black with fiendish murals on the walls. There was a small hum of electricity when LaVey turned on his synthesizers, which amused Boaz in his lighted box on the kitchen table. LaVey himself became visibly energized. His life story resumed, this time set to music.
He began with “The Gladiator's Entry," the traditional opening song of the circus, played with a wheezing calliope sound. LaVey's legend, as he has told it many times, is that in the spring of 1947 he ran away and joined the Clyde Beatty Circus. “I got in trouble with the law and had to take off," he said without further explanation. He signed on as a roustabout and cage boy. "After a short time, 17-year-old LaVey was handing eight Nubian lions and four Bengal tigers in the cage at once,” says Barton's book. LaVey said that he learned some elemental lessons in magic upon being knocked to the ground and finding himself on his back with the hot breath of a lion in his face: “You have just one defense left: willpower. Any good cat trainer has to learn how to use it, how to charge himself full of adrenalin, to send out gamma rays to penetrate the brain of the cat. That's when you really learn power and magic, even how to play God."
One day the calliope player, Fred Mullen, got drunk, and LaVey was pressed into service. He played the William Tell Overture - to such enthusiastic reviews that Mullen spent the rest of the season on the sidelines. "Anton would subsequently perform mood setting, emotionally charged music to accompany some of the world's most famous circus acts: the Hannefords' riding team, the Concellos, Harold Alzana, the Flying Wallendas, the Cristianis and others," says the Barton biography (According to the Circus World Museum, in Baraboo, Wisconsin, which has the 1947 route books of the Beatty circus, there was no one named LaVey or Levey listed, in either the cages or the band, which does not mean that he might not have been employed in some other capacity for a brief period of time. Several of the acts that Barton lists in her book, however, such as the Concellos, Harold Alzana and the Cristianis, were primarily Ringling Brothers performers.)
Now the music changed. It was the snaky sound of “The Billboard March" -the melody of the midway, the freak shows, the hoochie-coochie girls. The next stop of the LaVey legend was the carnival, where in the late Forties and early Fifties he said he played the Hammond organ and learned to tell fortunes: "I got to rub elbows with human oddities freaks dancers, showgirls who wanted to be stars - it was a chance to meet people who were really marginal."
LaVey claimed to have gotten a critical insight into the nature of religion during this period because he was often recruited by traveling evangelists to play gospel tunes. My exposure to grassroots Christianity was on a real dirt-lot tent-show level," LaVey recalled. While he was playing “Bringing in the Sheaves” he would look out at the audience clamoring to be saved. "I'd see the same goddamned faces that had been ogling the half-naked girls at the carnival the night before,” It was, he has said many times before, a revelation: “I knew then that the Christian church thrives on hypocrisy and that man's carnal nature will out no matter how much it is purged or scourged by any white-light religion."
When winter came in 1948 and the carnival dosed for the season, LaVey started playing burlesque houses in Southern California - in particular, a theater called the Mayan, in Los Angeles. “That's where I met Marilyn Monroe, at the Mayan," said LaVey. "The guy who ran it was Paul Valentine." Monroe was down on her luck and had taken up stripping to get by.
LaVey began playing “Slow Boat to China," which he said was one of Monroe's numbers, followed by “Harlem Nocturne," a classic stripper's tune. He played it in the organ mode, with a bawdy snare drum in the background outlining the bumps and grinds and a lonely trumpet crying out for love and attention. “She was what the girls would call a chain dragger, which meant she was slow to take her clothes off,” LaVey explained. He had not been particularly interested in her until he noticed her white, marshmallow thighs, with a trail of bruises, which he thought added an air of vulnerability. His old fetish for pale blondes made a sudden entrance, and within a few days he and Marilyn were lovers. The affair lasted about two weeks.
"I think she was attracted to your darker elements," Barton observed as she fed a mouse to Boaz.
“She did have a strange fascination with the dark side," LaVey agreed. "I've tried to retrace all the places we stayed, like the fleabag motel on Washington Boulevard where we lived together, the whole West Adams section of LA., where we drove around in Marilyn's Pontiac..."
As a souvenir of those days, LaVey produced a copy of Monroe's famous nude Golden Dreams calendar, which he said she sent him. There she was, lusciously recumbent against satin drop, her legs curled under and her left arm raised invintingly, her body so white but her open lips so red; even her nipples looked red against that pale, pale skin. “Dear Tony” the inscription read in a large and handsome script, “How many times have you seen this! Love, Marilyn."
"Her big break came right after we broke up," LaVey recalled. She did a walk-on in a Groucho Marx movie. Then John Huston gave her a great part in Asphalt Jungle." (As it happens, the romantic lead in the Marx Brothers' movie, Love Happy, was Paul Valentine, the same man who ran the Mayan Theater. “I don't know if Marilyn ever performed at the Mayan," Valentine says, “but I do know she was never one of my dancers." In any case, Valentine says he operated the Mayan as “legitimate theater - it was never a burlesque, never a bump and grind.” He says LaVey never worked for him, either.)
While Monroe moved quickly on to stardom, LaVey drifted to San Francisco, and it was here, in 1950, that he met a tiny teenage blonde named Carole Lansing. They married a year later, even though Carole was only fifteen. The Korean War was going on at the time, and in order to evade the draft, LaVey signed up to study criminology at San Francisco's City College. His first daughter, Karla, was born in 1952. To support his young family, LaVey got a job as a police department photographer. He saw children splattered by hit-and-run drivers, women cut to pieces by jealous husbands, the bloated bodies of suicides fished out of San Francisco Bay. He came to the conclusion that if this brutal carnage was God's will, then he wanted nothing more to do with God. “There is no God," he said he decided. “There is no supreme, allpower deity in the heavens that cares about the lives of human beings. There is nobody up there who gives a shit. Man must be taught to answer to himself and other men for his actions." (According to the San Francisco Police Department, no one named Howard or Anton LaVey or Levey ever worked for the force, nor does City College have a record of his enrollment. Frank Moser, a retired police officer who worked in the photo department during that time, says that LaVey was never in that department under any name. LaVey himself suggested that the records were probably purged by the department to avoid embarrassment. The first time the name LaVey - or actually, La Vey - makes an appearance in the official records is the wedding application filed in Reno on September 4th, 1951, between Carole Lansing and Howard Anton La Vey. They were divorced in 1962. Karla LaVey says that her mother died in 1975.)
A switch here, a switch there, and the sound deepened into a throaty theater organ. It was "Deep in the Heart of Texas," which LaVey slyly played in my honor. He 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.")
BLANCHE BARTON HAD A COLD. She stuck a package of tissues in her purse and glanced outside. "It's nice out," she said, looking at the fog and the light, chilly rain.
It was sundown, and LaVey was just rising. He sleeps, he said, in four-hour stretches. While we waited for him to emerge, I roamed around the small parlor, where -with the exception of the kitchen and the bathroom- I had been restricted. It was a great frustration for me because I knew from old newspaper accounts and from speaking to former associates of LaVey's that there really were secret passages and amazing artifacts buried in this thirteen-room house. A trapdoor to the basement, for instance, led to his famous Den of Iniquity, with his Hammond organ, a Rock-Ola jukebox and his mannequins –Steve the Sailor, Bonita the Whore, Fritz the Cabbie and Gwen the Drunk, the last passed out on a bar stool with a puddle of urine on the floor beneath her.
It was LaVey's latest in a series of attempts to create a "total environment," one in which time stands still. Downstairs, it was 1944.
"Anton literally has created an underground world in his basement," says his old friend Kenneth Anger, the filmmaker and author of Hollywood Babylon, one of the bitchiest books ever composed. “We share a fondness for mannequins," Anger says sweetly. When he and LaVey met, “it was just like a friend I should have known forever - we've never had a quarrel."
Anger met LaVey in the early Sixties, when Anger was in San Francisco working on Invocation of My Demon Brother, a film version of a black mass. Anger fell in with an informal group of friends who met each Friday evening in LaVey's house to discuss the occult. They called themselves the Magic Circle. It was this group that eventually became the nucleus of the Church of Satan. It included novelist Stephen Schneck; a Danish baroness named Carin de Plessen; Donald Werby, who is one of the wealthiest investors in the city (he owns interests in the Clift, the Grosvenor and the Holiday Inn hotels in San Francisco); and Werby's wife, Willy. Along with this group was a selection of science-fiction writers, a tattoo artist, a dildo manufacturer and a handful of San Francisco police officers.
These meetings became famous in the city, and eventually LaVey opened them to the public, charging $2.50 a head to hear his lectures “Fortunetelling and Character Analysis" or “Love Potions and Monkey Glands.” Vampires, werewolves, freaks, homunculi, bondage and torture, moon madness - it was a survey course of the weird, the forbidden and the occult. People would spill over to the stairway outside and listen through the windows. One memorable evening LaVey spoke on the subject of cannibalism, and his wife - his second wife, a slender blonde named Diane - served a small portion of a human thigh, which a doctor friend had salvaged from an autopsy.
By 1964, LaVey was cutting a conspicuous public figure in San Francisco as a "psychic investigator" who drove a coroner's van and could be seen strolling a black leopard named Zoltan. Zoltan used to sleep in the crib with Karla. When the leopard was run over by a car, he was quickly replaced by a ten-week-old Nubian lion named Togare.
Whatever LaVey's actual connections were to the circus, people who visited him were impressed with his ability to handle the lion in his own house. Togare could be rambunctious - he left a scar on Karla's back - but LaVey had him trained so that he would not eat until his master had taken a bite of his own dinner. “I used to call him to his meal by playing 'Onward, Christian Soldiers,' " LaVey said. Unfortunately, Togare had the habit of roaring at night, which kept the neighbors awake. Eventually a city ordinance was passed forbidding lions in private homes, and Togare was taken to the zoo.
His successor was a beaten-down German shepherd named Bathory, who was confined to the pitch-black narrow entranceway between the front door and the door to the parlor. I could hear the poor creature breathing; she had her nose stuck under the door as if she were craving even the minimal light in the parlor. Her odor, and what seemed like generations of leftover animal smells, suffused the room. But the overarching essence in this clammy parlor was that of snake although as far as I knew, Boaz was seldom let out of his box.
Beside the couch was an antique examination table with stirrups on the side which seemed to me the most sinister object in the room. Next to it was a chair stacked full with LaVey's various black hats. Above that, in a light so dim I could scarcely make it out was a framed sign: “My worst enemies are those who presume me to be harmless. They cannot imagine how much I resent and disdain them, or just how great a threat they would face if I could get at them. ...Some day, with the help of time, space and circumstance, I will be able to humiliate them properly - not in a manner they would enjoy, but in a style calculated to make them wish they had never been born."
Just then, LaVey entered and greeted me with his gap-toothed smile. The missing teeth, he had already admitted, he had extracted himself. I don't get them fixed, I just puff them out when it's time." I supposed it would be difficult to get a dental appointment in any case, given his schedule.
LaVey stuck his Smith & Wesson .38 in his holster in the small of his back and a nifty five-shot derringer in the pocket of his leather jacket “I never go out without armament," he said. He claims to be a champion marksman and trick shot.
"Do you have a permit for those?" I asked.
He laughed and flipped open his wallet. Inside was a San Francisco Police Department badge. Look at the serial number," he said. It was number 666.
We were going over the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin County for dinner tonight. Barton was driving, despite her wretched cold.
On the way LaVey talked about androids, his favorite hobbyhorse. He has spent years working on his own android prototypes - his mannequins - preparing for the day when the science of robotics will enable industry to begin the production of artificial human companions. ”The forbidden industry," he called it. "Polite, sophisticated, technologically feasible slavery." Most of his dolls are store mannequins with their faces sawn off, replaced by latex impressions taken from his friends.
“I sculpted one entirely out of polyurethane foam,” LaVey said as we edged across the bridge through the fog. “I inhaled all those fumes trying to create a realistic woman with actual sexual parts. I put so much of my personal fetishistic desire into it that I became like Pygmalion. I kept expecting her to show up on my doorstep."
“Do you have sex with your dolls?" I asked.
“I tried to,” he said. “It was going to be my great test run. Just as I was entering her, the damn room started shaking. An earthquake hit. I figured it was God's way of trying to tell me something. So I ceased" - he laughed – “my activities of the moment"
LaVey turned suddenly solemn. "When I say 'God’, you know, it's just a figure of speech."
His theology is a puzzle. He has often tried to break off Satanism from any belief system. "Satanism is not just an occultnik-type,” he told me. "It is a way of life, an aesthetic ideal, a code of behavior.” Perhaps what he stands for is best understood this way: More than anything else, LaVey's life is spent evoking a mood, an era and a way of looking at the world through his art. He sees it as a satanic exercise, a way of replacing God with his own vision of creation. He is still in mourning for the lost moment of the Forties.
"I like dark, wet environments with street lights reflecting in the wet pavement, little towns with farmhouses in the distance, all-night gas stations in the middle of nowhere, bars with glassbrick fronts that are dark inside even at two in the afternoon, back alleys in the lost parts of town, streets that wander off into the fields, general stores that double as Greyhound depots, the sound of a siren in the night, automobiles with long hoods and short rear ends, women with moll-like qualities who are real sidekicks, the clicking of high heels on the pavement.."
In LaVey's world, women still wear bright red lipstick and the music swings softly and sex is there but not there, in the teasing, exaggerated fashion of the DC Comic books that he used to read and save and still has inside plastic envelopes, and men have undreamed-of powers just like the film noir anti-heroes he grew up on - the Green Hornet, the Shadow, the Whistler. "Batman," he told me, "is the perfect manifestation of the satanic ethic. These are the heroes who work in the shadows, doing what officials cannot do or will not do."
His music, his mannequins, his writings, the "total environments" he attempts to create, his taste in just about everything, are reflections of this satanic pursuit of making his own world. Later, as I began to take apart the literary creation he had made of his life, I would realize that "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.
And yet there was still a question in my mind about what he actually believed. He had told me that he believed in a "balance of nature, a natural order."
"That's God,” he said. "And that's Satan. Satan is God. He is the representation of the state of flux; he is the actionreaction; he is the cause and the effect; he is all the elements interwoven in what we call evolution." That statement seemed to me little more than an elaboration of his parents' single religious dictum: Another word for God is nature. Another word for God is Satan. Another word for nature is evolution.
I recalled a queer passage in a book by Susan Atkins, who was a topless dancer in LaVey's shortlived North Beach nightclub act, the Witches' Workshop, before she became a killer in Charles Manson's family. At that time, Atkins was dancing under the name Sharon King. While LaVey was trying to recruit her for the vampire role, he invited her to attend one of his satanic services. She told him she preferred not to, since she didn't believe in the Devil. "But, Sharon,” he said, "we don't believe in God, either, but that doesn't mean he isn't real."
"I am a skeptic," he admitted when I pressed him on the subject, "although I want to believe in something. And whenever we want to believe in something so strongly we do speculate on its existence. But I need something more than pap or clichés, something more personalized. Maybe I'm practicing solipsism."
That wasn't always so, according to Michael Aquino, LaVey's former acolyte and now his chief rival. Aquino claims that when they first met in 1969, LaVey believed in a literal Devil. "I think Anton's loss of faith came later," says Aquino. "It was a side effect of his insecurity at being the head of an institution that had grown beyond him.” In order to deal with the spreading popularity of the church of Satan, LaVey had set up a formal examination process in order to ordam new members of the priesthood. Some of LaVey's Hollywood friends, such as Jayne Mansfield and Sammy Davis Jr., were awarded priesthood status without having to pass any tests, which rankled some of the membership. Then, in 1975, LaVey made the controversial decision to sell degrees in the priesthood. Aquino says he begged him to reconsider.
"In my letter of resignation, I said essentially that the Church of Satan is not the same thing as the Church of Anton LaVey," says Aquino. "Those priesthoods are not yours to sell." In Aquino's opinion, LaVey was turning his back on Satan. The church split over the issue. "Virtually the entire nationwide priesthood resigned en masse," says Aquino. Some of LaVey's former priests joined Aquino's competing organization, the Temple of Set. LaVey himself lapsed into the bitter retreat from which he has never emerged. "That's when he said, 'I don't believe in the Devil,' " says Aquino.
"It was not a schism,” says LaVey of Aquino's departure. "It was a drop in the bucket. Aquino took twenty-eight people with him and started spreading the rumor that the Church of Satan was defunct and that he had gotten the divine word from the man downstairs to take over."
"YEAH, I KNEW LAVEY BACK IN THE late Forties or early Fifties," says a retired San Francisco police inspector with the improbable name of Jack Webb. "He was an outstanding pianist locally." Webb used to hear LaVey play at the Lost Weekend, and during breaks the two would chat about magic and the occult. Webb was impressed: "One night I said off the cuff, 'Tony, with all your ideas you ought to start your own church.'"
The seed of that idea fruited in 1966 when LaVey ceremonially shaved his head and ordained the beginning of the Age of Satan. It was April 30th - Walpurgisnacht, the highest holiday of the satanic calendar. Now it was Walpurgisnacht more than two decades later, and LaVey was in a reflective mood. "I try to minimize it, but deep down inside I can't - it's still a meaningful anniversary," he said as we sat in his favorite neighborhood French restaurant. The chef noticed LaVey as he entered and sent out a tray with a glass of Dubonnet on the rocks for each of us - LaVey's only alcoholic indulgence. "Life everlasting, world without end,” LaVey said in a sardonic toast.
He had thought, he said, that his little church would be a covert activity: "I had no idea it would snowball in a year's time. I was stunned when everything happened so fast."
The publicity explosion began with a satanic wedding that LaVey performed for John Raymond, a former writer for the Christian Science Monitor, and Judith Case, the daughter of a Republican stalwart in New York. A photograph of the couple, with LaVey standing beside them in his black cape and horned cowl and a naked redhead, who'd served as the altar, behind them, was carried in newspapers and magazines all across the world.
Barbara McNair, the black actress and singer, attended the ceremony. That began a correspondence between LaVey and Hollywood that would add luster and credibility to LaVey's organization. Among the stars LaVey has claimed as friends over the years are Kim Novak, Christopher Lee, Laurence Harvey and Keenan Wynn.
LaVey has served as a consultant on many different films - notably, the stylishly kitsch Abominable Dr. Phibes, in which Vincent Price played a character based on LaVey, and Rosemary's Baby, in which LaVey himself played the serpentine devil who impregnates Mia Farrow. LaVey called that movie "the best paid commercial for Satanism since the Inquisition."
LaVey's most notable conquest in Hollywood, however, was Jayne Mansfield. "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."
Mansfield had already made a reputation in Hollywood for her vigorous sexual appetites. "She liked to be humiliated," LaVey said. "She longed for a stern master." He claimed Mansfield sought him out after reading a newspaper article about him. She wanted LaVey to put a curse on her Italian husband, with whom she was involved in a custody dispute. Soon after that, she became a priestess in the Church of Satan. She even posed for publicity photographs with LaVey, showing herself kneeling at his feet as he administered a chalice of some magical liquid. Satanism seemed to strike some deep chord inside her. She called it "Khalil Gibran with balls.”
For his part, LaVey responded to what he saw as a kindred spirit "She never let the image down, not even in private - I could see a lot of myself in that," he once admitted. "Perhaps she feared people wouldn't love her without the image."
Her death would become a major element in the LaVey legend. Sam Brody, Mansfield's lawyer, agent and frustrated suitor, was jealous of LaVey's relationship with his client. LaVey despised Brody from the first moment he saw him. "I don't know why attorneys have that effect on me to the point that I have no choice but to say, 'Look, you don't know who you're dealing with...”
One night Brody mischievously lit a pair of black candles on LaVey's altar. "Mr. LaVey was furious with Sam," Mansfield told her biographer. "He proclaimed, 'You are cursed by the Devil. You will be killed within a year!' "
A few months later, on June 29th, 1967, Mansfield and Brody were riding on US.90 near New Orleans when their driver rear-ended a tank truck that was spraying for mosquitoes. Brody and Mansfield were both killed instantly - the actress was actually decapitated in the accident.
LaVey claims he had been looking through his scrapbook when he noticed that in clipping an article about his placing flowers on Marilyn Monroe's grave, he inadvertently had cut into a picture of Mansfield on the next page. He had lopped off her head. Then the phone rang. It was an AP reporter with the news.
He puts a lot of weight on such coincidences. Walpurgisnacht, for instance, is the birth date of television at the New York World's Fair in 1939. (“What a satanic bomb that proved to be!") It is the day Hitler committed suicide in 1945. The day LaVey's lion, Togare, died in 1981. Just this very afternoon, Barton was reading through a Mansfield biography and observed the date of Mansfield's first studio tryout: April 30th, 1954.
“Things are always turning up like that," LaVey said, unsurprised. "It's the little things that are the big things."
He was beginning to turn melancholy. “Deep down, I still have an urge to put on the paraphernalia and go through a ritual," he admitted. But that is all behind him. He hasn't performed a black mass in twenty years.
He was talking now with his eyes closed. It was a peculiar affectation, one that hinted of his great need to live in his own world, to shut out the intrusions of reality and stay locked inside his head with his dark imagination. He said he expected society to stratify itself naturally, with Satanists rising to the top to inherit the earth - a process he said was happening faster than he could have predicted. But until that day comes, he has chosen the strategy of abdication. I have decided to withdraw, to give up my citizenship in the human race."
Later I learned that earlier in the evening, LaVey's younger daughter had chosen this special day to renounce her father. “I officially and ritually ended my positions as Church of Satan representative-defender and daughter of Anton LaVey,” Zeena declared in a letter to LaVey's archenemy, Michael Aquino. She complained that her father was filled, and still is, with petty jealous criticism of my efforts -this was easy for him to do from the safe vantage point of the comfortable and risk-free easy chair we know he has lived in for decades."
LaVey's duck arrived, baked in a currant sauce. This seemed to revive him. He started railing against the predominant notion that Satanists are child murderers or that they sacrifice animals. He himself has always preached against such practices, he said. He despised the assault on public order: "The police force has to take care of people without conscience; in fact there's very little conscience left. I'm not advocating a benign police state exactly, but there's a need for certain elements of control. There has to be tyranny. If you don't want to call it tyranny, call it rational stratification. The alternative is chaos and anarchy, savage and bestial. If this sounds fascistic, so be it."
“He loves Disneyland," Barton added. "That's been a real trial balloon for a lot of this - the incorporation of androids, a private enclave with a self-contained justice system, its own private police force. It's a good example of capitalism at its peak."
Something had been bugging me, and this mention of Disneyland brought it to life. It was the sense that under all this savage philosophy there was a man who was fundamentally harmless. It was of course the thing he fared the most.
Where was all the sin? Where was the ribaldry? Where was the dangerous action? From my two weeks of observation, Anton LaVey lived a life more circumscribed and reflective than a Benedictine monk's.
This observation put him on the defensive. “I'm just as ribald as I used to be," he said, "but I have to be more careful now. Security isn't what it used to be."
But what were his indulgences? So far all I had noticed were his single glass of Dubonnet in the evening and an occasional Excedrin, which he took instead of coffee for "a little lift."
"I would like to indulge more,” he admitted. “If I were unencumbered, I would. My vice now is to wake up in the morning feeling halfway decent."
“What about sex?"
"I've been around women all my life. It takes more than a lot of nude female bodies to move me now. I'd rather be reading an old book.
"I don't want to say I'm too old to cut the mustard," he continued elliptically. "But if the battle's raging and shells are coming through the window, the stress level rises, and it does tend to dampen one's ardor. These guys that go around saying their pilot light's out - maybe they're concerned about their health - they're going to get pretty limp. The demoralization factor has to be considered rather ... " He groped in the air for a word.
"Inhibiting?" Barton suggested.
"Inhibiting,” LaVey agreed.
No liquor, no tobacco, no drugs, no sex, no black masses, no baby sacrifices -what vice or indulgence was left for a Satanist to set himself apart from the common herd?
“What if they kill people?" LaVey said.
"Do you kill people?"
He looked up and smiled. The waiter had just arrived with a healthy slice of mud pie.
“I DON'T WANT THE LEGEND TO DISAPPEAR," LaVey told me anxiously in our last conversation, after I confronted him with some of the inconsistencies in his story. "There is a danger you will disenchant a lot of young people who use me as a role model." He was especially offended that I had tracked down his eighty-seven-year-old father in an effort to verify some of the details of LaVey's early life. "I'd rather have my background shrouded in mystery. Eventually you want to be recognized for what you are now."
It was a theme he had sounded many times before. “I don't want to give anyone the satisfaction that they have me all figured out" he says in Barton's biography, "If people only knew. I’ve always loved that ubiquitous Johnson-Smith Company ad copy, ‘Imagine the expression on their faces ... !' That's a kind of leitmotif that has tempted me into most of the heinous, evil or disreputable things I've ever done. Just imagine people's reaction if they ever found out. But they won't. It began in mystery. I want it to end that way."
No doubt it will. But the mystery will not be the life of Anton LaVey. His story is like so many other self-created American legends; the whole point of his existence is to be understood immediately. The details of his life, both real and fabricated, are craftily fitted to the iconography of pop culture. Anton LaVey is an imaginary creation, as real, and as false, as a soap-opera character or a comic-book anti-hero. The mystery is the imagination that created Anton LaVey: That is to say, it is the story of Howard Stanton Levey, the bookish musician who took us all on a journey into the dark side of himself.
This is the second in Lawrence Wright's series on religious leaders entitled "True Believers."