Anton LaVey may have been the public face of Satanism, but the little man behind the curtain was always P.T. Barnum.
There were, in fact, two Anton LaVeys: first was the black-robed founder of the Church of Satan; the other, in private, a joke-cracking publicity hound who had found a gig that privately amused him and gave the press the kind of copy it craves. It was a symbiotic relationship that would give him a hell of a ride for the rest of his life.
I first met Anton in December of 1966 when I was editor of the Berkeley Citizen. A friend called and told me about this guy with a shaved head, a black cape, and a weird house who claimed to be Satan. Or a very close friend.
I called and said I'd like to do a story on him. He was, indeed, satanic as hell and the house was weird. My friend was right.
After the article was printed in January of 1967, Anton called. He said he liked the story and invited me to come by and talk with him about doing some publicity. Publicist for Satan? Sounded fun to me. We got together the next day.
He was hip, cynical, funny, and he indicated that any press I might dream up would be fine with him. Also, he had no qualms about stretching the truth. He was a man with a dream. But instead of looking to heaven, he focused in the other direction.
"Less competition," he laughed.
I thought about his offer for a few days, until the neon bulb over my head started flashing like a $10 hooker with a heavy habit.
I called Fred Gardner, an old friend and colleague from my Christian Science Monitor days who was then a reporter on the Berkeley Daily Gazette.
"I've got it!" I said. "A satanic wedding. It'll blow everybody's mind."
"Who's going to be the happy couple?" said Fred.
"I'll do it myself. And Judy'll be the bride."
Judy was Judith Case, a Goucher graduate and a young lady with good social connections from New York with whom I was living at the time.
Fred and I started writing wild press releases -- using his name -- and put-ting the whole scam together that afternoon. Later that day I even asked Judy to marry me.
"Why not," she replied, stirring the Kraft macaroni and cheese. Her passion had always been the glue that held us together. That and her cooking.
Quickly the project took on a life of its own. I told Anton about it.
"I like it," said Anton, soon to become the playboy of the satanic world.
Fred and I didn't quite realize it then, but we had a tiger by the tail. Things were growing faster than we anticipated, with Fred juggling calls from the East Coast and nibbles from the San Francisco dailies. To help them along, we had newspaper colleagues from New York and Boston call the Chronicle and Examiner to ask about the story. The two papers responded just as we had planned. Soon the local newsrooms were buzzing about a hot story.
Hot as hell, you might say.
Fred, Judy, and I were ready when the big day arrived in February. A front-page story and picture in the Examiner was headlined "The Bride Will Wear Red."
"Wrong color," fumed Judy. Phone calls were made. The next Examiner street edition trumpeted, "The Bride Will Wear Black."
That night the brooding black house on California Street swarmed with print and electronic media. There was even a writer from True Romance magazine. Europe, South America, and Australia were represented by a raft of stringers. There was so much press, many of them were interviewing each other.
Singer/actress Barbara McNair, her leg in a cast, was among the guests, along with controversial Love Book author Lenore Kandel. The Chronicle's Art Hoppe, looking dapper with his usual tennis tan, wandered around looking decidedly bemused by it all. From the caged back porch came the congratulatory roar of Togare, Anton's 700-pound Nubian lion. It was, at the very least, an eclectic gathering.
With Anton officiating, the wedding vows were exchanged at least six times so television cameras could squeeze in for their best shots.
A nude member of Anton's flock, Lois Morgenstern, was the altar. A small cloth had been draped over those parts of her not ordinarily displayed to the general public. The male members of the press kept pulling it off. But on national television, at least, she was saved from an X rating.
After the last guest and the press had left, Fred, Anton, Judy, and I burst into laughter.
"We really pulled it off," said a delighted Anton. "And you can bet the rubes are gonna come back for more."
And the rubes did.
Next came a satanic funeral. A member of the Church, stationed on Treasure Island, was killed in an accident on the Bay Bridge. That set up the first satanic funeral.
At that point I was running out of ideas. After all, I was used to a big stage and an audience that wanted more.
The last journalistic splash came with the satanic baptism. We used Anton's cute, golden-haired 3-year-old daughter, Zeena. Lots of ink on that one too.
By that time the mail was coming to Anton's house in sacks, and he was already becoming an icon in his own time. Emperor Norton would have been jealous.
So I left, the same way I'd come into Anton's life, with a quick handshake.
During the past 31 years I've learned the rubes are still out there, waiting to be led -- astray or otherwise. And I've been quietly chuckling ever since.
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