When The Devil Lived in the Richmond
By Mike Moffitt
Witches, warlocks, devil worshippers and underworld spawn, raise your goblets, for today, April 30, 2016, marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Church of Satan in San Francisco.
Anton Szandor LaVey, a Marin County high school dropout turned carny turned spiritual leader, would not have characterized his flock as Hell's minions, of course. His religion was a rejection of all religions, a celebration of Man as "a carnal beast living in a cosmos that is indifferent to our existence."
For a short while in San Francisco in the late 1960s, LaVey's self-promoting
meld of pagan hedonism and hucksterism made him a nationally known cult figure.
At 16, Howard Stanton Levey — the name he was given at birth — dropped out of Tamalpais High to join the circus. He purportedly was hired by the Clyde Beatty Circus as a cage boy, feeding the big cats and then graduating to performing magic and hypnosis tricks, and playing the calliope. The tutelage under the big top served him well.
The source of his cynicism
As LaVey's musical skills improved, he began playing piano for the Saturday night burlesque sideshows and, to make some extra cash, Sunday morning tent-revival services. He would later say that seeing the same men at both events fueled his cynicism for organized religion.
James Lewis' reference work "Satanism Today" notes that LaVey "became well-versed in the many rackets to separate the rubes from their money," a talent shared by many Bible thumpers and TV evangelists.
Most Christian denominations did not possess LaVey's gift for showmanship, however, nor did they use bare-breasted "witches" to fill the pews, a strategy that helped LaVey establish his church in its early days.
LaVey supposedly gave up a brief career in the '50s as a forensic photographer with the San Francisco police although there are no records of his employment with the SFPD. He claimed to have studied criminology at San Francisco City College in order to avoid the draft during the Korean War — but there are no records verifying that either.
What is not disputed is his interest in the supernatural. He began holding Friday night lectures on occult practices and gained a modest following.
The story goes that on Walpurgisnacht (Walpurgis Night), April 30, 1966, he shaved his head (keeping his signature goatee) "in the tradition of the ancient executioners," and founded his church. Walpurgisnacht dates back to a 17th-century German tradition in which sorcerers and witches would gather on the eve of May Day.
However, the site Satanism Central, says the church was actually founded in the summer of 1966 as a "business and publicity vehicle" and that LaVey actually shaved his head on a lighthearted dare by his wife.
LaVey's headquarters were his small Victorian house in the Richmond District. He painted it entirely black, which must have overjoyed the neighbors.
Black was also the preferred color of his wardrobe. He wore black ropes with pointed collars and a black cape, an outfit he often accessorized with a kitschy devil's horns headdress and medallions.
The bizarre baptism of his daughter
Inside the sinister house at 6114 California St., LaVey presided over his Black Mass rituals with nude women liberally sprawled over the fixtures. One such naked acolyte — an attractive 30-year-old priestess breathing heavily — draped herself over the altar at highly publicized 1967 baptism of LaVey's 4-year-old daughter, Zeena, while the proud papa intoned, "Hail Satan!"
Baptisms have rarely caused such a fuss. The unholy sacrament triggered a media uproar reaching as far as Europe. Allegations of child abuse followed.
The late '60s was a time of upheaval in America. Young Americans were rebelling against the Vietnam War and the military industrial complex, organized religion and the puritanical sexual mores of the '50s. Only weeks earlier a Time magazine cover piece had asked, "Is God Dead?" Conditions were perfect for an alternative church embracing free sex and self-indulgence sanctioned as supernatural worship.
Former members said the church hosted orgies, but, as Helen O'Hara writes in the Telegraph, "It wasn't just the nudity that attracted newcomers.
"As with many religions the congregants would plead for intercession, wishing calamity on an enemy or rival, or attempting to invoke financial or sexual success. The crowd tended to be young, well-heeled and curious, as with other new religions growing at the time."
Sammy Davis Jr. goes to an orgy
LaVey's unholy house of worship was also drawing Hollywood's attention. Sammy Davis Jr. was introduced to the Church of Satan at an orgy party, which he later described as "dungeons and dragons and debauchery." After Davis starred in an ill-fated sitcom called "Poor Devil" — a sort of "It's a Wonderful Life" in reverse, the church awarded him the title of Warlock II, which may be akin to Angel Second Class.
Fifties blond bombshell Jayne Mansfield, who supposedly shared an interest in the supernatural, met LaVey at his home while attending the San Francisco Film Festival in 1966. He was immediately smitten. He showed her some of his black magic trinkets and invited the actress to be his high priestess.
LaVey traveled to Hollywood in 1967 for a photo shoot with Mansfield during which he hung her certificate of church membership in her bedroom. Whether she was an eager recruit or just desperately seeking publicity to jump-start her career, which was in free-fall by the mid-'60s, is not clear. The latter seems more likely.
His small role in 'Rosemary's Baby'
LaVey claimed that Roman Polanski cast him to play Satan himself in the rape scene of the 1968 film "Rosemary's Baby," Polanski's version of Ira Levin's book. The role was not credited but it fueled curiosity in the Church of Satan. The Catholic Decency League condemned the film, which no doubt helped it become a box-office hit.
Buoyed by the success of the film, LaVey suddenly found himself in great demand. Everyone from reporters to occultists wanted to interview "Black Pope," as the Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times called him. But his big moment in the limelight was short-lived.
A year later, Manson Family members murdered Polanski's wife, Sharon Tate, coffee heiress Abigail Folger and celebrity hairdresser Jay Sebring.
Sebring had been a member of the church roughly at the same time as Davis and was the singer's stylist. And one of the Manson murderers, Sharon Atkins, had performed as a "blood-swilling vampire" in the LaVey show "Witches' Sabbath" prior to joining Charles Manson's cult.
While people could accept or even embrace LaVey portraying a rapist Beelzebub in a movie, his ties to the Manson murders were disturbing, if not revolting. Suddenly his brand of libertine fun was tainted by one of the most horrific crimes of the century. It was an association he could never live down.
LaVey's dark star began a long, slow decline that occasional talk show gigs couldn't reverse. Even welcoming rock star Marilyn Manson into the fold in the early '90s didn't help much.
Besides, he despised rock 'n' roll — even satanic metal he found distasteful. Instead, he favored romantic tunes of the 1940s.
San Francisco's "Father of Satanism" died of pulmonary edema on Oct. 29, 1997, ironically in St. Mary's Medical Center, which was the closest hospital.
The Church of Satan lives on. It's now headquartered in New York's Hell's Kitchen, led by High Priest Peter H. Gilmore, who has wisely downplayed the Lucifer horns, forked tails and other campy paraphernalia of his predecessor.
The fate of the Black House
As for the Dark Lord's den of iniquity in the Richmond? It fell on hard times.
Chronicle reporter Don Lattin visited the neglected house 15 months after LaVey's death. He wrote:
"Today, the property at 6114 California St. looks like the Addams Family home after a Saturday night frat party. Smashed furniture and a soiled mattress lay amid a mountain of garbage in the small front yard, behind a tall chain-link fence topped with barbed wire.
"Adding insult to injury, some blasphemous graffiti artist has scrawled the words "Jesus Rulz" on the mail slot."
Eventually the property was sold, and LaVey's Victorian temple of sin bulldozed. Today, a bland apartment building painted avocado and trimmed in white stands at the site.
You'd never know that it was once the Devil's address.
FWIW I do not believe that Jay Sebring was ever a member of the Church of Satan.