Of H. L. Mencken, Aimee Semple McPherson and Dorthy Parker

 

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In at least two ways, Dorthy Parker and Aimee Semple McPherson had shared commonalities.  Both were women and both struggled with making inroads of progress in their respective, men dominated career fields.  1928 female America did not have a whole lot of career choices:  homemaker, teacher,  nurse, secretary,  waitress and maybe something else.  Therefore, any progress made by women during that time period outside expectations, is at the very least, noteworthy.    One might think that  some form of solidarity of in the sisterhood of women might exist, McPherson wrote about it and Parker was known to develop her career as along the lines of civil liberties.  McPherson strove for an interracial ministry, Parker eventually gave over literary estate to  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

At the top of the game even among men, McPherson found herself presiding over the largest,  single Christian congregation in the world.   Pope Pius XI may have had a far larger membership but daily assemblage in any one parish  did not come anywhere near her numbers: up to 5,300 attendees three times a day at her Angelus Temple in Los Angeles, California.  Parker as writer,  journalist,  commentator and activist eventually earned her own US postage stamp.

Any such illusion of any sisterly unity, though, is absent when it appears Parker takes what could be interpreted as a catty swipe at McPherson in a 1928 New Yorker article:

“It was to be expected, I suppose, that Aimee Semple McPherson, that Somewhat Different Entertainer, would write a book.   Anybody might have foreseen that that would be.  Anybody, that is, except me.”

In fact,  McPherson wrote a book long before (“This is That,” 1919 ) and was active writing and editing articles in her monthly “Bridal Call,” magazine since 1917.  McPherson was a gal of outsized talents,  which stretched her thin at times but as As Kathie Lee Gifford stated “If you put Oprah and Lady Gaga, Rosie O’Donnell and five more women together, you wouldn’t have today what Aimee was in the 1920s.” As might be expected, McPherson appealed to a different audience than Parker may have been part of.   She held leftist views and was later suspected of even being a Communist; her reading of McPherson’s “In Service of the King (1927)” probably was more of a response to 1920’s current events than any preferred reading.

In 1926, McPherson disappeared from Venice Beach in Los Angeles, California.  The widely publicized vanishing was only exceeded by the wider publicized reappearance of her being found in a Mexican desert some 5 weeks later, stating escape from a trio of kidnappers.   And that event was exceeded by the tremendous amount of national attention which arose when Los Angeles authorities sought to have her imprisoned by trying to prove, she, together with her mother and some other individuals, faked the whole thing.  Indeed, the official selected for the task, Prosecutor Asa Keyes, was known to have sent even innocent men to prison.  A fact that embarrassed the state governor in the number of pardons he was compelled to submit as the result of such convictions.  After a summer and fall of testimony,  copious amounts of media exposure,  news commentary, and $500,000 dollars spent (equivalent of US $6.7 million 2014), Prosecutor Keyes could not find anything to move the hearing into a formal jury trial.  Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Albert Lee Stephens Sr. dismissed the case.  McPherson published her side of the story “In Service of the King (1927);” a title, as Parker  surmised “ a bit dangerously suggestive of a romantic novel“.

Lest it be thought that McPherson was being singled out, Parker applied cynical and caustic wit to 20th-century urban life and their personages.  Numerous poems and other writings were described as “viciously humorous, ” reflecting a personal angst  “caked with a salty humor, rough with splinters of disillusion, and tarred with a bright black authenticity”.    Her criticisms sometimes offended influential members of society which got her terminated from Vanity Fair in 1920.   McPherson, alternatively, was the eternal optimist.   While she preached a religion that believed in a flaming Hell of eternal damnation, she by far emphasized God’s love and  redemption.   Moreover, if there was some sort of criticism to level, she avoided directly naming any actual person in her sermons or writings.

Thus it could be also said of the cynical Parker, who writes of disillusion and darkness; when reviewing a work by someone who just opened the door to sunshine, that McPherson’s life story was simply too upbeat to be true:

“It may be that this autobiography is set down in sincerity, frankness, and simple effort.   It may be, too, that the Statue of Liberty is situated in Lake Ontario…, ”   (ending her article with) “…Aimee Semple McPherson has replaced Elsie Dinsmore as my favorite character in fiction.

In calling her “that Somewhat Different Entertainer,” Parker alludes to McPherson’s  lavish “illustrated” sermons which in the mind of many trap her in amber as an actress rather than an innovative preacher.   Disliking half filled parallel pews of equally half asleep parishioners stagnantly facing a podium manned by a monotone minister, McPherson instead  built a huge theater style house of worship.   Individual seats were arranged in a semi-circle turned toward a stage. McPherson’s Gospel themed illustrated sermons, designed by herself, sometimes with a cast of hundreds, were known as the best show in town, competing successfully with local vaudeville and other Hollywood presentations.   People wanted to attend, even those who were not particularly religious, such as Charlie Chapman and others.  Old time Gospel Christianity became fun, a must see joyous event.  From the first 7 years of its opening in 1923, the Angelus Temple attracted 40 million visitors.

Her’s was a consistently singular purpose–bring a  reawakening to the Christian church and larger community to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  McPherson believed while presentation methods must change with the times, the sacred message itself cannot change.  Nevertheless, her message seemed to emphasize more in certain areas than many of her contemporaries :  breaking down barriers between Christian groups, interracial services, social justice, restoration and divine healing.

Another writer,  H. L. Mencken, who in many ways, shared similar viewpoints to Parker also read McPherson’s book.   He though,  thought the evangelist disguised a greater sadness beneath her perennial  pleasant veneer; “… and so I suspect that is by no means as happy as she tries to look, ”  and peers a bit further beneath the jubilance of her writings; ” I detect a heavy heart in her book, despite its smooth, glad air of a Y. M. C. A. secretary.

He did not think much of the borrowed age-old theology or their audiences:

“wherever the hookworm bays to its mate and a horsehair put into a bottle of water is known to turn into a snake, it is preached every night, and by thousands of sweating evangelists, ….haranguing the morons nightly, under canvas…. The town [ Los Angeles]  has more morons in it than the whole State of Mississippi, and thousands of them had nothing to do save gape at the movie dignitaries and go to revivals. “

Examinations, however, of church rolls indicated a varied membership across a large section of Los Angeles. Famous personalities of the day were attracted to the Temple such as Mary Pickford, Harold Lloyd, and Art Linkletter.

Regarded as one of the most influential American writers and prose stylists of the first half of the twentieth century, H. L. Mencken was a well known satirist who was distrusting and critical of religion.  He wrote searing critiques of William  Bryan and other fundamental anti-evolutionists during the 1925 Scopes Trial.  McPherson sided with Bryan and rallied public support for the creationist viewpoint.   A year later, her  Los Angeles 1926  kidnapping controversy attracted Mencken’s attention.

While Dorothy Parker seemed to wear as a badge of honor, her ignorance in being one of the few Americans who did not ever hear the famous  evangelist speak;  “I have never heard Mrs. McPherson preach—a record which, Heaven helping me, I purpose keeping untarnished—;”  H. L. Mencken, on the other hand, in planning his trip from New York to Los Angeles in 1926, asked his friend Upton Sinclair to attend services at McPherson’s Angelus Temple with him (Matthew Avery Sutton, Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America; p. 88).

There was every expectation Mencken would continue his previous pattern of anti-fundamentalist articles, this time with a searing critique of McPherson.  Unexpectedly, he came to her defense, identifying various local religious and civic groups which were using the kidnapping case as an opportunity to pursue their respective agendas against the embattled Pentecostal minister.

The ministers, headed by the fiery  Rev. Robert P. Shuler, wanted her gone because she was perceived as poaching their congregants and her theatrical presentation were undermining the dignity of the Gospel.   It was believed by many as well , the miracles of Jesus and later his disciples, ended in the Apostolic Age, hence her divine healing work was out of harmony with the Gospel.  And some conservative interpretations of the Bible did not allow for women preachers to begin with, no matter how divinely inspired they seemed to be.  And McPherson was divorced, which was really bad.

The other main group opposing her was the “Babbits;” that is various of the intelligentsia,  many in the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and others who did not like the type of  attention she was bringing to the city and/or her Creationist / anti-evolutionist stance.    If she could be jailed, ousted or otherwise discredited, then their concerns in this area would be greatly diminished.  Her rapidly growing influence worried many, she well could mobilize the anti-evolution masses(a fear after the 1925 Scopes trial) in damaging ways; according to a commentator: “a lot of pull and political power has our officers buffaloed.”  From correspondence with Mencken, Upton  Sinclair agrees at the heart of the actual grand jury inquiry controversy was McPherson’s efforts to get anti-evolution propositions onto the state ballot (Sutton p.145).

Upton Sinclair understands, too however, that a living martyr; hammered by peeved, city-image protecting, pro-evolutionists and irate preachers of attendance-challenged churches; was a far less luscious of a story than one with an adulterous religious hypocrite.    His novel “Oil,” had Eli Watkins, a hypocritical evangelical preacher who disappears with his lover and returns, claiming he was lost at sea.  Sinclair Lewis as well, following hard on the heels of Sinclair’s “Oil,”  with the direction taken in “Elmer Gantry,” influenced as it was by McPherson’s reappearance and rumors which followed.

Of McPherson’s escape, referring to her 11-13 hour trek through the desert from the kidnappers’ shack, Dorothy Parker observed;  “as was later developed at the trial—her shoes were not only kept from wearing out, but were not even scuffed.”   With this she implied McPherson was fibbing about her escape, perhaps the entire story.  Addressing the shoe subject, to include other common contentions of the prosecution, was actual, relevant testimony from court transcripts McPherson has in her work.  Parker seems to have overlooked or ignored that part in her commentary. Granted McPherson’s book has some literary passages that would work better spoken in theater than for a reading audience, but Menchen takes no issue with that or its content.  He  writes:  “She rehearses the evidence in her book, and makes out a good case for herself.

The prosecution purported a trip through the desert, even for a day, would result in a person emerging with heavily scuffed or damaged footgear. Witnesses brought up from Douglas, Arizona, though, explained to the court all about the terrain McPherson traversed.   Dressed their desert garments, these residents of Douglas did a show and tell about working and traveling in the nearby desert country;  all without any undue wear to their clothing or footgear.  Some of the land was described as pastoral, with weeds and grasses (which may well account for “grass stains” mentioned in some descriptions).   It was even revealed that a member of the prosecution, Joseph Ryan, said he could make the desert trip without scuffing or marking his commissary shoes.  He and Keyes visited Douglas to question McPherson as she convalesced in the hospital there, recovering from her ordeal.  Ryan went out with trackers for several hours and inspected the surrounding desert area.   This revelation however, was drowned in a media flurry of newspaper headlines publishing more and more about the “hoax.”

Though McPherson did not include it in her book, court testimony from at least one of the trackers examining her shoes; stated they were indeed scuffed, but looked in much better condition in the courtroom than they were when he first examined them ( yes, he was implying some sort of evidence tampering).  Out in Linotype land, McPherson’s shoes got more polished, more shiny with each new edition that rolled hot off the press.

Mencken found all this disgusting and called the Los Angeles grand jury  inquiry a “dirty shame.”  Even though he and McPherson were at opposite ends of the philosophical spectrum when it came to their views about the existence of God,  fundamentalist Christianity, creationism, and organized religion; Mencken apparently respected the right of defendants to a fair and impartial hearing:

“The trial, indeed, was an orgy typical of the half-fabulous California courts. The very officers of justice denounced her riotously in the Hearst papers while it was in progress….”

Lest one think McPherson got off on a “technicality,” in 1990, the Court of Historical Review and Appeal looked in on the matter.     Made up of lawyers, judges and others of the bench who “retry” old cases and controversies, they too determined no substantial evidence was given disproving McPherson’s stated account for her absence.  While not an official arm of a judiciary, it helpful to know, the findings of the earlier 1920’s era courts regarding the lack of evidence against evangelist, continues to hold up under even modern day examinations.

Mencken wrote:

“But … Los Angeles will remember the testimony against her long after it forgets the testimony that cleared her.  There are… hundreds of thousands whose ideas of the true, the good and the beautiful are derived from the movies and from Hearst.”

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References

H. L. Mencken, The American Mercury, 1930
http://www.ralphmag.org/menckenZN.html

Dorothy Parker, the New Yorker, 1928
http://www.newyorker.com/archive/1928/02/25/1928_02_25_079_TNY_LIBRY_000033975

Aimee Semple McPherson:
“In Service of the King (1927)”

Matthew Avery Sutton:
“Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America(2007)”

A student who wrote her thesis on the theatrical techniques of Billy Sunday and McPherson:
https://scholarsbank.uoregon.edu/xmlui/bitstream/handle/1794/8942/Wilson_Wendy_A_Danforth_August1974_MA.pdf?sequence=1

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorothy_Parker

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aimee_Semple_McPherson

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H._L._Mencken

Scandalous by Kathie Lee Gifford  New Broadway Musical – The Life & Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson:
http://loveexpressonline.com/scandalous.html

1990, the Court of Historical Review and Appeal:
http://articles.latimes.com/1990-10-09/local/me-2159_1_sister-aimee