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Jeremy Lybarger: Ronald Reagan’s Black Magic Man

A President’s superstitions and an astrologer’s fate.

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Image from Flickr user Randy Robertson.

ASTROLOGER RUNS THE WHITE HOUSE
– Headline in New York Post, May 1988

“Astrology helped me cope—and nobody has ever shown that it caused any harm to Ronnie or to the country.”
– Nancy Reagan, My Turn, 1989

By Jeremy Lybarger

By 1953, Ronald Reagan had hit a slump. A string of box office flops—Bedtime for Bonzo, She’s Working Her Way Through College, Tropic Zone—had made the forty-two-year-old actor damaged goods as far as Hollywood casting agents were concerned. He was hemorrhaging money: $500 per month in child support to Jane Wyman, his first wife; $85,000 outstanding on the mortgage of his Malibu ranch; another $18,000 in miscellaneous debt. He and his new wife, B-movie actress Nancy Davis, also had an infant daughter at home. As he confided to Barney Oldfield, a former Warner Brothers publicist, “I’m living from guest shot to guest shot on television, and an occasional personal appearance.”

It was in desperation that Reagan met with his agents at MCA to discuss the possibility of a Vegas show—the last refuge for Tinseltown’s washed-up. They offered him a sweetheart deal: $30,000 for a two-week engagement at The Last Frontier, then Vegas’ largest showroom. Before signing the contract, Reagan consulted an unlikely source: Carroll Righter’s daily astrology column in the Los Angeles Times. “This is a day to listen to the advice of experts,” his horoscope read. Reassured that his career was in good hands, Reagan agreed to Vegas and embarked on a triumphant second act that would ultimately lead to the White House.

From then on the couple retreated into a kind of doddering occultism, rarely making decisions without an astrologer’s counsel.

That the Reagans relied on astrologers was more or less an open secret. In 1967, Governor-elect Reagan famously scheduled his inauguration for just after midnight because Jupiter, the sign of kings and the symbol of prosperity and fame, was at its zenith. Reagan’s flaks downplayed talk of mysticism. “He [Reagan] is not guided by the stars, nor do we intend to have stargazers in the administration,” the governor’s executive secretary told reporters. Nevertheless, in 1976 Nancy Reagan burned through her astrology rolodex until she found someone willing to endorse her husband’s bid for president (he failed to clinch the nomination). Five years later, now ensconced in the White House, Reagan suffered a near-fatal assassination attempt at the hands of John Hinckley. From then on the couple retreated into a kind of doddering occultism, rarely making decisions without an astrologer’s counsel.

In 1988, former chief of staff Donald Regan published For the Record, an excoriating memoir of the administration that confirmed the first couple’s long infatuation with the Zodiac. “Virtually every major move and decision the Reagans made during my time as White House Chief of Staff was cleared in advance with a woman in San Francisco who drew up horoscopes to make certain that the planets were in a favorable alignment,” Regan wrote. The ensuing media frenzy was embarrassing and made Joan Quigley, the San Francisco astrologer, into a pseudo-celebrity.

Of all the astrologers the Reagans consulted, none was as celebrated or flamboyant as Carroll Righter. Born to a wealthy Philadelphia family in 1900, Righter experienced an epiphany at 14 when Evangeline Adams, a renowned astrologer, told him he shared her talent for reading the stars. Adams was an outsized personality in her own right. According to her acolytes, she predicted the stock market crash of 1929, along with World War II and the deaths of King Edward VII and Enrico Caruso. For many years she employed Aleister Crowley as a ghostwriter. Fortune telling in New York was a crime at the turn of the century, and Adams was arrested three times. She reportedly charmed the judges into acquitting her by reading their horoscopes. Adams was also in a closeted relationship with the educator and suffragist Emma Viola Sheridan Fry, a fact that may have impressed young Righter who was then discovering his own homosexuality.

After earning a law degree at the University of Pennsylvania, Righter spent a year lawyering for a large Philadelphia firm. The work left him cold, so he quit to take on humanitarian tasks such as feeding and clothing Philly’s Depression-era poor. He also began experimenting with astrology. His specialty was counseling unemployed men on how to find work.

Money and dreams ran into each other like grass fires. Beautiful children from America’s outskirts chased their doom in the city’s canyons.

It was around this time that a doctor gave Righter six months to live—an old back injury had festered into a death sentence. Righter read his own horoscope and found that he had “physical protection in the Southwest.” Guided by little more than a hunch and a hunger to save his life, he journeyed 2,700 miles to Los Angeles. A year later he was not only still alive but dancing.

Hollywood was in its Golden Age then. Celluloid and money were parallel currencies. Money and dreams ran into each other like grass fires. Beautiful children from America’s outskirts chased their doom in the city’s canyons. In 1932, a failed actress named Peg Entwistle became an unwitting symbol of Hollywood nihilism when she jumped to her death from the iconic Hollywood sign. The city was—and remains—a hothouse in which insatiable appetites vied for the transitory relief of fame or wealth or power. In other words, it was the perfect backdrop for Righter’s brand of vague, feverish clairvoyance.

Righter gained his first foothold in Hollywood high society during a party at Charlie Chaplin’s house. By 1939 he had assembled a roster of A-list clients including Marlene Dietrich, Clark Gable, Robert Cummings, Tyrone Power, Princess Grace, Betty Grable, Hedy Lamarr, Van Johnson, Ronald Coleman, Peter Lawford, on and on. Dietrich called Righter three times a week for advice about her affair du jour—now with Douglas Fairbanks, now with Erich Maria Remarque. Righter’s precision was infallible. According to a 1988 profile in People, “he once informed Susan Hayward that the most auspicious time to sign a movie contract was 2:47 a.m., so she obediently arranged for a 2:45 a.m. wake-up call.”

Righter’s Los Angeles Times column was syndicated in more than 300 newspapers and read by 30 million people daily. He supplemented his already fat income by cranking out potboilers like The Astrological Guide to Marriage and Family Relations and Your Astrological Guide to Health and Diet. His earnings afforded him a sprawling estate in the Hollywood Hills that he christened Harmony House. It was here that he hosted monthly Zodiac parties.

“Righter served astrologically appropriate food, such as meat and potatoes for Moon Children, lemon pie for the tart tastes of Aries people, and hot red peppers for passionate Scorpios.”

For more than a decade these lavish gatherings were some of Los Angeles’ most chic. More than 500 celebrities and studio execs milled around, savoring the exoticism. Arlene Dahl, an actress and friend of Righter, described the festivities to writer Kitty Kelley: “Fish were swimming around in his pool for the Pisces party, he rented a live lion for my Leo party, and he lined up sets of twins for the Gemini party. He served astrologically appropriate food, such as meat and potatoes for Moon Children, lemon pie for the tart tastes of Aries people, and hot red peppers for passionate Scorpios.”

Righter also hosted weekly Tuesday night astrology classes, which may be where he first rendezvoused with Nancy Reagan. He had been familiar with her from the late ’40s when the ink was still wet on her MGM contract and she merited an occasional squib in the tabloids. In November 1950, he had even mentioned her in his column: “With her progressed moon passing through her 10th house… Nancy Davis’ movie career moves steadily forward.” Righter and the Reagans soon became deeply enmeshed, and he coached the couple’s burgeoning political aspirations. As he had done for Marlene Dietrich, Susan Hayward, and innumerable other starlets, Righter served as the Reagans’ therapist, strategist, and confessor all at once.

Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California in 1967. Two years later, Righter made the cover of Time magazine. His disembodied head stared lizardly beneath a banner shrilling “Astrology and the New Cult of the Occult.” The article portrayed him as an aging man held captive by a coterie of hypochondriac clients: “The phone rings constantly, and Righter…spends much of his time in a soft-voiced swivet of ‘Oh, Moonchild, I’m happy to tell you that this is a very good day for you.’” He kept his clients’ files next to his bed so that when they called at 2:30 a.m. he was ready to talk. He saw his relationships as akin to those of a doctor and patient. “If I don’t get called late at night,” he told Time, “I sometimes toss and turn and wonder what’s happened to everybody. I begin to feel not needed.”

Perhaps this explains a practice recounted in William Carroll’s book The Unknown Man. Righter often lunched at Brown Derby on Wilshire Boulevard. At a predetermined time, his secretary would call the restaurant and urgently request to speak with him. The waitstaff would page him over the PA—“telephone call for Mr. Righter”—followed by the maître’d rushing over to plug a phone into the booth. It was essentially a crude PR stunt designed to give everyone in Brown Derby on that afternoon the thrill of knowing they were in Righter’s presence.

“Should Ronnie run for president?” Nancy asked Righter. “The timing isn’t right,” the astrologer told her.

In 1976, Ronald Reagan had finished his second term as governor and was mulling a bid for the White House—or, rather, Nancy was mulling for him. Reagan was content with his syndicated newspaper column, the occasional television commercial, and a radio show that brought in $200,000 a year. Nancy, however, was eager to see her husband on the national stage (or just back on national TV). She booked an appointment with Righter, using a name nobody but cinema buffs would recognize: Nancy Davis. She arrived at Harmony House in sunglasses and a kerchief. “Should Ronnie run for president?” she asked Righter. “The timing isn’t right,” the astrologer told her. “Why must we wait? Why can’t we go now? Why? Why? Why?” For more than an hour she badgered and cajoled, unwilling to accept Righter’s advice. After she left, Righter collapsed in a chair and complained to his secretary, “She wears me out.”

Reagan did run in ’76, and as Righter predicted, the timing wasn’t right. Four years later, however, fortunes had changed and the Reagans found themselves swept into the White House. Righter was an occasional guest, one of the few homosexuals the Reagans entertained with such unconditional relish. By the mid-1980’s, he was more of an old family friend than a trusted counselor. That role now fell to Jeane Dixon, Joan Quigley, and a rotating cast of psychics.

Carroll Righter died on April 30, 1988. Like Evangeline Adams before him, he predicted the date of his death. His obituary in the New York Times made no mention of his decades-long connection to the Reagans.

Jeremy Lybarger is managing editor of The Bold Italic and a journalist who has written for Mother Jones, Salon, Bookforum, The Advocate, San Francisco Chronicle, The Brooklyn Rail, among other publications.

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2 comments for Jeremy Lybarger: Ronald Reagan’s Black Magic Man

  1. Comment by Jen Vogt on January 26, 2015 at 12:41 pm

    Righter’s date of death is April 30, 1988, according to Wikipedia.

  2. Comment by Aditi Sriram on January 27, 2015 at 3:21 pm

    Thank you, Jen. Date has been verified in the NYTimes and other sources, and been amended in the text.

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