By Peter H. Green
Invited to a costume party this Halloween, I donned a flowing robe, white wig and beard, put on my best Irish brogue and appeared as my great uncle Peter Howard, (1878-1969). This resulted in a flurry of family e-mails and reminded me what a well known character he was, and still is to this day, even forty years after his death.
In August of 1963, before returning to my final year of graduate school—in a last fling of summer and a final procrastination of my architectural thesis project—I bought a circle ticket for an extended bus tour, with stops to visit friends in El Paso, Tucson and Carlsbad Caverns, ultimately reaching Los Angeles. There I met up with Bonnie, a friend of my sister’s, who kindly acted as my chauffeur, guide and companion on my Southern California tours. She showed me the Riverside Inn—an historic hotel with its many picturesque architectural features added over the past century—the La Brea tar pits and the L. A. Zoo, among other marvels. On one sunny August day I decided to look up my great Uncle Peter Howard, my namesake and one of my grandmother’s twin brothers. Their other brother Jerry had long been deceased, but Peter, having chosen a nomadic, outdoor existence, had apparently benefited from a healthier life style.
A family legend, Peter had migrated from Chicago to California to seek, if not fortune, a bit of fame, and to enjoy the state’s noted tolerance of unconventional people. Characteristically, he was featured in the November 21, 1938 issue of Life magazine in an article entitled, “Cuckooland: Screwy California May be the Future Athens of America.” There in stark black and white, on a page headlined, “California’s Deep Desire for Population Filled the Land with Odd & Eccentric Folk,” stands Great Uncle Peter. He is shown bestriding a hillside pasture, braced by a rugged walking stick in his left hand and a trusty greyhound at his right, clad only in a dark, monkish robe and hiking boots, his white mane and beard flowing in the wind, looking mystically skyward, beyond earthly concerns. The caption reads, “Peter the Hermit, formerly Peter Howard of Chicago, is one of the many hermits who live in wooden shacks in the hills around Hollywood. Peter likes to be close to nature. His only companions are a burro, a herd of goats and a dozen greyhounds.” I had briefed Bonnie on our eccentric family, and her eager anticipation matched mine, as we entered the city of Hollywood and began to look for Peter’s house.
As we approached his neighborhood from Hollywood & Vine, our driving directions took us under a great viaduct carrying the Hollywood Freeway. Finding the street on the other side and searching for the address, we located his one-story bungalow in a row of such dwellings. He had lived in this general location for years, starting out in the grassy foothills of the higher mountain that now bears the famous sign, which had once read HOLLYWOODLAND. Peter lived on the commercial fringe of this area, in a bungalow just beyond the 101 Highway overpass, which had been developed into a few rows of higher density rental units.
We found Peter at home. Since I had written him about our forthcoming visit, we were not totally unexpected. He was delighted to see us and welcomed us into his modest bungalow. His strong Irish features—a long face, pronounced cheekbones, and a shaggy white beard, firm, taut skin a healthy pink, surrounded by a mane of flowing white hair that fell to his shoulders—made a striking impression. As his deep blue eyes studied us, so strong was the family resemblance that I felt I was looking at the ghost of my grandmother, gone for over ten years. This vision in white was completed by a neat long-sleeved shirt and white duck pants.l The room was bare, white and very much in keeping with the exterior of the stucco cottage, Mediterranean in its stark simplicity.
Inviting us to sit on his simple wooden chairs at a square wooden table, he asked a few questions about my relation to his sister Mary. I watched Peter stare at Bonnie, an attractive college art student, slender, with a well proportioned figure, in a simple sundress short enough to reveal a considerable length of her slim, tanned legs. Apparently, his advanced age hadn’t dimmed his vision, nor diminished his ardor. He offered us grapes, apples, pears, bananas and nuts. “People bring me these things. I always have plenty of food. I believe in nature’s bounty. The actors and actresses all come to me for advice: Jane Russell, Lana Turner, Marilyn Monroe. They come to me to learn of the higher spiritual world and to be healed.
“I’m a great spiritualist, sir,” he continued. “I wear white all the time. White is purity, the color of spiritual energy and divine inspiration. Let me see your aura.” Gazing intensely at Bonnie, he examined her face and her head closely. “Ah, blue! That’s spiritual. You have the ability to communicate with the spirit world, far beyond this wicked city. Hollywood: I call it Follywood. Nothing but sin, sex and seduction!” he declared, slapping Bonnie smartly with his left hand on her right thigh, the reflex causing her to jump in her chair. “Am I not right, dear?”
She managed a timid “Why, yes.”
“I can barely hear you,” Peter responded in a husky Irish brogue.
“Yes, Peter!” She replied, firmly this time. Bonnie learned fast. Anxious to divert his attention and spare my companion, I asked, “What is spiritualism?”
Peter’s eyes took on a faraway look as he began describing how all life is one “intelligence”, and man’s progress from the worldly concerns of body in physical being to higher levels, becoming aware in the process of a parallel world of pure spirit. My head spun with visions of spirit mediums, who could communicate with higher worlds, speak with the departed and glimpse the realm where all beings are part of one Great Spirit and all souls are at peace. I had heard of Theosophy and later learned that his encampment was near the utopian Krotona colony, whose adherents he must have encountered in those hills. I wondered how on a calm summer day we had been drawn in into the maelstrom, by this boisterous, energetic self-proclaimed prophet. No longer Bonnie and Grandnephew Peter, we had been transformed in Peter’s mind into his unseen but palpable audience in a darkened cinema.
As his rant continued he recounted his film credits. He had appeared in most of the biblical epics of the day—The Robe, The Ten Commandments, Spartacus and all the rest—although as an extra, a most authentic one. I mused that the directors must hardly have needed to send him to make-up and costumes; he would have appeared on the film lot each morning ready for work, able with a toss of his head to step immediately into his character at the time of Christ.
How easily I could now comprehend Peter’s attraction for Hollywood’s great and small, from diva to aspiring starlet, and his ability to entangle them in his mystical web. “I’m a great spiritualist, sir,” he again intoned. “The stars all come to me for advice and counsel, Joan Crawford, Lana…” As he spoke, I imagined Peter sitting across this humble table from the sultry Lana Turner, evoking her lost loves, communing with the spirits of her dear departed and earning her eternal gratitude and devotion.
“The movie stars have lost their faith,” he complained. “That’s why they come to me.” At this reflection his voice rose in measure with his ire and his brogue thickened as he spat out his words. “The Cat’lic Church is a fraud. High mass for high money, low mass for low money and no mass for no money!” he roared.
He paced around his tiny living-dining-kitchen space like sailor on a heaving deck, bracing himself as he turned with his stout, bare legs. “I’m 85, ye know,” he boasted. “But I’m fit. I walk miles every day—I used to tend goats in those hills with my greyhounds. You can see that I’m strong, can’t you my darlin’?” he said, squeezing Bonnie’s upper arm firmly with his hand.
“Yes, Peter,” Bonnie affirmed, wincing.
He pounded his chest with his fist, producing a solid thud. “I am still hearty, as you can see.” Testing his voice with a few notes, he then broke into a chantey: “I sail the ocean blue…” he sang in a husky baritone. His rhythmic movements became a dance. He swayed, bobbed and spun on one heel. Bonnie, fully moved by the spirit, her cheeks glowing and her dark eyes shining, cried, “Yes, Peter, yes!”
I looked on enviously at this ancient mariner’s power over the young girl. Her reactions to my efforts to attract her over the past few days paled by comparison. As he finished the song, he stopped thoughtfully and turned toward the kitchen counter. “As you see, I have plenty—take some. He reached for a bowl of fruit and loaded three oranges, a grapefruit, a bunch of grapes and a banana into a brown paper bag and thrust them at me. The interview was over. Sheepishly presenting the sack, I protested the gift. “No, take it!” he insisted. “My friends will bring me more. They give me everything: fruit, vegetables, food, money . . .”
At the second mention of money, while I held his heavy bag of groceries I became noticeably embarrassed. On the one hand 1 realized that Peter might have little income and may have needed cash for household necessities; on the other, I knew I had been conned, but it was too late to object. “Could I offer you something?” I asked weakly.
“Oh, anything will do,” he replied, a little too fast.
At last, the collection plate, I thought. Still a student and a tightwad by nature, perhaps with some of Peter’s own genes, I perfunctorily stuck a hand in my pocket and offered up a crumpled dollar bill and a handful of change, which Peter gratefully accepted.
The Mass had ended: it was time to go in peace with thanks and praise. We took our leave with promises from me to bring news of our visit to the rest of the clan and headed for the freeway.
While our visit to my great uncle Peter was not the joyous family reunion I’d anticipated, I took some pride in being related to such a human phenomenon. It was a performance that has become part of our family lore, told and retold up to the present day. And we saw it all for less than the price of a first-run downtown movie.
For more posts and pictures, visit Hope Anderson’s blog on Peter the Hermit .
Until next time,