Dancin' With Mr. D
Halloween night in the city, 1997. George Michalski, Cypress Club pianist and musical director of the TV show Nash Bridges, was driving through the streets on the way to play a gig at the Hookers' Ball. Prominent among the thoughts replaying in his mind was the death of his girlfriend Karla's father, Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey, just two days earlier. Michalski eventually made it to the gig, according to producers of the Hookers' Ball, but not before his car was smacked into and totaled. The driver of the other car was -- an actual Catholic nun.
Even Anton LaVey would have laughed at that one.
I first became aware of LaVey and the Church of Satan in the 1980s, through infrequent mentions in Herb Caen's columns. LaVey seemed to be an aging socialite of the city, another one of the hundreds of occasional Caen name-drops that appeared to carry over from another era. In 1990, I received in the mail the new authorized biography of LaVey, The Secret Life of a Satanist, written by his personal secretary/companion, Blanche Barton, and realized his contributions had merited far more than mere column mentions. He put San Francisco on the front page of the New York Times for performing satanic weddings and funerals, the latter for a member of the Navy at Treasure Island. He played the role of the devil in the film Rosemary's Baby. His books sold in the hundreds of thousands. He mingled among high society and Hollywood elite, and dated Jayne Mansfield. And at the core of it all was a hometown boy who had tossed away previous careers -- organist, lion tamer, and police investigator -- to start up his own religion and get some attention. What could be more San Franciscan than that?
After an item appeared in this column about the book, arrangements were made for me to have dinner with LaVey and Blanche at a French restaurant in the Richmond District. As I approached their table, LaVey stood up energetically, extended his hand and, announced, "You're a very brave man."
I asked why; he replied that even mentioning his name or the word Satan in print can have dangerous repercussions. We ordered a bottle of sweet white wine (his choice), and throughout our dinner of steaks (blood-rare) LaVey revealed himself to be a charming, intelligent conversationalist, with little patience for tedious chuckle-bum chatter. He was comfortable talking to media, and seemed to know instinctively the elements of his life that would be newsworthy.
We retired to his black Victorian house near Seacliff, where the High Priest of Satanism proceeded to entertain me on an elaborate system of keyboards set up in his tiny kitchen. Blanche served instant coffee from pentagram-emblazoned mugs. As LaVey rolled through his repertoire of forgotten circus music and burlesque themes, two house cats prowled the horizontal surfaces of the room and a caged boa constrictor seemed to bounce its head in time with the music.
Twenty five years earlier he had entertained much larger groups of people in this same house. As pot smoke drifted from the beatnik pads of North Beach to the hippie flats of the Haight, Anton LaVey was presenting a series of late-night occult lectures in his living room; subjects ranged from werewolves to cannibalism and circus freaks. His regular audience of eccentric heiresses and socialites dubbed itself the Magic Circle. In 1966, on the suggestion of a friend, LaVey combined his many interests into a religion he named the Church of Satan, advocating indulgence over abstinence and loathing anything that smacked of mass appeal or "herd" mentality.
The Church received most of its media attention during the late '60s and early '70s, attracting celebrity members who included filmmaker Kenneth Anger, Sammy Davis Jr., and Gilligan's Island star Tina Louise. After LaVey restructured the organization in 1974 to be more decentralized, it continued quietly via books, newsletters, and the occasional article or Caen item. Buses of tourists still drove past the black house, and the church was still listed in the Yellow Pages under the Satanic category, and neighborhood kids would still attempt to break its windows with projectiles.
The early 1990s saw a renewed interest in LaVey and the church. As another generation discovered him, he became the subject of articles in underground publications, including Re/Search, and the S.F. State magazine Prism. Feral House Press reissued his books. Being the editor of a local magazine, I too wanted to put him in print, and the staff came up with the idea of doing a fashion shoot called "Full Devil Jacket," to be shot entirely on location in his home. LaVey readily agreed, and during the coming weeks we met several times.
Each instance felt like a visit to the house of a baron from the Old World. We sat in his living room, which was filled with books, fake plants, and a coffee table made from a tombstone, and talked philosophy until dawn. Unlike the teen-age girls who had shared well-thumbed copies of The Satanic Witch, I had no knowledge of the church at all. Like any religion, it seemed a handy worldview for those who desired one. What seemed most valuable and tangible, though, was LaVey himself. I didn't agree with all that he said, but maxims like "The most important thing to do is to produce" made sense.