There was Nate, on his way to hang another set of valances, Nate the valance man in his van bumping along behind me up the dirt roads in the back-hills of Rancho Santa Fe. We pulled into the circular drive of the old Spanish mansion together, me and Nate, and we both took in the Lincoln Continentals, and the butler in black and whites washing down one of the Cadillac convertibles.
“Right. Somebody named Newman live here?” Nate yelled.
He sounded skeptical, not mention mad at having had to take such an off-road expedition for Chrissake just to hang a set of valances. But of course it wasn’t just that; for Nate had come upon a More House, where he was about to learn that he too could have more and more and more – that he in fact need not be Nate the valance man. In only a week he would quit his job and be lounging around the pool here with his wife and kids, drinking gin and tonic served by a prettily uniformed maid, who obligingly bent over in the shortest skirt he’d seen in a long while.
Barb and Irv Newman are More House missionaries, come to bring the Good News to the jungles of San Diego. Masterminded by Victor Barranco, the first More House opened in Oakland in 1969, and Barbara and Irv joined about a year later.
“Vic is a half spade, half Jew who made a couple million in business and then lost it and flashed on how none of it meant anything,” said Barbara.
So he sat down in his backyard and thought and thought and came up with something that gave it all meaning, freed him to go on making a million but to enjoy more – the Institute for Human Abilities, he called it, or More House, and its goal, “to serve the world unselfishly and make a profit at it.”
More House makes those profit by buying old, run-down houses, which its people renovate while living in them. In the case of this Spanish mansion, for example, the Institute took a loan to buy it for $100,000, has already improved the property value to $160,000, now takes out another loan to buy the land adjoining it, all the while building credit rating, building property values, building more and more and more. They use as “tools” the aspects of this society which they once saw as evil – like taxes, which they don’t pay.
Teaching is another source of profit. Institute members give “mark groups”, evening courses in psychological game-playing for which the “commitment” is “$2.50 or whatever”, and weekend courses in sensuality, communications, hexing, or an unstructured “Weekend with Vic” (which may actually be taught by Irv, who is qualified to be Vic) for $45 and no whatever. Barbara and Irv say they sometimes take in $1000 for a weekend course, and all money of course goes to the Institute. But the courses couldn’t possibly produce all the highly conspicuous wealth – and no one quite explained how they could go on borrowing, borrowing, borrowing, without someday having to pay off their loans.
Barranco’s philosophy of More is an odd mix of Horatio Alger, Drs. Masters and Johnson, and the democratic instincts of a Marine Corps drill sergeant. He promises that whoever joins the system and perseveres, from the bottom of the hierarchy – serving as maid, butler, painter, or builder – will reach the ultimate point of having everything he or she could possibly dream of having, and of being “together enough” to enjoy having that much.
The aim is “to be happy, and to feel good”, and this can be achieved by looking for the good in any situation. The constant premium is on excitement, and since More Housers see sex as the most exciting thing in life, it is a major focus of the Institute. They study Masters’ and Johnson’s sex techniques avidly and disseminate this information, with concentration upon the female orgasm, in weekend courses. They repeatedly ask new people in the Institute, or in mark groups, “Do you have orgasms”…“how often?”…“how do you know?”
There are about fifty More Houses in the country, divided into classes “A” and “B”. Directors, those who have risen in the hierarchy, live in “A-Houses”, which are suitably opulent and located in the country – such as this Spanish mansion, built by Frank Morgan who played the Wizard in the Wizard of Oz. “B-houses” are in the city and open to serve the public. “We have a B-house in National City,” informed Barbara, “and anyone can go there and get fed, crash, get rubbed on.”
Institute members represent a cross-section of American society, “We get hairdressers, college professors, a guy who always wanted to run his own garbage business, an undercover agent who came to check us out and ended up moving in with his family, and a lot of hippies “¦ but they don’t stay hippies long. They start enjoying the good things in life.”
Those good things would wholly satisfy the standard American middle-class appetite. “In a nation of people striving for middle class, we’ll out-middle-class ‘em.” Yes, indeed. They take all the accouterments of the life of the nouveau riche and place them in a different context, to void the void that accompanies those poolside afternoons in Newport, lurking always just beyond the mah-jong table, just behind the cabanas. As Carl, No. 2 man to Irv, puts it, “Barranco took knowledge from the Bible, the Koran, and he made it appropriate for middle-class Americans. It’s an alternative that fits in better with American life than, say, the Maharishi.
“A girl from the Bronx living in a movie star’s mansion,” sighed Barbara, her glance moving from house to pool to her own deeply tanned anatomy, “that’s making chopped liver out of shit.”
I asked Barbara to repeat that one, and she explained that it was an expression of her grandmother’s, she can’t take full credit for it. But she continues to elaborate in her own way, showing that her grandmother’s gift for analogy has not been lost.
“I’m a people freak,” said Barbara. “I mean, it’s just like with shoes. No matter how many I have, I always want more.”
Given the nature of More House, it is good that Barbara feels this way. The more people and the more houses, the more Barbara will be able to have of everything she wants. Even if it’s just more of the same.
“What more could I want?” asked Barbara. “I have a mansion, a pool, a butler, a maid, my old man, my kids, limousines, I live with the people I love. I never have to do any housework, I only cook a meal if I feel like it!”
Barbara ordered another gin and tonic from the butler and sighed at the wonder of it all, at how very perfect it all is and how perfect, in fact, everyone is. “We have everyone as perfect, that’s our basic assumption. People that come here feel they are being found right for what they are – and it’s addictive.”
“People out there are pain junkies,” asserted Barbara, referring to the world outside of More House. “They’re addicted to the bad.”
And what was it like before Barbara became addicted to the good?
“Oh, I always wanted to be somewhere else. I always said to myself, “˜what the fuck am I doing here?” Then I just realized that if I’m here I must want to be here, and I should enjoy every experience I have.”
In their earlier life, Barbara and Irv were married at 16, lived in Plainview, Long Island, begat two children, Matthew and Ricky, and Irv travelled tow and a half hours on the Long Island Railroad every day to go to his job as a diamond cutter in the 47th St. jewelry district of New York City.
“We had a lot then,” said Barbara, who is now 29, “but my old man was away from me all day, dealing in cut-throat business. We decided there must be a better way.”
That conviction led them, naturally, to California, where Irv went to school at UCSD and they began to live communally, become interested in the teachings of Meher Baba. “A bunch of people eatin’ brown rice out of wooden bowls. Irv didn’t wear any shoes, he wore a shirt of unbleached muslin — just like a typical hippie,” Barbara exclaimed. “But that got slow – nothin’ was shakin’.”
From Long Island to San Diego and finally to Oakland, the search took them ever onward, in unceasing quest for what was shakin’. And there in Barranco’s Institute, they found it. They learned how to love all the time, for one thing. According to the Institute or Barranco, it takes 18 months for the average person to learn to love all the time. And that’s how long it took Barbara and Irv under the tutelage of another More guru, Patty Matlock, who was an archaeologist in his lesser pre-Institute life.
“Patty put us in a basement of a grocery store. The walls were greasy, it was full of cobwebs. He twisted his moustache and said, “˜Make it pretty, kiddies.’ When we were done, somebody said it looked like the Tower Suite. We take what other people see as garbage and make it pretty – everything from houses to people.”
Barbara continued to reminisce. “They woke us up at 4 A.M., said 'we want four grilled cheese sandwiches and four malteds’. We had no money, we had to wake up other people for money and car keys.”
“And that taught you “ what?” I wondered.
“That taught me to feel I could do anything, anywhere, in any situation.” A survival course of sorts.
Major facets of the Institute structure are role-playing and game-playing. “We create a play where there are a whole lot of roles to be filled,” explained Barbara, “and we’re not victimized by them. We dig being maids and butlers and chauffeurs.”
The women also dig being the objects of nearly everyone’s sexual fantasies. The Institute line is that the man provides everything for his woman, the man paints while the woman serves drinks, “we take care of our ladies.”
“The men like to work more if we’re around, wearing uniforms so short they can see our butts if we bend over a little, we’re very deliberate,” laughed Barbara.
“Role-playing is a way to have more experiences in life,” Barbra continued, “and it’s wonderful to serve. Irv still wears black-and-whites and plays butler when we go to visit Patty.”
“I never see Daddy in black-and-whites”, piped up Matthew their nine-year-old who was taking it all in.
“We serve now, all the time, by being committed to keeping all the relationships around here clean (honest),” said Barbara, “and we serve the “˜public’ too, who come here for weekend courses, wanting to clean up their relationships, wanting to get turned on sexually.”
Paul the butler comes out to announce that the valances were six inches too short but it hasn’t been a total loss – the valance man is going to hold a “mark group” in his house this week.
“Far out,” said Barbara. She turned to me. “It just flips people out, our being here, saying we’re committed to giving you whatever you want. Rip us off, we’re a blank check.” (I try to oblige, by asking if I can come to a weekend course without paying $45 – for the story, of course. She tells me I can, if I work it off by playing maid for three days. Thank you, no.)
“Here, instead of how much you have being related to how much money you have, how much you have is related to how much you love,” said Barbara, smiling and looking around.
time: one week later
East: Anna, C.B., C.B.’s husband Ben, their baby Ari, Barbara, Irv, and a peripheral audience, cheering their More team on: Cindy, who lives there, and Nate the ex-valance man and his family.
Barbara: Irving, let me know when you’ve had enough of these schmucks and I’ll take you upstairs and “¦ (she went on to describe in mouth-watering detail the pleasures that awaited her spouse).
C.B.: (to Barbara) But why did you invite us here?
Irv: I got pissed off at her for doing it. You can’t really hear me. You should be paying for a weekend course. If you want to hear the answer. (But he goes on talking anyway.)
Irv: The idea is to see the goodness in life, and then that’s your life experience. Otherwise you’re a pain freak, and you lose. Someone in a course once asked me to see the goodness in Hitler, and for a moment I didn’t know. But then I flashed on how there were twelve million Jews in Europe at the time and if a survey had been taken, I’m sure half of them would’ve given their lives for the state of Israel. (Pause. C.B. stares blankly at him.) And half of them did.
Ben: Everything you say is convenient and arbitrary.
Anna: I’d have a hard time seeing the goodness in Hitler.
Irv: O.K. Lose.
(Enter Jerry the butler, asking if he can get us anything more. Irv asks for another gin and tonic, Jerry replies there isn’t any more tonic, Irv tells him to go get some. Jerry, until joining More House a couple of months ago, was a biochemist at Salk Institute. Exit Jerry.)
Irv: I have the viewpoint that Jerry can do anything and that he’s perfect. So he’s chosen to live with me, to get fixed, to have my viewpoint. He will flash out that he’s in touch with the abundant source of the universe. (noting his visitor’s expression) I have to answer – come to a course. Or if you want to go on in pain, do it. When you’re dying, you’ll flash out into it.
Barbara: (grinning) But then it’ll be too late.
Irv: Yeah, it’ll be too late. (He laughs)
(C.B. and Ben’s two-year-old, Ari, is knocked over by the Newman’s German shepherd, falls flat onto his back on the pool deck, and cries.)
Irv: Look at that, the whole family are pain freaks.
(Exit Anna, C.B., Ben, and Ari).
We assembled at a house in Mission Beach for a “mark group”. It was led by Greta and Paul, who run the National City B-house and joined More House about six months ago. Greta’s ex-husband, Jerry, who was the butler in the last scene, was also there; he lives in the B-house along with Greta, his and Greta’s two children, Greta’s new old man, Paul, and some other people. Greta’s mother, Sarah, is here, too: she has just flown in from New York for a visit for her granddaughter’s birthday.
The rules of the evening’s games were outlined. There is mimicry – in which you mimic what your partner is saying; the hot seat, in which you answer the questions put to you by either telling the truth, lying, or refusing to answer, and we were told that in life “the hot seat is always strapped to your ass, so this is a mockery of your life”, and “withholds”, in which you tell people what you are withholding from them, and the assumption is that you are always withholding something and the telling, even if cruel, is a kind of communion – and essential for a clean relationship.
Sarah and I chose each other for mimicry partners. I told Sarah how familiar she was to me, so much like relatives at home, and how difficult and strange I though this situation must be for her. We laughed because I knew Sarah knew this even before I told here and we had a pleasurable two minutes of putting full attention on each other, which is the idea of the mimicry. I saw that Sarah was game and was not surprised when she also volunteered for the hot seat.
Someone asked Sarah what she thought of Paul, and she answered that “he’s a smart cookie”. “More House life is fast, only for the hardy, “ Paul told us. “Many are called but few are chosen.”
Joey is in More House. He speaks very softly and wears an expression of beatitude, an unrippled surface beneath which something moves. His old lady, Pat, has just joined. She is from Minnesota, has long flowing blond hair, and wore a round-collared flowered blouse like the all-American girls with whom I went to high school.
“I want to be happy,” declared Pat. “I’m definitely a pain freak. I don’t want to just sit and complain about how bad things are and listen to my friends complain. I want to be happy.
They put Jerry on the hot seat and attacked. His face pained, he insisted that he really is happy. They asked him then why he is able to have so little, why he doesn’t have a car, an old lady.
“I guess it’s too much for me to have right now,” recited Jerry.
Mockery was the structure and atmosphere of the evening. The “hot seat” game is mockery of life, there was mockery of any area of vulnerability the moment it was exposed and of people who challenged the More line.
As I left, Jerry asked me to write a loving story about loving people.
I saw Sarah again a week later, at her grand-daughter’s birthday party in the National City B-house.
“Your better half has been digging shit and slinging it,” Sarah told Paul.
“I thought you’d create some motion, Sarah. That’s why Irv wanted you to stay here,” from Paul, grandly.
“Well, he can go fuck himself.” Sarah turned to me. “Normally I’m a lady, I’ve never had use for this kind of language in all my life.”
She took me aside. “I’ll tell you what this is, it’s 1000% brainwashing. I’m not saying it isn’t good for some of them, even Greta – they have a better life than they might otherwise. But it’s brainwashing, pure and simple.”
“And something else,” she added ruefully, “these people have no sense of humor.”
Later that evening, at a “mark group” for leaders which was led by Cindy and Carl, the following dialogue ensued.
Carl: Greta, do you think Jerry and David have been doing their exercises?
Greta: Well, I guess not, because put a super-big jar of Vaseline in the kitchen for anyone to use and I don’t think they’ve take it.
Carl: Thank you. Do you realize it’s shocking for a house mother to have someone in her house who’s not using Vaseline?
Carl: Thank you. Greta, did you do your exercises today?
Carl: Thank you. When did you do them?
Greta: While I was lying on the bed this morning, watching television.
Carl. Thank you. What was on television.
Greta. (laughing) You know, one of those morning quiz shows.
Carl. Thank you. Which one?
Greta: (still laughing) Several.
Carl: Thank you.
Remember the Wizard of Oz? On they came, the poor scarecrow wanting brains, the cowardly lion longing for courage, the tin soldier wishing for a heart, and the little girl who wanted to get out of Oz and go home to Kansas – all asking the Wizard to make them whole and perfect. Now they come to the “A-house” in Rancho Santa Fe, wanting to be “fixed.” And old wizard Irv, holding court poolside, makes the guarantees. It bears mentioning, for you who may not remember the Oz tale too well, that the Wizard was no wizard at all; he was a sham. But the fairy tale ended happily nonetheless – because that Wizard, we are told, “though not much of a wizard was still a good man.”