clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

How Cultists, Quacks, and Naturemenschen Made Los Angeles Obsessed With Healthy Living

New, 6 comments

It's Cults Week at Curbed LA! Join us.

Since at least the mid-1800s, California—especially Southern California—has been a place associated with health. The achy and the ailing came here in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century for the naturally mild, warm climate, often leaving behind family and friends, and arriving willing to try anything, however unusual it might have seemed, to restore and maintain their wellbeing. That, as Mike Davis explained to us earlier this week, made them great targets for all variety of scammers, cult-types, faux experts, and other charismatic figures. With raw food and kale juice in hand, those devotion-inspiring Los Angeles men who helped create the city's rep as a health food mecca—the kind of place where Alvy Singer could get a great plate of mashed yeast in Annie Hall.

"By 1880, the whole foothill district around Sierra Madre and San Gabriel was 'one vast sanitarium'," writes Carey McWilliams in the 1946 book Southern California County: An Island on the Land. People were sicker back then, and Southern California was the place to heal. Things grew here—just look at all the oranges—so it followed that people's bodies, with all that sun shining on them, would flourish too. This attitude helped create what McWilliams and others have referred to as SoCal's "cult of the body," health consciousness and body awareness that often comes at the expense of "tradition, formality, and dignity." Before the Twentieth Century even began, people in Los Angeles have been okay with doing unusual things and looking a little weird if the end result benefits their overall health and wellness. One effect of this social undercurrent is that it creates the perfect breeding ground for "quackery, pseudo-science, and cults." In the early years, it was fairly innocent, though.

By many accounts, the health food movement in Los Angeles really got going in the late 1920s and 1930s, bolstered by the reliable and understandable vanity of movie stars. Enter Gayelord Hauser, author of such eye-catching titles as Look Younger, Live Longer and the "inventor of the celebrity diet." (Hauser did have naturopathy and chiropractic degrees.) His advice was a hit with Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, and Adele Astaire, among many others. It didn't hurt that he was handsome and a survivor himself: he claimed to have been saved from tuberculosis by eating eating 36 lemons a day. Not surprisingly, his sane advice—along the lines of "eat more vegetables" or "plain yogurt is good for you"—was mixed in with some solidly fallacious claims, like that blackstrap molasses would cure baldness. But regardless of the science, he'd gotten the endorsement of celebrities, and that helped make health food seem, if not glamorous, then at least more normal.

In 1921, health pioneer Paul Bragg moved to Los Angeles and opened what he says was the country's first health food store, in Downtown LA, next to a natural medicine clinic he ran with a colleage. Mid-1920s advertisements for the store that ran in the LA Times read like a mixture of total snake oil salesmanship ("45 Pounds of Fat Removed By Bloodwash") (bloodwash?!) and sound health advice ("Come hike with us!"). Bragg, though definitely not a cult leader, was certainly a successful figurehead for a movement that was then picking up steam. He signed on to write a column of health tips in the LA Times, he had a radio show about wellness, he did cross-country lecture tours to promote his many books, and he led hiking trips through Griffith Park, which were often attended by shirtless men and women in swimsuits. Bragg's impact on the movement was immense and he influenced many others who went on to be successful in the field of health and fitness, like the late fitness guru/shockingly-strong-looking old man, Jack LaLanne.

But the health food movement was not just for go-getting entrepreneurs. Los Angeles was also the epicenter for a super-chill, proto-hippie movement, centered around a Laurel Canyon raw food restaurant and health food store called Eutropheon, started in 1917 by John and Vera Richter. The Richters, German immigrants, were influenced by the "back-to-nature" Lebensreform movement in their native land, and several of their employees were believers in the related Naturemensch movement, which translated into growing long beards, eating raw food, and often living outdoors "in caves and trees, sometimes as many as 15 of them at a time." All of this was in the late 1940s, way before the 1960s hippie movement got underway.

Two of the most famous so-called "nature boys" were eden ahbez and Gypsy Boots. A native New Yorker, the musically-inclined ahbez came to the store in 1941 and got a job playing the piano. (He changed his name to be entirely lower case because he believed only the words God and Infinity should be capitalized.) ahbez wrote the song "Nature Boy," which was recorded and made into a hit by Nat King Cole. He also lived for a while below the first "L" in the Hollywood Sign. ahbez's friend and fellow Naturemensch practitioner Gypsy Boots was a "fig-chomping, garlic-gobbling", natural food fan, largely because of a desire to boost his health after his older brother died young of tuberculosis.

Meanwhile, on a book tour through Cincinnati, Paul Bragg met a man named Jim Baker, who was interested in wellness, health food, and fitness. Before World War II, he'd owned a gym in Ohio; after the war, he and his wife moved to Los Angeles so he could try out for a movie role as Tarzan (he didn't get it). Instead, in the mid-1950s, Baker opened a health food restaurant called the Aware Inn, that became popular immediately; after 14 months in business, he was ready to open another restaurant. He went on to have many: the Discovery Inn in Topanga, the Old World Restaurant (later a chain), and, in 1969, The Source Restaurant on Sunset. Though many employees from the Aware Inn went on to open their own natural food cafes, thus spreading health food even further, it was The Source restaurant that became something special.

As Baker's business was booming, he encountered the teachings of Yogi Bhajan, started wearing long white robes, and changed his name to Father Yod or YaHoWa. He was convinced (or at least he told people he was convinced) that God wanted him to have his own children/followers. So it was from The Source restaurant and its healthy agenda that the Source Family took its name and got its start. The group mixed elements of various world religions with health food, healthy living, free love, music, and drugs. What began as a bunch of be-robed longhairs living in a house together and eating raw produce bloomed into a full-blown cult, where members took on "spiritual wives" (Yod himself had 14) and traditional medicine was eschewed—a move that would eventually drive the group out of California, when a child fell ill with a serious infection and ended up at a hospital.

"If you wanted to create a sort of archetype of the sort of ultimate early seventies, California spiritual cult, you could do no better than the Source family," says social historian Erik Davis in the recent documentary on the Source Family. What happened there? For so long, LA and health food had been able to coexist peacefully without some kind of freaky-deaky sect breaking out. Maybe it was just a sign of the times. Davis argues that the Vietnam War (and opposition to it) and the rising popularity of psychedelic drugs led to a lot of "Dionysian" activities, but also to an overwhelming feeling throughout society, especially among young people, of being unmoored. Just like those early sick Los Angeles migrants, desperate for any cure.
· Ask the Experts: Why Does Los Angeles Attract So Many Cults? [Curbed LA]
· Cults Week [Curbed LA]