The Rebirth of Tarot
The following is excerpted from Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation, recently released by Bantam.
As the 1950s wore on, the occult could seem like something of a spent force in American life. Foes of Spiritualism had exposed one mediumistic fraud after another; Theosophy, with an aging membership and no more communiqués from the Masters, had begun to seem like a frumpy lecture society; the Reverend Norman Vincent Peale had retooled the Mesmeric and New Thought-based practices of "positive thinking" into mild motivational fare; and the most vibrant personalities of the American occult, from Baird T. Spalding to Edgar Cayce, had passed on to Summer Land. By the end of the decade, the occult could appear to be little more than an amalgam of eccentrics and loners who sat "vain, nervous, inept, neurotic, and fearful in their chintz-curtained apartments," philosopher Jacob Needleman wrote, "complacently treasuring The Hidden Knowledge."
A new voice was needed. And it arrived just as the cusp of the 1960s -- or what some considered the opening of the Aquarian Age foreseen in astrology -- came into sight. The voice belonged to a New York based actress, bookshop owner, and student of metaphysical ideas named Eden Gray. As thought movements tend to blend one into the other, so did American occultism give way to the New Age in Gray's immensely readable, sprightly guides to Tarot cards. In her work, one can see the American occult evolving into the larger New Age culture of the second half of the twentieth century.
Born in Chicago in 1901, Gray changed her name from Priscilla Pardridge for the stage. As an aspiring actress in the 1920s, she moved to New York. Gray was cast in a variety of stage roles, playing opposite Edward G. Robinson and Helen Hayes. Over the course of marriage and divorce, travel, and World War II -- in which she served stateside as an Army lab technician -- her acting career got waylaid. In the 1950s, she attempted to reignite her career using the visualization principles of Religious Science, the mind-power philosophy espoused by Ernest Holmes. Almost immediately, Gray landed an unlikely role in a London stage play.
Gray later returned to New York and became active with the First Church of Religious Science on Manhattan's East 48th Street (another Midtown anomaly, just a few blocks from Blavatsky and Olcott's old Lamasery). Deeply affected by her spiritual experiences and with encouragement from her Religious Science minister, Gray decided to pursue a new career in the occult -- but from her own fresh, energetic perspective. In 1954 she opened a metaphysical bookstore, Inspiration House, on Manhattan's East Side and began giving Tarot readings. Patrons complained to her that no really practical Tarot guide existed. The actress-turned-occultist responded with a book of her own.
Gray's 1960 volume, The Tarot Revealed -- a beautiful oblong hardcover designed by her artist son, Peter Gray Cohen -- arrived like a ray of sunshine to a generation of readers. Occult acolytes of the postwar era had grown wearily accustomed to colorless works like Englishman Arthur E. Waite's 1911 Pictorial Key to the Tarot, one of the few "popular" guides available. Waite's manner was hesitant and withholding, as though writing under duress for a general readership. While Paul Foster Case's The Tarot had been available since 1947, he committed little space to divination, the area that most interested Tarot enthusiasts. With Gray's work, readers no longer had to pine for a useful "how-to." She combined simple instructions, enticing (if sometimes fanciful) occult history, and a New Thought-inspired tone: "Give those for whom you read encouragement to strive for their highest ideals. The seeds you plant can blossom into lovely flowers of accomplishment."
Gray's writing was friendly, informal, and practical. It would not please everyone. Esoteric scholar Manly P. Hall, born the same year as Gray, believed the New Age generation cheapened esoteric ideas, proffering quick fixes rather than demanding a lifetime of study. Regardless, the new era belonged to Gray. And, in her own shorthand style, she offered many of the same ideas as Hall and the more "serious" esotericists. New York publishers began to reprint her work and look for more. By the early 1970s, Tarot and other occult how-to guides -- ranging from palmistry and astrology, to numerology and candle-magic -- numbered in the hundreds. The era of New Age publishing had begun.
Mitch Horowitz is the editor-in-chief of Tarcher/Penguin. He is giving a reading from Occult America at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, September 23rd at Barnes and Noble at 6th Avenue and West 8th Street in New York, and speaking Saturday, October 3rd and Sunday, 4th at the Philosophical Research Society in Los Angeles. Mitch is also presenting a lecture on the occult history of New York at the New York Open Center at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, September 29th and conducting an Esoteric New York Walking Tour, also through the Open Center, from 2-5 p.m. on Sunday, October 11th. For details please visit http://www.opencenter.org/.
Teaser image by Eponabri, courtesy of Creative Commons license.