|On set of Marjoe. Photo by Jeanne Field.|
(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)
I began this memoir by recounting my first contact with the spirit of my grandfather in 1974. Yet he was not my first ghost. Three years before, I had an unexpected run-in with the front office: the supreme all-infusing Holy Ghost.
It was July 1971, a hot and humid night in Texas. Parishioners attending the evening service sat on folding seats and fanned their faces with paper paddles. A country-western band played their original composition “God I Love You”; the pedal steel swooned around the singer. What was I doing in a Pentecostal revival tent in Fort Worth?
I had only attended Christian church services a few of times in my life, on the insistence of my mother. My dad, adamantly agnostic, used to claim with a straight face that he was a Druid, or “Druish.” Meanwhile Mom had four children to raise, with little energy remaining to drag us all to the local Episcopal church, which had no ramp for her wheelchair anyway. She let the matter slide.
By the time I turned ten, I was in love with Greek mythology and showed every sign of becoming a pagan. Mom got the idea to turn me over to her mother, who was passing through New York, asking her to introduce me to the church experience. My grandmother’s religious affiliation was indeterminate, as she was always shopping for sects. I took the train in from Connecticut; Grandma scooped me up and plunked me down in the vast, packed Madison Square Garden to hear Billy Graham, her new crush.
The ensuing yell-fest traumatized me. When my mother met my train afterwards, she picked up a quiet, cowed, unnervingly polite child. I was so afflicted with sin, and remorse for sin, that I went on a goodness binge for a week. Yet I knew so little about what defined a sin that it seemed I could make no move without committing one. Practice-kissing the mirror was vain and carnal. Stealing my brother’s dirty books and not returning them: lust and theft. And candy? It was discouraged in my home, on account of the dentist bills for my mouthful of silver fillings. I ate it in secret, which made it a lie. Gluttony, falsehood, and cavities. The noose of sin drew tighter.
Eventually I began to suspect God wasn’t watching. The thought brought me great spiritual comfort. I stole my parents’ marriage manual; my tongue turned green from lime lollipops; my dark side, sensing the coast was clear, crept back from exile.
Still, Mom felt guilty that she had not given her children a religious education. My two older brothers were teenagers and no longer meek enough. There was still hope, however, for my younger brother and me. Mom dressed us up and dropped us off at the nearest spire, St. Paul’s Church, along with a small sealed envelope containing a quarter for the collection plate. We knew no one in the congregation, and were too shy to ask for help deciphering the service, which was utterly bewildering. How did people know when to stand up, sit down, or kneel? We didn’t realize that the numbers posted on the bulletin board were hymn numbers and not page numbers; opening the hymnal at the wrong place, we could never find the songs everyone sang. Plus, even at one hour, the service was excruciatingly long. My brother and I were hungry.
One morning at Holy Communion, whatever that was, I dared to go to the altar and kneel at the rail with some other people to get a snack. The body of Christ turned out to be a thin scrap of something that tasted like office paste (which, in larger quantity, was delicious, but in wafer form was just a cruel tease). The priest deliberately didn’t tip the chalice far enough for me to get even a drop of the blood of Christ. I think he knew pretty well I was not confirmed and shouldn’t be hanging there with my tongue out in the first place.
So it came to pass that my little brother and I associated church with two things: hunger, and feeling like idiots. One Sunday, when we were deposited at St. Paul’s, instead of entering I tore open the offering envelope and extracted the quarter. About a half mile away, a brisk fifteen-minute walk, was a tiny convenience store the kids called The Louse House because it was run by a woman named Louise. Louise sold penny candy. A quarter bought twenty-five pieces, from a huge variety in her display case. Twelve pieces for me, twelve for little bro, and we could split the twenty-fifth, snapping the last raspberry licorice shoelace in half. Fifteen minutes to walk to the store, ten to buy the candy, and fifteen minutes to eat all of it on the way back to church, joining the congregation streaming out of the service just when my mother arrived to pick us up: it was a perfect plan.
The Louse House orgy came to an end when Mom stopped Sunday deliveries without explanation. I think that chauffeuring kids to cello, piano, violin, oboe, and trumpet lessons, soccer practice, the allergist and, all too often, the dentist, Monday to Saturday, was punishment enough for her sins. She really did need a day of rest.
My next exposure to Christian ritual came in prep school. Weekday mornings at Rosemary Hall began with chapel service. It was pleasant enough, and brief: ten minutes of mad singing and very little worshipping. I loved the music, so I joined the chapel choir to do some more of it. Thus I innocently committed to show up for Sunday services. The tedium of a full-length service was a revelation. I quit the choir. There was one particular image I took away, when at the climax of the service the minister approached the altar and raised the gold collection plate of cash to show Jesus the fruits of his sacrifice. It offended me that faith should be mixed up with money.
In college, Religion 101 was a required freshman course. Here I honed my objections to Christianity. Like my father, I ticked off the items that strained credulity. For example, why did God the Father need to have a gender, which can only be determined by examining someone’s sex organs? Surely God was bigger than anatomy. Most important, why was it a Christian deal-breaker that we accept Jesus as divine? Why couldn’t he just be the son of Joseph and descendant of King David, as the apostle Luke claimed; why couldn’t we just recognize him as a great and wonderful teacher for the ages? Or was the Son of God a better plot device to lure people into the theater? And get their money. The whole enterprise felt fraudulent.
I seemed to have a much higher opinion of God than the one that scripture described, and a lower concept of Jesus. Still, I was moved by flashes of beauty and wisdom in the text. And I would miss the music.
Meeting Marjoe Gortner, when I was 23, brought the issue of fraud into full spotlight. At the time, I was a budding screenwriter; my boyfriend Howard Smith was a newspaper and radio journalist. One day Howard was approached for an on-air interview by a lanky, handsome, charismatic man with a scrapbook under his arm. The contents were staggering. Photos and news clippings from the 40’s and 50’s revealed this man’s early career as a child preacher. His parents, both Pentacostal preachers themselves, ordained him when he was three; promoting their son as the world’s youngest minister, they coached the bright little boy to perform a wedding ceremony at the age of four. Filmed by Paramount News, the stunt was shown in newsreels all over the country, and little Marjoe Gortner the holy-rolling phenomenon was launched. He told the press he received his sermons directly from God; he filled churches and revival tents throughout the Bible Belt, healed some of the sick, made it into Ripley’s Believe It or Not, and earned his family a lot of cash in offerings over the years.
|The Great Gantry|
In Marjoe’s entire life, he had never believed in God. On the other hand, the power he held over parishioners, the excitement and the adulation, bound him to the church as firmly as faith. He was, in his own words, “a religion addict.”
When he met us, he had just arrived in New York to take a whack at an acting career. If he could achieve stardom, it would replace the high he got from preaching. But he had no patience to start at the bottom. A radio interview with my partner Howard was just the exposure Marjoe needed to lift him above the crowded pool of anonymous actors struggling for recognition.
I don’t know why I thought it was such a good idea to make a film about this two-faced preacher. Documentaries were not commercially viable then. There was really only one distributor who exhibited them. But Howard knew the guy. And I don’t know why this distributor and his millionaire partner thought it was such a good idea to finance the project, but they gave us the money immediately. From there everything went very fast. Looking back, it was as if a wind blew eerily at our backs, a wind that would blow us straight to the Oscars, where we accepted the feature documentary award for Marjoe two years later.
|Howard and me with two bad boys|
One of Marjoe’s gimmicks was the sale of “prayer cloths,” actually cheap red bandanas; if the believer really believed, and prayed hard over these schmattes, blessings and salvation might follow. For an additional sum, people could line up and Marjoe would personally “lay hands” on them; God’s grace would flow through his touch. If he laid on hands extra hard, some would be seized with joy and fall to the ground. And when the Holy Ghost was present, folks could experience the “infilling of the spirit,” to be set free from their troubles for a moment, an hour, a day, maybe ever after.
|Marjoe laying on hands|
I became transfixed, instead, by the manifest beauty of the same sight: of people released, to dance, sing, quake and faint, giving themselves completely to a ghost, a vibe that permeated everyone. I envied their child-like porousness. It didn’t matter how they got to that state, or how much they’d paid: they were euphorically happy in these moments. The only time I’d felt like that was when I took LSD. These enraptured folks took pharmaceutical-grade Belief. I wished I had some. I wanted to be infilled by Spirit.
Marjoe said, toward the end of our film, “If I could just do the faith number, and get up and say, ‘Okay, everybody, let’s really get loose this afternoon, get rid of our hang-ups and have nice group therapy,’ that would be great. But you can’t do it that way. I have to throw in the sin and damnation and ‘you’re all going to hell’ – it’s got to all be done under this façade of holiness.”
Yet he was a gifted preacher, good enough to give folks a taste of pure Spirit – almost in spite of himself. A friend once asked him, “What if Jesus was working through you anyway?” What if a conman could still be a conduit?
Marjoe looked wistful. He knew he was the very definition of a sinner. But could you lie, eat candy, fool everyone and hate your parents, and still be good?
That film about a religion addict set me on the highway to find heaven, running through checkpoints and scattering traffic cones, to seek my own Belief. Ghosts lay ahead, all with something to teach. One day, I would be infilled by Spirit. But I’d be nowhere near a church.
Thirty years after Marjoe, I made another documentary. A wind at my back propelled me toward another flamboyant subject, this time a dancing, singing, junkie for truth.
(To be continued.)
You may download, rent or buy Marjoe here.