I had a friend, an older woman, very bright, who considered most younger folks morons because they didn’t know about people and issues from her youth. Sure, that made no sense, but she was right in believing it’s a shame that so much gets lost and forgotten even from an era plenty of people still living could tell us about.
Sister Aimee Semple McPherson was the media darling of the 1920s. During some of those years, more headlines were devoted to her than to any other person.
I only knew about her because my dad grew up in Los Angeles and Sister Aimee came up in conversations between him and my grandmother. As I recall, my grandmother, a devout Christian Scientist, was no fan of hers. Only last year I found out why. The Christian Scientists considered themselves progressive and in accord with the age of reason. Sister Aimee preached “old time religion”.
Other stories I have heard from people who remember her era picture her as a swindler, who would tell the congregation she didn’t want to hear coins clinking in the collection plates. Only folding money. And I have heard accounts of somebody who knew somebody who claimed Sister Aimee paid him to fake getting healed at one of her services. The film version of Day of the Locust depicts one of those rumors.
So, when I began reading about her as background for my novel The Biggest Liar in Los Angeles, I was on guard. But the story of her early life: going to China as a missionary with her first husband, Robert Semple, and soon becoming a widow with a month old baby; going on the road (when the roads were mostly dirt) by car (when cars were more like buggies) with two young children, sleeping in a tent and preaching to whomever would listen, no matter the congregation’s color or other circumstance; all this endeared her to me.
Her sermons, though bombastic and often quite flowery, are a joy to read if only to feel her enthusiasm and admire her command of style and language and her willingness to risk going over the top to gain an effect. Learning that she could write and preach twenty different sermons each week made me cringe on account of my comparatively meager output.
Sister Aimee was passionate and brave and by all accounts tried to do good for everybody, class or color notwithstanding. The charities she founded and bankrolled were models of benevolence. She was a daring entrepreneur and innovator who wouldn’t let prescribed social or gender roles restrain her.
When in 1926, at the height of her fame, she walked into the ocean and by all accounts, she vanished, millions of her followers and admirers grieved. But when she returned with a story about being kidnapped, which only the most loyal believed after evidence pointed in other directions, most of them turned against her.
The reaction I’m about to describe may be a sign of insanity or a trait common among writers. Whatever it is, when I write about a character, I often feel transformed into that character. And in doing so, I can feel as if I know that person better than I know any living being except myself. So it may have been this writers’ madness that prompted my fondness for Sister Aimee.
I lament that she lived in a different era from me. If I could time travel, I would go back and attend a service at her Angelus Temple then haunt the doorstep of her parsonage next door until she came down and I could ask her to join me for dinner at the Brown Derby.
Ken’s novels are Midheaven, chosen as finalist for the Ernest Hemingway Award for best first novel and the Tom Hickey California Century series:
The Loud Adios, San Diego and Tijuana, 1943 (Private Eye Writers of America/St. Martin’s Press Best First PI Novel); The Venus Deal, San Diego, Mount Shasta, and Denver, 1942; The Angel Gang, Lake Tahoe and San Diego, 1950; The Do-Re-Mi, rural Northern California, 1972 (a January Magazine best book of 2006 and finalist for the 2006 Shamus Award); The Vagabond Virgins, rural Baja California, 1979; The Biggest Liar in Los Angeles, Los Angeles, 1926.
Find more about him at www.kenkuhlken.net.