Going Clear
Author:Lawrence Wright

Hubbard entered the School of Engineering at George Washington University in the fall of 1930. He was a poor student—failing German and calculus—but he excelled in extracurricular activities. He began writing for the school newspaper. A new literary magazine at GWU provided a venue for his first published works of fiction. He became director of the gliding club, a thrilling new pastime that was just catching on (Hubbard’s gliding license was #385). The actual study of engineering was a secondary pursuit, as his failing grades reflected.

In September 1931, Hubbard and his friend Philip “Flip” Browning took a few weeks off to barnstorm through the Midwest in an Arrow Sport biplane. “We carefully wrapped our ‘baggage,’ threw the fire extinguisher out to save half a horsepower, patched a hole in the upper wing, and started off to skim over four or five states with the wind as our only compass,” Hubbard writes. By now, he had taken to calling himself “Flash.”

Hubbard’s account of this adventure, “Tailwind Willies,” was his first commercially published story, appearing in The Sportsman Pilot in January 1932. It was the launch of an unprecedented career. (He would go on to publish more books than any other author, according to the 2006 Guinness World Records, with 1,084 titles.)

In the spring of 1932, at the height of the Great Depression, Hubbard undertook a venture that displayed many of the hallmarks of his future exploits. He posted a notice on several university campuses: “Restless young men with wanderlust wanted for the Caribbean Motion Picture Expedition. Cost to applicant $250 payable at the dock in Baltimore before sailing. Must be healthy, dependable, resourceful, imaginative, and adventurous. No tea-hounds or tourist material need apply.” The goals of the expedition were grand and various—primarily, to make newsreels for Fox Movietone and Pathé News, while exploring the pirate haunts of the Caribbean and voodoo rites in Haiti. There were also vague plans to “collect whatever one collects for exhibits in museums.”

“It’s difficult at any age to recognize a messiah in the making,” wrote one of the young men, James S. Free, a journalist who signed on to the expedition. He was twenty-three years old, two years older than Hubbard. They were going to be partners in the adventure, along with Hubbard’s old flying buddy, Phil Browning. “I cannot claim prescient awareness that my soon-to-be business partner possessed the ego and talents that would later develop his own private religion,” Free wrote in a notebook he titled “Preview of a Messiah.”

Hubbard was living with his parents in Washington, DC, when Free arrived. “Ron introduced me to his mother, whose long light brown hair seemed dark beside the reddish glow of her son’s hair and face,” Free wrote, in one of the few records of the actual relationship between Hubbard and his mother. “I recall little else about her except that like her husband, Navy lieutenant Henry Ross Hubbard, she plainly adored young Ron and considered him a budding genius.”

Hubbard filled Free in on new developments. Phil Browning, the other partner, had dropped out at the last minute, but he had managed to get the loan of some laboratory equipment from the University of Michigan; meantime, Hubbard was negotiating with a professional cameraman for the anticipated films of the voodoo rites “and that sort of salable material.” Thanks to Free’s efforts to sign up more than twenty new members of the expedition, Hubbard said, “We have enough cash to go ahead.”

The trip was a calamity from the start. A number of the “buccaneers” who signed up bailed out at the last minute, but fifty-six green collegians with no idea what they were doing clambered aboard the antiquated, four-masted schooner Doris Hamlin. The adventure began with the Doris Hamlin having to be towed out of Baltimore harbor because of lack of wind. That was almost the end of the expedition, since the tug was pulling toward the sea while the ship was still tied to the dock. Once in the Atlantic, the ship was either becalmed in glassy seas or roiling in high chop. The mainsails blew out in a squall as the expedition steered toward St. Thomas. Seasickness was rampant. At every port, more of the disgusted crew deserted. The only film that was shot was a desultory cockfight in Martinique.

It soon became evident that the expedition was broke. There was no meat or fruit, and the crew was soon reduced to buying their own food in port. Hubbard didn’t have enough money to pay the only professional sailors on the ship—the captain, the first mate, and the cook—so he offered to sell shares in the venture to his crewmates and borrowed money from others. He raised seven or eight hundred dollars that way, and was able to set sail from Bermuda, only to become mired in the Sargasso Sea for four days.

After a meager supper one night, George Blakeslee, who had been brought along as a photographer, had had enough. “I tied a hangman’s noose in a rope and everybody got the same idea,” he wrote in his journal. “So we made an effigy of Hubbard and strung it up in the shrouds. Put a piece of red cloth on the head and a sign on it. ‘Our redheaded _____!’ ” Hubbard stayed in his cabin after that.

The furious captain wired for money, then steered the ship back to Baltimore, pronouncing the expedition “the worst and most unpleasant I ever made.” Hubbard was not aboard as the “jinx ship,” as it was called in the local press, crept back into its home port. He was last seen in Puerto Rico, slipping off with a suitcase in each hand.

In some respects, Hubbard discovered himself on that unlucky voyage, which he termed a “glorious adventure.” His infatuation with motion pictures first became evident on this trip, although no movies were actually made. Despite the defections, Hubbard demonstrated an impressive capacity to summon others to join him on what was clearly a shaky enterprise. Throughout his life he would enlist people—especially young people—in romantic, ill-conceived projects, often at sea, where he was out of reach of process servers. He was beginning to invent himself as a charismatic leader. The grandeur of his project was not yet evident, even to him, but in the Caribbean Motion Picture Expedition he clearly defined himself as an explorer, sailor, filmmaker, and leader of men, even though he failed spectacularly in each of those categories. He had an incorrigible ability to float above the evidence and to extract from his experiences lessons that others would say were irrational and even bizarre. Habitually, and perhaps unconsciously, Hubbard would fill this gap—between reality and his interpretation of it—with mythology. This was the source of what some call his genius, and others call his insanity.

WHEN HE WAS TWENTY-THREE, Hubbard married Margaret Louise Grubb, an aspiring aviator four years his senior, whom he called Polly. Amelia Earhart had just become the first female to fly solo across the Atlantic, inspiring many daring young women who wanted to follow her example. Although Polly never gained a pilot’s license, it wasn’t surprising that she would respond to Ron’s swashbuckling personality and his tales of far-flung adventures. They settled in a small town in Maryland, near her family farm. Ron was trying to make it as a professional magazine writer, but by that point—at the end of 1933—he had only half a dozen articles in print. Soon, Polly was pregnant, and Ron had to find a way to make a living quickly.

Pulp fiction derives its name from the cheap paper stock used in printing the garish magazines—Weird Tales, Black Mask, Argosy, Magic Carpet—that became popular in Depression-era America. The pay for contributors was miserable—the standard rate was a penny a word. To fill the usual 128 pages, each pulp magazine required 65,000 words, so that the yearly quota to fill the 150 pulp weeklies, biweeklies, and monthlies that crowded the newsstands in 1934 amounted to about 195,000,000 words. Many well-known writers began their careers by feeding this gigantic maw, including Dashiell Hammett, H. P. Lovecraft, Erle Stanley Gardner, Raymond Chandler, Ray Bradbury, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. The pulps nurtured genres that were perhaps not new but until then had never been so blatantly and abundantly expressed.

Hubbard’s actual life experiences seemed wonderfully suited for such literature. His first pulp story, “The Green God,” published in Thrilling Adventures in 1934, is about a naval intelligence officer (possibly based on Snake Thompson) who is tortured and buried alive in China. “Maybe Because—!,” published in Cowboy Stories, was the first of Hubbard’s forty-seven westerns, which must have drawn upon his childhood in Montana. Soon, however, there were stories about submarines and zombies, tales set in Russia or Morocco. Plot was all that really mattered, and Hubbard’s amazing capacity for invention readily colored the canvas. Success in the pulps depended on speed and imagination, and Hubbard had both in abundance. The church estimates that between 1934 and 1936, he was turning out a hundred thousand words of fiction a month. He was writing so fast that he began typing on a roll of butcher paper to save time. When a story was finished, he would tear off the sheet using a T-square and mail it to the publisher. Because the magazines didn’t want an author to appear more than once in the same issue, Hubbard adopted pen names—Mr. Spectator, Capt. Humbert Reynolds, Rene Lafayette, Winchester Remington Colt, et cetera—accumulating about twenty aliases over the years. He said that when he was writing stories he would simply “roll the pictures” in his mind and write down what he saw as quickly as possible. It was a physical act: he would actually perspire when he wrote. His philosophy was “First draft, last draft, get it out the door.”

Ron and Polly’s son, L. Ron Hubbard, Jr., was born prematurely on May 7, 1934, in Encinitas, California, where the couple had gone to vacation. The baby, whom they called Nibs, weighed little more than two pounds at birth. Ron fashioned an incubator out of a cupboard drawer, using a lightbulb to keep it warm, while Polly fed Nibs with an eyedropper. Two years later, in New York City, Polly gave birth to a daughter, Katherine May Hubbard, whom they called Kay.

In 1936, the family moved to Bremerton, Washington, near where Ron’s parents were then living, as well as his mother’s family, the Waterburys. They warmly accepted Polly and the kids. Ron was doing well enough to buy a small farm in nearby Port Orchard with a house, five bungalows, a thousand feet of waterfront, and a view of Mount Rainier—“the prettiest place I ever saw in my life,” he wrote to his best friend, Russell Hays, a fellow author of pulps who lived in Kansas. Ron spent much of his time in New York, however, cultivating his professional contacts, and leaving his wife and children for long periods of time.

Hubbard pined for Hollywood, in what would be a long-term, unrequited romance. Despite his overtures, he received only “vague offers” from studios for short-term contracts. “I have discarded Hollywood,” he complained to Hays. “I haven’t got enough charm.” But in the spring of 1937, Columbia Pictures finally optioned one of Hubbard’s stories to be folded into a serial, titled The Secret of Treasure Island. Hubbard quickly moved to Hollywood, hoping to finally make it in the movie business. (He later claimed to have worked on a number of films during this time—including the classic films Stagecoach, with John Wayne, and The Plainsman, with Gary Cooper—but he never actually received any film credits other than The Secret of Treasure Island.) By midsummer he had fled back to the farm in Washington, blaming the long hours, tension, and “dumb Jew producers.”

Once again, he threw himself into writing the pulps with a fury, but also with a new note of cynicism. “Never write about a character type you cannot find in the magazine for which the story is intended,” he advised Hays. “Never write about an unusual character.” Realism was no asset in this kind of writing, he complained, remarking on “my utter inability to sell a story which has any connection with my own background.… Reality seems to be a very detested quantity.”

Then, on New Year’s Day, 1938, Hubbard had a revelation that would change his life—and eventually, the lives of many others. During a dental operation, he received a gas anesthetic. “While under the influence of it my heart must have stopped beating,” he relates. “It was like sliding helter-skelter down into a vortex of scarlet and it was knowing that one was dying and that the process of dying was far from pleasant.” In those brief, hallucinatory moments, Hubbard believed that the secrets of existence were accidentally revealed to him. Forrest Ackerman, who later became his literary agent, said that Hubbard told him that he had risen from the dental chair in spirit form, glanced back at his former body, and wondered, “Where do we go from here?” Hubbard’s disembodied spirit then noticed a huge ornate gate in the distance, which he floated through. On the other side, Ackerman relates, Hubbard discovered “an intellectual smorgasbord of everything that had ever puzzled the mind of man—you know, how did it all begin, where do we go from here, are there past lives—and like a sponge he was just absorbing all this esoteric information. And all of a sudden, there was a kind of swishing in the air and he heard a voice, ‘No, not yet! He’s not ready!’ And like a long umbilical cord, he felt himself being pulled back, back, back. And he lay down in his body, and he opened his eyes, and he said to the nurse, ‘I was dead, wasn’t I?’ ” The nurse looked startled, and the doctor gave her a dirty look for letting Hubbard know what had happened.

In Hubbard’s own written account of the event, he remembers voices crying out as he is being restored to life, “Don’t let him know!” When he came to, he was “still in contact with something.” The intimation that he had briefly been given access to the divine mystery lingered for several days, but he couldn’t call it back. “And then one morning, just as I awoke, it came to me.”

In a fever, he dashed off a small book he titled Excalibur. “Once upon a time, according to a writer in The Arabian Nights, there lived a very wise old man,” the book begins, in the brief portion that the church has published of the fragments it says it has in its possession. The old man, goes the story, wrote a long and learned book, but he became concerned that he had written too much. So he sat himself down for ten years more and reduced the original volume to one tenth its size. Even then, he was dissatisfied, and he constrained the work even further, to a single line, “which contained everything there was to be known.” He hid the sacred line in a niche in his wall. But still he wondered, Could all human knowledge be distilled even further?

Suppose all the wisdom of the world were reduced to just one line—suppose that one line were to be written today and given to you. With it you could understand the basis of all life and endeavor.… There is one line, conjured up out of a morass of facts and made available as an integrated unit to explain such things. This line is the philosophy of philosophy, thereby carrying the entire subject back into the simple and humble truth.

All life is directed by one command and one command only—SURVIVE.