Going Clear
Author:Lawrence Wright

Hubbard sent excited telegrams to publishers in New York, inviting them to meet him at Penn Station, where he would auction off a manuscript that would change the world. He wrote Polly, “I have high hopes of smashing my name into history so violently that it will take a legendary form even if all the books are destroyed.”

But Excalibur was never published, leading some to doubt that it was ever written. The stories Hubbard later told about the book added to the sense that it was more mythical than real. He said that when the Russians learned of the book’s contents, they offered him money and laboratory facilities to complete his work. When he turned them down, they purloined a copy of his manuscript from his hotel room in Miami. Hubbard explained to his agent that he ultimately decided to withdraw the book from publication because the first six people who read it were so shattered by the revelations that they had lost their minds. The last time he showed Excalibur to a publisher, he said, the reader brought the manuscript into the room, set it on the publisher’s desk, then jumped out the window of the skyscraper.

Hubbard despondently returned to the pulps. Five years of torrential output had left him exhausted and bitter. His work was “worthless,” he admitted. “I have learned enough of my trade, have developed a certain technique,” he wrote to Hays. “But curbed by editorial fear of reality and hindered by my own revolt I have never dared loose the pent flame, so far only releasing the smoke.”

That same year Hubbard received an offer to write for a magazine called Astounding Science-Fiction. The editor, John W. Campbell, Jr., twenty-seven years old at the time, was to preside over what Hubbard and others would mark as the Golden Age of Science Fiction. One of the many brilliant young writers who would be pulled into Campbell’s orbit, Isaac Asimov, described Campbell as “a tall, large man with light hair, a beaky nose, a wide face with thin lips, and with a cigarette holder forever clamped between his teeth.” Campbell was an overbearing champion of extreme right-wing ideas and crackpot science—especially psychic phenomena—and he would hold forth in nonstop monologues, often adopting perverse views, such as supporting slavery, then defending such propositions to the point of exhausting everyone in the room. “A deviant figure of marked ferocity,” as the British writer Kingsley Amis observed. On the other hand, Campbell was also a caring and resourceful editor who groomed inexperienced writers, such as Robert A. Heinlein—first published in Astounding—and turned them into cultural icons.

Campbell considered science fiction to be something far more than cheap literary diversion; for him, it amounted to prophecy. His conviction of the importance of the genre added a mystical allure that other forms of pulp fiction never aspired to. Fanzines and sci-fi clubs, composed largely of adolescent boys who were drawn to the romanticized image of science, formed in many cities around the country; some of those fans went on to become important scientists, and their work was animated by ideas that had first spilled out of the minds of writers such as Heinlein, Asimov, and Hubbard. “Science fiction, particularly in its Golden Age, had a mission,” Hubbard writes. “To get man to the stars.” He saw himself as well qualified for the field: “I had, myself, somewhat of a science background, had done some pioneer work in rockets and liquid gases.”

Hubbard discovered his greatest talents as a writer in the field of science fiction, a more commodious genre and far more intellectually engaging than westerns or adventure yarns. Science fiction invites the writer to grandly explore alternative worlds and pose questions about meaning and destiny. Inventing plausible new realities is what the genre is all about. One starts from a hypothesis and then builds out the logic, adding detail and incident to give substance to imaginary structures. In that respect, science fiction and theology have much in common. Some of the most closely guarded secrets of Scientology were originally published in other guises in Hubbard’s science fiction.

Certainly, the same mind that roamed so freely through imaginary universes might be inclined to look at the everyday world and suspect that there was something more behind the surface reality. The broad canvas of science fiction allowed Hubbard to think in large-scale terms about the human condition. He was bold. He was fanciful. He could easily invent an elaborate, plausible universe. But it is one thing to make that universe believable, and another to believe it. That is the difference between art and religion.

HUBBARD NOW LIVED two lives: one on the farm in Port Orchard, surrounded by his parents and Polly and the kids; the other in New York, where he rented an apartment on the Upper West Side. The city rewarded him with the recognition he craved. He enjoyed frequent lunches at the Knickerbocker Hotel with his colleagues in the American Fiction Guild, where he could swap tales and schmooze with editors. He also became a member of the prestigious Explorers Club, which added credibility to his frequently told stories of adventure.

“In his late twenties, Hubbard was a tall, well-built man with bright red hair, a pale complexion, and a long-nosed face that gave him the look of a reincarnated Pan,” a fellow science-fiction writer, L. Sprague de Camp, later recalled. “He arranged in his New York apartment a curtained inclosure the size of a telephone booth, lit by a blue light bulb, in which he could work fast without distraction.”

The fact that Hubbard was a continent away from his wife offered him the opportunity to court other women, which he did so openly that he became an object of wonder among his writer colleagues. Ron blamed Polly for his philandering. “Because of her coldness physically, the falsity of her pretensions, I believed myself a near eunuch,” he wrote in a private memoir (which the church disputes) some years later. “When I found I was attractive to other women, I had many affairs. But my failure to please Polly made me always pay so much attention to my momentary mate that I derived small pleasure myself. This was an anxiety neurosis which cut down my natural powers.”

One of those momentary mates was named Helen. “I loved her and she me,” Hubbard recorded. “The affair would have lasted had not Polly found out.” Polly had discovered two letters to different women that Hubbard left in the mailbox when he was back in Port Orchard; she took the letters, read them, then vengefully switched the envelopes, and put them back in the mail. For a while, Ron and Polly didn’t speak.

They were apparently reconciled in 1940, when the two of them cruised to Alaska on their thirty-foot ketch, the Magician, which they called Maggie. They left their children with other family members for the several months they were gone. Hubbard called the trip the Alaskan Radio-Experimental Expedition, which entitled him to fly the Explorers Club flag. The stated goal was to rewrite the navigation guide of the Alaskan coast using new radio techniques; however, when the engine broke down in Ketchikan, he told a local newspaper that the purpose was “two-fold, one to win a bet and another to gather material for a novel of Alaskan salmon fishing.” Some of Hubbard’s friends, he related, had wagered that his boat was too small for such a journey, and he was determined to prove them wrong.

While he was stranded in Ketchikan, waiting for a new crankshaft, Hubbard spent several weeks regaling listeners of the local KGBU radio about his adventures, which included tracking down a German agent who had been planted in Alaska with orders to cut off communications in the case of war, and lassoing a brown bear on a fishing trip, which proceeded to crawl into the boat with him.

When the crankshaft finally arrived, Ron and Polly headed home, arriving a few days after Christmas, 1940, nearly six months after they set out. Little had been accomplished. “Throughout all this, however,” the church narrative goes, “Mr. Hubbard was continuing in his quest to answer the riddles of man.”

THE COMPETING NARRATIVES of Hubbard’s life arrive at a crucial point in the quarrel over his record in the US Navy during the Second World War and the injuries he allegedly received. He certainly longed for a military career, but he failed the entrance examination for the US Naval Academy and was further disqualified because of his poor eyesight. He lied—unnecessarily—about his age when he signed up for the US Marine Corps Reserve in 1930, backdating his birth by two years; this stratagem may have helped him get promoted over his contemporaries to first sergeant. His official record notes that he was “inactive, except for a period of active duty for training.” He requested to be discharged the following year because “I do not have the time to devote to the welfare of the Regiment.”

Months before Pearl Harbor, however, Hubbard was once again angling to get a commission in the Navy. He gathered a number of recommendations, including one from his congressman, Warren G. Magnuson, who wrote to President Franklin Roosevelt, praising “Captain” Hubbard, “a well-known writer” and “a respected explorer,” who has “marine masters papers for more types of vessels than any other man in the United States.… In writing organizations he is a key figure, making him politically potent nationally.” The congressman concluded: “An interesting trait is his distaste for personal publicity.” Senator Robert M. Ford of Washington signed his name to another letter of recommendation that Hubbard actually wrote for him: “This will introduce one of the most brilliant men I have ever known: Captain L. Ron Hubbard.”

In April 1941, his poor eyesight caused him to fail his physical once again. But with German U-boats attacking American shipping in the North Atlantic—and even in American coastal waters—President Roosevelt declared a national emergency, and Hubbard’s physical shortcomings were suddenly overlooked. He received his commission in the Naval Reserve, as a lieutenant (junior grade), in July 1941.

According to Hubbard, he got into the action right away. He said he was aboard the destroyer USS Edsall, which was sunk off the north coast of Java. All hands were lost, except for Hubbard, who managed to get to shore and disappear into the jungles. That is where he says he was when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. (Actually, the Edsall was not sunk until March 1942.) Hubbard said that he survived being machine-gunned by a Japanese patrol while he was hiding in the area, then escaped by sailing a raft to Australia. Elsewhere, Hubbard claimed that he had been posted to the Philippines at the outbreak of the war with Japan, then was flown home on the Secretary of the Navy’s private plane in the spring of 1942 as the “first U.S. returned casualty from the Far East.”

According to Navy records, however, Hubbard was training as an intelligence officer in New York when the war broke out. He was indeed supposed to have been posted to the Philippines, but his ship was diverted to Australia because of the overwhelming Japanese advance in the Pacific. There he awaited other transport to Manila, but he immediately got on the wrong side of the American naval attaché. “By assuming unauthorized authority and attempting to perform duties for which he has no qualification he became the source of much trouble,” the attaché complained. “This officer is not satisfactory for independent duty assignment. He is garrulous and tries to give impressions of his importance.” He sent Hubbard back to the United States for further assignment.

Hubbard found himself back in New York, working in the Office of the Cable Censor. He agitated for a shipboard posting, and was given the opportunity to command a trawler that was being converted into a gunboat, the USS YP-422, designed for coastal patrol. “Upon entering the Boston Navy Yard, Ron found himself facing a hundred or so enlisted men, fresh from the Portsmouth Naval Prison in New Hampshire,” the church narrative goes. “A murderous looking lot, was Ron’s initial impression, ‘their braid dirty and their hammocks black with grime.’ While on further investigation, he discovered not one among them had stepped aboard except to save himself a prison term.” Hubbard allegedly spent six weeks drilling this convict crew, turning them into a splendid fighting unit, “with some seventy depth charge runs to their credit and not a single casualty.” But according to naval records, he was relieved of command before the ship was even launched, by the commandant of the Boston Navy Yard, who declared him “not temperamentally fitted for independent command.” There is no record that Hubbard saw action in the Atlantic at any time.

The Navy then sent Hubbard to the Submarine Chaser Training Center in Miami. He arrived wearing dark glasses, probably because of conjunctivitis, which plagued him throughout the war and after, but he explained to another young officer, Thomas Moulton, that he had been standing too close to a large-caliber gun while serving as the gunnery officer on a destroyer in the Pacific, and the muzzle flash had damaged his eyes. Hubbard’s classmates at the sub-chaser school looked upon him as a great authority because of his wartime adventures. That he seemed so reticent to boast about them only enhanced his standing.

While he was in Miami, Hubbard contracted gonorrhea from a woman named Ginger. “She was a very loose person,” he confides in his disputed secret memoir. “I was terrified by it, the consequences of being discovered by my wife, the navy, my friends.… I took to dosing myself with sulfa in such quantities that I was afraid I had affected my brain.”

Wartime sexual diseases were a common affliction, and servicemen were constantly being cautioned about the dangers of casual romance. Although American sexual relations were freer in practice than the popular culture admitted at the time, divorce was still sharply stigmatized; and yet, as a young man Hubbard seemed to be constantly driven toward reckless liaisons and courtships that would destroy his marriages and alienate his children (he would eventually father seven children by three wives). He admitted in his disputed memoir that he suffered from bouts of impotence, which he apparently treated with testosterone. He also wrote of his concerns about masturbation, which at the time was considered a sign of moral weakness that could also lead to many physical ailments, such as weak eyesight, impotence, and insanity.