Donald C. Webster: HARD-HEADED MONEYMAN OF THE SUPERNATURAL
IT WAS UNCONSCIONABLY early when we drove to the Toronto airport in his new Lancia and both of us were decently, if blearily, silent most of the way. Then it began to rain. As the tarmac darkened and the globules of water hung in a fringe around the arcs swept by the wipers, he made the day’s first tentative social gesture by saying, “There are people who believe water might be living matter. In crystal form — frozen, that is — every drop has a different structure. Snowflakes, for instance. Most liquids make identical crystals time and time again, and are predictable at any given temperature. But not water. Some scientists say it has physical oddities at body temperature. Apparently it’s all still a bit of a mystery and they say that it’s evidence that water is, in a sense, alive.”
There were two reasons why Donald C. Webster, president of the seven-million-dollar Neptune Terminals Company and director of a score or so other undertakings, took that Friday off and flew to New York and Washington, ln New York he wanted to sell a stockbroker friend and fellow Princeton alumnus a share in the $250,000 vineyard he’d just bought in the St. Emilion country of Bordeaux. He had, he said, always wanted a vineyard and a chateau and by selling a score or so shares in the place he could get his wish, plus an almost endless supply of decent claret, for only a modest capital investment.
In Washington, he wanted to visit an electronics engineer who believed he had stumbled on a way of transmitting pure thought on radio waves. Eileen Garrett, the clairvoyant and medium who runs the U.S. Parapsychology Foundation to finance research into extrasensory perception, reincarnation, telepathy and similar psychic phenomena, wanted the engineer’s claims checked out.
Donald C. Webster (he prefers to be called Ben) was the logical choice for such an errand. Thirty-seven, a successful businessman, and entrepreneur, a member of the little-known but powerful Webster family dynasty of Montreal, he is probably the first man to attempt to mix capitalism and paranormal. It’s not as unlikely a combination as it might seem. Besides his more conventional business interests, Webster makes — and loses — money by staying plugged into the / continued on page 42
continuée/ from page 33
“If there’s a break in the unexplained, I want to be there”
international scientific and philosophic underground and taking a flyer on the new and untried. He once raised capital for a man with no formal qualifications in the field who was trying to build an electronic device that would duplicate some of the functions of the human nerve cell. The man succeeded, and has introduced a new technology
that could have as much impact on the world as the transistor. Webster also backed another man trying to use rocket nose-cone silicones on building materials. He, too, has succeeded.
It was. then, inevitable that Webster should at some point grow curious about the world of the paranormal, since that's the sort of “new
frontier where the challenges are." And in North America an intelligent interest in the paranormal leads inexorably to Eileen Garrett, the medium.
It was as an acolyte of Mrs. Garrett that Webster went to Washington to investigate the electronics engineer and his theory about thought transmissions. “This man is a businessman.
which means he's different than the people I usually meet in this sort of area,'' Webster said. “Most of them work in a commercial vacuum, which is where I come in. If they do come up with something I can help them benefit from and retain control of their discoveries. And, then. I'd like to be in on the ground floor myself when and if there is a big breakthrough in any area where men are studying the so-called psi [for psychic] factor in otherwise unexplainable phenomena.”
Just supposing the electronics engineer in Washington is right . . . Just supposing thoughts can he transmitted on radio waves in certain conditions . . . Just supposing . . . The commercial possibilities are boggling.
And so Ben Webster got up at dawn that Friday last spring to make American Airlines 7.55 a.m. Flight 374 from Toronto International Airport to LaGuardia and the New York-Washington shuttle service.
The 374 is, sociologically, an interesting flight. It is, for a start, low on status: any self-respecting company president or board chairman will wait tor a plane at a later, more civilized hour, so the 374 is left to middle and low management people, the ThreeButton Brigade addicted to the comforting anonymity of single-breasted suits and 17-inch trouser bottoms. Webster's Bonnie-and-Clydc pinstripe was enough to make him conspicuous, but even so he looks what he is: the boss, or destined to be. Being born with a few millions in the family bank produces an inner glow, a radiance, beside which the alchemy of those much-touted cosmetics simply vanishes. And anyway, he’s six-foot-two, lean, boyish, wears fair hair in the best Ivy League disarray and lacks that grey wariness that spells second mortgage and orthodontist's bills and which so often distinguishes the man on Flight 374.
View from the ceiling
While his neighbor plowed anxiously through the contents of his buttondown briefcase, Webster browsed through a paperback called True Experiences in Exotic ESP (“Terrible,” he complained) and said that one of the reasons for his involvement in the world of the paranormal was that “business is a bore, you know. It’s a ritual. Sometimes I look at it with detachment, like a fly on the ceiling, and I'm astounded that I am involved in it."
At Washington, Webster was met by the electronics engineer, who drove him to a city suburb. There, in an equipment-littered office, the engineer explained that he had experienced what he could only call thought transmission on three occasions. In each case he had been setting up or adjusting radio antennae when he and a technician some distance away, five miles in one case, appeared to reach the same conclusion simultaneously. For instance, he once worked out that an antenna dish should be moved four degrees to the west. As he was about to transmit this instruction to the technician, the man himself had reported in via a walkie-talkie: “I think we should move the dish four degrees to continued on page 46
DONALD C. WEBSTER continued
“Thanks to science, the business isn’t so spooky as it was”
mystifies even her, removed the pain.
Reincarnation . . . the lavender hills behind Nice ... mysticism . . . the bright, special sun of southern France . . . gibbets . . . and Limoges’s exquisitely beautiful china ... A bewildering phalanx of images to lay before a man in the second-floor bar of Manhattan's Racquet and Tennis Club, whose decor is uncompromisingly leathery and looks like Hell and reeks of substantial money and busincssmen-aristocrats who are very rich and stay that way largely by being mundane and commonsensical.
The audience with Mrs.
Garrett had ended a half hour earlier, and Webster had led the way to his club where we were being served vodkas by waiters who greeted him with the same slightly familiar recognition they accord the Rockefellers, the Dillons and George Plimpton.
“I don’t entirely believe in reincarnation, but I do believe in the fact that my neck doesn't hurt any more,” said Webster. “The whole area of psychic phenomena, ESP. the paranormal and my beliefs and involvement are going to look a little odd when you commit them to paper. I suppose that’s a measure of the disrepute which still surrounds the field. Anyway . . . this all began for me in I960 when I took LSD. It was in Vancouver, I had an adequate dosage — none of this nonsense quantity that the sugar-cube kids in Haight Ashbury take — and I had a good psychiatrist to guide me. It was an astounding experience — it always is, for everyone — and it widened my horizons just enough to know that they could be much wider. I suppose I was then, and probably am still, looking for an explanation for life and for my answer to that ‘Why?’ that bothers everyone. What happened w'as that it was like looking into dimensions I never dreamed were there, and instead of answering questions it raised more. What happened to me? What next? How could 1 follow' it up? If you’ve never taken LSD. then there’s really no way in which I can explain its effect on me, except to say that it became important to me to know' more about w'hat had happened under its influence.
“The obvious man to talk to. to ask the questions, w'as Aldous Huxley who wrote Doors of Perception. 1 called him at his home in Beverly Hills within a day or so of taking LSD, and five days later I flew down to see him. I think that something he
said then was the first thing that at least made me receptive to the subject of parapsychology. He said, ‘We don’t know whether the mind is productive or transmissive.’ Just think about that, and remember it was Huxley who said it. It opens up fantastic vistas of speculation, even down to the possibility that somewhere there’s a reservoir of ideas that some minds dip into
and then transmit to the world.
“After Huxley. 1 began visiting people all over the world who are doing work in hallucinogens. 1 travel a great deal on business, and so wherever and whenever I could I’d stop and ask questions of people like Albert Hoffman, who discovered LSD. in Basel, and Abram Hoffer and Humphrey Osmond, who w'ere doing pioneer work with LSD in Saskatchewan. All this led to fascinating areas, like the work Hoffer and Osmond have done in treating some mental ill-
nesses as biochemical, not psychological. disorders. It became a spiral that led inevitably to parapsychology. After all, an LSD trip is almost definable as a psychic experience. Certainly. parapsychology is a logical extrapolation of any hallucinogenic experience. In many ways LSD experience proves that we all have psychic potential.
“Then a couple of years ago I made a business trip to Japan and realized that the dimensions of the Oriental mind are broader, different anyway, than ours and this has given them a readiness to accept mysticism and psychic phenomena as a fact of life. It has helped them find and revere peace and tranquility much more than we Occidentals. It’s almost a genetic thing. Tell a Zen master about LSD and he laughs. They got there centuries ago in their owm way. using breathing and concentration and
meditation to change their body chemistry and achieve a stage of ... of awareness, which we can only approach through hallucinogens. Frankly. I prefer the Orient and the Confucian way to the disciplined, rational and fairly narrow Hellenic heritage of our world.
“It helped in business, all this involvement in what others think of as a kooks’ world. It’s kept me flexible, open-minded. Otherwise, 1 couldn't think, as I do, that some of the areas these people are working in are the hottest things in the w'orld today. There are kooks involved and there are some absurd claims made and it’s almost inevitable that an area like parapsychology should attract the outsiders, the misfits. But they shouldn’t be permitted to obscure the fact that a great many sound people arc doing soundly based research that’s damned exciting.”
Next morning, in the mid-Manhattan offices of Mr. Garrett’s Parapsychology Foundation, Webster introduced Douglas Johnson. the middle-aged British clairvoyant and medium who makes annual trips to the U.S. to give “readings” — a summation of the past and a prediction for the future — at $25 a time if you can afford it, and nothing if you can’t and he thinks he can help. Of the burgeoning interest of physical scientists in parapsychology, Johnson said, "The business isn’t so spooky as it used to be, thanks to them. We hear a lot less about people producing materializations of dead grandfathers and what-not. I don’t say it can’t be done, mind you. It’s just that the fakers get shown up pretty quickly nowadays, with all this new electronic equipment available to check out their claims.”
This year for the first time Johnson, a small, grey and slightly effete man of great charm and gentleness, visited Toronto, stayed with the Websters in Rosedale and gave readings to several top businessmen.
“I can’t tell what happens when I give a reading,” said Johnson. “If I’m with someone or I’m holding something of theirs, a diary, or a watch perhaps, I get feelings about them.” He touched my watch. Then he told me that a woman in her 60s whom I’d called “aunt” but who wasn’t but instead was a childhood friend of my mother’s, had died of a stomach or intestinal disease in recent years. He was right, though I was never very close to the “aunt.” He said I’d had a younger brother who had died suddenly when very young. He said he didn't know how he died but it was continued on pape 48
very, very suddenly so it could have been an accident. He was right: my brother was killed by a car when he was eight and 1 was 12.
In the meantime, Webster had rendezvoused with a psychiatrist friend with whom he was that afternoon attending a seminar for doctors given by Ambrose Worrail, the Balti-
more aeronautical-company executive widely known on the eastern seaboard as a healer. By a simple laying-on-ofhands, he is said to have cured scores of the afflicted, believers and skeptics alike. Later, back in the friend’s penthouse where he stays while in New York, Webster said the seminar had been “tremendous, just tremendous.”
He said there were about a dozen doctors and psychiatrists there, and a General Electric Company physicist as well.
"One psychiatrist is trying to build a machine through which he can actually see people’s auras,” Webster said. “There was a South American psychiatrist who can see auras already
and he uses them to help his patients. He said that if, for instance, someone tells him lies their aura goes a brownish color, and that schizophrenics have dark, blotchy auras around their joints. Pity you can’t print any of their names. This sort of thing still isn’t respectable. These people are mostly very reputable, but, you know, sometimes it’s hard to sort the fact from the optimism. Many people have been working in parapsychology for years without recognition or any startling results and they tend to . . . well, enlarge on the work that other people are doing. It’s as if they can gain encouragement and sustenance from building up other people.”
Next morning Webster flew back to Toronto, where he proffered a wall of books as evidence of the body of literature that has already been written on the subject of parapsychology. “Much of the work is apparently quite scientifically sound,” he said. “In the main it has been scoffed at by scientists who are only prepared to accept physical phenomena, and by the church who saw it as a challenge to their own mythology and by people who were disturbed by anything that wasn’t comfortably tangible and familiar. It’s only recently there have been stirrings of interest in the scientific community, and more and more people are beginning to believe that things like telepathy and ESP and what you call the paranormal may be an extension of known science, and not spiritual or psychic at all. Now, I suppose much of the old work will have to be done over again because the people who did it are dead.
“For instance, in 1906 Dr. Duncan McDougall conducted some fascinating experiments at the Massachusetts General Hospital. He had dying patients put on beds that were resting on scales so sensitive that they’d weigh a cigarette. At the very instant of death he weighed the corpses and found they were an average of a quarter an ounce to one ounce lighter at the moment they died than when they were alive a second or so earlier.
“I suppose at the time people said that that was the weight of the soul -— less than an ounce. I don’t believe it proves anything except that, if McDougall was right, your body loses a quarter of an ounce to an ounce of weight at the second you die. But that probably means something. It’s what that fascinates me.” A