HIGH PRIESTESS OF THE JAZZ AGE
AIMEE SEMPLE McPHERSON
As a tawny-haired teenager at Ontario’s Ingersoll Collegiate she won a gold medal for dramatics; in her fantastic Angelus Temple in Los Angeles and all over the world she held thousands spellbound as she preached a gaudy salvation. She made a fortune from her religious recipe of “incense, nonsense and sex appeal” and died after an overdose of sleeping pills
IN THE giddy Twenties and the ominous Thirties the most flamboyant evangelist on this continent was Aimee Semple McPherson, who was born on a farm near Ingersoll, twenty miles east of London, Ont. She summoned her faithful to prayer with all the artifice of a carnival impresario, using painted choir girls, golden trumpets, scarlet robes, syncopated hymns and, in her own frank words, “incense, nonsense and sex appeal.” While other churches were half empty on Sundays Aimee’s fantastic Angelus Temple in Los Angeles was filled to its fifty-three-hundred-seat capacity seven days a week.
Attendance reached its zenith in 1926 when bobbed hair, short skirts, bathtub gin, necking in rumble seats, foxtrotting, movie-star scandals, stunt aviators and heavyweight champions had distracted most of the Western world from religion. On the eve of her death in 1944—after the war had kept her out of print for five years and she was fifty-four—Aimee’s hypnotic personality still drew ten thousand people to an open-air Bible meeting in Oakland, Calif.
Aimee first heard the lusty hymns of revival at the age of three weeks when her mother took her to a Salvation Army “jubilee” in Ingersoll. All through childhood the “blood-and - fire” philosophy of General Bramwell Booth enveloped her, though this old evangelist would never have recognized Aimee’s later interpretation of the Scriptures any more than he would have approved her conduct.
Aimee hesitated once at a crossroads which might have led to a career on the stage but she chose the quicker medium of evangelism to vent a spiritual fervor which eventually was warped by the turbulence of her histrionic talents and her insatiable thirst for an audience.
At twenty-two she was beating up and down the United States with a shabby car, a tattered tent and a bronchial portable organ, dragging along two tiny children by different fathers, and her mother, the famous Ma Kennedy, whose influence dominated her life.
So sensational were Aimee’s meetings that after ten years on the sawdust trail she reached a rainbow’s end under the impious sun of Hollywood where she was immediately enshrined as the most gorgeous, tempestuous and prodigal siren ever to have grown rich on Holy Writ.
In her gaudy career as a hot gospeler Aimee showed a flair for publicity, a spellbinding presence which threw her listeners into hysterics, and an uncanny sense of timing with the collection box. She hit front pages by scattering religious tracts from airplanes, calling on fight fans to repent from the boxing ring, converting prostitutes in local brothels, interrupting dance-hall revels in the name of Jesus and inviting incurables to test her powers as a healer.
From Los Angeles to London, England, from Winnipeg to Wellington, New Zealand, from Montreal to Melbourne, Australia, and from Jersey City to Jerusalem, she preached the virtues of purity while she herself drank champagne, wore Paris fashions, got her face lifted and dyed her hair. For thirty-five years she pleaded for universal brotherhood but threw her own daughter out of the house.
Three husbands entered her life, each to depart with cruel alacrity within eighteen months. She could attract thirty thousand people to a single gathering yet she never made a genuine friend. Even though Aimee Semple McPherson earned more than a million dollars she died comparatively poor.
In her heyday she was a handsome vibrant and magnetic personality. Although her ankles were a fraction too thick, her body a trifle too broad and masculine, she was full and high in the bosom and radiated physical appeal. Her hair, sometimes piled up on top, was a tawny chestnut color. Her eyes were brilliant and provocative. Her skin was as smooth as the petals of a creamy tulip. When she smiled her wide full red mouth bared splendid teeth. And in profile her nose was patrician.
A thousand sermons, delivered on street corners, under the big top and
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in the city auditorium, had imparted to her voice the rich contralto of the midway. She learned to use its husky breaks with great dramatic skill, suggesting stifled laughter, the bravely choked sob and sometimes the throaty intimacy of Mae West.
Beneath her shallow reverence raged the fires of a frustrated artist. Once she tried to disappear from the religious lights she had drawn deliberately on herself but the form of her escape was a tawdry elopement with an already married radio announcer and she exposed herself to the charge of pulling a grotesque publicity stunt which had backfired.
A short-lived third marriage to another radioman who was immediately sued for breach of promise by a jilted girl friend, and a long series of legal actions which disclosed unsavory quarrels with her mother and daughter, sped her into a decline.
She battled desperately through the Thirties to sustain her reputation as a Messiah. Evangelism, however, was not her vocation. She was a misplaced Katharine Cornell, a Vivien Leigh on the wrong tack. Aimee Semple McPherson might have been Canada’s first great contribution to the legitimate stage. But in the circumstances of her upbringing she was denied her chance,
She probably realized this in 1944 when she took an overdose of sleeping tablets and died.
Her story begins late in the Eighties when James Kennedy, an elderly, widowed farmer, and a strict Methodist by conviction, married a second time. His bride was a young Salvation Army lass, younger than any of Kennedy’s children by his first marriage. In 1890 this oddly matched pair produced a child who was christened Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy. Her parents and her schoolmates in Dereham Township, Ont., called her Betty. But she always preferred Aimee.
Her mother, Minnie Kennedy, always known later as Ma, had already wearied of life down on the farm. “Not enough people,” she used to say. By the time Aimee was three weeks old Ma’s hankering for the old Salvation Army days was irresistible. So she took the newborn babe five miles in a buggy, through November winds, to an lngersoll meeting. Aimee’s Aunt Maria said bitterly, “You’ll kill that child! Anybody who doesn’t know how to take care of a baby better than that shouldn’t have one.” But Ma Kennedy ignored her and took the baby to Army meetings several times a week.
According to Aimee’s autobiography she was “promoted to the platform” at the age of six weeks and her voice was added enthusiastically to * he services. “It was the hour,” she says, “for which my mother had longed and prayed, the hour when she consecrated this visible answer to prayer, her little daughter, to the service of the Lord.” Ma Kennedy was now back in her old Salvation Army rank of sergeant-major.
By cutter, by buggy, and on the handle bars of her mother’s bike, Aimee went to Salvation Army meetings for the next sixteen years. At her first school she was teased because of the Army. But such was her personality that within a week Aimee had made a drum out of a cheese box, a banner out of a red table cloth, and playing Army had become the favorite schoolyard game.
When she was about ten she bloomed as an elocutionist. She was an excellent mimic and had a repertoire of humorous
Irish poems. Her father proudly displayed her talents at the local Methodist church. Immediately she was in demand for miles around to entertain the chapel congregations at oyster suppers, strawberry festivals and Christmas parties. “They would laugh and clap until the tears rolled down their faces,” wrote Aimee. Ma Kennedy would ask the audience please to listen to one of Aimee’s sacred numbers. But they nearly always insisted on “something comic.”
In high school, at Ingersoll Collegiate, Aimee was the star of the dramatic
society. She won a gold medal. In 1907 she was awarded first prize in a local personality contest -a trip to Quebec City. “The applause of the people,” she wrote, “was very alluring," and with other girls she talked of going on the stage. Ma Kennedy opposed these plans bitterly and mother-and-daughter relationship became volcanic. It swung, with fierce speed and startling frequency, from angry recriminations to tearful reconciliations.
Like other high-school girls Aimee started going to the movies, skating in
fancy - dress carnivals, and reading paper-backed novels which she kept hidden in her desk. Meanwhile Ma pursed her vinegary lips. When Aimee wanted to go to the school ball Ma flatly refused permission. There was a painful scene and Aimee coaxed her mother around. She went to the ball, according to her autobiography, “radiantly happy.” Her first partner, however, was the local Presbyterian minister. Soon afterwards she was conscience-stricken because “1 knew mother was praying alone at home.” In the library she discovered Darwin,
Voltaire and Tom Paine and agreed with others they had “done their work well.” For a while she was engulfed in the “shifting sands of doubt.” There must have been big scenes with Ma over this.
The next thing we read in her autobiography is the sigh: “Ah, sin, with what dazzling beauty, with what refinement and velvet dost thou cover thy claws. How alluring are the fair promises with which thou enticest the feet of youth.”
Suddenly Robert Semple, a bulky, six - foot, clarion - voiced Ulsterman, steaming in his native tweeds, thundered down the main street of Ingersoll. He was an itinerant preacher and his unruly forelock set all the girls aflutter. Taking his stand in the Pentecostal Tabernacle he summoned the wayward to account. From the spiritual heights of the Salvation Army, Ma looked down with a curling lip on the more emotional Pentecostals and when she heard that Aimee was going to hear Semple regularly she said: “Just you wait, my lady. I’ll attend to you!”
When Semple converted Aimee from the Army to Pentecost and carried her off as his seventeen-year-old bride most people in Ingersoll thought it was a defeat for Ma. But as things turned out it was a victory. Semple took Aimee on a brief preaching stint in Chicago, then to Ulster, where she met his folks, on to London for more meetings, and finally to China as a missionary’s wife. In Hong Kong Semple died of malaria before he had converted a single heathen.
Aimee was now nineteen, penniless and pregnant. But by the afternoon mail on the day of her husband’s death a month-old letter arrived from Chicago. It was written by two Pentecostal Sisters who said the Lord had awakened them in the middle of the night saying: “Little Sister Semple is in trouble. Rise immediately and send her sixty dollars.” A money order for this sum was enclosed. Aimee said: “Oh Hallelujah!” and was able to pay the funeral expenses.
A month later Aimee was delivered of her daughter, Roberta Star, in the English hospital. Local missionaries chipped in to meet her bill and provide her with a steamship ticket as far as San Francisco. On the ship Aimee played the piano and led the hymns at Sunday services. Passengers who had heard of her plight collected enough to buy her a transcontinental ticket. Aimee was very impressed: “Ladies came tapping along on jeweled heels to mother me,” she wrote. “Elijah’s ravens were still on the wing. The Lord looks after his own.”
“Pm Going to Get a Crowd’’
Ma Kennedy was on a visit to New York where she engaged in Salvation Army work. Aimee sought her out there but found the reconciliation incomplete. She fled to Chicago and found shelter with the local Pentecostal brethren. Here her destiny was sealed. She began preaching for her living. Sometimes, she said, she was on the platform until two or three in the morning and this “was beginning to take the bloom from my little Roberta’s cheeks.” Soon she longed for a home of her own and returned to New York “besieged with a restless loneliness.” Her parents had returned to the farm and somewhere she met Harold McPherson, a grocery clerk, and married him. McPherson gave her a good solid home. They had one son, Rolf. Eighteen months after her marriage she once more heard “the trumpet call which brooks no denial.” She was missing her audiences too.
One night when McPherson was out
Aimee telegraphed her mother and ran away with the two children. Ma Kennedy met her at Ingersoll and informed her that “everything was settled.” She had written to a Pentecostal camp at Kitchener, Ont., and reserved accommodation for Aimee. Soon McPherson divorced her for desertion, complaining of her “wildcat habits” and “dual personality.” At Kitchener Aimee often preached until two o’clock in the morning and next day was up early, eagerly awaiting sinners who dropped in on the way to work. When the camp closed she was invited to preach for a while in the Victory Mission, Mount Forest, Ont.
Services were held every night—-to the same six people. Aimee was affronted. “These people,” she told one of the Sisters, “are preached up. I’m going to get a crowd.” She stood on a chair at the street corner, “motionless, rigid, silent, erect, arms lifted to heaven—-praying.” Curious citizens gathered to see this strange enchanted figure. When the group had reached the desired proportions Aimee snapped
open her eyes and shouted “Quick! Follow me!” She ran to the mission with the crowd in hot pursuit. When the last straggler pushed through the door the walls were heaving. “Shut the doors,” cried Aimee. “Don’t let anybody out.” She never lacked a crowd again.
Her congregations wailed, beat their breasts, gave impassioned testimonies and rolled over on the floors. Some of the testimonies, so garbled they were incomprehensible, were said to be in “the tongues,” the voices of departed foreign spirits who could only speak Spanish or Hebrew and who had temporarily possessed members of the flock. Aimee would cry: “Fill me, Jesus! Fill me, Jesus! Oh Jesus come and fill me!” Then women would hang onto each other weeping, laughing and shaking, and grown men would kiss each other.
In 1911 Aimee bought the old car, a mildewed tent, a miniature organ, a string of electric lights dipped in colored paint, rolls of red, white and blue bunting, sheaves of U.S. flags and hit the road as a free-lance Messiah. For a few months she slogged around New York state, picking towns where there were Pentecostal brethren, living off gifts of food and offerings. She wrote to Ma of the generosity she encountered wherever she took her little crusade and within a year her mother joined her as business manager. Rolf and Roberta tagged along too.
During World War One Aimee extended her beat down the eastern seaboard from Maine to Florida. In winter they worked south, in summer north. Ma and Aimee slept in the car. Rolf and Roberta slept on camp cots alongside. Over car and cots they erected a tent. Before long they bought other tents to house a small band of regular and irregular female followers and they lived like Amazonian gypsies.
There were nights of battling with wind and water-soaked canvas, swinging sledge hammers with blistered
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hands, hanging on to guy ropes and ridge poles, their hair streaming, their skirts clinging in the driving rain. There were mornings when they woke to find the tents as stiff as plywood from their frozen breath. In Maine their car radiator froze but a steam roller came along and the driver gave them hot water. (Later Aimee said God had sent the steam roller.) In Florida the car stuck in the mud and only after Aimee and the girls had taken off skirts, petticoats and blouses to tie around the tires was it driven out.
By 1915 Aimee had a female choir and a banjo orchestra in her cavalcade and had to ship her equipment ahead by rail to advance parties who prepared the way with publicity leaflets. She formulated her simple Four Square Gospel creed: 1, The infallibility of the Bible; 2, baptism by water; 3, physical healing; 4, the personal return of Christ.
Aimee now appeared on the platform in crisp white form-fitting gown with a rich blue cloak flung back from her shoulders. Her followers wore clean white uniforms and often the girls wore tin halos.
The old-time hell-and-damnation technique was rejected. Aimee preached joy in the Lord and good fellowship. She invited listeners to “sit back, relax, and have a good time.” .She attracted neither rich nor poor. Once she said: “I come to bring spiritual consolation to the middle classes, leaving those above to look after themselves and those below to the Salvation Army.” Most of her flock were of puritanical stock who led monotonous arid lives close to the earth. Into the lives of people who denounced the movies, dancing and reading novels as wicked
she brought, under the mask of religion, that for which they were starving—glamour.
During her sermon she made frequent references to the “green handshake.” Taking the hand of each worshipper as he left she usually found in her own a dollar bill. At one early meeting she recalls collecting sixty dollars this way. As her fame grew, however, and audiences were too large for individual farewells, the collection box appeared.
Gradually the one-tent outfit matched a three-ring circus in size. She owned several big tops as big as Barnum and Bailey’s. But now instead of one-night stands she was holding threeand six-weekseasons. Instead of going into corners for the people they drove from hundreds of miles away to meet her. Aimee’s monthly magazine, the Four Square kept followers in touch with her itinerary.
Her own tents, plus those of congregations who encamped on the spot, covered nine or ten acres. Aimee, assisted by girl dressers, changed her costumes six and seven times a day. Relays of supporting preachers held the stage between her appearances. Meetings went on until dawn. Local residents complained to the police of howling, stamping, shouting and singing until far into the night. But the police had enough to cope with in the traffic.
Aimee was now calling her immediate retinue “angels” and her audiences “saints.” But labor gangs from the Mexican to the Canadian border who erected tents under Ma’s direction found her a tough boss.
“Mother,” said Aimee’s daughter Roberta one night, “why can’t we have a little house somewhere, with a garden and everything, and go to school like the other children do?” It seemed a good idea to Aimee and her heart wasset on California, “the land flowing with milk and honey.” She headed west. In San Diego, seven thousand automobiles parked the night before she opened a giant meeting in Balboa Park. Next day thirty thousand people came to see her lay hands on scores of crippled who were brought on stretchers to Aimee’s rostrum. A few of the afflicted managed to struggle to their feet and as they tottered about the stage Aimee led the throng in cries of “Hallelujah!” in weeping, laughter, dance and song.
At her first meeting in Los Angeles Aimee made it known she wished to settle in “this beautiful city.” A woman rose and offered her a lot. A man promised to dig foundations for a house. Another said he’d supply the lumber. One by one dozens of individuals offered materials and labor. Throughout the building of the house Aimee remained on the scene, leading the workers in song. It was a handsome ten-room clapboard residence. Everything was given to her, even the furniture, the rose bushes and the canary. Sometimes Aimee called it Little Grey Home In The West, sometimes The House That God Built.
In 1921 Ma Kennedy paid five thousand dollars down on a lot on Glendale Boulevard, alongside Echo Park, Los Angeles. Aimee’s crusades continued. At every meeting the crowds heard of her longing for a permanent church. Dollars showered in. By 1923 a monster building, a fusion of Moslem mosque, Regency palace, Italian villa and Maple Leaf Gardens had risen in the California sun.
Aimee called it the Angelus Temple. It cost a million and a half dollars and seated fifty-three hundred. A radio station, a commissary for gifts of food, a Cradle Roll Chapel where babies could be parked, a Sunday school, a
Bible college, and a “miracle room” for display of abandoned crutches, trusses and leg braces, were but a few of its features. It was owned by the Echo Park Evangelistic Association Inc., a corporation formed by Aimee’s followers. Aimee was president and Ma and her daughter Roberta were appointed to the board of directors. An Ingersoll woman who was taken by Aimee for a long holiday to the Little Grey Home In The West says: “There were many hard-headed businessmen on that board but Aimee and Mrs. Kennedy were more than a match for them.”
On opening day “an acre” of acolyte girls, known as Templites, each sporting cosmetics and a permanent wave, each with bouquets of roses and orchids, were in attendance. Silver trumpets flourished when Aimee pulled the strings that unveiled the electrically lit cross which could be seen for fifty miles. Scores of followers got permanent jobs as clerks, maintenance men, ushers and nurses. The payroll was seven thousand dollars a week.
Aimee gave the spectators pageants, picture slides and illustrated sermons. In one of these a “soldier of God” shot down a dirigible which floated in from the wings and, in a flash of flame, out fell a grinning devil, presumably a professional acrobat, to tumble forty feet with a thud to the stage as the spotlight picked up an unfurled American flag and the vast organ bellowed paeans of praise. Another time Aimee, dressed as a cop, delivered a sermon from a motorbike and took for her text: “Stop! You are speeding to ruin!” She used a Bible as big as a baby grand piano.
She couldn’t have chosen a better time to open the Angelus Temple. Between 1920 and 1930 a million and a half Middle - Western farmers migrated to the California coast and retired on modest savings. These lonely people couldn’t find the multifarious sects of their childhood in Hollywood and, since they rejected popular amusements, time was heavy on their hands. In Aimee they found entertainment that didn’t breach their conscience. Through Aimee they met kindred souls.
At the end of her performance Aimee asked the sinners to come forward and repent. Her voice was low, compassionate, matriarchal; the music was melancholy, soft, embracing; the lights were dim, warm, enchanting. As the processions shuffled up the aisles Aimee would shatter the atmosphere by crying: “Turn on the lights! Clear the one-way street for Jesus!” As the lights blazed on and the organ boomed the meeting would start to jump.
“One man was struck with the Lower,” Aimee recalled, “and rolled down a flight of stairs. But the others merely gave him a passing glance and went on with their worship.”
Aimee’s Disappearing Act
In Los Angeles Aimee became a civic institution. She was a spokesman for the community and expressed her views to the Press on topics grave and frivolous. The police and fire departments made her an honorary member. A dozen service clubs listed her as their patron saint. Movie people courted her and she got on well with them. But the adoration of what she called her “heart-hungry multitude^” was not enough to drive this spectacular human dynamo who, at thirty-five, was at the peak of womanhood. Aimee began to get the blues. When she heard the cultivated voice of Kenneth G. Ormiston announcing broadcast services from her radio tower, her ideas turned once again to romance.
Ormiston was a married man and
soon Temple tongues were wagging about the inordinate amount of time Aimee was spending in his office. This was early in 1926 and Ma Kennedy insisted that Aimee take a tour of Europe. Aimee went off dutifully. She rented Albert Hall in London for a Sunday meeting. Her coiffure, and fifty-dollar beauty treatments, pale yellow silk sweaters, short skirts and flesh-colored stockings, startled the British newspapers. They were more startled still when they got pictures of the evangelist frequenting London and Paris night clubs. Whether
Ormiston accompanied Aimee was never established but he was absent from Los Angeles at the same time.
Early in May 1926 when she returned to Los Angeles Aimee had an air of foreboding. She frequently made such remarks as “If I should die soon.” Long discussions with Ma Kennedy behind closed doors were reported. On May 18 Aimee went to the beach with her secretary. They were sitting in their swim suits in a small tent. Then Aimee sent her secretary, Emma Schaeffer, on a trivial errand. When Schaeffer returned Aimee had vanished.
By late afternoon the extras were out with the story. Thousands gathered at the Temple for news. With curious conviction Ma Kennedy took the podium and informed them: “Sister is with Jesus. Pray for her.”
For thirty-two days the Templites kept vigil on the beach where Aimee was supposed drowned. They built bonfires, wailed and sang. Airplanes swept the water searching for Aimee’s body. Divers probed the sea bed and one died from exposure. An ecstatic follower, thinking he saw Aimee’s image shimmering on the waves, cried, “I’m
going after her!” He plunged into the waves and was drowned. A girl committed suicide out of grief. Meanwhile Ma Kennedy collected thirty-six thousand dollars for a memorial to Aimee. The story was a bonanza for the city editors of those California dog days.
On May 27 Ormiston’s name was linked with Aimee’s in the papers and doubts about her death spread. Ormiston’s wife had reported him missing since two weeks after Aimee left for Europe. On May 29 Ormiston, accompanied by a woman, registered at a hotel in San Luis Salinas, Calif. Pol’ce and Press gave tongue. The hunt was on. A reporter stopped a car driven by Ormiston, who was accompanied by a woman, on the San Francisco-Los Angeles highway. The car doubled back to San Francisco. The trail led from San Francisco to Nevada, to a ranch in Arizona, and from there across the Mexican border to the Foreign Club at Agua Prieta, where on June 20 two men and a woman were seen acting furtively. The papers were talking openly of Aimee’s “love nests.”
In the light of evidence given at a subsequent public enquiry it seems reasonably clear that Aimee, with the approval of her mother, planned to disappear with Ormiston. But once Ormiston’s name was publicly associated with hers a reappearance became essential. And this was, as usual, dramatic. She stumbled half-clad out of the dark up to the door of a cottage in Agua Prieta and asked for help. She was taken to hospital in Douglas, just across the Arizona border. Reporters filed one hundred thousand words of her story about being kidnaped on the beach by three characters she called Jake, Steve and Rose. Generally the story was read with derision.
Some of Aimee’s followers deserted her. Ribald Aimee jokes were circulating. Burlesque comics parodied Aimee on the stage. But she seemed determined to make her kidnaping story stick and kept badgering the police, through the Press, to quit stalling and arrest the crooks. Ormiston appeared momentarily to pronounce Aimee “entirely innocent” of association with him. But on Sept. 17 a criminal complaint was filed charging Aimee with conspiracy to obstruct justice. Every type of crackpot and headline hunter wriggled into the witness box. Evidence of hotel chambermaids and house detectives, however, left no doubt that Aimee had been seen with Ormiston during the period of her supposed kidnaping. On Jan. 27, 1927, after an interminable hearing, District Attorney Keyes inexplicably moved to dismiss the case. Technically Aimee was vindicated.
Aimee went on a “rehabilitation tour” with a lecture entitled The Story of My Life. There were to be paid admissions. She preached to halfempty halls. She was no longer a miracle worker. She was a notorious woman. Radio contracts were canceled by the dozen. Ma Kennedy, in an attempt to seize power within the Temple, became involved in a series of squabbles with Aimee which leaked out in the newspapers. Aimee fired her from the directors’ board. Ma told reporters: “I have disinherited her.
Her present associates are full of corruption, deceit and double dealing.”
Once more Aimee went to London and took Albert Hall. But now she was just another “crazy American.” Rival gospelers from the U.S. reached England ahead of her and warned the people against her. The Rev. W. E. Pietsch told an audience in Hounslow, on the outskirts of London: “Shun her for she will wreck your churches and fill your lunatic asylums. She will leave nothing but broken homes and misery. She is the biggest fraud I know.”
“Bishop” Alma White, of the Church of the Pillar of Fire, described her as a sorceress, adding somewhat cryptically “Have you heard of her Upper Room? There is a mystery room in her temple where they mew like cats and bark like dogs.”
Fleet Street reporters visiting her at the Hotel Cecil learned from waiters that Aimee drank champagne, ate caviar and entertained on a lavish scale. Aimee said in an interview: “I
turn no one away. Jesus was the friend of sinners and publicans. We discuss cocktails, modern habits, sex anr, clothes.” She was open about her visits to night spots in London and Paris. In Glasgow, where she spoke, students adorned her platform with empty beer bottles and hung the walls with whisky posters.
Back in Los Angeles Aime'î plunged into a series of shaky business ventures on the eve of the Wall Street crash. These included a cemetery with the price of lots graded according to their proximity with her own projected grave, a summer camp with the slogan Vacation With Aimee and an apartment house. A movie on her life to be called Clay In The Potter’s Hands kept her occupied for months but it was never finished. She chartered a special liner to carry a pilgrimage under her leadership to the Holy Land. Only a hundred pilgrims turned up. Reporters noted that her once-ehestnut hair was now bright gold.
On her return to Los Angeles from the Holy Land at forty it seemed for a moment she was going to make a comeback. Twenty-five thousand Templites scattered roses in her path. Ma Kennedy tipped off reporters that Aimee had had her face lifted and hinted that soon she would “tell all about the kidnaping incident.”
Then Aimee met Dave Hutton, a vaudeville artist. He weighed two hundred and forty pounds, a roly-poly man with cherubic cheeks. “Every woman wants a mate,” said Aimee, and married him. They went off to honeymoon in her exotic Moorish Castle, a fourteen-room Christmas cake of a place decorated in gold-andsilver leaf. Two days later Hutton was sued for breach of promise by another woman. He went to the hearing without telling Aimee his mission. When he returned that evening he was angrily shouting: “Five thousand dollars!”
Aimee learned this was what he had to pay in heart balm. She fainted and fractured her skull on the steps of the castle piazza.
Later she fled to London again. Hutton wired from Los Angeles: “Don’t hurry home, baby. Daddy wants a well woman.” But Daddy never saw her again. A year later Hutton got a divorce from her and, supported by the blaze of publicity, set off on a vaudeville tour.
Aimee was now involved in a maze of lawsuits. She faced twenty-five actions in the Los Angeles courts for unpaid bills, broken contracts, overdue promissory notes and a dozen other defaults. Several plaintiffs managed to set aside bequests made to Aimee by deceased relatives, claiming the wills were drawn up when the testators were of unsound mind.
In 1936 Aimee fired her daughter Roberta—who had married in 1930 and given up her duties—from the board of directors. Ma Kennedy plunged into print with the charge: “Aimee has done the same to Roberta as she did to me. Ever since Aimee left home at the age of seventeen she has never been able to keep anybody close to her.”
But Ma was overlooking Aimee’s son, Rolf McPherson. He remained loyal to his mother throughout. Today,
at thirty-seven, he is father of two children and president of the Echo Park Evangelical Association. He preaches with much less flamboyance than his mother. He lives in a modest two-bedroom home, drives a low-priced car, and is generally well liked. His only sign of ostentation is a seagoing schooner. The Temple has forty-five hundred active members and fourteen thousand five hundred inactive—or radio—members. Five services are still held daily with peak attendance of six thousand on Sundays. There is a Bible college with seven hundred and fifty students. Branch churches in fifteen different countries keep more than four hundred missionaries busy. The association owns real estate valued at nine million dollars.
As World War Two approached Aimee slipped into obscurity. Occasionally she still dazzled women’s clubs as when she appeared at one luncheon “gowned in black with flowing chartreuse, chiffon frills at the elbows, chartreuse corsage at her throat, white fur and a small black hat set jauntily on her head.”
She celebrated her forty-eighth birthday at the Angelus Temple by appearing dressed in red gingham frock and sunbonnet, carrying a milk pail as she had done in her Canadian farmhouse days. She poured out drinks of milk for the front-row worshippers and then took a collection in the empty pail. Then she vanished, reappeared in a stunning white satin gown and preached a sermon entitled My Dear Diary. As late as 1939 she got a big welcome back to Los Angeles from one of her trips. In her hand she was carrying a significant symbol; a bird in a gilded cage.
On Sept. 26, 1944, at Oakland, Calif., after years of news blackouts, and when she was fifty-four years old, Aimee Semple McPherson rode to an open-air Bible meeting in a buggy. To her amazement she found ten thousand people there. According to her son Rolf she was “very keyed up” by this unexpectedly warm reception. Next morning Rolf found her unconscious in her room at the Leamington Hotel. She died the following day from an overdose of sleeping tablets.
Her will showed personal property of only ten thousand dollars, most of which was divided between her children. She left Ma Kennedy ten dollars.
In the moment of her departure from this life Aimee may have found some consolation in the memory that not long before she had given her mother a good punch on the nose.