From Abracadabra to Zombies
"Tarot, I Ching and astrology disgust me, and I think that newspapers that publish daily horoscopes are enemies of sanity. When people ask 'What sign are you?' I cringe."--James Michener, author and fortune teller
unpublished manuscript, 157-pages (typed and double
spaced on 8 1/2" x 11" paper), located in the James A. Michener papers, Owen Laster Collection:
Michener’s Unpublished Manuscripts (SC 1-46) , Archival Services, James A. Michener Library,
University of Northern Colorado, Greeley, Colorado
James Michener (1907-1997) authored more than 40 books of fiction and non-fiction, many of which were made into movies or television series. His novels sold an estimated 75 million copies worldwide. Tales of the South Pacific won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1948 and was made into a Broadway musical with tunes and lyrics by Rogers and Hammerstein. South Pacific was also made into a movie that established Michener's fame and paved the road to a fortune, which he shared with others seeking an education, a writing vocation, or cultural enrichment.*
Michener was also an amateur fortune-teller. He even wrote a book about how he learned to tell fortunes and how he put his knowledge to work at fundraisers and in private readings until he felt compelled to give it up because too many people took it seriously even though he didn't. The book has never been published, however. In an interview with freelance writer Lawrence Grobel, Michener said that he had completed two novels that he didn't intend to publish in his lifetime--one about Russia and one about fortune-telling--but that he'd changed his mind about the fortune-telling manuscript.
Grobel writes that Michener told him he submitted the manuscript on fortune-telling to his publisher Knopf, but they lost it. Actually, Michener's agent at the William Morris Agency, Owen Laster (d. 2011), possessed both unpublished manuscripts. In 2003, Laster gave the manuscripts to the James A. Michener Library at the University of Northern Colorado. (Michener earned a master's degree from UNC and taught there for several years. The James A. Michener Collection was created in 1978 when Michener donated thirty-seven linear feet of his papers to UNC. The papers were primarily related to his novel Centennial, published in 1974. Shortly before his death, Michener designated UNC the home of the bulk of his writing and publishing legacy.*)
I have no idea why Michener thought the manuscript on fortune-telling was lost. In the Grobel interview Michener says he was reluctant to publish it while he was alive because he considered the work "a little undignified." Grobel didn't pursue the issue, so we don't know whether it was the writing or the subject matter that Michener considered "undignified." I think it was the subject matter.
In the interview with Grobel, in his memoir The World is My Home, and in the unpublished manuscript on fortune-telling, Michener explains his interest as a writer in why something as absurd as fortune-telling is so popular and why it is so easy to manipulate people. Whatever the reason Laster kept the fortune-telling manuscript out of print and whatever the reason Michener changed his mind about publishing it, one thing we can say for sure is that it is not a novel but a detailed description of the method he says he was taught by a mystery woman and his attempted explanation of the attraction to fortune-telling by millions of people worldwide.
Michener refers to the mystery woman only as "the Princess." He says he met her in a bar in Cairo where she plied her trade. This was probably in 1931 or '32, while Michener traveled abroad during the time he was studying at St. Andrews University in Scotland.
the memoir and the manuscript
In his 1992 memoir, The World is My Home, Michener devotes the first part of chapter XII (on Health) to the story of a "fortune-teller named the Princess." He writes that he met the Princess while "knocking about Egypt." Even though the core of this story is essentially the same as in the unpublished manuscript, there are discrepancies, all minor and insignificant in my opinion, between the two accounts. Since Michener thought the manuscript was lost, he could not consult it when he wrote about his fortune-telling experiences in his memoir. That there should be discrepancies between what he wrote in the 1990s and what he wrote years earlier about his experiences in the 1930s is to be expected. (We don't have an exact date on when he finished the fortune-telling manuscript, but it was after 1959, when Michener stopped doing private readings.)
(Note: in what follows, all quotes are from the unpublished manuscript unless otherwise noted.)
The Classic Comics version of Michener's experiences with fortune-telling is that in 1933 a young Michener (mid-twenties) meets the Princess (late forties or early sixties) in the bar of a grubby Cairo hotel. He enters the bar not for a beer or whiskey (he's a teetotaler), but to escape the sun. She's not a real princess, but a Gypsy-like woman of unknown background who makes her living telling fortunes at a table "in a corner in the western end of the room." She does her readings using an ordinary 52-card deck of playing cards, which she spreads out on the table in seven columns and seven rows (manuscript) or six columns and eight rows (memoir). Before spreading the cards, she has the client cut the deck three times (manuscript) or two times (memoir) so that she wouldn't have control over how the cards were dealt. She has the client stop her to take out a card three times (manuscript) or four times (memoir) while she is spreading out the cards so it will be his fortune not hers. The cards taken out at the stops (3 in the manuscript and 4 in the memoir) are placed face down and used to determine whether the client's wish will be fulfilled. She reads the cards and amazes both Michener and her clients with her uncanny accuracy. She takes a fancy to Michener and teaches him her method which, some twenty years later, he puts into practice at a variety of amateur events as Mitch the Witch. He amazes everyone with his uncanny accuracy and soon people are literally knocking on his door at home to get a reading. He quits the amateur circuit but at parties his wife prods him into doing readings for famous people like Henry Kaiser. Eventually he decides that what he is doing is wrong. He gives up fortune-telling but not before he reveals the method taught him by the Princess (very simple in the memoir, unbelievably complex in the manuscript) and offers his explanation as to why so many people believe in nonsense like fortune-telling.
One might say that Michener was beguiled by the Princess and her method. He describes her physical presence as tall, thin, black hair, piercing eyes, sexy, lusty, clever, and witty with a rowdy sense of humor. He says that "in her youth she could have been beautiful enough to be a Circassian." He makes it clear that he never believed he had any fortune-telling powers and that everything he and the Princess did could be done by many people without requiring any special power like clairvoyance or precognition. It took him ten years of playing Mitch the Witch before he gave up fortune-telling for good, writing that he no longer wanted to be a part of "this rejection of reason."
Mitch the Witch
In his memoir, Michener describes a system of card reading that involves assigning one of six common interests to the columns: head, heart, home, health, wealth, and travel. The manuscript adds a seventh column, work, and refers to the travel column as 'way.' Way, he says, refers not just to travel but to "philosophical adjustment of life." These are the same topics used by psychics, Tarot readers, palm readers, astrologers, and others who do readings based on anything from how tea leaves end up in the bottom of a cup to how the wrinkles on your bottom are arranged. Clients love hearing about themselves and would like to know what's in store regarding work, health, romance, money, and journeys of any kind. The layout is divided into cards for reading the past, present, and future. Some cards are favorable, some are portentous. Where these associations come from doesn't matter. What matters is that they provide a matrix to guide the reader in making up a story that the client will believe. The matrix in the manuscript involves cross-referencing numerology, astrology, and a little yin-yang with the various associations the cards themselves represent. Nothing of the elaborate devotion to complex numerological schemes that dominates the manuscript comes through in the memoir.
When writing his memoir, Michener obviously remembers much of what he wrote in the manuscript. "Never burlesque the cards" is given in both memoir and manuscript as one of the rules given him by the Princess, whom he calls his "guide." Michener took this to mean that he should read the cards according to the system she taught him without judging the reading no matter how ridiculous it might seem to him. She advises him to use any information he has about a client while doing the reading but not to rely on trying to be clever. As many cold readers have found, there is no need to be clever with most clients because they want you to succeed so much that they will bend over backward to find meanings in anything you throw at them. Michener's guide reminded him what everyone who makes a living by claiming to have paranormal powers knows: everyone is vitally concerned with himself and wonders about such things as will I find romance? does she love me? do I have the brains to do well in school or in the new job? will I be successful and make enough money to do what I want to do? will I get to travel and see other parts of the world? will my health improve? when will I die? In short, as long as the reader sticks to the topics of the system and tells a good story to the client--one that provides guidance--the reader can't fail no matter how wrong he or she is about everything. The ability to foresee the future is unnecessary. Make enough predictions and some of them are going to be true or at least close enough to be considered true by a client as to seem as if you had seen through the veil that hides the future. Those are the ones the clients will remember and the ones that you will be remembered for. And, contrary to what many people might think, be specific. In both the memoir and the manuscript Michener says that he and the Princess would tell a subject "about forty-five specific facts." In the manuscript, he says "forty would be so erroneous as to be almost laughable, but we each had the trick of coming up with two or three which were spectacularly accurate, and the nature of the human mind is such that it ... discounts the palpable error while focusing upon the fortuitous success." In his memoir, Michener writes that "by sheer accident I hit just enough truths or near-truths to cause neighbors to tell others of the remarkable record I was compiling as a man who could really foresee past and future." If just one of his many statements was right, "that is what is remembered, and the subject leaves the tent asking his friends: 'How could he have known that I bought stock in a dairy company?' It was those lucky hits that established my reputation and began to attract clients from considerable distances."
The tent mentioned by Michener in the previous quote was one set up at a local fair in Tinicum, Pennsylvania, where he performed as Mitch the Witch. In the manuscript, Michener writes that his friend Bill Vitarelli had the idea for an arts fair in Tinicum in 1950. The idea was to use the proceeds from the festival to support various charities in the area. Vitarelli recruited Michener to do his fortune-telling shtick and gave him the name Mitch the Witch. Michener told him that the festival was bound to fail. "This is a rural area," he said. "with no interest in art." The Tinicum Arts Festival is still going strong sixty-five years later.* So much for Michener's ability to see the future. Not that he ever believed in his abilities. He insists in both the manuscript and the memoir that he never believed in what he was doing. "Never for one moment of one day did I think that I was telling fortunes, " he writes. "I was providing amusement, sometimes of a rather high order, garnished with an appetizing relish of flimflam....I am in no sense of the word a seer I am simply a man who learned from a clever woman her clever system of organizing experience, and because I have always had a keen sense of the theater and of narration, I have had more than ordinary skill in manipulating her system. I was never a fraud. I never deceived either my subjects or myself. And I never claimed to have powers which I did not have. I believe I was as clean a fortune teller as a man could be." Yet, in his memoir, his accounts seem to clearly portray him as deceiving several clients, which I will describe below.
Michener developed such a reputation as a fortune-teller that people traveled great distances to get counsel from Mitch the Witch. In the fortune-telling manuscript, Michener says that his reputation circulated to the point that "fairs and festivals in all parts of the east applied for my services and for a hectic series of summers I told fortunes in widely scattered areas, always attended by some one or two frightening examples of accuracy."
Michener writes that he became disenchanted with fortune telling when he realized that a chance remark he'd make could have a profound effect on people. He was dismayed that people could be changed when an off-the-cuff bit of nonsense that he made up would be taken as guidance. Telling a woman to avoid a certain color would give her something she could do something about, even though it was meaningless. The fact that he could do much good with chance remarks made up on the spot made Michener "a sober man as far as fortune telling was concerned." It wasn't worth it to see people deluding themselves about their lives. Seeing the power he had over people "finally compelled me to stop giving readings," he wrote. People, said Michener, "deserve better guidance than I can give them." So, he quit his gig as Mitch the Witch and "the comedy ended."
Michener seems to have loved the attention he got doing readings, but he became increasingly uncomfortable knowing that "otherwise sensible people" would consult him on matters of life and death. What he took as a joke, "a frolic," others took very seriously. Businessmen consulted him, asking whether they should sell their businesses. Women wanted to know whether they should have operations recommended by their doctors. Girls asked him whether they should get married. "The frightening part about this influx was that the cards provided a definite answer to every one of their questions," he writes. He had answers for all questions. "What appalled me," he says, "Was that they were taking my answers seriously." He says that he didn't take any money for the service he provided but was "surprised at the amount they were willing to pay."
Some of them had driven well over a hundred miles to consult with me on such perplexities as trips to Europe, stock market operations or divorce and I warned each of them that I knew nothing of such matters and that society provided trained experts to give such advice, but so many of the said 'Yes, but we can trust you. We know you're telling the truth.'
He says he repeatedly told people that he didn't know what he was saying, that he put himself in a trance and "an Egyptian princess does the talking through me." The Princess, he wrote, was responsible "for quite a few marriages and elopements and abortions" in eastern Pennsylvania.
One of the more curious stories Michener tells in the manuscript is how he would make cracks about the Princess being infallible. One year a skeptic made a tape recording of his session with Mitch the Witch and brought it to Michener the next year. "He showed me the record; I had three things more or less right out of forty-five. I looked him right in the eye" and said that I'd had dental work done that week and that he simply didn't understand what I was saying. "The Princess never errs," he told the skeptic.
Michener tells two very different stories about how he came to end his role as Mitch the Witch. In the manuscript, he says that "the crisis came at the end of one week when my home had been invaded by four different groups who had come long distances to consult with me." He became convinced that
this nonsense must end and this was not an easy decision to make, for it came at a time when I needed money and could have been tempted by the prospect of making is so easily. It seemed certain that I could find a steady supply of customers eager to pay ten or fifteen dollars to have me read their cards, and it was not preposterous to suppose that I might be able to support myself this way.
The kicker came at the end of the week when a man drove in from Maryland to see him. "Internal Revenue was after him and he wanted to know how much the government knew and what he should do to protect himself from that knowledge." Michener read his cards and they "showed exactly what the man ought to do." He told the man what the cards said he should do and the man "sighed like a man reprieved from hanging."
In the morning I found tucked under my door an envelope containing fifty dollars. I concluded then that my fortune telling was too dangerous to meddle with, and I have told no more. The tent was taken down. Mitch the Witch signs were filed away. And I refused even to read the cards at social gatherings. It was too frightening.
The story in the memoir is a bit different. "The bad ending came abruptly," he says. In a reading, he told a woman that she and her husband were driving to Iowa the next weekend and he implored her not to go. She returned the next year and told Michener that she and her husband took the trip to Iowa "and the first night out our car was hit by a truck and my husband was killed." In the manuscript, Michener mentions a similar reading not as the ending, but as an example of several "remarkable coincidences" that established his reputation as a true seer. Michener comments in the memoir:
This, and other extraordinary coincidences that resulted from sheer guessing, began to make me think that what I was doing was irresponsible; it had become far more serious than just a silly game, and I realized that I had better quit the nonsense, because even if I refused to take it seriously, others did.
But he didn't quit entirely. He may have quit performing at the Tinicum arts fair, but he continued doing readings at parties. His last reading was in 1960 for the industrialist and shipbuilder Henry J. Kaiser at a party at Kaiser's residence on Oahu. Kaiser was smitten and adopted Michener as his "local seer." At his last reading, the cards told Michener that death was indicated. Michener says he would never tell someone that he or she is about to die "no matter what the cards say." So he told Kaiser that "one of the friends you've cherished in the past is going to die and you will mourn his loss." Michener figured this was safe since Kaiser was in his mid-seventies and no doubt would have some friends older than him who might be near death. A few days later, Alfred Apaka, a young fellow in full possession of his faculties, dropped dead while playing handball. Apaka was "a charismatic full-blooded Hawaiian tenor" whom Kaiser had "almost adopted." After that, says Michener, "I told no more fortunes."
It is doubtful that Michener's book on fortune-telling would have added to his stature as a popular writer or to the sum of his bank account. Some might call the untitled manuscript on fortune-telling 157 pages of tedium, but there are probably a few readers with a deep interest in numerology, astrology, cartomancy, and similar superstitions who would find this six-chapter work of immense interest. Nearly half the book--chapter three--is a tedious lesson in numerology partially based, it seems, on the only book referenced in the manuscript: Karl Menninger's Number Words and Number Symbols: A Cultural History of Numbers. (I have the 1959 Dover edition of the English translation and would describe it as the least read and one of the most uninteresting books I own. The book is a model of tedious scholarship.)
Chapter four explains how to deal the cards. Chapter five explains how to read the cards. Chapter six, the final chapter, presents Four Rules the Princess gave Michener that he considered "the essence" of successful card reading. Rule 1. Never kid the cards. Don't "make fun of them" or "clown the act." If you do, you will "make yourself look like a transparent fool." Rule 2. Trust the cards. One of Michener's examples should clear up any questions you might have about this rule. At the Tinicum fair, a woman in her mid-fifties had Mitch the Witch read her cards. They showed "without question that she was pregnant." Against his better judgment but to the delight of his audience--Michener liked to have a crowd around when he did his readings--he told the woman that she was pregnant and was about to have a son. He added "some nonsense as to how she was to care for the child and what name would be good to give it. The woman was not amused...." Several days later she came to his house and tearfully told Michener that her husband's secretary was pregnant and she suspected her husband was the father. In the world of fortune-telling, this counts as a hit. Rule 3. You are not obligated to be stupid. Use whatever information you've gathered from cold, warm, or hot reading. Rule 4. If you tell them enough, some of it has to be true. Present forty-five factual claims and maybe three will "hit close to some vital target and when they did, their unexpected accuracy would obliterate the forty-two misses, which in a fortune you expect."
Michener also provided readings for eight individuals that were to be inserted somewhere in the published book. He also provided a ten-page index. Chapter one describes Michener's meeting with the Princess and his scrutiny of her working her wonders on the sailors and other travelers stopping off in Cairo on the way to someplace else. Chapter two is titled "Her Legacy" and describes how he put the card-reading system of the Princess to work many years later at the Tinicum fair. He explains his fascination with fortune-telling, which he describes as "this bizarre experience," and why he eventually gave it up. Though he says he never took his readings seriously, many people thought he was the real deal and sought out his advice on love, business, the law....you name it. He obviously enjoyed the experience--he continued the game for at least ten years--yet he says he was appalled that people took his readings seriously.
What Michener was gifted with was the ability to construct a believable story based on cold reading, warm reading, and hot reading. He writes: “When a subject sat down before the Princess she already knew his sex, his age, his appearance, his probable status in life, his overt character, his mannerisms, plus whatever substantive clues she had been able to pick up by watching him at the bar and overhearing his conversations….so that much of what she said was not guesswork.” He retreated to the cards, he says, when he "had no sensible clues." He also relied, as do all fortune tellers, on shotgunning. Out of 45 guesses, he said, he’d always hit one or two "which had startling accuracy." It was these "spectacular coincidences," he wrote, that gave fortune-telling its juice. People will forget the 44 erroneous wild guesses, but they will remember the one or two "predictions" that seem amazingly accurate.
I realize, as Michener did, that the idea of dealing a deck of cards in rows and columns and finding a personal meaning in the resulting layout is inane, ludicrous, and hardly worth commenting on, not to mention irrational and dehumanizing. No human being should let his or her life be directed by a stranger claiming that a random display of playing cards reveals intimate and personal details about that person's life--past, present, or future. However, millions of people believe their fortunes can be told by dozens of equally absurd "systems," so it is at least worthwhile to try--once more--to explain why so many people believe in such nonsense. Michener provides a few insights into the believer's mind. That alone, however, would not make the manuscript worth preserving, reading, and reviewing. Most of Michener's insights into the believer's mind are well known to those familiar with subjective validation, self-deception, and a few other psychological factors (like wishful thinking and confirmation bias) that drive people to not only believe nonsense but to defend it with every fiber of their being.
Several factors make Michener's work on fortune-telling unique. For one thing, the technique he reveals uses an extremely detailed system useful as a backup when cold reading, warm reading, and hot reading fail. The complexity of the system makes it tedious to learn, especially since we now know with near certainty that any buffoon can do a reading and be successful at it. James van Praagh, John Edward, Sylvia Browne, and Theresa Caputo and hundreds of other confabulating entertainers are proof enough that there is no need for any kind of sophisticated system to be successful at doing readings. In the manuscript, Michener tells us that he wrote the book on fortune-telling because of the inherent virtue of the system [of fortune-telling he learned from "the Princess"]
.... and because I may be the only person remaining alive who knows it. [He was told that she had died when, in the 1960s, he visited the bar in Cairo where they'd met.] Also, if there are people who illogically insist upon consulting fortune tellers for guidance which they should be getting elsewhere, I can state confidently that this is the best and most helpful system so far devised.
I find it hard to believe that Michener genuinely thought he might be the only person alive who knew the system of the Princess. She didn't create the system out of nothing and there were probably more than a few curious people who met her the way Michener did and were curious about her technique. In any case, there is little inherent virtue in this or any other system of fortune-telling and there is no need for the kind of complex numerology used by the Princess to be successful at giving readings. My interest in the manuscript was to see what a writer of Michener's reputation had to say about the subject. It turns out that the most interesting thing he had to say--from the perspective of someone who has spent over twenty years investigating strange beliefs, amusing deceptions, and dangerous delusions--can be found in his memoir The World is My Home:
Fortune-telling as the Princess taught me to practice it bore a striking resemblance to storytelling. In both activities one used observation, shrewd guesswork and the proper selection of emotion-laden words to created empathy. One also performed best if one relished the jovian [sic] exercise of moving mortals here and there on the chessboard.
Psychologist Ray Hyman tells a similar story to Michener's in his account of how he got interested in the psychology of self-deception. He was a college student, earning money as a palm reader. He'd read several books on the art but didn't believe any of it. He got so much positive feedback from his customers, however, that, unlike Michener, he started to think that maybe he did have psychic powers. He was advised to tell people the opposite of what he would normally say. To his surprise his clients became even more devoted to him. Ray gave up fortune telling and spent the rest of his professional life investigating things like the soothsayer's delusion. (A more detailed account of his experience can be found here.)
the system of the Princess
The system used by the Princess is an example of overkill. Her card-reading system provides a grid for converting each of the 52 cards in a standard playing deck into specific responses to questions about health, love, travel, wealth, and other things that many people are typically interested in. Each card of each suit has several characteristics associated with it, where in the row or column a card falls has its own special meaning, each suit has its own special associations, and each row, column, and quarter section can be read as blocks. For example, hearts is associated with romance (what a shock!) and spades with power. The seven of spades in the first row of the first column represents good luck, a very long trip by plane, mountains, and a caution to study your religion. The first column is the "head" column and can be related to raw intellectual ability, education, utilization of intellectual capacity, or emotional stability. It can also be related to business judgment, pragmatic aptitudes, creativity in art, or ability to do a job. Imagine having that much "information" stacked in your memory for each of 52 cards and their various locations on the grid you've laid out. Your job is to get as much information about the subject before doing the reading (without having to exert yourself to the extent that, say, the members of the psychic mafia do by keeping card files to share on repeat customers) and then create a story from the complex grid of data you've stored in your memory. Your story doesn't have to be true, but it does have to be believable. All the inaccurate stories will be forgotten, as will all the inaccurate details about the one in forty or forty-five readings (Michener's estimate) that contains a claim that coincidentally the subject validates as personally accurate and significant.
Michener's manuscript on fortune-telling is worth reading for anyone interested in Michener's life during the years when he performed as Mitch the Witch. It may also be beneficial for some true believers to read his account of why he thinks he was a successful fortune-teller even though it's all rubbish. I doubt, however, that there is any need to learn this system for those looking for a do-it-yourself kit on getting "guidance which they should be getting elsewhere."
May, Stephen J. 2005. "Michener’s Egyptian Princess" in the Michener Society Newsletter, Fall.