L. Ron Hubbard's Secret Self

Article excerpt

Newly discovered tall tales from the scientology founder's favorite club

Here's the story you know, if you know one at all, about L. Ron Hubbard. He was the messiah-scribe of Scientology, "the source" who revealed the religion, founded the church, and led it for more than three decades. Some of his followers today are extremely famous, and others are alleged to be extremely vindictive, violent, and cruel, especially to defectors. Less known is simply this: the greatest affiliation of Hubbard's life--his first, last, and longest professional connection--wasn't Scientology or even Dianetics, the system of self-exploration that laid the cornerstone for his empire.

It was the Explorers Club of New York City, the preeminent society of adventurer-scholars, where a glamorous midcentury photo of him (pictured) welcomes anyone who reaches for his file. "Home camp," as the club's literature put it in Hubbard's time, "for the far-wandering exploring coterie, wheresoever their trails may have taken them." Founded in the spring of 1904 by "men of daring and achievement," its members went on to notch every major first of the century. They plumbed the oceans, touched the earth's poles, traversed its deserts and jungles, and pierced the veil of outer space. Years before Hubbard embarked on what he called his "exploration in the field of the mind," he longed to walk with such immortal company.

When he was 20, in 1931, he fashioned himself into a character called Flash, a college kid who skipped class to barnstorm through the Midwest in an Arrow Sport biplane. The next year he left school completely, issued a call for "restless young men with wanderlust," and sailed southward on what he dubbed the Caribbean Motion Picture Expedition. It was a magisterial flop, according to a new book by Lawrence Wright, ending with Hubbard's crew hanging an effigy of him. But the new captain had soon recovered, surging as a writer of science fiction and other fabulous tales and sharing many back-slapping good times in New York, where his social scene overlapped enough with the Explorers Club that he was asked to apply. To persuade the selection committee, he feathered his experiences into an astounding record. He claimed to have made "submarine movies," sold pictures to National Geographic, and given "valued" data to the U.S. Navy. He boasted of a "complete mineralogical survey of Puerto Rico" and recounted "survey flights through the hinterland" of America. He told a story, in other words, but he told it well, and in early 1940, alongside men from the Carnegie and Field museums and an operative for the United Fruit Co., he was inducted into the club. It became "the only thing he took seriously and seemed prideful of," according to a friend from the era. Evidently, even messiahs need somewhere to mingle.

But for the next 46 years, the club was more than Hubbard's watering hole. It was his permanent home, and--in a messy life of multiple homes, marriages, and children--his most stable family. It was the place he got his mail and sent word of his wins and losses. It was the place that first published him on Dianetics and accredited his expeditions, disarmed by an obvious fondness for Hubbard and his high-action tales. Even as lawsuits, bad press, and government raids stained Hubbard's reputation, the club supported him, protected his privacy, and mourned the death of its "distinguished" member in 1986. Today Hubbard is part of the club's Legacy Society, his name listed with the very men he once dreamed of joining. And the club itself is home to an unadvertised cache of Hubbard's personal papers and other artifacts of Scientology's early days, a peerless record of who Hubbard wanted to be, who he really was, and the leap he made from one to the other. Earlier this year, Wright published Going Clear, the latest expose of Scientology and its founder and the latest to be fiercely contested by the church. But he never visited the archive. …