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 exposé of Scientology and its founder and the latest to be fiercely contested by the church. But he never visited the archive. Neither, it seems, did his investigative predecessor Janet Reitman, author of Inside Scientology.
Newsweek did, finding still more material of interest to ax grinders, some of it damning to the church and its most cherished stories. But the most entrancing stuff is more basic. It’s just Ron being Ron, not the maligned leader of a religious movement, but another explorer just in from the world with exuberant tales of “pretty girls,” “iguana à rotisserie,” and “perhaps the strangest place an explorer can go,” inside the human mind.
The church promotes Hubbard’s membership in the Explorers Club, touting their founder as a man who was “mixing with life, to fathom life”—a globe-trotter of serious purpose convening with others of the same and finding Scientology in the shakeout. Well, not exactly. At the club’s handsome red-brick and stone headquarters, a neo-Gothic mansion on the Upper West Side (until 1965, when the club moved to the East Side), explorers did indeed gather at the Long Table of Fellowship (pictured). An African gray parrot called out new entrants by name, and amid the savor of ancient lands and habitually burnt toast, a club tradition, members talked and drank. Their stories tended toward stemwinders and stretchers—colorful adventures, the bluer the better. Hubbard was at home.
In 1940 Hubbard carried the club flag on his first official expedition, sailing a vest-pocket yacht from Washington to Alaska. He was supposed to be rewriting the relevant coastal-navigation books. But upon his return, around the Long Table, he waved all that away as “lots of Scotch, no Scotch, lots of chow, no chow, bad weather, and bad weather.” What held the room was his joshing reply to a club joke, “a persistent rumor” about a swimming brown bear that was said to have climbed into his boat with amorous results. “It’s a damned lie!” Hubbard cried, according to a collection of club stories published in 1941. “I did not make love to the bear, and the bear did not die of longing,” Hubbard told the room. “It is a lie that anybody broke the bear’s heart, or that the bear wanted to kiss anybody,” he continued, one imagines as comrades toppled out of their chairs, “and any songs written about it, and any puns made about it, are libelous.” In a line that would mirror replies to Scientology’s future critics, he concluded: “Attention and notoriety have centered upon one singular incident—an exaggerated untruth—and the gigantic benefits to the human race are all forgotten.”
In the late 1930s, Hubbard took his first decisive step toward a new science of the mind. The church calls it the discovery of “a dynamic principle of existence.” Lawrence Wright calls it “gas anesthetic,” a flood of hallucinatory moments, midway through a dental operation, that Hubbard believes accidentally showed him the mysteries of the universe. Either way, the revelation formed the basis of all Hubbard’s subsequent research. It’s the seminal moment in Scientology’s history—and yet the history almost ended right there. Not long after his vision, during a 1940 flag expedition through the frigid waters between Washington and Alaska, Hubbard nearly died—or so he told the Explorers Club.
Hubbard and his first wife, Polly, were piloting a 34-foot sailboat through what he claimed were hurricane-force winds and murderous tides. They lost all timepieces and positioning devices, and Hubbard was left adrift somewhere on a dark, unpredictable sea. He might have sailed into an unknown doom were it not for the $1.39 watch pictured above. He used the device, “probably regulated by his guardian angel,” for all his navigational needs for three months, according to a strange third-person note he left in the archive.
Thanks to the watch that saved Scientology, Hubbard’s research persisted. In March 1950 he published his first words about Dianetics, the “science of the mind” that preceded Scientology, which appeared as the opening essay in the club’s flagship publication, The Explorers Journal. In it, Hubbard credits his global explorations with fostering an interest in mental health, noting that the greatest danger an explorer faces stems from “the unbalanced member of the party.” At first he aimed only to relieve crackups in the field and to screen men before long journeys. But the practice of removing painful memories, of being “cleared,” as he called it, “apparently conquers and cures all psycho-somatic ills,” including burns, malarial fevers, frostbite, ulcers, migraines, heart attacks, and even cancer. All this spelunking in the “dark unknown” of the mind, Hubbard concluded, was also fun, “producing some adventures scarcely rivaled by Livingston[e].”
THE WAR YEARS
The gap between Hubbard’s life and the legend maintained by the church is most fiercely contested in his war years, according to Wright. The first person saved by Dianetics was supposedly Hubbard himself, a combat hero who led warships on two oceans before ending up alone, blind, and crippled in a military hospital in Oakland. Hubbard later claimed to have removed the mental blocks that kept him sick and in doing so developed the techniques that became Scientology. If this story isn’t true, the church’s chief spokesperson told Wright, “Dianetics is based on a lie; therefore, Scientology is based on a lie.”
Wright cites numerous military documents, all to suggest that Scientology is, in fact, based on a lie. But Hubbard’s own war story was limited to myth-building reflections later in life. Where was the young man’s perspective? It’s found in letters to his beloved Explorers Journal and in a 1947 response to the club’s membership survey (pictured).
Hubbard later claimed he saw combat right away, variously describing service aboard a Navy vessel sunk near Indonesia in 1941 and a posting to the Philippines, from where he was flown home as “the first U.S. returned casualty from the Far East.” To the contrary, the fall issue of The Explorers Journal notes that Hubbard’s orders were “cancelled,” sending him home to Washington state. The next issue published two book reviews from Hubbard, when he was supposedly at war.
Eventually he did get called into active service. “Somewhat lonesome out here,” Hubbard writes in spring 1943, from the deck of the USS PC-815, a small ship used mainly for coastal patrols. According to Wright, Hubbard opened fire once on a log, once on what was probably a mineral deposit on the ocean floor, and once, for unauthorized target practice, on an island off Mexico. The Navy reassigned him after that, and in the club journal Hubbard laments “losing his command.” A year later, according to the journal, Hubbard turned up in a naval hospital in San Diego, suffering “nothing very romantic—combat fatigue, ulcers, a bad limp.” A year after that, he self-reported “no heroisms” amid endless months of “sailing aimlessly around looking at water and islands.” Then, in February 1945, according to the Long Table record book, Hubbard stopped into the Explorers Club for a cup of coffee and a slice of special toast. Again he was supposedly at war, arriving in his last naval hospital, near Oakland, as a “hopeless cripple” just a few months later.
Finally, in 1947, two years after his supposed miracle self-cure, Hubbard returned a club questionnaire. Under “distinctions achieved,” he notes “none extraordinary, or worth listing.” He concludes, “unable to pass physical for higher rank than Lt USNR during war. Less said about 1941—1946 the better.” The church’s explanation: he was a secret agent.
In 1954 Hubbard founded the Church of Scientology, opening his first congregation in Los Angeles. He never hid his church work from the club; in fact, he enthusiastically provided the club with Scientology literature. But the narrative he presented to the club was less outlandish than the reality later uncovered. The story behind this postcard is a prime example. The postmark is worn off, but someone penciled in “mid to late 1960s,” and Hubbard clearly sent it in from Las Palmas, the sunny, subtropical capital of the Canary Islands. “South for a short jaunt,” he wrote in a message scrawled to the club. “Flies are better than snow any day.”
Behind this image of rest and relaxation is Scientology’s version of creation, its alien-inflected Garden of Eden tale. Hubbard had moved to Las Palmas for research, a process involving “lots of rum” and pills he called “pinks and grays,” according to Wright, quoting from a Hubbard letter. But he had a breakthrough: dual revelations that became part of the church’s private cosmology.
The first revelation was that the human soul, or what the church calls a thetan, was in a pure, godlike state until a flash created the physical universe. The second revelation involved an intergalactic overlord named Xenu and an attempted genocide, in which thetans were taken to earth and blown up with hydrogen bombs. Ever since then humanity has been in an endless cycle of self-destruction. The goal of Scientology was to end these cycles. To that end Hubbard recruited the now infamous Sea Org, the equivalent of Scientology’s clergy. He also bought a fleet of oceangoing vessels and lifted anchor. For most of the next eight years, he was searching for sunken treasure and friendly ports of call.
Remarkably, he did all this carrying the same flag as the astronauts aboard Apollo 8, which in 1968 became the first manned mission to orbit the moon. That flag, of course, belonged to the Explorers Club.
Red and blue for courage and fidelity, the Explorers Club flags are iconic, coveted awards for serious expeditions. Roy Chapman Andrews (often said to be the model for Indiana Jones) carried one across the Gobi Desert in 1925; Thor Heyerdahl’s voyage on the Kon-Tiki featured the flag in 1947. Edmund Hillary, Ernest Shackleton, and Charles Lindbergh were all flag bearers. Even today the flag can help young explorers connect with the club’s corporate sponsors, including Rolex and Eddie Bauer, and is supposedly reserved for expeditions that promise advances in science. One went to sea with Hubbard for most of the 1960s and early 1970s, an era when Scientology was under attack. Federal agents raided church offices in the early 1960s, fearing that Hubbard’s therapy was a public-health risk. Around the same time, the Food and Drug Administration confiscated hundreds of the church’s “e-meters,” a kind of emotional-polygraph machine used in Hubbard’s therapy process. In perhaps the greatest insult, the IRS stripped the church of its nonprofit status. (The church regained it in 1993 after a long legal battle.)
The ocean became Hubbard’s refuge. The Sea Org became his Navy. In retrospect there were signs of the madness ahead. In his flag application, Hubbard listed himself as “Master.” His purpose, only this: “enlarging Man’s knowledge of the past, particularly in the field of history.” Later, in another letter, he claimed to be looking at the geology of “a belt from Italy, through Greece and the Red Sea and Egypt and along the Gulf of Aden and the East Coast of Africa,” studying “earlier and basic civilizations of the planet.” In fact, according to Wright, Hubbard spent the years furiously inventing new church doctrine, trailed by young female assistants ever ready to tug up his socks or swing a chair beneath his almost-60-year-old body. He inspired great treasure hunts, midnight searches for underground space stations, and booty he claimed to have amassed in past lives. Some of the escapades were dark, Wright says. Hubbard is said by Wright to have forced some people overboard, locked others in the anchor room. He was declared an “undesirable alien” in the United Kingdom, convicted in absentia of fraud in France, and attacked by a mob in Madeira.
None of this is in the Explorers Club reports, which Hubbard reliably filed during his years flying the club’s flags at sea. There’s one significant slowdown to his research, he noted in 1968: “the sociable atmosphere.” He even had to change the name of his boats, so “warm” was his international welcome. Only one club member seemed to see it all coming. In 1966 he wrote two words on Hubbard’s flag application: “grave reservations.”
Hubbard’s relationship with the club never died and rarely wavered from a tone of Labrador-like pride and excitement. Hubbard had been living in a trailer before Dianetics became a bestseller in 1950, and one of the first things he did with his newfound wealth was request one of the club’s gold identification bracelets. “The very fancy one you have,” he wrote, with swaggering disregard for the cost. “You can either tell me how much it costs or send it COD.” By 1960, the height of Scientology’s early years, Hubbard sent a frisky update about his new English mansion and pending world lecture tour. “Poor old Magellan,” he wrote. “No hostesses. No cool free drinks. No triple position easy chairs.” “I sort of won the Maharajah of Jaipur[’]s luxury Sussex estate in a poker game, and am lost these days among the acres of fishing lakes and bedrooms (we’ve never counted them)… I’m hooked up with my offices on each continent with teletypewriters and pretty girls.”
By the 1970s, the church was ensnared in dozens of lawsuits and a new round of federal raids. But when the Explorers Club was putting together a cookbook, in 1971, Hubbard dashed off his recipe for “iguana à rotisserie.” “Aside from a slight greenish cast,” he reports, “the meat is not really detectable from the breast of chicken.” In the late 1970s his wife and almost a dozen church officials were under investigation for a conspiracy to spy on, and steal from, the multiple federal offices with files on Scientology. But the club is offering new glasses? Hubbard ordered six with the club insignia. In 1980, shortly before Hubbard disappeared permanently from public view—some would say he went into hiding—he returned a club survey, claiming a half-dozen areas of expertise, including “nutrition” and “biochemistry.” He signed off brightly, with “hearty good wishes to all my old friends.”