San Francisco If the mountain won't come to Mohammed, Mohammed must go to the mountain. Mel Lyman and Victor Baranco, founders and father figures of two nationwide chains of communes, are currently engaged in a guru showdown over just which one of them is the mountain.
Six months ago, when Lyman (RS #98 & 99) read about Baranco's Morehouse communes (RS #97), he was impressed by the set-up. From his headquarters at the Fort Hill Community's Los Angeles branch, he sent one of his followers, George Pepper, with a signed and sealed envelope containing a message for Baranco.
In January, the Morehouse magazine, Aquarius, carried news of Lyman's overtures to Victor's Institute of Human Abilities: "During this month the Lyman Family has made itself known to us in the person of George Pepper [sic]. George [known at Fort Hill as George "Pecker" because of his success with women] has been spending a lot of time with Paulette, and as Paulette says, 'He's very intelligent.' We have been pleasured by his visits and know that we will be seeing more of him and his organization."
"We knew George had a letter to deliver to Victor," said one Morehouser. "Everyone knew he did. But we wouldn't take him to Victor. We made him sweat it out. We wanted to see how badly he wanted to do it."
And in the February Aquarius: "George ('pretty boy') Pepper arrived in Oakland to deliver a message to Victor from Mel Lyman, head of the Lyman Family. After failing for several days he finally succeeded at this mission during Victor's Advanced Hexing course."
One student in the class that weekend said that at first Baranco refused to take the letter. "But that's what Advanced Hexing is all about," the student explained. "Victor plays with people's heads. He really brought George down, until he felt so bad he just gave up.
That's when Pepper gave the letter to someone else in the class, and told him to deliver it. Victor then accepted the letter. He opened the envelope, read the message and shook his head no. He told Pepper it was a nice offer, but that his time was too valuable to spend visiting Mel: "You guys move too slow for me." He told Pepper to invite Lyman up to Morehouse.
In the next month's issue of Aquarius: "Mel still hasn't accepted Victor's invitation. We are looking forward to meeting Mel."
They haven't as yet, but they have met others in Lyman's "family" who had been sent to learn the Institute's successful methods for luring and teaching the new souls on whose influx both organizations depend for livelihood. One of them, Faith Frackenstein, lived as an "evaluate" at the 69 Hamilton Street Morehouse in Oakland, paying $200 for two weeks of scrubbing floors and absorbing Institute philosophy.
Faith now conducts Morehouse-type weekly group meetings at the Lyman Family's New York house. A source close to Frackenstein said that her feeling after living at Morehouse was that while the structure of the organization had much to teach Fort Hill, the Institute lacked heart and soul. She told the Lyman people that at a Morehouse weekly group meeting the subject is ripped into and destroyed, but then patched up again. It's like a game to the Morehouse people, in her opinion. At the Lyman Family, it's considered good to feel destroyed.
Mel Lyman and George Pepper are currently on a nationwide tour of Fort Hill Communities in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, New York, Martha's Vineyard, and their $160,000 280-acre farm in Marysville, Kansas, reportedly paid for by their largest benefactor, artist Thomas Hart Benton.
Similar "start groups" to the one Faith Frackenstein is teaching, as well as Morehouse style course for $40 a weekend in Communication, Communal Living and "How to Control Your Universe" are being set up at the various Fort Hill Communities.
"We had the stuff to communicate," said Susan of the Lyman Family house at 3822 Folsom Street in San Francisco. Susan says her last name is Lyman, though she is vague about her relationship to Mel. "What Morehouse taught us was the tools of communication. We learned a whole new language from them."
The violent tone of Lyman's traditional rhetoric has given way to a softer approach: Fort Hill's new course announcement closely resembles Baranco's own: "What do you want out of life? What is keeping you from GETTING what you want? Where is the real YOU?"
And the Morehouse Institute appears to be flourishing. There are two new houses in Berkeley, one in San Diego, one in Baton Rouge, another in New York, and two in San Francisco. There are plans for a house in Haight-Ashbury to be rented at low cost to converts who can't scrape up the $200 monthly resident fee other Morehousers pay. A spokesman said the Institute will write off the money they spend on the project as a tax loss.
The Institute's proudest new piece of real estate is a 15-room Victorian house built on three lots atop Potrero Hill at 400 Pennsylvania Street in San Francisco. Victor Baranco and his wife Susan reportedly bought the house on credit for a reported $78,000. The mortgage will be paid off with the $200 resident fees of its dwellers, and restored to purple-and-white splendor by Morehousers laboring gratis.
Outside this house one recent sunny afternoon, a Morehouse "servant" who plays chauffeur to his Institute superiors carefully watered down and scrubbed one of the three Cadillac limousines lining the curb. "We wash the cars every day," he said, patting the limo's shiny rump.
People at Morehouse have taken to buying limousines on credit, or buying old, beat-up limos and fixing them up. Sometimes they just rent the Cadillacs for a day, and one of them dresses up in full chauffeur gear to drive his friends around town.
The Morehouse people attended an April showing of The Godfather en masse. "When we pulled up to the Coronet Theater on Geary there were 16 Cadillac limousines in all," recalled the carwasher/chauffeur. "We really caused quite a stir."
The pale young man with a Morehouse symbol hanging around his neck returned to his work on the automobile. That afternoon, Potrero Hill leaders would be driven to the race track, while the "servants" stayed at home preparing dinner, cleaning rooms, plastering walls.
Morehouse parties and activities have proceeded as usual. An April Renaissance Fair was held at their Sonoma farm, with such events scheduled as a slave auction where, according to the Aquarius, "luscious slave girls and young studs are sold for a day to the highest bidder."
In the past six months, Victor Baranco has been busy taking trips to New York and Mexico, and relaxing at his Lafayette home while his voluntary servants build a swimming pool and a circular driveway, where he parks his new purple Cadillac limousine.
Baranco has given up teaching the Institute's regular $45 courses. Instead, he's invented a new course, described as being like his old Shazam course ("the grand daddy of all courses seven hours with Victor Baranco.") But this course is $150 instead of $65, and it lasts six hours, from midnight till six. A few of the other Institute courses have undergone fee increases and are now $85, up from a previous $65.
The Harper Street Morehouse in Berkeley recovered from a near demise when Morehouser Judas Cohen, who has been with Victor since the Institute's start, took over management and put the tenants properly to work.
In the March issue of Aquarius, Judas expressed his view of the Institute: "It's really difficult to describe what is going on to people on the outside. What happens is that we have started to get a bunch of people that are actually interested in taking care of and loving each other. As a result, all of our lives have gotten phenomenally better."
A few weeks later, on April 6th, Judas' wife Susan walked into the closet of their bedroom, pointed a .357 revolver at her head, and committed suicide. That weekend Victor and Judas devoted a $65 Shazam course to a discussion of Susan's death.