The Twilight Mage, Pt 1: The Changeling

It seems like once every couple of years someone proposes closing down San Francisco’s most popular tourist attraction: Lombard Street, “The Crookedest Street in the World,” to automotive traffic.  In 1977, one such proposal made the news with the headline “Crookedest Street Facing a Dead End?”  Similar to recent reports on the subject, it suggested that the tourist traffic be redirected instead to Vermont Street, between 20th and 22nd, which, with both a steeper grade and tighter turning radius, is a more rightful claimant to the world’s title.  The article would have otherwise been of little interest to me, except that at the end it quotes one “Xen Neal, Vermont street resident,” and therein lies the real story.

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It’s too bad that the reporter had no idea who he was talking to.  Xen L. Neal, the resident of Vermont Street who vows: “There’s gonna be big trouble if they ever send tourists over here,” happened to come from a very prestigious occult background, and had led quite an extraordinary life.  Xen was the first born son of “Xenophon LaMotte Sage,” a world renowned stage hypnotist and “Twilight Mage,” or practical occultist.  Additionally, “X. LaMotte Sage” was actually the alias and alter ego of E. Virgil Neal, the founder of the Tokolon Cosmetics Empire.

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E. Virgil Neal, a.k.a. X. LaMotte Sage, had a dual identity. On one hand, he was a legitimate business owner and shrewd marketing genius, who literally wrote the textbook on modern banking.  On the other hand, he was the mastermind of an occult oriented international crime syndicate with vast financial resources.  A card carrying Fascist, and suspected Nazi collaborator, with ties to the Corsican mafia, E. Virgil Neal was variously accused of fraud, quackery, adultery, treason, chicanery, and war profiteering…among other things.  Neal always managed to evade the consequences of his actions, yet his son Xen was seemingly out for redemption.  At the end of World War II, while his father was colluding with Nazis and ardently supporting Fascists, 19 year old Xen was storming the beaches of Normandy with the Allied forces.

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E. Virgil Neal, a.k.a. X. LaMotte Sage, died in 1949, leaving his only son Xen as the natural heir to his fortune.  However, by 1960, in the spirit of St. Francis, Xen had renounced his succession and moved to San Francisco, where he got a job in Union Square, and a home on Potrero Hill, which is where we find him in 1977, a grumpy old man of modest means being quoted saying “get off my lawn” in the local paper.  It seems only appropriate that we would find him at the end of the crookedest street in the world, given the elaborate plot twists that led him there in the first place.

THE CHATEAU D’AZUR

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Considering where he started off, it seems like Xen’s life could only have been a highly difficult to negotiate downhill progression.  Xen L. Neal was born in Paris in 1924 at the height of the “Crazy Years,” when France was caught between two World Wars.  Xen’s father, E. Virgil Neal, was an obscenely wealthy cosmetics baron, who lived a double life as X. LaMotte Sage, the founder of the Sage Institute of Hypnotism.  

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Xen’s mother Renee Bodier was a 15 year old shopgirl with curly hair and sparkling blue eyes who worked behind the perfume counter.  The young flapper got pregnant soon after she met E. Virgil Neal, which pretty much gave her “carte blanche.”  Her new husband was so delighted, that after he purchased the iconic Chateau d’Azur, a sprawling 35 room mansion on a 25 acre estate along the French Riviera where she had free reign, he gave her a blank check with the note “for the happiest year of my life.”

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Named after the Greek philosopher, as a young child Xen frolicked through manicured gardens with faux Roman ruins and statues of satyrs and nymphs, often dressed as a young Apollo, with garlands of flowers in his hair, angel’s wings and a quiver full of arrows.  He was dressed in the finest clothes, and given the best education that money could buy.  He was chauffeured in an array of the most expensive and luxurious custom designer automobiles in the world.  He had fresh food and imported meats and cheeses prepared for him by world class chefs.  His property had terraced gardens with tropical fruit trees from all over the world, a vegetable garden, a chicken coop, a small dairy, a stream stocked with mountain trout, and views of the Mediterranean Sea.  The vast estate also included a zoo, a waterfall, a swimming pool, a home theatre and a Japanese garden to keep the young prince occupied.

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As heir to the Tokolon Empire, it was important that Xen live the luxury lifestyle, and personify the brand identity, in his role as not only the symbol of dynastic power, but the perfect embodiment of the concept of “Kolon,” the Greek word for the ideal beauty.  Xen was so attractive, and the setting of his youth was so idyllic, that it was long rumored that he was an impostor, or elaborate marketing ploy.  His good looks were such a drastic contrast to his father’s homely appearance, that it led many to believe that Xen was in fact a “changeling,” purchased for a large sum to replace the true heir, who was rumored to be kept hidden in the basement of Chateau d’Azur due to an unsightly physical deformity.

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The Chateau itself was also an integral part of the Tokolon brand identity.  The property was very much in the tradition of Hearst’s castle at San Simeon, Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion, Donald Trump’s Mara Del Lago or Gianni Versace’s Casa Casuarina.  That is to say, the estate was an ostentatious display of wealth meant to sell a luxury lifestyle.  Tokolon’s brand name perfume, came in a bottle shaped like the house, which came in a box, that when opened, was laid out like the grounds of the estate.

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Virgil Neal was one of the original “International Playboys.”  A notorious womanizer with a predilection for teenage girls, he lounged around his mansion in purple silk pajamas, and had a bevy of young, pretty secretaries to do his bidding.  It was rumored that when Neal hung a red and blue flag on his balcony, the women in the village of Nice knew it to be a mating call.  In that decadent time that F. Scott Fitzgerald called the “most expensive orgy in history,” Neal was notorious for hosting wild, hashish laden, cocaine fueled Bacchanalias with hordes of half naked women in costumes, sometimes with live lions for effect.

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“…a well known figure in Paris and on the Riviera where he gained a certain notoriety for the lewd parties and lavish entertainments which he was in the habit of giving. These entertainments very often took the form of lascivious shows and drunken orgies lasting….throughout entire nights.”

– Walter Orebaugh, American Consul in Nice during WWII

Like all good international playboys, Neal would eventually become an eccentric paranoid recluse, but perhaps not without good reason.  For instance, he felt it necessary to have his laboratory on site in order to prevent corporate espionage, which may have struck some as overly paranoid.  However, compared to the famous perfumer Francois Coty, a political ally, neighbor and potent business rival, Neal’s paranoid behavior seems not only tame, but perfectly reasonable.  Francois Coty, also a wealthy baron and ardent Fascist with a French chateau, had his own private army modeled after Mussolini’s Blackshirts, and was stockpiling weapons and ammunition in his wine cellars in preparation for the coming insurrection.

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Neal’s rival Francois Coty

Though he was never very close to his father, Xen had a fairly happy childhood.  He went to school in Paris, and made his first trip to America in 1933, when he was nine years old.  In 1936, when he was 12, he was shipped away to boarding school in England.  This was not only customary, but necessary for his own protection.  Two years before, in 1934, a bomb was sent to the Tokolon office by “Sasha the Suave Scammer” Stavisky, the con artist who nearly toppled the French Government with his brazen schemes.

By going off to England, Xen also blessedly managed to escape the scandal and controversy that was constantly swirling around his parents at that time.  In 1936, his mother, who was considerably younger than his aging father, started up with a man half her age.  The 20 year old gigolo was the young Etienne Leandri, a close associate of Charles Pasqua, a corrupt politician with ties to organized crime, who later played a major part in the “French Connection.” (a massive international heroin smuggling operation) It was also about this time, once their only child had left the house, that his parents started hosting the infamously expensive orgies, said to have rivaled those of Nero in Rome.

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Besides brief visits, Xen the prodigal son would not come back to his childhood home until after the war, when, rather ironically, he was stationed there as a US soldier.  Xen then moved to America and enrolled in the same business school where his father used to teach.  After graduating, he went to work for Tokolon in Geneva.  By 1960, he was in San Francisco, where he found a job at the White House department store in Union Square and a home on Potrero Hill.

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White House Department Store 1948

A highly decorated war hero and working class man, by all appearances, Xen seemed to be your average “red-blooded American.” (a term his father helped popularize) He had none of the pretensions of a French aristocrat, however, he did bring a bit of his former life with him to San Francisco.  At the bottom of the (actual) crookedest street in the world, you will find a pink house with a single castle turret, built in 1961.  This was Xen’s modest version of the “Chateau d’Azur,” or as I like to call it: “Xenadu.”

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The rumors about Xen being the good looking healthy child who was bought to replace a child considered too monstrous to be seen with his image conscious parents, while seemingly too outrageous to be believed, were considered entirely plausible in light of who his father was.  After all, this was a man who once claimed to have the power to bring the dead back to life. However, one would imagine that at times, this was a fantasy that Xen was all too happy to entertain. 

To be continued….

(Part Two – Twilight Magery and The Dark Arts of Persuasion)

SPECIAL THANKS:

This work was produced leveraging the free content at IAPSOP – The International Association for the Preservation of Spiritualist and Occult Periodicals. Special thanks to E. Virgil Neal’s biographer Mary Schaeffer Conroy for her invaluable research, and to Marc Demarest at Chasing Down Emma for sharing his insights, resources and images.

RECOMMENDED READING:

The Cosmetics Baron You’ve Never Heard Of: E. Virgil Neal and Tokalon:  by Mary Schaeffer Conroy

The (Mail Order Occult) Ring Saga by Marc Demarest

“Latent Powers, Latent Demand” by Marc Demarest 

The Twilight Years: Paris in the 1930’s  by William Wiser   

Philately and International Mail Order Fraud: Viewed via Postal and Social Histories:  by Ed Grabowski.   

Hypnotism and Hypnotic Suggestion: A Scientific Treatise on the Uses and Possibilities of Hypnotism, Suggestion and Allied Phenomena  by Thirty Authors, Edited by E. Virgil Neal and Charles S. Clark.  

The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind  by Gustav Le Bon  

Brave New World  by Aldous Huxley    

The Psychology of Advertising  by Walter Dill Scott  

Propaganda by Edward Bernays     

The Museum of Public Relations

Suggestibility as an Operant Factor in Advertising Effects, Cognitive Defenses, and the Issues of Consumer Sovereignty  by David Wesson, PhD.