What I’m Reading: April 2016
White Lama by Douglas Veenhof (Harmony Books) 2011
It’s amazing what books you may stumble across when simply browsing through a library shelf….and just by chance I came across this intriguing and important biography of American yoga pioneer Theos Bernard at the Honolulu State library in downtown Honolulu recently. Douglas Veenhof, himself a distinguished yoga figure and journalist, has pieced together the epic and now long forgotten tale of one Theos C Bernard, an enigmatic and interesting tantric yoga researcher who became one of the few westerners to penetrate and be accepted by Tibetan and buddhist lamas of the most learned variety in the the 1930s and 1940s.
Bernard himself hailed from a interesting family that included his father Glen Bernard, an early researcher into yoga and tantric practices and his uncle Pierre Bernard who led a commune of sorts known as the Clarkstown Country Club in Nyack, New York in the 1920’s and 30s. From these two relatives Theos Bernard was able to straddle the worlds of academia and high society as he pursued his quest to research and share the mysteries of tantric and hatha yoga with the western world. He wrote a best selling book ‘Penthouse of the Gods’, made efforts to teach yoga and Tibetan thought in New York and Los Angeles and was married three times to women of both intelligence and glamour.
Suddenly however he disappeared. Or died. In the autumn of 1947 on yet another expedition into mystic Asia, Bernard was either killed by a pack of bandits who threw his body into the Chandra River or he became lost on his return from the Ki Monastery and decided to never return to the western world.
Back in the US Theos Bernard left a wealth of artifacts and important source material on Tibet and other important areas in Central Asia in boxes and crates at his Los Angeles home. Some of the material was invaluable color film from his journey in the 1930s to Kalimpong, the Chumbi Valley and Lhasa. Decades later the material was auctioned off to Cal Berkeley.
Veenhof’s book is well written and engaging and is but one of several biographies of Bernard that has appeared in the last few years. If you are interested in finding out more about how Asian culture was studied and embraced by western scholars of the early 20th Century I highly recommend this 2011 volume.
It was more than fitting that one of the most vocal groups of Warren Commission critics hailed from Philadelphia, the birthplace of American democracy and philosophy. Journalist Gaeton Fonzi was one of of these critics, who along with lawyer Vincent Salandria led the Philadelphia Group, who perceived much of the conspiracy at a a time when the general public was believing the theories presented by the Warren Commission without question. By 1974 when Senator Richard Schweiker was heading a subcommittee to track down leads in the JFK murder case, Fonzi was getting first hand accounts from people and groups that appeared to be on the fringes or deeply involved with a conspiracy that led to the death of President Kennedy.
By 1978 the subcommittee had morphed into the House Select Committee on Assassinations, the last investigation by the US Government on the murder of their president. Fonzi plods on through the hall of mirrors that one encounters when investigating assassinations, intelligence operations and the like. He is “slapped in the face” more than a few times as he follows leads in the Cuban expatriate community, the CIA community and the legal community that ultimately failed to piece together the conspiracy when they issued their final report in 1979. Yes the House Select report does indicate that JFK was killed in what was probably a conspiracy- the blame was generally placed on a loose alliance of Mafia figures, none of whom were ever pursued by prosecutors.
But Fonzi’s book is a triumph as he candidly details his trials and tribulations as he grows from an unsuspecting Philadelphia magazine writer to a somewhat jaded cynic of the American way of dealing with important crimes. Through all of Fonzi’s investigations and depositions he himself actually came up with one of the most important tangible links that lay the foundation for the argument for conspiracy. In the late 1970s Fonzi was able to obtain firsthand eyewitness testimony, from Antonio Veciana, the leader of the important anti-Castro group known as Alpha 66, placing an important CIA official, David Atlee Phillips, in the company of Lee Harvey Oswald before the assassination in Dallas. That the House Select Committee leader G. Robert Blakely failed to follow up on this lead speaks volumes- but does not take away anything from Fonzi and the Philadelphia Group, who saw through the false mystery of JFK’s death and pursued the path of truth against all obstacles.
A great book of journalistic ideals and a fascinating journey on the crime of the century and its affects on one man……this should have been the movie Oliver Stone made.