Toward the end of her life, Linda Goodman's favorite movies were Gone with the Wind and Brother Sun, Sister Moon, both of which she regularly screened for her friends in the rambling Cripple Creek, Colorado home she lost to bankruptcy just before her death. A giant stained glass window depicting St. Francis de Assisi cast blues and oranges across the carpeted parlor, where, once a week, this famous American astrologer would mouth "as God is my witness" along with Scarlett O'Hara. Following the films, she'd cart off everyone to the Palace Hotel on Main Street for a three-course dinner that she'd cover with a combination of estate jewelry and the small fortune she amassed from her astrology books' sales.
Goodman was a beautiful woman. In her earliest public portrait, a black-and-white author's photograph for Sun Signs (1968), she leans forward, eyelids heavy with makeup, her high-cheekbones defined by shadow. She's wearing a turtleneck, and her hair does a Nancy Sinatra flip at the shoulders. In a press photo 10 years later, she's red-headed with depthless peach skin and a raised eyebrow. Then, there's a point-and-shoot photo from her late Cripple Creek days: She stares directly at the camera wearing a Navajo print T-shirt, her palm planted on a golden bust of Osiris sitting before her on a coffee table.
I remember sitting at my own coffee table one night during the years I lived in Brooklyn, flipping through Love Signs and coming across a reproductive treatise in the appendix called "A Time to Embrace." The book was weathered from reference and shared shelf space with the English Standard Version Bible and The Collected Stories of Flannery O'Connor. Finding this little chapter was like finding a hidden track on an old album. In it, Goodman allows that "whether abortion is right or wrong is not the Aquarian issue," then undermines this in the next paragraph, saying, "The Catholic Church has taken the view that abortion is an act against Nature and against spiritual Wholeness. The Catholic view is correct." I found her lack of self-awareness funny, but was also confronted with all the hybrid Christian allusions in her books and my own awkward position between the occult and Calvinism.
"I am not telling your fortune. I'm showing you what's going on and what you might be inclined to do next."
During those years, because of my apparent interest in the subject, I was frequently asked to interpret astrological charts for my friends and friends of friends, and I eventually learned to read tarot as well. Both the Western zodiac and the tarot are constructed from similar forms, archetypes and patterns, and can be used to interpret one another. If I found any use of it for myself or others, it was not because of astrology's predictive powers, but rather the way the zodiac organized things that are already happening, that have already happened. I often felt compelled to say, "I am not telling your fortune. I'm showing you what's going on and what you might be inclined to do next. If you don't like your current inclination, then that's up to you to change."
Soon I was hired to read cards at art openings and book launches, and even had a few clients of my own. My roommates and I were hosting regular literary salons at our apartment, and a young man who sometimes arrived on uppers dressed as Arthur Rimbaud and read excerpts from his sinister, mystical poems invited me to a service at his Presbyterian church in Williamsburg, which I ended up attending every Sunday until I left New York. I sometimes pictured Linda Goodman in her final years, standing in the glow of her stained glass windows, and I wondered how she so freely knit it all together.
If you've never heard of Goodman, it's likely you'd recognize her book jackets anyway, if only from the sheer number that remain in print. Her second New York Times Bestseller, the 900-page Love Signs (1978), bears the iconic Alphonse Mucha portrait of a priestess orbited by the Western zodiac. Flip over the book, and you'll find the sorts of teasers that shoppers are tempted to read with some shame in grocery store checkout lines:
"Can a Gemini man find happiness with a Virgo woman?"
"Will it be smooth sailing or perpetual fireworks between the Scorpio female and the Libra male?"
"If you're a Taurus, you will love or hate Scorpios, nothing in between."
But inside Love Signs is the weirdest, most verbose, conversational mish-mash of astrological writings to ever have graced the greater public. In a chapter detailing the various incarnations of a Virgoan-Aquarian relationship, Goodman writes:
The Aquarian male's eccentricity often stops just short of the altar. In his choice of a lifetime mate, he tends to be slightly old fashioned. Maybe that's because there's room for only one cuckoo in a clock. …
Since a Virgo female won't compete in the cuckoo-clock Olympics, you can see that a mating between these two can work out nicely. … For one thing, she's too discriminating to flip over all the odd, assorted friends he may bring home at various hours. (I know one Virgo wife whose Aquarian husband expected her to play hostess to a snake wrestler from Pakistan for two weeks while he practiced with his reptile in the basement in preparation for the worldwide Python Tournament Match – and that's a true story.) For another thing, she's not a torrid sex symbol. But let's face it, he might not know what to do with Raquel Welch if he had her.
This casual style is consistent in all Goodman's books, each penned in the first person. Every chapter in Love Signs, most of which are lengthy insights on astrological pairings (e.g. Scorpio woman and Taurus man), is introduced by an excerpt from J.M. Barrie's original Peter Pan script, with secondary sources spanning the Gospels, Plains Indian theology, Henry James and "Dear Abby."
In that slim addendum, "A Time to Embrace," she opens with a verse from Ecclesiastes: "To everything there is a season … a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing…." She charges the reader to heed the scripture's message and find ways to make their actions "harmonize with the flow of cosmic currents, rather than timing them to oppose these powerful forces." She goes on to admonish the use of birth control, artificial insemination and other reproductive innovations on account of being against "Universal Law," and she vies for all of this to be replaced with a family planning method called "astrobiology":
As the ancients who planned the conception of Kings knew well, a woman can conceive only during a certain, approximately two-hour period of each Lunar month, when the Sun and the Moon are exactly the same number of degrees apart as they were at the moment of the woman's first breath at birth. … Without exception, a woman can conceive at no other time than this approximately two-hour period, easily determined if her birth data are known. Each individual woman's "cycle" is different, bearing no relation to the generalized, and consequently inaccurate, so-called "rhythm method." It's absolutely foolproof. And awesomely profound.
The book is peppered with these polemics. It begins with several title pages of quotations from the Bible and a 15th century Pope, which introduce a long letter to her daughter Sally, who overdosed on speed in 1973 – a death Goodman believed was a cover-up and which she addresses openly in good faith to a daughter she's convinced is alive and reading it in 1978.
Since its first printing, Love Signs has sold over 800,000 copies. (Goodman's total sales, according to The New York Times, amount to more than 30 million books.) Accompanied by other mystical uprisings of the '60s and '70s, Goodman's books uniquely suggested that astrology was for everyone. How such unusual texts became an American blockbuster is no surprise: Most people scan astrological books as quick and affirmative reference, reading only the parts they believe bear on their own lives. Thus the birth chart's complexity is reduced to cartoonish archetypes, and Goodman's rambling meditations and appendices are lost to obscurity, remaining as unexamined as the woman who administered them.
The United States might be the only nation to have made its astrologers as famed as it did tawdry, with dual statuses of celebrity and hack. While earlier Euro-occultists like A. E. Waite and Aleister Crowley had formed brotherhoods, ministries and esoteric origin stories, their mid-century American counterparts were advising movie stars and presidents, writing columns and generally benefiting from the free market according to their calling. And while the U.S. government dignified the practice with a federal union in 1938, any public understanding of the tradition has been diminished by the print news demand for two-sentence horoscopes with our morning coffee.
Figures like Linda Goodman are remembered by only their affirmative passages foretelling harmony and passionate sex, for her friendship with Jackie Stallone and Steve McQueen, from a Tumblr of excerpts and a Twitter account operating in her name. But Goodman's anonymity was likely intentional. When I asked her former agent, Art Klebanoff, how he interpreted her low profile, he said, "Linda was basically opposed to dealing with the media. The one interview she granted to People Magazine during the years I worked with her ended up focusing on the death of her daughter and did not cast Linda in a favorable light. … Indeed, the fact that Linda was inaccessible was probably a marketing plus."
After reading the hundreds of near-identical obituaries and a handful of magazine features, the only non-book-jacket-type biographical information I could find about Goodman came from a now-defunct website called Colorado History Chronicles, where a local historian had been selling articles for 50 cents a piece since the '90s and happened to have written one at Goodman's passing in 1995. This is where I read about her community standing in Cripple Creek as a generous eccentric who kept her friends closer, perhaps, than they wanted be and also of her neighborhood screenings – two films that seem to express the strange place she occupied as an American writer and occultist: one, the story of the lavish fallen antebellum, and the other, an affectionate biopic of St. Francis.
"Lord, make me an instrument of your peace …"
Goodman migrated to Cripple Creek, the site of the last Colorado gold rush, shortly after Sun Signs reached the New York Times Bestseller list in 1968. This was her first book. She was 43 years old then and had already, reportedly, cycled through twin careers as a radio personality and copywriter, reading aloud soldiers' love letters during the Korean War and, somewhat inexplicably, speech writing for Whitney Young, the black American civil rights leader, who, during Goodman's reported tenure, served as president of the National Urban League. Born Mary Alice Kemery in Morganstown, West Virginia, "Linda" created the pseudonym during her years broadcasting Love Letters from Linda for Parkersburg's WCOM. Goodman was her second married name, which she took on in her early 30s.
This is the gist of what's available of her pre-Sun Signs life, digested and repeated, ad infinitum, from cyberspace to microfilm. The rest of her legacy has been hijacked by what appear to be forums run by compulsive New Agers, and no book-length biography exists to date. Klebanoff said that while reports of her work with Whitney Young are printed in all of her obituaries, he is not even sure this is true.
In that 1979 People Magazine article, which opens with a portrait of Goodman tending the wood stove in her Cripple Creek home, reciting the St. Francis prayer ("Lord, make me an instrument of your peace …"), her late husband Sam O. Goodman attests to her interest in astrology beginning when he brought home John Lynch's The Coffee Table Book of Astrology in 1962. She pored over its pages while the children were at school and Sam, a disc jockey, was at work. "I think she stayed in a nightgown studying astrology 20 hours a day for a year," he recalls. I imagine her sitting in a cane-back chair in some tiny kitchen, wearing a white Victorian nightdress, surrounded by legal pads wrinkled from note-taking.
Perhaps Sam silently agreed to start cooking dinners, taking charge of the kids' hygiene, so his wife could carry out her vocation. I think of him as having been an even-tempered man, Goodman's wary but dutiful supporter, who, while never quite believing in what she did, gave her the benefit of the doubt. When news reached them of Sally's death in 1973, Sam was the first to fly out to New York, where Sally had been studying at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Linda and Sam were already separated then, though still friendly, and she was holed up in Cripple Creek, caught in a fraught publishing debacle which had frozen her advance for Love Signs, rendering her temporarily penniless. When she was finally able to join him (on a friend's dime), she spent seven months couch surfing and sleeping on the steps of St. Patrick's Cathedral, while she tried to debunk what she decided was a corrupt investigation. The suicide note, she swore, was not in Sally's handwriting. There was no empty pill bottle in the apartment. And above all, she didn't "see death" in Sally's birth chart, but instead, as she mused in People Magazine, "shock, amnesia, seclusion and a convent. I've heard the government hides lots of witnesses."
What were those nights like on the steps at St. Patrick's? Did she slip into a green nylon Coleman sleeping bag, surrounded by candles and a small St. Francis figurine? I imagine Sam, as I imagine he always behaved in these situations: with a dark, furrowed brow, saying, "Now come on, Linda, let's get a hotel room," or "As upsetting as this is …", pacing around the church's landing, meeting the eyes of concerned passersby so as to assure them that everything was fine, that everything is going to be OK.
My father's second wedding was officiated by an astrologer named Joanna Mitchell. This was in the mid '90s. The ceremony was held in a deconsecrated church in Northwest Portland, and the guests, a mix of Catholics, rogue Episcopalians and Amish Mennonite descendants, fell into a confused hush as Mitchell began calling in the four directions, her big, shimmering body swathed in purple cloth. My new stepmother habitually referred to the zodiac, occasionally giving me doleful pats on the shoulder when she'd remember I was a Virgo. I was seven then, and I recall understanding to some extent what the whole thing had to do with, though I'm not sure how I pieced it together.
This was in elementary school, when Scholastic Book Order forms were passed out every month, with four-page newsprint pamphlets featuring kids' books available at competitive rates. These were highly honored in my mother's house. I was allowed to circle whatever I wanted, and she would clip out the order form and mail a check. In the third grade, among my selections was a blue paperback astrology book with "early reader" profiles of the 12 Sun Signs and accompanying cartoonish portraits: a Capricorn girl wearing furry boots and a head lamp; an Aquarius boy with a Save-the-Whales T-shirt.
I hauled that thing around with me for years, during which I began memorizing the sun sign of every single person I met. Immediately, I'd arrange their detectable characteristics in my head, cross-reference them in the book and file it away for later use. This grammar-school astrology became a lens through which I acquainted myself with the world. It was, for the most part, a silent practice, barring the ingenious ways I'd weasel out birth dates from unsuspecting subjects. And somehow, through this, I created a Rolodex in my head of all the signs' nuances:
Gemini: angular face, "nymph-like," quick, funny, rapid-fire decision making mistaken for fickleness, holds a spoon like so
Leo: a striking or plentiful head of hair, friendly, hyper, "Devil-may-care" demeanor, down for just about anything
Taurus: shapely arms or legs, rooted, warm, well-behaved though contrary, unperturbed by all manner of taboo conversation
Around the time I first acquired the astrology book, much to the confusion of my New Age parents, I'd begun attending a local Baptist church with our neighbors, a group to whom astrology was sacrilege (despite the stars having led the magi to the manger). My mother, who'd attended at most a few Unitarian services as a child, tolerantly came to my Christmas pageants, while my stepfather, a traumatized Irish-Catholic, once-born-again-Baptist and brief Scientologist, would offer an unsolicited "yep, there's no God, no aliens, no God" when he drove me to school in the mornings. I kept both of my spiritual interests private for many years, examining charts and saying prayers I didn't understand until I denounced Christianity at 13, a rebellion unnoticeable to anyone but me.
For my 16th birthday, my father and stepmother took me to Joanna Mitchell to have my birth chart read. Her practice operated out of a brightly painted Victorian cottage on the outskirts of Eugene, and she met her clients in its A-frame attic. We arranged ourselves around a card table, and she pushed her long brown hair behind her shoulders, clicked record on a small tape deck and said, "What do you want to know?" What did I really care to know at 16? I asked some vague questions: Where would I be in a year? How were my prospects for international travel that summer looking? Should I let go of my ex-boyfriend?
She focused, instead, on the fact that something to do with my parents' early divorce would cause me to spend a great deal of the next few years "building a tool box," that I was obsessed with fairness, that I could expect to feel the obstinate and frightening pressure of Saturn until 2009, that I was particularly prone to health problems from narcotics, that I'd spend a great deal of my life in pursuit of familial belonging, that I was a writer – or a dancer. "Are you a dancer or a writer?"
In college, I was given Love Signs by a girl who's friendship I sought mostly for her beauty and who handed Goodman's book to me saying that the writing was great, but it was heteronormative and made a lot of references to the Equal Rights Amendment and outdated references to "career women." "Otherwise, it's great," she assured me. One of the last nights we spent together was over a dinner in Midtown, and on my walk back to the train on 5th Avenue, I passed the entrance of a giant office building engraved with the 12 signs of the Zodiac and, above them, what appeared to be the 12 apostles encircling Christ. Shortly after, I read that Goodman identified the beginning of her astral pursuit at the moment she was baptized, in third grade, in the Parkersburg, West Virginia Episcopal Church.
Linda Goodman was a woman of paradox.
In my search for more biographical information on Linda Goodman, I found a radio veteran from the Smokey Mountains who'd compiled a complete history of West Virginian radio. He referred me to another man, Mark Aulabaugh, who had worked at WCOM, which had broadcast Love Letters from Linda, for a number of years and now runs a local station in central Texas. In her early 20s, Aulabaugh's mother had been among Goodman's closest friends in Parkersburg:
She was one of the first people my mother met when she moved to West Virginia as a newlywed," said Aulabaugh. "You see, my mother was an instructor at a community dance school, and Mary Alice hung around there. It's funny: My mother always referred to her as 'Mary Alice,' not Mary. … At that point, I believe Mary Alice was working for the newspaper, something small, like the obits.
They hung out all the time. On Fridays and Saturdays, my folks would invite people over to drink, and she was always a part of those get-togethers. … I remember Mary Alice always looking really, really gloomy. … In old photographs of these get-togethers, everyone is smiling and having a good time, but she was always frowning, like she had a chip on her shoulder. But then somewhere along the course of the evening they could cheer her up and she'd be real fun.
I remember one story about Mary Alice distinctly … there used to be a little bar called the Car Barn she'd go to in the daytime, and she'd take her portable typewriter and sit in a booth in the back and write. No one really knew about what.
I was dear friends with her old boss at WCOM, Jack See, until he died a couple years ago. … He always had so much respect for her. He used to talk to me about how they'd go out and get coffee somewhere after work and talk philosophical stuff. Jack said she was one of the best writers of commercials he'd ever met, and also that she intimidated people. … I don't know, maybe because she was kinda weird?
But she wasn't writing about astrology in 1953, so what was it? Metered poems or short stories? Or was she just perfecting her top-notch copy? Coming of age in post-war America, during the years women were filtered out of the workforce and into the suburbs, into a domestic ideal, I wonder if she knew in advance that she'd have to write something larger than life, that in order to do anything professionally creative, she'd have to make a spectacle of herself.
I imagine Goodman smoothing her rumpled work clothes as she settles onto a vinyl bench in her favorite smoky corner of the Car Barn, clacking away on that portable typewriter, hiding out from a marriage that would soon dissolve, from boredom, from babies, from weekly parties where no one talked about anything she found interesting.
But it's not as though Goodman disowned all of that post-war culture she came from. For instance, she remained a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution until she died, purportedly winning West Virginia "Daughter of the Year" in 1971. She also took seriously church history and her own early experiences among the Episcopalians, a church which formed right after the American Revolution, when once-Anglicans no longer believed in pledging allegiance to a British monarch. She was never fully willing to admit the mutual exclusion of occultism and patriotism, motherhood and fame, Christianity and astrology. These are powerful paradoxes, similar to the sacred contradictions that hold many faiths together: barren women who conceive, prophets born as peasants, kings as slaves, the meek as brave, the poor as rich, the enslaved as free, humans as depraved and unequivocally saved, granted a will but only by the free grace of God.
From the inconsistent information available publicly, and in her own books, I know this: Linda Goodman was a woman of paradox. She was a proud mother of seven, though only five survived beyond infancy, most of whom she was supposedly estranged from. She was intensely patriotic, though she believed the U.S. government was behind a cover-up of Sally's death. She was a Franciscan scholar and Vatican enthusiast despite being raised in an American tradition which developed, more or less, in revolt to the Catholic Church – not to mention she was otherwise considered a heretic. Goodman was a critic of astrologers and advisers who charged for their services, though she was among the most profitable authors of her era. She sold paperback rights to Sun Signs for a record-breaking $225 million, but died bankrupt. Among friends, she was considered both needy and reclusive, often asking her confidants to spend the night so she didn't have to be alone. She was a celebrity and a hermit. She was born in the East and died in the West, 10,000-feet above sea level. She was of the first generation of diabetics to have insulin, but opted to become a "fruititarian" which may have led to the mid-leg amputations toward the end of her life and her death at age 70.
"Dear Linda …"
On July 14th, 2002, seven years after Goodman's death, her remaining belongings were auctioned from the Colorado home she'd lost to foreclosure. In the descriptions from the Colorado Springs' Gazette, it sounds like the slim pickings of a garage sale. Among the detritus was a "bronze ram's heads, four pairs of white Minnetonka moccasins, [an] avocado-green blender and [a] dented blue tea pot." Fans flocked to the auction from all over the region but were ultimately disappointed to find, among cheap furniture and kitchen goods, a cache of Sweet 'n Low hard candy, a few coins in an Almond Roca container labeled "petty cash," an old photo album bookmarked with a cigarette stub and a roll of toilet paper. The Gazette quotes a scavenger saying, "I guess I expected to see more stars and moon sculptures, cool stuff like that. … It's typical stuff my grandmother would have in her house."
But what else could we imagine? Like any person survived by children and grandchildren, loved ones probably sweated out Goodman's last days together, then collected her precious belongings according to a will. But even that's unclear: Her agent, Art Klebanoff, doesn't even know who inherited her copyrights. He said that Goodman had "what was described at the time as one of the larger personal bankruptcies in Colorado history. The earning power of her books ultimately meant that nearly all creditors were paid off 100 cents on the dollar – nearly unheard of," and that ultimately her intellectual property was invested in a literary trust overseen by a Colorado bank. "I have no information about the underlying beneficiaries."
The most ardent fans nor her closest professional peers can conceive of the human realities of Goodman's life, but because the narrator of her books was so intimate and personable, the auction-pickers felt entitled to her relics. As Klebanoff told me, "She got a never-ending stream of mail, all of which was addressed, 'Dear Linda.'"
Adrian Shirk was born in a now-defunct Manhattan maternity ward. Her nonfiction has appeared in Wilder Quarterly, Packet, Owl Eye Review, 7Stops Magazine and Spork. She is assistant editor at Wilder Quarterly and co-founder of The Corresponding Society, as well as its associated journal Correspondence. Currently, she's at work on a book of epistolary essays with poet Amber Stewart and finishing an MFA in nonfiction at the Univeristy of Wyoming.