John Starr Cooke in Brion Gysin’s The Process
Tangier in the 1950s
Tangier in the 1950s was a place where diplomats, spies, smugglers, eccentric millionaires and bohemian artists and writers rubbed shoulders with the native Tangerinos. As the northernmost city of Morocco, with Spain in sight across the strait, Tangier had for hundreds of years been a place where Europeans could sample the exotic life. After the war, Tangier’s status as an International Zone further afforded it a kind of lawlessness attractive to drugs enthusiasts, sexual adventurers and refugees from the law. But beneath the surface of Moslem Morrocco was a world unknown to many Western visitors – the world of magic.
This article focuses on the relationship between two Western magicians – John Starr Cooke and Brion Gysin, who found themselves and each other in Tangier in the mid-1950s. This friendship is partly explored in Gysin’s 1969 novel, The Process; the italicised quotations below from The Process indicate where Gysin drew on actual events for the novel. Both Gysin and Cooke, who was represented in the novel as Thay Himmer, Bishop of the Far Out Isles, ended up with first-hand experience of Black Magic in Tangier, as we shall see.
Brion Gysin, having first visited Tangier in 1938, settled there in July 1950 with the writer Paul Bowles. After Bowles had taken him to a music festival featuring the Master Musicians of Jajouka, Gysin resolved to establish a restaurant in Tangier where the musicians could play each night.
The Master Musicians of Jajouka with Brion Gysin
Gysin’s The 1001 Nights restaurant opened in December 1954 and was an immediate success, being frequented by the diplomatic staff of Tangier and ex-pat Westerners as well as literary renegade figures and early beatniks. Gysin described the cloakroom as being “full of minks.”
One night, early in the evening, one of Gysin’s workers alerted him to some strange people downstairs. It was John Starr Cooke and his wife Mary Cooke:
“The two of them had come floating into my restaurant, The 1001 Nights in Tangier, telling me that they had been on my trail for a long time. Their Ouija board had sent them across the Sahara looking for a man whose name was not Brahim, the name my musicians call me to this day…Very early in the evening (the customers usually came to dinner at nine or ten, or some such hour as that ; and at about seven o’clock), my headwaiter came to me and said, “There are some very strange people downstairs [chuckling]…looking for you”…and I looked over the balcony and I saw this pair dressed up in all kinds of…campy desert gear, and him with his shaven head, and the sort of beard cut in a particularly sort of Arab fashion, very short just like a two-day growth of beard cutting a very sharp pattern on his face, and her b-i-l-l-o-w-i-n-g, h-u-g-e, in all kinds of veils and bangles and spangles and everything else like that, and they came, they just came floating in giving me the impression that they were really Magic People, and that they had all of these things at their fingertips…most particularly money [laughing]…They were the first rich hippies I had ever seen in sandals and saris and sarouels but dripping with real jewels of great price in the best possible taste, paying cash and drinking only champagne.”
William S Burroughs happened to be standing nearby when the Cookes arrived at The 1001 Nights:
“There was something portentous about it, as if I were seeing them in another medium, like they were sitting there as holograms.”
William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, Tangier, 1950s
According to John Geiger, the Cookes’ first words to Gysin were “guess where we came from and guess who we are.”
A firm friendship developed and at some stage, Cooke gave Gysin a large emerald, which features in The Process:
“…I was given this large emerald by John Cooke, and I used it as a symbol, I turned it into a scarab in The Process, and, uh, (as) the novel built itself around what had been a series of very extraordinary experiences…”
“This is the Seal of the Sahara,” he is saying as he flashes a big green stone. “It is carved out of an emerald and I have been instructed to give it to a man whose name is not Hassan. Mya and I believe that man to be you.” My ears are so tuned I can hear the emerald crushing stray sugar crystals on the marble top of the table as he pushes it at me with long fingers, like a man making a move in a game.” ” – The Process, p 125
The 1001 Nights was suffering in the move towards Moroccan independence from France, but the Cookes proved a boon to Gysin. They held court every night, and moreover, invested in the restaurant.
“I was swept away by this godsend to my faltering finances; my restaurant was staggering to a full stop after Tangier lost its independence and became part of Morrocco again. The Cookes became the stars of my late show; they gave parties and sent people, or dragged people there, just about every night they were in town.”
Gysin gives the following description of John Starr Cooke:
“John was a practising magician on a private income. He had been born rich and far out in a family of rich far-out people from the Hawaiian Islands, descended from millionaire missionaries.”
John Starr Cooke was indeed born “rich and far out”, in 1920 in Honolulu. His great-grandparents Amos Starr Cooke and Juliette Montague were missionaries who established the Royal School, where the future monarchs of Hawaii were educated. Juliette, who spoke fluent Hawaiian, was a gifted music teacher, organizing an orchestra at the Royal School. Many of the royal children, and in particular Queen Liliuo Kalani, had a gift for composing and playing music.
“The Himmers had founded the Farouts when the first Bishop Himself of Hyannisport, Mass., got himself there first on a clipper…and waded ashore with his Bible and his wife. I’m sure you think you know the rest of the story….”Stop the music, stop the dancing, wear Mother Hubbards and get down to work….” but, no! The Himmers were different.”
Amos later became a successful businessman, firstly in hardware before investing in sugar, pineapples, irrigation, railroads and shipping.
The descendents of Amos and Juliette were philanthropists with interests in education, the arts and mysticism.
“All the women in my family, for the last three generations in the Farouts at least, have been ardent Theosophists, followers of Madame Blavatsky and Annie Besant, in close contact with Swami Vivekananda and Krishnamurti; aunts, great-aunts always talking about Gurdjieff, “prana,” and the hallucinatory effects of superaeration –and all that sort of thing – or trailing around in trances at home. Even Grandfather, who was the last Rajah-Bishop to officiate in the Farouts, used to meditate in the lotus position wearing only a G-string.” – The Process, p 143
Cooke’s sister Alice said that “even as a child he was full of the mystic side”. She says that by the time John was born, the strict puritan ethic of the Cooke family had begun to relax, and intermingling with the Hawaiian natives was accepted.
“ In the next generation, the family went native to conform some local prophecy which allowed them to crown themselves rajahs with full native pomp. They introduced sugar planting, built a refinery…a bakery, a brewery…and grew very rich. Always under the American flag, of course, and…while they married no native girls…the Himmers were always very much of the East. They shopped in Singapore instead of San Francisco, for example…things like that.” – The Process, p 204-5
According to his son Chamba, John Cooke attended secret Hawaiian ceremonies from as young as three or four years of age.
“…we used to have that in the Farout Islands where I was brought up. The servants all used to get psychic relief by chanting and dancing all night long until they passed out. My amah, my nursemaid, took me to their secret services almost as soon as I could waddle and I became an initiate at a very early age.” – The Process, p 135
Cooke developed a lifelong interest in the Tarot at the age of 10. At 19, he and Alice began to use the Ouija board, which became another lifelong interest.
Cooke had relocated to California by the early 1940s. He often stayed with his sister Alice, who became a mother figure to John after their mother died in 1933, and her husband Roger Kent, a lawyer and Democrat politician. Alice and Roger assisted the young John to manage his fortune.
In 1943, directed by the Ouija board, John married Wilma Vermilyea, known as Millen Cooke. John and Millen Cooke travelled the world on mystical quests, meeting an assortment of mystics and spiritual figures and studying medieval Tarot decks in museums. In Europe, on one of his travels, he met Meher Baba, the silent Sufi. In 1948 he learned that Meher Baba was seeking to establish an ashram in California and was able to assist the group to purchase the property Meher Mount in the Ojai Valley.
Meher Baba with Agnes Baron at Meher Mount, 1956
“Thay was terribly upset. He was madly in love, at the time, with a middle-aged Hindu Swami . . . in a purely spiritual sense. I never laid eyes on his guru,myself . . . But I’ve seen photos in which the Swami seems to be smiling sardonically at some sinister private joke as he chews away on the end of his own long hooked nose. You can picture him selling you . . and for a whole lot of money! . . a very wrong rug. After some silly stock market crash swept away the Swami’s first fortune, the Swami snapped: “Money talks! I don’t need to talk!” Whereupon he took a vow of Silence which he’s kept to this day. I think that’s influenced Thay, too. From his Shrine of Silence, the Swami launched his “Ten Million Dollar Nirvana Fund” . . . which was to build the Invisible Temple of Love in Everybody’s Heart.” Thay tried to give his entire inheritance to the Swami, but his brother-in-law Renfrew . . . he’s a big lawyer in San Francisco and one of Thay’s trustees . . . called in the cops. Thay fought tooth and nail on it but the family got the Swami deported before they actually had to fork over any property.” – The Process, p 205-6
First publication of Dianetics
Dianetics was published in the May 1950 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, and when the book subsequently emerged as Dianetics: the Modern Science of Mental Health it was an immediate best-seller.
“GRAMMA was a splinter of something called “Logosophy”. . . a do-it-yourself psychology system put together by a group of more or less anonymous professors working for the Ford Foundation . . . ”
“Essentially, .. it.. is.. a compilation of simple-sounding communication techniques which can be exercised by any two people willing to play. You can do “Gramma-calls”… reciprocal word combinations batted back and forth, even over the telephone, for hours.”
“GRAMMA founded itself as an organisation when a group of go-getters on Madison Avenue read the book. They tried the techniques out on each other . . . and were absolutely overwhelmed . . .”
Sometime during 1950, Millen told John she was pregnant; John denied parternity. Millen read Dianetics and was so taken with it that she flew alone to New York to involve herself with Hubbard’s teachings. John was enraged to find his wife had left, and drove virtually non-stop for a day and a half to New York.
“Thereupon, Thay refused to have anything more to do with the family or his money and took off alone for New York . . . on his own for the first time in his life.”
“Wandering about New York the first day, like a tourist from another planet, you can imagine! … Thay thought he heard the … to him … all too familiar droning of monks mumbling mantras on the corner of Fifty-sixth Street and Madison Avenue. Like a man in a trance, Thay made straight for this rotten old building … 563 Madison, I think it was… it’s since been torn down. What Thay was really hearing was the first murmurings of GRAMMA.”
“The therapeutical side of the business is what first got GRAMMA in trouble with the AMA . . . and then they had a rumble from Internal Revenue so they incorporated as a church: The First Grammatic Church, practicing Grammatology. That’s when Thay walked in. He saw right away what brand of word-magic they were up to . . . and he laughed. He laughed to himself just like one Farout magician laughs when he sees another Farout magician coming down the Farout jungle path. They both sit down . . . facing each other . . . and have a contest to see which one can make the more horrible scary face. When Thay began to show them their own business at GRAMMA, they sat back simply stunned. It was like a bunch of businessmen watching someone spread out a million dollar invention with no possible patent protection.”
Once in New York, Cooke found the building where Dianetics was being practiced. He became an immediate master of the technique. He was not, however, as Acid Dreams would have it, the first “Clear” in the Scientology system for the very good reason that he was never a Scientologist.
Meanwhile, In Basel, Switzerland, also during 1950, Mary Oser read Dianetics. Mary had attended Reed University in Oregon, where she met fellow student Peter Oser. They were married after he had proposed several times and they relocated to the Oser family’s native Switzerland.
Peter Oser’s mother Mathilde was a granddaughter of both Cyrus McCormick, inventor of the mechanical reaper, and John D. Rockefeller, the oil tycoon and world’s first billionaire.
Mathilde McCormick Oser, Peter Oser, John D Rockefeller, Anita Oser, Max Oser
“You simply must have seen a picture of wee Peter Paul when they found him. It’s been trotted out for reproduction time and again . . . every time they do a story on him. There is this pathetic little pot-bellied wolf-child in rags on the prairies, with the subtitle: Peter Paul Strangleblood, the Richest Little Boy in the World.”
Peter Oser was so rich it crippled his ability to function. Mary had been seeking a way to snap her husband out of his “money sickness”.
“ I got onto Grammatology, first by attempting to absorb their sacred best-seller in Switzerland. The book’s as thick as a pillow, I might as well warn you . . . and just about as digestible. It’s got kapok in there instead of prose! It was first thrust upon me with almost psychotic intensity by a slightly psychic Swiss fraulein stenographer I had in the house in Basel . . . doing some tri-lingual work for me. “You’ll find it worthwhile, Madame,” she kept insisting . . . and believe me, I did! I simply devoured this dreary word-paste because it was the only book in the house in English . . . if that’s English it’s written in. I was living in Basel with my first husband, Peter Paul Strangleblood. We’d been married less than a year . . . straight out of college . . . but PP and I weren’t even on speaking terms at that point in the game. PP was suffering from an acute case of what I call “Dollar Disease.” In his case, it came from too many oil wells, too early in childhood.”
After having some success with Dianetics, Mary set off to New York to find a competent practitioner. She arrived at a time when Cooke was dazzling the Hubbardites with his natural far-out abilities. She swooped him up and returned to Switzerland with him.
“At that point, I dropped out of the sky, crying: “No! Don’t do it, Thay! NO!” . . . and I swept him off to Switzerland with me to treat my poor husband, PP.”
“I simply flew over to New York to look into GRAMMA after I‘d knocked poor PP flat on the floor with it…him and his lack of “havingness!”… and I swooped back with Thay Himmer to get him to “grammatize” my husband into some money sense. I felt at the time that he had to be cured even if it meant taking all of his money off him… It wasn’t doing him…or anybody else…any good…and I told Thay as much.” – The Process, p 230
In Basel, Cooke lived with the Oser family, teaching the methods of Dianetics. According to Chamba Cooke, Peter Oser became a blind follower of John Cooke.
“After that, Thay could do anything with PP. We were all driving to Freiburg im Breisgau one day, I remember, with PP at the wheel of our Mercedes-Benz. “Where do I turn?” PP asked vaguely and Thay, who meant a perfectly visible crossroads a few yards ahead, said: “Right here.” Instinctively and without one second’s reflection, Peter Paul swung over the wheel, turning us all into a ditch. Luckily, we weren’t going very fast so no-one was hurt but . . . it just goes to show you how blindly PP was following Thay.”
After a time, the Oser household was instructed by Ouija board to move from Switzerland to central Africa.
“That night Thay brought out of his luggage a Ouija board which he and I had picked up at Hammacher Schlemmer’s in New York as we tore through buying silly Christmas presents on the way to the airport. I knew how it worked so… when Thay and I both put our forefingers on the planchette, the first thing it spelled out was SCRAM! “Do you mean we should all leave Basel, Dear Ouija Board?” That was Thay talking to it. The planchette shot off under my reluctant forefinger to “YES.” “And where should we go, dear Ouija?” asked Thay. TAMANRASSET. The board painfully and laboriously spelled it out – and that’s your “Tam,” isn’t it? We were all ready to swear that none of us, Thay included, had ever even heard of the place. “And when, dear Ouija Board, when?” Thay insisted. ANTEXMAS, the Ouija board said. That happened just three days before Christmas and … in three hours … we were off! Thay found where the place was on the atlas and Thay it was who simply dragged us out to the airport in Basel where he simply made PP Strangleblood write out a check for our own private plane… We were off!” The Process, p 232
On one particular adventure in Africa, after their plane made a forced landing, the Oser entourage came to rest beneath a tree carved with a T, where Mary had a particular epiphany. Their sense of purpose, according to Chamba, was to save Africa from the atom bomb.
“What we intend to do is to snatch the Sahara right out from under that handful of prune-faced white bastards and their evil monopolistic double-criss-crossed corporations, who are already crunching into the desert like crocodiles cutting up a live camel! We intend to save the Sahara and give it back to itself.” – The Process, p 128-9
“At the time I am speaking of, Mya and I were just jetting around Africa getting to know people. This African trip grew out of my therapy for Mya’s very first husband; Peter Paul Strangleblood, the Richest Kid on Earth.” – The Process, p 130
After a time, Peter Oser fled and was not seen until his divorce from Mary, back in Basel. Thereafter, he went to Tibet.
After a time in central Africa, John and Mary moved on to Morocco.
“Eventually, Mya and I landed here in Tanja together but not as lovers; not yet. Mya wasn’t ready for me: a great many things had to happen to both of us, first. I merrily went my own mad mystical way,…” – The Process p 130
Cooke became heavily involved with a Sufi brotherhood, the Naqshbandi Order.
“…I found myself the new tenant of the house () with a full company of Hamadcha Brothers”
“…the Hamadcha Brothers came to look on me more and more as their leader..”
“I was all wrapped up in the Hamadcha, with whom I was advancing step by step into their labyrinth of initiation…”
“…there was music running like a river through the house all day and all night as the Hamadcha practiced their peculiar beat to which I danced like a doll on a string…”
Gysin attests to Cooke’s dancing prowess:
He was a great dancer and did whirling dervish dances in California style, whizzing like a top across the marble floor of my restaurant…
According to Acid Dreams, he was revered as a great healer and a saint by the order, to whom he was known as Sufi Rashid.
“I just stood there with my shoes in my hands and a sickly white grin on my face as the old man pushed his way through the crowd to throw himself at my feet, calling me “Hakim!”
“A whole lot more people were suddenly slobbering over my hands and my feet, so I gave them my most solemn Episcopal blessing until I remembered I shouldn’t be making the sign of the cross.” – The Process, p 139
John Cooke married Mary Oser in 1952. Mary had a very valuable and supposedly magical or “force-carrying” diamond ring, which she and John used on their mystical quests to find meaning behind the sacred letters T, I, R, O and U. Gysin says that when John and Mary Cooke married, John handed over what remained of his money to Mary “and claimed that he felt really free.”
“…I knew right away that Mya was going to be stuffy about money from now on out. I was so furious I never mentioned the word “money” again until the day we got married, years later this spring. Then, I made over all of my money to Mya and that’s the way it still stands, today. I don’t want to have anything to do with money any more than PP did.” – The Process, p 153
Cooke went on a pilgrimage to Fez, according to his son Chamba. At one stage of this journey he had the overwhelming sense he was being pinned to the ground by a Christian Templar knight, who lambasted him as being misguided in his Muslim mysticism.
L Ron Hubbard reportedly tracked down Cooke in Tangier. Hubbard made a trip to London in 1952 to set up a Dianetics centre, and it may have been on this trip that he met with Cooke. The meeting was not propitious and in the space of a single afternoon, Cooke grew disillusioned with Hubbard and his teachings. According to Michael Bowen, Hubbard came to Cooke with a tale of woe at how the Dianetics business had failed, and Cooke advised him to relaunch it as a religion. This was precisely what Hubbard did after moving to Phoenix, Arizona in March 1952.
After some time, John and Mary Cooke tracked down Brion Gysin at his The 1001 Nights restaurant. They invested in the restaurant and John became a great friend to Gysin. Mary, however, was a different story. Gysin, a noted misogynist, termed her “Scary Mary”; Burroughs later called her “Hamburger” Mary.
Around August 1956 John and Mary Cooke decided to move to Algiers. However, the Naqshbandi Brotherhood objected. Alice recounts:
“He joined a very strict Muslim sect that said, ‘Once in, you can’t get out’. He wanted out because, he realized, well, maybe not black magic, but much too powerful for him. He didn’t want it. He didn’t have that much power over people or in the world. He was backing away, and, of course, you never knew when he was telling the truth because he was such a fantasizer – and he just lived in a different world.”
Cooke was at Tangier railway station when it was made clear to him that the Naqshbandi did not want him to leave. Alice recounts:
“… he says that while he was down getting his ticket, a sweeper came up to him with a broom, and said, ‘Oh, you’re leaving?’ And, he said, ‘Yes, I am.’ ‘Oh, you think so?’”
“Then he went to the bank and another one of the followers of this Muslim crowd had given him a silk scarf and he had it on for the first time. At the bank he got this terrific burn on his shoulder and he ripped off the scarf, and there was this great, big red mark. He thought he had been stung by a scorpion.”
At the bank, a Tangerino woman, whose son was known to Cooke, and who was cleaning the floor, tugged on his trouser leg to get his attention. At the same time, another woman placed a white shawl on his shoulders. John thought at first it was a parting gift but as he walked out of the door of the bank, he tore the shawl off because of the sudden sensation of being stung by a scorpion on the shoulder whilst simultaneously experiencing a feeling of being slugged at the base of the spine.
Cooke was immediately paralysed and remained unable to walk for the rest of his life. In addition, he had a red mark at the base of his spine and another burn-like mark on his shoulder.
The story, as related to me by Michael Bowen, certainly seems of malicious intent:
“It was some unknown thing, a black magic thing from people who did not want him to leave.”
The Cooke family moved to Souniquaille in Algeria soon afterwards. Mary was at least five months’ pregnant. Brion Gysin was caught up in the whole drama of the situation.
“I was playing along in these rich kids’ magic charade and, after years of restaurant-keeping, I was swept away by the amount of money that was changing hands. The whole scene went sour when John was cut down literally overnight. He lost the use of his legs, just like that, zap and he was paralysed. A mystery. Magic practices? Spooky sex? Don’t know.”
“…they called me from Algiers begging me to come and help John, to come quick, just close down the restaurant for the summer since business is dead and come help John who has just been stricken by paralysis. Zap! Just like that. The doctors didn’t know. There are no doctors because it is August and they have all fled back to Paris for the holidays and lot of them will never come back because war is coming…”
“We’ll send you the money to close down the restaurant and come. John is asking for you night and day, aren’t you John dear? Yes, you see, you really must come at once.”
Gysin flew at once to Algiers.
“I carried him around on my back to what therapists there were in a dumb place like Algiers. Every day, I swam him in this dumb little pool they had in the house.”
According to Chamba, John and Mary sent word to L Ron Hubbard in London to come and cure John. Hubbard couldn’t come but he sent his right-hand man, “Lucky” Jim Skelton, an Australian Scientologist that the Cookes had previously met in London. Brion Gysin had also met Skelton in London.
Chamba Cooke says Skelton was able to push the polio paralysis back down John’s trunk from his heart, but was unable to make it go any further. Skelton told Hubbard that the method Hubbard taught him was not fully effective; Hubbard countered that Skelton was not performing the method correctly. This contributed to Skelton splitting from Hubbard. In addition, Lucky Jim fell in love with both John and Mary and they all lived together for a time.
The house in Algiers is described by Gysin, in photographs taken there of himself, with bald head and goatee, taken 1956:
Brion Gysin at John and Mary Cooke’s home, Algiers
“Those pictures were taken in the old original Turkish wing of a huge colonial villa on the east coast about nine kilometres outside of Algiers in 1955 (actually 1956) during the Algerian war. My friend John Cooke was married to the lady who had bought the place up and done all the improvements on it like air conditioning and indoor swimming pool, etc, Scary Mary.”
“Anyway, one day at lunch, out in the garden, Mary Cooke pushed me to the idea of shaving my head, like John’s, saying as John was paralysed and I was carrying him around, she said: “I think that you would look less odd if you both had your heads shaved and grew sort of little Arab-type beards.” And then later they called in the person who became her next husband, who was this Australian practitioner of Scientology whom, I had met in London, and he too shaved his head and grew a little Arab-type beard (chuckling) – I think perhaps instead of being less remarkable he made it look more remarkable…”
John never considered himself a Scientologist, but freely used the techniques. He was what would be later known as a “squirrel” – one who uses Scientology outside of the organization.
“…John Cooke told me fascinating things about a billion buck scam he was onto called Scientology whose leaders were L Ron Hubbard and Mary Sue. The names alone were enough to make me laugh myself sick…”
“They were keen on making me into an ‘Auditor’, claiming that I was a natural ‘clear’ and a born ‘Operating Thetan’. I could go right to the head of the class and make all sorts of easy money. They counted on me to start a big drive on the French captive audience we could get every time we gave a party. When guests came they had to stay all night because of the curfew. The house was huge and well-known; people came in droves although we didn’t know any of them, personally. People will go anywhere for free food and drink, especially in wartime and the Algerian War was raging away practically at our doorstep.”
“GRAMMA initiates… and I use the verb very thoughtfully… initiates anybody and everybody into an area where communication is clear… and very often for the first time in their lives. The results are usually spectacular yet it’s really quite simple:
You sit like this… face to face, toe to toe… no creaky old Freudian couch in the corner… I ask you to situate yourself spatially … to look around and see just where you are sitting right now. ..”
“Now we start in with “Hello Yes Hello” and we’ll run it back and forth for the next twenty minutes…”
“It sounds almost simple-minded but “Hello Yes Hello” is the ineluctable law of all verbal communication…”
“First, I say to you “Hello”… that’s to initiate this particular communication. What I do is offer to communicate. Now, you must answer back to me “Yes” … a signal which shows that you’ve accepted my offer. This move … in our discipline, Hassan … constitutes the first half of a Link. Then you say back to me “Hello” … to show you are willing to communicate … to go on communicating with me. Therefore, I accept your fine offer positively with: “Yes.” – The Process, p 207 -9
Gysin attended the birth of the Cookes’ son Chamba Starr Cooke in Souniquaille 3 October 1956, and did a painting for them of Bedouins walking in the desert.
Soon after the birth of Chamba, Mary Cooke decided that John was not stable enough to be a father, so she divorced him after five years of marriage. Mary married Jim Skelton in July 1957, when Chamba was nine months old. Alice recalls:
“Then his wife left him and then he was sent to Paris. But half of him for the rest of his life said it wasn’t polio–that he had been poisoned. But the American Hospital diagnosed it as polio and found polio in him, so…”
Michael Bowen in 2007 disputed this observation, stating that the hospital at that time would not have had the facilities to isolate the polio virus so therefore could not make a correct diagnosis.
Additionally, they were curious about the shoulder burn. Alice:
“But they said, ‘When did you get that X-ray burn?’ He said he’d never been X-rayed and they said, ‘Well, it certainly is an X-ray burn. It’s no other kind of burn that you have on your shoulder.’”
Brion Gysin had accompanied John to the American Hospital in Paris.
“Eventually, I helped get him off to Denmark to some centre but he never got well again. Never walked. Don’t even know that he really wanted to.”
John Starr Cooke – “The Great Crippled Wizard”, and friends, 1973
Mary and Jim Skelton remained in Algiers and continued to hold a stake in 1001 Nights when John Cooke relocated to the US around late 1956. After a stint at a rehabilitation centre, he stayed with Alice and Roger at Kentfield before moving to Carmel.
Brion Gysin, March 26, 1957
Gysin stayed with the Cookes from about August 1956, returning to Tangier to reopen The 1001 Nights around December.
While Gysin was away from The 1001 Nights, all went bad: “a trusted friend broke into the bar of 1001 Nights and consumed the liquor store, then started selling off the furnishings”. Gysin’s barman won a substantial injunction against him for unpaid wages and in October the local press opined the restaurant unlikely to re-open.
However, Mary Cooke came to the rescue again, with her new husband, “Lucky” Jim Skelton, the Australian Scientologist. Gysin gave them his signature on the dotted line, and was able to buy out Hamri’s interest in the restaurant for $10 000.
Nevertheless, after about a year, Gysin lost the restaurant.
“On January 5, 1958 I lost the business over a signature given to a friendly American couple who wanted to ‘help me out’. I was out with the shirt on my back.”
In addition, Gysin believed he had lost 1001 through black magic; a spell cast on him by a rival. When cleaning out a kitchen ventilator he found a “mare’s nest”, a collection of seeds, stones and bits of broken mirror, with a magic spell written left to right, top to bottom, asking the Devil to make Brion Gysin leave the house, never to return.
After Gysin was “helped right out of business”, he was offered an exhibition in New York, followed by another in Rome, and then London, whereupon he went to Paris and a chance encounter with William Burroughs on the Place St. Michel in Paris resulted in him moving into the famous Beat Hotel at no. 9 rue Git le Coeur in the Latin Quarter. He confided to Burroughs his inventions, the Cut-ups and Permutations, and thus began a most important collaboration in modern literature. Gysin was also known for inventing Dream Machine with Ian Sommerville, the hypnotic flicker device for stimulating hallucinations.
Gysin and the Dream Machine
Burroughs continued to use Dianetics and in a letter to Ginsberg from October 1959, champions L Ron Hubbard, urging Ginsberg to read Dianetics. He signs the letter “Hello, yes, hello.” Burroughs continued to use this phrase for many years and in 1966 whilst Gysin worked on The Process, Burroughs (with Ian Sommerville) recorded the experimental “Hello, yes, hello” tapes in Paul McCartney’s flat in Montagu Square. Sommerville had met McCartney, who put up the money for the flat, and they shared the place. While McCartney worked on Eleanor Rigby, Burroughs and Sommerville worked on “Hello, yes, hello”. McCartney subsequently wrote a track called “Hello, Goodbye” which may well have been inspired by Burroughs and Sommerville’s work.
Burroughs on the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper cover
Gysin wrote The Process between 1965 and 1968. During this period, various members of the Rolling Stones family visited, and Brian Jones sought out and recorded Gysin’s beloved Master Musicians of Jajouka.
Gysin retained a great fondness for John Cooke. Soon after The Process was published in 1969, Dr Timothy Leary visited Gysin in Tangier. While Gysin bemoaned the poor sales of his novel in the US, Leary lauded Gysin as the star of “the great spiritual movies of our times”, such as the one where he “led the rescue party that found and saved John Cooke from the black magicians of Algeria and brought the great crippled wizard back to the living.”
William S Burroughs reviewed The Process and had this to say:
“This is a book you will want to read and reread. It will tell you what is happening in present time. How things are made to happen or not to happen. In Present Time. It is also first class entertainment. Start to read it and you will find that it reads itself.”
By the time of Terry Wilson’s interviews, Gysin was well aware of the John Cooke’s New Tarot. Wilson had just seen a copy of the New Tarot in Jimmy Page’s occult bookshop and mentioned it to Gysin. Wilson pointed out to this present author that HERE TO GO is largely straight off the tape recorder – except for the sections where John and Mary Cooke were mentioned.
“They were the only parts that were revised. He was very cagey about the Cookes and very careful of what he said about them.”
Gysin and Burroughs in the 1980s
Peter Oser, who left for Tibet after his divorce from Mary, died in Tibet in 1970. John Cooke died in 1976. Brion Gysin died in 1986. Lucky Jim Skelton died in 1994. Timothy Leary died in 1996. William Burroughs died in 1997.
Mary Skelton is still alive at this writing.
There is a lot of John Cooke in Thay Himmer. However, there is also a lot that has been altered and a lot of pure fiction. Sorting one from the other is the work, and the way is indicated in the endpiece of The Process, “The Unveiling of Realities”by Kash Ul-Haqa’iq:
“In other days, the initiate confided their secrets only to those they considered competent; swearing them to the secret. The incompetent, happily, are unable to pierce the thoughts of the initiate who, since the time of Adam, have obtained their knowledge of the essence of things through personal association with those who knew. Therefore, he who seeks the mysteries and the realities, must seek out someone who knows for, from the book alone, nothing emerges.”
This article seeks to shed new light on the “mysteries and realities” of the life of John Starr Cooke and his friendship with Brion Gysin, and in this I’ve been helped by discussions with John Cooke’s son Chamba Cooke, as well as with Cooke’s principal student, the late Michael Bowen, and with Terry Wilson, co-author with Brion Gysin of HERE TO GO.