Shaved-pated eccentric with eyes like Rasputin’s formed a devil-worshiping church and made a bundle fleecing the gullible

When Anton Szandor LaVey decided to start a religion in San Francisco in 1966, he figured he’d better shave his noggin. Medieval executioners, carnival strongmen, and black magicians shaved their heads, he thought, so he shaved his. LaVey’s pale, naked pate combined with his jet-black goatee and all-black wardrobe to create the perfect Mephistophelian image for presiding over the devilish ritual that launched The Church of Satan.

In the unconventional city by the bay, LaVey, 37, was already a well-known eccentric. He played the organ at the Lost Weekend nightclub. He drove a hearse and walked a pet leopard. He painted his house on California Street black and delivered midnight lectures there, at $2.50 a head, on occult subjects—vampires, werewolves, love potions. The night he discoursed on cannibalism his wife served listeners roasted chunks of a human thigh that a doctor pal had swiped from an autopsy. 

And now he’d founded a devil-worshipping church. The media couldn’t resist, especially when LaVey staged stunts worthy of P.T. Barnum. He started with a “satanic wedding” in the parlor of what he called “Black House.” The groom was a former Christian Science Monitor reporter; atop the altar lay a beautiful redheaded woman, stark naked. So many photographers and cameramen covered the event that LaVey had to repeat the ceremony five times to accommodate them all. 

A few months later, in May 1967, LaVey summoned the media to Black House for the “satanic baptism” of his daughter, Zeena. The three-year-old sat on the altar—featuring, of course, a naked woman—while Zeena’s dad, draped in black robes and sporting a horned cowl, invoked the new faith’s old lord: “In the name of Satan, welcome a new mistress, Zeena, creature of ecstatic magic light…We dedicate your life to love, to passion, to indulgence and to Satan, and the way of darkness. Hail Zeena! Hail Satan!”

LaVey’s genius for flackery quickly made him famous, the subject of articles in Life, Time, Newsweek, and Cosmopolitan. He made the cover of Look holding a human skull. He bantered with radio interviewers and performed a satanic good-luck ritual on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. 

In countless interviews, LaVey told his story: At 16, he dropped out of school to play oboe in the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra. He worked as a lion tamer for the Clyde Beatty Circus, and as a carnival fortune-teller. He played the organ in burlesque shows at the Mayan Theater in Los Angeles, where, he claimed, he had had a fling in 1948 with a stripper named Marilyn Monroe. Later, he became a crime scene photographer and “psychic investigator” for the San Francisco police department. 

Life at society’s margins convinced LaVey that God didn’t exist and that traditional churches were hypocritical. So he founded a religion that embraced the pleasures of the flesh. “The highest form of spirituality,” he said, “is the carnal.”  

In his 1969 book, The Satanic Bible, LaVey elaborated on his philosophy, an amalgam of Nietzsche, Machiavelli, Ayn Rand, and, of course, Beelzebub:  “Satan represents indulgence instead of abstinence!…Satan represents vengeance instead of turning the other cheek!…Satan represents all of the so-called sins, as they all lead to physical, mental or emotional gratification!” 

The Satanic Bible sold nearly a million copies and spawned sequels—The Satanic Rituals, The Satanic Witch, and Satan Speaks! LaVey hosted “witches’ workshops” and weekly “black masses.” Within five years, LaVey’s Church of Satan was claiming to have enrolled 10,000 members in “grottos” around the world. 

Adopting the looks and manner of a cartoon villain made LaVey a celebrity. He became a consultant on Hollywood horror films and hobnobbed with Jayne Mansfield and Sammy Davis Jr. “He collects classic cars,” The Washington Post reported, “and has several luxurious houses and a 185-foot yacht at his disposal.”

But LaVey soon wearied of playing the “Black Pope.” His followers got on his last satanic nerve. Most of them weren’t too bright, he grumbled, and many satanists were obnoxious bores—men seeking sex with the kind of women who were willing to lay naked on satanic altars, along with women who wanted to dress up in witch costumes. 

“It became rather embarrassing,” LaVey said. “I’d step off the plane and there they’d be, all huddled together in their black robes…I was trying to present a cultured, mannered image and their idea of protest or shock was to wear their lodge regalia into the nearest Denny’s.”

In the 1980s, American media abounded with sensational tales of “satanic ritual murders,” most of them never proven to be such. Naturally, reporters called the High Priest of the Church of Satan for a quote. No, LaVey would say, he didn’t advocate murder, rape, or child abuse. Misanthropic and grouchy, he hunkered in the sanctuary of Black House, watching noir films and entertaining friends by playing 1940s pop songs on keyboards. 

“I have decided to withdraw, to give up my citizenship in the human race,” he told reporter Lawrence Wright in 1990. 

Wright was interviewing LaVey for Rolling Stone magazine. Investigating his subject’s life story, the reporter found much of it fictitious, starting with the high priest’s name, which was actually Howard Stanton Levey. 

He’d never played oboe for the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra. He’d never tamed lions for the Clyde Beatty Circus or worked for the San Francisco police department. He’d never backed up strippers at L.A.’s Mayan Theater, and Marilyn Monroe never danced at the Mayan, either. “He has made an allegory of his life—not his real life but the fantasy life of the Anton LaVey persona,” Wright concluded. 

Wright’s revelations shook the Church of Satan, which was already rattled by an occupational hazard of religion—schism.  In 1975, Michael Aquino, editor of the Church of Satan newsletter, The Cloven Hoof, quit to form his own satanic church, The Temple of Set, accusing LaVey of heresy for claiming that Satan was merely a metaphor, not an actual being. Other former LaVey disciples ginned up similarly satanic sects—the Church of Lucifer, the Order of Baal, the Temple of Nethys. 

Worse, in 1990, LaVey’s daughter Zeena—star of that satanic baptism 23 years earlier—resigned as spokeswoman for Daddy’s church. She joined the Temple of Set and denounced her father, calling him “ungrateful and unworthy” and accusing him of chronic sloth and cruelty to her puppy. On October 29, 1997, LaVey died of heart failure. He was 67. The next day, Zeena LaVey announced on a radio show that she’d offed the old man by performing a ritual that put a lethal curse on him.

The Church of Satan survived its founder’s death, though without his theatrical flourishes. Reigning High Priest Peter H. Gilmore casts the faith’s current incarnation as a “more scholarly and professorial approach.” The Temple of Set also lives on but without Zeena, who quit in 2002 to establish yet another breakaway sect, the Sethian Liberation Movement. These days, the formerly satanic toddler is a Berlin-based artist and musician who practices Tibetan Buddhism. 

This American Schemers column appeared in the February 2021 issue of American History.