Topanga History: Aimee Semple McPherson

Aimee Semple McPherson

Often remembered for her 1926 kidnapping scandal, Aimee Semple McPherson was involved in another scandal at Las Tunas Beach in 1930.

McPherson, a famous evangelist in the ’20s and ’30s, counted 10 percent of Los Angeles as members of her Foursquare Gospel megachurch in the Angelus Temple building by Echo Park Lake. She modernized belief in miracles through faith healings and speaking in tongues. She pioneered religious services on radio and newsreels. She dramatized her sermons with Hollywood stagecraft and performed them on sets built by her own art department. Mary Pickford, Jean Harlow, Clara Bow, and Charlie Chaplin admired her acting.

Topanga History: McPherson Mae Waldron 1927

McPherson and Mae Waldron, 1927

Her disappearance while swimming at Ocean Park Beach in 1926 led to the drownings of a rescue diver and a follower determined to join her. When she reappeared with a story about having been kidnapped, reporters didn’t buy it and dug up clues that she’d been hiding an affair. 

McPherson captivated audiences with her blending of fundamentalist and secular worlds but also upset some, including her mother, who particularly opposed the influence of secretary Mae Waldron. McPherson had promoted Waldron to vice president and developed a unique friendship with her.

“Mae Waldron ... became her usher into the secular world of Los Angeles in the roaring ’20s,” according to the book “Sister Aimee” by Daniel Mark Epstein. “She encouraged her to buy dresses, lingerie and millinery at the best shops. She introduced her to ... actors, artists and writers, a society that trafficked in ideas and sensations forbidden to followers of the Foursquare Gospel.”

Mother and daughter fell out permanently in late July 1930 after an argument ended in a scuffle that broke McPherson’s mother’s nose, although her mother confessed that her nose was still delicate from a recent face lift and rhinoplasty.

On Aug. 9 of that year, someone threw a 5-foot boa constrictor snake into McPherson’s room and gave her a scare.

1930-08-21 Mrs M'Pherson Gains - LA Times

Aimee Semple McPherson

 

Waldron took McPherson away from the temple on Aug. 15 to a house she’d rented at 41 Las Tunas Beach, where McPherson supposedly needed to recover from a nervous breakdown and the stress of writing her book “The Holy Spirit” (published in 1931). Her mother alleged that McPherson was really hiding out because she’d had a face lift, too, to improve her appearance for a starring role in a movie about her life. Reporters learned about the Las Tunas Beach hideout on Aug. 18, when a doctor was called to tend to McPherson. Peeping through a window, they claimed to see bandages being wrapped around her head. The church countered that the bandages were wet rags to reduce fever. 

“Throughout yesterday, crowds of members of Mrs. McPherson’s congregation milled around the temple much after the manner ... years ago when some believed the evangelist drowned,” the LA Times wrote on Aug. 20, 1930. “The supplicants blamed themselves for Mrs. McPherson’s condition asserting they had not sufficiently supported her.”

The devotion of McPherson’s followers almost resulted in another death when a man had to be rescued after trying to walk on Echo Park Lake to prove his faith.

Temple guards were sent to the Las Tunas Beach house to prevent trespassers. A deputy sheriff moved traffic along because cars kept slowing down to ask, “How’s Aimee?” 

McPherson complained that the highway was too noisy. Even the sound of the ocean disturbed her, and this was shortly before hunting was banned in the mountains, meaning she could also hear gunshots ringing out.

McPherson found peace in listening to music. On Aug. 21, the Angelus Temple Choir came to the beach to sing below her window. The next night, the Silver Cornet Jubilee Band performed on the sand.

On Aug. 23, McPherson issued a statement, ceding power over to a church committee until she could return to the temple.

One week later, at midnight, an ambulance secretly drove her to a new hideout at 401 Sycamore Road in Santa Monica Canyon. Two weeks later, she left Los Angeles for a cruise to Panama.

When she finally reappeared in public at the temple on Nov. 30, she refused to answer questions about face lifts or to allow close-up photos, but the LA Times reported that, at 40, “She had the face and figure of a co-ed.”

Instead of moving back into the temple, she returned to the beach house with Waldron for the rest of the year. She made screen tests for her life story, but they failed to capture her stage presence, so the studio canceled her movie. In January 1931, she left on a mission trip to China and India.

In 1958, a Foursquare Gospel Church opened in Topanga, where the Inn of the Seventh Ray restaurant is today. Local historian Eric Dugdale remembers attending the church as a boy in the 1961. When the congregation began speaking in tongues, an old woman next to him fell to the ground and began to shake. He called for help, but was told she was in religious ecstasy.

Pablo Capra is the archivist for the Topanga Historical Society and author of “Topanga Beach: A History” (2020). More at topangahistoricalsociety.org.

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