Michael Korda reminisces about Castaneda

Michael Korda was the editor at Simon & Schuster who bought the hardback rights for S&S to The Teachings of Don Juan, and who served as the "editor" for Castaneda's string of books for S&S. Since Castaneda often referred to Korda (generally in unflattering references to how aged he had become, and to Korda's more recent career as a "prostate cancer activist") in Sunday sessions, I thought SA readers might be interested in Korda's reminiscences about Castaneda. For the complete version from which these excerpts are taken, see pp. 276 - 283 of Michael Korda's Life: A Memoir of Other People.

"The book was The Teachings of Don Juan by a UCLA professor of anthropology named Dr. Carlos Castaneda, and it purported to tell of his initiation into a peyote cult by a Yaqui shaman named Don Juan. In the drug-obsessed culture of the late sixties and early seventies, it was hardly surprising that Castaneda's doctoral thesis should have broken out of the academic world to become a local best-seller, though it was very possibly the first (and last) doctoral thesis in history to do so. [A couple of nits: Castaneda was not a professor of anthropology at UCLA, merely a graduate student, and The Teachings was not his doctoral thesis--that honor belongs to his third book, Journey to Ixtlan, which was published in a form virtually identical to the manuscript that was ultimately accepted as his UCLA Ph.D. dissertation. It appears that editor Korda himself needs an editor, or at least a fact-checker.]

In later years, when Castaneda had become a kind of guru to a whole generation of college kids and his books had sold in the millions of copies, he was to take on a kind of mystic significance--indeed when Time did a cover piece on him (albeit with a smudged and unrecognizable portrait of him, perhaps inadvertently, as a mystery man and tried in vain to pin down his exact identity, as if it mattered. [Note: Time's 1973 cover story did pin down Castaneda's identity, including his Peruvian birth certificate and former friends and classmates in Lima, contradicting his claim throughout the later years of his life to have been born and brought up in Brazil and Argentina.] By that time, there were false Castanedas appearing on campuses all over the country, like false czars in Russia, and Castaneda was being sighted in all sorts of improbable places by people who swore that he was tall or blue-eyed or a kind of hippie god, with long hair and fringed clothing. Nobody laughed harder at this deification than Castaneda himself--Carlitos, as he often referred to himself slyly, as if he were the modern equivalent of the sorcerers apprentice, which was not, in fact, too far from the truth and which explained a great deal of the literary appeal of his early books. On one level, at least, they formed a kind of bildungsroman in which Don Juan played the cunning sorcerer-teacher and Carlitos the bumbling, naive, and eternally hopeful apprentice. There was a side to Castaneda's work that appealed to the same needs in young people as J.R.R. Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings and T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone. The elements were all there: adventure, sorcery, the hard path to knowledge on which a young man risks everything to learn wisdom from his teacher. Castaneda was a kind of real-life hobbit, following the path laid down by the mysterious sorcerer Gandalf, or, in another context, the young Arthur seeking the wisdom of Merlin. Perhaps without knowing what he was doing, Castaneda had touched upon a surefire theme for a best-seller, even without the peyote lore, which was to give his work an extra allure of the forbidden and dangerous.

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That Castaneda was a real person and not, as some suspected, a literary invention was apparent the next morning, when I called the university and was connected directly to his office. The voice that greeted me was rich, modulated, and had a slight Hispanic accent. I expressed my enthusiasm for his book [which Korda previously described as being sold out in L.A., and which he had had to borrow from a clerk at a bookstore the night before] and my desire to meet him. He chuckled, 'I would be happy to,' he said, 'but first you ought to talk to my agent. You see, I am a pushover, but he is really fierce and mean, so I have to be careful not to anger him.' I asked who his agent was. To my surprise, it was Ned Brown, whom I knew. Brown was a diminutive man with a choleric red complexion and a white mustache who had modeled himself somewhat on Irving Lazar. No spring chicken himself, Brown had been an agent for decades and was one of the few in Los Angeles who handled book writers, as opposed to screenwriters. He was Jackie Collins's agent at the time, and the fact that Castaneda had somehow found his way to Ned Brown seemed an indication that he was not as unworldy as his book made him out to be.

I contacted Brown immediately, who told me that his desk was piled sky-high with offers, but if I wanted to meet with his author, it was OK with him. He had already talked to Castaneda (who was either quick on the phone or possessed Don Juan's telepathic powers), and I was to wait in the parking lot of my hotel at eight tonight. How would I recognize Castaneda? I asked. Brown gave a mirthless laugh. 'Don't worry,' he said. 'He'll recognize you.'

At the appointed time, I stood in the parking lot, scanning the people in arriving cars for anyone possibly resembling Castaneda. Most of the cars were limos, disgorging plump, middle-aged men escorting young starlets -- hardly Castaneda's style, I guessed. A neat Volvo pulled up in front of me, and the driver waved me in. He was a robust, broad-chested, muscular man, with a swarthy complexion, dark eyes, black, curly hair cut short, and a grin as merry as Friar Tuck's, displaying perfect teeth. I got in, and we shook hands. He had a firm handshake. The hands, I noticed, were broad, strong, with blunt fingers, although the clothes proclaimed him to be an academic: a light brown tweed jacket, a neat shirt and tie, tan trousers, well-polished loafers. I asked him how he had recognized me. He laughed. 'I'm a sorcerer,' he said mischievously. 'How could I miss you?' He turned down Sunset Boulevard. 'Of course, it didn't hurt that Ned described you to me.'

I had seldom, if ever, liked anybody so much so quickly -- a feeling that remains undiminished after more than twenty-five years. It wasn't so much what Castaneda had to say as his presence -- a kind of charm that was partly subtle intelligence, partly a real affection for people, and partly a kind of innocence, not of the naive kind but of the kind one likes to suppose saints, holy men, prophets, and gurus have. Castaneda's spirit was definitely Rabelaisian and ribald, and he had a wicked sense of humor, but nevertheless he gave off in some way the authentic, potent whiff of otherworldly power, to such a degree that I have never doubted for a moment the truth of his stories about Don Juan or of the miracles he says he witnessed and, later, participated in.

Something of this was borne out by his choice of restaurant, a small, elegant steak house off Santa Monica. I had vaguely supposed that he might be a vegetarian, but he ordered rack of lamb and, when it arrived, ate with gusto. There was, in fact, nothing at all of the vegan, sandal-wearing, ascetic, California crank about him. That his mind was on this world as opposed to the next was evident from the glint in his eyes whenever an attractive woman entered the room. Celibacy, it was clear, was not part of his belief system, nor was he opposed to drink, for he ordered wine with a discriminating judgment and drank it with obvious pleasure. Smoking, however, was against his principles, for reasons of health and wind -- the sorcerous path, he made it clear, called for physical strength. It was not just the mind that had to be trained but the body.

Carlos, as I was already calling him, was not only a good talker in a town where good talkers are a dime a dozen, but, far rarer, a good listener. He transformed listening into a physical act, his dark eyes fixed on me, his mobile, expressive face showing, like a good actor's, a combination of attention, sympathy, and warm amusement. Chunky and solid as he was -- he was no beauty -- Castaneda had an actor's physical grace and an exact sense of timing, together with the ability to convey, by small subtle gestures and changes of expression, a whole range of emotion. I wondered if he had ever actually been an actor, but he laughed and denied it. Since, however, everything he said about his early years was open to dispute and he often contradicted himself, I was not convinced. But then, the truth is that all successful shamans and holy men are performers, and none more so than Don Juan, who combined the gifts of a stage magician with a great actor's gift for the dramatic moment. Perhaps Castaneda had acted on stage at school, in Brazil, or Argentina, or wherever it was that he had grown up (a matter that was never altogether clear), but his natural gift for acting would have made him a successful student at the Actors Studio. Nevertheless, I believed every word of his book then, and still do. Behind the sly tricks -- the Garbo-like seclusion, the deliberate obfuscation of his biography, his delight in leaving false clues to confuse journalists -- Carlos Castaneda was the real thing. More real, in fact, than even his most devoted readers supposed him to be, for he had a kind of earthy, peasant common sense that is sometimes missing from the bumbling and innocent academic whom he describes in his books and at whose embarrassing antics he often laughed.

He ate with a certain delicacy -- there were many signs that Castaneda had been brought up with a considerable degree of gentility -- but great determination. What did I think of the book, he asked, between mouthfuls. I was bowled over by it, I said. . . . . What Don Juan was proposing, it seemed to me, constituted a way of looking at the world objectively, of breaking life down into acts -- big and small, important or unimportant -- each one of which had to be performed as well as one possibly could. Carlos nodded, beaming. 'Impeccably!' he said. 'Everything you do has to be impeccable.' (It was one of his favorite words, as I was to discover.) His expression was wry and self-mocking. 'It isn't easy,' he said. 'Half-assed doesn't count.' He paused. 'There is an impeccable way of doing everything,' he said. He popped a piece of lamb into his mouth, with evident satisfaction, chewing powerfully. 'Even eating lamb.'

So it's a code of conduct? I asked. Carlos nodded thoughtfully. It could be. Yes, perhaps. You had to submit to discipline -- that was what the kids who came to his lectures didn't get, of course. 'They thought the book was about freedom, about doing whatever the hell you wanted, about smoking pot!' He laughed. But this was a mistake, he went on. Drugs were an initiation, a way of going deeper, no fun at all. Above all, they were part of a way of looking at the world and a way of ordering one's life. A code of conduct, yes, that was very good. He finished his lamb, and we ordered coffee. He drank his sweet and black -- caffeine did not seem to cause him problems. He slept, he said, like a baby. Don Juan was firm on such matters. There was a time for sleeping, and you slept. There was a time for waking up, and you woke up. No complaints, no whining, no saying 'I can't sleep' or 'I'm so tired, I don't want to get up.' Don Juan, he said confidentially, was a hard taskmaster. Much worse than the nuns in school.

How had he come to pick Ned Brown as his agent? I asked. 'Don Juan found him for me,' he said, laughing hard. 'He told me to pick the meanest little man I could find, and I did.' He paid the bill, and we stepped outside into the warm night. . . . . 'He told me you would come too,' he said, shaking my hand. '"Somebody will come along who's interested in power," he told me. You'll see.'

'Am I interested in power?' I asked.

He gave me a crushing hug; then, as he tipped the parking attendant and stepped into his car, he smiled at me and said, 'Do bears shit in the woods?' and was gone. [Note: One of Korda's 11 previous books, written years after this encounter, was entitled Power!]

. . . .

I called Ned Brown and after a spirited round of bargaining -- Don Juan's recommendation had been spot on, for Ned was not only mean but tenacious, like one of those small terriers with big jaws that can hang on for dear life -- I ended up owning the hardcover rights to Castaneda's book for about twice what I had wanted to pay. I returned a day or two later to New York to try to convince a skeptical sales force that we should put a major effort behind it

. . . . Our edition of The Teachings of Don Juan, despite a certain skepticism at S&S, pole-vaulted onto the best-seller list, and for the next ten years, Castaneda, in book after book, became a staple in our lives, one of the props on which the success of the new, post-Gottlieb S&S rested.

As the years went by, Carlos's view of sorcery became darker and more complex, particularly after he finished his apprenticeship and became a full-fledged sorcerer himself, but he remained, personally, as cheerful as ever, and we became close friends. He had an uncanny knack for guessing when I was in trouble or needed help, and at such moments called from a telephone booth in Flagstaff or, sometimes, downstairs in the lobby, 'Michael! It's Carlos! Are you feeling powerful today?' His voice was enough to cheer me up, even at the worst of times, and did, indeed, have the effect of making me feel more powerful, or in control of events, so I had no doubts about Carlos's sorcerous abilities. Many years later, when a friend of mine from New Mexico, Rod Barker, insisted on taking a set of galleys of his first book up to Shiprock, at the heart of the Navajo reservation, 'The Big Rez,' and having a medicine man cast a spell over them with different colors of pollen, I was not surprised when the book was greeted with good reviews. Carlos had taught me, if nothing else, the importance of getting on the good side of the spirit world."