The Divine Miss W

updated 03/09/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/09/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

The cavernous hangar at the Santa Monica airport has been transformed on this fall evening into a glittering AIDS-benefit charity auction called Divine Design. Madonna's corset from her Blond Ambition tour and the leather jacket worn by Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator II are among the donated items on the block; Elizabeth Taylor, Anjelica Huston and Daryl Hannah are part of the star-studded turnout.

But even in the midst of all this Hollywood glamor, the real star of the event is a diminutive woman with flawless skin and angular features. The crowd applauds warmly as Marianne Williamson steps to the podium, then it hushes for her exhilarating speech about the powers of love and forgiveness, and at the conclusion erupts in thunderous ovation.

But as Williamson makes her way out of the spotlight and off the stage, she seems not to hear the accolade, and at least several in the gathering are witness to a quite different side of the inspirational speaker. "Excuse me! Excuse me!" she barks, pushing toward the back of the audience. "What was that? "she hisses, launching into a tirade directed at her audio-visual crew. "I told you!" The evening's slide presentation, a depiction of seriously ill AIDS patients, was, it seems, not "uplifting" enough.

AT THE AGE OF 39, MARIANNE WILLIAMSON HAS BECOME Hollywood's most compelling—and perplexing—spiritual guide since Werner Erhard swept through Tinseltown with his est movement in the 1970s. Lest there be any doubt, consider her credentials:

Last October, Williamson officiated at the California wedding of Larry Fortensky and Elizabeth Taylor, who says that Williamson's "sense of spirituality triggered off my own." Actresses Raquel Welch and Rosanna Arquette, as well as Cher, are among the thousands who have flocked to her quasireligious new-age lectures on both coasts. Lesley Ann Warren calls Williamson "a pal." Comedian Louie Anderson and Kim Basinger serve on the honorary board of one of her charitable organizations, and dozens of other celebrities have lent their support, helping Williamson raise more than $1.5 million to date for her work against AIDS. Barbra Streisand is said to have taken an interest in her teachings. Other publicity-shy stars reportedly listen at home to her 50 inspirational audio tapes on subjects ranging from "Forgiving Your Parents" to "Death Does Not Exist."

This month her just published inspirational guide, A Return to Love (launched with a Hollywood book party given by Norman Lear), hit the top of the New York Times' self-help bestseller list. And with Williamson as a guest on her Feb. 4 talk show, Oprah Winfrey, who bought 1,000 copies to distribute to her studio audience, gave the volume an unabashed plug. "I have never been as moved by a book," she told viewers, "as I have by Marianne Williamson's book."

Along with her message, the foundation of Williamson's mass appeal is a network of charitable organizations deeply involved in the fight against AIDS. Her Project Angel Food, founded in 1989, now provides 330 hot meals daily for homebound AIDS patients in Los Angeles. Her two nonprofit Manhattan and L.A. Centers for Living (founded with the help of $100,000 in donations from entertainment mogul David Geffen) provide a range of services—from house-cleaning to meditation and massage.

In private life, Williamson, a self-described "unwed Jewish mother," shares a smallish two-bedroom Hollywood apartment with her 22-month-old daughter, India Emmaline (whose father she refuses to identify or discuss), and drives a battered seven-year-old Peugeot. She takes no salary from her organizations but lives on book royalties and her lectures' $7-a-head ($10 in New York) "suggested contributions."

Her celebrity connections, she modestly implies, are little more than happenstance. "Meeting someone in Hollywood who is in the entertainment business," she says, "is like meeting someone in Houston in the oil business. How do you avoid it?"

Yet beneath the glowing surface of Williamson's spiritual domain, there are growing undercurrents of dissension and mistrust. A number of sources, many of whom are former employees and associates, charge that Williamson's offstage displays of temper and unchecked ego, as well as a cruelly abrasive management style, are alienating her allies, giving credibility to her detractors and, most damaging of all, beginning to undermine the basis of financial support for her legitimate—and vital—charity work.

"Marianne is a tyrant. She's cruel—unnecessarily—and very controlling," says one former associate. "It doesn't mean that her works aren't great. They are. But her own ego is going to destroy her."

Among the developments that have most rankled insiders were the disappointing profits of the Divine Design auction. Expected to generate something like $2 million, it netted only $725,000. The reason, say her critics, was Williamson's micromanagement of the event. Potential profits were eaten away, they say, by Williamson's insistence on such questionable amenities as air-conditioning for the hangar.

Other criticism centers on her high-handed management. Last year, in a dispute over the Manhattan Center for Living's religious orientation, Williamson dismissed most of its board members, including film director Mike Nichols, who went on to create a rival AIDS support organization. In L.A., Williamson's 20-member Center for Living staff rebelled last month after the firing of the center's fourth director in five years, popular local politician Steve Schulte, who had clashed frequently with Williamson over business strategy. Some employees are attempting to unionize—in an effort, they say, to protect themselves from Williamson's bad-tempered caprices.

Her treatment of other loyal employees has also caused grumbling in the ranks. One staffer, the Manhattan Center's board director, Regina Hoover, was put on probation with Williamson's consent last year—one week before Hoover's scheduled double mastectomy. A short time after her surgery, Hoover was fired, then forced to haggle for months over the terms of her medical insurance.

"Marianne's ego is all over the place," says a worker at the L.A. Center for Living, who wishes to remain anonymous. "When she's mad, it's like watching a 3-year-old throw a tantrum. I've seen her reduce a volunteer worker to tears and swearing that he'd never come back."

Since a story critical of Williamson's abrasiveness appeared in the Feb. 16 Los Angeles Times, at least one individual donor and one corporate donor say they have suspended financial contributions, and several demoralized Project Angel Food volunteers had to be dissuaded from resigning. Not long before that story's publication, Williamson warned her staff not to speak to reporters. Her words, according to witnesses: "You're f—ing with my livelihood. I'm famous—I don't need this, damn it!"

In public, a number of colleagues believe, Williamson's charismatic lecturing is increasingly undercut by her conduct. At one high-profile Hollywood party last February, Williamson pleaded with her friend and backer, producer-manager Sandy Gallin, to introduce her to Dolly Parton and Shirley MacLaine. Teasing her, Gallin recited in a singsong voice, "Dolly, this is Marianne. Shirley, this is Marianne." Within earshot of TV and movie bigshots, Williamson snapped, "F—off, Sandy!" before storming away.

From an early age, Williamson was used to going—and getting—her own way. Her brand of eclectic spiritualism was shaped in Houston, where she grew up the youngest of three children of Sam Williamson, a crusty political liberal and immigration lawyer, and his homemaker wife, Sophie Ann. (Older sister Jane teaches at an Episcopal school in Houston, where older brother Peter is an immigration lawyer.) "Marianne grew up around this stuff," says Sam, 82, pulling volumes of Thomas Aquinas, the Koran and a Hebrew New Testament from his law-office shelf.

Early on, Marianne developed her own relationship with a higher power. "When she was a baby of 3 or so, I would come in to kiss her goodnight," says Sophie Ann. "Half the time she'd be sitting in her bed with her eyes closed and her little hands clasped under her chin, and she'd say, 'Go away, Mommy. I'm talking to God.' "

She also had a precocious sense of the theatrical. "I used to do a lot of pretending I was Eleanor Roosevelt," Williamson says, remembering how she wondered if the First Lady's homeliness diminished her impact as a committed humanitarian. "I kept thinking, 'Could makeup have made a difference?' "

After graduating from Houston's Bellaire High School, Williamson put in two years studying theater and philosophy at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. "Marianne was always picking up stray mystics," says her Pomona roommate Lynda Obst, now a film producer. "A part of her was always looking for something electric in life."

In 1973, Williamson moved to New York City to pursue a career as a cabaret singer. There she fell into months of deep depression after her breakup with a boyfriend. Rock biographer Albert Goldman, who employed Williamson as a secretary, remembers her as "a sweet, warmhearted girl. She was incapable of figuring out what she should do. And she was crying all the time."

Two years later, Williamson headed for San Francisco, where, musician and boyfriend John Timothy recalls, she was avidly interested in Zen, meditation and the Ouija board. "She had a theatrical intensity," says Timothy. "If she didn't like something, she hated it. If she felt betrayed, it was something out of Ibsen."

In 1979, Williamson returned to Houston, where she ran a metaphysical bookstore. She was married briefly to a businessman, whom she refuses to discuss, and sang Gershwin standards at Rockefellers, a Houston nightclub. By 1983, jobless and with just $1,000 in her pocket, Williamson moved to Los Angeles, where her interests in the spirit and the stage finally coalesced.

There, Williamson began speaking to groups at the nonprofit Philosophical Research Society, drawing much of her material from A Course in Miracles, an arcane religious tract that stresses love and forgiveness as the basis of spiritual life. In time, her lectures evolved into a trendy amalgam of Christianity, Buddhism, pop psychology and 12-step recovery wisdom. Her knack, in the words of record producer Jeff Olmsted, a former boyfriend, is in making "spiritual matters relevant to her own generation—something that young, liberal urban professionals can relate to."

Within a few years, her lectures on such topics as "Romantic Delusions" and "The Fear of Abandonment" began to draw Hollywood. "You don't have to give up your whole existence in order to lead a spiritual life," says actress Theresa Russell, commenting on Williamson's appeal. "You can be 'semi-enlightened.' That's sort of the message she's talking about."

Sometimes Marianne's approach is gentle and nurturing. At the Manhattan Center for Living on a recent evening, approximately 100 people, mostly gay men, sat quietly in folding chairs as Williamson intoned. "I want you to close your eyes," she said softly. "We see a golden temple, and inside that temple is an inner light. We are in that light, joined together in the presence of God."

She can also be refreshingly practical. At that same meeting, a young Frenchman stood to say that he was being forced to leave the country because of an expired visa and feared that he would be unable to re-enter the U.S. to tend his HIV-positive lover. "What you need is a good immigration lawyer," said Williamson. "Pray to God to send you one right away."

Williamson, who has wryly referred to herself as "the bitch for God," acknowledges that her interpersonal skills could stand some improvement. "Nobody at my lectures ever hears me say, 'I'm perfect,' " she says. "Am I dramatic at times? Yes. But are my instincts usually right? Yes. If I was a man, I'd be considered a good leader."

As for the specific charges against her, she insists that staff resistance was what damaged the Divine Design auction. "If I was able to have the level of control that was appropriate," she says, "it would have cost less."

Williamson also maintains that her management moves are based on sound business practice rather than whim. "People don't get fired because of Marianne's capricious ways or hormones," she says. "It's absolutely inaccurate to say that if Marianne doesn't like someone, they're out of here."

It may simply be that in the case of Marianne Williamson, as with other cult figures before her, private life does not—and cannot—match public expectation. "I think some people who have written about her are sort of disappointed," says actor Tony Perkins, an avid follower. "They want her to be a goddess of some kind."

Whether Williamson wants deification for herself is something that only she can tell. In the meantime, ruminating on the controversies swirling around her, she draws on the wisdom of her teachings. "These are growing pains. Every conflict will be healed," she says with quiet equanimity. "I look forward to a happy outcome. We will have a miracle."

ROBIN MICHELI in Los Angeles, with other bureaus

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