A Swami Inspired Cincinnati Seekers in the 1920s

His magnetic hold on female fans caused much jealousy and provoked a peculiar divorce.

Back in the 1960s, as young people explored Eastern philosophy and religion through Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Transcendental Meditation and A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami’s Hare Krishna movement, some older Cincinnatians experienced a wave of déjà vu. Forty years earlier, in the Jazz Age “Roaring Twenties,” the Queen City became infatuated with another Indian philosopher, Paramahansa Yogananda, author of the best-selling Autobiography of a Yogi. He filled Cincinnati auditoriums, made headlines, and entranced the cream of society.

Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Cincinnati wasn’t the his first American stop. Yogananda arrived in Boston in 1920 and quickly attracted attention and adherents. He established his headquarters in Los Angeles, where he became the darling of the Hollywood crowd, but traveled constantly. In 1927, he met with President Calvin Coolidge in the White House.

In the autumn of 1926, announcements heralded the Swami’s upcoming arrival in Cincinnati. One advertisement in The Cincinnati Post [September 20, 1926] claimed:

“Want to be young again? Swami Yogananda, educator, metaphysician and mastermind of India, is coming here for the first time early in October to tell you how to attain ‘Everlasting Youth.’ Learn from him the secret of drawing dynamic energy from the cosmic supply all around you—the secret Douglas Fairbanks has already learned. Swami will bring light, life and health to this city. Swami comes here direct from New York City, where he has proved a sensational success—and does not conflict with anyone’s religion.”

Yogananda lectured daily to mostly full houses at Music Hall during his six-week stay in Cincinnati, from October 1 to November 15. His lectures promoted Yogoda, described as a “new science” of self-realization, based on the practice of Kriya Yoga. Throughout his visit, the local newspapers reported in detail on his teachings and opinions. The Enquirer [October 2, 1926] captured this gem:

“The American woman is a combination of the spiritualism of the Hindu woman and her own materialism.”

Yogananda announced plans to build a “How to Live Center” in Cincinnati. According to The Enquirer [December 1, 1926]:

“The plans as presented by the Swami at a luncheon Wednesday noon at the Sinton Hotel, call for a children’s and adults’ moving picture house, with lecture hall, gymnasium, library, concentration rooms and café, with health officers in charge who will tell what kind of food to eat.”

The Swami lectured frequently on personal magnetism, as reported by The Enquirer [October 10, 1926]:

“We hear people say, ‘That young man is very magnetic, a live wire,’ &c. By effort of will and constant application of will each man can magnetize himself as a wire is magnetized by electricity.”

There is no question that Yogananda displayed a magnetic personality, especially to women. His Cincinnati visits almost always included luncheons and teas hosted by society ladies, and he accompanied local women to the opera and other cultural events.

Throughout several trips to Cincinnati, the Swami was never accused of any improper behavior, but husbands in Cincinnati and elsewhere resented Yogananda’s influence on their wives. The police chief of Miami, Florida, prohibited Yogananda from speaking there and mobilized armed officers with “gas bombs” to enforce that order because of a Miami husband. According to The Enquirer [February 4, 1928]:

“The order for the ‘mystic’ to leave town was issued by the Chief of Police after a Miami man had complained that his wife was so ‘under the influence of the Swami’ that she threatened to continue attending the lectures ‘even if it breaks up our home.’”

As it turns out, Swami Yogananda actually did break up one Cincinnati marriage. According to The Enquirer [January 19, 1934]:

“Too much time spent by her as a follower of Swami Yogananda, Hindu philosopher, and too little attention to her husband and home, was charged against Elsie Dietrich Becker, 47, 18 West Ninth Street, by Wayne A. Becker, 46, Boomer and Reemelin Roads, in fighting his wife’s suit for a divorce, before Judge Charles W. Hoffman, in Domestic Relations Court yesterday.”

Mrs. Becker, her husband complained, left him for weeks at a time whenever the Swami called, keeping a life-size portrait of him in their living room and composing passionate poems about her spiritual leader. For her part, Mrs. Becker filed the initial complaint to attest that her husband had multiple affairs, refused to support her, and had threatened her with a pistol.

Mr. Becker was an engineer who specialized in designing swimming pools. Transcripts of the divorce hearings suggest that he was involved with many of the larger swimming pools in the Cincinnati area, including Coney Island’s Sunlite Pool. Mrs. Becker worked as a cake and candy decorator until she began doing bookkeeping for Swami Yogananda.

While employed by Yogananda’s Self-Realization Fellowship, Mrs. Becker resided at his Los Angeles headquarters along with 15 or 20 other personnel, mostly women, who traveled with the guru for business or vacations. That was the basis of Mr. Becker’s complaint. Although Mrs. Becker took great pains to testify her relationship was strictly professional, Mr. Becker insisted he did not claim otherwise, but only objected to her absences and ongoing infatuation.

Judge Hoffman sided with Mr. Becker, dismissing Mrs. Becker’s complaint of adultery and granting Mr. Becker the divorce. As part of the settlement, Mrs. Becker got the house on Reemelin Road. She sold it in 1945 and moved to Utah, her spiritual quest having led her to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

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