Chronicle of a Death Foreteller

Excerpt from All Night Menu Vol. 4 published in Harper's [2023]

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Having been run out of London, Paris, and New York, the world-renowned palm reader Cheiro found a warm welcome in Los Angeles in 1927, at the age of sixty. His hair was gray, and a bout of double pneumonia had brought him close to death. When asked why he’d come to California, the great seer replied: “Why? Because I knew it was the one place in the world where the vibrations and climatic conditions would restore my health.” He was also hoping to get into films.

In her early years as a struggling thespian, Mary Pickford had pored over Cheiro’s 1894 how-to, Language of the Hand. “When going through those darkest moments, my courage was kept up by looking at the Line of Sun,” she wrote. “From it I knew that success would come, and it did come, exactly at the date shown in his book, through the development of the picture industry.” She and Douglas Fairbanks took Count Louis Hamon—Cheiro’s civilian appellation—to parties where he mingled with movie-colony clients like Lillian Gish, Sergei Eisenstein, and Theda Bara. Charlie Chaplin, who was skeptical of Hollywood’s fascination with “psychic phenomena,” refused to see him. Conversely, Cheiro claimed that Louis B. Mayer was “keenly interested in my System of Numbers.”

The Count rented a house at 7417 Hollywood Boulevard for $300 per month, not including three servants. He received visitors in a room draped with Indian curtains. They perused stone-heavy guest books filled with inscriptions and palm prints of historic clientele. Lillie Langtry and Thomas Edison. Mata Hari and Mark Twain. Sarah Bernhardt and Rasputin.

Cheiro had foretold to King Edward VII that he would die in his sixty-ninth year. He had cautioned Tsar Nicholas II that he would lose his kingdom to a great war between 1914 and 1917. In 1894, the toast of Victorian London, he had predicted that the forty-four-year-old Lord Kitchener would die at sea at the age of sixty-six. For protection, the great military consul vowed to become an expert swimmer. In 1916, Kitchener died aboard the HMS Hampshire when the ship was hit by a Russian mine—just weeks shy of his sixty-sixth birthday.

Over the years, Cheiro endured crackdowns and dry spells, but the period after the crash of 1929 was particularly luckless. He failed to sell his screenplay about Cagliostro, the eighteenth-century mystic who was his role model. Within a few years of arriving in California, his rates dropped from $100 per session to $50. Then, in 1932, Los Angeles passed its first ordinance against fortune telling. Chapter 4, Article 3, Section 43-30: “No person shall advertise to tell fortunes . . . to find or restore lost or stolen property, to locate oil wells, gold or silver.”

Cheiro fell back to publishing. Confessions: Memoirs of a Modern Seer appeared in 1932, followed by You and Your Hand, Mysteries and Romances of the World’s Greatest Occultists, and How I Foretold the Lives of Great Men. Each offered a slightly different admixture of numerology, astrology, and palmistry, couched in retellings of the fabulist travelogues that had kept him in business since 1889, when he first took the name Cheiro (from the Greek cheír, for hand) and started reading palms in the West End of London.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, he had been a consultant to kings: Umberto of Italy and Leopold of Belgium. By 1932, he was broadcasting horoscopes on KFI in a fifteen-minute afternoon slot right before The Hollywood Hill Billies. During this transitional period, he predicted within a year the death of Irving Thalberg, then at his zenith as the dashing tycoon of MGM. He held his final classes at his house on Hollywood Boulevard while fighting the effects of diabetes, heart disease, and cirrhosis.

On Labor Day weekend, 1936, Thalberg contracted a cold during a vacation on the coast of Monterey. He fell into a coma and a week later died of pneumonia, aged thirty-seven. “He was the guiding inspiration behind the artistic progress of the screen,” said Mayer. “The shock is too great.”

In the weeks after his most improbable prophecy came to pass, Cheiro was seen roaming the streets of Hollywood, mumbling and alone. Late into the night of October 7, 1936, police found him babbling incoherently. He expired in his house shortly after midnight. The nurse who attended him told the newspapers that the clock struck three times and the room smelled like flowers, though nothing was blooming. ◆