The Pious Boy from Hollywood Hollywood High’s first celebrity graduate of the new decade was not a movie star, at least not in the conventional sense of the term. James A. Pike, the controversial Episcopal bishop of California who became the first American religious figure to break into national television, received his diploma from Hollywood High with the summer class of 1930
—John Blumenthal, Hollywood High: The History of America’s Most Famous Public School, 1988
James Albert Pike was born on February 14, 1913, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, but for much of the twentieth century he considered himself a Californian. As an adult, Pike had slight interest in the Kentucky origins of his parents or their early attempts at homesteading in Oklahoma. A correspondent once wrote him, shortly before he became the Episcopal bishop of California, asking whether he was related to the notable nineteenth-century military adventurer and frontiersman Zebulon Pike; the future bishop wrote back candidly replying that he did not know if he was a descendant of this pioneer, and it had never occurred to him to wonder whether he was related beyond his immediate family to any earlier Pikes. The twentieth-century James Pike understood his history as beginning in Los Angeles, California, a city where he was moved by his widowed mother when he was eight years old.
His mother, Pearl Agatha Pike, was a formidable woman. She had made her way across the country from Curdsville, Kentucky, becoming, successively, by age thirty-one, a farmwife, a mother, a widow, and a self-supporting single parent. She and Pike’s father, also named James Albert, were third-generation Kentucky descendants of the pioneer families, surprisingly numerous, who in the late eighteenth century had carried their Roman Catholicism with them from the eastern seaboard to the Kentucky frontier. The area southwest of Louisville along the mountainous turnings of the Ohio River became known as the “Pike counties” due to the large numbers with that surname who settled there by the early 1800s. They built frontier churches named for early Roman saints, established academies to teach their children the catechism, and married into other families of the same faith, such as the Goodrums or the Wimsatts. Bishop Pike of California could have counted, had he been interested, at least one Roman Catholic priest and one nun among his ancestors before Pearl Agatha Wimsatt married James Albert Pike at St. Stephen’s Church, in the diocese of Owensboro, Kentucky, in 1907.
Pearl Pike soon took financial and emotional control of their marriage. The same year as their wedding, they moved to Oklahoma to take advantage of the Homestead Act’s offer of title to 160 acres to any settler willing to improve unclaimed western land. James Pike Sr., who had contracted tuberculosis, plainly was not meant to be a farmer. For the first planting season, as her husband struggled to clear their land of mesquite brush, Pearl supplied them with ready cash by teaching part-time and, occasionally, playing piano in theaters as accompaniment to silent films. Her husband’s health was somewhat improved by a short recuperative visit to Arizona, and Pearl Pike persuaded the Oklahoma school where she taught to hire her husband as the principal—although in later years she was quick to add, “I told him what to do, of course.”
James Pike soon became too consumptive to work the farm, and the couple moved to Oklahoma City, where Pearl obtained a job as a full-time teacher. In 1912, she learned that she was pregnant. Hers was a difficult pregnancy to carry to term, and, with her husband increasingly weakened, she asked her mother to come from Kentucky to act both as a comforter and as a midwife. She went into labor for a full day and much of the succeeding night; finally, after midnight, James Pike Jr. was born in the early morning hours of St. Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1913. His father would survive him by only two years.
The future bishop was thereby fated by his birth and his father’s subsequent death to be the sole male within a matriarchal family, its only child, and a cradle Catholic. His mother doted on him. Even in her old age she enjoyed telling visitors how her son had “started out a winner.” When he was one year old, in Pearl Pike’s retelling, “I entered him in the Better Babies contest at the state fair, and he received the first prize, the highest score out of four hundred babies; and when he was two years old he won it again.”
After his father’s death from tuberculosis in 1915, the future bishop’s friends later remembered, “for all practical purposes, James had known no father.” Pearl Pike reacted to her husband’s death as she later reacted in her life to all such adversities: decisively, pragmatically, and unsentimentally. She rejected staying permanently in Oklahoma or returning back east to Kentucky. Although she had no relatives awaiting her in Los Angeles, the average yearly salary for a public schoolteacher in California was nearly twice the combined yearly salaries for teachers in Oklahoma and Kentucky; and Los Angeles was then widely advertised in the Midwest as overflowing “with medium-priced apartment houses.” She and her son moved to the city in 1921.
California thus became for the young James Pike the locale of his boyhood and adolescent memories, but the family’s relocation was also the source of his deepest social insecurities. From ages eight to ten, Pike attended five different schools and called six different addresses home, as his mother moved from one affordable rental location to another, including, briefly, an apartment on Sunset Boulevard. Eventually, his mother purchased a house a few blocks south of Hollywood and Vine.
There were also occasional male visitors at their new home. “I was rather young and not too bad to look at,” Pearl Pike later recalled of her first widowhood in Hollywood, “and went with lots of men and had opportunities to marry.” James Pike apparently both felt jealous for his mother’s company and identified with her situation. By elementary school age, he had developed a habit of seeking out his mother before his bedtime and kneeling beside her while praying aloud for God to send them both “a good father.”
Their house at 6248 Afton Place was at the periphery of a middle-class neighborhood in North Hollywood, and for the next thirteen years, James Pike would call this address home. Afton Place was a street of pastel bungalows with pepper trees in the yards, red-tile roofs, and a few other distinctively Hollywood features. Across an industrial boulevard at one end of Afton Place, within one block of the Pike house, were the buildings of the RKO and Columbia motion pictures studios. At the other end was located a small city park with an oversized bronze statue of a nude male climbing a world globe. This work of public art was entitled Aspiration, and had been erected in memory of Rudolph Valentino.
Their home was at the outmost periphery of conventionally practiced religion in Los Angeles. Only a short drive eastward on Hollywood Boulevard were places of urban worship profoundly disturbing to rural Catholics from Kentucky. There was, for example, the ornate Angelus Temple, the 5,300-seat religious auditorium that was also the penthouse home of the white-robed evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, who nightly broadcast from the temple’s radio station her religious services and her urgent appeals for cash. Or turning southward a few blocks from the Pike home, across the invisible line of the future Route 66, was the most sanctified building in the United States among Pentecostal Protestants. This was the Apostolic Faith Gospel Mission at 312 Azuma Street. The mission, although quiescent by the late 1920s, had attracted thousands of black and white Pentecostals in the first decades of the century, loudly celebrating what the Los Angeles Times dismissed as a “weird babble of tongues,” or what the Pentecostals consider the divine gift of glossolalia. (When this phenomenon began to occur within the Episcopal Church in California in the early 1960s, then-Bishop Pike would issue a pastoral letter describing glossolalia as “heresy in embryo.”)
The Roman Catholic Church by comparison offered to the young James Pike what he perceived as stability and a social respectability. The boy desired both. By the time he was a student at nearby Hollywood High School, Pike “had a regular routine,” in his mother’s words. Daily, he attended early morning mass at Blessed Sacrament Church, locally described as the “Church of the Stars,” at 6657 Sunset Boulevard. Afterward, he would breakfast with his grandmother and aunt at their house directly across the street from the Hollywood High campus. (The two women had moved from Kentucky to assist Pearl financially in supporting her son.) This morning worship usually was not Pike’s only daily visit to Blessed Sacrament. In the afternoons on his way home from school, his mother recalled, Pike “would stop at the church to talk with a very fine elderly priest.”
After Pike’s death, two friends, William Stringfellow and Anthony Towne, speculated that his adolescent piety was a sublimation of his need for a father and his desire for a total intimacy with his mother, vicariously experienced by their shared Catholic faith. Possibly these claims are accurate; if so, Pike managed his adolescence with a minimal display of rebellion or turmoil. In 1924, the year he was at the cusp of age twelve, his mother married the second of her three husbands, a Los Angeles attorney named Claude McFadden. It was not necessarily a love match; McFadden was more than a decade older than his bride, and he was a Protestant to boot. (Pearl Pike in her old age and final widowhood remarked unapologetically that she had married both her second and third husbands primarily for the advantages they brought her son.) After his mother’s second marriage, James Pike acted his part well; a lawyer friend of McFadden was pleased to note in the mid-1930s that the young Jim Pike displayed toward his stepfather “all the respect, love, and obedience due a father.” But it is likely that Pike gave his first loyalties to the priests at Blessed Sacrament and to his mother, whom he continued even in his late teens to call “Mommy.”
While he lived at home and was a student at Hollywood High, Jim Pike was not unpopular with his classmates, but he suffered from the twin disadvantages of being physically smaller and a year younger than most members of his class, having been promoted one year ahead because of good grades. His senior photograph in the Hollywood High yearbook, The Poinsettia, is instructive both in its placement and in comparison with those of other graduates of the class of 1930. Most of the young women in this school annual look directly at the camera with a startlingly frank sexuality, many of them affecting the gold-tinted marcels in their hair worn by Mary Pickford in the 1929 motion picture Coquette. The young men mainly appear as solidly built and wide-shouldered, with thick pompadours. One almost feels sorry for Jim Pike, whose photographic caption contains no college or vocational choice, and whose senior picture is sandwiched between the photographs of Richard “Dick” Pattee, who plans to enter the Army Aviation Corps, and Bill Rambo, who aims to study engineering and play football at Georgia Tech. By comparison, Pike appears puckish, narrow-chested, and scholarly.
Pike had in fact decided to become a Roman Catholic priest after graduation. He wanted to go directly into a preparatory seminary and thereby spare his mother the costs of an undergraduate education. “Well, Mommy,” Pearl McFadden remembered her son arguing with her, “they [seminary priests] will educate me and you won’t have that expense.” His mother was adamant. “No, you must finish college first. You are too young to make a decision that serious.” At her insistence, Pike enrolled for regular baccalaureate studies in 1930 at the University of Santa Clara, a Jesuit institution located in what was then a farming and ranching valley south of San Francisco. The school offered a soundly Catholic education, a rural remoteness from urban temptation, and a rugged, all-male student body best known for collegiate athletics. There he would join his classmates in being instructed, as the university’s president assured Catholic parents such as Pike’s mother, by clerical faculty who were “not merely clever men, not merely good men, but good men who are clever.”
It was Pike’s good fortune to find two outstanding mentors among the faculty at Santa Clara, Walter Kropp and James F. Giambastiani. Although neither was yet a priest, each finishing the teaching regency required of scholastics before ordination, Pike immediately called both of them “Father.” Giambastiani was the more outgoing of the two. (He had studied at a seminary at Rome, and could be persuaded occasionally by the Santa Clara undergraduates to perform a wickedly humorous parody of Benito Mussolini.) He took an immediate liking to Pike. Nearly forty years later, Giambastiani clearly remembered teaching the “brilliant young Jim Pike,” whose “ideas flashed through his mind with such rapidity that they collided.” Both teachers nurtured their new pupil’s talents in literature and journalism, and Giambastiani and Kropp, rather than any of his contemporaries at Santa Clara, became Pike’s most long-lasting friends and correspondents from his student days. Kropp would continue to write letters to his former student for the next three decades, and always wish him the blessing of “Pax Christi.” Giambastiani would live long enough to pray at mass for the soul of Pike’s adult son, Jim, who died a suicide in 1966, and to pray for James Pike himself after his death in Israel in 1969.
These two instructors were encouraged by their promising student’s early expressions of his intent to become a Jesuit; they apparently had no inkling, until Pike permanently left the school at the end of his sophomore year, that he had undergone a radical reversal of his Christian belief, and that in his second year of college found it no longer possible to believe in the Roman Catholic faith or to continue a Catholic education. “I left the college, the church, and my vocation to the priesthood and was a thoroughgoing agnostic humanist for some years,” he later wrote of his decision in 1932. Such a decision was personally and spiritually a momentous one for the twenty-year-old Pike. Not only did it represent a rejection of the only moral authority he had known and previously obeyed literally for all of his childhood and adolescence, but it also was a declared spiritual separation from his mother. All the more unusual, then, is how varied and sparse were the reasons Pike later gave for this decision, as expressed by him throughout subsequent decades not only in his public statements but also in his personal letters to his mother.
Excerpted from A Passionate Pilgrim by David Robertson. Copyright © 2006 by David M. Robertson. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.