Paulette Cooper, Scientology’s Original and Worst Nightmare: A Thanksgiving Tribute by the Village Voice


I couldn’t think of a better way to give thanks this year than to pay homage to the woman who was there first, paid the highest price, and remains a mentor, an inspiration, and a total class act.

In gratitude to our many loyal Scientology watchers who have made this year so special, here at the Voice we are excited to present a Thanksgiving tribute to Scientology’s first and worst nightmare, the one, the only, Paulette Cooper.

40 years ago, Paulette published her stunning expose of the church, The Scandal of Scientology, and we also didn’t want that anniversary to go unmarked. So over the last several weeks, I’ve been in touch with Paulette, talking to her about her book, about its famous aftermath, and learning about someone who has been encouraging me over my entire career. Here then is the Paulette that I’ve gotten to know.

Forty years after its publication, a physical copy of The Scandal of Scientology isn’t easy to find. You’ll pay about 90 bucks for one at eBay. Fortunately, you can still read it for free online (she links to it from her own website), where I spent some time recently reminding myself just how good the book is.

Scandal may show its age here and there as it refers to controversies that were long ago lost in the mists of time, but Cooper is describing for the most part a fundamentalist organization that fiercely resists change. The Scientology she’s writing about in 1971 is completely consistent with the church today, and that’s the reason most of her descriptions feel so fresh and accurate.

Take almost any chapter as an example. Here, from Chapter 12, “The World of Scientology”:

L. Ron Hubbard, or “Ron,” is the unquestionable leader of this world and some of his Orgs are said to have an office for him just in case he should drop by. Although he never does, his presence is felt, seen and heard nonetheless. In one room, Scientologists may be listening to tapes of him speaking on Scientology, in the next room others may be doing their homework (which often consists of reading one of his books and sometimes writing a synopsis on it), and elsewhere, newcomers may be watching a movie about him. Huge posters of his face hang from the walls, statues of him rise from the floor, and photographs abound, sometimes of Hubbard in a nautical outfit with one of his ships as a background.

Hubbard may have left his body for higher planes of existence in 1986, but that description of what an org is like, with its obsession for Ron and his works, is as true today as it was four decades ago.

I told Paulette that I was particularly stunned by the depth of her research on Hubbard’s background, his family, and his tall tales. (She thoroughly debunked his college claims, for example, showing that he had done poorly and left George Washington University without a degree.)

Today, we are so spoiled by the Internet and all that it provides reporters. I told her it must have been a monumental amount of work to track down all that information in the age of dial telephones and paper databases.

But she let me in on a secret: she didn’t hesitate to play a little fast and loose.

“Do you know what pretext calling is? In those days, it was the height of investigative journalism,” she told me with a laugh. (Another thing you learn about Paulette — she has a wonderful, and wonderfully wicked, sense of humor.)

“I remembered that Hubbard had written that his father was a ‘commander H. L. Hubbard,’ so I looked up the phone book in Tilden, Nebraska, where Hubbard was born,” she told me. Sure enough, there was a Harry Hubbard listed.

“I called him up and told him I was Paula Hubbard and I wondered if we were relatives.”

On that pretext, she got the old man talking. “That’s how I was able to get the names of Hubbard’s relatives. The locations of weddings, the places where I could get birth certificates,” she says.

“Harry Hubbard,” she laughs again. “He was hardly a ‘commander.’ But he was delighted to talk to me. He went on and on.”

Very clever. But then Paulette is not one to be underestimated. She was born in 1942 in a Nazi detention camp, shortly before her parents were killed at Auschwitz. She was subsequently raised in Belgian orphanages before being adopted by an American couple named Cooper, who brought her to the U.S. at 6.

By 1968, she was 26 years old, an experienced freelance reporter in New York City, and was looking for a new project, something that would take some guts.

“I was working as a copywriter in BBDO, like Peggy in Mad Men — you know she’s a Scientologist, right?” she asks, referring to the actress who plays Peggy, Elisabeth Moss. “My boyfriend became a Scientologist. He thought he was Jesus Christ. I went to our boss, who had also got into Scientology, and I told him what my boyfriend had said about being Jesus. ‘Maybe he really is,’ my boss answered.”

With that kind of introduction, Paulette says her interest in Scientology was piqued. “I got curious about it. I wanted a good investigative subject. Before that I had stowed away on the Leonardo da Vinci for a week. So I was looking for a splashy story to do again.”

So she went for a weekend of classes at the local org, which in those days was in the Hotel Martinique, at 32nd Street and Broadway. (Today, the org is on 46th Street, and the Hotel Martinique is a Radisson.)

“I wasn’t feeling negative about Scientology until I went there and spent the weekend. At that point I was tremendously turned off,” she says. As she writes in the book, during a bull-baiting session, her handlers began to scream at her that she was really a writer trying to infiltrate the church. She had to remain composed, and deny it. But she tells me she was pretty sure they weren’t just testing her, that they already knew she was a writer.

The result of her research was a lengthy December, 1969, article in Queen, a British magazine: “The Tragi-Farce of Scientology.” She followed that in 1971 with the book. But even before it was published, she knew that Scientology was going to fight back, and in a serious way.

“I…felt that they were a Nazi-like organization, and kept thinking that if more people in Germany had spoken out in the ’30’s, my parents and millions of others would have lived. But despite this outward show of courage, I was already becoming afraid and anxious in 1970 and 1971 since there was already some harassment,” she wrote later in a “harassment diary” of what she went through at the hands of Scientology.

Over the next dozen years, she would face 19 separate lawsuits by Scientology. But Paulette’s harassment by the church was not restricted to lawsuits, or to intimidating and obscene letters, or to harassing phone calls. She is remembered today for enduring years of the most intense, most underhanded and complex covert targeting by an organization that has become legendary for its retaliation techniques.

And at the center of that campaign against her, there’s still an intriguing mystery, all these years later: a fingerprint that had Paulette facing 15 years in prison.

At the end of 1972, Paulette first heard from FBI agents that someone had sent two letters to the Scientology org in New York — the one at the Hotel Martinique — threatening to blow it up. The agents told her James Meisler, head of PR at the org, had suspected Paulette of sending them. She denied it, but agreed to be fingerprinted. Then, in February 1973, she was called to testify to a grand jury. She writes in her diary that she actually looked forward to it, thinking that she would be treated as an expert witness on Scientology and would be able to talk about the strange letters she had received and other forms of harassment. Instead, she found that she was the target of the grand jury’s investigation — her fingerprint had been found on the second of the two bomb threat letters.

After denying that she had written either of the letters, she was told by John D. Gordon III of the US Attorney’s office, who was prosecuting the case, that he believed she was lying. He told her to expect that she’d be indicted for perjury as well as mailing the bomb threats.

On May 9, 1973, she was indicted. Ten days later, she was arrested and arraigned. And her nightmare would continue for years as she tried to prove that she had been framed. What she most feared was a trial, which would have made her case public. Imagine what the New York Post would have written, she told me.

“I was a young travel writer living in Manhattan,” she says, pointing out that in 1973, that wasn’t the most wholesome image in an era with very different attitudes about independent working women. What made it worse was that she was accused of trying to blow up a church — and one that few people really knew anything about. If the Post had got wind of that scenario, she would have been ruined, she says. (I can easily see it — “Bomb Beauty Wanted to Blow Up Holy Hotel,” for example.)

But on October 31, 1973, the day that her trial was supposed to begin, the government instead postponed it for a year. She was told to see a psychiatrist, try to deal with her problems, and if no further bomb threats showed up in that year, perhaps the whole thing would go away.

“I was terrified that whole year, worried that Scientology would pull something else out about me,” she says.

What had changed the government’s mind? I managed to track down the former secretary to John Gordon who, after leaving the prosecutor’s office, worked for many years for Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, a large, prestigious law firm, until his retirement. She forwarded my request to speak with him about Paulette’s case, but he didn’t get in touch with me.

Paulette believes that by October 1973, the case against her was already starting to fall apart because of Nibs.

L. Ron Hubbard Jr. — the familly called him “Nibs,” and he later changed his name to Ron DeWolf — was a tortured soul who had spent little time in Scientology, but who alternately spent time trying to expose the lies of his father and other times trying to get back in his father’s good graces.

Paulette spent considerable time with him, helping him write material about his father in the summer of 1972. But she didn’t get along well with him, and came to consider him a “total phony.” And she believes it was something Nibs showed a man named Roy Wallis that finally began to turn things around for her with prosecutors.

Wallis, a sociologist, interviewed both Paulette and Nibs for his own book, The Road to Total Freedom, which would come out in 1976. At one point, Nibs showed Wallis letters which suggested that he had offered to make his father’s publicity nightmares go away with a single stroke — that is, by having Paulette put in prison. The letters suggested that Nibs was working with the church to frame Paulette, and Wallis took copies of the letters to prosecutors. Also, Paulette took a “truth serum” test that indicated she had been telling the truth. Because of that test and the Nibs letters, she says, the government’s desire to put her away seemed to lessen.

Still, she remained under a cloud until 1977, and her health suffered as she worried about her secret coming out in the open. That first summer, as she awaited trial, she says she got down to 83 pounds and became suicidal. As she writes in her diary, her cousin also experienced a bizarre attack that may have been intended for Paulette. Vile letters with personal information about Paulette’s health, meanwhile, continued to arrive in her mail, and other letters suggesting that she was of questionable character would be sent to her neighbors.

One way she coped with it all was to get out of the country. She would take travel writing assignments to far away places in part to keep away from the harassment. And it was while returning from one of those trips, in July, 1977, while on an airplane heading back from Africa, that she read in the International Herald Tribune a story that utterly stunned her: the FBI had raided the Church of Scientology’s offices in Washington DC and Los Angeles, finding evidence of what is to this day the largest infiltration of government offices in US history. The FBI also found evidence of a bizarre covert operation, the framing of a writer named Paulette Cooper.

“From first bomb threat to exoneration was five years. But then I had to wait another four years to get copies of the documents,” she tells me. “I got my revenge when the documents were finally made public. I photocopied every document that listed a name they had done dirty tricks on.” She sent copies of the documents out to news organizations, and eventually stories were done in Readers Digest and on 60 Minutes. “I was able to get them the worst publicity they ever got,” she says.

The documents showed the mania that Scientology’s covert operations wing, the Guardian’s Office, had for her, and the lengths the GO was willing to go to either make her go insane, get her imprisoned, or encourage her to kill herself. Called “Operation Freakout,” the program against Paulette included such plans as trying the bomb threat caper again, this time obtaining her fingerprints on stationery and mailing threats to an Arab consulate. In another plan, a woman would impersonate Cooper and make threats against President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

None of that was carried out. But what frustrated Paulette was that the documents didn’t spell out who had obtained her fingerprint in the earlier scheme — Operation Dynamite — that had resulted in her 1973 indictment.

Since then, she has developed three very different theories about it. One the FBI favored, and it involved Scientologists posing as friends to Paulette in order to get into her apartment to lift her stationery.

But Paulette also came to suspect Nibs. He had spent a lot of time with her in the summer of 1972 as they worked together on a piece of writing. He could have taken a piece of her stationery then. Also, there was the letter he had written, offering to “entrap” her to get back in the good graces of his father. And there was another odd detail: he knew something about her health, a small detail, that showed up on one of the threat letters she received that made her think he was involved.

And then there was a completely different scenario Paulette considered, involving a couple named Bernard and Barbara Greene, who were themselves in litigation against Scientology. An anonymous letter to Paulette’s parents alleged that the Greenes were really behind her harassment. To her astonishment, Paulette was told by a document expert that the anonymous letter, the original bomb threat letter, and a letter Paulette had received from the Greenes had all been typed on the same machine.

I asked Paulette how, all these years later, she could give credit to three such completely, and mutually exclusive, theories of how she was framed. But she told me that these days, she doesn’t give so much credence to the latter two. Nibs may have been involved, at least in giving information about her, and he may also have actually typed up the bomb threat letters, but he probably didn’t obtain her stationery or her fingerprint. The Greenes, meanwhile, were probably a dead end. She now doubts that the document expert was correct about their typewriter.

No, she’s pretty sure, today, she knows how her fingerprint was lifted. And it involved a clipboard, a petition, and a woman who wouldn’t take off her gloves.

Paulette remembers that it was December 6, 1972, a few days before the bomb threat letters began showing up at the Scientology org.

“A mysterious girl named Margie Shepherd came by with a petition for me to sign supporting the United Farm Workers. I gave her a small check. She stayed about a half hour,” Paulette remembers in her diary. She also remembers thinking it odd that the woman never removed her gloves during her visit.

She believes today that “Margie” was working for Scientology, and that taped to the bottom side of her petition’s clipboard was a piece of stationery. When Paulette reached for the clipboard, her finger would have been in the exact position and orientation of the single fingerprint that was later found on the stationery that was used for the second bomb threat letter. Margie didn’t dare take off her own gloves, of course, so that she wouldn’t add her own prints to the piece of blank stationery.

Getting her fingerprint was only the beginning of the operation, Paulette believes. Another Scientologist, this one calling himself “Jerry Levin,” was sent in to befriend Paulette as she began going through the ordeal of the bomb threats and the other harassing letters.

As her relationship with her boyfriend, Bob Straus, crumbled during all the harassment of 1973, Levin offered to move in with her, to share the rent in a platonic relationship. He even offered to serve as a character witness in her trial. “I cringe now when I think of the scenario if that had happened,” she wrote in her diary.

She spent months trusting him, but then spotted his name in a list of Scientologists. Pointing out that his name was a common one, he denied any connection with the church. But soon after that confrontation, he vanished. The FBI concluded that Levin was not only working for the church, but that he was running the operation that obtained her fingerprint and mailed the bomb threats.

“The reason I didn’t suspect Jerry was that most of their spies were very bad, and very obvious. But Jerry was good,” she tells me.

Today, she believes that Levin was not just keeping an eye on her for the church, but that he continually asked her to come up to the rooftop pool of her apartment building, with its narrow ledge, hoping to create an “accident” that might push her over. As outlandish as that sounds, she points out that ex-Scientologist Margery Wakefield, in an affidavit, swore that she had heard plans for the murder of Paulette Cooper while she was still in the church. Paulette never went to the ledge with him; she was such a nervous wreck already, she didn’t want to go near it.

One of the hardest things she went through, she says today, was just getting people to believe that all of the harassment was going on. “If you tell people you’re being followed, they think you’re paranoid,” she says. The experience left her angry and depressed. “I was really very, very bitter.

“People didn’t understand the nefarious nature of Scientology,” she says. “They didn’t understand that they were fanatics who were going to take over the world, and anyone in their way, they could do anything to stop them.”

Even after her exoneration by the FBI, she was still involved in lawsuits with Scientology until an ultimate settlement in 1985 (the terms of which she can’t discuss). Just to give me a sense of what the lawsuits were like, she shared with me an interesting anecdote.

When her book came out, a friend who published a newspaper in New Jersey told her he wanted to help her out with a review, but he didn’t have time to write it. So he asked her to write one herself under a pseudonym. “It was like the way friends write favorable reviews for people on Amazon,” she says. She lived off Madison Avenue, so she came up with the name “Paula Madison” for the short item in her friend’s newspaper.

“For years Scientology was trying to find out who was this Paula Madison who had written a positive review,” she says with a scoffing laugh. “In the lawsuits, they gave me 20,000 interrogatory questions to answer, and there were 49 days of depositions. And they would always ask me for any correspondence with Paula Madison.”

I got the distinct impression that she doesn’t miss her days battling in court with the church.

Paulette never wrote about Scientology again. But she never lost interest in it, either.

In 1995, I began writing about Scientology, and in 1999 and 2000 I was writing quite a lot about it in Los Angeles. At some point, I started receiving e-mails from someone who praised my work and told me to keep at it. I was stunned when I realized it was that Paulette Cooper. And I know that I’m not the only writer she has befriended and encouraged.

In May, Paulette surprised even herself when, on a vacation in Denmark, she spotted a Scientology “org” and decided to stop in.

“Have you heard of Scientology, they asked me. Yes, I have, which is why I’m not staying, I answered.” She recounted the story for me with a laugh, and then sent a photo.

“When I die, I want my ashes sprinkled over the nearest org so I have the last word.”

These days, Paulette lives in Palm Beach, Florida, and she writes about local subjects (her newest book is about bargain shopping in Fort Lauderdale). And she writes about cats and dogs. It’s not as exciting as some subjects, she acknowledges.

“Hey, cats don’t sue you, dogs don’t harass you,” she points out.

She continues to keep an eye on what’s happening with Scientology, and reads new reporting about it. “I do read it. I love seeing any difficulties they get into. But I think that the Internet people are unrealistic. They’ll e-mail me and say we’ll wipe them off the planet for you. I think Scientology is going to be around. They may get down to 5,000 people left, but they won’t go away.”

The church’s number one problem? Its leader, David Miscavige, she says. “He’s reading all this stuff. He knows that this is counterproductive. And yet when he reads that, shouldn’t he realize that he’s doing something wrong, that people are leaving en masse? There’s no introspection. But I love him, because I think he’s doing more than anything to hurt them than anyone since me. So as far as I’m concerned, just let him keep going,” she says.

“It could be his height. A lot of short men are very pugnacious,” she adds, trying to explain Miscavige’s unrelenting, aggressive program that seems to be pushing the church over a cliff. “Thanks to DM, they won’t enter the area of semi-respectability that the Mormons have.”

Well, if Scientology’s reputation only gets worse with each year, Paulette’s never dims. She remains an inspiration for the many journalists who have come after her. The research in her book is impeccable, the portrait it paints of Scientology is as accurate today as when it was published in 1971, and no one, to this day, has paid the kind of price she did for simply investigating and conveying the truth about a secretive and litigious cabal.

So, this Thanksgiving, I offer my personal thanks to Paulette Cooper for the trail she blazed.

I had wanted to append a special treat to the end of this tribute: I asked Mark Bunker, who recently interviewed Paulette for his upcoming documentary, Knowledge Report, to provide me with a short excerpt for this story. Bunker was happy to help me out, and put an excerpt on his YouTube channel for me to use. Alas, the eagle-eyed researchers over at spotted the excerpt, and made it public several days go. Such is the nature of the Internet! Well, if the surprise has been spoiled, the excerpt itself is still a gem. And here it is…

The Top 25 People Crippling Scientology
#1: L. Ron Hubbard
#2: David Miscavige
#3: Marty Rathbun
#4: Tom Cruise
#5: Joe Childs and Tom Tobin
#6: Anonymous
#7: Mark Bunker
#8: Mike Rinder
#9: Jason Beghe
#10: Lisa McPherson
#11: Nick Xenophon (and other public servants)
#12: Tommy Davis (and other hapless church executives)
#13: Janet Reitman (and other journalists)
#14: Tory Christman (and other noisy ex-Scientologists)
#15: Andreas Heldal-Lund (and other old time church critics)
#16: Marc and Claire Headley, escapees of the church’s HQ
#17: Jefferson Hawkins, the man behind the TV volcano
#18: Amy Scobee, former Sea Org executive
#19: The Squirrel Busters (and the church’s other thugs and goons)
#20: Trey Parker and Matt Stone (and other media figures)
#21: Kendrick Moxon, attorney for the church
#22: Jamie DeWolf (and other L. Ron Hubbard family members)
#23: Ken Dandar (and other attorneys who litigate against the church)
#24: David Touretzky (and other academics)
#25: Xenu, galactic overlord

Tony Ortega is the editor-in-chief of The Village Voice. Since 1995, he’s been writing about Scientology at several publications.

@VoiceTonyO | Facebook: Tony Ortega



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