We’re just two days away from Alex Gibney’s documentary about Scientology, Going Clear, airing on HBO on Sunday at 8 pm. Today we have another screenshot from the movie for you, and it features Sylvia “Spanky” Taylor, someone we’ve known for a very long time.
Her involvement in Scientology and friendship with John Travolta are told masterfully by Lawrence Wright in the book that Gibney’s film is based on. Her tale was also one of the most surprising things to show up in Larry’s book, at least for us. Spanky had been a source for some of us reporters for a long time, helping us understand how Scientology worked, especially in Hollywood. But she had insisted that she never wanted to be written about. For Larry Wright she changed her mind, and we’re glad she did. Her story is a crucial part of the book and also one of the best parts of the film.
We wanted to fill in just a few details you might be hungering for about this really unique person who has been careful about releasing information about her life.
Sylvia Yvonne Theresa Piñón was born on January 22, 1953 in San Jose to a father who was employed by the city to repair automobiles, and a mother who had been a migrant worker and toiled in a cannery before she learned to invest in real estate. Sylvia picked up the nickname “Spanky” in school, and by only 14, she was finding herself becoming curious about Scientology because of the guys she met in People!, a local band.
“Al Ribisi played keyboard. Robbie Levin played bass — he went on to play for Rick Springfield — and his brother Geoff was a guitar player. They were all Scientologists,” Spanky says. “I was all about local music. I was also an activist. I wanted to stop the war, I was organizing student strikes in high school. And I think that’s why Scientology appealed to me. The guys said it was about fixing things.” They were also charismatic and good looking, and through Scientology they were attaining super powers on the OT levels. As she explains in the film, that sounded good to her — she wanted super powers too.
“And then I started to get to do concert promotion. I was very young. They would pay me with tickets. I was truly innocent and untouched by human hands,” she says with a laugh.
By 15, she was working on staff at Scientology’s Santa Clara mission, and then a few years later, in 1971, she signed a billion-year contract to join the Sea Org. The guys in People! had joined the Sea Org as well, and had convinced their superiors that they were more valuable staying together as a band and putting on concerts for Scientology recruiting. Spanky, meanwhile, continued to do concert promotion through a Scientology front called Axioms Productions.
“We booked Scientology performers on college tours,” she says. And one of the wildest acts she handled was a large ensemble that put on a show that was part circus, part musical revue that called itself the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo.
The act was the brainchild of Richard Elfman, who is to this day an avid member of the Church of Scientology.
“We used to do these large college tours. They were part of the tour, and they were being used to disseminate Scientology,” Spanky says. “They were proselytizing on college campuses. I don’t know if they were all Scientologists, but they were on college tours booked by a Scientology company. And literature was handed out at their shows.”
Richard later gave leadership of Oingo Boingo over to his younger brother, Danny Elfman, who was not a Scientologist, and it developed into one of the most popular Los Angeles bands of the 1980s. Meanwhile, Richard’s son, the actor Bodhi Elfman, is a member of the church and is married to another well known Scientology celebrity, Jenna Elfman.
In 1972, the Axioms office was across the street from Scientology’s Celebrity Centre (not where it is today), and after Axioms dissolved in 1973, Spanky went to work at the Celebrity Centre itself. When she worked there, Spanky lived in squalid conditions at Sea Org berthing at a dilapidated place called the Wilcox Hotel.
“My being in the Sea Org was difficult for my parents. They used to come visit me, and then they’d go to visit my aunt, and it would get back to me that my dad would just break down and cry,” she says. Each of her parents had worked hard to overcome humble beginnings, and it was difficult to see their daughter living in such a dump. “He couldn’t stand the conditions I was living in. But they never told me I’d made a mistake,” she says.
On the positive side, at the Celebrity Centre, Spanky worked for Yvonne Gillham and it was a thrill.
“Yvonne was L. Ron Hubbard’s PPRO (Personal Public Relations Officer), and I was Yvonne’s PPRO. She was extraordinary. And the kindest person — she was not the typical Scientology executive.”
It was their job to bring celebrities into the fold and then keep them there, and that’s how Spanky met John Travolta a couple of years later.
He had been recruited into Scientology by Joan Prather — they were both young actors in a 1975 horror film, Devil’s Rain, also starring Ernest Borgnine, Eddie Albert, and William Shatner. It was Travolta’s first movie, and by the end of it, he wanted to learn more about what he’d been told about Scientology by Prather. While he was taking a class at the Celebrity Centre, Travolta landed his big break, a role in the TV series Welcome Back Kotter, which began airing in September 1975. Yvonne assigned Spanky to become Travolta’s Scientology “terminal,” and she began helping him navigate the weird experience of sudden fame.
In 1976, Travolta starred in a made-for-TV movie, The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, and started a relationship with the actress who had played his mother in the story, Diana Hyland. She was 18 years his senior. Spanky says they didn’t date long, but Travolta remained close to her. Hyland had already battled cancer and underwent a double mastectomy before meeting Travolta. Then her cancer came back. She died in March 1977 in Travolta’s arms.
“He went away to New York to film Saturday Night Fever. He was still pretty raw from Diana’s death,” Spanky says. Then, she remembers, another death affected them both: In August, Elvis Presley died. Spanky says Travolta heard from Priscilla Presley, who had divorced Elvis in 1973. She had found among her ex-husband’s things various books on Scientology and admitted she was curious about them.
“So John sent me over, and that’s how I recruited Priscilla Presley into Scientology,” Spanky says, and she makes it sound like Travolta was watching out for his friend, Priscilla.
“Wouldn’t some people say Travolta sent you to recruit Priscilla at a time when she was vulnerable?” we asked.
“Some people might say that,” Spanky answered.
Meanwhile, Yvonne Gillham was becoming increasingly ill, while at the same time Spanky was getting ready to have her first child. In October she gave birth to her daughter Vanessa, and that same month, while in Mexico, Yvonne suffered a stroke. She had insisted that she needed to go to “Flag,” Scientology’s spiritual headquarters in Clearwater, Florida, to get auditing that she believed would heal her. And Spanky wanted it for Yvonne so bad, she ended up yelling at an uncooperative Scientology official that by not agreeing to pay for a flight, she was in essence Yvonne’s assassin. Spanky believes this outburst would come back to bite her a little later.
For now, however, her good friend John Travolta was about to celebrate his biggest triumph yet — the premiere of Saturday Night Fever in December. It made him an even bigger international star than he already was.
In January 1978, Yvonne Gillham died of a brain tumor she might have survived if she’d sought medical treatment sooner. Over the next month, Spanky knew she was being looked at by Scientology management because of her earlier outburst, and she knew she was at risk. Meanwhile, she realized that Travolta wasn’t doing well. He was still depressed about Hyland’s death, and his own mother had also developed cancer. After promoting Saturday Night Fever in France, he told Spanky he was flying back to Los Angeles and wanted her to meet him at the airport. She swore that she’d be there. “Wild horses wouldn’t keep me from being there,” she told him.
But then, the next day, she got the news that she feared: She was being assigned to the Rehabilitation Project Force. The RPF was the Sea Org’s prison detail, and she would be forced to wear a black boiler suit, run from location to location, work at menial tasks, and eat table scraps. She also wouldn’t be able to communicate with anyone, including Travolta.
“You don’t understand. I have to get to the airport,” she said. No, you’re not going, she was told.
“I cried, I cajoled, I did everything I could, but nothing helped. They sent Joni Labaqui instead (a Sea Org official who today runs the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest for Scientology). I was told when he asked, where’s Spanky, Joni told him “She’s being handled.”
Spanky spent the next seven months in the RPF, housed on the top floor of the main, V-shaped building painted blue you see in great drone shots during the movie Going Clear. In the film, Spanky explains how terrible the conditions were for her, and even worse for her infant daughter. Also, she was pregnant again and was losing weight. She worried about losing both of her children. But then, church officials made a stunning request: Could she get a print of Saturday Night Fever that they could screen for the base’s workers? Shocked, Spanky explained to them that while she was on the RPF, she didn’t even have access to a telephone. But they arranged for her to use one, and she called Travolta’s office, surprising the people there. They hadn’t heard anything about her since she had failed to show up to pick up Travolta at the airport seven months earlier.
She was allowed to use Travolta’s personal print of the film if she agreed to see him, but at the last minute Heber Jentzsch told her to call Travolta (already after midnight, after the screening) and tell him that part was off. Spanky says Travolta was livid. Soon after that, she realized how ill her daughter was, and she decided to make her escape, which is dramatized skillfully in Gibney’s film.
Wright describes how Scientology officials managed to convince Spanky to “route out” of the Sea Org properly after her escape so she could remain in the good graces of Scientology. (She did it mainly, she says, because her husband at the time was involved in the legal bureau of Scientology’s Guardian’s Office and she didn’t want to cause trouble for him.)
Then, in October 1979, a Scientology official asked if she help recover John Travolta.
She learned that since her incident with the RPF, Travolta had been distancing himself from the church, and was no longer auditing. It worried the church executive, who offered to fly Spanky to Houston, where Travolta was filming Urban Cowboy. Spanky agreed.
“I didn’t know that he’d see me. I called the same woman who had helped me escape from the RPF, who worked for John, and she said I should try. So I wrote John a letter. I then asked her what happened. She told me he cried and he wanted to see me. So I flew to Houston.”
She brought him a tub of homemade cookies to the house he was renting during the filming.
“Let me look at you, he said. He gave me a big hug and said, Spanky, what happened? I told him I went to the RPF and I really believed that I was going to get better and help more. And then I asked him why he was getting away from the church. He said, ‘You weren’t around.’
“He said he would go back and get services,” Spanky says, explaining that she convinced him to buy a large amount of auditing to ensure that he’d get involved again.
“I regged him,” Spanky says.
We wanted to make sure we got this right. After making her dramatic escape from the Sea Org, when she thought the lives of her children were in danger, just a year later she went to Travolta and hit him up for a large donation to the church to pay for auditing, “regging” him like she was a “registrar” (sales specialist) for the church?
“How much was it?” we asked.
“It was a lot.”
Spanky says they talked for hours. Then, the next day, Travolta had her brought down to the Gillie’s set to watch filming.
She then received a letter from L. Ron Hubbard which said, “Well done.” She was asked if there was any reward she wanted for her effort.
“I asked Hubbard to FES John’s folder,” Spanky says. (A “Folder Error Summary” would find if there had been any errors in Travolta’s auditing.) “That’s how wackadoo I was. Oh, absolutely, that will happen, they told me.” (Just a few months later, in February 1980, Hubbard went into permanent hiding until his death in January 1986.)
“It’s embarrassing to think about now,” she adds. “They sent out someone to audit him, and I was Dead Agented in no time at all.” In other words, Travolta was told not to trust her.
She found out about it, that she’d been secretly “declared” a “suppressive person,” when Priscilla Presley told her that when she ran into John and said she would set up a social visit by calling Spanky, he’d told her, “No, don’t go through Spanky.”
“It was a shock to both Priscilla and me. I thought John and I were going to stay connected.”
She says she did see him for a few lunches over the next few years, but the feeling wasn’t the same.
Spanky was having a difficult time adjusting to life outside the Sea Org, and eventually she began getting counseling. She was told that what she really needed was an intervention with a specialist who understood Scientology. She found that the local Jewish Federation was willing to help her find a specialist, and also find funding for it.
She still remembers the day when the intervention specialist walked through the door. It was Hana Eltringham Whitfield.
“You could have knocked me over with a feather when she walked in the room. She had been the Deputy Commodore!”
Hana Whitfield had left Scientology five years earlier, and then, with her husband, Jerry Whitfield, had developed an intervention program to help others leave the organization. Over the course of several days, Hana and Jerry helped Spanky learn about controlling groups and their methods, and taught her how to recognize how Scientology had handicapped her critical thinking skills with “thought-stopping” vocabulary and ideas.
“I had to do some real repair work to go from leaving the Sea Org to leaving Scientology. But I had the benefit of this incredible intervention.”
Spanky left Scientology for good in 1987. But it was more of a struggle than ever to find a way to make ends meet.
“I just started doing freelance publicity to earn a living,” she says. But she proved very good at it.
To this day, Spanky represents high-profile entertainers and manages their relationships to fans, including threat assessments for obsessive fan situations.
And she’s not used to being the one on the red carpet. At the Sundance Festival, she admitted that she wasn’t entirely comfortable with all of the attention she was getting because of the movie.
But we could tell that she was fairly beaming that the person joining her up by the big screen after the show was her daughter, Vanessa, the one she had had to rescue in 1978. And at a Los Angeles screening, both of her children hit the red carpet.
Hey, Travolta, Spanky is out in the open. Isn’t it time you spoke up yourself?
Posted by Tony Ortega on March 27, 2015 at 07:00
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