This story first appeared in the Jan. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine
Before Tom Cruise, John Travolta was the biggest celebrity Scientologist, joining during the mid-’70s when he was on the cusp of fame. The Church assigned Sylvia “Spanky” Taylor, a young, vivacious Sea Org member, as his liaison. She became his friend and confidante, helping him deal with his breakout success in Welcome Back, Kotter (1975) and Saturday Night Fever (1977). Their friendship unraveled in 1977, when the Church sent Taylor to Rehabilitation Project Force (RPF), its disciplinary program, and took custody of her child for opposing its treatment of her mentor. Ultimately, Scientology officials forced her out of the Church, and Travolta ended their relationship as detailed by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Lawrence Wright in this exclusive excerpt from his book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief.
Although in the book, Wright provides detailed notes on his sources and extensive research over the years, representatives for the Church declined to grant him interviews. Karin Pouw of the Church, in a statement to THR, said, “Of the 200 people [Wright] spoke with, only 9 were Scientologists. … Most of the remaining 200 were apostates, many who have shopped similar false claims to the gossip media for years.” (Read Pouw’s complete response here.) — Andy Lewis
“Spanky” was a schoolyard nickname for Sylvia, but it had such a teasing twist that she could never escape it. She was the child of Mexican-American laborers in San Jose, Calif. When she was 14, she became a fan of a local band called People!, which included several Scientologists, and began helping it with concert promotion. Soon she was working with some of the other great local bands, including Creedence Clearwater Revival. Scientology was just another expression of the political and cultural upheaval of the times. Even members of The Grateful Dead were drawn to its promise of mystical experiences without hallucinogens. She joined the staff at the Santa Clara mission in 1969, when she was 15.
She was a cheerful young woman with warm brown eyes who called everyone “honey.” Because of her experience with promotion, she was posted to the Celebrity Centre in Los Angeles. The place was constantly buzzing with activity — tie-dyeing, fencing, poetry readings — and she loved it. Famous people were always passing through, which added to the sense that something fun and important was happening there. Spanky inevitably came to the notice of the Centre’s founder Yvonne Gillham, who arranged for her to work with high-profile followers.(1)
One celebrity quickly took precedence. Travolta was in Mexico making his first film, The Devil’s Rain, a cheap horror movie starring Ernest Borgnine and William Shatner. He got to be friends with Joan Prather, who was one of the few castmembers his age. “He glommed on to me from day one,” she said. “He was extremely unhappy and not doing well.” Prather began talking about how much Scientology had helped her.(2)
When he returned to Los Angeles, Travolta began taking the Hubbard Qualified Scientologist Course at the Celebrity Centre with about 150 other students. He confided to the teacher, Sandy Kent, that he was about to audition for a television show, Welcome Back, Kotter. Kent instructed everyone to point in the direction of ABC Studios and telepathically communicate the instruction: “We want John Travolta for the part.” At the next meeting, Travolta revealed he had gotten the role of Vinnie Barbarino — the part that would soon make him famous. “My career immediately took off,” Travolta boasted in a Church publication. “Scientology put me in the big time.” (3)
Although Travolta craved fame, he was taken aback by the clamor that came along with it. Spanky managed his relationship with his fans. She went to the tapings of his television show, accompanied him to his many public appearances, and persuaded Paramount Pictures to buy a large block of Scientology auditing for his birthday. She was his liaison with the Church. He introduced a number of fellow actors to Scientology, including Forest Whitaker, Tom Berenger and Patrick Swayze, as well as the great Russian dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov. (Travolta’s friend Priscilla Presley was the only one who actually stuck with the Church.) Spanky Taylor was a visible reminder of Travolta’s increasing devotion to Scientology as well as the Church’s investment in his fame, which could be jeopardized by the indiscreet behavior of a talented but entitled star. (4)
In early 1977, Gillham fell ill. She complained of headaches and was losing weight. She wanted desperately to go to Scientology headquarters in Clearwater, Fla., where she could get the upper-level auditing she thought could cure her, but she was told there wasn’t money for that. Instead, she was sent on a mission to Mexico with her husband. On her 50th birthday, Oct. 20, 1977, while in Mexico, she suffered a stroke.
Desperate to get Gillham the auditing she still thought she needed, Taylor went to the financial banking officer and begged her for the funds to send her friend to Clearwater. For her impertinence, Taylor was sentenced to RPF.
Her new baby daughter, Vanessa, was taken away and placed in the Child Care Org, the Scientology nursery. There were 30 infants crammed into a small apartment with wall-to-wall cribs, with one nanny for every 12 children. It was dark and dank, and the children were rarely, if ever, taken outside.
When she got the news she was being sent to RPF, Taylor cried, “You can’t do that now!” She was thinking of Travolta. He had just called her the day before, saying that he was arriving on an Air France flight after his appearance at a film festival in Deauville, where he was promoting Saturday Night Fever. Despite his triumph, Travolta appeared depressed and withdrawn. During the filming of Saturday Night Fever, his girlfriend, Diana Hyland, had died in his arms. She was two decades older than he — she played his mother in a made-for-TV movie, The Boy in the Plastic Bubble — and had already had a double mastectomy when they met. Their romance was doomed when her cancer recurred. Taylor had helped Travolta through that period of grief, but now his mother, the most important figure in his life, had also developed cancer. Travolta asked Taylor if she would pick him up at the airport. She promised him, “Wild horses wouldn’t keep me from being there!”
The Church officials now told Taylor that someone else would meet Travolta. Taylor knew the star would feel surprised and betrayed. He would immediately suspect that something terrible had happened and worry about her. Taylor was mortified to think that she would be the cause of his discomfort.
The RPF had moved out of the basement up to the top floor of the old V-shaped building that formerly housed the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital. Nearly 200 people were crammed by the dozen into old patient rooms in bunks stacked three high. Because of the overcrowding,Taylor was given a soggy mattress on the roof. It was cold. She could hear the traffic on Sunset Boulevard only a block away. She had a view of the Hollywood Hills andthe endless lights of the wakeful city, which was throbbing all around her. So many young people like her had been pulled into the matrix of Hollywood glamour and fame, even if they would never enjoy it themselves. And now, here she was, in the heart of it — isolated, trapped, humiliated, an unnoticed speck on a rooftop. Who could believe that a person could be so lost in the middle of so much life?
After six months, a pair of missionaries came to see Taylor with a strange request. “We would like you to arrange a private screening of Saturday Night Fever” to reward those in RPF. Getting to Travolta wasn’t easy, however. He was now the top box-office star in the world. The Church hierarchy was worried that he was also drifting away from Scientology. There was a problem. The movie was still being shown around the world, and all the prints were out. The only one available was Travolta’s copy, but his personal assistant Kate Edwards said she would make the request. “Johnny said if you ever called and needed something, just do it,” Edwards assured her.
“You can’t tell John about this call!” Taylor said, embarrassed at being sent to RPF.
“I’m going to have to tell him,” Edwards replied. “I’m going to have to ask him to borrow it.”
Edwards told her that Travolta had agreed to loan Taylor the print, under one condition: that he could see her. The missionaries decided that as long as Taylor got the print, she could meet Travolta for dinner after the screening. (Travolta’s attorney denies that there was an agreement to visit Spanky in exchange for his personal copy of Saturday Night Fever.) Travolta followed up by sending flowers, which were delivered to Taylor in RPF.
The screening took place on a Saturday night. As soon as the movie was over and the credits were rolling, several Scientology executives escorted Taylor to an office and told her to call Travolta and cancel their date for dinner the following night.
“I can’t do that!” Taylor said.
“There have been all sorts of efforts to recover him, and we can’t let you get in the way of that,” an official told her. “Call him right now.”
Travolta was furious when he heard what she had to say. “We had a deal!” he said.“How could you do this?” he demanded.
“How could you leave your baby?” For the first time in their relationship, he raised his voice. “My mother died, and you weren’t there!”( Travolta’s mother died from cancer in December 1978.)
Taylor began to bawl so hard she couldn’t speak. She recalled that Travolta was asking questions she couldn’t answer, questions she had been afraid to pose herself. He seemed to know what she was going through. “Unless you killed somebody, which I don’t think you did, there’s no reason for you to be where you are,” Travolta told her. His frankness was devastating.
“I’m doing this so I can be better!” Taylor sobbed. “So I can help you more.”
Meanwhile, a Scientology official was jabbing his finger at her and mouthing an order to hang up the phone. She quickly said goodbye and set the phone in the cradle. Then she was escorted back to RPF.
All that night she cried and cried, but when the sun came up, she was flooded with clarity.“I am so f—ing out of here!” she decided. “I don’t know how, but I’m getting out.”
It wasn’t obvious how she could escape. She had been placed in RPF in March; now it was September. She didn’t know where to turn. It didn’t occur to her to call her parents because she was so apprehensive that she might bring shame on Scientology if anybody knew what had happened to her. Even if she did escape, she realized, she actually knew very little about what was going on in the world. Since she had joined Scientology at the age of 14, she had never read a book that hadn’t been written by Hubbard.
Taylor managed to slip away to visit her 10-month-old daughter in the Child Care Org across the street. To her horror, she discovered that Vanessa had contracted whooping cough, which is highly contagious and occasionally fatal. The baby’s eyes were welded shut with mucus, and her diaper was wet — in fact, her whole crib was soaking. She was covered with fruit flies.
She finally conceived a plan. Explaining to her guards that she had to telephone the doctor, she managed a brief call to Travolta’s office and asked Edwards to meet her the next day at a certain time, giving the address of the Child Care Org. She hung up without even hearing Edwards’ response.
The next day, she was allowed a brief visit to the nursery. She had an extra diaper, a toothbrush and four dimes, all the money she had in the world. Fortunately, Edwards arrived, right on time. Lying, Taylor explained to her Scientology escort that Edwards washer sister-in-law who had come to take Vanessa to the doctor.“
“Is this approved?” he asked.
“Oh, absolutely!” Taylor opened Edwards’ door and handed her the baby.
Then, under her breath, she added, “Kate, when I shut this door, please drive away as quickly as you can.” Edwards nodded, then Taylor jumped in. Edwards hit the gas.
Edwards checked them in to the Tropicana Hotel on Santa Monica Boulevard, but the next morning three Sea Org executives found her and brought her back to RPF.
Taylor still believed in the revelations of her religion. She worried that her salvation was at stake. But she was also gripped with fear that her baby and her unborn child (Taylor had accidentally gotten pregnant again during a conjugal visit with her husband early in her time in RPF) were in mortal danger. At first, she was firm in telling the men that she wasn’t coming back. They told her that they hated to see her be declared a Suppressive Person and cut off from any other Scientologist — nearly everyone she knew. There was a proper way to “route out,” they reminded her. Eventually, Taylor agreed to return to the office to file the paperwork that would allow her to leave the Sea Org (with her child) on good terms and still be a Scientologist.
Many former Sea Org members found their departure from the Church to be tangled in confusion, panic, grief and conflicting loyalties. Many still cling to a relationship with the Church. A year after leaving the Sea Org, she traveled to Houston to meet with Travolta. He was filming Urban Cowboy. On her own initiative, she came to “recover” him for the Church. She had heard he was having problems in his life, and she worried that her own troubles had prevented him from turning to the Church for help. It was also possible that if she brought Travolta back into the fold, her standing in the Church would be improved.
Like most celebrities, Travolta had been shielded from the Church’s inner workings. The scandals that periodically erupted in the press about Hubbard’s biography, or his disappearance,or the Church’s use of private investigators and the courts to harass critics —these things rarely touched the awareness of Scientology luminaries. It was easy enough to chalk such revelations up to religious persecution or yellow journalism. “There are two sides to the story, but I don’t know both sides,” Travolta blithely said.
He and Taylor met in the evening, after dinner, over a plate of chocolate chip cookies that she had brought. She explained that she had left the Sea Org and was with her two children now, then quickly changed the subject and asked about him. He described the problems he was having.
Former Scientologists have given conflicting accounts of Travolta’s stressful relationship with the Church at that time. The Church hierarchy was desperately concerned that details about the private matters of their most valuable member would be revealed; at the same time, the hierarchy was prepared touse those details against him. Bill Franks, the Church’s former executive director, told Time magazine that in Franks’ opinion, the Church had Travolta trapped. At one point, the star sought assurance from Franks that his private confessions wouldn’t be used against him. In truth, intelligence officers inside the Church had already been directed to gather material — called a Dead Agent pack — that would be used against Travolta if he turned.(5)
In Houston, however, Travolta told Taylor that he didn’t really feel that he needed to be recovered — he was just taking a break. However, Taylor did persuade him to buy a costly package of auditing. He had stopped his course work after completing OT III.
After that, she received a letter from Hubbard saying, “Well done.” The founder asked if there was anything she needed. She asked nothing for herself but begged Hubbard to do a “Folder Error Summary” on Travolta, in which the founder would personally review all the star’s auditing over the years — considered a tremendous honor within Scientology.
Still, not long afterward, Travolta stopped talking to Taylor. She got a call from Priscilla Presley, who had run into Travolta, and he said that they should get together. “I’ll call Spanky,” Presley had told him.
“No, don’t go through Spanky,” Travolta said.
When Spanky heard this, she realized she had been declared a Suppressive Person — a nonentity — despite her efforts to remain in the Church’s good graces. Nobody had bothered to tell her, but from now on, no Scientologist would be allowed to talk to her. (6)
After leaving the Church, Taylor started her own business and raised her children, who never joined the religion. Her ex-husband is still a Scientologist. She has never spoken publicly about her experiences until now.
Excerpted from Going Clear by Lawrence Wright. Copyright (c) 2013 by Lawrence Wright. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.
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First footnote: Interview with Jessie Prince.
Second footnote: Interview with Joan Prather.
Third footnote: Interview with Sandy Kent Anderson. What is Scientology? p. 233.
Fourth footnote: Reitman, Inside Scientology, p. 264.
Fifth footnote: Interview with William “Bill” Franks.
Sixth footnote: Interview with Sylvia “Spanky” Taylor.