“Wily con man, yogi, athlete, bank president, founder of the Tantrik Order in America and the Clarkstown Country Club in Nyack, New York, the remarkable “Doctor” Bernard was all of these. He was also the Omnipotent Oom, whose devoted followers included some of the most famous names in America.”
Pierre Bernard, Oom the Omnipotent, Promoter and Self-Styled Swami, Dies
New York Times, September 28, 1955
His wild and sprawling life — which also included stints as a trainer for heavyweight boxer Lou Nova, circus ringleader, elephant trainer, and one of the creators of night-time baseball was one of those classic “only in America” tales that has largely been forgotten until recently. Pierre Bernard was not only the first man to bring Tantra to America, but was also surely one of the most colorful, unusual and controversial figures in early twentieth century American history. Described as "both a prophet and showman," Bernard was a man "who could lecture on religion with singular penetration and with equal facility stage a big circus, manage a winning ball team or put on an exhibition of magic which rivaled Houdini". Infamous throughout the press as "the Omnipotent Oom," Bernard claimed to have traveled throughout the mystic Orient in order to bring the secret teachings of Tantra to this country and so found the first "Tantrik Order in America" in 1906. Surrounded by controversy and slander regarding the sexual freedom he and his largely female followers were said to enjoy, Bernard is in many ways an epitome of Tantra in its uniquely American incarnations.
Virtually nothing is known about the enigmatic Bernard’s early life and background in fact, he seems to have gone to some lengths to conceal his real background behind a strange veil of fictitious identities and false biography, often using the fake persona of "Peter Coons" from Iowa. Most likely born in 1876 under the inauspicious name of Perry Baker, he became fascinated with the occult by the age of 13 and this turned into full-on obsession with the teachings of Sylvais Hamati (one of the few Indian yogis practicing in the United States at the time, with some stories claiming that Baker met him at a young age in Lincoln, Nebraska) on yoga. Bernard left home in his teens to work his way to India in order to study the "ancient Sanskrit writings and age old methods of curing diseases of mind and body." After studying in Kashmir and Bengal, he won the title of "Shastri" and was supposedly initiated into the inner mysteries of Tantric practice. Upon returning to America and now introducing himself with the title of "Dr."(as well as a name change from Perry Baker to the weighty Pierre Bernard) he worked at various odd jobs in California and began to study hypnotism.
After his training was complete, he gained notoriety for a stunt in California where he made himself go “unconscious” by slowing his breathing and then allowing a doctor to sow his upper-lip to his nose. Perry, rechristened Pierre Bernard, used this press to launch his first school in San Francisco in 1898.Known as the "Bacchante Academy", he catered to bored trust-fund types, and soon became wealthy himself. But the school developed a reputation for opium use and “sacramental sexual intercourse” meaning that to join the group two members had to have sex in front of a chanting circle while an elder dictated the action. The city of San Francisco not-so-kindly asked Bernard and his acolytes to relocate, which they did shortly after the earthquake of 1906…briefly to Seattle and then to New York.
Establish the Tantrik Order, Bernard opened his “Oriental Sanctum” in Manhattan in 1910. His scandals were only magnified in New York and the press couldn’t get enough of the man now known as “The Great Oom” (Oom the Magnificent, The Great God Oom, Oom the Omnipotent). Stories circulated that while Hatha yoga was taught in the open, more “esoteric” tantric teachings were explored behind closed doors. The press floated stories of Oom sitting on a throne wearing a turban, a silken robe and baggy Turkish pants, and flourishing a scepter, while novitiates “…confess all sins, all secret desires, all inner thoughts; must then promise to abide by Doctor Bernard’s orders and must finally take the Tantrik vow" (after signing their names in blood and paying an exorbitant initiation fee of course). Supposed eyewitness reports merely inflamed the situation: “What my wife and I have seen through the windows of that place is scandalous. We saw men and women in various stages of dishabille. Women’s screams mingled with wild Oriental music.”
The talk reached a fever pitch when Bernard beautiful 18-year-old Seattle girl named Gertrude Leo to be his personal mistress, claiming he had psychic powers and telling her, “I am not a real man, I am a god.” Upon learning that she was far from the only woman in his life she went the NYPD, claiming that he had “psychic control” over her, and that he kidnapped and imprisoned her. The front-page coverage continued for weeks, but eventually the charges were dropped for lack of evidence.
Far from destroying the Oom “Love Cult”, the press had made him more popular than ever. Almost overnight, Oom found himself showered with more money than he had ever dreamed of and chieftain of a tribe of both male and female followers, and would carry on its roster some of the best-known names in America. By 1918 Bernard and his followers had moved out to a large seventy-two acre estate in Upper Nyack, New York, a former young girls’ academy which he renamed the "Clarkstown Country Club" and made the site of his own "utopian Tantric community". A sumptuous property with a 30-roomed Georgian mansion rounded by a wooded mountain and river, the Club was designed to be "a place where the philosopher may dance, and the fool be provided with a thinking cap!" Eventually, he would also purchase a huge property known as the Mooring, with old English country house, and then later open a whole chain of Tantric clinics, including centers in Cleveland, Philadelphia, Chicago and East 53rd Street, New York City, as well as a Tantric summer camp for men in Westhampton, Long Island. His clinics were well known for attracting the wealthiest, most affluent clients, "mostly professional and business men and women from New York," including Ann Vanderbilt, Sir Paul Dukes, composer Cyril Scott and conductor Lepold Stokowski, among many others.
Bernard continued to grow in popularity throughout the 20’s (especially with upper middle class women and the high society of New York) and his moves were followed in all the gossip papers of the day. The community thrived and his wealth grew (eventually encompassing a herd of elephants as a nod to his love of the circus). Locals in Nyak viewed him with suspicion, but by this point he had grown too wealthy, too important to the local tax base.
The Nyack outpost seems to have been an extremely happy and thriving place until it wasn’t. The Depression put a damper on seemingly frivolous forms of recreation. The coterie of Mr. Bernard’s closest disciples grew older, to the point at which there were more widows than nubile young women on the premises. Elephants died. And Mr. Bernard’s wildly varied financial holdings began to fail. Still a Renaissance Man can’t be kept down and he turned his eye to more conventional pursuits: swapping his toga-like robe for expensive English tweeds, he became a leading citizen of Rockland County, New York holding a variety of posts in financial institutions. By the time of his death in 1955 Pierre Bernard was a bank president, an officer in Nyack on the local Chamber of Commerce, the head of a large real estate holding company and a member of more than twenty societies, including the British and American Philological Societies, the Royal Society of Arts and the Royal Asiatic Society. He was also a mason.
“Nobody knows if he’s got religion, but everybody knows he’s got money.”
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