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Blind seer is still stargazing

December 13, 2002
By Louis Sahagun
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

It's an early Thursday afternoon and the world's most widely read astrologer is busy divining the future.

Lying in bed with his head propped up on pillows, Sydney Omarr, blinded and paralyzed from the neck down by multiple sclerosis, waits for a cue from his editorial advisor, Capricorn Valerie Barbeaux.

Seated before an old IBM Selectric II typewriter prepped with a blank sheet and carbon paper, Barbeaux says, "Syd, this is for Friday, Dec. 6 ... moon in Capricorn. Aries."

His blue eyes begin to dart back and forth as though reading a scroll unfurled in midair.

"Expect some changes in connection with business, career," he says in a monotone. "Written word plays major role; get ideas on paper."

"We need another line, Syd."

After a moment, the 76-year-old astrologer says, "Flirtation begins innocently but could become hot and heavy."

At Omarr's Westside apartment, where the walls are covered with framed photos of him posing with friends and celebrities, from sexpot actress Aries Jayne Mansfield to controversial author Capricorn Henry Miller, it was just the beginning of what would be another busy day in Omarr's 61-year career as an interpreter of the starry firmament.

In an adjacent room, assistant and friend Sagittarius Paul Smalls was organizing Omarr's daily pay-per-call telephonic astrological forecasts, and assembling material for the 13 books one for each sign of the zodiac and one for the entire year that his boss writes annually. His books have sold more than 50 million copies worldwide, making him a wealthy man.

He also was fielding calls from Omarr's prospective dinner guests, adoring women and his bookie.

A warm blanket draped across his bone-thin shoulders, Omarr struggled to catch his breath, then smiled with an explanation: "About those adoring women: It's the astrology they're in love with, not me."

As for the gambling, "I win more than I lose."

Well, of course.

Would anything else be expected of a man who has worked so hard to promote the ancient practice of divining a person's future from the juxtaposition of the sun, moon and planets?

Would anything else be expected of a man who, even when he was a teenager, worked so hard to promote himself?

Indeed, Sydney Omarr has made himself the horoscope master to the masses. He's also been a consultant of the rich and famous. A bon vivant. A gambler. And survivor.

His own horoscope indicates that, with Jupiter in the fifth house, he is poised for success through publicity and entertainment. Perhaps that's why he's now doing something he hasn't done in years grant an interview.

He comes off as confident yet modest, spiritual yet rebellious, part mystic, part ordinary Joe anything but the herbal tea-sipping soul one might expect. Instead, this Leo in winter still caps his workday the way he always has with a hard-earned shot of good Scotch and a hand-rolled cigar.

Astrologers, of course, are not for everybody. Pagans, some call them. Con men, say others.

Since losing his sight a decade ago to the disease that was diagnosed in 1971, Omarr, whose column appears in more than 200 daily newspapers, has kept a low public profile.

Now, as his physical foundations erode to painfully diminished levels, Omarr is once again speaking out on his favorite subject.

Just don't ask him how it works. He's not exactly sure.

"No one knows what gravity is either," he likes to say, "but we don't fear falling off the world."

With an ear cocked toward a television in his den tuned to a baseball game on which he had placed a significant wager, Omarr turned briefly introspective: "I wish I'd taken better care of myself. I wish I'd boxed more. I wish I had children."

Then Omarr, who has a tough time staying serious, excused himself to take a call from a "certain representative of a bookmaking concern."

A few years ago, Barbara Snader, a former paramour who recently died of cancer, suggested they write each others' obituaries.

"I said, 'Syd, I'll write, He was a scholar and a gentleman' " she recalled in an interview shortly before her death. "He said, 'No. I want you to say, He was a defender of astrology.' "

Snader added with a laugh: "He wrote mine, but I didn't like it because it began with the word 'seductive.' "

Omarr was born Sidney Kimmelman at 10:27 a.m. Aug. 5, 1926, in Philadelphia, with the sun, Mercury and Neptune all in Leo, and Libra on the ascendant.

In other words, he is by nature fiery and romantic, and a glutton for attention, with a particularly strong need to be cooed at and cuddled. Even as a boy, he was fascinated with magic, spending his money on magical accouterments and books about the mystical arts.

At 15, he already was performing sleight-of-hand tricks in magic shops and local talent shows when he saw a movie called "Shanghai Gesture" starring Victor Mature as a character named Omar with one R.

In accordance with certain numerological formulas, he added another Y to his first name and a second R to Omar to add pizazz to his life and career.

The same year, he wrote his first book and, although he wasn't yet a brand name, called it "Sydney Omarr's Private Course on Numerology." He sold mimeographed copies for $2.

Omarr doesn't remember how many he sold, but the book gave him a start, and he began analyzing the horoscopes of film stars, such as Sagittarius Edward G. Robinson, for movie magazines.

He became a contributor to astrology magazines, which, in lieu of payment, let him place two-inch advertisements encouraging readers to send him their birth dates, a small fee, and a personal problem for him to untangle.

"When I started out, it was, 'Send me a dollar and a birth date and I'll solve any problem,' " he said. "My father, Harry, a grocer, and mother, Rose, a housewife, stopped worrying about me when the checks started coming in."

At 17, he enlisted in the Army. A year later, he was transferred to Okinawa, where he became the first and only GI assigned astrology duty.

His weekly Armed Forces Radio program "Sydney Omarr's Almanac" predicted the outcomes of professional boxing matches and horse races and was heard throughout the Pacific Theater.

After the service, he attended journalism courses at Mexico City College and went on to become a reporter for United Press. One of his first assignments was to interview the governor of California at the time, Sagittarius Goodwin Knight, about some pending legislation.

When Omarr called and introduced himself, Knight shot back, "Are you the Sydney Omarr I've been reading for years? Come on over to the office."

Knight ordered everyone out of the room, then he proudly showed Omarr his secret file of horoscopes of all his political friends and foes.

"We quickly became good friends," Omarr recalled.

Omarr went on to spend a decade as a radio news editor in Hollywood before becoming a full-time columnist and confidant to the likes of actors Aquarius Kim Novak, Leo Mae West and Libra Rita Hayworth.

Jazz trumpeter Libra Dizzy Gillespie once asked Omarr to give him a reading out loud. "When I finished," Omarr recalled, "Dizzy said, 'Man, you sure can wail!' "

Omarr's proudest moment was his three-hour debate on Philadelphia radio station WPEN the night of June 21, 1951, with astronomer Roy K. Marshall, then director of the Fels Planetarium. The confrontation brought Omarr to the attention of astronomers and science writers, and elevated his public image as a skillful protagonist.

The battle lines were drawn under a moon in Capricorn, Jupiter in Aries and Uranus in Cancer, meaning things were bound to get intense.

Marshall attacked with the conventional arguments against astrology, pounding the table for emphasis.

Omarr calmly pointed out that astrology had given birth to astronomy, that scientists including Isaac Newton believed it should be studied.

Omarr likes to say that, judging from the letters and telephone calls that followed, he won the "great debate." At a minimum, it helped make the stargazer a star.

By the early 1970s, Omarr was publishing several books a year, and appearing regularly on TV talk shows hosted by Virgo Regis Philbin, Leo Mike Douglas, Cancer Merv Griffin and Libra Johnny Carson.

He also threw legendary parties for fawning celebrities and glamorous women in his home at that time, a Santa Monica condominium overlooking the waves.

Nearly all of the women in his life remain close friends.

Among them is Virgo Jeraldine Saunders, a former fashion model and television producer who was Omarr's wife in 1966 for eight months.

"Sydney is a true oracle; he's a mystic, he's psychic, a genius and he's very witty," she said. "When we were flying around the world together he'd say, 'Remember, Jeraldine, if this plane goes down, tell them I predicted it.' "

Another admirer is actress Libra Angie Dickinson, who first crossed Omarr's path on a Merv Griffin show.

"The moment we met, we just clicked," Dickinson recalled. "I'd say, 'Syd, I lost my ring, what do I do?' or 'Syd, I'm having a tough time with a guy.' He'd say, 'Pick three numbers, fast.' Based on the numbers I'd choose, he'd give me the right advice."

"Back then, he could see, and we'd look each other in the eye as we toasted with champagne," she added.

Still, it wasn't easy being Omarr once the symptoms of MS became impossible to disguise, triggering what he remembers as "little disappointments."

"At one point during a Merv Griffin show, everyone stood up except me I couldn't," he said. "Some critics thought I was being disrespectful and asked, 'Who the hell do you think you are?'

"Then there was the time a stranger called and asked for a personal reading," he said. "I told her I don't do that. She said, 'Well, I just got some real bad news. I've got MS. But I guess you wouldn't understand.' Then she hung up."

He will do readings for special friends, but generally, "I don't like to do personal readings," said Omarr, who has made a habit of returning the blank checks of millionaires wanting their fortune told by the master.

"I've got a big problem with astrologers and some psychologists who mislead people by taking on the air of being godlike," he said.

Besides, he's just too busy to deal with one-on-one readings. Assembling the daily column alone takes hours each day to complete.

The pithy lines he dictates to Barbeaux are dispatched by express mail to the Tribune Co., which licenses his column. (The Times, which carries Omarr's column, is owned by the Tribune Co.)

"The challenge is keeping the results fresh and lively," he said.

Omarr's workload got a little heavier in September, when the Sydney Omarr slot machine he helped develop was unveiled at a Las Vegas trade show. Other business proposals riding on Omarr's name recognition are in the works.

He acknowledges that, given his physical challenges, plans are already in place to continue the column after he's moved on to the next life.

"Like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the Gemini author of Sherlock Holmes," he said, "I'm a firm believer that the personality survives death."

Copyright © 2002, The Los Angeles Times