Israeli Mentalist Uri Geller’s Mind-Over-Matter Philosophy of Life
I was sitting on a bench in the village of Sonning, overlooking the south bank of the river Thames, when the nib of my pen suddenly bent. This is remarkable only because I had been jotting down notes in preparation for an interview with Uri Geller—the controversial Israeli magician, mentalist, and bender of spoons who, despite famously failing to work his magic on American late-night television in 1973, has led many lives since: star of reality television, dowser, friend and confidante to the rich and famous, and perhaps even psychic spy for the Mossad and the CIA. I was distracted from my writing by my attempts to spot the ghost that Geller claimed haunts the adjacent bridge—even though I am not particularly inclined to believe in ghosts, or in the magical deformation of objects. I had probably just applied too much pressure to the pen.
Geller has called Sonning, about an hour’s drive west of London, home for 30-odd years. His enormous mansion was designed to resemble the White House, which it would, if the White House were transplanted to the English country side and perched a couple dozen yards from the Thames. It was built 50 years ago by a Jew named Ramon Green, who sold it to a reputed Iranian arms dealer, who in turn sold it to Geller. After I was buzzed into the property and under the watchful gaze of what seemed like dozens of security cameras, Geller’s brother-in-law invited me in. Geller himself—tall, trim, and looking at least 10 years less than his 68—soon joined me. We chatted in Hebrew before switching to English. It was a Monday afternoon, and he had had a good weekend, with articles about him in the Sunday Times and theTelegraph. He had recently begun work on an ad campaign for Kellogg’s, for whom he bent his “one millionth spoon” (one he said was given to him by his close friends, the late Michael Jackson and Elizabeth Taylor), and that had attracted some attention. But what had really caught the media’s interest, he told me, was when he claimed that the village’s bridge was haunted by the ghost of a young girl, and that the best view of the haunted bridge was from the home of Geller’s new neighbor across the river, George Clooney.
With a repertoire that he admits is relatively limited and simple, Geller has managed to become one of the best-known performers in the world. Amazingly, his metallurgical feats turn out to be one of the least-outlandish parts of his life story. Though his recollections of private conversations with long-dead celebrities, not to mention CIA handlers, are often impossible to confirm, much of what he says—I wouldn’t dare guess at a percentage—seems true. In many ways, he is like an analog version of an original Israeli start-up, a living relic of Israel’s post-1967 triumphalism, back when there was cachet in hip Euro-American circuits to being from there. His “psychic” powers and his Israeli persona were not unrelated. By sheer force of personality, the boy from Tel Aviv who had never seen a magic show growing up managed to carve out a niche for himself that allowed him more fame and fortune than he’d ever dreamed of and the opportunity to play spy games. I don’t know how he did it.
Geller suggested we begin our conversation by acknowledging his weirdness. “I am shamelessly admitting that I am the king of quirkiness and bizarrity, of strangeness, of the mysterious and so on,” he told me. “That is combined with the controversy about me—whether what I do is real or not—and my Israeli chutzpah. I would say that when I was young I activated everything I could, my charisma, my character, my personality—but in a natural manner. There was no BS, people got what they saw. I never put on an act. I’m a master publicist. Maybe I’m one of the best publicists in the world: a natural publicist. I never had PR agents, I never had any agents! There’s no plan in my career. It’s controlled chaos, basically. So, how did I do it? How is it that George Clooney and Robert DeNiro played me in movies? How is it that Johnny Cash and Kenny Rogers sing about spoon-bending? How is it that Keanu Reeves inThe Matrix bends a spoon?” (This is the famous “There is no spoon” scene.) He went on, “I don’t know, it’s that very strange combination that I’m always on the gray line—is it real, or is it not. Let them fight about me.”
It is difficult to convey the earnestness with which Uri Geller speaks about Uri Geller—oftentimes in the third person. He is, one wants to say literally, full of himself, but charmingly so. His story begins, of course, with a bent spoon. He first discovered his talent when he was 5 years old and living in Tel Aviv with his family. “We were very poor. My mother and I used to go to Shenkin Street and collect plastic spoons, wash them in our tiny apartment, and sell them at the market the next day. My mother would buy old parachutes from the Jaffa flea market and sew them into dresses,” he said. “When the first spoon bent and broke in my hand, I knew I could turn this into an act, something that could make me money so I could stop my mother from working. And then I discovered that I could also do telepathy, I could read minds, move the needle of a compass, sprout seeds in the palm of my hands.”
Years would pass before Geller’s talents would be in the spotlight. After finishing his military service as a paratrooper in the IDF, he worked as a model for ATA, the Israeli clothing company. At a photo shoot, he bent the photographer’s keys and was promptly invited to appear at a house party. “I said ‘sure, but … how much?’ I thought I’d try to make some money out of it,” Geller told me. “So he made out a check. I was amazed by how astonished people were by trivial little things, like a spoon bending.” As the word got out, the house parties continued, and Geller climbed the social ladder from photographers, to judges, to army generals. “One day, at a general’s house, Golda Meir was at the party,” he remembered. “I walked up to her and handed her a marker. I told her ‘Golda, go to the restroom, close the door, draw something, don’t show it to anyone, get out, look in my eyes, and I’ll draw it.’ I’m the only person who ever sent the prime minister to the toilet!” He then correctly reproduced the drawing—the Star of David. The next day, Meir was interviewed on Israeli radio and, when asked to predict the future of Israel, she said “Don’t ask me, ask Uri Geller.” Geller said, “That was the beginning of my career. The phone went off the hook.” (Four decades later, Golda Meir’s interview has proved elusive, but current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently went on the record saying that Geller made a tremendous impression on him when he first saw him as a young soldier, and has never ceased to amaze him since.)
His career soon became international, though he suffered perhaps his most publicly humiliating moment, on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. “I walked into a trap,” Geller said. (Video of the harrowing scene, in which Geller is unable to move or alter objects that have been selected by Carson to be tamper-proof is here.) Carson had conferred with Geller’s nemesis, James Randi, the magician and professional skeptic. “I bent a spoon, but it wasn’t bent enough for Carson, and he kind of sneered and mocked. And that was it, I was humiliated for 22 minutes. I sat there sweating, and the only thought that went through my mind was: Uri Geller, you are destroyed. I was ready to pack up the next morning and head back to Tel Aviv.”
Indeed, for many of those curious about psychical research, who had their hopes on Geller as proof that telepathy and ESP exist, the moment was devastating. In scientific circles, Geller has ever since been a joke and a cautionary tale. But the next morning, Merv Griffin invited Geller to appear on his show. “That’s when I realized that there’s no such thing as bad publicity,” Geller said. “As long as they spell your name correctly. I understood that controversy is a gift on a silver platter. I was a master at twisting that to boost my career.”
I asked Geller how he came to have so many famous friends. “I think it was because of the amazing uniqueness of my talent,” he replied. “When I was on my ego trip, my quest for fame and fortune, I wanted to rub shoulders with Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Elton John, Michael Jackson. I wanted to be like them. I wanted to be a super-psychic-superstar. And whenever I had the chance to get close to one of these big celebrities, I did it. I am saying this very openly. I just wanted to be with them. I had a tool: I could bend a spoon. That would freak them out. That’s how I got to them, and some of them wanted to see more.”
For example, Geller told me, it was Mohamed Al-Fayed, the Harrods magnate, whointroduced him to Michael Jackson. “Michael was amazing, a legend,” he said. “He was not guilty. He was just an incredible individual. I was so honored when he asked me to design his last album. Who knew that it would be his last album? Even though you didn’t have to be a psychic to sense that he was in trouble. He sat on that couch over there. I renewed my wedding vows, because I never got married with Hanna under a chuppah. So when Rabbi Shmuley Boteach married us, Michael agreed to be my best man!”
Today, Geller divides his time between show business and dowsing for oil and gold with his mind. It was by doing the latter successfully, he told me, that he made much of his wealth. But his real passion lies with show business. His television series—all variations on a talent show where mentalists compete for the mantle of “the next Uri Geller”—have been broadcast in 16 countries.
He tries to get eight hours of sleep every night. In the morning, after stretching (he still suffers from wartime injuries dating to 1967) and eating breakfast (he is a vegetarian), he does an hour of fast-walking in the fields around Sonning. He spends half an hour catching up on the news (“I act upon it if necessary, because I’m still in touch with various government agencies that might need my help”). He’s been married to Hanna for more than 40 years (“Hanna is kind of my back-bone, down to earth, a Jewish mother. I always get her advice on big moves”). They often head to London to spend time with their son Daniel, a prosecutor. Their daughter, Natalie, lives in Los Angeles, works for a film company, and acts part-time. After four decades abroad, the Gellers say they are seriously planning their return to Israel: Geller calls it “making aliyah.” He told me they purchased a little apartment in Jaffa with a view of the sea.
Geller says that he also does charitable work, flying terminally ill children from Israel to visit his home three or four times a year. He’s particularly proud, he said, of helping broker the deal that got Magen David Adom—an Israeli aid group—accepted into the International Red Cross, alongside its Abrahamic counterpart, the Red Crescent. This entailed a combination of old-fashioned persuasion, peppered with some spoon-bending. (At the signing ceremony in 2005, then-Foreign Minister of Switzerland Micheline Calmy-Rey reportedly said that “Uri Geller did not just help break the ice with the skills that have made him famous—a considerable number of bent spoons line the road that led to this agreement—he has also played a pivotal role in helping everyone focus on the main objective and overcoming differences over secondary details at key junctures.”) I asked Geller if he might be willing to lend his talents to some other high-profile negotiations involving Israelis and Palestinians. Though Bibi and Sarah Netanyahu are close friends, he said, he has yet to have been asked.
If you believe Uri Geller, he’s no stranger to using his skills in the service of governments. The Secret Life of Uri Geller: Psychic Spy?, a 2013 BBC documentaryimprobably directed by the Oscar-winning Vikram Jayanti, an altogether slick affair that sometimes verges on mockumentary, recounts Geller’s adventures ostensibly assisting Israeli, American, and Mexican governments through clandestine work. Geller had always wanted to be a spy, he told me, charmed in elementary school by illustrations of the cluster of grapes brought back from Canaan by Moses’ spies—and by James Bond movies. After his parents divorced and his mother remarried, he moved to Cyprus where his new stepfather ran a bed-and-breakfast. “It was a Mossad safe house,” Geller said in a hushed tone, “from which agents would go to Damascus, Jordan, Egypt, all of those countries. When I was 12 or 13, I confronted one of the agents. His name was Yoav Shaham. I told him: ‘You’re a spy, Yoav!’ I felt it. He freaked out. He told me never to dare say that again.”
Shaham gave Geller a job as a courier. He would collect letters that would arrive at the hotel from Arab countries and deliver them to the Israeli ambassador in Nicosia. And Shaham promised more, but before Geller finished his IDF service, Shaham, a commander in the paratroopers, was killed in the West Bank. “That shattered me,” Geller said. “I knew that I had lost my chance. But what I didn’t know was that he had spoken with intelligence chiefs Meir Amit and Aharon Yariv about me. Yariv summoned me to a meeting in Tel Aviv. I went through all the biggest intelligence guys. And then that’s it—no comment from that point on.”
The BBC documentary details the extensive tests Geller underwent at Stanford Research Institute in the 1970s, research that was sponsored by the CIA during the years that were profiled in the book Men Who Stare at Goats, later made into a film starring George Clooney. The documentary suggests that after Geller’s handlers tried to harness his psychic powers to doing everything from knocking out radar stations ahead of the Israel Air Force’s fateful flight to Entebbe, Uganda, to influencing the Russians to sign the 1987 Nuclear Reduction Treaty. He told me he was never paid for his efforts, and that he always refused to do negative things. When asked to stop the heart of a pig (perhaps to gauge the possibility he could do the same to a human heart), he refused. He did not want to discuss whether or not he would have been successful. In the film Geller intimates that after Sept. 11, America needed intelligence fast, and Geller was “re-activated by a person called Ron.”
I have met a few former spies. The very best of them share Geller’s ability to make you feel as if you are their oldest, closest friend, thereby gaining your trust almost immediately; trusting them, of course, is a big mistake, and yet you do it all the same. Most countries have means of electronic warfare more effective than Uri Geller’s brainwaves in knocking out radar stations but, I told him, I could certainly see him moonlighting as a spy handler. “I can tell you that the FBI asked me to convince Russian diplomats to defect. They made whole parties in Long Island, I mingled there, I beamed my mind,” he said. “I don’t know what percentage was right, but I can tell you that I was successful because I read stories about who defected. That’s a scoop for you.” I told him I didn’t think he needed psychic powers for that. “You’re absolutely right,” he replied.
We walked over to the kitchen for a live demonstration. A television tuned to an Israeli station hummed in the background. Geller produced a spoon, which I inspected. He proceeded to rub it. The bowl of the spoon began to bend upwards. He then handed it to me. “It’s still bending,” he said. “Now it stops at 90 degree, in your hands.” Geller is the antithesis of the aging rock star reluctant to perform his greatest hit for the millionth time. He simply delights in spoon-bending. He suggested I take a selfie of us, which I did, and he signed the spoon for me.
Geller then handed me a permanent marker and asked that I draw something for him on my own pad, as he turned away and covered his eyes. Like Golda Meir before me, I took his instructions seriously. I drew a circle inside of a triangle, inside of a square. I then covered my drawing. At his request, I attempted to beam him what I had drawn, though I had grown somewhat confused regarding which shape was inside which: no matter. He reproduced my drawing perfectly. “Exactly!” he exclaimed as I uncovered my drawing. “Could it be more millimetrical?”
Explanations for how Geller pulls off his magic are readily available online. Skeptics say that he rubs the spoons to weaken them, and peeks at the drawings. I myself had seen both feats performed several times in the past, by magicians who freely admitted that the effect was achieved through tricks. Geller’s private performance for me was excellent: I did not catch how he did it, nor did I have any desire to find out, and puncture the magic glow.
“Before you came here, what did you think?” Geller asked me, about any doubts I may have harbored. “Were you a believer, or a skeptic?” I told him that I thought it really didn’t matter. Did he think it did? “No,” he said. “I’m not a healer,” he said, “but when I bend a spoon for sick children, they’re so in awe that I turn the spoon-bending into a placebo effect. And then I talk to them about positive thinking, about believing in themselves, about working with their doctors and continuing to take their medicine, being positive about getting better. So, that’s the answer. It doesn’t really matter anymore.” Why, then, was it so important for him to get the scientific seal of approval? “It was important 35 years ago, not anymore,” he said. “I was young, I was naïve, I was gullible. I wanted to be rich and famous. I wanted to make it in life. I wanted to prove to all my Israeli friends that I made it. So, in 1976 I bought a Cadillac, to show off. How shallow I was! I’m an Israeli, I came from nothing. Suddenly I had a power and I wanted to make it. So, for me, then, it was very important to be validated by science. It gave me credibility.”
Geller agreed to show me around his backyard. He took me to the pyramid made of glass and red-painted steel where he meditates. He showed me the Cadillac, now covered with thousands of bent pieces of cutlery that had belonged to royals, rock stars, and Benjamin Netanyahu. Sometimes he lends it to museums. He pointed out one of his latest additions to the car—a spoon that had been used by the current pontiff—while implying that it had been obtained somewhat illicitly.
Originally published at www.tabletmag.com
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