In the heyday of the Me Decade, when cocktail parties buzzed with the babble of primal screamers, transcendental meditators, astral projectionists and other truth seekers, Werner Erhard (né Jack Rosenberg) was a guru’s guru. A onetime used car salesman who claims he discovered a new path to enlightenment while driving down a California highway in his wife’s black Mustang, Erhard changed his name in 1960 and founded the est movement in San Francisco in 1971. Promoting personal “transformation” through pricey seminars, Erhard built est into a multimillion-dollar empire. He collected such celebrity followers as Valerie Harper, John Denver and Jerry Rubin. Est also attracted Cloris Leachman, with whom the twice-married guru has a relationship that has been mentioned in the press. “Most of the time, we’re just friends,” the actress says delphically.
But today, according to reports, both the est movement and its founder are in trouble. Enrollment and income are dwindling, and many of Erhard’s top-level aides have defected to the corporate world. One lawsuit for emotional distress due to est training is pending, as is an IRS claim against Erhard’s enterprises for more than $2 million in back taxes. Even more damaging has been a nasty divorce action filed by Ellen Virginia Erhard against Werner, from whom she separated in September 1982 after 22 years of marriage. (Erhard ran away with her in 1960, leaving behind his first wife and four children, whom he didn’t see again until 1972.) By all accounts, including her own, Ellen had become fed up with Erhard’s incessant adultery. “When he started to have affairs, I saw that as a token of my utter inadequacy,” she told Erhard biographer and est devotee W.W. Bartley III. “I was terribly afraid that he would leave me.” She lashed out again at him last month in the San Francisco Chronicle: “Werner’s ego and public image are the most important things in the world to him,” she said. “Children, money or whatever [are] so far down it doesn’t matter.”
Ellen, who says she is supporting herself and the Erhards’ 16-year-old son on profits from her partnerships in three bargain-basement haircutting salons, is seeking half ownership of Werner Erhard and Associates, the company that controls 27 est training centers around the country and a staff of 350, and that grosses about $36 million a year. She is asking for half of Erhard’s other holdings, including a San Francisco mansion put on the block for $1 million. She also wants to obtain a substantial advance from Erhard, which she says she’ll use in part to add a swimming pool to her $180,000 house in Marin County.
For his part, Erhard calls a $320,000 cabin cruiser home. In court documents, he cites a monthly income of a mere $9,200 and 1983 corporate losses of more than $1 million. But according to a San Francisco Chronicle report, Erhard recently received $165,000 from his speaking tours and other ventures, and another $140,000 from televising some of his est sessions. “I’d like to buy Werner for what he says he’s worth and sell him for what I think he’s worth,” scoffs Verna Adams, Ellen’s attorney.
Even if Erhard survives Ellen’s divorce sniping, his reputation will suffer. Although spokeswoman Nancy Foushée says that 500,000 est graduates illustrate “the validity of the program and how much it serves people,” some—both inside and outside est—now say that Erhard himself didn’t practice what he preached. Jerry Rubin, though an admirer, admits, “I’ve always said Werner Erhard never embodied his own training.” Don Cox, a former Harvard Business School professor and a onetime vice-president of Coca-Cola who served as est president for six years before breaking from Erhard in 1980, describes his est experience as “like being in love and then being disappointed.” Cox sees Erhard as a brilliant but hot-tempered individual who never “lived up to his potential.”
One Harvard MBA who worked for est for several years and became close to Erhard describes him as a man who is “living in a fantasy world about who he is. He maintained a level of pretense that was unacceptable to me.” But it appears that bitter reality has caught up with the master of “transformation,” who once, ironically, told biographer Bartley that he could never afford the psychological trauma of a second marital breakup. “If I were to destroy another marriage, I wouldn’t be Werner Erhard anymore,” he confessed. “I would be the liar Jack Rosenberg. Jack Rosenberg could botch a marriage. Werner Erhard had to do it right.”