The Pope of Soap:
Dr. Bronner of Escondido
By Harold Frost
California magazine, 1990
Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap, sold in health food stores and other outlets, is versatile, all-natural, and reasonably priced. I use it for my showers, vegetables, and teeth.
The second thing to know about Bronner is that he wants his soap to save the world.
“Two million people are under that soap!” Bronner announces in his factory in Escondido, California, near San Diego. “When I get a few million more, you’re gonna see Spaceship Earth start to come together, really come together! We’re in danger until that day! We must be all one! ALL ONE! This is the only way to avoid blowing ourselves UP!”
Bronner and I are watching his soap cook – 3,000 gallons of orange liquid, bubbling and steaming in a giant stainless-steel kettle. Bronner peers at the percolating ooze. He takes a deep whiff and nods sagely. The soap smells deliciously pepperminty, and is apparently cooking at just the right pace, following the recipe Bronner learned in the 1920s.
(The third thing to know about Dr. Bronner is that he’s not really a doctor. He just sort of appropriated the title many years ago.)
Bronner sells lots of soap, some $3 million worth every year, he says. Business was not always so good. When he introduced his product to America in the 1950s, all-naturalness was not a strong selling point – the concept was seen by many people as oddball, at a time when anything oddball was scorned. Bronner regarded naturalness as normal and good. In his native Germany, nature worship is a deep-seated, long-standing cultural value. The Nazis strongly supported the concept – they reserved acreage at the Dachau concentration camp for growing medicinal herbs.
Bronner stuck by his soap through the ’50s and scraped along to the ’60s. Then came the hippies, who discovered the soap in 1968 and ’69, around the time they started buying brown rice and alfalfa sprouts. They loved the fact that Bronner’s product eschewed weird chemicals, was made by a real person rather than a faceless corporation, and was relatively cheap if purchased in liquid bulk and used in moderation. And they loved the wacky labels.
The soap’s labels present sermons, written by Bronner, in tiny hard-to-read letters. Oh, sure, you’ll find the ingredients listed – for example, for his Eucalyptus Soap, “Water, Saponified Organic Coconut & Organic Olive Oils [w/Retained Glycerin], Organic Hemp Oil, Organic Jojoba Oil, Organic Eucalyptus Oil, Citric Acid, Vitamin E.” But the essence of the label text is a stern moral lecture, Bronner’s “Moral ABCs,” his creed, his homily, his hope for the future, his “politico-religious fantasy tract” in the phrase of journalist James Simon Kunen. The Moral ABCs, says Bronner, will “lightning-like unite all mankind free.”
The Moral ABCs incorporate many topics, including the value of hard work, peace, godliness, and unity among all people; how Abraham, Moses, and Spinoza were not merely religious figures nor run-of-the-mill scientists but astronomers searching for the face of God; how Halley’s Comet is God’s messenger to Earth; the dangers of nuclear weapons and of water flouridation; the glory of holding onto impossible dreams; the spiritual value of cleanliness; and the wisdom of such disparate figures as Noah Webster and Jesus. Bronner fancies himself a poet, so the label’s passages often rhyme: “Atom bombs can be controlled because uranium is rare! But hydrogen bombs cannot always be controlled because hydrogen is everywhere!” Sometimes there’s a staccato syntax that’s related to poetry: “Unless constructive/selfish I work hard, like Mark Spitz, perfecting first me, absolutely nothing can help perfect me!”
Every now and again on his labels, Bronner comes right to the point: “Perfect thyself. Help others. Start now. All one!”
The gist of Bronner’s theology is this: If enough people buy his soap, study the labels, and act upon his advice (perhaps by gathering in large groups in major cities), world unity and peace will follow. If we don’t do as he says, we’re going to blow ourselves up.
I studied Bronner’s labels a few months ago in a natural food store in Berkeley, got intrigued, called the phone number included in the text, and was connected to the man himself. We talked for a while about the labels, the soap business, and his expansion into corn chips and other foodstuffs. He invited me down for a visit.
Bronner’s home in the hills near Escondido is large and comfortable, a ranch-style structure surrounded by avocado and lemon trees. The door was answered by his wife Gladys, a rather shy woman in her 60s. I was just another in a steady stream of visitors to be directed out back to the deck. “He’s feeling a bit tense these days,” she advised.
Bronner was seated on a lounge chair on the sunny deck, talking on the phone. “PUSH HIM!” he cried in a thick German accent. “He’s not a businessman, he’s a scientist! He needs to be pushed!”
Bronner is 82 years old. He’s small and wiry, about five-foot-five and 120 pounds. He says he’s blind; he wore thick sunglasses on this day, along with an old sweatshirt and corduroy trousers.
“Try to do it today!” he shouted. “Understand? ALL ONE!” He hung up, turned in my direction, and smiled in greeting.
He seemed youthful in some ways: his face was unlined and had a healthy glow to it, and his crew-cut hair was entirely brown, without a trace of gray – the result, he said, of a daily scrubbing with his peppermint soap. His hands were large and remarkably beautiful, like a sculptor’s. His mouth had an unpleasant, bitter set to it. He moved slowly, stiffly, cautiously.
He had been speaking on the phone with his factory manager about a consultant they’d hired, an engineer who was lagging behind schedule devising a way to inject nitrogen gas into bags of Dr. Bronner’s Corn and Sesame Chips. If the shelf life of the product could be extended by a few months with nitrogen, the chips could be shipped worldwide, like the soap.
“We’re gonna get the shelf life way up there!” Bronner said to me. “A ten-fold increase in sales! Sales in Australia! Israel!”
He reached for the phone. “Get me the Israeli consulate in Los Angeles!” he ordered his assistant inside.
The phone buzzed a minute later. Bronner picked it up and began speaking with the consulate.
“Hello! This is Dr. Bronner from Escondido! I’m a soap-maker master and a rabbi!” (He is not really a rabbi.)
“Dr. Bronner!” he shouted. “Soap-maker master! Rabbi!”
“BRONNER! LISTEN! I want to ship 500 cases of my corn chips and soap to your country! Fine products! The very best! This soap was invented 100 years ago!”
“To your country!” he shouted. “As a rabbi, I have an ulterior motive!” He spoke more quietly: “The one-quart bottle of my soap has a label that is a great achievement. It contains words that I, a rabbi, have written….”
“I! A RABBI!” he bellowed. His face suddenly turned shockingly grim. His body tensed and his voice became harshly gutteral: “What an apology we rabbis owe the Marxists for our 2,000-year failure to teach them the true meaning of religion, which is unity! And just look what happened! The Marxist press in America will not print the truth about the death of Wendell Willkie! Murdered! Like so many others! A man who wished to bring peace to all nations! Think about it! ALL ONE!” He slammed down the phone. It missed its cradle. He slammed again and got it.
I wasn’t clear about Wendell Willkie’s role in all of this and Bronner didn’t want to go into details just then. “We need the sun!” he announced, leaning back on his patio couch, turning his face skyward. “Sun!”
He was silent for a minute or two. Then he sat up. “Bronner tells the truth,” he said firmly. “The Marxist press in America lies about actual cases of murder.” He lay back again. After a while he nodded off.
A couple of hours later, around noon, Bronner climbed into his car, with Gladys at the wheel and me in the backseat, to drive to a downtown restaurant for lunch and the monthly meeting of the Escondido Avocado Club. He grows about 100 organic avocado trees.
The car made its way along winding streets for a while, and then Gladys turned onto a quiet avenue that was straight for about a hundred yards.
“STOP!” Bronner ordered, and Gladys braked.
He climbed out and stood next to the car. He closed the door and gripped the window rim with his left hand.
“GO!” he shouted through the open window. Gladys touched the accelerator and the car started rolling at a couple of miles an hour. Bronner trotted alongside, holding on to the window frame. “Faster!” he cried. A bit more speed. “FASTER!” he yelled, “FASTER!” He was sprinting now, an 82-year-old man in 75-degree heat, gasping for air, running at top speed, 40 yards, 50 yards, 60 yards and counting….
“Stop,” he panted. Gladys braked. Buckets of sweat poured off him. He climbed into the car.
His chest was still heaving five minutes later when we pulled up at the restaurant. Bronner exercises.
His biography is tangled. He declines comment on certain aspects of it. The basics can be pieced together from various sources, including his adult son Ralph, who lives in Milwaukee.
He was born Emanuel Heilbronner on February 2, 1908, into a middle-class Jewish family in Heilbronn, Germany.
His parents, Berthold and Franciska, in common with most German Jews in the early part of the century, believed that their primary duty of citizenship was to assimilate with the gentiles, work hard, and contribute to the Fatherland. Emanuel’s father arose before dawn six days a week, hiked four miles to his soap factory, spent twelve hours supervising the making of the best soap in the region, and hiked home. He ruled the household with an iron hand. Emanuel was spanked hard for any failure to toe the line.
Considerable anti-Semitism floated around the neighborhood where the Heilbronners lived – indeed, it pervaded all of Germany – and young Emanuel absorbed a big dose. He has a powerful memory of beating up, and seriously injuring, a childhood playmate who called him a “goddamn kike.”
Bronner was six years old in 1914 when Germany went to war. His clearest memory of the war years is of hunger, especially during the “turnip winter” of 1918, when a little piece of meat was something to treasure.
In the 1920s he began studying soap making, completing a demanding apprenticeship with glowing encomiums from his teachers. In 1929, age 21, he decided to try his luck in the New World. He sailed from Hamburg to New York and eventually found a soapmaking job in Milwaukee. He married a Christian woman with whom he had three children; none of them was raised as a Jew. With the rise of Hitler in the 1930s he dropped the “Heil” from his last name; meanwhile he adopted the title “doctor.”
The rest of his family stayed in Germany. As war drew near in the late 1930s, Bronner tried to persuade them to get out. His sister Luisa escaped but his parents waited too long. Berthold died at Teresienstadt; Franciska at Auschwitz. There is a story, not verified, that Bronner received a postcard from his father during this period saying simply, “You Were Right – Your Loving Father.” He never heard from his parents again.
In late 1945, several months after Bronner received word of the death of his parents, his wife, Paula, suffered a breakdown. The exact causes are not clear. She died in a mental hospital shortly thereafter.
Bronner decided soapmaking was not relevant. He moved from Milwaukee to Chicago and threw himself with fierce energy into politics, working the fringes of the “one-world” movement, developing great admiration for Wendell Willkie, a mainstream one-worlder who had been the Republican candidate for president in 1940. Willkie died of a heart attack in 1944. Bronner saw his death as the result of a Marxist plot.
In late 1945 or early ’46 Bronner conceived of a plan for global unity based on a linking of all the world’s religions. He gave speeches on street corners and in parks in Chicago, attracting a modest following. One of his adherents, a man named Fred Walcher, took it upon himself to publicize Bronner’s ideas. Walcher arranged to be tied to a cross in the shadow of Chicago’s elevated railway – a crucifixion. He apparently hoped to hang there until he died. A passerby got him down in time to save his life. Bronner says he knew nothing, beforehand, of Walcher’s action.
Bronner worked day and night on creating one world, unable to sleep for all the ideas in his head – writing letters, studying documents, dreaming big dreams. Then, in March, 1946, the work and buried grief apparently became too much, and he suffered what appears to have been a severe breakdown. His sister Luisa flew from New England to Chicago and signed papers of commitment. (Today, Bronner insists he did not have a breakdown. He says he was drugged and imprisoned by powerful unseen enemies.)
He escaped from an Illinois mental hospital, but not before receiving a series of electroshock treatments that he says caused total blindness. (Not everyone in his circle believes that he’s completely blind; Bronner insists he is.) He hid out in the Midwest for a few weeks and eventually decided that his best chance at freedom was in California. Leaving his children in the care of friends, he hitchhiked Route 66 and landed in Los Angeles.
L.A. in the post-war years was a paradise of jobs, cheap land, warm climate, and low taxes, growing at a rate of more than 100,000 people annually. The region had a massive manufacturing sector producing vehicles, tires, furniture, and clothing, and a booming defense sector, prominently featuring aerospace, which took advantage of nearby Mojave Desert for a huge flight test program, driven by the demands of the Cold War.
Los Angeles was a seedbed for the natural foods/wellness movement. It had the big population base, and it had the California zest for the new, the experimental, the hopeful – a historically fascinating vibe with roots in the Gold Rush that received impetus in the 20th century from the entertainment business, and, later, high tech. (Silicon Valley in Northern California, home of Google, Apple, Netflix, eBay, TiVo, Intel, Cisco, Oracle, Hewlett-Packard, etc., owes a great deal to this culture.)
A Los Angeles-based entrepreneur named Paul Bragg was a pioneer of the health movement starting in the 1920s, advocating juicing and fasting. Bragg influenced Jack LaLanne in the late ’20s and probably had an impact on M.O. Garten, a naturopath and chiropractor, who gave rousing lectures (sermons, really) on health and natural healing. Garten frowned on drugs and approved of the sun. Bronner heard him talk in 1948 at a downtown L.A. theater, and in a conversation after the show, Garten urged Bronner to use his knowledge of chemistry and manufacturing to get into the natural health business, which, said Garten, was the coming thing.
Bronner didn’t make soap at first, possibly because he had no money for kettles and stoves. His initial offering was a food seasoning that he concocted from naturally-growing herbs. Jars of the product gained shelf space in the handful of California health-food stores. Bronner soon began focusing his efforts on all-natural soap. He sold a moderate amount of the stuff and kept the company afloat, but basically lived hand-to-mouth through the ’50s and early ’60s.
Then came the late ’60s. Peace. Love. Brotherhood and sisterhood. Back to the land. Back to the basics. Sales of Bronner’s soap zoomed upward. For the first time he was making real money.
(This was the beginning of his dispute with the IRS over what constitutes a religion. His case has consumed whole lawyerly careers and shows no signs of ending. Does Bronner’s eagerness to promulgate the All One theology owe anything to the potential tax breaks therein? Bronner dismisses the question with a thunderous “NO!”)
Bronner became a cult figure. Hippies showed up on his doorstep seeking guidance. He appeared in the 1972 movie “Rainbow Bridge” speaking about the dangers of fluoridation (oddly, his performance didn’t make it to the DVD version). Esquire ran a piece about him in 1973. Meanwhile he kept a strict eye on the bottom line. The only way he could achieve global all-oneness, he saw, was by running a successful company. The firm thrived; Bronner re-married and bought his big house in the Escondido hills.
“Guacamole can help save the world,” Bronner informed me during lunch in the banquet room of the Fireside Restaurant.
Members of the Escondido Avocado Club were gathered in the room, about 20 people eating prime rib and talking about the San Diego Padres and crop damage from a recent freeze. Bronner and Gladys and I sat by ourselves at a little table in the corner. Bronner ate a piece of nearly-raw liver and talked about malnourished children.
“When the avocado is combined with Dr. Bronner’s Mineral Seasoning,” he said, “and onions, garlic, and lemon juice are added, it makes a guacamole that is nutritionally superb. Superb!” He warmed to the possibilities: “My recipe for guacamole can help save the starving children of Spaceship Earth! An excellent source of minerals! No child should be deprived of minerals! The lad Bronner, age seven, seated at the breakfast table, craved calcium! The year was 1915! He ate his eggshells – an EXCELLENT source of calcium! And his father spanked him!” Bronner’s mouth turned grim.
The president of the Avocado Club, a smiling, tan, white-haired man wearing a white Western shirt and a bolo tie, picked up his spoon and dinged his water glass: “Folks, if we may, let’s get started. Dr. Bronner, do you have a story for us?”
As a senior member of the club, Bronner traditionally tells a little story or joke to begin each meeting he attends. He stood up and took a tentative step toward the larger tables. Several of the men and women looked down at their coffee.
“In 1938,” Bronner said, “I lost my teeth.” He paused for effect.
“My dental plate fell into a river near the soap factory where I worked. A boy found it and brought it to me. I was deeply embarrassed! I decided that no child should ever lose his teeth! No child should be without calcium!
“Avocados can help! The avocados of Escondido! Mixed with Dr. Bronner’s Mineral Seasoning! Onions, garlic, and lemon juice – a delicious and nutritionally superb….”
The club president dinged his water glass. Bronner didn’t hear it. He continued: “….feed the world….”
Another man dinged too.
“Where can we buy it?” a man called.
“….lack of calcium….”
“Thank you doctor….”
“Where can we buy it?“
Bronner stopped short. “I’ll give it to you.”
Several men chuckled.
“I’ll give you as much as you need,” Bronner said earnestly, tenderly.
“Thank you, doctor,” said the president. “If we may, let’s take a look at the crop damage reports.”
Bronner nodded. He carefully felt for his chair and sat down. He looked happy. A couple of minutes later, during the crop report, he began to nod off.
Hanging on the wall behind him was a framed lithograph by the artist Amado Pena. It showed an austere Indian, alone in the dark hills, playing his flute for the Great Spirit.
He often doesn’t sleep well at night. He awakens in mental turmoil at 2 or 3 a.m., makes his way down the hall to his office, phones Western Union, and spends hours dictating Mailgrams to world leaders, including Bush and Gorbachev, commenting on the issues of the day, and quoting at length from the Moral ABCs. As he works he can sometimes hear coyotes howling in the hills behind his house.
Opposite his desk as he dictates, hanging on the wall, is his favorite painting. An admirer created it for him and described it to him in detail, and Bronner placed it in a prominent spot.
It shows a large castle situated on a small island. The structure is protected by thick outer walls, a moat, and an expanse of forbidding sea. The castle is independent; no one will ever get within a hundred miles of it. Under the castle is inscribed a Bronner credo: PERFECT THYSELF. HELP OTHERS. START NOW.
Not once, Bronner says, has he received a substantive reply to his Mailgrams. This, he believes, is bound to change, probably quite soon. ●
Postscript: Emmanuel Bronner died in 1997 at age 89. The company continues to prosper. The labels are the same as in Bronner’s day.