LOS ANGELES — They were an unlikely couple, the Latin American immigrant and the West Virginia divorcee whose paths crossed in mid-1950s Los Angeles.
But, by Margaret Runyan Castaneda’s account, she and Carlos Castaneda were kindred spirits whose time together helped turn him into a countercultural phenomenon.
Carlos wrote “The Teachings of Don Juan,” a 1968 bestseller that told of his peyote-fueled adventures with Don Juan Matus, a Mexican shaman who purportedly guided him to an alternate realm inhabited by giant insects, witches and flying humans. Presented as an anthropological work, the book resounded with a generation of youthful rebels who turned the 1970s into a rollicking era of social and pharmacological experimentation.
Decades after their marriage ended, Margaret wrote her own book, which punctured some of the mystery surrounding the man who came to be viewed as either a godfather of New Age or one of its greatest charlatans.
“Much of the Castaneda mystique is based on the fact that even his closest friends aren’t sure who he is,” Margaret wrote in her 1996 book, “A Magical Journey with Carlos Castaneda.”
Margaret, who has died at 90, said she believed that Don Juan was an extravagant fiction drawn from many sources, including conversations and activities she shared with Carlos during their long, tangled relationship. She went so far as to describe her ex-husband’s books, which include “A Separate Reality” (1971) and seven other bestsellers, as “our biography.”
Her death Dec. 24 in Glendale, Ariz., of a heart attack was confirmed by her only survivor, son C.J. Castaneda, also known as Adrian Vashon. His birth certificate lists Carlos as his father even though his biological father was a different man.
Many puzzles surround Carlos Castaneda’s legacy, including whether his marriage to and divorce from Margaret were ever official.
“She was a very engaging person, who was interested in the things that Carlos was interested in at that time,” said Douglass R. Price-Williams, who was an anthropology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, when Carlos was a graduate student there in the early 1970s.
“She saw through some of his mythmaking, but not all of it,” the professor said. “She was sort of confused herself. Anyone who knew him any length of time was confused about the man. … It didn’t surprise me at all that comes across in her book.”
Born Nov. 14, 1921, in Charleston, W.Va., Margaret Runyan was the oldest of six children of a dairy farmer who, according to her son, read her the entire Book of Knowledge, a popular children’s encyclopedia.
In the late 1930s, after graduating from high school, she briefly worked for Union Carbide before heading west and settling in California. She found a job in Los Angeles at Pacific Bell, eventually rising to night chief operator.
She met Carlos in 1955 when her dressmaker’s daughter delivered some garments to her apartment. The daughter brought a friend she introduced as “Carlos from South America.”
For Margaret, an attractive brunet who was some years older than Carlos, it was enchantment at first sight.
She already was immersed in the philosophy of Neville Goddard, a metaphysics teacher with a burgeoning L.A. following. The next time she saw Carlos, she slipped him her phone number inside a copy of Goddard’s book about controlling one’s dreams, a power that Carlos later claimed he learned from Don Juan. They began dating several months later and in 1960 were married in Mexico.
According to Margaret’s memoir, Carlos had been deceptive since the beginning of their relationship, telling her, for instance, that he was born in Brazil, the son of a professor. Legal documents would later show that he was born in Peru and was the son of a goldsmith.
She theorized that Carlos came up with the name Don Juan Matus because of their mutual enjoyment of Mateus wine, which, she wrote, “he jokingly referred to as his most valuable teacher.”
She also suggested that Carlos was inspired to structure his books as a conversation with Don Juan because of a remark she once made about Plato turning Socrates into a character in his famous dialogues.
“His books are conversations he is holding with himself,” Margaret told author Richard de Mille in “The Don Juan Papers,” a collection of essays critical of Carlos’ work.
She wrote humorously of the reactions Carlos elicited when the myth collided with the man. She described, for instance, how the hipster crowd at a college lecture in the early 1970s was shocked when a short-haired, dour-looking man in a conservative business suit walked into the room.
“Everybody looked at everybody else in stunned silence,” she wrote. “This was the purveyor of the new mysticism … a guy who looked like a Cuban bellhop.”
She and Carlos lived together as husband and wife for only six months in 1960, agreeing to part after he began disappearing on weekend trips.
He later said he was visiting Don Juan and immersing himself in the research that would inspire his many strange tales.
In late 1960, Margaret wrote, she accompanied Carlos to Mexico for a divorce.
She subsequently met a friend of his named Adrian Gerritsen and conceived her son with him. Soon after, she said, Carlos told her their divorce was invalid.
He helped raise the boy and insisted on a new birth certificate that identified him as the father.
According to her book, she finally obtained a divorce in 1973, but her son says no divorce papers can be found.
In later years, Carlos cut off contact with Margaret and her son, especially after the author handed over management of his affairs to Cleargreen Inc., a company run by his followers.
She did not learn of his 1998 death from cancer until two months after his cremation. His death certificate, like much of his life, seemed to reflect an alternate reality: It stated that he was never married.
At the end of her memoir, Margaret described their last, mystifying encounter.
It happened in 1993, when Carlos gave a talk in Santa Monica, Calif., to promote his book “The Art of Dreaming.”
“He put his arms around me, kissed my cheek and expressed his seeming delight to see me,” she wrote. “Then he stood back and just looked at me. When he did that, I asked if he would sign the book I had in my hand. … His answer, (which) I never expected, was: ‘Oh, I’m sorry, my hands are too tired.’”
He threw kisses as he drove away.