Once when you were Pharoah...

"One life leads to another," says hypnotist Irv Mordes and so on and so on

Irv Mordes has a manuscript under his wrinkled and spotted hands, but he doesn't want to open it yet. It's too soon. He needs to build up anticipation for that four-inch-thick text of his life's most important work. So he ponderously goes through his story the way old men do, hitting the highlights to emphasize how successful he's been in his 84 years, first as a nobody salesman and then in a second career with its asterisk of fame. He'll end his story with that secret he's selling in his book, the one about living forever.

He begins back during World War II, when the Army rejected him because of a bad back and he ended up making some quick money taking pictures of servicemen. He'd approach the GIs in Baltimore parks, making as much as $1,000 a week just snapping photos for a buck. He'd mail the pictures to the soldiers' sweethearts and parents. The snapshots often arrived not long after word came that the men had been gunned down. "I'd get letters saying 'Thank you, thank you. This is the last picture I have of my son,'" Mordes recalls, his eyes widening behind large bifocals. But business slumped after the war, so Mordes started selling Venetian blinds to the ex-GIs. The work made him a living into the 1960s, when Mordes wanted something more. He doesn't say things so bluntly, but, really, judging by the story he tells, Irv Mordes wanted immortality.

In 1963, he opened a business that promised clients they could lose ten pounds with little effort. He simply hypnotized them, gave them subconscious messages to lose weight, and sent them off with a newfound ability to refuse food. It sounds simple now, but back then, hypnotism was a field akin to carnival sideshows. When his female clients started losing pounds, though, Mordes became popular. "Women would go to their friend and say, 'Oh my god, what happened?' And they'd say, 'I went to Mr. Mordes,'" he reminisces, using a high-pitched female voice to imitate his clients. "Next thing I know, I've got 12 offices all over Baltimore, then Pennsylvania, then Texas. I couldn't believe it."

Stephanie hopes Irv Mordes will help her drop ten pounds. He hopes she'll buy his book.
Eric Alan Barton
Stephanie hopes Irv Mordes will help her drop ten pounds. He hopes she'll buy his book.

But that's not what the Irv Mordes story is all about. He takes his hands off the manuscript and places his palms on the simple wooden desk in the one-room office he rents in Delray Beach. He smiles coyly, and the wrinkles become deeper, running parallel on his bald head like lines across a highway. His toothy smile cuts below a level nose and into jowls hanging lower than they used to and nearly to those massive earlobes that come with old age. "One day, this guy comes into my office," he says, finally getting to the culmination of the story. "He says he's having all these dreams he can't explain. He says, 'One night, I'm a Hebrew slave in Israel; one night, I'm in ancient Egypt as a pharaoh; one day, I'm a soldier in Gettysburg. '" He pauses for emphasis. "So I put him under hypnosis."

What comes next in the story of Irv Mordes' life is the part that could bring him fame... or simply make him the subject of ridicule. It begins when Alan Lee, a car salesman and high school drop-out, told Mordes about the 16 lives he had led before. It's a fantastic story, if you believe in that sort of thing. There's even some proof, including letters Lee wrote in all kinds of languages and scientific tests he passed while hooked up to all kinds of brain-reading machines.

But it's the kind of story that makes mainstream hypnotherapists a little edgy. Their field is less on the fringe nowadays, but still, hypnotists struggle for full legitimacy. Some see Lee's tale as another way to discredit a profession already dragged down by elaborate hoaxes by people claiming to have lived before. Others say it's simply a con job that ought to be forgotten. Mordes has told his story to dozens of colleagues since moving 15 years ago to South Florida, and what he's found is that those who face skeptics themselves are just as skeptical of ideas more radical than their own. It's as if those who practice on the fringe have drawn a line for what's believable, and Lee's tale, for many, lands a little too close to the unbelievable.

Mordes ends his story with the news he expects will finally silence his critics: His book, the product of ten years of writing, is due out in just a few weeks. A publisher in Indiana has agreed to print it and sell it online. Chock full of Lee's tales of reincarnation, Mordes titled it You Will Never Die. He has already begun trying to sell it to patients and fellow hypnotists, despite those who call him a quack and in the face of the few who have threatened to sue him over it. For now, Mordes ponders another kind of immortality, the sort that comes with fame. For a man facing down old age, a bestseller would be his secret of how to live forever. "It's a bestseller, I know it," he declares emphatically, finally rifling through the pages of the manuscript. "I've just got to get on Oprah, and then I've got it made."

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