Why won't Silicon Valley check its horoscope?

Joan Quigley, Reagan's astrologer, helped end the Cold War but can't raise venture capital for her dot-com.

Published December 18, 2000 8:30PM (EST)

It was one of those moments at a public event when the audience is seized by the collective realization that the threads of reality have suddenly begun to unravel.

An über-coiffed businesswoman with an '80s big hairdo takes the floor during the always-iffy question and answer period of a panel discussion and begins making wild, self-important claims, the kind of lunatic assertions that can only be interpreted as a sign of abject insanity.

"I helped bring about the end of the Cold War," she tells the incredulous audience of about 90 Bay Area executive women convening in a posh meeting room at the top of the Westin St. Francis Hotel in Union Square for an evening's discussion on "Moving Beyond Success to Significance."

"My name was rocketed around the world!" declares the Cold War Avenger, showing no sign of relinquishing the mike.

The audience grows impatient. "What's your name?" a few call out. We're all wondering: If you're so famous, who are you?

"Joan Quigley," she replies, regally. "I came here tonight because I need help."

Wait. These aren't the spewed ravings of a mentally imbalanced nobody. Quigley is the world-famous astrologer who spent seven years secretly plotting President Ronald Reagan's schedule according to the movements of the stars. By God, maybe she did help end the Cold War -- if only by reassuring the superstitious Reagans that they had the heavens on their side. She's the star of Stargate, the seer who advised Nancy Reagan on how to protect the Gipper from succumbing to the infamous 20-year curse that had felled every president elected in a year ending with zero since William Henry Harrison in 1840.

But now the famous stargazer is asking a gathering of year 2000 senior vice presidents and directors of strategic planning for help. What could they possibly do for her? More to the point: What guidance can they give her that the stars haven't already?

In a phrase: business advice.

Apparently, seeing the future isn't enough to transform a celebrity astrologer whose own star is fading into a venture-backed Internet entrepreneur. Like other famous names -- Dr. Koop and the late Dr. Spock -- Quigley hankers to channel her talents and notoriety into a dot-com business, an Internet company that will spread her wisdom to the world. So far, the planets have not aligned in her favor.

Maybe it's an indication of just how far the dot-com downturn has gone that the astrologer who once dictated what time of day the president of the United States took the oath of office, flew in Air Force One or held a summit with other heads of state, is now finding that she just doesn't have the pull she needs with Silicon Valley venture capitalists.

Quigley has spent the past two years working on an Internet company that would bring her personalized astrological predictions to the masses, but she hasn't yet been able to secure the $6 million to $10 million she needs to develop her first products -- a personalized daily, monthly and yearly prediction service, for which she expects to charge a $15 a month subscription fee. She may have helped end the Cold War, but all the hints that the heavens can provide have not been enough to crack a venture capitalist's coffers in this cooling market.

"Really, I should have known," she confides to the roomful of female executives. "Struggle has been in my charts."

Quigley's eyes are huge and brown with a tiny ring of blue around the edge of each iris. When she makes a point, she opens them wide in a startled expression of extra emphasis, as if to say: "All the better to see the future with, my dear!"

When I walk through the door of her apartment in the city's tony Pacific Heights district, she cries: "I'm thrilled to meet you because your horoscope is incredible!" Her eyes are wide, her face lit up and her head is shaking back and forth just a bit, as if she simply can't believe her good fortune at encountering the possessor of such vast, yet unrealized potential. As she puts our takeout lunch in the refrigerator, Quigley explains that 1971, the year in which I was born, is an excellent vintage, a tremendous year for "business tycoons" and other budding players on the world stage. "Do you like this job?" she will later ask me pointedly over lunch. The clear implication: I have a much higher calling. What am I waiting for?

But before we ponder my happy destiny, we retire to the living room, an oasis of understated, old-world good taste, to discuss Joan Quigley. The bookcases are stocked with weathered volumes on Oriental rugs and orchids. Sartre's "Being and Nothingness" shares a shelf with "Modest Mansions." And dominating one side of the room are three incongruous PCs, on which, Quigley tells me, she often works until 6:30 a.m. This is where the world of the refined San Francisco high-society matron meets the driven, up-all-night Net entrepreneur.

Quigley was first exposed to astrology at the age of 15, when her mother visited an astrologer for what Quigley calls "an afternoon's entertainment, sort of a lark" and came home convinced that astrology was actually "quite scientific." The young Quigley read all the books that her mother bought on the subject, and when she returned to San Francisco after graduating from college she declared that her future lay in astrology. Her father, a lawyer and businessman, was not amused: "It was as though he had sent his daughter to Vassar and I wanted to be a refugee from a gypsy tea room," she says.

The astrologer with whom Quigley's mother consulted on that fateful afternoon agreed to become the aspiring stargazer's mentor. Think Mr. Miyagi to Daniel in "The Karate Kid," except with star charts. Tragically, this productive tutelage would be short-lived: "I studied with her for about a year, and one day she showed me her horoscope, and we both knew that she was going to die of a massive heart attack within the month," Quigley recalls.

The doomed astrologer offered her pupil this parting prediction: "Joan, you will be a very famous astrologer some day, and you will discover techniques I have never dreamed of." Quigley thinks her Web-based software will fulfill the prophesy. Her presidential prophesizing may have brought Quigley's name to the masses, but she's confident that the Internet will bring her work to them.

Like any artisan whose talents are in demand, Quigley has struggled for years with outsourcing dilemmas. She simply cannot read the entire world's charts on her own, cannot single-handedly fend off the global population's bad business partnerships, doomed marriages and fatal plane trips, one by one. But her experience farming out business to other practitioners of her craft has been less than satisfactory.

After the news broke about her secret consultations with Nancy Reagan, business boomed, and Quigley passed on some clients' horoscopes to another astrologer: "I gave a few to this young astrologer, and she absolutely wrecked them. She was so bad. I realized how few really reliable, quality astrologers there are." Her voice assumes a hushed tone: "There are some very good ones, but some of them really don't know what they're doing."

Quigley is also quick to distinguish her own works from the generic horoscopes in the newspaper. "I will not do sun-sign astrology, because it's not accurate," she states flatly. "I'm a serious professional. I'm not some sort of idiot, pop astrologer." She relies on the exact time, date and place of a client's birth to create hundreds of charts that outline predictions based on the relations of the stars. In order to do my "natal chart" -- the position of the planets when I was born -- Quigley needed the time (3:49 p.m.), date (Sept. 30, 1971) and place (Kingston, Ontario) of my birth. All that Libra, Scorpio, Cancer business is, she says, "a lot of bosh."

Quigley sees the fact that astrology is treated as so much "frivolous entertainment" in this country as the real barrier to her start-up. "I've had a terrible time raising money for this, because most venture people have a knee-jerk reaction to the word 'astrology' and they think of it in terms of the pop astrology, the sort of stupid things that they read in those columns next to the funnies."

This is the frustration of being Quigley. Imagine believing that through years of study you have acquired an invaluable skill that few possess, a talent that can help prevent unnecessary heartache, financial ruin, worry, suffering, even death.

Quigley says, for example, that her chart reading can catch cancer early. She says she advised Nancy Reagan to have her mammograms every quarter in the year her breast cancer was detected.

And now, imagine that, thanks to the Web, you've discovered a way to perform highly individualized calculations for infinitely more people than you ever could yourself, and yet the stigma attached to your craft keeps you from getting the money you need to bring your predictions to the world.

In many ways, she's the classic technology entrepreneur possessed of the conviction that her invention can change the world -- if only someone will just provide the money to make it happen. Quigley wants to help people. "That's why I'm doing it, but it won't hurt my feelings if it makes money," she jokes.

Aha! pounce the skeptics. If she wants to make money, why not just predict the stock market? In fact, Quigley has done this in the past -- on a commission basis for a Saudi Arabian businessman. But she won't be doing any more of that: "I don't like to gamble."

Despite the recent stock market downturn, Quigley predicts a bull market for astrology: "It's recession proof. In Japan, where they've had 10 bad years, astrology is the most popular thing on the Internet." Which brings up the question: If astrology is so popular in Japan, what exactly has it done for the Japanese lately?

At the peak of dot-com insanity, when the mark of success was fast growth and hemorrhaging expenses, Quigley had a different problem in wooing investors. "When I first started in on this people would say: 'Oh, you're going to be profitable. Oh, you can't admit it in your business plan. It's not right to be profitable if you're on the Net.' One of them said: 'You'll never make it on the Internet being profitable.'"

One serious investor got skittish when the market went sour in April. Another was talked out of the deal by a friend who wasn't a believer. But now that profitability is suddenly back in vogue, Quigley believes that her company's fortunes will change. She should know. She sees it in her charts, of course, and she expects to be funded by mid-January. "I have one prospect that might be good, but I won't count on anything until it happens. But it will happen. I don't give up easily."

I wouldn't underestimate her. The author of four books, including "'What does Joan Say?' My Seven Years as White House Astrologer to Nancy and Ronald Reagan," Quigley has faced down a mob of 60 reporters camped out on her doorstep after her name "rocketed around the world," as she's fond of saying. She's stood up to the kind of media scrutiny and ridicule that maybe only Monica Lewinsky could fully empathize with. And she proudly takes credit for helping diffuse Reagan's Bitburg crisis, as well as persuading him that Mikhail Gorbachev was an "intellectual, someone who we could deal with."

But most importantly, Quigley adapts easily. She shows no danger of being forever trapped in those 15 minutes of fame that began in May 1988 when her secret relationship with Nancy Reagan was blown open. Quigley has moved on. Her conversation is peppered with phrases like "rule-based artificial intelligence," "privacy guarantees" and "Nortel and Cisco Systems," as well as "a lot of bosh," "sea change" and "verisimilitude."

After serving me a three-course lunch (clam chowder, shrimp Louie with bread and butter and vanilla ice cream topped with raspberries and some kind of liqueur) on fine china, she forbids me from pouring my own cup of tea. "A proper hostess should pour your tea anyway," she says. But our lunchtime conversation has been dominated by her discussion of a recent article in Forbes ASAP about fiber optics, photons, light and its probable relationship to astrology. "Someday a physicist will discover it, and it will be as big a discovery as DNA or the human genome."

In a fit of pique, she refers to an unnamed congressman as a "jerk" -- then excuses herself with a genteel "Pardon me." Yet her living room contains stacks of Wired magazines and she does Pilates, the trendy exercise du jour.

Once we've fully contemplated Quigley's contribution to history and her plans for global domination through the Internet, we sit in front of one of her three computers to consider my fate.

The fact that I was born at 3:49 p.m. on Sept. 30, 1971 in Kingston, Ontario, means, I'm pleased to report, that I am going to be famous. I will not be famous for my writing, wit, intellect, astute analysis, political activism or humanitarianism. (Don't say: You could have told me that.) No, I'm going to be famous for being rich, "excessively wealthy," as Quigley says. I have a magnificent "stellium," which is a configuration of several planets all in one house, to thank for that. I'm proud to report that Nancy also has one of these.

"You have both Jupiter and Neptune in your midheaven. You're going to be known very prominently for having money," she tells me. "Yes, I'm sorry if that doesn't interest you, but there it is. It's definitely there," she says. She is flipping through dozens of different charts now, throwing out important dates in my future, which I scribble down frantically. Between April 22 and 24, 2003, my brother should not fly. "That whole week really," she cautions. And Friday at 4 p.m., I'm not to pitch any stories to my editor -- he'll reject them. The dates and prophecies come fast and furious now.

As for the source of my world-renowned wealth, perhaps it will be the aristocrat or diplomat who she also sees in my future that will bring me this great fortune. Perhaps it will be my "genius" child. "You must have a child," she says several times, as she stares intently at her monitor. (The name of the program that she's using is called Solar Fire 4.5. Remember, she hasn't had the money yet to finish developing her own software for the Net.)

Thankfully, I am capturing my future on minicassette recorder for posterity. I imagine playing this tape on my gold-encrusted deathbed to my genius child. "I wasn't always this aged matron, known the world over for my outrageous riches," I'll tell her. "Listen to the evidence. I was once a reporter on the Internet covering the quirky vagaries of the city's Net gold rush. None other than Joan Quigley herself told me this would happen."

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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Astrology Ronald Reagan