E. Joseph West, a tweed-coated veteran stockbroker and analyst for E. F. Hutton & Co., Inc., opened his briefcase and drew out a thick stack" of papers concerning corporations such as 20th Century Fox Film Corp., whose stock soared recently in the wake of its hit film, 'Star Wars."
West said he had foreseen the change and "jumped on that stock" along with some of his clients. He gave credit for that foresight not only to his training in classical analysis and brokerage but also to the unlikely papers in his briefcase.
They were astrological charts.
"See? It was 'born' on Feb. 1, 1915," West noted on one complicated sheet that traced the influence of the sun, moon and planets on the fortunes of 20th Century-Fox, based on its date of incorporation. "The chart indicated that this company was about to turn the corner," he said. West, 37, uses astrology "to determine the general background to the market," he said. "I've been very cautious all year in advising clients about being too aggressive because of bad aspects in the charts of the stock exchange and the Carter administration."
In fact, although various prominent figures have branded astrology as nonsense, the factories and offices of 20th century capitalism have become a fine nurturing ground for it, according to professionals in booming astrology business.
Astrology has become such a growth industry that 186 well-known scientists, including 18 Nobel Prize winners, united two years ago to denounce it in a published paper. They railed at the "pretentious claims of astrological charlatans" and at the media for "uncritical dissemination" of horoscopes, charts and the like.
Still, professional astrologers say, their clients use it as an aid in timing political campaigns, appraising potential employees, deciding which employees to group together, making business expansion, merger or investment decisions, determining the compatability or trustworthiness of business partners, and so on.
"A Chicago insurance company had me do astrological profiles on 150 employees," said professional astrologer Jertha Love, of Silver Spring. "I'm dickering with another company down South right now to do the same thing."
Astrologer Love also provides workshops on character analysis for salesmen "to help them relate better to their clients," he said.
Lissa McCoy, a professional astrologer in Georgetown, says her clients include owners of several hair salons in the Washington area. "They like their workers to be harmonious with each other, so I do charts of all their employees and tell them whether certain people can relate to each other," she said.
No one knows how many people use astrology as a tool to shape hard dollars-and-cents decisions, some of which affect numerous other people. Many who do use it do not want to talk about it.
"It becomes a touchy subject, especailly when you get into the upper echelons of business. Astrology still, unfortunately, has a bit of the witch-doctor status," McCoy said.
Broker West feels astroloy is "a disciplined art, at least as scientifically based as modern psychology," he said.
West estimates that he spends 10 to 20 hours a week, in addition to his regular work, preparing and analyzing charts - several thousand of them so far - on the people he deals with, on public officials, famous economists, governments and even on the Panama Canal treaties.
Factory owner Stanley Skalka of Potomac says he uses astrological forecasting as a tool in financial analysis and to anticipate employee problems, tight money conditions and the like. "If we want to buy $30,000 worth of machinery, for instance, I'd lend great weight to what's predicted about our company over the next six months," he said.
Skalka's family-owned factory in Dunkirk, Md., employs about 40 people and makes, among other things, the park benches, planters and trash containers on the Mall, at the Library of Congress and other federal sites.
Skalka says he used to be "Mister Skeptic. Worse than that.I thought astrology was a bunch of garbage."
Then his wife made a convert out of him. Julia Skalka writes an astrology column on the "Stock Market Outlook" for Dell's Horoscope Magazine. "She showed me it can be incredibly accurate. I respect it a lot . . . You need other tools, too. But it's one of the things we weight in," he said.
Edgar A. Merkle, 77, retired founder and head of Merkle Press, became interested in astrology as long ago as 1920, he says.
"When you have 900 employees over 40 years, you learn that some people have a certain disposition . . . People born under certain signs have certain attitudes. That's all. I've noticed that some people are leaders, some are mechanics, and so on," he said.
"When a man or woman is equipped for work, has this or that education, gets tired, isn't interested, is unhappy or whatever, then you inquire and you find their birth sign matches up, too. It's very simple," he said.
Merkle used to ask people their birth sign when he hired them, according to his former staff.
"That was always the first thing he asked a person. I guess maybe that's why we have such a nice group of people here to work with," said Merkle's secretary of 23 years, Ethel M. Crandall. She still works at Merkle Press, now under different management.
The company prints numerous publications, such as the eastern edition of Time Magazine, and once was perhaps best known nationally for its printed transcripts of NBC's program, "Meet the Press."
Even skeptics on the staff seemed to find Merkle's astrology inoffensive. "Mr. Merkle is a man with a very perceptive understanding of people," said Arch Mercey, formerly an editor and writer under Merkle. "If a person wants to ascribe an ability like that to astrology, well, that's up to the individual."
The appeal of astrology in modern society is virtually the same as it was for the ancients who first used it, according to James N. Mosel, chairman of the psychology department at George Washington University.
"It's a quest for certainty, an attempt to reduce uncertainty . . . It is a grid that you can impose on events which prescribes and explains action," he said.
There are numerous sources of order and meaning other than astrology, but astrology is among the most easily accessible and fashionable to large numbers of people, he noted. "Einstein's theory of relativity also offers an explanation of things, but it isn't as easy to pick up," he said.
Professional astrologers claim that more than 50 million Americans are followers of astrology. Most of the country's 1,500 daily newspapers carry an astrology column of some sort. Editors of the Washington Post note that the paper resisted that trend until two years ago when, despite objections by some editors, The Post began running a horoscope column.
Proponents of astrology calim its meaning and purpose is misunderstood by many.