Sydney Omarr, the astrologer and counselor to the rich and famous whose horoscopes are the most widely read in the world, died Thursday at 76. Blinded and paralyzed from the neck down by multiple sclerosis, Omarr died at St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., of complications from a heart attack. His ex-wife, assistants and several close friends were by his side.
A lifelong promoter of the ancient art of divining the future from the juxtaposition of the planets and stars, Omarr was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1971 but continued working until he suffered a massive heart attack Dec. 23.
He reached millions through his 13 books and his column, which is owned by the Tribune Co. and appears in more than 200 daily newspapers. His column ran for many years in The Sun until 1995, when it was dropped in favor of the horoscope column from The Evening Sun, which had just folded. Arrangements are being made for his assistants to continue producing the column under Omarr's name.
Omarr's books - one for each of the 12 signs of the zodiac plus one for the entire year - have sold 50 million copies worldwide.
Although he took his job as horoscope master to the masses seriously, Omarr also insisted on having fun. He especially enjoyed splurging on lavish dinner gatherings and gambling. In a recent interview, Omarr said, "I win more than I lose."
The interview, which was published Thursday in The Sun, was his first after more than a decade of keeping a low profile as MS devastated him physically. (The interview can be found at www.sunspot.net/news/bal-te.journal 02jan02.story.) He believed that this year, with Jupiter in the fifth house, he was poised for success through publicity.
But, then, "Sydney always had the boyish charm of the man of the hour," said Omarr's assistant and friend, Paul Smalls. "He was always the Leo surrounded by adoring women and fans."
Benson Srere, who worked with Omarr at the United Press news service in the early 1950s, said Omarr was valued by his readers "not because they believe every word he wrote, but because it always contained threads of hope and encouragement."
His fans ranged from working stiffs to politicians and princes, movie stars and scholars. The walls of his Los Angeles apartment are covered with framed photographs of him with celebrities such as actresses Angie Dickinson and Jayne Mansfield, and authors Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller.
Omarr was born Sidney Kimmelman at 10:27 a.m. on Aug. 5, 1926, in Philadelphia, with the sun, Mercury and Neptune all in Leo, and Libra on the ascendant.
His fascination with the influence of the heavens on the affairs of mankind began in grade school. Omarr was already performing sleight-of-hand tricks in magic shops when, at age 15, he saw a movie called Shanghai Gesture starring Victor Mature as a character named Omar.
Aiming to increase his chances for success, he changed the "i" to "y" in his first name and added a second "r" to his newly adopted last name, both in accordance with certain numerological formulas.
The same year, still in his teens, he wrote a book called Sydney Omarr's Private Course on Numerology, and hawked mimeograph copies for $2. He also started analyzing the horoscopes of movie stars such as Edward G. Robinson for movie magazines.
"When I started out, it was, `Send me a dollar and a birth date, and I'll solve any problem,'" he recalled earlier this year. "My father, Harry, a grocer, and mother, Rose, a housewife, stopped worrying ... when the checks started coming in."
After enlisting in the Army at 17, Omarr was transferred to Okinawa, Japan, where his weekly Armed Forces Radio program - Sydney Omarr's Almanac - predicted the outcomes of professional boxing matches and horse races and was heard throughout the Pacific Theater.
Fan in high places
After the service, he took journalism courses at Mexico City College. His first job after college was for United Press as a news reporter. One of his first assignments was to interview Goodwin Knight, then California's Republican governor, who, it turned out, had been reading Omarr's columns for years.
When Omarr arrived at the governor's office, Knight asked everyone else to leave the room. He then showed Omarr his confidential file of horoscopes of every friend and foe in politics.
"We became close friends," Omarr recalled.
Omarr later spent a decade as a CBS radio newsman before becoming a full-time columnist and astrological consultant to Hollywood luminaries. Save for a few exceptions, he drew a line on giving horse-racing tips to friends, or personal readings, even to millionaires who sent him blank checks.
"I've always thought it was a bad idea," he said. "If people win, they're happy. But when they lose, they get mad at you."
By the 1970s, Omarr was a headliner on the television talk shows of Mike Douglas, Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin, Regis Philbin and Tom Snyder.
When it became impossible to hide the symptoms of MS, however, Omarr quietly withdrew to the confines of his home, working long hours dictating his column to an assistant and rewarding himself at the end of the day with a shot of good scotch and a hand-rolled cigar.
The horoscope he wrote for himself and his fellow Leos for Thursday, the day he died, was upbeat as usual. It said, in part, "You will beat the odds, much to the astonishment of experts."
Omarr is survived by his sister Leah Lederhandler.
Louis Sahagun is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Co. newspaper.