Werner Erhard, who made a fortune in the 1970s out of his theories of self-awareness, was once Jack Rosenberg, a second-hand car salesman from Philadelphia.
In 1960, aged 25, he eloped to California with a woman he later married, leaving behind his first wife and three children he did not see again for 12 years. He changed his name to Werner Erhard after reading an article on West Germany in Esquire magazine which mentioned the theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg and Ludwig Erhard, then West German economics minister. After dabbling in a number of human potential disciplines and Eastern religions, the inspiration for his own theory of enlightenment occurred to him while driving across the Golden Gate bridge. At the wheel of his black Ford Mustang, Erhard was ''transformed'', a state he described as ''knowing everything and knowing nothing.''
The result was EST (Erhard Seminars Training), founded in 1971, which emphasised the need for personal responsibility and the ''possibilities of individual fulfillment'' through strict training. Erhard, with his slick good looks and startling blue eyes, became the ''guru of gurus'' to a self-improvement vogue that many believe captured the essence of the ''me decade'' of the 1970s. The training sessions offered by EST became notorious for their rigid discipline - trainees were forbidden to go to the lavatory or speak to each other during sessions - and confrontational approach. EST courses usually took place on two consecutive weekends, with trainees being expected to explore life's possibilities, under intense and sometimes bullying scrutiny from trainers, for as much as 15 hours a day.
While many alumni claimed that the courses had taught them to realise their potential, others said that Erhard was offering quick-fix solutions with a mixture of pop psychology and military-style bullying. Even so, almost 750,000 people are estimated to have enrolled over 20 years. In 1984, EST was transformed into The Forum, in which the courses were made less theatrical and grueling and more costly. Erhard's organisation fell into three parts: Werner Erhard and Associates, running workshops including The Forum (which in 1988 grossed $39 million); Transformation Technologies Inc., specialising in management and leadership seminars for corporate clients; and lastly a clutch of non-profit making humanitarian agencies, which were formally independent but based on Erhard's theories.
The 1990s saw the empire begin to disintegrate. There was a messy split from his second wife who stated that his ''ego and public image are the most important things in the world to him.'' In 1991, several former employees brought lawsuits, charging him with crimes ranging from fraud to physical abuse, all of which he has denied.
In February last year, Erhard sold his American assets (valued at $45 million in 1989) to employees who had formed Transnational Education Corp., now called Landmark Trust. Days later, the Internal Revenue Service filed a $14.2 million tax lien against EST which was followed by liens on $6.9 million-worth of real estate belonging to Erhard. (A lien enables the IRS to seize and sell property if taxes are left unpaid.) But in August tax officials said they had been able to recover only $55,000 of the $5.5 million Erhard allegedly owed. After two decades in the limelight, the cigar-smoking extrovert has disappeared. Last week, he was ordered to pay more than $380,000 to a woman who claimed she had suffered a mental breakdown after one of his courses.
Werner Erhard has not been seen in public for more than three months, and the Chicago-based Cult Awareness Network yesterday described his whereabouts as ''somewhat of a mystery.''