Who was Timothy Leary? He’s mostly remembered as the Johnny Appleseed of acid, the man who turned the world on to LSD. When he was dying in 1996, he was mostly famous for being famous, the oldest celebutant, a 76-year-old guy in a wheelchair at the Viper Room. But back in the 1960s and 1970s, Dr. Timothy Leary was an icon of the counterculture, a beatific presence at San Francisco’s Human Be-In, which ushered in the 1967 Summer of Love. He was the most famous member of the World War II generation to embrace the hippies — a handsome, charming rogue hero, incessantly hounded by federal, state and local police intent on stomping out his psychedelic search.
Born in 1920, Leary was raised in Springfield, Massachusetts, a small industrial city 90 miles east of Boston. His father, Timothy Francis Leary, was a dentist, a charming drunkard known as “Tote” who abandoned his wife, Abigail, and son and drifted down the social ladder in an alcoholic haze. Abigail was the most important woman in young Tim’s life, a virtuous, devout Catholic with big plans for her only child.
Like his dad, Tim was a natural-born shit disturber, who ditched high school so many times his principal wouldn’t write him a college recommendation. Abigail used her church connections to get him into Holy Cross. He failed half his freshman classes there, but Abigail, undeterred, somehow got him an appointment to the United States Military Academy. In December 1940, Leary got drunk on the train coming back to West Point from the Army-Navy football game, then lied about it to the Honor Committee, which asked him to resign from the corps. His refusal brought on the silent treatment from the entire Academy, and Leary resigned at the end of his first year.
Leary’s next stop was the University of Alabama, where he discovered an interest in psychology. During a brief pit stop at the University of Illinois — he was expelled from Alabama for spending the night in the girls’ dorm — he wooed and wed a wild and beautiful Catholic girl named Marianne Busch. In 1947, Leary was accepted into the doctoral program in psychology at UC Berkeley, and there they lived for the next decade, raising their two children, Jack and Susan, before Marianne killed herself on Leary’s 35th birthday because of an affair he was having.
In 1957, Leary published The Interpersonal Diagnosis of Personality, a book that represented a serious break with determinism, the dominant theory of the time. Leary’s message was essentially upbeat. Though he posited the world as a madhouse, much like his madder, but far more responsible, colleague R.D. Laing, Leary believed everyone, whether “sane” or “insane,” could be taught the tools to determine his or her own place in the world.
The book established Leary as one of psychology’s brightest new stars and led to a five-year appointment as an assistant professor at Harvard. There, a colleague told Leary that he’d begun experimenting with magic mushrooms. Up to that time, Leary had always eschewed drugs because he doubted their ability to produce genuine transcendental experiences. But now he was intrigued. Late in the summer of 1960, in a small town near Cuernevaca, a curandera gave Leary his first psychedelic mushrooms. It was an experience he wanted to share, at first with colleagues and later with the world.
It wasn’t easy to get magic mushrooms in those days, but when Leary wrote — on Harvard stationery — to Sandoz, the Swiss laboratory where Dr. Albert Hoffman had synthesized LSD-25 almost two decades earlier, the company was only too happy to supply him and his researchers with ample amounts of (then legal) psilocybin. Leary began his crusade by feeding the chemical to Allen Ginsberg and the poet’s lover Peter Orlovsky. Ginsberg quickly brought other poets around, including the rector of Black Mountain College, Charles Olson, and Jack Kerouac, who called Leary “Coach” and warned him that “walking on water wasn’t built in a day.”
In the fall of 1961, a mysterious Englishman named Michael Hollingshead arrived at Leary’s door with a 16-ounce mayonnaise jar containing a thick, white paste made from confectioner’s sugar and a gram of pure, Hoffman-synthesized LSD — 5,000 spoonfuls of acid. A year and a half later, Leary and his colleagues Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert (later renamed Ram Dass) were fired from Harvard for taking acid with their students, earning scare headlines all across New England and igniting a media frenzy that lasted the rest of Leary’s life.
Leary’s wild ride is the subject of a hugely entertaining new biography by Robert Greenfield, the first man to take on the myth. A former staff writer and editor at Rolling Stone, Greenfield is a longtime chronicler of rock & roll culture. He is the author/editor of oral biographies of the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and rock impresario Bill Graham, and he is up to the task. In the 10 years of this book’s making, Greenfield talked to practically everybody alive who was close to Leary. Though he is anything but a Leary apologist, Greenfield knows how to reserve judgment and let his subject’s own story speak for itself.
For all Leary’s notoriety, much of his life was secret. Flashbacks, the only one of Leary’s three autobiographies currently in print, is riddled with errors and outright fabrications. Because this is the first comprehensive biography of Leary, Greenfield rightly concentrates on rendering his subject’s extraordinary life accurately, following Leary through five marriages (including one to Nena von Schlebrugge, the gorgeous model mother of Uma Thurman, that failed to outlive the honeymoon); a succession of encounters, many of them sexual, with some of the brightest, most beautiful, young, rich, fabulous and fucked-up people of his era; at least a dozen arrests; and several lengthy penitentiary stays, including a stint in solitary confinement at Folsom Prison one cell over from Charles Manson.
Greenfield lays out clearly — I believe for the first time — the sequence of events that triggered Leary’s most perfidious act. After escaping from prison in San Luis Obispo, where he was serving 20 years for possession of a small amount of marijuana, he made his way to Algeria, which then had no extradition treaty with the U.S. He escaped the clutches of Black Panther Party minister of information and fellow exile Eldridge Cleaver, who put Leary and his third wife, Rosemary, under house arrest. Lured to Afghanistan, the Learys were captured by the CIA and flown back to the U.S. in chains. Fifty-three years old, facing the possibility of spending the rest of his life in prison, Leary cut a deal with his jailers. In the process, he snitched out the very lawyers who’d fought to keep him out of jail; the Weather Underground people who’d organized his prison break; the Laguna Beach–based dope-smuggling family, the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, who’d financed it; and even his now ex, Rosemary, who’d been forced to go underground. Few grownups swallowed Leary’s lame-ass excuse — that it wasn't really snitching because he’d told so many lies already, nobody in law enforcement should have believed anything he said.
By 1976, when he got out of jail and moved to L.A., Leary was a pariah in what was left of the counterculture. He reinvented himself as a “standup philosopher,” even touring in a road-show debate with convicted Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy. (As assistant district attorney of Dutchess County, New York, Liddy had once busted Leary’s pop ashram at Millbrook, a gorgeous estate Leary and his comrades retreated to after they were fired from Harvard.)
Leary would live to see his daughter hang herself with a shoelace in prison (having shot her sleeping husband in the back of the head); this was followed by his son’s public denunciation of him as a traitorous dog. Despite events that would have destroyed a lesser — or less self-centered — man, Leary continued to preach his message of cheery optimism to a whole new generation of young people, many of whom joined him in a hillside aerie above Beverly Hills.
Dying of prostate cancer in 1996, he spent his final days working on a Web site that would extend his fame and teachings into cyberspace, and ingesting a daily pharmacopoeia of recreational and pain-reducing drugs that included Dilaudid, cocaine, many balloons of nitrous oxide, ketamine, DMT and marijuana cookies, while supporting a houseful of helpers, hangers-on and wisdom seekers with one outrageous and indefatigable hustle after another.
Greenfield originally met Leary in 1970 in Algiers, on assignment for Rolling Stone to write about Leary’s prison escape. The author says he “wasn’t impressed. None of what he said made any sense.” If Leary were alive today, he says, “he’d be doing infomercials.” But the way Leary died earned him the respect of his biographer.
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In his book, Greenfield quotes Leary’s final interview. What is our purpose? asks the interviewer. “Our purpose is to shine the light on others,” Leary replies. “I have sought the light to use the light to be in space. Light is the language of the sun and the stars where we will meet again.” Two days later, Leary was on his deathbed when he woke up one last time and asked, “Why?” then answered, “Why not?” — asking and answering, as Doug Rushkoff later wrote in Esquire, “fifty times in fifty different voices. Clowning, loving, tragic, afraid.” Then, holding his stepson Zach’s hand, Leary said, “Beautiful,” and died.
For a decade, Greenfield has been wrestling with the meaning of Tim Leary’s existence — and he would be the last to say he’s got the man entirely figured out. “I kept saying to myself, ‘This is about his life.’ A book is not a life. It’s my trip through his life. This was one of those projects that you either finish or you die.” Fortunately for us, Greenberg has lived to tell the tale. At 600 pages, Timothy Leary is a genuine page turner, an epic tragedy and a cosmic farce.
TIMOTHY LEARY: A Biography | ?By ROBERT GREENFIELD | Harcourt | ?689 pages | $28 hardcover
Lewis MacAdams is writing a biography ?of Jann Wenner. Robert Greenfield reads ?from his book at Book Soup on Friday, June 9, at 7 p.m.