The Man Who Wrote "Puff, the Magic Dragon" Swears It's Not About Drugs

Photo by Jonah Lipton
Photo by Jonah Lipton
Leonard Lipton

Puff was a dragon. A magic dragon. He lived by the sea. OK, we already know what you are thinking. The autumn mist in which Puff and his sidekick Jackie Paper frolicked was actually a haze of marijuana smoke, right?

Over half a century has passed since Brooklyn native Leonard Lipton, then a 19-year-old engineering student at Cornell, wrote the poem “Puff, the Magic Dragon” upon which ‘60s folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary based their 1963 hit song of the same name. But on almost a daily basis, Lipton is still asked what he calls “the question”: Is "Puff" about drugs?

Sitting in the living room of his Laurel Canyon home, dressed casually in Birkenstocks, with a fresh cup of tea and one of his two dogs nestled in his lap, Lipton laughs and says, “This is truly bizarre now that I think about it. It’s truly crazy. What 'they' usually say is, ‘You know, I am going to ask "the question."’ Everybody wants to talk about it.” Just last night, Lipton says he was approached by a stranger who asked “the question” while he was at an awards ceremony.

Lipton is and has always been vehement that "Puff, the Magic Dragon" is not about drugs. To Lipton, a father of three (he has two sons and a daughter, now ranging in age from 17 to 20), “A song for little kids that advocates the use of drugs would not be appropriate. Advocating marijuana for little kids is not a good thing.

"My poem was directly inspired by a poem called 'A Tale of Custard the Dragon,'" published by Ogden Nash in 1936. "Pirates and dragons, back then, were common interests in stories for boys. The Puff story is really just a lot like Peter Pan.”

He says one of the worst incidents of “the question” occurred years ago when Lipton was being deposed in a lawsuit in which he was not a litigant, but simply testifying on behalf of an inventor. He says a lawyer grilled him with questions, including asking about Puff and its meaning despite the fact “that it had nothing at all to do with the litigation.”

Though “the question” used to so annoy Lipton that, for a while, he tried to distance himself entirely from Puff, he says now, at 74 years of age, he’s lightened his attitude. “I’ve gotten somewhat softer or less irritable. Now I don't care. I mean, there are various ways to handle it. When people ask, I can let them hang. Or I can help them.”

He attributes the creation of "the myth" to (now deceased) journalist Dorothy Kilgallen, a New York newspaper columnist. According to Lipton, she wrote a column saying "Puff" was about drugs, which was quickly picked up by Newsweek, who then called Lipton for an interview. “She started ‘the myth.’ But if she hadn't done it, someone else would have,” says Lipton.

Despite 52 years of categorical denials, Lipton says he thinks it’s unlikely that either “the question” or the drug perception will die. “Fifty years ago, I could not have imagined we'd still be having this conversation.” The only reason it remains a point of contention with Lipton is that he’d like to see the story of Puff turned into a feature film. “It's not a good thing because it's prevented my dramatic exploitation of the property. It's inhibited it. There are some people for whom that would be a stumbling block.”

Lipton, who has produced 25 independent films, is certainly no stranger to the filmmaking process. He began experimenting with film projectors when, at 8 years of age, he was given a 16 millimeter projector by his father. “It was a toy, but I really understood how it worked. I didn't take it apart as much as I really understood how it worked, so I made other things like it.”

A prolific inventor, with 68 patents and dozens more pending, Lipton has won a variety of awards, including one from the Smithsonian Institution which hangs in a hallway just off of his living room. While he beams proudly at the framed certificate and accompanying medallion, he is also quick to shrug and, with a resigned tone, say, “No one cares."

"I invented the modern way to project a stereoscopic movie. Specifically, the REAL 3D system, a stereoscopic camera in the early '80s for shooting movies. At that time, a patent lasted 17 years after it was granted, so it's long gone but, as as far as I can tell, it became the basis for how people now shoot 3D movies with a camera.”

Lipton says his fate seems to be that he will not be duly recognized for his accomplishments. “The motion picture industry has made billions of dollars from my invention and they would be in the red and not the black if I had not done what I did. So you would think that they would appreciate it. I don’t expect any recognition because it’s a field people don't respect, because they consider it to be a gimmick and foolishness.”

Photo by Jonah Lipton
Photo by Jonah Lipton
Leonard Lipton

Lipton feels there is a lot more that can be done with 3D film technology. Currently, he's working with a colleague on a new patent. “Right now, it's hard to shoot stereoscopic film. Almost every one you see in theaters is obviously computer generated. If it's a cartoon or if you see a superhero movie, they are essentially green screen movies. Their great defect is they're not generally movies about the human condition in which acting and actors can shine.

"They don’t shoot superhero movies in 3D. They shoot them on film and then convert them to 3D in a laborious post production process that can take a couple of thousand people. I've worked on a technique with my colleague that can allow an existing digital movie camera to take stereoscopic movie images. But studios won't use it as long as they think stereoscopic is just confined to superhero movies.”

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As to his current interests, he recounts a recent San Pedro expedition where he photographed dolphins from a small boat. Enthusiastically, he rushes out of his living room to grab books of his photographs from his home office, which is lined with pictures people have made of Puff, and a signed copy of The Far Side's Puff spoof ("Dear Lenny, with best wishes, Gary Larson"). Along one wall are three shelves filled with Buddha figures which Lipton says belonged to his father-in-law. Beyond his desk and computer, the rest of his office is lined with books.

Apart from the air quality and traffic, he enjoys life in Los Angeles, where he and his wife Julie have lived for the past 10 years. "But in any big city, traffic is terrible. You have to love your car and like listening to music or the radio."

Peter, Paul and Mary
Peter, Paul and Mary
International Talent Associates via Wikimedia Commons

When asked if he listens to Peter, Paul and Mary, he is instantly dismissive. “No. Their music was OK. Now it's strictly from hunger if you listen to it. It's kind of boring.” He prefers classical music, reggae, Frank Sinatra, some '50s and '60s songs, and composers Sergei Prokofiev and Bernard Herrmann.

As to his lifelong love of poetry, he’s currently reading Cold Mountain, the zen poems of 9th century Chinese poet Han-shan, and Greek philosopher Heraclitus' epigrams. He cites an epigram which he says is akin to a Buddhist koan: “The way up and the way down are one and the same.” He laughs at the suggestion that this ancient wisdom could easily apply to life in starry-eyed Los Angeles.

Lipton, who has published four books and written for many magazines, including American Cinematographer, is still writing poems. But don't expect to hear them in any songs anytime soon. "I didn't like the music business from what I saw of it," he says.

And listen, if you see him around, you need not ask him about Puff, OK? Sometimes a dragon is just a dragon.


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