One thing you can say about Dr. Timothy Leary: the man has always had a talent for convincing himself that wherever he is is where it’s at. Tonight, for instance. Friday night at Helena’s, the private L.A. supper club backed by Jack Nicholson. It’s close to midnight at Helena’s, and Leary, the sixty-seven-year-old exHarvard professor, ex-LSD guru, and ex-con, is standing on the narrow front porch of the superchic film-colony rendezvous. He’s explaining to me why the particular spot he’s standing on is the hot spot at Helena’s, the one with the Cosmic Perspective on It All.
To an inexperienced observer, it’s hard to distinguish the hot spots at Helena’s from the not-so-hot spots. Inside the dining room, for example, Nicholson is holding court at his regular table, conferring with old crony Lou Adler and entertaining visits from a succession of stunning actress-model types who seem eager to say hello. It’s hot— but it’s not Cosmically hot.
Leary’s own table—a big circular affair in the center of the action, a couple of tables away from Nicholson’s—also looks, at first glance, to be fairly hot. Tonight his guests include—among others—Joanna Pacula, arguably the world’s most beautiful screen actress, and Ed Ruscha, arguably the premier product of the red-hot L.A. art scene. Then there’s Gisela Martine Getty, the beautiful German-bom wife of J. Paul Getty III. Getty III, a scion of what is arguably the Western world’s largest private fortune (and an erstwhile companion in indulgence of Leary’s), has also put in an appearance tonight—a strange, haunting appearance.
“Two out of every three things I said were wrong. But I’m still batting .333, I’m still leading the league. I’m the Pete Rose of philosophy. I keep coming up to bat.”
International stars like Rachel Ward and Bryan Brown have been stopping by Leary’s table to say hello to him and his attractive wife, Barbara (the marriage is his fifth, her fourth; she’s nearly thirty years younger). Agent and producer types have table-hopped over to congratulate Dr. Tim for the story about him in today’s L.A. Times, the one on the front page of the “View” section, the one that describes Leary, a bit hyperbolically, as “An A-List Social Lion,” one of the Top Ten Invites on the hip L.A. Club Scene. The story’s title: TIMOTHY LEARY, PARTY ANIMAL.
Still, for all the stellar company, for all the sparkle of the nonstop champagne being consumed at his table, Dr. Tim knew it was not really the hottest spot. And so after a while he abandoned his guests, slipped away to seek out the place that is.
“Where did he go?’’ I asked Leary’s wife when his absence became apparent.
“You’ll find him either on the dance floor or at his favorite spot,” she said.
I sought him out on the dance floor, which was booming to the beat of Lisa Lisa and “Lost in Emotion.” Leary wasn’t there, but J. Paul Getty III was.
You probably recall the bizarre beginning of the Getty III saga: the kidnapping in Rome, the severed ear. Following the eventual ransom, there ensued—according to Leary—a period of wild and prolonged indulgence in London and L.A. (where he met Leary), so wild that even Dr. Tim was appalled and impelled to prescribe caution to the Getty heir.
“He always wanted substances that would make things go faster and faster,” Leary told me. “I used to say, ‘You’re the descendant of the richest man in the world.’ And I used to tell him, ‘Gee, come on, slow down, man, you know… ‘ “
Apparently the message didn’t sink in, because a few years ago Getty Ill’s life of indulgence caught up with him; he suffered some kind of disabling stroke (Leary blames it on alcohol) that left him confined to a wheelchair— blind, unable to speak.
Wherever he is—even in Folsom prison—is where it’s at.
Nonetheless, Getty III still goes to parties; he still goes to clubs. That night the gridlocked table-hoppers in Helena’s dining room looked up to see Getty III making an extraordinary entrance: in his wheelchair, borne aloft over the plates of grilled radicchio, nodding and smiling to those below like a Caesar in a sedan chair. He was set down at a table with other diners, but before long the wheelchair was hoisted up and the heir borne toward the dance floor. There is a real Day of the Locust vibe to this scene.
It occurred to me as I struggled through the writhing throng of bodies to seek out Dr. Tim’s special spot that there’s something peculiarly resonant about the juxtaposition of Nicholson and Getty III here tonight: it’s almost as if they are morality-play figures representing the two poles of the Leary/LSD-era legacy. There’s Nicholson, the presiding deity of the place, who seems to have survived, thrived: he’s told interviewers of the benefits he derived from LSD therapy (when the drug was legal and administered by reputable Hollywood shrinks), and in fact he rose to stardom in two acid-fueled vehicles—Easy Rider and One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Then there is Getty III, the man who fell to earth, the other side of the coin, the dark side, a quintessential casualty of the era.
At last I locate Leary, at last I glimpse the spot he says is the cosmic center of the action.
“This really is the best spot,” he tells me as he gazes out from his perch. “I could watch for hours.”
What exactly is it that has the one-time High Priest of the Inner Voyage transfixed with wonder? It’s … The Cosmic Dance of the Valet-Parked Rolls-Royces! Leary rhapsodizes over the daredevil choreographic skill with which the valet-parking attendants shift the shining array of (mainly) Rolls-Royces in and out of the prime spots in the lot beneath us. He praises the precision with which the parking jocks interlace the trajectories of the gleaming machines. I recognize that awestruck tone. It’s the same reverently ecstatic rhetoric he once employed to rhapsodize over the vision of the Cosmic Choreography he glimpsed beneath the illusory veils of Maya at the peak of an LSD trip. Yes, life’s still a trippy pageant for Dr. Tim.
It began in the sixties, when he visited L.A. and encountered a sub-rosa LSD cult among Hollywood illuminati—presided over by Cary Grant.
“Another great thing about standing here,’’ he says, “are the psychodramas that you see erupting when all these powerful Hollywood people have to wait twenty minutes for their car.”
This is another facet of Leary surfacing here: the social psychologist, the author, in the fifties, of a highly regarded text on the quantitative measurement of personality, the promising young academic recruited by Harvard for his ground-breaking work in psychometric psychology—before he went down to Mexico, ingested magic mushrooms, and gradually became convinced he’d found the secret of life and set out to save the world.
Leary has just begun his discourse on the psychodynamics of valet-parking power games when a shapely pair of shoulders slinks by under our noses.
“Isn’t that Joan Collins?’’ Leary asks.
“No, it’s not,’’ says a fellow Helena’s regular standing near us.
“I can’t tell from the back,’’ I say.
“It is Joan Collins,” insists Leary.
At this point the slinky shoulders swivel around and face us as the woman heads up the stairs to the supper-club entrance. Leary is right: whatever neurons he may have lost along the way, the ones for pattern recognition of movie-star profiles are still intact.
The Joan Collins issue settled, Leary returns to the subject of the valet-parking power games that humble even the most powerful of Hollywood. Except him. Despite the fact that he drives an aging, nondescript Mercedes, nothing by contrast with the resplendent Rolls, Leary says he always gets prompt service, particularly at one of the hottest clubs in town.
“People wonder why I get my car so quickly there,” Leary tells me. The secret, he confides, is that he shares a Karmic connection with one of the valet-parking jocks. No, it wasn’t some blissed-out acid experience.
“He did time in Folsom with me,” Leary explains.
The transformation of the High Priest of the sixties into the Hollywood party person of the eighties might seem incongruous to some. But in fact the onetime visionary has had a long history with the vision-making capital. It began in the early sixties, when he visited L.A. and encountered a sub-rosa LSD cult among Hollywood illuminati—presided over by Cary Grant.
It’s a sunny afternoon, and we’re sitting at a table on the back porch of the house Leary rents in the canyons above Beverly Hills. He has already explained why where the house is is where it’s at. (“We’re five minutes from the Beverly Hills Hotel, but we’ve got deer and coyote coming around at night.”) Why the glass-backed architecture is perfect for the view (overlooking the flatlands and Century City), which itself is perfect. Why Hollywood is the perfect place to be at this stage in human evolution. (Leary contends that the locus of enlightenment in Western civilization has made a millennium-long westward shift from the Indus River to Sunset Boulevard.)
Although it’s the perfect house with the perfect neighbors (“Rod Stewart’s just around the comer, Cornelia Guest is down the street—so’s Joanna [Pacula]—and the Gettys are moving up here”), nonetheless he grumbles from time to time about the expense, which he has to shoulder with lecture fees and the income from his software-design company. From the high-rent glassed-in porch, Leary points to a house perched on a hill across the canyon from him.
“That’s Cary Grant’s old place up there.” And he tells me the story of the meeting of minds he had with the suave screen charmer.
Leary had just attained national notoriety by being expelled from Harvard for conducting unorthodox studies of the effects of psychedelics. The funny thing was that when Leary came out to Los Angeles after the firing, he found the film colony already much farther along in LSD experimentation than the Harvard professors.
“There was a big LSD colony in the movie industry,” Leary recalls. “Cary Grant was the high cardinal of it … There was a woman named Virginia Denison who was a yoga teacher of great elegance and class, who was, like, yoga teacher to the movie stars. And I was with Peggy Mellon Hitchcock [an heiress to the Mellon fortune] … And Virginia Denison called and said, ‘Cary Grant would like to talk to you. Come on down for lunch.’ So I drove over to the Burbank studios, where he had a little cottage, and he took us to the commissary to talk.”
Leary portrays Cary Grant as a touchingly enthusiastic apostle of LSD who was eager to make a movie out of the Tim Leary saga—Harvard professor discovers potion that turns on the world. “Cary Grant was very guarded and shy and never talked about himself until the LSD experiences. And then he would ramble on. Everyone got logorrhea… But I remember one party… All of a sudden he was right out there talking about his mother. Apparently he had been estranged from his mother for some time, and after the LSD he went back. She was in a nursing home in England, and he had a reunion with her.”
The story doesn’t end on this sweet note, however.
“He got into some trouble, of course,” Leary recalls. “Was it Dyan Cannon that he was married to? She sued him for divorce. It was a kind of messy divorce. Big headlines and everything. The papers were saying, ‘Cary Grant accused of being an LSD addict.’ But poor Cary. To the very end he would defend his LSD experiences. He would always say it was in the context of medical supervision.”
Of course, Tim Leary too got into “some trouble” for his LSD experiences: thrown out of Harvard, expelled from Mexico, his Mellon-estate headquarters in Millbrook, New York, raided by G. Gordon Liddy (who used the publicity from his Leary busts to gain the promotion that put him on the Watergate A-team). Leary’s prominence as an advocate of non-medically-supervised LSD use, the seductiveness of his “Turn on, tune in, drop out’’ siren song to sixties youth, stirred up the prosecutorial and judicial hostility that finally, in 1970, landed him behind bars in California facing a twenty-year sentence for possession of the stubs of two joints.
There were those who thought he should be nailed for life. After Leary’s 1970 prison escape (from the marijuana sentence), during his fugitive-exile period in Switzerland, the federal drug agents and the Orange County, California, authorities charged him with being the Godfather of an international dealing cartel known as the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, which was alleged to have grossed many millions shipping acid and Afghan hash oil all over the world. Although the “Godfather’’ indictment against Leary (which made page one of The New York Times in 1972) was later dropped, the question of the nature of Leary’s relationship to the legendary Brotherhood, with its Swiss bank accounts and criminal-genius chemists, has never been clarified. Did the prophet become profiteer? Was Leary merely an idealistic preacher of peace and love, or did he become a smiling pitchman for a particular commercial product of an illegal cartel whose profits he participated in—as the federal and Orange County agents claimed? Leary vigorously denies this interpretation, and a bit later we’ll attempt to clarify the nature of his relationship to the shadowy Brotherhood empire. But first, this afternoon on the porch, a stone’s throw away from Cary Grant’s old place, I ask Leary to clarify another story: the nature of his relationship to Marilyn Monroe.
There’s a curiously veiled anecdote about Marilyn in Leary’s latest autobiography (he’s written five, by his count). In it he speaks of her approaching him at a Hollywood party, of Marilyn begging him to “turn her on” to LSD, of Leary refusing and then Marilyn offering him a couple of pills which—and the printed account is confusing—either were or weren’t “Mandys” (Quaaludes).
“I didn’t know what they were at the time,” Leary says. “I was extremely naive and she said, ‘Mandys,’ so I assumed that.”
I ask Leary if this was the extent of his encounter with Marilyn.
“No. She was having an affair with someone at the time, and I used to join them every once in a while.. .so I can’t talk about that. I was never romantically involved with her, but I used to go out with her.”
“You can’t talk about the affair because the person is still alive?”
“No,” he says, with uncharacteristic reticence.
Leary’s affinity for mysterious and glamorous women—and their apparent affinity for him— is an aspect of his adventures I’d always been intrigued by. What’s his secret? Women say he has a suave, conman charm—like Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief. ”You should see the pictures of him on a white horse in the sixties,” one told me. “He’s so handsome.” Could it also have something to do with his notorious 1966 Playboy interview, the one in which he just happened to remark that in a “loving LSD session a woman will inevitably have several hundred orgasms”? We’ll get to the question of the accuracy and motivation of that claim a bit later. But the Marilyn story reminded me of another woman-of-mystery in Leary’s life. The first night we met in L.A., he picked me up at my hotel on the way to confer with his new personal manager about prospects for a late-night TV talk show he wants to develop and host, and somehow the conversation turned to the subject of the late Mary Pinchot Meyer, the beautiful socialite who was, in the early sixties, a sometime confidante of Leary’s and—at the same time—a favored mistress of John F. Kennedy.
The most surprising new material in Leary’s latest autobiography concerns his developing relationship with Meyer, another scion of a prominent American family (her uncle was Gifford Pinchot, who helped create the U.S. Forest Service). She was neither the first nor the last of a series of heirs and heiresses whose fortunes would turn to misfortunes in the course of participating in Leary’s adventures.
The glamorous Mary Pinchot married Cord Meyer Jr., who would become the number-three man in the C.I.A. They divorced in 1956, and her now widely reported affair with J.F.K. was said to have begun in January 1962. According to Leary’s autobiography, at the time Mary Meyer was trysting with J.F.K. in various White House bedrooms, she was also making regular pilgrimages to meet with Leary and discuss his LSD experiments. He claims she confided in him that she and other powerful Washington wives and mistresses were conspiring to promote world peace by “turning on” the powerful Washington men they consorted with. Although I was fairly skeptical of this aspect of Leary’s account, I was curious about his impressions of Meyer.
“She was a neurotic, classy, beautiful, worried woman,” Leary says. “One of that group of impressive girls who were at Vassar in the forties,” he adds with a connoisseur’s appreciation of vintages. “You know, Jackie Kennedy, Toni Bradlee, Mary. She never told me at the time she was having an affair with J.F.K.,” Leary says as he pilots his somewhat nearsighted way down Pico Boulevard toward our first stop.
Leary claims his L.A. canyon home is the perfect location: “Cornelia Guest is down the street… the Gettys are moving up here.”
“She just spoke of having a very powerful boyfriend she wouldn’t name, and of working with women in Washington who were married to powerful men to try to change things.”
“You wrote that she asked for and you gave her LSD to take down to Washington for that purpose.”
“Well, yes, but it was legal then. You’re familiar with the mystery around her death, aren’t you?” he asks.
In fact, I was, at one time, very familiar with that particular mystery, having co-authored a story about the circumstances of Mary Meyer’s murder. The man accused of shooting her on the old C&O towpath in Washington in October 1964 was acquitted. The murder remains officially unsolved.
Leary had been on the case too, he tells me: shortly after he got out of prison and the Mary Meyer liaison with J.F.K. became public, he found himself curious enough about the circumstances of her death to put a gumshoe on the trail.
“I had an investigator hired to look into it,” he tells me. ‘‘1 have the whole file with his notes at home. I’ll show it to you.”
At this point we arrive at the home of Leary’s media consultant, Angie Brown. An attractive, energetic woman who’s done work for Britain’s Channel Four, she bounces into the car and reports to Leary she saw him on MTV last night.
‘‘My top ten?” Leary asks—he’s recently done a guest-D.J. segment on MTV featuring his top-ten rock-video favorites.
‘‘No, it was the ‘Give Peace a Chance’ film John and Yoko made in 1969—they played it because it was the anniversary of his death yesterday. The Bed-in for Peace. You were there by the bedside.”
Leary and Angie talk about possible segments for the proposed Tim Leary talk show. He wants to include the avantgarde computer-software geniuses he networks with. It becomes apparent that computers are the new Cosmic Answer to It All for Dr. Tim. He’s always prescribing something as the Cosmic Answer, although the Answer has tended to change—evolve, he’d say—fairly frequently.
Psychedelic ‘‘peace and love” was the Answer for a long time. But then, in 1971, after his escape from prison, when he found refuge with the Black Panthers in Algeria, revolutionary violence became the Answer. In his postescape manifesto, entitled ‘‘Shoot to Live,” Leary declared, ‘‘To shoot a genocidal robot policeman in defense of life is a sacred act.”
But this Cosmic Answer didn’t last long: after the Black Panthers put Leary under house arrest in Algiers for being ‘‘too frivolous” for revolutionary discipline, after he escaped from their custody to Switzerland, where he stayed in the ski chalets of various wealthy heirs to European fortunes (including the Opels), for a brief while it seemed as if skiing might be the Cosmic Answer: Dr. Tim rhapsodized over ‘‘the ski satori, the velocity revelation… like the first acid experience… high speed philosophy. ..kinaesthetic yoga.”
Then after he’d been recaptured by the U.S. drug agents in Afghanistan and thrown into the maximum-security hole in Folsom prison, he took up the idea that space migration and extraterrestrial intelligence might really be where it’s at: he prophesied that the comet Kahoutek might be heading here specifically to take him out of jail and onto a mission to the stars.
When the comet failed to live up to expectations and Leary faced the prospect of years in the clink, the Cosmic Answer became ‘‘truth telling”—although others called it ‘‘informing” in return for reduced time. In practice, this meant talking to F.B.I. and D.E.A. agents about the radical Weather Underground faction of S.D.S., which had helped him escape from prison, and about the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, which was said to have financed the escape.
‘‘I know some people might get hurt,” Leary said then about playing footsie with the people he had once called “genocidal robot policemen.” “But if I can tell my story and get it all out, karmically, I think I’m free within. And if I’m free within, it will reflect without…. When I look at Socrates, I see that all they wanted him to do was say he was sorry. He didn’t have to drink the hemlock.”
As we shall see, Dr. Tim now has a new explanation of what was really going on between him and the Feds, but for a while there it seemed as if neoconservatism might be the Cosmic Answer. Leary published an article in William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review, attacking left-wing lawyers and blaming all that was wrong with the sixties on Bob Dylan. Was he positioning himself as a psychedelic Whittaker Chambers, denouncing his own past as demonic? But in his enthusiasm for his most recent Cosmic Answer—interactive software and “cyber-punk” computer-freak consciousness—he seems to have embraced his psychedelic past as well, proclaiming that “the psychedelic revolution was the forerunner of the Cybernetic Revolution.” Leary now sees his true successor as none other than Apple Computer co-founder (and deposed ruler) Steve Jobs.
“There’s a new biography of Jobs out,” Leary tells me, “and it describes how he was a total acidhead for a couple of years. You’ve got to hand it to the guy, he’s an extraordinary person. There are few people in the world that have reached his peak. Alexander the Great at age thirty-three had conquered the world. So what? His father was Philip of Macedon and his tutor was Aristotle. But this kid comes out of the soil of the Silicon Valley, and on his own at age twenty-three he has $10 million. He was the richest young person in the world, and he made it with his ideas, he made it with a vision. So no wonder he’s a megalomaniac.”
“I —aesthetically— intensely dislike Shirley MacLaine…. What can you teach three hundred people at a Holiday Inn?”
What’s fascinating about Leary’s portrait of Jobs is that it probably is a fairly accurate -portrait of Leary when he was at his peak of prophetic intoxication: it reflects the inevitable megalomania that infected the little circle of Harvard visionaries who thought they’d discovered the molecular grail that would save the world. Now Leary designs software for Jobs’s machines; now he does gigs at comedy clubs; now he has to knock on doors, looking for a talk-show development deal. But he knows what it was like to think he could conquer the world with his vision—and to have the world fear that he might. After all, Leary boasts, Richard Nixon once called him “the most dangerous man in America.”
It’s not that Leary has entirely abandoned his messianic mode. You can hear echoes of it now and then. There was that moment at the close of one of his “stand-up philosophy” gigs at Carlos ‘n Charlie’s supper club when he launched into a stirring peroration about the place of the Hollywood creative community in the Cosmic Evolution of the planet. It’s you, he said to the Sunset Boulevard nightclub audience, who hold the future of consciousness in your hands. And then he made a rousing call to arms, eighties-style: “Go out there and write those screenplays! Go out there and make those videos/” Which made him, if not the most dangerous man in America, certainly the most dangerous man in Carlos ’n Charlie’s.
We arrive at the home of Leary’s personal manager, Eric Gardner. It’s a beautiful cliff-hanging mansion in the Los Feliz section of Old Hollywood, where Cecil B. DeMille and the first generation of moguls lived. Gardner, who manages Bill Wyman and many other successful musical acts, seems a levelheaded show-business strategist; he’s talking to Leary about several radio-talk-segment deals that, if they worked and attracted major-computer-company sponsorship, would “establish you as a valid, commercial, audience-precipitating entity” for the pay-cable networks they want to approach with the TV-talk-show idea. Gardner asks Leary to choose among several eight-by-ten glossies for the P.R. package being prepared to promote him. Leary asks Gardner’s advice about the content of his upcoming gig at Carlos ‘n Charlie’s. Specifically, Leary wants to know if, in light of the fact that they may be using his performance as a demo tape for the cable networks, he should go easy on “the drug material.”
“I think people would be disappointed if there were no references,” says Gardner. “But I think they’d be satisfied if there was mention without”—he hesitates tactfully, not wishing to appear censorious—”without advocacy.”
Angie points out that much of Leary’s “drug material” is anti-drug these days. He comes out sternly against kids using any kind of drug (including alcohol). He’s always had an antipathy to “linear” up-and-down drugs like coke and heroin, and in one of his stand-up appearances he did a scathing impression of an ex-cokehead he called “Ding Dong Den”— which sounded like a reference to Dennis Hopper. (“Welt, I didn’t use his name,” says Leary.)
The next stop this evening is Leary’s house. Barbara has candlelight and champagne waiting. Then it’s off to Mr Chow’s in Beverly Hills for a champagne-saturated feast hosted by visiting New York artist Kenny Scharf. In fact, champagne seems to be the drug of choice these days in the circles in which Leary travels.
Not that the champagne life is something entirely new to Leary. He’s always been opposed, he says, to what he now calls “hippie puritanism.” At hippie gatherings, “we’d always be the ones to get criticized for having champagne in our tepee.”
That night at Mr Chow’s the champagne flows freely for the Learys and the other guests at the table, who include the actress Ann Magnuson (Making Mr. Right). At some point, Kenny Scharf reveals how in New York in 1982 a number of his generation of artists lived out a self-conscious but semisincere recapitulation of the 1967 “Summer of Love” inspired by Leary and organic mushrooms. How he, Scharf, became a kind of playful, Learyesque guru to the whole scene. I ask him what Leary represented to them.
“A father figure,” he says. “A fun father figure.”
Lunch at the Ivy. After the relentless round of champagne socializing the past few days, things slow to a more normal pace for the Learys. Tonight there’s just a cocktail party for Ron Wood, the Rolling Stone guitarist, and then a quiet dinner with Susan Sarandon. I take advantage of the lull at lunch to try to get Leary to clarify certain key questions.
There was that “several hundred orgasms” promise in Playboy. Certainly it must be counted as among the world’s greatest advertising gimmicks. But I wonder if the ploy might have been selfdefeating: I suspect the extravagant expectations aroused by the promise of “several hundred orgasms” in a “loving LSD session” must have been responsible for a lot of disappointment in hippie bedrooms over the years—perhaps this is the unspoken secret of the failure of The Revolution.
So I asked Leary if the claim was metaphorical.
“Well, there’s a little bit of play and a sense of humor in everything I do,” he says. “And life is play, and I’m an Irish-Celtic exaggerator, and I’m a poet, and I kissed the Blarney Stone. Everybody knows that. If you don’t know that by now, then there’s nothing I can do to warn you. So I love play and I’m doing it for Playboy, see—so what am I going to do?”
Sure, now he tells us.
Although it’s certainly true that Leary, with his Cosmic Celtic Blarney, has always been a huckster, it’s also true that he hasn’t been only a huckster. What makes Leary’s saga interesting is the quintessential^ American component of it: the dream of remaking the world by reinventing human nature.
At the Ivy this afternoon, over his cream of cauliflower soup, Leary tells me about how he dreamed of saving the world by changing human nature long before the mind-altering properties of LSD were explored by Albert Hofmann, the Swiss scientist who discovered it.
“There’s a biographer who’s been tracking down letters I wrote, and he recently came up with one I’d written a friend when I was at West Point in 1940,” Leary tells me. “Anyway, in this letter, I describe a story I’d written about a scientist who had discovered ‘the milk of human kindness’—in drug form. The scientist wants to give it away, but he gets into a lot of trouble. Worst of all, the military is upset, and so they ban it and they take this milk of human kindness and they want to use it against the enemy. They want to give it to the enemy so they can conquer them. And the scientist is put in prison. This is before there was the C.I.A. or army drug experiments. And then somehow it ends up that in his despair the scientist destroys the milk of human kindness because he realizes that humanity isn’t ready for it. I wrote that when I was nineteen years old. That’s scary.”
Was humanity ready for LSD? That was the pivotal debate among Leary and his fellow experimenters in the early sixties. On one side of the question was Aldous Huxley, who loved LSD but warned Leary he ought to confine the knowledge and use of it to a small circle of adepts at first, permitting only those with the right mind-set and preparation to ingest it until more was known about its power. And on the other side was the poet Allen Ginsberg, who, once having tried it, contended that the proper, democratic thing to do was to make it available to everyone right away. Leary ultimately sided with Ginsberg. Later, people like Ken Kesey would put that philosophy into practice, distributing LSD indiscriminately in mass “acid tests.’’ Soon it was in the hands of the Beatles, but soon, also, it was in the hands of Charles Manson. Looking back on the ruins of the messianic dream, I ask Leary if he regrets not following Huxley’s advice.
At hippie gatherings, “we’d always be the ones to get criticized for having champagne in our tepee.”
“If we had known then what we know now…?” He pauses, thinks a bit. Then says decisively, “I would not have done it differently. I wish I would have been smarter. Two out of every three things I said were wrong. But I’m still batting .333, I’m still leading the league. I’m the Pete Rose of philosophy. I keep coming up to bat. Yeah, we were just kind of clumsy, foolish American optimists… Huxley, he’d say, ‘Well, Timothy’s too anti-establishment, always throwing spitballs at the headmaster.’ And it’s true I was an innocent; I was not there to be a scientist. It was an adventure.”
If it’s unfair to blame Charles Manson on Tim Leary, what about Shirley MacLaine: can the receptivity to her mystical mush be blamed on brains softened by psychedelics? “Iam not a hostile person,” he says. “On the other hand, I—aesthetically—intensely dislike Shirley MacLaine. Number one, she’s not a nice person…” He deplores her tame, “watered-down YMCA mysticism,” and tells of following in her wake on a book tour and hearing from the publishing escorts in the cities she visited.
“I was trailing along after Shirley MacLaine—you can quote me on this, and write down that every one of the escorts said she’s the most difficult, self-centered prima donna they’d ever met. And if people that deal with you on a day-to-day basis don’t like you, what the fuck can you teach three hundred people at a Holiday Inn? I’m totally in favor of the people who go to her, because it’s a stage in their life. But for Shirley MacLaine to run three hundred souls through a thing like that for three hundred bucks each and use her charisma… Again in Shirley’s defense, if you get involved in this business, there are times when you’re so overcome by the power.. .that you tend to think it’s you and that you’re Jesus Christ or you’re Buddha. Hopefully, it’s a stage she’s going through, but there’s no sense of humor and there’s no laughter—and that’s something intrinsically I run away from.”
No, it’s not Shirley MacLaine and New Age crystal-healing channelers that are his real legacy, Leary maintains. His real legacy, he believes, is: yuppies. Leary sees himself as having served as a successor to Dr. Benjamin Spock as father figure to the baby boom, having presided over what he sees as the continuum of transformation from hippie to yippie to yuppie. The common thread is hedonistic self-indulgence, which he has always entirely approved of, as witness his champagne-inthe-tepee days.
“I’m totally positive about the yuppies. What do they want? They want money? Well, who doesn’t? People say yuppies are apathetic. I say that’s crazy. You can’t be apathetic.. .To be a yuppie, you have to choose the food at the gourmet deli, what kind of arugula you’re going to get…I mean, that’s hard work to get up and diet and plan your life—’ ‘
“Don’t you feel a little bit of a letdown in contemplating the difference between changing the world and changing the lettuce?”
“Changing the world is not done in a day. And I think that what most of us learned in the sixties was that you’ve got to get your own act together, and if you can’t choose lettuce with confidence, and if you can’t pick your BMW, how can you pick a government?… You generalize about lettuce or saving the world, but, God knows, the one lesson is that you can change. And I think the notion of changing yourself is probably the most profound notion from the sixties and seventies.”
Saturday night I leave Leary and Barbara behind at Mortons, where they’re drinking champagne and listening to Susan Sarandon describe her sex scenes with Kevin Costner in the upcoming Bull Durham—while they await Joanna Pacula to join them for an expedition to the new hot club of the moment, Au Petit Cafe. I return to my hotel room and plunge avidly into Leary’s file on the Mary Meyer murder case.
The file is thick and consists, first, of several multi-page letters from Leary’s gumshoe describing his Chandler-esque encounters with cops, lawyers, detectives, and friends of the legendary aristocratic temptress of Camelot. In addition, there are blurry photostats of quarter-century-old newspaper clippings about her murder (The New York Times: ”Woman Painter Shot and Killed on Canal Towpath in Capital: Mrs. Mary Pinchot Meyer Was a Friend of Mrs. Kennedy”). And then another series of clips from the time, ten years later, in 1976, when James Truitt, a confidant of Mary Meyer’s, spilled the secret of the affair (The Washington Post: ”JFK Had Affair with D.C. Artist—Smoked ‘Grass,’ Paper Alleges”).
After studying the reports of the gumshoe, I begin to realize that the state of knowledge of the officially unsolved mystery has actually regressed since I investigated the case. Leary’s detective reports that after an exhaustive search he couldn’t find the transcript of the trial of the original murder suspect in D.C. court archives. Conspiratorial inferences are drawn from this. But, in fact, it was my strong impression—as perhaps one of the last people to read that transcript before it disappeared, and I read every word of it—that the acquittal of the original suspect could be attributed more to the efforts of a brilliant defense attorney than to the existence of conspirators still at large who killed the president’s mistress.
Yet, there is one aspect of the case that remains a provocative mystery. What was in the diary of the deceased? Why did Mary Meyer’s sister, Toni Bradlee, turn it over to their mutual friend James Angleton, then head of the C.l.A.’s counterintelligence division, who proceeded to make it disappear?
That night, 1 came across a twelveyear-old Washington Postclipping in Leary’s file. It contained a passage about the diary I didn’t recall seeing before: “Another source confirmed that Meyer’s diary was found and destroyed after her death in keeping with her wishes. This source said the diary was taken up almost entirely with the subject of art but contained a few hundred words of vague reference to an unnamed friend.”
A few hundred words of vague reference to an unnamed friend: I wondered what those words might have revealed, and not just about the affair. The passages in Leary’s autobiography about his relationship with Mary Meyer focus on her purported plan to use LSD supplied by him to “turn on” powerful Washington men and turn their heads toward “peace.” Mary Meyer apparently told a confidante that she had turned on J.F.K. with grass. Was it possible that she offered him Leary’s acid? Could those two sets of triple initials that dominated the early and late sixties—J.F.K. and LSD—have been linked by Timothy Leary? And if so, why hadn’t he come out and said it? Was the enormity of it too much for even Dr. Tim to boast of?
I decide to ask him directly. Does he think Mary Meyer gave J.F.K. LSD?
“I think there’s a strong possibility,” he says.
Leary and I are standing outside Le Dome, the chic Sunset Boulevard restaurant. We’ve just finished our final lunch interview before fly back to New York. As we’re waiting for the valet-parking guy to return with my car, Leary is telling me the saga of a notorious valet parker/ coke dealer who ran a dual-service operation at one of Hollywood’s most fashionable restaurants.
Why is it that valet parking seems to play such a big role in contemporary Hollywood folklore? Is there some metaphor for the movie business (films as valet fantasy?) in the valetparking transaction? (Were psychedelics valet-mystical experiences?) In any case, valet-parking lore and its inevitable accompaniment—Hollywood maitre d’ lore—seem to take up quite a bit of space in Leary’s conversation these days.
In addition to the Folsom-prison valet-parking buddy and the valet parker/coke dealer, there is the story about the maitre d’ at Mortons who bought the Learys a bottle of champagne. Then, at Spago a couple of nights later, there was a bit of a snit because there’s a new valet-parking crew who didn’t know the Learys as the valued regular customers they are, and seemed to treat his low-rent Mercedes with a bit of condescension. A snit which was soothed when, inside Spago, the Girl with the List jumped them over the non-regulars and got them a very good table right away. (“The third-best table,” Leary opines; it’s next to Dyan Cannon, Cary Grant’s ex.) When they left Spago, the maitre d’ gave them a Christmas present. Then, on the way over to Le Dome today, Leary was telling me an anecdote about the funeral service of the beloved onetime maitre d’at Ma Maison, which took place at a tennis court where… Leary seems to be as full of gossip about the galaxy of maitre d’s at Hollywood hot spots as he once was about the tutelary deities of The Tibetan Book of the Dead.
But it’s a bit unfair to portray Leary as merely a devotee of the highlife, Hollywood-style. He’s capable of staying home and being an attentive father when Barbara’s teenage son is staying with them. And he seems genuinely excited to be lost in the intricate intellectual pleasures of software design and cybernetic theory, spending hours at the computer screen refining his “Mind Mirror” computer game and designing an interactive-software movie version of William Gibson’s “cyber-punk” cult novel, Neuromancer.
Anyway, here we are at Le Dome and Leary is telling me about the legendary valet parker/dealer when he stops and fixes me with a concerned look.
“That was a tough question you saved for last,” he says. He’s referring to a question I asked him during lunch. Actually, I had asked him a fairly tough question yesterday, and it hadn’t seemed to trouble him. But this question today did. He had an answer—he always has an answer for everything, but for once I got the feeling the answer didn’t satisfy him.
Yesterday’s question had been about the Brotherhood. I asked Leary about those old allegations that he had been a front man for an international smuggling-and-dealing cartel.
“The charge was that all the talk of truth and love was just advertising for this particular acid that you were selling—banking the profits in Swiss banks.”
“Very yuppie, isn’t it?” he replies. “Well, I wish it were true. I’d be rich if I’d gotten into the business.”
“Well, how would you describe your relationship to the Brotherhood of Eternal Love?”
To answer that, Leary first explains who the Brotherhood people were, a story that, tangentially at least, involves Cary Grant.
The way Leary tells it, the Brotherhood of Eternal Love began as “a group of about eight or ten uneducated kids, surfers from the south coast—Laguna Beach. They were actually juvenile delinquents. . .As a matter of fact, the story was they committed armed robbery to get their first acid. The wife of the head of it was in a beauty parlor, and she was reading this article about these professors that had this drug LSD. They gave the names of all these doctors [in Hollywood], one of whom was one of Cary Grant’s doctors. . .And they went into this house in the Hollywood Hills where there was a party going on, and came in with their guns and masks, and people said, ‘What do you want?’ And they said, ‘We want acid.’ And by the time they got back to Laguna Beach, (Continued on page 154) the acid hit and they went in the water and—here it becomes apocryphal—they said they threw their guns in and they saw God.”
But after a couple of years, God—or someone—had persuaded them to manufacture tens of millions of doses of illicit LSD, invest in hash-oil refineries in Afghanistan, and open numbered bank accounts in Switzerland.
Leary says he got to know them when he fled to Laguna Beach to escape the legal harassments of G. Gordon Liddy in New York. But he says he was less like a Godfather to them than a “Zen mother.”
“I was living in Laguna Beach with my wife after Liddy kicked me out of New York State. And they used to come hang around. They had bought a place up in the mountains near Palm Springs, and my wife and I used to go out there—we had a little cottage. So I was like their Zen mother…”
“You weren’t involved in—?”
“It was one of the deals I made with them. I said, ‘I don’t want to know anything about what you’re doing. Because I don’t want to know it, and you don’t want me to know it.’ “
He does concede that he was the one who introduced these unsophisticated surfer heads to the international financiers and outlaw acid chemists who did become part of the Brotherhood.
“It was probably through me that they met [an heir to a major American fortune who set up the Swiss banking network], and they met… they met…”
“Scully? Sand?…” I suggest.
“But you were not part of that. .. ?”
“No. I literally did not know… I knew that Scully and [the heir] were doing something together. But I didn’t know about Sand. I certainly didn’t know anything about the European stuff.”
I suspect Leary knew a bit more than he’ll admit to. Not enough to make him the criminal mastermind, the “acid Godfather” authorities portrayed him as. But it also seems clear that Leary doesn’t believe his role as acid prophet was corrupted by his closeness to the world’s biggest acid profiteers.
I also got the feeling that Leary was not quite as at ease in his own mind with his answer to the other tough question, the one I had asked him at Le Dome at our final meeting.
I might not have brought up the Tough Question at all, because it involves an ugly and complicated issue. But as we were finishing up at Le Dome, Leary was boasting to me how, as a person who lives for the pleasures of “pure information,” even being locked up in the ninth circle of Folsom prison wasn’t a problem, because it was “an informational gold mine.”
“When people say to me, ‘Well, you were in Folsom prison, and it’s the worst prison in the United States, and you were at the bottom of the worst place, and then they took you to the bottom floor, and then there was this worse place, the room where they put the absolute worst people in the United States, and you were in solitary confinement in there’—and at that moment I was facing twenty-five years possibly—’you must have felt terrible.’ And I sincerely tell you, Ron, that my feeling was: How amazingly interesting! What a gold mine of information that nobody’s ever gotten! What other Ph.D. in psychology? How can you buy Freud and Jung in their little consulting rooms —it’s a gold mine, it’s like stumbling into the seven cities of gold, to be in that situation.
In other words, wherever he is—even in Folsom prison—is where it’s at. Still, there are those who might say that Leary couldn’t have liked being in Folsom that much, because he informed on his friends and associates to the F.B.I. in order to get out—or at least he gave a lot of people the impression that’s what he did.
Certainly in the statements Leary issued at the time, in which he seemed to be defiantly redefining informing as “truth telling,” he seems to have few illusions or reservations about what he was doing.
But then, in his most recent account, he puts a different spin on the story. He now says that both he and the F.B.I. were playing clever games with each other, manipulating each other for their own purposes. That he knew, and they knew, nobody would go to jail for the information he gave, in part because no jury would believe the testimony of such a spaced-out witness. And he claims that no one has been hurt by what he told the Feds. (Although one of Leary’s attorneys did do forty-five days in jail on a cannabis conviction, Leary claims his grand-jury testimony—that the lawyer had smuggled him hash in jail—wasn’t decisive in bringing the indictment.)
At Le Dome today when I asked Leary what exactly was the story on the snitch accusation, he put yet another slightly different spin on it: he seems to concede that he may have been duped—that his cooperation with the Feds was arranged by his then consort, Joanna HarcourtSmith, the mysterious European intriguer he’d met in exile in Switzerland who acted as his wife (they were never formally married) and spokesperson while he was in prison.
“The deal was that Joanna came to me—and again this is based on what she said—and said the government wants information you’ve got, and no one will go to jail. There’s no way they could ever take you on the stand, because no one’s ever going to believe you, so no one will go to prison.”
He realizes now, he says, this is a thing that should have been taken with a grain of salt.
“Now, this is tricky too because you don’t know that. Maybe there’s information I could give that wouldn’t get someone in jail but might do something else. So I would never do that again, by the way. That was a mistake… because it confused and hurt a lot of friends and people who were not just personal friends but friends of what I believe in …”
And, finally, what about Leary’s current relationship to the drug he once believed in, LSD? The dream that it was the milk of human kindness, that all you need is love, ended in ruins; there’s bitterness over the past. Does he still take it?
He would if he could, but he doesn’t have time, Leary tells me.
“See, I’m in my yuppie stage. When I got out of prison I’d lost my house, my reputation, I had no job. I was starting fresh in 1976 at the age of fifty-six. And then I married Barbara right away, and our marriage is a high-budget movie, so that I’ve been a hardworking husband/ father. LSD is an enormous luxury I just can’t afford now. If I had the money to retire… I would like nothing more than to spend most of my time in Jamaica or Nassau. . .and I’d take LSD at least once a week—simply the way you’d wash the windows of your car. But I just can’t afford it right now.”
The issue of affordability seems to be the decisive one:
“My wife, Barbara, is very tuned into the exquisite beauty of the surroundings,” Leary says. “And so every time we’ve taken LSD, the next morning she decides we have to move to a more expensive house.” He laughs: “That’s one of the unreported side effects of LSD we never recognized—it doubles your rent.”
[Photo Credit: Charles Harbutt c/o LACMA]