The Nutty Professor

‘Timothy Leary: A Biography,’ by Robert Greenfield
The Nutty Professor
Review by LUC SANTE
IT has been a mere 10 years since Timothy Leary’s death, but already his career seems improbable. A onetime psychologist who advocated the use of psychedelic drugs for personal growth, Leary loomed large in the 1960’s as something of a cross between a pop star and a religious leader. Both those roles involve performance, but Leary, although blessed with considerable charm, was not a terribly effective performer. He didn’t sing or dance; he was a vague speaker and a hopeless writer; his personality, up close, did not inspire confidence. And although he was among the major protuberances in the cultural bouillabaisse we call The Sixties, he was not much of a 60’s type himself, as Robert Greenfield demonstrates in his thorough and judicious biography. While he may have been the leading spokesmodel for LSD, Leary remained to the end an old-fashioned booze hound, as well as a snake-oil peddler of the most traditional American sort. Had he been born a decade or two earlier, he would probably have been offering to cure arthritis through the application of the electric belt.

Nearly every page is riveting in “Timothy Leary,” which unfolds like the great novel Sinclair Lewis might have written had he lived to the age of 120. Greenfield is not one of those biographers who set out to besmirch their subjects and deplore their lives, and for whom every detail is an indictment. Neither, unlike many, does he seek foreshadowing in every trespass of his subject’s youth. Nevertheless, he cannot exactly airbrush a life that comes so lavishly shadowed: abandonment of the family by professional-drinker father in 1933, when Tim was 13; dismissal from West Point  for blatant transport of hooch; suicide of first wife as a consequence of his dogging around Ëœ under the banner of non-bourgeois unpossessiveness, of course.

Still, Leary went places. He was ambitious as well as charming and worked his way up the postgraduate ladder to Berkeley and, in 1959, to Harvard . He was initially known as an expert on personality assessment, but, while on a sojourn in Mexico the following year, he was introduced to psilocybin mushrooms, and the experience was so transformative that psychedelics promptly became the central force in his life, his research and his teaching. Along with his colleague Richard Alpert, son of the president of the New Haven Railroad (and today a guru known as Ram Dass), Leary tried to turn on all of Harvard. He was a proselytizer by nature Ëœ soon after his arrival at Harvard, his department head had warned him against “using slogans and waving banners” Ëœ and psychedelic drugs gave him a full-fledged cause.

It wasn’t long before any pretense to scientific detachment fell away and controlled experiments were chucked in favor of missionary zeal and contempt for all mundane exigencies. Chaotic tripping parties ensued, involving students, under “spiritual” or “philosophical” pretexts. In 1963, Harvard Ëœ famous for protecting its own Ëœ finally choked on the negative publicity and summarily dismissed Leary and Alpert. In the meantime, Leary had set about converting the rest of the world, beginning with the literary and artistic avant-garde. Most were enthusiastic, especially Allen Ginsberg , who brought in all his friends. (“Coach Leary, walking on water wasn’t built in a day” was Jack Kerouac’s  response to the incessant cheerleading.) Leary had also by then reached out to the intellectual pioneers of psychedelia, Aldous Huxley and the psychiatrist Humphry Osmond. Although years later Osmond would assess Leary as someone who “lives in an almost totally hypothetical future” and compare his “millennialism” to Hitler’s , he and Huxley, in Greenfield’s words, “handed the future of psychedelic research to the wrong man.”

Around the same time, the psychedelic caravan picked up the Hitchcock siblings, Peggy, Billy and Tommy, heirs to the Mellon fortune, and through them acquired the use of a fabulous rambling house and huge estate in Millbrook, N.Y. This became the headquarters of Leary and gang for the better part of five years, a period filled with endless parties, epiphanies and breakdowns, emotional dramas of all sizes, and numerous raids and arrests, many of them on flimsy charges concocted by the local assistant district attorney, G. Gordon Liddy. It was also at Millbrook that Leary, Alpert and Ralph Metzner wrote “The Psychedelic Experience” (1964), which contained the injunction to “turn off your mind, relax, float downstream,” appropriated two years later by John Lennon for “Tomorrow Never Knows,” the last song on “Revolver.” (Leary’s epochal “Turn on, tune in, drop out” was first spoken by him at a conference in San Francisco in 1966.) And it was at Millbrook that Leary’s two children, Susan and Jack, who had been dragged through so much, beginning with their mother’s death, and had been neglected and passively abused for many years, began to fall apart. (In 1988 Susan shot her boyfriend, and eventually killed herself in jail; Jack managed to repair himself, but has avoided publicity ever since.)

FOR Leary, the late 1960’s were a whirl of media events and arrests. Godlike to one portion of the population Ëœ even if Haight-Ashbury hippies drove him out of the Digger free store in 1967, chanting, “You don’t turn us on!” Ëœ he was demonic to another, although in both cases less for who he actually was than for what he represented. He ran counter to the prevailing spirit in one sense: he had no interest in politics. He called student activists “young men with menopausal minds” and suggested that LSD could stand for “Let the State Disintegrate.” But by 1968, his slogans were so poised between derangement and Madison Avenue that they could pass for visionary; “Everyone should start their own nation,” he uttered, just days after Martin Luther King’s  assassination. It was awfully hard to tell charlatans from prophets at the time, and besides, the denatured, anti-intellectual language that dominated discourse then (and is still with us, in a New Age guise) had been rolling off Leary’s tongue since before he had ingested a single microgram of lysergic acid: people engaged in emotional “games”; all the world’s bad stuff was a “system”; the state of being clued-in was “consciousness,” and so on.

Leary did have real enemies in the law enforcement racket, however, and by 1969 he had accumulated enough outstanding indictments, mostly on penny ante marijuana charges, that he finally went to jail, and was likely to be kept there for years before he would be considered for parole. Characteristically, he compared himself to “Christ . . . harassed by Pilate and Herod.” In a twist that could have occurred only in 1970, a consortium of drug dealers paid the Weather Underground to spring Leary from the California Men’s Colony at San Luis Obispo Ëœ he pulled himself along a telephone cable over the fence, then was picked up by a car Ëœ and transport him to Algeria. He duly issued a press statement written in the voice of the Weathermen, the money line of which was: “To shoot a genocidal robot policeman in the defense of life is a sacred act.”

But when he and his wife, Rosemary, arrived in Algiers, they found themselves wards of the exiled Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver, who was probably smarter than Leary, possibly crazier, and had little use for him. As Leary acknowledged, rather shrewdly: “It was a new experience for me to be dependent on a strong, variable, sexually restless, charismatic leader who was insanely erratic. I usually played that role myself.” For his part, Cleaver, having observed Leary in action, warned the hippies at home that rather than furthering the revolutionary cause, those who ingested psychedelics were “doing nothing except destroying your own brains and strengthening the hands of our enemy.” The final dissolution of bonds between the politicos and the stoners can be dated from that communiqué.

In 1971 the Learys fled to Switzerland, where they were sheltered and effectively imprisoned by a large-living arms dealer, Michel Hauchard, who claimed he had an “obligation as a gentleman to protect philosophers,” but mostly had a film deal in mind. In rapid succession, Leary was jailed and released, was left by Rosemary and picked up a new better half, Joanna Harcourt-Smith Ëœ whose mother told Leary that her daughter “lived in a dream world where nothing was real” Ëœ and wrote a book. He was still wanted, however, so he and Joanna soon hit the road, to Vienna, then Beirut, then Kabul. Afghanistan had no extradition treaty with the United States, but this stricture did not apply to American airliners. Before Leary could deplane, he was arrested by an agent of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.

HE faced 25 years in prison (in the course of his trial he compared himself to Jesus and Socrates), and in 1973 was sent first to Folsom Ëœ where his neighbor was Charles Manson Ëœ and then Vacaville. There, realizing he would be an old man by the time he was released, he decided to turn state’s evidence. Although few of his intended betrayals did real damage, it was generally agreed that his volte-face Ëœ greeted bitterly even by people who had long before lowered their expectations of Leary Ëœ conclusively marked the end of the 60’s. He dribbled away his remaining 20-odd years in a showbiz half-life: the lecture circuit, talk shows, unconsummated movie deals, parties. At the end, ill with cancer, he was adopted by young people who wheeled him to nightclubs and fed him drugs. He made posthumous headlines when a portion of his ashes was blasted into space aboard a collective hearse-rocket.

The world needs scoundrels because they make good copy. Leary’s life was so incident-filled that it would be difficult to make it sound dull. Still, Robert Greenfield, who has written books about the Rolling Stones  and Jerry Garcia, does a particularly good job of being at once meticulous and brisk. In addition, the book provides a crash course in several aspects of 60’s culture: its often gaseous rhetoric, its reliance on mahatmas and soothsayers, its endless bail-fund benefits and sometimes dubious appeals to conscience, its thriving population of informers, its contribution to the well-being of lawyers, its candyland expectations and obstinate denials of reality, its fatal avoidance of critical thinking, its squalid death by its own hand. That still leaves many meritorious elements largely outside Leary’s sphere: civil rights, the antiwar movement, music and art, the impulse toward communitarianism, to name a few. In part because of Leary, however, ideals and delusions were encouraged to interbreed, their living progeny being avid consumerism and toothless dissent.

Luc Sante’s books include “Low Life” and “The Factory of Facts.” He teaches writing and the history of photography at Bard.



This entry was posted on Sunday, June 25th, 2006 at 8:20 PM and filed under Uncategorized. Follow comments here with the RSS 2.0 feed. Skip to the end and leave a response. Trackbacks are closed.

One Response to “The Nutty Professor”

  1. barbara siomos said:

    Me thinks Tim was crazy like a fox…


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