By some accounts, Timothy Leary is the most productive and prolific evangelist for psychedelic drugs in human history. At the height of the 1960s counterculture, he was a prophet (or a pied piper, depending on who you ask) who inspired millions of young people to take LSD and “go out of their minds”.
He coined a mantra, “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out”, which was adopted as a PR slogan and a life philosophy for scores of hippies. He sparked and featured in classic works by The Beatles, The Who, Allen Ginsberg and The Moody Blues. He was also a womanizer and a brazen narcissist, as well as an IQ-tested genius. President Nixon reportedly called him “the most dangerous man in America”.
Though he died 24 years ago, in 1996, there may be no better time to consider Timothy Leary’s life and legacy. Thousands are “turning on” to the psychedelic renaissance every year, and when they dive deeper into the LSD wormhole they’ll no doubt land on Leary’s name as one of the guys responsible for it all.
As a clinical psychologist at Harvard University, Leary worked on the Psilocybin Project with his colleague and friend, Richard Alpert, and a close circle of graduate students. Their controversial studies aimed to demonstrate the therapeutic and mystical applications of psychedelics, but Leary and Alpert were eventually fired amid allegations they had pressured students into taking hallucinogens. Leary later took his studies to the Millbrook Estate, a 64-room mansion in New York, where he and a communal group freely experimented with LSD and spiritual practice.
By the end of his life, Leary had left a sizeable mark on American culture. He had influenced psychedelic rock, the hippie trail, spiritual seekers, Steve Jobs, Silicon Valley, painters, poets and the very scientists leading the psychedelic renaissance today. At the same time, Leary's careless peddling of LSD as an intense aphrodisiac – it could give women “several hundred orgasms”, he claimed – and something children could enjoy dealt sometimes life changing blows. Many under Leary's influence were guided on voyages from which they never returned.
On what would have been the month of his 100th birthday, VICE presents an oral history of Timothy Leary’s long, strange trip, via interviews with those who knew, loved and hated the man.
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
1955: Leary wasn’t always drawn to drugs. He started his career as a strait-laced psychologist who researched personality theory and preferred Martini and red meat to pills. But something was missing. Things came to a head in 1955 when his first wife took her own life on his 35th birthday, leaving Leary a single father to two young children.
He had a traumatic childhood, too, with an abusive father, an absent mother and a conman grandfather rendering him deeply suspicious of authority figures. It seems a rebellion was only a matter of time. Robert Forte, the author of ‘Outside Looking In’ and a longtime friend of Leary’s, shares more:
“When Frank Barron [a psychologist and friend of Leary’s] first told him about psychedelic drugs, Tim said, ‘I'm not going anywhere near that ship. And I think you should stay away from it, too, Frank.’
“He had to talk Tim into it. It took a year for Frank to convince him to do it. But also, Tim was very against authority, and there was a lot of it in the 1950s in American society. When you put him in with an authority figure, he would kind of go nutty. That was the way his psyche was set up since he was a young boy.
“I found some letters that Tim wrote to his mother when he was at West Point [school], about what his goals in life were. He just wanted to have a good time. He wanted to be famous. He just wanted to have a normal, healthy, happy life.”
Summer, 1960: Leary has his first psychedelic trip in Cuernavaca, Mexico, with psilocybin mushrooms. The trip is a life-changing experience. It was in Cuernavaca that he met Michael Maccoby, a psychology researcher who'd just left Harvard.
“Tim had asked me if I wanted to experience ‘hyperconsciousness’. I said, ‘Tim, there’s white magic, and there’s black magic. Black magic is when you get something and pay the price later. White magic, you do the work first.’”
Autumn, 1960: Leary returns to Harvard and re-acquaints himself with Richard Alpert, a faculty member who would become his right-hand man in psychedelic research, and eventually rechristen himself as Ram Dass. Leary and Alpert found the Harvard Psilocybin Project, a pioneering programme of studies into psilocybin’s potential to map the fineries of human consciousness. Don Lattin, author of ‘The Harvard Psychedelic Club’ and ‘Changing Our Minds’, remembers the Harvard Psilocybin Project:
“It was revolutionary from the beginning. From the very, very beginning. They were never really doing the serious clinical trials with psychedelics that had already been happening in the 1950s. No, they had a whole other idea, an agenda.
“[From his first trip], Leary was convinced that psychedelics were going to revolutionise the practice of psychology, psychiatry, and change the world.”
Elliot Aronson was a Harvard faculty member they contacted for advice:
“The [first] major time I heard about psilocybin was at a lunch with Alpert and Tim. Tim was talking in a rather grandiose way about all that psilocybin could accomplish. And so I made a snide crack: ‘All that from a little mushroom?’ or whatever it was he had in his hand. But he was serious. And he didn't like my joking about it. And he was right. It was a powerful little mushroom, a powerful little pill.”
1962: Leary and his colleague Walter Pahnke devise the Marsh Chapel Experiment, to test psilocybin’s ability to trigger religious experiences. Leary and the graduate students also dose themselves with the drug. Reverend Randall Laakko looks back on the test as a participant:
“I got down to the door and I busted out of there and went out into the side yard of the chapel. And Leary came out after me. I just wanted to immerse myself in life and the world. I buried my face in the shrubs and I took a big bite out of the leaves. They were very bitter. I probably spat them out.
“When we were starting to come down, I lay on the floor for a while. Leary was laying right beside me. I remember the smell of his hair. I reached on to his body with my hand, and he took it gently. It was just a sense of oneness with everything.”
Allan Cohan, a member of Leary’s Harvard circle, says: “Interestingly, all of this is now being rediscovered by psychologists at Johns Hopkins University, for example, who are using psychedelics for depression, for end of life experiences, etc. I wish they'd consulted us. We could have saved them a lot of time.”
Towards the end of 1962, Leary and the Harvard group begin to question their aims. They found the International Federation for Internal Freedom (or IFIF) to support their research. Paul Lee, a Harvard theologian, a participant at Marsh Chapel and a member of the Leary circle, reflects on the crew’s aims:
“There was a big discussion about whether to go underground with it and make it a kind of secret initiation issue, or go public. But Leary was an Irish revolutionary and he wanted to shout it from the rooftops. So it went that way. It simply became a tsunami.”
“As Leary and Alpert evangelised other faculty members, some tried it and had terrible experiences,” remembers Allan Cohan. “But Leary, when faced with that – even when we had a suicide or two – said, ‘Well, in the exploration of outer space, you're going to lose some astronauts. Same with inner space.’ There was a lot of care and concern from Alpert. But Leary was simply willing to take many more risks.”
Herbert Kelman was a department member at the time:
“The faculty organised a meeting. It was packed, absolutely packed. I outlined why these ‘drug experiments’ Leary was conducting were lax in scientific validity. They weren't doing research at all.
“We heard of graduate students having mental health issues. There were a couple of students in that class who had bad trips. I can't remember any details, but somebody who was on the brink [anyway] almost tumbled from a window.”
1963: After failing to arrive at classes, Leary’s contract at Harvard is terminated. He seeks the support of benefactors like Peggy Hitchcock, the heiress to the Mellon fortune. She gives Leary and his circle a sprawling estate, Millbrook, from which to conduct further research.
“When I first met Tim, I thought he was one of the most interesting people I'd ever met,” says Peggy Hitchcock. “I thought he was absolutely fascinating. I fell in love with him quickly, and we had a funny kind of ‘swinging door’ relationship. But his relationship with his kids convinced me we couldn’t be together.
“He tried to be a good father. But really, when he got involved with psychedelics and everything, I mean, he really wasn't. Teenagers need a parent. He wasn't able to be there for them. [Tim’s] daughter later committed suicide in jail and his heart was really trashed. His son never, never spoke to him again. Hardly.
“Years later [in 1992], when we reconnected, we spent most of the night talking. He was staying at a hotel. And that was as close as I ever got to his talking to me about the sadness in life.”
1963-66: Millbrook’s early years are promising. Publishing research, holding talks and staging retreats, it places emphasis on integration and non-drug-related spiritual practice. Leary founds his own religion, The League for Spiritual Discovery, which holds LSD as its primary sacrament. Bill Richards, who now works as a psychedelics researcher at John Hopkins, looks back on those days at Millbrook:
“It was fun. It was loose. It was a little bit chaotic, but it was warm and genuine and playful and open to new ideas, you know, and appreciative of the transcendental state of consciousness. The seminars I attended there were really very sober, academically-oriented workshops. So, you know, Millbrook wasn't just a bunch of crazy hippies having a party.”
This would change. Returning from a trip to India, Leary found that Millbrook had descended into a psychedelic squat. Ted Druch, who lived in an ashram on the Millbrook site, remembers how out of control things got:
“Millbrook was a gold rush. But with Timothy Leary and acid instead of gold. There were horses painted psychedelic colours running through the woods. Girls were running around naked, fucking everything in sight. Tim Leary had an aura. But he really was an asshole.
“We ended up having a huge fight with Leary. He was into this ‘God will provide, everything will provide. Everything will come. You never have to worry about anything’ kind of attitude. Except the problem was that we didn't have money to put oil in the furnace. His daughter even fled and moved into our ashram. We gave her a room, and she spent the next five days in her room crying.
“Over the course of two years, things went from bad to worse. The cops got involved. Dutchess County was a Republican stronghold and we went through about a year of constant raids.”
Vanessa Hollingshead is the daughter of Michael Hollingshead, the man who first gave Leary LSD:
“I never liked living at Millbrook Mansion. Most of the time, Leary, my dad, hippie men and women, everyone, was on something.
“I [accidentally] did between nine and 19 hits of acid at five years old. I didn't even know what was going on. It was on sugar cubes. I was jumping up and down on a trampoline and all of a sudden I looked down and I just saw all these coloured fluorescent worms. I started screaming and Britta [my dad’s girlfriend] grabbed me off the trampoline. I remember them holding me up and giving me a shot of [the anti-psychotic medicine] Thorazine right in the behind.”
1967: Alpert leaves for India, where he met his guru. Leary moves to the West Coast and finds a largely receptive audience among the burgeoning hippie movement. It was at the historic “Human Be-In” in San Francisco in January of that year where Leary coined his famous mantra, “Turn on, tune in, drop out”, remembers Jay Stevens, the celebrated author of ‘Storming Heaven’:
“[In Tim], LSD found the perfect salesman: charming, personable, able to coin phrases. He was an advertising genius in a way. He could have made a lot of money in advertising.”
Eugene Schoenfeld was Leary’s personal physician at the time:
“I remember the moment when Tim came out with the 'turn on, tune in, drop out' slogan. A lot of young people followed his advice and dropped out. In fact, I said to him a little bit afterwards, 'You've got a PhD. I have a medical degree. And all these kids are dropping out of college. You know, is this good?’ He just shrugged it off. It was a great slogan. But, I mean, he would take acid before giving public talks. So sometimes, unless you were in the same state, it just seemed like gibberish, you know?”
Bill Richards has other thoughts:
“I think it should be ‘Turn on, tune in, jump in’ – work within the structures of society to change them.”
James L Penner, the author of ‘Timothy Leary: The Harvard Years’, says Leary’s famous slogan has been misread:
“It's not simply ‘drop out of society and never pay attention to politics or anything, and go be a hermit’. He asks us to drop out of the games we play. I'm playing the professor game. You're playing the journalist’s game. He was playing the ‘Timothy Leary’ game all the time himself. And psychedelics allow you to step back from the game and question it, deflate it, not take it so seriously.”
1967: Leary’s advocacy for psychedelic drugs reaches fever pitch during the 1967 Summer of Love. He is adopted as the spiritual leader of the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, a drug ring that manufactured Orange Sunshine, the world-famous acid strain that fuelled the counterculture.
Michael Horowitz was Leary’s close friend and personal archivist:
“I – and at least 5 million other people – can say that we would never have taken LSD if it weren't for Tim Leary. He used to quip later in his life, ‘I turned on 5 million people and only 5,000 ever thanked me.’
“In the history of every religion, it's the priests who controlled the sacraments, whatever the sacrament happened to be. In the mid-20th century, the priests were the psychiatrists. Leary was a psychologist who became a shaman.”
Norman Watt was Leary’s replacement at Harvard. A researcher in schizophrenia, he became acquainted personally with the costs of Leary’s revolution.
“I met many [casualties]. I treated them in hospitals and veterans’ hospitals in California and Ohio and elsewhere. There were so many. And the research was still beginning. It’s only in the decades since that we’ve learnt about how LSD impacts the nervous system of human beings. It's all come out since then.”
James Kent, a psychedelic thinker and host of the Dose Nation podcast, reflects on Leary’s negative impact:
“How dangerous was Tim? I don't think he was Manson dangerous. But he helped make Manson, no doubt. There would be no Charlie Manson without Tim Leary.”
1970: The War on Drugs is launched. LSD is made federally illegal and many promising avenues in psychedelic research are banned. Rick Doblin, founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, says:
“Leary’s reputation is pretty low [among psychedelic scientists]. I think that a lot of people blame him for the crackdown. But I really think the crackdown on psychedelics happened because psychedelics were going right. They motivated people to get involved in social justice activities, protests. And Tim did a lot of good work generating people to have those kinds of experiences. I think, on balance, he did way more good than harm. Though I fault him for twisting the data in his studies.”
Robert Forte agrees:
“Well, it's such bullshit. He didn't ruin research. Yeah, he was outrageous. But I mean, the government was the one that fucking ruined research with their idiotic move. How come nobody is saying that? Tim didn't just tell people to take psychedelic drugs. The most continuous message throughout his whole life was to question authority and think for yourselves.”
After running for Governor of California – during which he got The Beatles to write “Come Together” as his campaign song – Leary is arrested in 1970 on drug charges after two stubbed roaches are found in his car ashtray. He is sentenced to ten years in jail.
“He didn't do anything, nothing, to ingratiate himself with any kind of establishment,” says Peggy Hitchcock. “He didn't care. And so, of course, when they arrested him, that was just the way it was going to happen. I kind of knew it was going to happen. It was a question of time. No one can say 'Fuck you' to everybody all the time. It just doesn't work.”
Leary escapes from jail and is shipped by a radical left wing group, The Weather Underground, to Algeria. He makes his way to Switzerland and lives in exile, but is captured in 1973 and taken back to the USA by the CIA. He faces nearly a century behind bars.
“I knew Joanna Harcourt-Smith [Tim’s new wife] very well,” remembers Eugene Schoenfeld. “But when she moved to San Francisco, I noticed that she would be asking questions about people's drug habits, for example. And one time she asked me how she could obtain a large quantity of LSD. It just didn't seem right. As it turned out, Joanna was scooping up the information because she and Timothy were cooperating with the federal government.
“When I first heard the rumours, I didn’t believe it. When I found out? Shock, dismay, disappointment. Yes, all those things. I visited Tim in prison. He certainly did not have a posh cell like some of the Mexican drug lords had in their prisons, but he was protected, I think, especially after he began cooperating with the feds.
“I really just reduced my contact with him greatly [after this].”
Doug Rushkoff, a writer and later friend of Leary’s, is more balanced:
“Towards the end [of his life], a lot of journalists were really getting into whether or not he had turned in the Weathermen to the CIA. And he was a little upset by that. But he told the CIA stuff only what they already knew or stuff that was no longer current. And, you know, there are always these efforts to recast heroes.”
1976: After his early release from prison in 1976, Tim’s work moves to other areas: space exploration, life extension and, predominantly, computers and technology.
“You've got to understand that his work with psychedelics was sort of like a greatest hit,” says Zach Leary, Tim’s son. “You go see a rock and roll band play their hit single, but their career is about so much more than that. And that was very much the same with him. ‘Tune in, turn on, drop out’, the psychedelic years, were really just one step on a much larger path and a much larger vision.
“Anytime somebody came around who was really trying to wax nostalgic about [that time], he would get really feisty. He'd say, 'Hey, man, that's the past. You're on some old trip, man. It's not 'tune in, turn on, drop out' anymore. It’s 'turn on, boot up, jack in' now."
“From the 80s onward, he saw technology as the next psychedelic, the new LSD,” recalls Doug Rushkoff. “He believed that that digital would be as powerful or more powerful, and plus you don't have to eat it. They just log on.”
1996: At 75 years old, on the 31st of May, Leary dies in the Hollywood Hills. Amid the growth of early PC and cyberpunk culture, he had enjoyed a resurgence in popularity.
“I remember the day he died,” says Zach. “We all knew that was going to be the day. I was very clear. We were being guided by Ram Dass [Alpert] on the telephone.”
Doug Rushkoff was there, too. “In the last half hour or so of his life, he started to say, 'Why not?' And he repeated 'Why not?' in all these weird ways. 'Why not? Why not? Why not? Why not?' 'Why not die?' he was suggesting. 'You know, this is it.' And in life, when someone is telling you not to do something, ask 'Why not?' That's the core question.”
2020: Early reports suggest that psychedelic use has increased considerably amid the pandemic lockdown. Doug Rushkoff wonders what Tim would have thought.
“He was saying 'tune in, turn on' and all that, but he was painfully aware of the downside to people doing psychedelics in the wrong set and setting without proper tutelage.
“But, I mean, of course he'd be happy that maybe it took a pandemic and the crash of capitalism or something for people to have the safe time and space to explore and seize the opportunity. You know, it's like, 'Oh, wait a minute, I'm going to be alone in my house or in my apartment with my girlfriend for the next month. Let's take acid and fuck a lot.' I don't think he would think that's a bad thing. It's a sacred thing.”
James L. Penner agrees: ”He would have advocated tripping during a time of popular upheaval and political unrest like today. No doubt. Think of the cataclysms of the 60s and how often he tripped then. I mean, he was optimistic to a fault. He always felt that tripping could provide insight and a life-changing experience like the one he had [in Mexico].”