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Old Hollywood's Elite Were the Last to Use LSD for Therapy

It made Cary Grant imagine himself as "a giant penis launching off from Earth like a spaceship."

Cary Grant, who championed LSD's therapeutic qualities. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

My first experience with LSD was not pleasant. Six hours spent staring at bugs on London's Hampstead Heath were punctuated by a fat man calling me a prick and someone showing me a book of autopsy photos. It was harsh and boring, and I didn’t gain one new bit of insight—no secrets of the cosmos were revealed; I just learned that looking at human corpses while you’re tripping makes you feel kind of weird and upset.


I think the main problem was that I’d heard so many people crediting acid for their profound understanding of the world—musicians, authors, Steve Jobs, a man with a ponytail I met at a music festival, and, strangely, a couple of stars from Hollywood’s golden years. In fact, in the 1950s Tinsel Town provided fertile ground for early LSD experimentation, with Cary Grant, among others, using it as an aid during therapy sessions.

Albert Hofmann discovered the substance in 1943. Having messed around with fungi while working for Sandoz Laboratories in Switzerland, he synthesized Lysergic Acid Diethalymide-25, his 25th attempt at creating a stimulant for the central nervous system. Five years later, he got some on his fingertips by mistake and “perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors.” On his 100th birthday, he would call it “medicine for the soul.”

Dr Albert Hofmann in 2003. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Among psychiatric practitioners it was initially considered to have psycho-mimetic properties—in layman’s terms, it simulates psychosis. This idea was scoffed at, then replaced with the notion that it could be used, at least experimentally, in therapy. In the UK, it was used modestly and in low doses in what became known as psycholytic therapy, a means of breaking through to greater insight when patients had reached a plateau.


Dr. Ben Sessa, a psychiatrist and proponent of the use of psychedelics in therapy, told me, “In the US, there emerged a different model: ‘psychedelic therapy.' In-patients took a single large dose and had a full-blown mystical experience, followed by non-drug integration sessions in which they explored the material that had emerged in the drug session.”

When LSD eventually made its way over to the US, a Dr. Oscar Janiger managed to get his hands on a shipment. In exchange for using it on his patients and reporting his findings back to Sandoz, the company would keep him in stock. The experiment’s participants included everyone from dentists, housewives, and students to Andre Previn, Aldous Huxley, and James Coburn.

Anaïs Nin visited Janiger’s house and wrote about it in her diary in 1955:

I watched a shoreline of gold waves breaking into solid gold powder and becoming gold foam, and gold hair, shimmering and trembling with gold delights. I felt I could capture the secret of life because the secret of life was metamorphosis and transmutation, but it happened too quickly and was beyond word. Comic spirit of Anaïs mocks words and herself. Ah, I cannot capture the secret of life with WORDS.

In its pre–Ken Kesey days, LSD posed a strange question for shrinks and gurus alike. It could be used to help troubled people feel normal, but to those who were aware of its full potential, the real value was in how it could help to transcend ordinary reality. Huxley, Nin, Janiger, and others were only too aware of this. They would discuss for hours the possibility of the drug having a place in society, and thought of the good that “just a few healthy magnums of LSD in the Beverly Hills reservoir,” in Cary Grant's words, could do.


Janiger compared his experiences with the Eleusinian Mysteries, an ancient ceremony conducted outside of Athens. Participants would drink something called Kykeon, believed to have hallucinogenic properties, and get collectively out of their minds in service to the gods. The doctor wondered whether such an outing could have a place in society 2,000 years later.

While Janiger’s interest seemed mostly experimental, the clinical basis of LSD’s therapeutic use remains fairly strong. Dr. Sessa is not alone in maintaining that psychedelics are very useful in helping to treat anxiety disorders, OCD, and PTSD, among other conditions. Dr. Mortimer Hartman, at the very least, would have agreed.

Having undergone years of probing analysis himself, Hartman was enthralled by the fact that instead of chipping away at the tough layer of ego, LSD melted it entirely and gave way to the molten subconscious underneath. He described the drug as intensifying “emotion and memory a hundred times.”

Hartman opened the Psychiatric Institute of Beverly Hills in the late 50s and, having secured a line of supply from Sandoz, started charging $100 a hit to indulge the inner tortures of the outwardly perfect. His patients would recount experiences of gender transformation, rebirth, and revelation, all while watching themselves as if they were both audience and actor.

It was Cary Grant, Hollywood’s great leading man, who would declare his love for LSD the loudest. Grant had initially gone to Hartman looking to find out what his then wife Betsy Drake had been saying about him. However, he was a neurotic on a pedestal; any high-rent shrink’s dream. Soon enough, he succumbed to the possibility that LSD might cure the things that had haunted him for so long—what Dr Hartman had diagnosed as “prolonged emotional detachment.”


Of course, it’s not like you could blame him: Grant’s father had institutionalized his mother when he was nine and told him she was dead. He joined the circus the next year, when his father abandoned him to start a new family. A move across the Atlantic and three marriages later, in 1957, Grant found himself on Dr Hartman’s couch with the blinds closed, trying LSD for the very first time.

Cary Grant in Notorious. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Marc Eliot, Grant’s biographer, thinks the drug did a lot for him. “Through what he described as his ‘controlled dreams,’ he was able to ‘connect’ with himself,” he said. “LSD, I believe, took the locks off the prison doors that he had lived in, emotionally, for most, if not all of his life.”

It was the beginning of a long relationship with the drug and the doctor.

Grant’s experiences seemed to veer between calm, psychotropic lessons in life and the kind of nightmarish horror trips the police tend to describe when they come to your school for one of those apocalyptic drug talks.

On the former, he wrote: “I learned many things in the quiet of that small room. I learned to accept the responsibility for my own actions and to blame myself and no one else for circumstances of my own creating. I learned that no one else was keeping me unhappy but me; that I could whip myself better than any other guy in the joint.”

On the latter, he said: “You know we are all unconsciously holding our anus. In one LSD dream, I shit all over the rug and shit all over the floor. Another time I imagined myself as a giant penis launching off from Earth like a spaceship… I seemed to be in a world of healthy, chubby little babies’ legs and diapers, smeared blood, a sort of general menstrual activity taking place.”


Grant would become one of the drug’s greatest proponents, encouraging his friends and subsequent wives to take it. He would give interviews to Ladies Home Journal and Good Housekeeping on its transformative effects. On occasion, things took a slightly darker turn. A couple of decades after their messy divorce, Grant’s fourth wife, Dyan Cannon, told the Daily Mail that he had tried to “force-feed” her LSD and change her into the “shiny new wife who could effortlessly meld as one with her husband.”

Timothy Leary on a lecture tour in 1969. Photo by Dennis Bogdan, via Wikimedia Commons

Some say that it was Grant who told Timothy Leary all about the drug—and Leary, of course, set off to tell everyone else. However, Leary's ensuing appeals for everyone to “turn on, tune in, and drop out” were met with contempt by Janiger and Huxley; they felt the message was too assertive and confident, as the truth the drug revealed was too acute to unleash on an unprepared mass of people.

When acid got popular, the authorities started to take notice, then it began to become widely available as a street drug, inviting all the horror stories and gossip that inevitably comes with that.

In the early 60s, the Food and Drug Administration started to look a little more closely at the Psychiatric Institute of Beverly Hills, eventually forcing Hartman to close in 1962. With its reputation safely ruined in the eyes of the establishment, users were pushed into the shadows. By 1968, the drug was illegal—a bad decision, thinks Dr. Sessa: “Ever since then research has been difficult and the authorities have found themselves embroiled in an unwinnable drug war, which has served only to fund the mafia, criminalize otherwise law-abiding drug users, and, crucially, hamper all research into these safe and efficacious substances.”

Hartman had left California by then, and  Janiger had shut down his practice and quickly stopped his studies after the government had started investigating him. Cary Grant would continue to take LDS, albeit a little more quietly, and left $10,000 to his “wise mahatma,” Hartman, in his will.

There may well be a great deal of good that psychedelics can continue to offer us. “Traditional drug treatments [like antidepressants] tend to merely mask symptoms,” said Dr. Sessa. “In this respect, the psychedelic drugs can be used as tools to allow a deeper, more focused, and more effective route to helping the patient explore their problems with their therapist… they allow a person to reflect upon existential issues. This can be very useful, for instance in cases of drug addiction and possibly personality disorders, in which the patient could benefit from an opportunity to challenge ingrained, rigid behavioral patterns of deeply held negative belief systems.”

Things are changing. In 2012, an analysis of studies done in the 50s and 60s showed how helpful the drug was in treating alcoholism, and the first two papers on the effects of LSD since the 1970s were released this year. So who knows—with enough time, we may yet see what Grant was talking about.

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