Few counter-cultural figures are as iconic as Harvard professor turned psychedelic acid pioneer Timothy Leary. Credited with popularizing LSD in the mid ’60s, Leary was eventually fired from his position as university lecturer, and embarked on an epic odyssey of consciousness-expanding exploration that has since become the stuff of legend. Throughout his life, his incarnations were myriad. Timothy Leary and the Beatles, Timothy Leary and the Black Panthers, Timothy Leary the deep-space explorer… all were equally important facets of his identity. And in the end, his philosophies became the stuff not only of life imitating art, but of art going way past life and revolutionizing death itself.
All that said, who was Timothy Leary, in the strictly linear biographical sense? Read on for an overview.
He Used Student Volunteers For Psychedelic Research
In 1960, Leary, then gainfully employed as a lecturer in clinical psychology, co-founded the Harvard Psilocybin Project with his Harvard colleague, Richard Alpert. According to the university’s website, the two “sought to document [the drug’s] effects on human consciousness by administering it to volunteer subjects and recording their real-time descriptions of the experience.”
Although LSD, being then largely unknown, wasn’t illegal at the time Leary embarked on his project, his experiments quickly began to attract controversy. Ultimately, he and Alpert were essentially undone by their own colleagues; as the above-mentioned website explains,
“By 1962 various faculty members and administrators at Harvard were concerned about the safety of Leary and Alpert’s research subjects, and critiqued the rigor of their unorthodox methodology (in particular, the researchers conducted their investigations when they, too, were under the influence of psilocybin). Editorials printed in the Harvard Crimson accused Alpert and Leary of not merely researching psychotropic drugs but actively promoting their recreational use.”
Leary and Alpert were nevertheless able to legally continue their research until 1963, when Alpert unlawfully administered psilocybin to an undergraduate student off-campus. The two professors were promptly fired, and Leary’s great adventure began.
He Escaped From Prison
Leary’s escape from the slammer is the stuff of legend. After being convicted of marijuana possession in 1970 (the total initial sentence was a preposterous 20 years), he was sent to prison where, as legend has it, he was administered some of the very same “psychiatric tests” that he himself had had a hand in designing.
Shortly thereafter, Leary managed to escape by surreptitiously climbing over the institution’s walls via telephone wire, a dazzling and risky feat that could obviously have easily resulted in death by electrocution. A van driven by members of the Black Panthers-led movement the Weather Underground was waiting for him. Their aid didn’t come cheap. It cost an impressive $25,000.00, which was paid for the legendary “hippie mafia” known as The Brotherhood of Eternal Love, which Leary had had a crucial role in founding. The “Weather” radicals subsequently helped both Leary and his girlfriend, Rosemary Woodruff, to escape to Algeria and, once there, the two allegedly joined up with Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver.
He Was Caught And Returned To US Authorities… And Promptly Led The FBI On An Epic Wild Goose Chase
From Algeria, Leary eventually fled to Switzerland. After splitting from Rosemary Woodruff, he took up with socialite Joanna Harcourt-Smith, and the two left Europe for Afghanistan. However, American officials managed to outsmart them: as Count Your Culture explains it, “since the couple traveled on an American airline to Afghanistan, the United States used a legal loophole to circumvent any extradition processes and seize Leary as a fugitive.”
Instead of serving his subsequent 95 year sentence, Leary agreed to work with the FBI by providing them with supposed tips and top-secret information about the Weather Underground. However, he was only bluffing: he subsequently led authorities on an epic wild goose chase. For his “cooperation” he was released from prison in 1976, and no one associated with the Weather Underground was ever caught as a result of their association with him. (Talk about having your cake and eating it, too).
While in Switzerland, Leary was taken in by the wealthy arms dealer Michel Hauchard, a glamorous fugitive figure who would later go on to quip that he had an “obligation as a gentleman to protect philosophers.” While taking refuge with Hauchard, Leary applied for Swiss political asylum, a motion that was enthusiastically supported by legendary Beat poet and political activist Allen Ginsberg.
In 1971, Ginsberg drafted a “Model Statement in Defense of the Philosophers Personal Freedom,”which was supported by many prominent literary figures, including Arthur Miller. According to the New York Public Library, the document “was delivered to Swiss authorities on Bastille Day, July 14.” It was signed by members of the San Francisco Bay Area Prose Poets’ Phalanx, and read in part,
“Whatever one’s opinions, or natural or national preferences amongst intoxicants, Letters, religions, and political or ecological theory, the Bay Area Prose Poets’ Phalanx hereby affirms that Dr. Leary must certainly have the right to publish his own theories. The case of Dr. Leary is outright a case of persecution of ideas and texts—the persecution of his philosophy. Though arrested for grass, he was sentenced for Philosophy. Jailed for grass, he was long prisoned for Opinion. Denied bail for grass possession, he was detained behind barbed wire for Ideological Heresy.”
An “Asylum of Leary Committee” was subsequently established to discuss the matter. Ultimately, Leary was imprisoned in Switzerland after all, but was released on August 1st, AKA National Swiss Day.
Nixon Called Him “The Most Dangerous Man In America”
Leary’s counter-cultural icon status was met with hilariously overwrought pronouncements by US President Richard Nixon, who called him “the most dangerous man in America.” Years later, however, top Nixon advisor John Daniel Ehrlichman admitted that Nixon’s frenzied anti-Leary pose had merely been a cover for some of the administration’s more contemptible goals:
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left [partially hippies who used drugs] and black people [who also used drugs],We knew we couldn’t make it [drugs] illegal to be either against the war on black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities, we could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
He Was Imprisoned On Three Different Continents
Not many people can boast that they’ve been imprisoned (all for “revolutionary ideas”) on three different continents, but Timothy Leary was the exception that gave birth to the rule. According to journalist Lisa Rein,
“In less than a year, Timothy Leary was imprisoned in three different continents – and it could’ve been worse. After escaping from a California prison with the help of the Weatherman Underground and the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, he and Rosemary fled Algeria from a ‘revolutionary bust’ by Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver, only to be jailed in Switzerland when President Nixon personally demanded his extradition back to the U.S.”
In 1969, Leary made an unprecedented political move and decided to run for governor of California against Ronald Reagan. His slogan, “Come together, join the party,” was, as Gizmodo puts it “an obvious nod to his countercultural tendencies, and even an allusion to his enthusiasm for psychedelic drugs.” John Lennon had already agreed to write a campaign song for Leary but in the end the project ended up on the album Abbey Road instead. As Lennon later explained in an interview,
“The thing was created in the studio. It’s gobbledygook; ‘Come Together’ was an expression that Leary had come up with for his attempt at being president or whatever he wanted to be, and he asked me to write a campaign song. I tried and tried, but I couldn’t come up with one. But I came up with this, Come Together, which would’ve been no good to him—you couldn’t have a campaign song like that, right?”
He Developed A Plan To Colonize Mars
Throughout his life, Leary remained fascinated with space travel, and with the possibility of life (including human life) existing on other planets. According to Wikipedia, he “emphasized the importance of space colonization and an ensuing extension of the human lifespan, while also providing a detailed explanation of the eight-circuit model of consciousness in books such as Info-Psychology, among several others.”
Leary’s plan for colonizing Mars took on many different incarnations over the years; at one point he proposed that “5,000 of Earth’s most virile and intelligent individuals be launched on a vessel equipped with luxurious amenities.” Which seems like a sound enough idea, even today.
He Took A Highly Creative – And Psychedelic – Approach To His Own Death
In 1995, Leary was diagnosed with inoperable prostate cancer. But instead of buckling into dread, he promptly took an exhilaratingly creative approach to his own death, and basically turned the whole tragedy into an ingenious psychedelic project. He developed a plan called “Design for Dying,” and was one of the first people to propose that LSD and other psychedelics be used as gateway drugs (of sorts) into death itself. He also gave generous interviews, and received thousands of visitors right up until the last two or so weeks of his life. As per his plan to “live stream” his demise – all this at a time when the Internet hadn’t yet become a household name – his death was “videotaped for posterity,” according to Wikipedia; and when he died on May 31, 1996, his last words were apparently a series of questions: “Why?” “Why not?” and, finally, “Beautiful.”
He Was One Of The First People To Have His Ashes Launched Into Space
Seeing that Leary had a grand vision for colonizing Mars, it ought to come as no surprise that he was one of the first people to have his ashes launched into space. According to the New York Times, on the day of his funeral,
“A rocket carrying capsules of his ashes and those of 23 others was launched from a plane after takeoff from Grand Canary Island off the Moroccan coast. The remains, taken aloft in an American Pegasus rocket, will orbit every 90 minutes for perhaps 2 years, perhaps as many as 10.”
If that’s not cosmic (in the psychedelic and literal sense of the word) what is?
His Psychedelic Approach Clashed With That Of The Merry Pranksters
One of the most amusing stories about Leary concerns his ideological run in with legendary novelist (and Merry Pranksters helmsman and pioneer) Ken Kesey. According to The Telegraph, Kesey and crew were excited about meeting Leary; and assumed that he would share the same free-wheeling and partying philosophy of psychedelic drug use that they did. Instead, Leary advocated a more serene and spiritual approach, a distinctly “East coast” one characterized by “candle-lit rooms, Indian hangings, [and] Gregorian chants.”
As the article goes on to explain,
“At the culmination of their journey, the Pranksters pulled into the country estate at Millbrook, upstate New York, where Leary held court. Leary’s circle had spent the previous night on a carefully orchestrated LSD trip. They awoke to find the Pranksters’ bus coming up the drive exploding smoke bombs, an electronic cacophony blaring from the loudspeakers. The clash of cultures was palpable.”