The Sixties may look like ancient history to today’s students, but at The New York Times, its most hallowed figures are still promoters of psychedelic drugs like Dr. Timothy Leary. With great fanfare on the front of the Arts section Thursday, reporter Patricia Cohen announced the New York Public Library would purchase the papers of Leary for $900,000.
It didn't occur to Cohen or the Times that anyone would consider this money wasted and this cultural figure less than world-shaking. Instead, Cohen recounted Leary's jotting about popping hallucinogens:
"The first time I took psilocybin - 10 pills - was in the fireside social setting in Cambridge," [radical poet Allen] Ginsberg wrote in a blow-by-blow description of his experience taking synthesized hallucinogenic mushrooms at Leary's stately home. At one point Ginsberg, naked and nauseated, began to feel scared, but then "Professor Leary came into my room, looked in my eyes and said I was a great man."
Ginsberg's "session record," composed for Leary's research, was in one of the 335 boxes of papers, videotapes, photographs and more that the New York Public Library is planning to announce that it has purchased from the Leary estate. The material documents the evolution of the tweedy middle-aged academic into a drug guru, international outlaw, gubernatorial candidate, computer software designer and progenitor of the Me Decade's self-absorbed interest in self-help.
No one spoke in the Times about perhaps this was a waste of taxpayer money. (The library itself touts it’s special because it’s a “historically a privately managed, nonprofit corporation with a public mission, operating with both private and public financing in a century-old, still evolving private-public partnership.” Sounds just like public TV.)
There was no space for anyone who considered him a radical extremist and just plain creepy person. As MediaWatch recounted when he died in 1996:
When Timothy Leary died on May 31, the media lauded him as a barefoot, smiling hippie who spent his life dispensing wisdom and encouraging people to open their minds. CBS News reporter Sharyl Attkisson related that "the last words of the man who spent a lifetime asking questions [were] "Why not?"
Newsweek's David Gates gave a much more complete portrait of Leary's life. Gates reported June 10 that by the end of the '60s, Leary "found it `inconceivable' that turned-on parents wouldn't share acid with kids as young as 7." In 1970, he broke out of prison with the help of the ultra-violent leftist Weather Underground, fleeing to the Black Panther's "exile" camp in Algeria. Gates reported that Leary suggested it was a "'sacred act' to shoot cops." After being captured in Afghanistan, Leary informed on drug buddies to curry favor for a lighter sentence.
None of that is deplorable. This is what's apparently momentous:
The complete documentation of Leary's early experiments with psychotropic drugs, for example, can allow scholars to assess the importance of that work in light of current clinical research on LSD, Mr. Stingone said. Ms. Berry called the Harvard data "the missing link."
The meeting between Ginsberg and Leary marked an anchor point in the history of the 1960s drug-soaked counterculture. Leary, the credentialed purveyor of hallucinatory drugs, was suddenly invited into the center of the artistic, social and sexual avant-garde. It was Ginsberg who helped convince Leary that he should bring the psychedelic revolution to the masses, rather than keep it among an elite group. Filling out one of Leary's research questionnaires in May 1962 the poet Charles Olson wrote that psilocybin "creates the love feast," and "should be available to anyone."
Thomas Lannon, the library's assistant curator for manuscripts and archives, explained that at the time these substances were not regulated by the government, and that Leary and his group did not consider them drugs but aids to reaching self-awareness.
Leary might also have gotten high and thought a chair was a pizza, but that wouldn't make the chair any more edible. (It might redefine "self-awareness.") Apparently, it's worth $900,000 for detritus like a sheet on which Leary proclaimed the summer of 1969 "was the sexiest season in the long annals of the human race." It sounds like an Austin Powers movie, not the stuff of a historic and hallowed collection of letters.