JUST WHEN everyone thought the final penny whistle had sounded on Timothy Leary and the ’60s LSD spectacle, along comes veteran journalist Don Lattin. Author of numerous articles and books covering both mainstream and alternative religious movements, Lattin now brings us a rigorously honest exploration of interconnected relationships under a fine-looking circus of a title: The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America.
Most people already know the crux of the story. In the early ’60s, Leary and Richard Alpert ran the Harvard Psychedelic Club, formerly the Harvard Psilocybin Project, a school-sponsored drug research project at the university of the same name. They repeatedly dosed grad students, professors and religious scholars with a new drug called LSD, which was then legal. At least in the initial stages, they advocated strict control of the situation, believing that the drug should be administered in a safe setting by someone ready to deal with whatever happened. Leary and Alpert envisioned that LSD could give people mystical and religious experiences. For a passing moment they even thought it could help cure alcoholism.
Number three on the bill was Huston Smith, a student of world religions. Smith, now 90, took part in the initial experiments, but ultimately went his own way, having no use for the ensuing media hysteria that Leary was actually helping accelerate. As Leary went on to milk the publicity in and out of prison, Alpert also eventually bailed from the hoopla, but he went to India and came back as Ram Dass—still a world-renowned spiritual guru spending his final days in Hawaii.
The fourth and final title character is none other than Andrew Weil, everyone’s favorite bearded holistic health honcho. But here’s the part never before elaborated: Weil was an undergraduate working for the Harvard school newspaper when Leary and Alpert first unleashed their drug research project. It was Weil who penned hit pieces denigrating the two, articles that played a significant role in getting them booted out of Harvard. Weil disingenuously investigated the drug program as a journalist while at the same time spilling all the details to the Harvard administration, which was gunning for dirt on Leary and Alpert. In other words, he ratted out his own sources. To this day, Dass appears not to have forgiven Weil for what he did.
Harvard Divinity School graduate and Santa Cruz resident Paul Lee was also there during those days. He took part in some of the drug experiments and likewise harbors a tad of rancor about Weil’s machinations. Lattin quotes him extensively in the following passage:
Nearly half a century after Weil brought down Leary and Alpert, … others involved in the affair were still mad about the whole series of events. “I hope Andrew Weil is ashamed about what he did,” said Paul Lee, sitting in his backyard in Santa Cruz, California, in the spring of 2008. “He is the top guy on my list to punch out if I ever meet him. He was a spy for the administration. He went around interviewing people, including me, then reported it to the administration. I told him things candidly and in confidence and he betrayed me. He submitted my interview to the authorities. That was dirty pool. He was just out to get fame by doing in Leary and Alpert.”
Speaking over the phone last week, Lee briefly reflected on those days.
“It was an odd assemblage, Alpert and Huston,” he told me. “Huston was an important critic of the whole thing, and he was good at it.”
When it comes to Weil’s role, Lee says now, almost 50 years later, he’s relieved that the story is finally being told. He’s getting his revenge.
“Now I don’t have to punch him out when I see him. Or pull his beard real hard.”
Both Lee and Robert Forte—another current Santa Cruz resident—were instrumental in trying to get Leary’s son Jack to reconcile with his estranged father as Leary lay in his deathbed in 1996. Jack hadn’t seen his father in years. Forte accompanied Jack Leary on the plane to LA in order to see his dad, and Paul Lee paid for the flight. But things didn’t go well when son met father.
“We were hoping that they would reconcile, or that Jack would at least show up,” Lee recalls in the book. “I’m not sure it really worked. It was pretty frigid. Tim was pleased to see him, but Jack was real stiff.”
All in all, instead of a straight-up journalistic approach, Lattin chose to write the book as creative nonfiction, noting up front that most of the dialogue is his “rendition” of what was actually said in conversations. Going against his innate journalistic instincts, he claims he re-created the dialogue based on other folks’ memories of what went down. In any event, the book successfully highlights the synchronistic arrival of four now-legendary figures at Harvard and how their interrelations provided some of the initial conditions for the large-scale chaos that the ’60s became. The result is a characteristically nonlinear history, and Lattin tells it the way it should be told, highlighting the interconnections between the nodes and exploring avenues just for the sake of exploring.
And speaking of exploring, in the last chapters Lattin shares with us that the idea for the book started because he himself was newly sober and needed to do some self-renovation. “So, in the end, perhaps this book is about me,” he writes. “It might also be about you. It’s the story of four men whose lives provide a kind of master narrative—a template through which some of us may hear our own stories and, in the process, learn a little something about ourselves.”
DON LATTIN reads from ‘The Harvard Psychedelic Club’ on Tuesday, Jan. 26 at 7:30pm at Capitola Book Café, 1475 41st Ave, Capitola. 831.462.4415.