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New York Public Library Buys Timothy Leary’s Papers June 15, 2011 - New York Times
When the Harvard psychologist and psychedelic explorer Timothy Leary first met the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg in 1960, he welcomed Ginsberg’s participation in the drug experiments he was conducting at the university.
“The first time I took psilocybin — 10 pills — was in the fireside social setting in Cambridge,” 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.
The archive will not be available to the public or scholars for 18 to 24 months, as the library organizes the papers. A preview of the collection, however, reveals a rich record not only of Leary’s tumultuous life but also of the lives of many significant cultural figures in the ’60, ’70s and ’80s.
Robert Greenfield, who combed through the archive when it was kept in California, for his 2007 biography of Leary, said: “It is a unique firsthand archive of the 1960s. Leary was at the epicenter of what was going on back then, and some of the stuff in there is extraordinary.”
Leary, who died in 1996, coined the phrase “Turn on, tune in, drop out” and was labeled by Richard M. Nixon as “the most dangerous man in America.” He was present in Zelig-like fashion at some of the era’s epochal events. Thousands of letters and papers from Ginsberg, Aldous Huxley, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Ken Kesey, Charles Mingus, Maynard Ferguson, Arthur Koestler, G. Gordon Liddy and even Cary Grant — an enthusiastic LSD user — are in the boxes.
“How about contributing to my next prose masterpiece by sending me (as you sent Burroughs) a bottle of SM pills,” Kerouac wrote Leary, referring to psilocybin. “Allen said I could knock off a daily chapter with 2 SMs and be done with a whole novel in a month.”
Denis Berry, a trustee of the Leary estate, said that the library paid $900,00 for the collection, some of which is being donated back to finance the processing of the material. The rest will pay the estate’s caretakers and then be divided among Leary’s surviving children and grandchildren. Ms. Berry said the estate had been looking for a buyer for the archive for years.
William Stingone, curator of manuscripts at the library, predicted that the collection would help researchers get beyond the “myth making” around ’60s figures. “Hopefully we’ll be able to get to some of the truth of it here,” he said.
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 kept meticulous records at many points during his life. There are comprehensive research files, legal briefs, and budgets and memos about the many institutes and organizations he founded, but there are also notes and documents from when he was on the run after escaping from a California prison with help from the Weather Underground. A folder labeled as notes from his “C.I.A. kidnapping” in 1973 is full of cryptic jottings recounting the details of his arrest in Afghanistan, at an airport in Kabul, after he fled the United States.
Among the papers are daily schedules and budgets from the estate in Millbrook, in Dutchess County, where Leary, his colleague Richard Alpert (who later changed his name to Ram Dass) and their followers stayed after Leary was fired by Harvard in 1963. They worked on keeping “people’s consciousness in ecstatic regions.”
Everyone kept a log of his “mood” and “collaboration.” One weekly tally showed Mr. Alpert consistently in the upper regions of the scale, and Leary’s moods swinging from “anguished” to “ecstatic,” and his collaborations from “hung-up” to “Buddha.”
In 1969 Leary joined John Lennon and Yoko Ono in Montreal for their weeklong Bed-In for Peace, where Lennon wrote a version of “Come Together” for Leary’s campaign for California governor against Ronald Reagan. Leary wrote poems and songs on a stack of yellow legal notepaper that included:
We all started singing Give Peace a Chance John said can we help your campaign And then he hummed a sweet refrain Come together, come together right now.
On another sheet he wrote that the summer of ’69 “was the sexiest season in the long annals of the human race.”
In his later years Leary became a proponent of cybernetics and designed software. “He was always about 10 years ahead of his time,” Ms. Berry said. Among the videotapes is one from the early ’90s of him talking about how everyone is going to have a computer at home, she said.
Leary introduced many of his contemporaries to the psychedelic experience, but not everyone was as enamored as he was. After trying Leary’s magical pink pills Arthur Koestler told his host the next day that they were not for him: “I solved the secret of the universe last night, but this morning I forgot what it was.”