In this comprehensive biography, Robert Greenfield chronicles the life of Timothy Leary. He was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, on October 22, 1920, the son of an alcoholic father who abandoned the family when Tim was a child and a devout Roman Catholic mother. He was admitted to West Point but was forced to leave after a year because his principled refusal to report a rules violation by others clashed with the school’s honor code.
After being expelled from the University of Alabama for lewd cohabitation, Leary served in World War II. He married Marianne Busch in 1945 and was readmitted to Alabama, graduating later that year, and in 1947 entered the doctoral program in psychology at the University of California in Berkeley.
He received his doctorate in 1950, but as he was building a career as a psychologist, he was shaken by the suicide of his wife, the mother of his two children, in 1955. He began traveling to Mexico in an attempt to find himself after this shock; a marriage to Mary Della Cioppa lasted only a year, and Leary tried to keep it a secret for the rest of his life. Still he achieved professional success, designing a personality inventory that became widely used.
In 1959 Leary joined the psychology department at Harvard as an instructor. The following summer, he again visited Mexico. This time he decided to experiment with psilocybe mushrooms, and he had an experience that changed his life. He decided to bring this and similar substances to Harvard to experiment with them as a means of improving mental health. He recruited novelist Aldous Huxley and psychologist Humphry Osmond, known for their work with psychedelics, to join him.
Leary had set out to use psilocybin only under controlled conditions, but within two months he and his friends were using it recreationally. Perhaps the last hope of keeping the project under formal academic restraints died when poet Allen Ginsberg joined the movement. (On his first trip with Leary, Ginsberg attempted to phone President John F. Kennedy to urge him to turn on.)
By 1962 Leary had become controversial. Sandoz Laboratories would no longer supply him with psilocybin, so he switched to the more powerful lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). Department head David McClelland was trying to rein in Leary and establish further controls over the program. Some of the questioning came from Andrew Weil, who went on to become a health food guru.
The publicity kept increasing, and Leary finally left Harvard in 1963. After an attempt to set up shop in Mexico, he started the Castalia Foundation at the Millbrook, New York, mansion of stockbroker Billy Hitchcock. The next year Leary married Nina von Schlebrugge. They honeymooned in India, where Leary met gurus and sages, but this marriage, too, did not last.
By now Leary was recommending LSD to one and all, telling ministers it was a path to spiritual enlightenment and telling Playboy it was a path to hundreds of orgasms, becoming a major celebrity and symbol of the 1960’s. Retribution soon followed. Returning from an attempt to enter Mexico in late 1966, Leary was found to have a minuscule amount of marijuana. Shortly after that, another attempt to prosecute Leary failed. Dutchess County Assistant District Attorney G. Gordon Liddy, later to become famous for his role in the Watergate burglary, led a raid on Leary’s headquarters but failed to find unlawful substances.
Leary attempted to make peace. Testifying before a Senate committee, he suggested licensing the use of psychedelics. In 1968, Leary published two books: High Priest, an autobiography, and The Politics of Ecstasy, a collection of essays. By then he was a celebrity, touring the nation, and he had attracted a wide range of followers, from con men, such as Michael Hollingshead, a flamboyant Englishman who provided Leary with drugs, to fellow professor Richard Alpert (later Ram Dass), who eventually moved on from drugs to find peace of mind in the Hindu religion and devote his life to works of mercy. Greenfield describes many of these characters. Leary was making enemies as well. In late 1969 Diane Linkletter, the daughter of popular television personality Art Linkletter, committed suicide. Her father believed it was the result of a bad LSD trip taken months earlier (toxicological tests indicated that...
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American Conservative 5, no. 21 (November 6, 2006): 33-34.
Booklist 102, no. 16 (April 15, 2006): 8.
Commentary 122, no. 2 (September, 2006): 82-84.
Kirkus Reviews 74, no. 7 (April 1, 2006): 334.
The Nation 283, no. 5 (August 14, 2006): 36-40.
The New York Times Book Review 155 (June 25, 2006): 1-9.
Publishers Weekly 253, no. 14 (April 3, 2006): 52.