'60s psychedelia guru Timothy Leary, 75, dies LSD advocate tapped into information age

June 01, 1996|By Laura Mansnerus | Laura Mansnerus,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Timothy Leary, who effectively introduced many Americans to the psychedelic 1960s with the relentlessly quoted phrase "tune in, turn on, drop out," died yesterday at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif. He was 75.

HTC However indelible his connection with another era, Leary was very much a man of the moment, and he made his death a final act of performance art by having video cameras record it for possible broadcast on the Internet. He had planned a celebration, and Web sites had collected Leary memorabilia -- texts of his books and lectures, tributes from friends, a listing of his daily drug intake, legal and illegal -- from the time he was told last year that he had prostate cancer.

His own home page carried reports from his friends yesterday saying that his last words were: "Why not?"

A few hours before his death, said R. Couri Hay, a friend who was at Leary's bedside, "Tim told us, 'Don't let it be sad. Buy wine, put soup on the stove.' "

In his long and extravagant public career, Leary was an $l accomplished clinical psychologist at Harvard University, a dabbler in Eastern mysticism, a fugitive and convict, a stand-up comedian and actor, a writer and a software de-signer and an exponent of cybernetics.

Most of all, he was known as a kind of publicist for psychedelic experience, a career that blossomed in the heady days of the 1960s after he was dismissed from Harvard for his drug experiments in 1963. The phrase "tune in, turn on, drop out" came to him shortly afterward, in the shower, after Marshall McLuhan advised him to come up with "something snappy" to advertise the wonders of LSD.

As the era of drugs, sex and rock 'n' roll unfolded, it seemed that Leary was at every scene, alongside a strange cast of famous characters. He took psilocybin trips with, among others, Arthur Koestler, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Robert Lowell, Maynard Ferguson, Abraham Maslow and William Burroughs. He was arrested by G. Gordon Liddy. He sang "Give Peace a Chance" with John Lennon and Yoko Ono. As a fugitive on drug charges, he lived in Algeria with Eldridge Cleaver and dined in Gstaad, Switzerland, with Roman Polanski; back at Folsom Prison in California, he was a jailmate of Charles Manson.

To each of his enthusiasms, including death, Leary brought an elegant, happy contempt for authority that made him popular with college audiences decades after the psychedelic experience had expired. Over and over, he was referred to as a priest or a guru, but Leary hated everything the titles stood for; at most, he said, he thought of himself as a coach.

Well into his 70s, though he had lost his reputation as a corrupter of youth, Leary was stepping up to microphones in his white sneakers, telling audiences that the liberation and exchange of knowledge by electronic communication would free their brains and souls from the oppressive orthodoxies of education, religion and politics. Timothy Francis Leary was born Oct. 22, 1920, in Springfield, Mass., an only child in an Irish Catholic household. He attended Holy Cross College, West Point and the University of Alabama, was a discipline problem at each, and finally earned a bachelor's degree in the Army in World War II.

He received a doctorate in psychology in 1950 from the University of California at Berkeley, where he became convinced that conventional psychotherapy was not only politically disagreeable but also useless. Leary began experimenting with group therapy and theories of transactional analysis.

He taught at Berkeley, was director of psychological research at the Kaiser Foundation Hospital in Oakland, Calif., from 1955 to 1958, and joined the Harvard faculty as a lecturer in 1959.

At this point, he was personally unsettled. His wife, Marianne, had committed suicide in 1955, leaving Leary to raise their school-age son and daughter.

His various mind-altering experiences would be purposeful, beginning with a mushroom-induced high in Cuernavaca, Mexico, in 1960. With a few Harvard colleagues, notably Richard Alpert, Leary introduced others to psilocybin, the mushroom's active ingredient, which was legally available for psychiatric research.

At Harvard, he administered the drugs to other researchers, prison inmates and even a group of divinity students, who, Leary wrote later, showed that "spiritual ecstasy, religious revelation and union with God were now directly accessible."

Still, Leary's superiors were growing nervous, and after he tried LSD in 1962 and proposed to use it in experiments, the departmental powers turned on him. Newspapers reported a drug scandal at Harvard. In 1963, having confirmed that undergraduates had shared in the researchers' stash, the university dismissed Leary and Alpert. Leary's status as an outlaw, quite literally at times, would continue for years.

The last two decades of his life were divided between his home in Beverly Hills and the campus lecture circuit. To some he was a has-been and a crackpot, to others an interesting relic. But he tapped into the information age early, around 1980, and attracted an entirely new following among the young and wired.

At the same time, Leary became fascinated by death, both by the near-death, out-of-body experience and by the social controls surrounding the dying. When he learned in January 1995 that he had inoperable cancer, Leary said he was "thrilled."

"I'm looking forward to the most fascinating experience in life," he said last fall, "which is dying."

Pub Date: 6/01/96

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