Timothy Leary, who effectively introduced many Americans to the psychedelic 1960s with the relentlessly quoted phrase, “turn on, tune in, drop out,” died Friday at his house in Beverly Hills, Calif. He was 75.
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.
Carol Rosin, a friend who was at Leary’s bedside, said his last words were: “Why not? Why not? Why not?”
Leary’s stepson, Zachary Chase, said that until the end, “he was maintaining his rascal quality.” And R. Couri Hay, another friend who joined a small gathering around Leary on his last night, said: “Tim told us, ‘Don’t let it be sad. Buy wine. Put soup on the stove.’ Tim loved life.”
In his long and extravagant public career, Leary was an 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 designer 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 “turn on, tune in, 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 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.
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 during World War II.
He received a master’s degree from Washington State University and 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.
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’s faculty in 1959.
Beginning with a mushroom-induced high in Cuernavaca, Mexico, in 1960, he began his experimenting with mind-altering drugs. With a few Harvard colleagues, notably Richard Alpert (who later took the Hindu name Ram Dass), 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, his 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, Harvard dismissed Leary and Alpert. Leary’s status as an outlaw, quite literally at times, would continue for years.
Once dismissed, he was free to embrace drugs strictly for sensation - and he did. With Alpert, Leary left Cambridge for a country estate in Millbrook, N.Y., which was provided by a millionaire sympathizer and was to be the headquarters of a foundation for drug research.
As the Millbrook group (and a brief second marriage) split up, a decade of legal troubles began. Leary was stopped in Texas with a small amount of marijuana and was convicted on several charges. While the verdict was on appeal, the Millbrook house was raided; Leary was roused from bed and arrested by G. Gordon Liddy, then of the Dutchess County Sheriff’s Department, who would later gain notoriety as an overseer of the Watergate burglary.
In 1967, he threw over Millbrook for Hollywood and married his third wife, Rosemary Woodruff. The event was directed by Ted Markland of “Bonanza.” All the guests were on acid.
Leary was still productive, writing two books, “High Priest” and “Politics of Ecstasy,” in 1968 alone.
“Dr. Tim” was accused of sending many young people off on bad drug trips, and Richard Nixon called him “the most dangerous man in America.”
In that era, Leary publicly disavowed politics, dismissing the left’s power games as much as anyone else’s, but in 1970 he suddenly declared his candidacy for governor of California.
The campaign was interrupted when Leary was convicted on a new marijuana charge in California and sentenced to 10 years in prison; he was still awaiting 10 years on the Texas charge.
In prison at San Luis Obispo, Leary plotted escape from Day 1. In his autobiography, “Flashbacks” (Tarcher/Patnam, 1983), he wrote:
“Consider my situation. I was a 49-year-old man facing life in prison for encouraging people to face up to new options with courage and intelligence. The American government was being run by Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew, John Ehrlichman, Robert Haldeman, G. Gordon Liddy, John Mitchell, J. Edgar Hoover and other cynical flouters of the democratic process. Would you have let men like these keep you in prison for life for your ideas?”
The escape was spectacular: Leary hoisted himself to a rooftop and up a telephone pole, shimmied along a cable across the prison yard and over barbed wire, and dropped to the highway.
A clutch of helpers, described by Leary and others as members of the ultra-leftist Weathermen but never conclusively identified, spirited him to Algeria, where, oddly, he was placed under the watch of ex-patriot Eldridge Cleaver.
Leary chafed under constant instructions from Cleaver’s rather militaristic band of fugitive Black Panthers, and made his way to Switzerland and then Afghanistan. He was captured there, and, in 1973, returned to the United States.
He spent three more years in California’s prison system and was released in 1976 by Gov. Jerry Brown.
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, which is dying,” he said in the interview last fall.
Leary request that his ashes be be blasted into outer space.