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Timothy Leary, Party Animal : On the Lam in the '70s, on the Club Circuit in the '80s--Ex-Drug Guru Turns Social Philosopher

December 11, 1987|DICK RORABACK | Times Staff Writer

Almost as advertised, it's a weird trip.

Up semi-bucolic, tree-shaded Angelo Drive in Beverly Hills, then right, onto Sunbrook. The car radio is tuned to rock station KLSX. KLSX is playing the Moody Blues. The Moody Blues are singing "Timothy Leary Is Dead."

Coincidentally, another rock group--unheard on this particular day--has a different version, a title cut: the Dead Kennedys' "Timothy Leary Lives."

Atop Sunbrook, resolution in gray slacks. Smart money is on the Kennedys.

Leary is not dead. Not even slightly. At 67, the familiar funky features are a bit sharper perhaps. On the other hand, so, it appears, is the brain--100 billion neurons strong, give or take.

An enterprising rock group, in fact, could probably cash in on a trendy new track: "Timothy Leary Is Hot."

On the Trendy A-List

That he is. In late 1987, Leary is on the A-list of the club crowd. Along with his wife he's a "must invite" to premieres and openings, to the party of the week. Leary is amused, but not surprised. He's been hot before.

Take 1970, at random. In 1970, Leary is on another Top Ten list. The one on the Post Office walls. Very much in demand, this Leary, by another select group: the FBI.

In 1970, Professor Leary, having long since been dismissed from Harvard for his controlled experiments with psychedelic drugs, is on the lam. He has escaped from jail in San Luis Obispo, where he was serving 10 years for what he calls "possession of two roaches." His companions are the Weather Underground, who helped him escape, and the Black Panthers, on a power trip in Algiers and holding him a virtual prisoner.

In 1987, fresh from a film premiere, Leary is holding his own court. Around his table at the Flaming Colossus--a raucous, scruffy but very trendy L.A. nightclub on 9th and Bonnie Brae--is a sampling of Leary's new companions:

Nancy Ferguson, multimedia avant-garde artist; Joan Quinn, writer, and her husband Jack, prominent show-business lawyer; Angela Janklow, an editor of Vanity Fair. ("A very interesting magazine right now," Leary says. "Kind of audacious, spicy, irreverent. A little too jet-setty, but written with some intelligence.")

And: Rebecca Allen, who teaches computer-art design at UCLA; Mark Ferguson, lead singer of the rock group Devo; Georgeann Dean ("from a prominent Fort Worth family; she's gone into computer art"); Roy Walford, author of "Maximum Life Span" and "The 120-Year Diet"; Michele Lamy, fashion designer; Richard Newton, film maker.

There is, of course, Leary's young wife, Barbara, whom Leary describes in his 1983 autobiography "Flashbacks" as, "in my scientific estimation, the sexiest, smartest, funniest woman in town."

Barbara has produced movies and edited scripts but is "not professionally active now," says Leary. "I must tell you, it's a full-time job just to be Barbara. She's aware, appreciative, cosmopolitan. I'm still basically a vulgar Celt. . . ."

In the main hall of the Flaming Colossus--a former Knights of Columbus lodge ill-disguised by a few large paintings and some ceiling nets--circles form, link, separate, form again, link elsewhere.

The group, Leary maintains, is a microcosm of the taste-makers of the Age of Information, the "deciders," the trend-setters in the trend-setting capital of the Solar System--a town Leary thrives on, and vice versa.

Other Meetings to Come

They and their crowd will meet the Learys again in weeks to come, at Helena's, another club, or, more quietly, to dine at Spago, Morton's, Le Dome . . .

For now, the scene is the Flaming Colossus, and the conversations among meshing circles are shouted into the ear, as a stupendously loud bongo band shakes stern Catholic shadows from the corners of the old K of C quarters.

At length, even Leary's decibel diet is sated. He lifts his drink--tequila and ginger ale in a plastic glass--and heads for the stairwell, where a man can make himself heard as well as seen.

On the stairs, the talk ranges wildly, bouncing like the bongos. Leary's brain is ever abuzz, with the new ideas, the new concepts of a man forever exploring, forever probing for the soft spots in the barriers of convention.

There is talk of the lasting effect of Dr. Spock, of Eldridge Cleaver's political affiliations, of Andy Warhol and Shirley MacLaine, of today's generations and tomorrow's. Talk of death as an "irreversible involuntary metabolic coma"; talk of freedom; above all, talk of computers and their almost infinite capacity to enhance human potential.

A young man perhaps a third Leary's age starts down the steps, stops, stares. "I know you," he says. "I admire you."

Knows All About Leary

The young man seems to know all about Leary. A lot of them do--at the Flaming Colossus, on college campuses, on the rock circuit. They are familiar, the young people, with the essence of the man, if not the particulars. A bare-bones news-clip history (particulars, not essence) would read like this:

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