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'60s Drug Guru Timothy Leary Dies at 75

Psychology: Former Harvard professor touted LSD to 'turn on, drop out.'

June 01, 1996|DAVID COLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Timothy Leary, the Harvard psychologist whose advocacy of mind-altering drugs and defiance of the status quo made him an icon of the psychedelic 1960s and, in President Richard Nixon's words, "the most dangerous man in America," died early Friday at his Beverly Hills home.

He was 75 and had disclosed last year that he had inoperable prostate cancer.

Leary had wanted to meet death on his own terms, declaring that he planned to commit suicide and have it broadcast worldwide on the Internet. But the illness overtook him in his last weeks, and he was unable to carry out what would have been his final act of defiance. He did, however, request that his ashes be shot into space.

His last coherent words came about six hours before he died.

"Why?" Leary suddenly blurted out. There was a long, silent pause, and then he said, much more softly, "Why not?"

At his bedside when he died were about 20 friends, his stepson Zach Leary, and his third wife, Rosemary Woodruff Leary--they had divorced but remained close.

It was a quiet end for a man whose scholarly explorations into the effects of hallucinogenic drugs--especially LSD--caused a social explosion that propelled him to hero status among those who embraced drugs as a symbol of rebellion.

"Turn on. Tune in. Drop out," he urged the 1960s flower children, who bestowed upon him the adulation usually reserved for rock stars. But much of the older set--who believed he was leading a generation of Americans astray--agreed that he was indeed dangerous.

Leary relished both roles. Starting early in life, he delighted in tweaking conventional wisdom, using humor and his charisma as a speaker as his main weapons. His life mirrored the eras in which he lived, even while he raged against them.

"He was some kind of Zelig among the Zeitgeist," said his friend John Perry Barlow, a writer and activist on Internet issues. "Whatever was going on in the culture, it was something he could not help to emulate.

"In the '40s he was a cadet at West Point, in the '50s he was a tweedy college professor, in the '60s he was Timothy Leary, which was exactly right for that time," Barlow said. "In the '70s he was a political prisoner and in the '80s he lived in Beverly Hills and hung out at Spago. He found a place in whatever was going on around him."

Timothy Francis Leary was born in Springfield, Mass., in 1920, the only child of an Army captain and a woman who counted among her friends Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Following the family tradition, Leary entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1940.

He soon became embroiled in a controversy over a drinking party on a troop train, openly confessing his participation. Under pressure, he left the academy in 1941.

That year, he decided to become a psychologist, "because, at the time, this profession appeared to be the sensible, scientific way of dealing with the classic human predicaments of boredom, ignorance, suffering and fear," he later wrote.

It didn't take him long to challenge the tenets of that field. While a graduate student at UC Berkeley, Leary questioned accepted theories of personality.

"He believed what people called abnormal was really just an exaggeration of normal personality," said University of British Columbia psychologist Jerry Wiggans, who studied Leary's early work.

Leary's 1957 book, "The Interpersonal Diagnosis of Personality," was declared the year's "most important book on psychology" by the Annual Review of Psychology.

As he rapidly moved up in his field, his personal life was in turmoil. On his birthday in 1955, he and his two small children discovered his wife in their car, locked inside the garage with the motor running.

"I don't think Tim ever really got over his wife's suicide," said Steven Strack, a Los Angeles psychologist who organized a 1994 American Psychological Assn. tribute to Leary. "I'm not sure his family life ever recovered."

Leary joined the faculty at Harvard's Center for Personality Research in 1959.

"Tim in many ways is still that 1950s-type professor," his close friend Vicki Marshall said a few months before he died. "He's a bit of a chauvinist, he likes to engage people in discussions and he likes to be in control of what's going on around him."

But the seemingly stereotypical professor again took on the establishment. He wasn't content to simply study personality, he wanted to discover a way to change it.

On a trip to Mexico in 1960, an anthropologist suggested that Leary ingest a fungus popularly known as "magic mushrooms."

"I gave way to delight as mystics have for centuries when they peeked through the curtains and discovered that this world--so manifestly real--was actually a tiny stage set constructed by the mind," he later wrote in "Flashbacks," his 1983 autobiography.

"I learned that . . . consciousness and intelligence can be systematically expanded. That the brain can be reprogrammed."

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