Timothy Leary refused to get Andrew Weil high. It was 1960, and Leary -- who was then a pioneering psychology professor at Harvard -- had an agreement with the university allowing him to test psilocybin on grad students. Weil was a freshman.
Leary's experiments were the talk of the campus. After sampling magic mushrooms extensively in Mexico that summer, "he'd come back on fire, saying that this would revolutionize society," says longtime religion reporter Don Lattin, whom I interviewed recently. Lattin's new book The Harvard Psychedelic Club takes a lucid look at four founding fathers of a movement that changed America and thus the world: Leary, Weil, Richard Alpert (aka Baba Ram Dass) and religion scholar Huston Smith.
"The other three guys were all a generation older than Weil. He arrived at Harvard right around his eighteenth birthday. He had read Aldous Huxley's 1954 book The Doors of Perception, which was the first book ever published in English about psychedelic drugs."
However, the word "psychedelic" hadn't yet been coined when Leary met then-MIT philosophy professor Smith in a Boston restaurant on the night JFK was elected. A scholar of mystical experiences who had never had a mystical experience, Smith wanted to try these mind-altering substances that so enraptured Leary and his Harvard colleague, Alpert. The Harvard men sought Smith's expertise.
When they took psychedelic drugs, "Leary and Alpert felt that they were having a religious experience, but they didn't understand it. They wondered: Is this what the saints and the mystics were talking about? They brought Smith in to get some theological context," says Lattin.
Meanwhile, Andrew Weil was living in the dorms. His roommate was Ronnie Winston, son of famous Beverly Hills diamond merchant Harry Winston. Leary had just launched the Harvard Psilocybin Project: "That's what they started with -- psilocybin, not LSD," Lattin explains.
"Weil and Winston went to see Leary, whose office was on Divinity Lane," to ask whether they could join the project. "Leary was all excited. But then he had to say, 'Can I ask how old you boys are?'"
Both were too young to qualify. Nonetheless, "Weil would not take no for an answer. He ended up forging a letter on Harvard stationery and getting his own supply" -- from a chemical company that sold such drugs legally -- "not of psilocybin but of mescaline," says Lattin, who based his book on extensive interviews with Weil and other members of the "club." These include Alpert, who "was a gay man living in the closet" when he met Weil's roommate, Winston, at a party in 1960. The pair "became very good friends, and Alpert ended up turning Ronnie on, guiding him in a psilocybin session. Nothing really happened sexually, but there was that intimacy that comes when you share psychedelics." Left out, "Weil got very, very jealous and decided he was going to bring this whole project down."
He did this by writing a tell-all for the Harvard Crimson "about how things were way out of control and that now they were giving these drugs to undergraduates. ... Talk about playing hardball." Leary and Alpert promptly lost their jobs. The rest, of course, is history, "but people are still very angry with Weil." Alpert, whom Lattin interviewed for three days in Maui, "is still mad. Weil is really ashamed of what he did, and he's tried to apologize."
I'll write more about this culture-changing quartet, the revelations in Lattin's book and my interview with Lattin in a future post.