‘Harvard Psychedelic Club,’ an explosion that shaped Andrew Weil, Huston Smith & Ram Dass

—just breaking now after half a century—involving three of America’s most beloved spiritual teachers: Dr. Andrew Weil (alternative medicine fame), Dr. Huston Smith (author and PBS favorite) and Ram Dass (Baby Boomer guru).
As the ’60s dawned, all three were scholars and spiritual seekers who got mixed up with some famous friends like the writer Aldous Huxley (“Brave New World”) and Harvard University’s Timothy Leary (shown above in his colorful phase). Before they knew it, their psychedelic confrontation ushered in a whole new age in American culture and religion. Along the way, their explosive convergence also led to a major scandal at Harvard and deep wounds between several of these figures that linger to this day.

Don Lattin, one of America’s most-respected religion newswriters (shown above pointing to a headline) in recent years has been devoting his considerable skills to unearthing and fully reporting some of these milestone stories. This Harvard book is his latest revelation.
In this same vein, we also can highly recommend Don’s earlier book: “Following Our Bliss: How the Spiritual Ideals of the Sixties Shape Our Lives Today.”
And, if you’re interested in this new book, click here to order “The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America” from Amazon.

WITH DON LATTIN on “The Harvard Psychedelic Club””

DAVID: Don, you and I have known each other for several decades. We both have worked as religion newswriters for major U.S. newspapers. I began with Knight-Ridder way back in the early 1980s. And you’ve worked primarily with the San Francisco newspapers—going back how far?

DON: I’ve been a religion writer for nearly 30 years. I took a buyout from the San Francisco Chronicle several years ago. Since then, I’ve been writing books for Harper Collins.

DAVID: I’m amazed by this new book! Clearly you spent a lot of time researching this book to make the scenes read so dramatically. Readers are going to find the details here really engaging. For example, when you write about Timothy Leary’s wife attempting suicide in 1955, you’ve got the actual text of her suicide note. Where did you find a detail like the text of that note?

DON: The book is carefully documented—all of it. I found the suicide note in a news story that appeared about the case. The Chronicle news story carried the actual text of the note the next day—so the police must have given it to the reporters. That’s the kind of thing police shared with reporters back in those days.

DAVID: And you describe the famous writer Aldous Huxley recommending that someone befriend Timothy Leary (above in striped suit). Huxley calls Leary, “a solid chap.” I had to smile when I read that line—because Leary pretty much defined a way-out-of-control life in the ‘60s! Not exactly a solid chap!

DON: That Huxley quote is great. It’s documented. It comes from a biography.

DAVID: We should explain to readers that this new book is not a heavy, footnote-laden textbook about the era. “The Harvard Psychedelic Club” reads like—as they used to say on TV—you are there. You put us right there in this very strange circle of daring people.

DON: I wrote the first draft of the book with a more journalistic style. I had lines that explained people were “recalling this” or “recounting a conversation.” I had tons of footnotes. And I’ve still got source notes at the end of the book so you can generally tell where I got the material. But, before it was ready to publish, I decided to rewrite the whole book as narrative nonfiction. This all is based on journalistic reporting, but it now reads in a much more conversational narrative style.

DAVID: As a veteran journalist, you refused to allow anyone to make pre-publication revisions, right? We talked about this very important issue with Jeff Sheler in our interview about his new book on Rick Warren. Jeff didn’t allow Warren pre-publication revisions. This allows the author to keep the hard edge of truth.

DON: Right. I did run some of these conversations and passages past people for accuracy. But, bottom line: I was very careful about the research.

DAVID: Let’s dive into the main characters in your book. Let’s give readers a good sense of what you’re adding to the public record on these really major figures.

Dr. Weil, for example, is widely regarded a beloved guru of alternative medicine these days. His big bearded face is grinning at us everywhere we look. But in this new book—well, he comes across as a jerk. He’s the guy who finally exposes and explodes the Harvard drug circle—and he does it because he’s jealous. They wouldn’t let him take the drugs with them.

But, let’s start with Aldous Huxley (right).

DON: If you’re interested in Huxley, stay tuned. That’s my next book, I hope, a prequel to this book.

Huxley was a world-famous writer. He also was the brother of Julian Huxley, the biologist, and they came from a long line of British intellectuals. At first, Aldous wasn’t interested in religion and spirituality at all. He was a secularist, a satirist, a cynic. Then, he met Gerald Heard. Heard was the first science correspondent for BBC radio and they met through this circle of bohemian writers and artists and intellectuals in London. It was Gerald Heard who got Huxley more interested in philosophy, mysticism and comparative religion. They both came to the U.S. together actually on the same ship. They very quickly wound up in southern California in the 1930s. Huxley already had written “Brave New World” and so he was well known. They both got involved in a Hindu missionary group the Vedanta Society, which is still around. The group dated back to 1893, when Swami Vivekananda stole the show at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. (For more on Swami Vivekananda, see our earlier story.)

Huxley and Heard got very involved in the Vedanta Society in Hollywood—all before their experience of psychedelic drugs.

DAVID: This is fascinating! It’s not religious trivia. We’re talking about some major connections being made in American life. Gerald Heard and Aldous Huxley, later on, connected with Bill Wilson—better known as “Bill W,” the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. In the 1950s, they were connected with Bill W’s experiments with LSD as a possible alternative to help alcoholics break their addiction. (For more on the enduring impact of AA, see this earlier story.)

DON: That’s right. After Heard turned Huxley onto religion and mysticism—then, they headed on to experiments with psychedelic drugs. They were very involved in some of the early elite networks of people who were exploring these drugs, which weren’t illegal at that time. People seriously thought they might find useful applications for these drugs. One of those involved in the early work with LSD was Bill Wilson, or Bill W. He was interested in how these drugs might give sobering alcoholics a new awareness, an opening to re-explore their lives in positive ways. There was a lot of thinking in the 1950s that LSD might help cure alcoholics.

In this current book, I do write some about Huxley. In 1954, Huxley published “The Doors of Perception,” the book that truly gave birth to the psychedelic ‘60s even before Timothy Leary got involved. That was the first popular book in English about people experiencing drugs in a mystical spiritual way. Huxley could do this because he was such a well-known, articulate, brilliant writer.

Through Huxley and Heard did all of this—it was really Huston Smith who carried the torch forward into the 1960s.

DAVID: OK, so let’s talk about Huston Smith. In your book, you’ve got this amazing black-and-white photo of Smith doing his first PBS series on religion—with a blackboard and this hokey old map of India on the wall behind him.

Wow. That was how millions of Americans first encountered Hinduism, for example. Just think about the kinds of Oscar-winning movies and documentaries we can see today from cultures around the world—and here was Huston Smith like a college professor in an old TV studio introducing Americans to world religions with stuff as basic as chalk on a blackboard!
Was he a little hesitant about discussing his role in the drug experiments with you?

DON: Huston Smith wasn’t really open about all of his involvement in the Harvard psychedelic project for a very long time. He was a major player in what happened in Harvard, but by 1962 and 1963, Timothy Leary’s megalomania—his wild acting out and all the sexual stuff that came along with this—well, it made Huston Smith refuse to talk about this for a very long time. To this day, he’s still a little embarrassed about it.

DAVID: I think it’s safe to say that, if you studied comparative religion at some point in school—or if you like to watch PBS shows on world religions—Huston Smith has been your guide, at some point. Millions have read his books. Millions have seen him on TV.

DON: We should remind people that, back when they were experimenting with these drugs, they weren’t illegal. These guys weren’t actually breaking the law at first. This was so early in the whole process. They were pioneers.

DAVID: Smith did finally publish a book about this, himself, in recent years. He called it “Cleansing the Doors of Perception” with a nod to Aldous Huxley’s famous book. But to understand Huston Smith, we have to remember he was the son of Christian missionaries in China.

DON: He was the child and grandchild of Methodist missionaries. He was born in China and lived his childhood and teenage years in China. He came to America to go to Bible college, thinking that he’d go back to China. Then, he discovered the whole wide world outside China. Very quickly, he discovered that his true calling was teaching and he began this illustrious career as a scholar of the world’s religions.

DAVID: He was adventurous.

DOD: Yes, he took Psilocybin for the first time with Timothy Leary. When he talks about the experience, to this day, his eyes light up. He said to me, “Oh, Don, what a way to start the 1960s!”

He had read Huxley’s book and he couldn’t wait to experience Psilocybin. Huston was not only itching to try this, but he also was instrumental in bringing Huxley to Cambridge, Mass., in the fall of 1960 just as Leary was coming back.

In the end, Huston winds up in the middle of all this craziness—more craziness than he ever imagined. Leary wanted Huxley to serve as the kind of theological consultant for what they originally called the Harvard Psilocybin Project—then they wound up with Huston in that role, instead.

You can argue that Huston was—and wasn’t—crazy for getting involved. They weren’t actually using LSD back in 1960 and 1961, by the way. That came a little later. But these drugs like Psilocybin, at that time, were being seriously studied by anthropologists who were exploring things like Native American religious traditions.

But, at Harvard, this all quickly became a cult around Leary and Alpert.

DAVID: That brings us to Richard Alpert, better known as Ram Dass—the “Be Here Now” guy for millions of Baby Boomers and still a major figure in American spirituality.

Back at Harvard, well, I have to say it—he comes across in your book as a pretty ambitious young jerk, too. In a way, Alpert and Weil sort of vie for the “bad guy” role in this drama that finally burst out into Page 1 headlines across American news media. Maybe it wasn’t entirely Alpert’s fault. He was still trying to come to terms with his complicated sexual orientation. He hadn’t yet gone off to India, where he went through this spiritual transformation into what we know today as Ram Dass.

At the time, he was a very ambitious young academic, right?

DON: Yeah, he was young and very ambitious. He was a career-climbing academic at Harvard who didn’t have tenure yet but was definitely on tenure track. He was very popular at Harvard—known as a terrific lecturer and a very charming guy. Like the Buddhist scholar Alan Watts, Alpert has always had this talent for explaining esoteric ideas from Eastern mysticism to a Western audience.

Back at Harvard, though, Alpert wasn’t known as an especially brilliant scholar. A very popular teacher, yes—but he had a lot of things going on in his life. He was struggling with his sexual addictions, among other things at that time.

I spent three days interviewing him on Maui, where he now lives. (That’s him, now, at left.) He really did have breakthrough experiences with psychedelics that helped him to accept his homosexuality, which at the time was very difficult for him to do.

He also had all these attachments to materialism. He owned a sports car and an airplane, too! He had filled his apartment with antiques. By all appearances, he had made it. Here he was in his early 30s—an assistant professor at Harvard and he owned all this cool stuff.

DAVID: Then it all came crashing down.

DON: Yeah, Alpert was the one who was kicked out of Harvard for giving Psilocybin to a student—and Leary got kicked out along with him. It all was due to what happened with Andrew Weil and Weil’s story in the Harvard Crimson newspaper.

DAVID: Ironically, this all turned out to be a good thing for Ram Dass, as we know him now.

DON: He wound up coming to San Francisco and he was a big part of the Haight-Ashbury scene. But he still was thinking of himself as a phony with lots of self doubts. Then, in 1967, he goes to India and spends a couple of years in this very intense training in meditation. He comes back to the U.S. bearded and robed as the beatific Baba Ram Dass, later shortened to just Ram Dass.

What’s interesting is that his message to the Baby Boomers who were experimenting with drugs is that there are kinder and gentler ways to experience mysticism through meditation and other methods. He actually encouraged people to move beyond drugs and find spiritual practices to feed their lives, instead.

DAVID: So, let’s talk about Dr. Andrew Weil—the angry bad boy in your drama. Hard to recognize him, considering the lovable bear of a man we know today! (That’s him in a hot tub more recently, above.) Born in 1942, Weil always was absolutely brilliant. He winds up at Harvard as this fiercely independent whiz kid. He was interested in alternative treatments quite early. While he was still a student, he wrote a paper on the narcotic properties of nutmeg.

In your book, you talk about how desperately he wanted to get in on these Harvard drug experiments. You write that, when they refused to let him into their inner circle, there pretty clearly was “the possibility of … malicious intent” in his use of the Harvard Crimson to “out” these guys—which exploded into front-page news coast to coast.

So, now that he’s a beloved celebrity himself, what did Dr. Weil say about this book you were writing?

DON: He only gave me one hour for an interview. Of course, I had lots of research material about his role in all of this. Then, when I was doing interviews, I did spend the one hour with him. I expected I would hear more from him than I have, but he seems fine with what I’ve written.

DAVID: I keep using this word “jerk” to describe some of the confrontational behavior that unfolded at Harvard. I mean, people wound up fired from their jobs as a result of this. Harvard was embarrassed by all the media attention. There was a lot of angry behavior going on back then.

DON: Andrew Weil was a brilliant young kid. He was so smart that, when he started at Harvard in 1960, he actually started as a sophomore. He had read Huxley’s “Doors of Perception.” He worked on an undergraduate thesis at Harvard on nutmeg as a psychotropic substance.

He was very interested in these things Leary and Alpert were pursuing. These guys were the talk of the town. He’d heard that grad students were taking drugs and having these incredible experiences. Weil and his friend Ronnie Winston went to Leary’s office and volunteered to become a part of this project. He and Ronnie wanted to become research subjects.

Leary asked if they were grad students—if they were old enough to do this. They weren’t old enough and he didn’t let them participate.

But, Weil was very ambitious and a little surreptitious and he got some Harvard stationery and obtained his own supply of drugs—and they wound up doing their own little undergraduate research project. Then, soon after that, Ronnie Winston runs into Richard Alpert at a party and they strike up a friendship. Alpert leads Ronnie in some self-exploratory Psilocybin experiences. Ram Dass today says he had some romantic interest in Ronnie, but both of them—Ram Dass and Ronnie—say there was no sexual relationship.

But Andrew Weil heard about this and he was jealous that Ronnie was getting in on the drug experiments with these guys. He was upset. He decided to bring down Leary and Alpert partly out of jealousy and partly because he may have legitimately thought they were going over the line and it was the right thing to bring them down.

The problem was: None of the undergraduates, including Ronnie Winston, would implicate them before the authorities at Harvard. The way Weil got the story for the Harvard Crimson was that he approached Ronnie Winston’s parents. Ronnie Winston came from the Harry Winston diamond family. Weil told his parents: “If Ronnie doesn’t step forward and admit this, then we’re going to put his name in the news story we’re planning to publish about this.”

The parents thought they could keep Ronnie’s name out of the story by making him come forward to the Harvard authorities—and that’s what Ronnie did. Ronnie’s admission is what gave Harvard “the goods” on Alpert and allowed them to fire him.

DAVID: I love the line this defiant kid, Ronnie Winston, delivers to the Harvard dean when he’s forced to admit what happened.

DON: The dean asks, “Did you take drugs from Dr. Alpert?”

Ronnie says, “Yes sir, I did. And it was the most educational experience I’ve had at Harvard!”

Well, it all came out in a Page 1 news story in the Crimson with Weil’s byline along with a vicious editorial attacking Leary and Alpert that called them things like “a virus” and “quacks.” It was in the New York Times the next day.

Of course, now Andrew Weil is this Mr. Natural, this Oprah with a beard. In a way, he wound up replacing Leary and Alpert as a straight guy who knows how to get stoned naturally. He winds up becoming a leading light in the drug culture himself.

DAVID: We’ve just summarized some of the biggest news readers will discover in your book. And, there’s a whole lot more! You actually invite readers into these dramatic scenes as the big story unfolds.
So, finally, let’s touch on Timothy Leary himself. He’s also a major figure in this new book. So much has been published about him that I’m guessing there’s not a lot of new insights into Leary himself in this book, right?

DON: I don’t think I’ve revealed anything new on Leary. I definitely bring out a lot of new information on the other main characters, but a lot has been published on Leary.
DAVID: After your own research on Leary, how do you feel about him, overall?

DON: A lot of people who write about Leary or knew Leary have a love-hate response to the guy. And I wound up with that same idea about him. He was one of the most revered and reviled people in the 1960s counterculture—including people within the counterculture.

Some people thought he was a prophet and a brilliant explorer of human consciousness. A lot of people thought he was a con artist.

Late in life, he was asked: “Well who are you?”

And he said: “You get the Timothy Leary you deserve.”

That’s why I call him “the Trickster” in this book, because people project their own ideas onto Leary. He’s definitely the least sympathetic of the four main characters but Leary was kind of the mouth. He said things a lot of people were feeling who had taken psychedelic drugs—he articulated things others couldn’t or wouldn’t say—and that’s why he was considered so dangerous by the Nixon administration. Nixon called him “the most dangerous man in America,” to which Leary replied: “Oh yeah? I have America surrounded!”

How can you not enjoy a guy who can come up with lines like that?

DAVID: You’re reporting and writing a largely unknown history. You’re telling us how some of our major spiritual figures came into such prominence today.

DAVID: The one who has the most obvious impact is Andrew Weil. He’s done so much to bring together the best of Eastern and Western medicine. He’s had a real impact on people’s lives in the way we try to maintain our health and well-being. He’s set up this center at the University of Arizona and now medical schools all across the country have programs based on ideas he pioneered in his work. He was way ahead of his time in getting mainstream medicine to rethink itself.

He’s not proud of what he did back then at Harvard and he tried for years to apologize to Leary and Alpert for what happened to them. I think Leary did forgive him before he died.

Huston Smith has done more than any other living person to promote tolerance of other people’s faiths and world religions. Similarly, Ram Dass helped millions of people in our generation move beyond drugs and get involved in Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism and other spiritual traditions to bring the mystical experience back into our lives in a real way.

That’s part of the conclusion we leave with people: Sure, we can have these remarkable experiences with drugs—but so what?
Do drugs make us more compassionate people? How can we actually make our lives better—and help to make the world better for everyone?
For people like Andrew Weil and Ram Dass and Huston Smith, today, those are the real questions we should be asking.

here to order “The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram
Dass, Huston Smith and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a
New Age for America” from Amazon.

OR, to enjoy Don’s earlier book, here’s an Amazon link to: “Following Our Bliss: How the Spiritual Ideals of the Sixties Shape Our Lives Today.”


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  (Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)

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