When the Elite Loved LSD

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It's difficult to recall now, but there was a period 50 years ago when psychedelics were not only part of the mainstream but of the Establishment. Many academics and wealthy experimental types believed that the way psychedelics work — by expanding sensory awareness even as they disrupt control over the way you normally process information — would lead people to great insights. It didn't always turn out that way: some people had great insights; others ended up with not-so-great addictions.

But now that research into the therapeutic use of psychedelics has begun again, it's worth recalling that age when psychedelics were more elite drugs than "street" drugs.

As Robert Greenfield writes in last year's highly entertaining

Timothy Leary: A Biography, the term psychedelic was coined by a British psychiatrist, Humphry Osmond, who had ingested mescaline in 1951. "To fathom Hell or soar angelic, just take a pinch of psychedelic," he quipped, setting the expansive tone regarding the drugs that Leary would later popularize.

Osmond was close to Aldous Huxley, the novelist and fellow psychedelic enthusiast, and in the mid-'50s the two men met with a vice president from J.P. Morgan & Co., Gordon Wasson, who — in the racial and stilted language of the day — called himself and a photographer friend "the first white men in recorded history to eat the divine mushrooms." He meant psychedelic mushrooms, which Wasson had found in an Indian village in Mexico in 1955.

Wasson and his buddy's mushroom trip might have been lost to history, but he was so enraptured by the experience that on his return to New York, he kept talking about it to friends. As Jay Stevens recalls in his 1987 book Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream, one day during lunch at the Century Club, an editor at Time Inc. (the parent company of TIME) overheard Wasson's tale of adventure. The editor commissioned a first-person narrative for Life.

Reading the resulting piece — which Life published in its May 13, 1957, issue (one that is not online, unfortunately) — is hilarious today. Wasson describes his hallucinations at great length, in reverent terms: "The visions were not blurred or uncertain. They were sharply focused. I felt that I was now seeing plain, whereas ordinary vision gives us an imperfect view; I was seeing the archetypes, the Platonic ideas, that underlie the imperfect images of everyday life." This is druggie talk — febrile and largely meaningless. That it was printed in Life magazine — the most influential publication of the day — without irony shows how nave we were. (Wasson in particular: he gave mushrooms to his 18-year-old daughter the day after his first trip.)

After Wasson's article was published, many people sought out mushrooms and the other big hallucinogen of the day, LSD. (In 1958, Time Inc. cofounder Henry Luce and his wife Clare Booth Luce dropped acid with a psychiatrist. Henry Luce conducted an imaginary symphony during his trip, according to Storming Heaven.) The most important person to discover drugs through the Life piece was Timothy Leary himself. Leary had never used drugs, but a friend recommended the article to him, and Leary eventually traveled to Mexico to take mushrooms. Within a few years, he had launched his crusade for America to "turn on, tune in, drop out." In other words, you can draw a woozy but vivid line from the sedate offices of J.P. Morgan and Time Inc. in the '50s to Haight-Ashbury in the '60s to a zillion drug-rehab c enters in the '70s. Long, strange trip indeed.