As a Harvard freshman, Andrew Weil—now a Vail resident and a nationally known new-age health guru, lecturer and best-selling author—led a double-life as a reporter and back-stabbing informant for school administrators hoping to fire two troublesome professors.
Don Lattin tells this nifty story of revenge and blind ambition, among others, in his book 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.
But before getting to Weil's actions—and my own interview with LSD pitch man Tim Leary—let's talk about the title, which gives away the book's central flaw.
Lattin portrays his subjects as cultural kingmakers at the vanguard of 1960s chic whose ideas remade an un-hip country in ways we're still feeling today.
Ah, not really. Maybe this interpretation applies to the tiny part of our culture that finds Harvard Square a better place from which to study America than, say, the bleachers at Fenway. But the rest of us would rather watch the game and have a hotdog.
The author makes the overreach tolerable, though, by writing well. He doesn't layer his copy with too much detail as he breezes along, deftly linking its interesting and disparate strands.
Certainly in his time, Leary was the best known of the four.
In 1960, then a Harvard professor, he established the Harvard Psilocybin Project to study the impact of psychedelic drugs on the brain. Leary had tried magic mushrooms in Mexico and believed psychedelics could change human consciousness for the better.
Under the Harvard Project umbrella, he convinced grad students and faculty to take controlled doses of psilocybin—the active ingredient in mushrooms. He later, and famously, moved on to the more powerful and dangerous lysergic acid diethylamide, aka LSD.
Leary is probably best remembered for six words, spoken on a stage in San Francisco in 1967, a yellow flower behind his ear: "Turn on, tune in, drop out!" Lattin describes him as a rascal, highly intelligent, a drinker and womanizer who ignored his two children in his quest to become "a messiah for spiritual discovery."
Leary had three co-conspirators. Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Huston Smith was a happily married Methodist minister and expert on the world's religions. Richard Alpert, a privileged New Englander with a prodigious and all-inclusive sexual appetite, was also a Harvard professor who, following his pilgrimage to India, renamed himself Ram Dass.
Then there was Weil, a Philadelphia-born botany lover who came to Harvard believing the mind could shape reality. Seeking ways to pursue that idea, he walked into Leary's office and volunteered to be a research subject. When the professor declined, Weil took matters into his own hands, using Harvard stationery to obtain mescaline by mail, beginning Weil's own drug experiments.
But Leary and Alpert didn't trust Weil, and when school administrators turned on the project, they used Weil to bring it down. The calculating 18-year-old, jealous of the attention Alpert showed Weil's friend Ronnie Winston, took "on the assignment with the zeal of a jilted lover."
An arts reporter for the Harvard Crimson, Weil infiltrated the project and wrote a bombshell exposé, published May 28, 1963. As a result, Harvard fired Leary and Alpert, although, as Lattin writes, they were destined to leave the school anyway.
Weil drew more attention to himself six months later when Look magazine published his story on the drug scene at Harvard, including the use of "hallucinogens for seduction, both homosexual and heterosexual." In his first book, published 10 years later, Weil apologized for that article's sensationalism.
Lattin rips Weil for writing about Harvard's drug culture without mentioning that he was part of it, and for telling of students getting mescaline from supply houses while failing to mention that he did, too. Lattin also blasts Weil for infiltrating the Harvard Project on behalf of the school he was supposed to be covering.
The events of 1963 launched Weil's career, writes Lattin, allowing him to replace Leary and Alpert as "the new ringmaster of the drug culture."
Lattin is honest about the downsides of drugs, even as he layers in too much baloney about what Leary and his drug pals accomplished. He says the work of Leary, Alpert, Smith and Weil "did nothing less than inspire a generation of Americans to redefine the nature of reality."
But the book also contains interesting tidbits, some of which I'd never seen. Beetle John Lennon wrote the song "Come Together" as a theme for Leary's campaign against Ronald Reagan for governor of California. And Leary, for all his supposed progressiveness, considered homosexuality evil, and said he had the "cure."
Any guesses? That's right—LSD.
As for Weil, he stayed in the public eye. In 1968, as a 26-year-old medical-school graduate, he made national headlines again with an article in Science detailing his study of marijuana, the first serious one ever done. He concluded the drug was a mild intoxicant that didn't create long-term problems.
Weil's work was sanctioned by Harvard and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, both of which agreed to give Weil rare access to research-grade marijuana. Weil himself believes they did that as a reward for getting the goods on Leary and Alpert.
"It is the way you advance in that kind of system," Lattin quotes Weil. "I had bought into the value system of that society. Internally there was this real inconsistency in my life. I had those mystical experiences, but to get through medical school, I had to stuff all that."
Weil came to regret his betrayal, and eventually reconciled with Leary, but not Alpert, who couldn't shake the sting of what Weil had done.
What should we think of the events of 1963 and beyond, especially given Weil's international celebrity today?
We could learn from them something about the path to fame, money and power, although Weil is a smart cat and might've earned those things anyway. I always vote forgiveness when it comes to the young and foolish.
But I have to return to the book's premise, which even Alpert didn't buy. After four years of lecturing about enlightenment through psychedelics, he admitted having no idea what he was talking about.
And Leary seemed to drop his pretensions, too, acknowledging in 1966 that the basic reason for the LSD boom was sex. He told Playboy: "In a carefully prepared, loving LSD session, a woman will inevitably have several hundred orgasms."
That sounds about right. In 1984, I spent a few hours backstage with Leary as he prepared to speak at UA's Centennial Hall. I remember a fading celebrity, his time passed, the ideas he once had no longer being of much interest, even to him.
But one thing stayed the same. His primary interest during our time together was checking out the college girls flitting about backstage—and in that, I saw the place where Leary's commitment was unbending.