The New York Public Library’s Manuscripts and Archives Division has acquired over 300 boxes of material belonging to Influential psychologist and author Timothy Leary, whose advocacy of the use psychedelic substances to promote psychological well-being, increased creativity, and spiritual renewal made him a key figure in the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s.
The Timothy Leary papers amount to 412 linear feet of letters, manuscripts, research documents, notes, legal and financial records, printed materials, photographs, video and audio tapes, CDs and DVDs, posters and flyers, and artifacts, dating from Leary's youth in the 1920s until his death in 1997.
The collection contains extensive materials connected to his work as a clinical psychologist, including his time at Harvard University – where he headed the team that conducted the first major studies of psychedelic drugs’ ability to affect positive behavioral change – and at the Millbrook Estate in New York, where he expanded his research, as well as his spiritual and promotional activities. There are also materials pertaining to his childhood, his young adulthood, his eventual imprisonment and exile and his last 20 years in Los Angeles, California, where he focused on the upcoming computer age.
The materials tell an invaluable story of man who was called both “the most dangerous man in America” by President Richard Nixon and “a true visionary of the potential of the human mind and spirit” by William S. Burroughs.
“Timothy Leary was without question one of the most controversial figures of his era, if not the 20th century,” said Michael Horowitz, Leary’s long-time archivist and bibliographer. “He was a polarizing figure in a time of generational conflict, a bold challenger of the status quo (perhaps his most enduring mantra is ‘Question Authority, Think For Yourself’). The author of some 30 books and nearly 400 research papers, essays and articles, Leary’s charisma and ability to articulate both the inner visionary landscapes and the socio-political implications of psychedelic experience made him, in Ginsberg’s words, ‘a hero of American consciousness.’ It is fitting that The New York Public Library has acquired this central archive of the second half of the 20th century, for it was at Cooper Union that Leary, along with Richard Alpert (later Ram Dass), gave his first public lecture in a non-academic setting; Greenwich Village venues where he produced the earliest psychedelic theatrical events; and Hudson Street where he handed out his own press release at the formal opening of the League for Spiritual Discovery.”
Some key items in the archive purchased from the Leary Estate include:
- Thousands of letters to Leary, many from luminaries of the 1960s era, including Aldous and Laura Huxley, Gerald Heard, Alan Watts, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Peter Orlovsky, Charles Olson, Arthur Koestler, Huston Smith, Walter Houston Clark, Walter Pahnke, Humphry Osmond, Al Hubbard, Oscar Janiger, Cary Grant, Charles Mingus, Maynard Ferguson, Michael Hollingshead , Robert Anton Wilson, Gordon Wasson, Ken Kesey and Augustus Owsley Stanley. Other correspondence is with his family – including letters to and from his mother, his wives and his children – as well as publishers, attorneys, politicians and his numerous adversaries, including G. Gordon Liddy and law enforcement figures from local sheriffs to Drug Enforcement Agency and Central Intelligence Agency operatives.
- Professional and research papers, which will provide scholars a unique opportunity to study Leary’s clinical work from graduate school through his years at Millbrook, including hundreds of reports documenting the psilocybin-induced experiences Harvard graduate students and faculty, creative artists, prisoners at the Massachusetts State Prison at Concord, and theology students.
- Files and correspondence detailing Leary’s experience at Harvard University, including his initial acceptance, the university’s eventual resistance to his research, his controversial research methods and his eventual dismissal. These files depict the evolution of Leary’s studies from rigorous, empirical research into more free-flowing, scientifically problematic exploration, as well as the promotion of psychedelics.
- The complete records of the organizations Leary formed to continue his research after leaving Harvard, including the International Federation for Internal Freedom, Castalia Foundation and the League For Spiritual Discovery. These files, like those from Leary’s research at Harvard, include session reports, completed questionnaires, and letters describing the mushroom and LSD induced experiences of many notable cultural figures and Leary’s associates, such as Richard Alpert (Ram Dass) and Ralph Metzner. Letters among Leary and his research partners also document their turbulent and intense personal and professional relationships.
- Extensive correspondence, legal briefs, prison writings, letters of support and petitions sent to and produced by the four Leary defense funds during his time in prison after his arrest in 1973. There are also materials connected to his exile period in Algeria and Switzerland, including correspondence, notebooks, statements, letters and manuscript material.
- Copies of government documents, released to Leary under the Freedom of Information Act, pertaining to various agencies’ surveillance of Leary, as well as his arrest. Leary’s cooperation with the authorities, still considered by many as a betrayal of the counterculture, is also well documented.
- Computer generated text, correspondence and material relating to the computer revolution, the Biosphere project, space colonies, cryogenics and more from his time in Los Angeles.
- More than 300 videotapes and 300 audiotapes featuring Leary, including about 50 early lectures. A large portion of these tapes are noncommercial and probably represent the only copies in existence.
- Manuscripts of published books and articles, as well as a substantial number of unpublished works, some book length. Scores of unpublished essays on a variety of subjects, unproduced movie scripts, fiction and poetry are also included.
"When one surveys the existing and available archival record of the 1960s, it would hard to find a comparable collection,” said William Stingone, Charles J. Liebman Curator of the Library’s Manuscripts and Archives Division. “Leary's papers are an unparalleled resource for researchers studying the emergence and development of the American counterculture."
The material has a long history before being acquired by the Library. According to Horowitz, the archives were turned over to “a pair of hip scholarly activists” for safekeeping when Leary was sent to prison, and they kept the materials safe until they were seized by the FBI in the 1970s. Eventually, they were released to Leary, who kept them in storage until the developers of Leary.com, one of the earliest personal websites, sifted through and organized parts of the vast collection. Most recently, the archives were in the possession of the Leary Estate.
“The estate is thrilled to have these papers in a place worthy of their historic value,” said Denis Berry, co-trustee of the Futique Trust, Dr. Leary’s estate. “It’s availability to everyone is something he would have appreciated.”
The remarkable collection will be available to researchers and the public in about two years, after the papers are processed.