Transmissions from the Timothy Leary Papers: Welcome!
Welcome to Transmissions... where I'll update the public on the processing of the Timothy Leary Papers, held by The New York Public Library.
I look forward to sharing the experience of arranging and describing the collection of Timothy Francis Leary, an American psychologist and Harvard professor who, through his studies regarding the use of psilocybin and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD-25), went on to become an advocate for mind-altering drugs, eastern philosophy, sexual liberation, cyberspace, and the cyberpunk genre. He was a prolific writer, lecturer, and counter-culture icon from the 1960s until his death in 1996.
One can imagine the wealth of resources this collection will provide to scholars and alternative culture enthusiasts. The collection includes letters, notes, clippings, posters, film, VHS and reel to reel tapes, phonograph records, books, greeting cards, screenplays, book drafts, drawings, and contracts — and the list goes on and on.
In my initial survey, I found a plethora of memorabilia. Yet, the scope and extent of the collection provides a picture, not only the iconic person of the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s counter-culture, but also Leary as a young man from Springfield, Massachusetts, the child of school teacher Abigail (née Ferris) and dentist Timothy F. Leary, Sr. There are records from his time enrolled at West Point and Army, the University of Alabama, Washington State, and University of California-Berkeley. The archive also portrays him as a father to Susan and Jack, husband to Marianne, and as a professional clinical psychologist.
This early part of his life is generally less well known, and I will highlight some of this material, along with his post-drug, more publicized career.
But First, Let Me Explain Transmissions...
"This signal is being transmitted from a cell in Folsom Prison, which is the Black Hole of American society."
...wrote Leary in the opening sentence of his 1973 publication Starseed: transmitted from Folsom Prison, while incarcerated after a high-profile prison escape in 1970.
Leary’s legal troubles began on December 26, 1965, when he was arrested for marijuana possession while crossing the border from Mexico into Laredo, Texas with Rosemary Woodruff and children Susan and Jack (from his first marriage to Marianne Busch). He was stopped and arrested again for marijuana possession in 1968 while driving in Laguna Beach, California. After losing his protracted legal battles, Leary was finally incarcerated in 1970 at California State Prison in San Luis Obispo. Denied parole, he escaped with the aid of then wife, Rosemary, and the radical leftist group Weathermen that same year. He fled in exile to Algeria, where he stayed with Eldridge Cleaver and the Black Panthers, then traveled to Switzerland, and eventually landed in Afghanistan, where he was apprehended and deported back to the US. The book Confessions of a Hope Fiend recounts his escape and exile period.
He was re-incarcerated at Folsom Prison, which returns us back to Transmissions...
The Black Hole
Leary’s attempts to evade prosecution had failed, leaving him to face a long prison sentence. In this context, he became interested in comet Kohoutek, which was predicted to to give a significant visual display yet given scarce media attention. He wrote:
“The entire universe is gently, rhythmically, joyously vibrating. Cosmic intercourse. This is a message of hope and interstellar love from the Black Hole. Irrepressible optimism. Yes, it is true that repressive pessimists now control planetary politics. This is a larval phase.”
Leary followed Starseed with another prison writing, Terra II: The Starseed Transmission, a “transmission” received by prison mate Lynn Wayne Benner and recorded by Leary, proposing space travel and colonization in human evolution.
There was much publicity surrounding his Starseed phenomenon. Joanna Harcourt-Smith, whom he met while in Switzerland, was behind his defense campaign and helped with the publication of his prison writings. She ran the Starseed operations on his behalf, publishing, arranging events and fundraisers, and disseminating information in support of his release through the Starseed Information Center.
The collection is rich with press releases and publicity materials from this time, such as the event “A Tribute to Dr. Timothy Leary,” which was held at Zellerbach Hall on the University of California-Berkeley campus and featured the British band Hawkwind, Leary’s documentary film, and guest speaker Joanna Leary (his common-law wife).
This is just one small sample from a short period of Leary’s life. I hope you will return for more.