Leary's Last Trip

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Esquire on 1 August 1996

THAT’S PROBABLY THE WORST PLACE TO leave those,” Timothy Leary barks at a beautiful young assistant. She clears a pile of videocassettes from the path of his oncoming electric wheelchair. He stops short. What are they, anyway?” The purple-haired girl reads off the labels.

“Nixon, Babe, some documentary . . .”

“Susan gave me those, you know,” Leary says, referring to longtime friend Susan Sarandon. She’s been smuggling him the special promotional tapes sent to Academy members. “Take whatever you want. I’ve seen them all already.”

“Oliver Stone’s here,” the assistant reminds him, fingering the small silver hoop in her navel. “Out on the porch.”

“I know that,” Tim says, as if he doesn’t care. “So . . . let’s go.”

With a hand bandaged from bleeding cancer sores, Leary nimbly manipulates the chair’s joystick. It sends him careening through a strobe-lit bedroom and into the powder-blue, faux-fur-lined corridor that leads to the rest of his rented Beverly Hills home. Paintings that won’t fit on the walls lie on the floor; plastic, mirrors, and fabric cover every other surface, even the windows. The house is a fluorescent catacomb. Leary barrels into the sunny living room.

“Hi! Hi! Hi!” he shouts to his assembled guests: the movie director, two movie stars, some old Harvard pals, a rock musician, and three journalists waiting for deathbed interviews. They’re drinking Leary’s wine, smoking his pot, or holding on to something they want him to sign or otherwise legitimize. Everybody but Stone and a psychedelics expert from the Bay Area (deep in conversation about a crack in the dashboard of Kennedy’s limousine) breaks off what he’s doing and turns to Leary, crown jewel of a waning psychedelic empire.

A young stranger is the first to greet him, bending down and patronizingly spacing his syllables.

“Hi, Timothy,” he says. “How are you?”

“Dying,” Leary responds without a pause. “How do you think I am?”

TIMOTHY LEARY, THE OUSTED HARVARD PSYCHOLOGIST best known for telling a generation to turn on, tune in, drop out,” had been rehearsing his death for the past thirty years. He’d always considered the use of hallucinogens as practice for the final process of deanimation that the rest of us call death. One of his early books on LSD, The Psychedelic Experience, is an adaptation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead-Leary and his Harvard cohorts believed the B6ok was a guide not only to the transition into the postlife but to hallucinogenic test runs of that journey.

As Tim’s friend for the past ten years, I was alternately thrilled and disgusted by the circus attending his final clays. I knew him as a man who taught that “set and setting” are the key prognosticators of the quality of a psychedelic session. Why would he engineer the mind-set and environment for this, his ultimate trip, into such a circus?

Perhaps the three-ring death act was a continuation of the lifelong Leary stage show–more devil-may-care repudiation of obsolete social customs, from die prosecution of drug users to the persecution of smokers. On learning of his inoperable prostate cancer, Tim realized he was smack in the middle of another great taboo: dying. True to character, he wasn’t about to surrender to the fear and shame we associate with death in modern times. No, this was going to be a party. Our media-savvy cultural renegade was going to milk it for every second of airtime and inch of newsprint it was worth. Timothy Leary, High Priest of LSD and Champion of Cyberspace, was back under the big top.

First, in October, there was the Seventy-fifth and Final Birthday Party,” a gala champagne and nitrous-oxide event at which Tim and five hundred of his closest friends–from Tony Curtis and Liza Minnelli to Perry Farrell and Christian Slater–consumed a giant birthday cake: a collage of Leary’s head, made up of blotter-acid art. We praised him, and then we ate him, courtesy of a generous catering budget from director Tony Scott.

Then there was the Web site–www.leary.com–Tutankhamen in cyberspace, the thoughts, texts, and images of Timothy’s life uploaded into the shared consciousness of the Net. The Web site was designed to live on long after his death, growing ever bigger as Le”s staggering thousand carton archive is scanned and digitized and visitors contribute essays or converse in chat rooms. Leary also listed his daily drug intake, both legal and illegal, as well as the progress of his disease.

A book deal (which I packaged) soon followed. Design for Dying will be published by HarperCollins next spring. In it, Leary argues for taking charge of one’s own death process, from cryonic freezing of the brain to assisted suicide. An appendix gives readers the chance to calculate their own “Quality of Life scorecards,’ so that they can more accurately assess their desire to stay alive after losing various physical, mental, and social skills.

Most important, and most controversial, were Learys decisions about how he was going to, enact his death: consciously, by suicide, and over the Net for all to witness through a live, CU-SeeMe broadcast. He would do” death as he had done everything else: publicly and in grand style. No fear and no apologies.

The media was quick to seize on the spectacle. With Dr. Kevorkian still grabbing headlines in Michigan, designer dying was a hot-button issue. Dozens of network news programs and national newspapers and magazines competed for morbid quotes from Leary. Remote vans crowded die driveway, and journalists packed the living room. Documentarians faxed contracts for exclusive film rights to the moment of death. Leary was all too happy to oblige. For a time.

“THIS IS JUST LIKE IT WAS AT MILLBROOK.” ROSEMARY Woodruff, Tim’s third ex-wife, is with me in the kitchen, peeling potatoes. A member of Leary’s upstate–New York LSD commune in the sixties, Woodruff went into exile with Tim after his escape from California Men’s Colony-West, where he was serving a ten-year sentence for holding ten dollars’ worth of pot. Tim van recaptured in Kabul by U. S. DEA agents but later released during the lenient Jerry Brown years. Ironically, Rosemary, who helped in the jailbreak, ended up hiding underground for more than a decade. Rosemary knew Tim at the height of his popularity and the depths of his infamy. And though she paid dearly for his transgressions against the state, it sounds as if the relative peace of infamy was preferable to the zoo of popularity. The couple never had a moment alone: Even when she and Tim were camping together in the woods near the Millbrook, New York, estate, his followers would wander out to their tent in the middle of the night to rap with the Great One. Rosemary would have to collect wood for the fire and cook for the surprise guests.

She could barely tolerate it then, and she wasn’t going to tolerate it now Sighing as she looks out at the mob scene in the living room, she decides to leave, just one day after she got here.

Out back, on a patio overlooking the panoramic haze of Los Angeles, Tim’s hip helpers–a half-dozen young artists and computer whizzes who tend to his needs day and night–set up a video camera to record his interactions with Oliver Stone. Leary calls across the circle of lawn chairs.

Stone turns and smiles, and as he does, the power of the entire entertainment industry seems to settle in his chair with him. Leary’s autobiography Flashbacks has been optioned by Interscope, and Stone’s frequent visits to the house may herald his interest in signing on as the movie’s director. Tim isn’t sure he wants to be remembered as just another Stone icon, but after Larry Flynt dropped in yesterday and said what a good job Oliver was doing producing his biographical film, Tim warmed up to the idea.

“What can I do for you, Tim?” Stone asks casually. His face is bright red from the heat of the sun, in stark contrast to his snow-white Nautica windbreaker. Tim doesn’t mince words. He didn’t sleep well at all last night, and he’s spent the day’s allowance of energy just getting dressed, into the wheelchair, through the sycophants, and out onto the porch.

“Are you interested in making a movie about me?” There are at least a dozen of us on the patio, and a hush falls. We are witnesses to the transaction, and both men know it.

“Um, right now? No,” Stone says.

“Then why are you here? Do you want something?”

“No, Tim,” Stone says. “I’m just here to visit. just as a friend.”

“Well, good,” Tim responds without a second’s hesitation. “I don’t want anyone to make a movie.”

We are all shocked. It’s all Tim has been talking about for weeks–he even said so in an interview with the L. A. Times. But then how else could he respond and save face?

After a bit of small talk, Leary maneuvers himself off the porch and back inside. The owner of an independent book company gets him to sign a few dozen copies of a reprinted work. As he signs each book, Tim asks hopefully, “Who is this one to?” only to be reminded, each timer that he should just sign his name. It’s business, not personal.

By late that afternoon, most of the strangers have left, and Tim sits with his loyal assistants–the grad students of Leary U.–going through boxes of photos. It’s as if he wants to fill his brain with the images of his own life so that at the moment of death he’ll be taking everything with him to the other side.

“Who’s that?” asks a gorgeous blond in a satin halter. She shows Tim a photo of a man in a strange uniform, holding a drink. Tim squints at it. “That’s Captain Al Hubbard,” he says. “He, uh”–Tim accesses the cerebral hard drive–“he stole all this LSD from the CIA and gave it out in San Francisco.” He thinks back a bit further. “I remember he had sheriff’s badges from all over the country and diplomatic immunity. Strange fella.”

These quiet moments are the best time–other than 4:00 A.M. in his bedroom–to glean what’s really going on inside the dying man’s head.

“What did you mean,” I eventually ask, delicately, when you told Oliver that you didn’t want anyone to make a film?”

“I said I didn’t want him to, and I meant it.”

“But what if he walked in with a briefcase with $100,000 and said, Here, let’s make the movie’ “

“Well,” Tim says, first, it doesn’t happen like that. It would be much more complicated than that.”

“But you said you didn’t want it.”

“I don’t want anything.” Tim pierces me with his gaze. He’s still here, all right. “That’s all I meant. I don’t want. I wasn’t asking him to do something because I wanted it.” Timothy goes back to his bedroom to work on some felt-pen word paintings. These sketches are about the only creative expression Tim still has the patience to complete and, according to the wild-eyed, bleach-blond artist egging him on, the paintings could be worth a lot someday. If nothing else, their execution affords Tim some privacy.

Everyone else fritters away the afternoon, decorating the apparatus that the cryonics people have brought to drain Timothys blood at die moment of his death, as preparation for freezing his brain. It’s pretty morbid stuff, but by the time the artists and Web designers are done with it, the equipment has been transformed into a pagan shrine, the gurney filled with items Tim might need on the other sidewine, pot, a bong, Tylenol, balloons for nitrous, the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, a book by William Burroughs, photos of Tim’s friends, junk food. Tim’s stand-in is a shiny mylar mannequin wearing a Yoda mask. The lights have been gelled blue and red, and strings of beads hang over everything else. A photo of Tim, adorned with flowers, sits in front of the whole installation.

They’d probably do better to work on the Web site.. Despite almost a year of effort, the handful of kids assigned to the learycom project have gotten frightfully little done. The skeleton of the site is ingenious: a tour through Timothy’s real house, where clicking on doors brings you into different rooms. But so far, the rooms are still empty. Each bookcase and cabinet, though neatly labeled ARCHIVES or UNPUBLISHED, just brings you to an empty page apologizing for being under construction.

Tim’s older friends and patrons–mostly part-time visitors–have been grumbling for weeks that the kids, though sweet to the core and dedicated to Tim’s well-being, are just slackers. The patrons resent that Tim has put the kids on salaries and that the money they have “lent” him during these lean years is leaking out faster than it goes in.

What they don’t see is that these kids are with Tim twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, changing his linens, responding to his whims, and jumping into action whenever he shouts Hello?” only to find him collapsed, bleeding, and disoriented. If it looks as if they’re just sitting around rapping and smoking cigarettes, it’s because they are shell-shocked. These kids are right there with Tim in the piss- and blood-soaked trenches of his losing battle with death. And just when they need their mentor the most–to explain to them how to take all this in stride–he is slowly fading away. It’s a traumatic experience.

Then there is the fate of the archives. What happens when Tim dies? Will they get sold to Stanford? Will the IRS–which has agreed to leave Tim’s estate alone until after he’s gone–take everything? Does the film company have rights to them? What about the electronic rights? Tim is no help in sorting these questions out. Tim entertains everyone’s visions and then lets them fight it out among themselves. He just says yes to everything, leading each of us to believe we alone are exercising Tim’s true will. If only we heard him: “I don’t want anything!”

That evening, Yoko Ono comes by for a relatively private audience in Tim’s bedroom to say goodbye–amid a chaotic mess of articles and photos, bloodstained sheets, pill bottles, empty glasses, a few roaches and old balloons on the nightstand, and a huge isolation tank humming ominously in the comer. Art by friends–some great and some just weird hangs everywhere, even on the ceiling. A giant five-by-six-foot photo of Timothy with John and Yoko at the “bed-in” recording of “Give Peace a Chance” just happens to hang on the wall.

“You were a great man,” she tells him, patting his knee.

“Was? We’re still broadcasting! “

They laugh. William Burroughs calls later that afternoon. Timothy extols the virtues of his pain-relieving fentanyl patch and then takes down Bill’s address. The old junkie wants to try one. Tim is honored to be turning on “the Bill Burroughs.” We send it by Federal Express.

John Lilly visits a few nights in a row to share some of his favorite drug, Ketamine, a psychedelic best known for its use by vets to render cats immobile. Lilly administers a syringe to Timothy and then one to himself, and the two old friends lie on the bed together as the dissociative anesthetic draws them out of their failing bodies for a time.

All Tim’s friends say farewell in their own ways-some by getting something and some by giving something. Timothy gives and receives with equal graciousness.

“Everyone sees their own Timothy Leary,” he tells me, then drifts off to what looks like sleep. He suddenly stirs, stares at me, and asks, “What do you want?”

“I don’t want anything,” I joke.

He laughs. “You got me! Now you know how I feel!”

TIM GETS ONE OF HIS SECOND WINDS, AND WE ARE all sucked in. He makes us take him to three parties.

On the way back, he directs us as we steal huge round driveway mirrors from the mansions on Benedict Canyon Drive. We put them up all over his bedroom–the deanimation chamber–so he can see around the whole room without moving his head.

Are you scared of dying?” I ask him.

“Not a bit.”

“And you’re still freezing your head?”

“It can’t hurt.”

“But what if you,re already dead, going through the bardos you wrote about in the Psychedelic Experience, and then all of a sudden you’re stuck-frozen in the process?”

“Well,” he says, looking away for a moment, “I don’t think it works like that. I hope not.”

I am suddenly overwhelmed by guilt. How dare I try to pull him into a bad trip? Why did I feel the need to project my own fear of death onto him? Because, for me, like everyone else, he’s just a mirror of my own unfinished business.

While I don’t believe my questions caused him a moment’s doubt, a few days later one of the “Cryocare” representatives comes to visit with a photographer, and something in Timothy snaps. He kicks them out of the house, and they dismantle the shrine and take back their equipment. Timothy later spun the story for the media: “They have no sense of humor… I was worried I’d wake up in fifty years surrounded by people with clipboards.” I think it had more to do with the “strings attached” to his cryonics deal. They wanted to exploit their access to his dying and freezing for a photo spread in Wired. Tim would rather just die than be reanimated with someone else’s spin. He decides to have his ashes shot into space instead.

The hospice nurses tell us that his level of pain is extraordinarily high and that we shouldn’t be surprised by new behaviors. But what surprises us all the most is his final decision not to go out as he had originally planned. He says he doesn’t want to implicate any of us in an assisted-suicide legal charge and cancels the on-line death. The next week, Tim becomes too weak to make any real decisions at all. No one has been fully entrusted to make the suicide decision for him, and we realize that Timothy Leary will end up dying pretty much like the rest of us: quietly succumbing to the inevitable. Let the media complain. He doesn’t owe it to us to the spectacularly on-line any more than he owed it to consensus culture to die shamefully in a hospital. Besides, he finds he loves life so much that he will endure any amount of pain for the pleasure of another day.

Rosemary, his stepson Zach, the kids at the house, and a few close friends are at his bedside in the last moments. It is an intimate and loving finale, in which the politics, personal issues, and media hoopla surrounding him finally give way to the deep love and respect we all have in common. A Hi8 camcorder discreetly tapes the final vigil.

Just before losing consciousness for the last time, Timothy asks, “Why?” The room goes silent. Is he afraid? Does he feel forsaken? Then he smiles. Why not?” Everyone laughs. He repeats, Why not?’ about fifty times in fifty different voices. Clowning, loving, tragic, afraid. He reassures his audience through the performance, which somehow gives him the strength he needs to face the final curtain himself. The last thing he does is applaud, for himself and his audience. In this paradoxically dignified fashion, Tim provides the comic relief at his own death. By dawn, helicopters are swooping in to capture aerial footage of the house. But Leary has left the building.