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WRITING: Tim Leary and Ovum - Two Meetings With Timothy Leary

I met Timothy Leary twice, about twenty years apart. The difference in circumstances says a lot about both Leary and the evolution of American culture.

1967 - A visit, a letter and an order

Leary was not at Castalia when my friends and I made our impromptu visit. But after we published the article on Castalia, we sent him a copy and were thrilled to get the following letter in response:

  Dear James Chevallier ~

     OVUM is a magnificent seed-womb blossoming blooming young organism. 

     May it grow in beauty and harmony as it has started.

     I like the poetry and the LMH and Bleimeister things are great!


                          Love and peace
                                      Tim Leary

      P.S.  Enclosed is check for more copies.

Heady stuff for two young teens. We wasted no time getting together twenty copies and delivering them to the estate. When we arrived, Leary was sitting on a porch with several guests, wearing one of his white Indian shirts. We were a little disappointed - we'd hoped to have some time to chat. As it was, he got up, greeted us, accepted the shopping bag full of Ovum's, then turned to his guests and said, "I was really surprised to see something like this coming out of Poughkeepsie."

Transplanted New Yorker though I was, I bridled inwardly at this remark. Why, after all, should Poughkeepsie (center of IBM and a number of colleges, including Vassar) be any less capable of creativity than any bigger city? This was my first hint of how inadvertantly condescending the counterculture could be - not to mention banal (cheap shots at Poughkeepsie were hardly original.) Still, in the short month or two since we'd come by, his reputation and influence had already grown. Our brief visit was a memorable moment for all of us.

1987 - Cocktails at Tiffany's

Having returned from Paris to New York in 1986, I found myself quite fortuitously frequenting the kind of "trust fund orphans" whose exploits filled books by authors like Jay McInerney and Brett Easton Ellis. This connection led to my being at Tiffany's one night for a cocktail. The disadvantage of holding such events in a jewelry store is the risk of spilled drinks, and at one point, Cornelia Guest - one of the most recognizable faces of that whole epoch - spilled a glass of champage across the leather-topped table beside me. As I helped her wipe it up, I vaguely noted that she was talking to an older man, but didn't really look at him. Moments later, I found myself involved in a lively discussion of, of all things, Structuralism with a woman walking by. In full Intellectual Pretense mode, I mentioned that I'd studied structuralist grammar in Paris and said it was a wonderful tool for analyzing language. Suddenly I heard from behind me: "Yes! Except for Chinese! It doesn't work well with Chinese!" I turned to see who had so enthusiastically joined our pseudo-smart jousting and saw Cornelia Guest's companion - Timothy Leary.

It says a lot about the changes in Leary's life by then that I was not really surprised to see him at a fancy charity event with a prominent socialite. At this point, in fact, he was something of a fixture on the social scene, or so I'd heard. This was also the period when he and G. Gordon Liddy had a kind of road show where the two people from very different politico-cultural backgrounds toured the country, speaking, I imagine, of their opposing experiences of the Sixties.

Our conversation continued at breakneck speed and he soon told me, "You know, I work in software now and I'm developing a product that will mirror the human mind." Working in software was not quite the common thing it's since become, so this was doubly unexpected - both that someone not completely 'nerdy' would mention it and that Timothy Leary, of all people, would say "I'm working in software." Since I was working as a programmer at the time, I expressed an interest in seeing his product and gave him my card. He said he'd send me a copy when it was ready. Then, having discussed a wide range of large ideas in about five minutes, we returned to our previous conversations.

In the energy of what I imagine was a typical conversation with Leary, I never thought to ask him if he remembered the "blossoming blooming organism" or its young editors. The context, and the differences in both of us, made the whole thing seem irrelevant. But I DID look forward to receiving his software. He never sent it.

copyright, 2000 by Jim Chevallier


LAST UPDATED: March 2003