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Acid Hype: American News Media and the Psychedelic Experience

Stephen Siff

Acid Hype offers the untold tale of LSD's wild journey from Brylcreem and Ivory soap to incense and peppermints.


Acid Hype: American News Media and the Psychedelic Experience

Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Price: $28.00
Author: Stephen Siff
Length: 264 pages
Format: Paperback
US Publication Date: 2015-06
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Excerpted from Acid Hype: American News Media and the Psychedelic Experience by Stephen Siff. Copyright © 2015 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used by permission of the University of Illinois Press. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website, or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.

The national attention to LSD reached new heights in 1959 when the movie star Cary Grant, previously known for his personal reticence, suddenly became willing -- eager, even -- to expound at length about personal insights he reached through weekly LSD sessions with Chandler and Hartman. LSD therapy, he told gossip columnists and magazine reporters, allowed him to achieve a degree of happiness that had previously eluded him, despite all his success. The New York Herald Tribune gossip columnist Joe Hyams broke the story in the United States, with three nationally syndicated columns that consisted almost entirely of direct quotes. The fifty-five-year-old movie star, at the crest of a decades-long career, described feeling “born again” to Hyams and explained how the new self-knowledge made him a better husband, actor, and man:

“All the sadness and vanities were torn away. I was pleased with the hard core of the strength I found inside of me. I think I’ve always been a pretty fair actor. Now I know I’m going to be the best actor there is.

“I’ve had my ego stripped away. A man is a better actor without ego, because he has truth in him. Now I cannot behave untruthfully toward anyone, and certainly not to myself.

“I’m no longer lonely and I am a happy man. I am not saying this to convince myself. It is a fact.

“They told me that this happiness would get greater and greater. Already, I feel I am too happy to stand any more. My saddest moment of today is better than my happiest moment of yesterday.”

Hyams said that he was barraged by telephone calls and nearly eight hundred letters when the columns appeared. “Friends wanted to know where they could get the drug. Psychiatrists called, complaining that their patients were now begging them for LSD. Every actor in town under analysis wanted it,” he recalled.

The series sparked a feud between Grant and Hyams -- not because of the sensitivity of the topic, but because Hyams’s articles scuttled a potentially lucrative deal for Grant to sell the exclusive story of his LSD experience to Look. According to Hyams’s account, Grant initially asked the reporter to hold off publishing about his LSD experimentation, which they discussed during a tape-recorded interview on the set of Operation Petticoat. A few weeks later, Grant visited a UCLA journalism class co-taught by Hyams and the London Daily Mirror reporter Lionel Crane and regaled the students with psychological insights he credited to LSD therapy. After reviewing the students’ papers, Hyams learned that Crane had already shared these tales with his readers across the Atlantic. Hyams said that he then got permission from Grant to run similar quotes to those that had already appeared in the Daily Mirror. “Cary’s LSD experiments gave the story a strong news peg,” he explained. “In addition, I felt the articles were the most revealing ever published about him in New York.”

Grant’s attempt to kill the series on the eve of publication, Hyams’s legal defense of his reputation, and an unusual out-of-court settlement made the story even bigger. The day that Hyams’s articles on Grant were announced, the actor called him to demand that the series, scheduled to begin the following day, be pulled. When Hyams refused to act, Grant denied that the conversations on which they were based had ever taken place. The Los Angeles Times ran Hyams’s column prefaced with Grant’s denial. Louella Parsons, the doyenne of Hollywood gossip columnists, sided with the movie star, huffing in her column that when she was a girl, “things were different in the newspaper business.” Hyams fretted that the spat was becoming a “cause célèbre” for journalists who relished the opportunity to repeat the sensational quotes. Angered by the damage to his reputation, Hyams filed a five-hundred-thousand-dollar suit against his source for slander, a development reported in the gossip press. Stranger still, after Hyams produced his tape recording of the Operation Petticoat interview during depositions, Grant settled the case by giving the reporter the opportunity to ghostwrite his life story. Grant sat for dozens of interviews with Hyams over the course of a year and eventually rewrote the final version of his story, which the Ladies’ Home Journal (1963 circulation 7.1 million) purchased for $125,000. To keep peace with the star, Hyams shared this windfall by purchasing Grant a twentytwo-thousand-dollar Rolls-Royce.

Other magazines did not wait for this authorized account before publishing their own articles. Look (1959 circulation 5.6 million) made up for its lost exclusive with a long piece by Laura Bergquist that turned an unusually critical eye on the popular Hollywood star. “The Curious Story behind the New Cary Grant” warmed to its subject by discussing seemingly queer aspects of the actor’s “mysterious” and “fey” personality, including his confession to the classroom of journalism students, his serial marriages, perfectionism, and unique nylon underpants (“a product of his own design”). Bergquist explained that she had spent thousands of hours puzzling over the “new” Cary Grant, interviewing the star and his friends, to reach her conclusion that the changes were indeed real. The final page of the article attributed his transformation, and newfound happiness, to LSD. “All my life I’ve been searching for peace of mind,” he told Bergquist. “I’d explored yoga and hypnotism and made attempts at mysticism. Nothing really seemed to give me what I wanted until this treatment.” The article’s circumspection aggravated the acid-tongued gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, who fired off a letter to the editors of Look the day before the issue was dated to appear. “The article you ran on Cary Grant was the damnedest mish-mash I have ever read. Whom does he think he is fooling? This will probably surprise you: He started with boys and now he has gone back to them.” According to one Grant biography, Hopper was mad because she too had hoped to tell the actor’s life story.

The many articles that discussed Grant’s enthusiasm for LSD stuck to the celebrity’s script. A 1960 article on Grant in the Washington Post’s Sunday magazine, “Cary Grant -- Ageless Idol,” ran with a subhead that read, “At 56 -- and after three unsuccessful marriages -- he believes that a drug called L.S.D. has made it possible for him to ‘fall in love for the first time.’” It went on to offer glowing descriptions of LSD therapy and a sidebar, “What Is L.S.D. and How It Works.” Later that year, the text accompanying a photo spread about the star in Good Housekeeping (1960 circulation 4.4 million) explained,

(B)y courageously permitting himself to be one of the subjects of a psychiatric experiment with a drug that eventually may become an important tool in psychotherapy, Grant has become a radically different man. He has become something that few stars have ever become: a healthy, reasonably well-adjusted, mentally fit human being, more dynamic, more dashing than he himself would have believed possible. At fifty-six, he seems literally to be living a second youth of physical and emotional resurgence.

Grant’s friends are amazed at the change in him. Some were skeptical at first, but none are now. Clifford Odets, the writer-director, told me in Hollywood last spring, “The changes in him as a result of the treatment have been extraordinary. He’s bloomed. He’s lost his reticence and shyness. The barricades have been swept away, it seems, and he’s now free and spontaneous. He’s got a freshness, an alertness, an awareness of things he never had before. Why, he’s almost like a kid.”

When it finally appeared in 1963, the Grant autobiography for the Ladies’ Home Journal held few surprises. In the three-part, chronological account of the actor’s life, Grant’s promise to describe his LSD experiences and their “beneficial results” first appeared as a cliffhanger at the end of part two. In the final pages of the account, he described how revelations achieved under the influence of LSD led him to acceptance of personal responsibility for his happiness. “I learned that all the clichés prove true,” he explained.

Over the following decades, Grant stood by his assessment of LSD therapy, describing the benefits he found in the drug in numerous interviews until his death in 1986, including a 1967 interview with the National Police Gazette (1967 circulation 190,000) that prominently featured the actor’s discussion of the drug. However, the marriage to Betsy Drake that Grant often credited LSD with saving broke up in 1962. At divorce proceedings in 1968, his next wife, the actress Dyan Cannon, accused Grant of erratic, sometimes violent behavior, which she blamed on a weekly LSD habit.

Grant’s revelation in 1959 prompted several national magazines to publish articles exploring the sensational new therapy. “In Hollywood, it was only natural that psychiatric patients undergoing analytic treatment should have visions in wide screen, full color, and observe themselves from cloud nine,” began a 1960 article in Time (1960 circulation 2.4 million) that described the style of therapy conducted by Grant’s doctors, Chandler and Hartman, said to result in the “accelerated recovery” of about half their patients. Time described an LSD trip as colorful visions and fantasies, mixed with real memories, in some cases going back to the first year of life. “Family conflicts may be projected onto the LSD screen in puppet shows, acted out by Disney characters,” the magazine explained. “Whatever the visions’ content, most important is the fact that the patient seems able to stand aside and report vividly observed conflicts, dredged from his deepest unconscious and acted out before him.” The article did not reflect the casual attitude toward LSD in its publisher’s home. The value of the drug was strictly in conjunction with psychotherapy, preferably with a psychiatrist who had experienced the drug twenty to forty times himself. “By itself, it cures nothing,” Time explained. As for Cary Grant, he “emerged from therapy to give a confused account of what ailed him during a long and successful career, but he was convinced that he had at last found ‘a tough inner core of strength.’”

Seven months after breaking the Grant story, Hyams reported on a 1959 conference on LSD in Princeton, New Jersey, for This Week magazine (1959 circulation 11.7 million), a Sunday supplement to thirty-seven newspapers nationwide. Illustrated with a kachina-doll drawing by one of Janiger’s patients, “How a New Shock Drug Unlocks Troubled Minds” explained that LSD “has rescued many drug addicts, alcoholics and neurotics from their private hells -- and holds promise for curing tomorrow’s mental ills.” The article opened with a bulleted list of findings discussed at the conference: the drug was “of utmost value in psychotherapy,” responsible for “remarkable improvement” in drug and alcohol addicts, and provided the cure for a New York man’s lifelong stutter. Despite its New Jersey dateline, the sources all came from Los Angeles, Hyams’s home base. He summarized Huxley and Cohen’s descriptions of acid trips, described Ditman’s use of the drug with alcoholics, explained Chandler and Hartman’s therapeutic technique, and provided unattributed quotes about the experience that, in other articles, were attributed to Cary Grant. The critical evidence offered by the article came from an as-yet-unpublished study by Cohen, which combined data from forty-four researchers, encompassing twenty-five thousand administrations of hallucinogenic drugs to almost five thousand patients. In 70 percent of these cases, the patient’s condition improved, Hyams wrote.

Wire-service articles described other bizarre research with LSD in 1959 and 1960, including laboratory madness experiments on prison inmates and research conducted at the University of California medical school in San Francisco that appeared to show that LSD made lab rats immune to cancer. A 1960 headline in the Chicago Tribune asked,

The Ecstasy Drugs: New Powers for Us All?

Excited Users Report:

1. SHARPER THINKING

2. GREATER CREATIVITY

3. STRANGE MENTAL ABILITIES

Should We Start Celebrating?

The article’s answer, it seemed, was maybe. Beyond offering hope for a cure for mental illness, the study of LSD “could provide the key to that enigma known as the total personality.”

Stephen Siff is an assistant professor of journalism at Miami University, Ohio.

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