At 22 Rosemary Woodruff moved to New York City in 1958. She quickly fell in with a jazz-loving,bohemian crowd for whom the use of psychedelics (mainly peyote and LSD), as well as alternative spiritual practices, were all part of the downtown experience. In 1965, after meeting Timothy Leary at an art opening, she fell under his charismatic spell, and, upon his invitation, followed him to his residence at Millbrook in upstate New York.
This began the journey in psychedelia covered in Psychedelic Refugee: The League of Spiritual Discovery, the 1960s Cultural Revolution, and 23 Years on the Run, an account edited by David F. Phillips from various writings by Rosemary Woodruff Leary that tracks her partnership with Tim Leary through his transformation from ambitious Harvard professor to dedicated psychedelic revolutionary.
About 90 miles north of New York City, Millbrook was part of the Hitchcock Estate, a small village that contained a cluster of buildings, including a 64 room mansion, woods, ponds and fields. The site was homebase for Leary, Richard Alpert and others who were exploring the use of psychedelics as part of a radical alternative lifestyle, through a group called the League of Spiritual Discovery. Using trippy light shows and music, he and Rosemary set out to perfect a multimedia presentation where Leary would lecture on psychedelic spirituality and social transformation. The couple became romantic and inseparable, and the show was presented to visiting cultural influencers, as well as selling out venues in New York City and touring all over the USA.
After they were arrested for marijuana in 1966, Rosemary refused to testify against Leary and spent 30 days in jail, the first of several incarcerations she would endure for protecting his legacy.
As various flamboyant and boisterous tenants moved in and out of Millbrook (it had 60 residents at one point), continued police harassment led Leary and Rosemary to move to Laguna Beach, California. There they married, and hung out with the notorious acid-distributing community The Brotherhood of Eternal Love. Arrested again for marijuana possession, Tim was incarcerated in 1970, then escaped with the aid of the radical political group, The Weathermen.
Tim and Rosemary were spirited away to a farm in Seattle, and then to Algeria, where they were housed by another radical American political group, The Black Panthers, who had established an outpost there. Complications arose when the Panther leader, Eldridge Cleaver, kept the Learys as virtual hostages in an effort to raise thousands of dollars for the Black Panther party. After nearly a year, the couple managed to flee to yet another challenging shelter situation in Switzerland under the protection of a high-rolling arms dealer. Tim eventually ended up back in the USA, in a series of different states of freedom and incarceration (and remarriage). Rosemary remained a fugitive, traveling widely for the next 20 years through at least eight countries before returning to the U.S.
Psychedelic Refugee, is not a comprehensive autobiography, nor is it meant to be. It is a posthumous compilation of the proposals she wrote for various publishers as samples for what would have been a book. In fact, the whole process of how the book came to be is fascinating: the first section is an account by the editor of the arduous process of assembling this project. Almost every page is supported by detailed footnotes on people, places, and cultural references that Rosemary encounters. The footnotes can be distracting, but they make the reader appreciate the many levels this text works on.
This book can be read as a tragic love story. At the start, Rosemary describes Leary as “an unsung genius” who “perceived the world with the knowledge that psychology gave him, and the unfettered imagination of an Irish hero, a combination that produced a fey charisma, a likeable madness, an outrageous optimism.”
“The magic of loving and being loved by a man would keep me enthralled for many years,” she writes. “I could not imagine loving anyone else. Everyone was boring compared to him.”
Rosemary played an integral role in helping Leary become a visionary leader in the worldwide psychedelic movement. Elbows are rubbed with luminaries like Ken Kesey, John Lennon, the Maharishi, Bobby Kennedy, Alan Watts, Andy Warhol, director Otto Preminger, and many more. It is sad that after years of being battered by countless legal battles, ineffectual fertility operations, and geographic displacements, she became an “exile,” estranged from her husband, family, and friends, while connected to a man who had “no concern” for her safety or welfare. “He has subjected me to grave danger and public and private humiliation,” she writes.
The book provides fascinating insight into the beginnings of Leary’s approach to psychedelics as a spiritual way of life. The syncretic combinations and co-optings of American Indian rites, and especially the myriad facets of Buddhism and Hinduism, are helpful to consider as part of a meaningful engagement with psychedelic philosophy.
Due to its many references, this book serves as an insightful history to a cultural movement, as well as the yeoman efforts and travails of an incredible woman. The chapter describing her and Leary’s encounter with the mystical ‘Master Musicians of Joujouka’ in the Moroccan highlands (tribal artists previously recorded and championed by Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones) will stay with you long after you’ve put the book down.
Humorist Bob Thaves once said about Fred Astaire and his dancing partner: “Sure he was great, but don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did, backwards… and in high heels.” He may as well have been talking about Rosemary Woodruff Leary.
Psychedelic Refugee: The League for Spiritual Discovery, the 1960s Cultural Revolution, and 23 Years on the Run By (Author) Rosemary Woodruff Leary Edited by David F. Phillips 352 pp. Park Street Press. $19.99.
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