Everyone In Old Hollywood Was On Acid

Before Scientology took hold, before they forgot their mantras, before the baby food diet, Vanity Fair reminds us of the weird period in the 1950s when half of Hollywood's wives were on medicinal LSD:

Like many drugs, LSD was originally touted as a potential miracle cure, described by publisher Henry Luce as "an invaluable weapon to psychiatrists." Says VF, "Within the psychiatric profession word spread that LSD held the potential to cure alcoholism, schizophrenia, shell shock (now known as post-traumatic stress disorder), and a wide range of other problems. Between 1950 and 1965, a reported 40,000 people worldwide would be tested or "treated" with LSD."

And some of these were under the care of Hollywood's hottest shrink, Mortimer Hartman of the Psychiatric Institute of Beverly Hills. Hartman liked to use LCD to treat what he termed "garden variety neurotics" - these, as it happened, included Million Dollar Mermaid Esther Williams, some of Hollywood's biggest movers and shakers, and Cary Grant. Indeed, the dapper Grant became so evangelical about the therapy that he credited it with giving him a "second youth," telling a magazine "at last, I am close to happiness." He ended up leaving Dr. Hartman $10,000 in his will - and LSD abuse was cited in his later custody battle with wife Dyan Cannon.

But perhaps the most interesting component of the story is the proto-Feminine Mystique liberating power the drug held for many women. The community of discontented Hollywood wives was, apparently. particularly receptive to the treatment, in which LSD was administered in day-long sessions at the doctor's office.

A few of these women had tried analysis, but none had ever been given prescriptions from their psychiatrists. Yet LSD was seen as a powerful tool to break through confusion and inhibition. As Bergen says, "I wanted to be the person, not the persona," and what attracted her to LSD therapy was "this possibility of a magic wand" that would force her to open up. Marshall, who went to Hartman's office once a week for about a year, is quick to point out that she never thought of the regimen as "taking a drug. It was therapy. It was what my doctor told me to do, so I did it."

The piece cites a number of women - including Grant's third wife - who credit LSD with empowerment beyond the usual claims of mind expansion. That the outer world was still more rigidly ordered than it would be by the time the drug mainstreamed can only have increased the power of the experience. It's a fascinating glimpse into a very particular psyche, and equally interesting is the reaction of one such proponent, the famous Clare Booth Luce, when the government cracked down and clinics like the PIBH were shuttered: "We wouldn't want everyone doing too much of a good thing." That part of its power seems implicitly to have rested in the certainty that this was a sanctioned, medicinal treatment - and one reserved for a rarified population - is as telling a glimpse of cultural dynamics as anything else in the piece. And for those of us living in the era of prescription drugs, maybe the most instructive.

Cary In The Sky with Diamonds [Vanity Fair]