How Time and Life magazines helped turn America on to LSD.

Media criticism.
June 21 2010 6:52 PM

The Time and Life Acid Trip

How Henry R. Luce and Clare Boothe Luce helped turn America on to LSD.

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The doctor who observed the Luces that day in Phoenix and took notes was UCLA's Sidney Cohen. Cohen got this favorable write-up in 1964 in Time upon publication of his book, The Beyond Within: The LSD Story.

Henry Luce's greatest public testimonial to LSD came in 1964 or thereabouts, when he outed himself as an acid-eater to his colleagues and peers at a New York hotel banquet, according to former Life publisher and Time Inc. chairman Andrew Heiskell. "Without any preamble," Heiskell says in an oral history collected by Columbia University, Luce "said that he and Clare were taking LSD!"

Heiskell continues:

And two hundred and fifty people fainted. [laughter] And then he went right on. I don't think he had any notion of what he had said. I don't know whether he thought all of us took LSD and therefore he would be one of the boys—maybe that. You know, he was very specific about it. He said, "Yes, yes, we take LSD. We do it under doctors [sic] supervision."

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Luce, writes Siff, "was unembarrassed by his use of LSD, likely seeing himself as similar to the respectable, traditionally minded spiritual seekers depicted using the drug in his magazines." Luce's magazines, which ordinarily tilted right on most social and political issues, largely used reason and not emotion when thinking about hallucinogens during his time. Siff credits Time and Life coverage of LSD—justifiably, I think—with raising "public awareness that a drug with the unique effects of LSD existed and was possibly desirable."

But please don't call Henry and Clare drug pushers. At worst, they were drug nudgers.

******

Sensible reporting in Time about drugs didn't end with Henry Luce. See John Cloud's fine piece about MDMA from 2000, "Happiness Is ... a Pill?" Send your oral histories to slate.pressbox@gmail.com and get ripped on my Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in Slate's readers' forums; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word Luce in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

Also in Slate: In 2000, Jack Shafer wrote about ecstasy madness. In 2007, he demanded a New York Times obituary for Luce's lover, Lady Jeanne Campbell. In 2006, he wrote about morning glory hysteria at the Washington Post. In 2008, he wrote about the ridiculousness of a "meth-laced ecstasy" piece in the New York Times.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.