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.

Publisher Henry Luce and his wife.
Publisher Henry Luce and Clare Boothe Luce, U.S. ambassador to Italy

Alan Brinkley's comprehensive new biography of Time magazine co-founder Henry R. Luce, The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century, has but one flaw. Then again, this "shortcoming" has more to do with my obsessions than it does with any inadequacy on Brinkley's part. My idiosyncratic complaint: Brinkley doesn't spend near enough space on the proselytizing enthusiasm the mogul and his wife, Clare Boothe Luce, had for LSD and how that enthusiasm bled into Luce's Time and Life.

The Publisher limits its discussion of the Luces' personal interest in the hallucinogen to about three pages, noting that Clare's devotion to LSD far exceeded Henry's. He took it just once or maybe twice compared with Clare's multiple trips—she later claimed it "saved our marriage." But for a deeper look at how Luce's magazines helped popularize the drug, we must turn to scholar Stephen Siff's 2008 paper "Henry Luce's Strange Trip: Coverage of LSD in Time and Life, 1954-68" (PDF).

Siff draws on the favorable coverage of the drug in the Luce magazines as well as the letters and papers of Clare Boothe Luce to depict the couple as LSD believers. He writes:

Time and Life were fascinated by LSD. Henry Luce's magazines discovered LSD in 1954 and remained enthusiastic even as the drug was becoming popular with recreational users, frequently discussing the experience in an explicitly biblical framework. Scare stories were balanced with endorsements of LSD by professors, businessmen, and celebrities, and some articles even read like advertisements. One, published [in Time in 1966] eight weeks after "Mysticism in the Lab" [also in Time] began: "What kind of person is likely to enjoy a trip on LSD? Only the extravert, Alabama Psychiatrist Patrick H. Linton suggested last week at a regional meeting of the National Association for Mental Health."

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The Luces' role in spreading LSD wasn't lost on 1960s radical Abbie Hoffman, Siff writes. In his 1980 memoir, Soon To Be a Major Motion Picture,Hoffman writes, "I've always maintained that Henry Luce did much more to popularize acid than Timothy Leary. Years later I met Clare Booth Luce at the Republican convention in Miami. She did not disagree with this opinion."

Luce's magazines accentuated the potential of LSD and other hallucinogens over the dangers they posed long before either Henry or Clare took them. The first Time article, "Dream Stuff," published in 1954, reported on LSD's use as an adjunct to psychotherapy. "LSD 25, while it has no direct curative powers, can be of great benefit to mental patients," the magazine stated. Life magazine gave J.P. Morgan Vice President R. Gordon Wasson a first-person platform to describe his positive encounters with Mexican hallucinogenic mushrooms in a 1957 article titled "Seeking the Magic Mushroom."

Time magazine got to the LSD story before other magazines, writes Siff, and wrote about it more frequently. Its stories were longer on average than the pieces run by its competition and were largely sympathetic, as typified by the 1960 Time piece "The Psyche in 3-D," about celebrities taking LSD under the supervision of their doctors; or this Life editorial from 1966 urging regulation, not prohibition, of LSD; or, from 1968, an early debunking of the gone-blind-on-LSD urban myth. So intense was the Luces' interest in the topic that both reviewed the 1963 Life article "The Chemical Mind-Changers" prior to its publication, writes Siff. Not every column inch of LSD copy in Time was adulatory or "balanced." In "An Epidemic of Acid Heads" from 1966, Time blamed a wave of psychotic illnesses on the recreational use of LSD. (Siff allows that some of the sympathetic coverage may have been a result of reporters' over-reliance on past stories.)

Clare's acid trips, which she recorded in her papers now at the Library of Congress, were of the garden variety. She sorts mosaic glass by her swimming pool. She entertains herself looking through a kaleidoscope. During a March 11, 1959, trip, Richard Nixon telephoned Clare at her Phoenix home. An active Republican who served in Congress and as an ambassador, Clare declined to speak to Nixon. How history might have changed if she had shared a little acid with him!

Both writers reconstruct Henry Luce's maiden trip on LSD, taken at Clare's urging, from her papers. After Henry took his dose, he lit a cigarette at his desk and started reading Lionel Trilling's biography of Matthew Arnold. An hour and a half later, Clare placed some flowers near him and asked if their color was vivid. "No," said the grounded Henry. A half-hour later, the acid and not Henry was "in command." An observer recorded Luce's observations:

Now things are getting sharper, ... I'm beginning to see what Clare said. The aliveness. ... This perception is wonderful.

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."

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.