My Dinner with Timothy Leary

May 11, 2010

By Wendy All

Timothy Leary

Timothy Leary

Wendy All (c. 1976)

Wendy All (c. 1976)

I was nineteen and I had a date with The Devil.

His name had been on the evening news throughout the 1960’s. His philosophy fit on a lapel button: “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out.” He was infamous – he was notorious. He was Dr. Timothy Leary, a former college professor and psychedelic guru speaking at student protests, marching to his unique beat.

It was Comic-Con 1976. I wasn’t aware of the controversy of Timothy Leary as a potential San Diego Comic-Con guest, or maybe it didn’t matter to me when Shel Dorf, one of the co-founders of Comic-Con, or Richard Butner, President of Comic-Con, fretted about guests. His name wasn’t in the program book. Immersed in the pressure-cooker of undergraduate work at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) I didn’t get to many pre-con meetings where we voted on the guest list. The founders of Comic-Con were protective in many different ways. In the early days planning meetings were at Ken Krueger’s Ocean Beach Bookstore, which made more money selling ADULT Books than Comic Books. When I began attending meetings as an under-aged high school girl in 1973, there was a discussion among the founders to move the meeting place lest some concerned parent get wind of it. They didn’t want to get busted.

Poolside at the El Cortez at Comic-Con 1976, I was drawn to a group of people sitting under one of the fringed umbrellas. I was turning twenty that summer. The United States of America was turning 200. The Bicentennial theme was prevalent. Comic-Con’s Souvenir book was red, white and blue. The ratio of fans to famous people was amazing. On a stroll through the breezeway that connected the El Cortez Hotel to their convention center, you walked by the pool. Look out the big windows and you could recognize people out by the pool, chat with someone and discover they were a cherished voice character actor. Casual discussions often turned into lunch or dinner plans with a Golden Age Comic Book creator, a famous film director, or a familiar Science Fiction writer.

Or a person of international notoriety.

Timothy Leary had learned about Comic-Con from the local radio while serving his sentence at the San Diego Metropolitan Correctional Center where he worked on his most recent book. He was at the center of the circle of people who sat poolside that late July afternoon. The group discussed dinner plans, I wasn’t sure who he was at first, but then I saw those electric blue eyes and white hair. When we locked eyes I couldn’t look away. It was like staring into the dangerous cool blue yonder. I didn’t blink, I stared into that wild blue yonder the way Chuck Yeager might have before he broke the sound barrier.

At the appointed dinner coordinates, a beat up compact car came rumbling down the alley behind the El Cortez Hotel. I lifted the door latch, the interior smelled the way dead flies taste. He said, “The others are still smoking by the pool, so it’s just the two of us. Is that okay with you?”

“Of course,” I said. I felt like an astronaut with the right stuff about to be launched. He smoothed his white hair and flashed a neon smile as I fastened my seat belt.

“Does Italian sound good?” He gunned the engine.

“Yeah.” Until that day, I’d only seen him on the evening news, now it was up close. The blur of traffic in the summer dusk drowned my thoughts except to wonder what kind of a ride this was going to be.

“What do you do besides work on the Comic-Con Committee?” he said.

“I’m at U. C. San Diego figuring out what to do with my life.”

His laughter crackled like a Kansas thunderstorm. My hands smoothed my skirt and adjusted the hem. He had been a college professor blamed for destroying idealistic kids with psychedelic mind-bending drugs. Titillated, I flashed on what dinner with this guy could mean. Once the food is served, don’t look away from the table for a moment. I might discover something more in my drink than a straw.

How did I address him? Dr. Leary? Tim? Sir? He was fresh out of prison. My dinner companion gained national notoriety on the Huntley-Brinkley Report when I was in Elementary School. What else could I remember about the 1960’s? The space program, JFK and political assassinations. The Beatles swirled, chanting, like paisley macaroni sculptures spray-painted gold. I thought of Charles Manson. He had charismatic eyes too. Is that how he got the girls? What would the police report say? “Female, Caucasian, height 5′ 5″, weight 125 lbs., hair brown, eyes hazel, cause of death…” I was the kind of dizzy you get from trying to read the label on a spinning vinyl record.

This slick-handsome guy driving the car was one of the media icons of a decade. To not experience him would be like never seeing Marilyn Monroe in that white dress or never hearing Elvis Presley, or not knowing what Coca-Cola tastes like.

We pulled into the parking lot of The Old Spaghetti Factory. In 1976, it was housed in a funky warehouse, a revamped factory, which in the language of the time might be called an “elegant hangout”. There were no pictures on the menu. Going out to dinner was something unusual for me as a teenager, not the casual experience one might find now. In the restaurant we waited for our table while overhearing someone explain their trip to Washington D.C. for the Bicentennial celebration. The waitress who was in her thirties made no special fuss, like she hadn’t recognized him.

I studied him from behind the menu. He was wearing dirty sneakers with no socks. I ordered chicken Parmesan with a diet coke; he got something with red sauce and veal. He had the waitress recite the wines available by the glass.

“So what do you want to do with your life?” he said. He put his elbows on the table.

I put my elbows on the table. “I want to be happy. People laugh or call me a flake when I say I want to be happy, like I need to define myself by a job title.”

“How did you get involved with Comic-Con?”

“Patrick Henry High School friends, we read Science Fiction, we were in the same chemistry class. I don’t have to explain myself to these people, ya know? It’s gut level.”

“Terrific energy at Comic-Con,” he said. “What does it do for you?”

Something about the intensity of his face when he looked at me made me feel like I was the only person in the room.

“I feel like I’m doing something important getting ice water for Ray Bradbury or setting up easels for Jack Kirby to draw Chuck Norris as a superhero.” I took a big forkful of food to ruminate. I’d never verbalized before what I knew to be true.

Few people had drawn that out of me, it felt like this middle-aged guy eating pasta across the table saw into my head like a laser beam, but there was world-weariness about him. I relaxed. It wasn’t like staring into an eclipse of the sun or into the face of Medusa.

Then I remembered I was on a date with someone labeled The Most Dangerous Man In America and nobody knew where I was. Like staring into the crypt of the Lost Ark, what happens if you don’t avert your eyes? The devil assumes a pleasing shape and it might be the last thing you ever see in your life.

“You look like one of Charlie’s lost angels,” he smiled, swirling his wine. I felt the words wash over me, cup my chin and caress my cheek. Someone dropped silverware and I snapped out of my trance.

“What are you working on now?” I said remembering the Mark Twain quote written in Pudd’nhead Wilson, about ways to compliment an author. He sighed and twinkled. In the dim restaurant he was like one of the candles on the tables. He looked strong and fragile at the same time. “Twain” he said. “Ask a writer to let you read the manuscripts of his forthcoming book carries you clear into his heart.” I blinked several times. Was he reading my mind?

He talked about living in satellites. Space Migration, Increased Intelligence, Life Extension. S.M.I2.L.E. His gestures were like a hypnotizing pendulum, reached like curling smoke across the landscape of our table to engulf us in our little world. Around us swirled the murmuring clatter of happy patrons and aroma of comfort food.

He said, “I get my best ideas in the shower. That’s where I came up with ‘Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out.’”

I stopped chewing.

He coyly put his chin in his hand. “How old are you, Miss Sweet and Twenty?”

“I’ll be twenty in August,” I said.

His electric blue eyes registered something. “Interesting ratio. The U.S. is turning 200 the same year you’re turning twenty. Youth’s a stuff will not endure.” My quizzical look prompted him to continue.

“You don’t realize now how fortunate you are to be your age. Anything you want in the world can be yours, all you have to do is reach out your hands and take it. All you have to do is ask”.

The waitress took our plates. I excused myself for the ladies room and found the pay phone. Part of it was a reality check, was this really happening? The moment was ephemeral as the curling smoke from the tip of a stick of incense or a joint, take a snapshot. I called my girlfriend. Her father answered. Dr. Deaton was a math professor at San Diego State University (SDSU). In 1970, Dr. Deaton had told me where to look in the spring sky for the visual cymbal crash of comet Bennett. This felt like I was returning the favor.

“Daddy Deaton, I’m having dinner with Timothy Leary.”

“You don’t say, now tell me another one honey-child.”

I cupped my hand over the mouthpiece and crouched into the wall of the pay phone. “No really. He’s at Comic-Con and we’re having dinner right now at The Old Spaghetti Factory.”

“Foolish child, and you left your plate unattended? Aren’t you worried about what he’ll sprinkle on your food?” There was a sly tease in his laugh.

“If you want to meet him, there’s a Brunch at the El Cortez Sunday morning.”

There was a pause. “Really. What time? Let me get a pencil.”

Someone had recognized him. As I walked back from the ladies room, I saw how the waitress gushed at him. She primped her hair with one hand as she slid the change tray toward him on the table. What is difficult to fathom in the Large Crowd Dynamics of Comic-Con today was the accessibility of the guests. There were no bodyguards or velvet ropes. There was intimacy; there was interest and breathing room for what you had to say. Comic-Con magnetized an eclectic group at one Hotel, and I could be taken seriously as a teenage girl trying to navigate the social maze of the proto post-feminist era and post-psychedelic time. We drove back to the El Cortez, and went to check out the action by the pool.

A cloud of smoke hung over the pool, laughter and scraping chairs as we joined the group. Lola Johnson, an Earth-mother Mona Lisa, motioned for us to join her on her lounge chair. As the three of us got comfortable someone passed a joint. We were all fans now, gathered to share ideas. George Clayton Johnson was leaning against a table, grey hair the same length as mine. He wore colors you would see in only the most rare tropical flower. The pool lights glinted off his black frame glasses. The discussion focused on the new film, LOGAN’S RUN, based on a novel he co-authored with William F. Nolan. “Yeah, Bill’s the cop and I’m the hippy,” he said with a radiant smile.

“Why did they change Logan’s age for the film?” someone said.

“No one would believe the star was twenty,” another person called out.

George laughed, “They wouldn’t let me into their damn story conferences.”

“Youth flames out quickly,” said Timothy Leary. Everyone’s attention hung like the smoke over the pool.

“Live hard, die young and leave a clean corpse,” someone said. And I settled back into the comfort of my companions high on brilliant company and cannabis. My hair smelled like a sweet brush fire.

The next morning, Timothy Leary sat with his pen poised to autograph his book What Does WoMan Want? I was putting on my lipstick. “How would you like me to inscribe your book?”

“Anything you want,” I said. I wasn’t going to tell him what to write. He wrote, “To Miss Sweet and Twenty, Anything you want – ” then with a mischievous smile dashed out “is yours!”

I walked away hugging the book to my chest, lost yet at the same moment feeling the bright laser spotlight of the moment. I was bathed in sapphire light, my heels were rocket engines propelling me toward my destiny and I’d held one of the secrets of life in my arms.

Thanks in large measure to her Comic-Con experiences, Wendy All currently and happily works as a toy designer instead of a geologist. To see her work, visit http://www.wendyall.com/.

About her photograph, Wendy writes, “The photo of me was taken sometime in 1976, around the time of my first encounter with Timothy Leary by my friend Joel West. We were walking around La Jolla… I’m sitting at an outdoor coffee shop.” Click here for a larger view of the photograph.

You can read more about Timothy Leary as well as the source of his photograph at http://www.answers.com/topic/timothy-leary. For more on Timothy Leary at Comic-Con, see Barry Alfonso’s article “My Comic-Con Trip with Dr. Timothy Leary”.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Steve Chaput March 5, 2011 at 3:00 pm

I was going upstairs to my room, waiting for the elevator in the lobby. The doors opened and this tanned and smiling guy comes out of the elevator. All I could do was stand there with my mouth open. Dr. Timothy Leary! If only I had said something or asked to shake his hand. I only remember him nodding at me, knowing that I instantly recognized him. My second SDCC and one of many incidents from a number of cons I will always remember.

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Kristin Hiibner June 14, 2010 at 11:43 am

Love your final version of the story, Wendy. FABULOUS. Just like you.

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Helene Sachs May 13, 2010 at 7:59 pm

Awesome story. You certainly have a way with the words. Loved it!

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Robert Beerbohm May 12, 2010 at 3:02 pm

Amazing tale. Excellent word-smithing, too. Thanks for sharing.

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