Today is the birthday (1935) of Kenneth Elton “Ken” Kesey, U.S. author and countercultural figure who considered himself a link between the Beat Generation of the 1950s and the hippies of the 1960s. Ken Kesey was born in La Junta, Colorado, to dairy farmers Geneva (née Smith) and Frederick A. Kesey. In 1946, the family moved to Springfield, Oregon. Kesey was a champion wrestler in both high school and college in the 174 pound weight division, and he almost qualified to be on the Olympic team until a serious shoulder injury stopped his wrestling career. He graduated from Springfield High School in 1953. He was an avid reader and filmgoer, and took John Wayne, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Zane Grey as his role models (later naming a son Zane) and toyed with magic, ventriloquism, and hypnotism.
In 1956, while attending college at the University of Oregon in neighboring Eugene, Oregon, Kesey eloped with his high-school sweetheart, Norma “Faye” Haxby, whom he had met in seventh grade. “Without Faye, I would have been swept overboard by notoriety and weird, dope-fueled ideas and flower-child girls with beamy eyes and bulbous breasts.” No comment. They were married until his death at age 66 and had three children: Jed, Zane, and Shannon; Kesey had another child, Sunshine, in 1966 with fellow Merry Prankster Carolyn “Mountain Girl” Adams. So . . . although not “swept overboard” he was not monogamous.
Kesey had a football scholarship for his freshman year, but switched to University of Oregon wrestling team as a better fit to his build. After posting a .885 winning percentage in the 1956–57 season, he received the Fred Low Scholarship for outstanding Northwest wrestler. In 1957, Kesey was second in his weight class at the Pacific Coast intercollegiate competition. He remains ranked in the top 10 of Oregon Wrestling’s all time winning percentage.”
A frat boy, Kesey graduated from the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Speech and Communication in 1957. After a brief stint as a struggling actor in Los Angeles, he was awarded a Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship in 1958. Because he lacked the prerequisites to work toward a master’s degree in English, Kesey elected to enroll in the non-degree creative writing program at Stanford University that fall, where he would develop lifelong friendships with Ken Babbs, Larry McMurtry, Wendell Berry, Ed McClanahan, Gurney Norman, and Robert Stone.
While at Stanford, Kesey lived on Perry Lane (an historically bohemian enclave adjacent to the university golf course) and clashed with program director Wallace Stegner, who had previously rejected Kesey’s application for a departmental Stegner Fellowship before permitting his attendance on the Woodrow Wilson grant. According to Stone, Stegner “saw Kesey… as a threat to civilization and intellectualism and sobriety” and continued to reject Kesey’s Stegner Fellowship applications for the 1959–60 and 1960–61 terms. Nevertheless, Kesey received the prestigious $2,000 Harper-Saxton Prize for his first novel in progress (the often-rejected Zoo) and continued to audit the graduate writing seminar—a courtesy accorded to former students, including Tillie Olsen—through the 1960-1961 academic year (taught that year by Frank O’Connor and the more congenial Malcolm Cowley, who was happy to see Kesey) as he began the manuscript that would become One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
At the instigation of Perry Lane neighbor and Stanford psychology graduate student Vik Lovell, an acquaintance of Richard Alpert and Allen Ginsberg, Kesey volunteered to take part in what turned out to be a CIA-financed study under the aegis of Project MKULTRA, a highly secret military program, at the Menlo Park Veterans Hospital where he worked as a night aide. The project studied the effects of psychoactive drugs, particularly LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, cocaine, αMT, and DMT on people. Kesey wrote many detailed accounts of his experiences with these drugs, both during the study and in the years of private experimentation that followed.
Kesey’s role as a medical guinea pig, as well as his time working at the state veterans’ hospital, inspired him to write One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The success of this book, as well as the demolition of the Perry Lane cabins in August 1963, allowed him to move to a log house at 7940 La Honda Road in La Honda, California, about 45 minutes into the dark, forested hills that lie west of Perry Lane. He frequently entertained friends and others with parties he called “Acid Tests”, involving music (such as Kesey’s favorite band, The Warlocks, later known as the Grateful Dead), black lights, fluorescent paint, strobes, and other “psychedelic” effects, and, of course, LSD. These parties were noted in some of Ginsberg’s poems and are also described in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, as well as Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs by Hunter S. Thompson and Freewheelin Frank, Secretary of the Hell’s Angels by Frank Reynolds.
In 1959, Kesey wrote Zoo, a novel about the beatniks living in the North Beach community of San Francisco, but it was never published. In 1960, he wrote End of Autumn, about a young man who leaves his working-class family after he gets a scholarship to an Ivy League school, also unpublished.
The inspiration for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest came while working on the night shift (with Gordon Lish) at the Menlo Park Veterans’ Hospital. There, Kesey often spent time talking to the patients, sometimes under the influence of the hallucinogenic drugs with which he had volunteered to experiment. Kesey did not believe that these patients were insane, but rather that society had pushed them out because they did not fit the conventional ideas of how people were supposed to act and behave. Published under the guidance of Cowley in 1962, the novel was an immediate success; in 1963, it was adapted into a successful stage play by Dale Wasserman, and in 1975, Miloš Forman directed a screen adaptation, which won the “Big Five” Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actor (Jack Nicholson), Best Actress (Louise Fletcher), Best Director (Forman), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Lawrence Hauben, Bo Goldman).
Kesey originally was involved in creating the film, but left two weeks into production. He claimed never to have seen the movie because of a dispute over the $20,000 he was initially paid for the film rights. Kesey loathed the fact that, unlike the book, the film was not narrated by the Chief Bromden character, and he disagreed with Jack Nicholson’s being cast as Randle McMurphy (he wanted Gene Hackman). Despite this, Faye Kesey has stated that Ken was generally supportive of the film and pleased that it was made.
When the publication of his second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion in 1964, required his presence in New York, Kesey, Neal Cassady, and others in a group of friends they called the “Merry Pranksters” took a cross-country trip in a school bus nicknamed “Further.” This trip, described in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (and later in Kesey’s own screenplay “The Further Inquiry”) was the group’s attempt to create art out of everyday life, and to experience roadway America while high on LSD. In an interview after arriving in New York, Kesey is quoted as saying, “The sense of communication in this country has damn near atrophied. But we found as we went along it got easier to make contact with people. If people could just understand it is possible to be different without being a threat.” A huge amount of footage was filmed on 16mm cameras during the trip which remained largely unseen until the release of the documentary film “Magic Trip” in 2011.
After the bus trip, the Pranksters threw parties they called “Acid Tests” around the San Francisco Bay Area from 1965 to 1966. Many of the Pranksters lived at Kesey’s residence in La Honda. In New York, Cassady introduced Kesey to Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, who then turned them on to Timothy Leary. Sometimes a Great Notion inspired a 1970 film starring and directed by Paul Newman; it was nominated for two Academy Awards, and in 1972 was the first film shown by the new television network HBO, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.
Kesey was arrested for possession of marijuana in 1965. In an attempt to mislead police, he faked suicide by having friends leave his truck on a cliff-side road near Eureka, along with an elaborate suicide note, written by the Pranksters. Kesey fled to Mexico in the back of a friend’s car. When he returned to the United States eight months later, Kesey was arrested and sent to the San Mateo County jail in Redwood City, California, for five months where he was introduced to a highly recommended San Francisco lawyer, Richard Potack, who specialized in marijuana cultivation. On his release, he moved back to the family farm in Pleasant Hill, Oregon, in the Willamette Valley, where he spent the rest of his life. He wrote many articles, books (mostly collections of his articles), and short stories during that time.
Kesey was diagnosed with diabetes in 1992. In 1994, he toured with members of the Merry Pranksters performing a musical play he wrote about the millennium called “Twister: A Ritual Reality.” Many old and new friends and family showed up to support the Pranksters on this tour that took them from Seattle’s Bumbershoot, all along the West Coast including a sold out two-night run at The Fillmore in San Francisco to Boulder, Colorado, where they coaxed the Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg into performing with them.
Kesey mainly kept to his home life in Pleasant Hill, preferring to make artistic contributions on the Internet or holding ritualistic revivals in the spirit of the Acid Test. In the official Grateful Dead DVD release The Closing of Winterland (2003) documenting the monumental New Year’s 1978/1979 concert at the Winterland Arena in San Francisco, Kesey is featured in a between-set interview.
In June 2001, Kesey was invited and accepted as the keynote speaker at the annual commencement of The Evergreen State College. His last major work was an essay for Rolling Stone magazine calling for peace in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.
In 1997, health problems began to weaken him, starting with a stroke that year. On October 25, 2001 Kesey had surgery on his liver to remove a tumor. He did not recover from that operation and died of complications on November 10, 2001 at age 66.
I’m really torn about Kesey and his legacy, mostly because I am torn about the 1960s and counterculture in general. I was smack in the middle of it all in some ways, as a college student, and on the sidelines in other ways. I was well on my way to becoming an anthropologist and ethnomusicologist at the time, and so was more interested in world cultures and travel than in the usual sex, drugs, and rock and roll of the 60’s and early 70s. Therefore I saw the relatively hedonistic, anti-establishment attitudes of hippies as largely irrelevant to my life, and, to tell the truth, rather trivial. Once you understand the centuries-old traditions of psycho-active drugs in non-Western cultures and their associations with healing, spirituality, and the like, the Acid Tests seem like not much more than bourgeois parties. Kesey’s association with the Hell’s Angels also troubles me. I can see the attraction in some ways. The Angels are certainly countercultural, but not in a way I want any part of. Sometimes, Kesey can be on the money, however. His analysis of people who are institutionalized is spot on; many, many inpatients in psychiatric wards would be considered important figures in other cultures. They are marginalized in the West because their values are not “normal.” Avoiding being “normal” is my life’s work. Kesey’s “movement” had little staying power because his followers grew up and moved on, becoming part of the Establishment themselves, for the most part Still, I suppose it’s all right to remember an era and what it supposedly stood for. I’m still an anthropologist, still world traveling, and still much more interested in global diversity than fighting the Western Establishment which seems to me to be incurably corrupt, violent, and exploitive.
I’ve posted now and again on hippie/psychedelic dishes in the past. Famed druggie Aldous Huxley gave us a recipe for psychedelic cole slaw https://www.bookofdaystales.com/aldous-huxley/ . This same idea can be extended into “tie-dyed” cake baking which I imagine I will get round to posting recipes for at some point.
The musical Hair brought us that most famous of hippie dishes, tabouli salad https://www.bookofdaystales.com/hair/ . However, we should also not forget that not all hippies were about bean sprouts and quiche. Many were hooked on soda and junk food. So I thought I’d take a decidedly left turn and give you a video on the making of psychedelic veal medallions by a Michelin 3-star chef. His musings on intellect and spirituality are quite hippie-esque. Well worth a look.