Millbrook, New York is a sleepy upstate town (pop. 1350) with a good diner, a bowling alley and a firehouse where there’s a dance every Valentines Day. It’s also home to a number of robber-baron era estates garnished with country homes and villas. John Foreman lives in one of these — a 38-room, white clapboard production of towers, verandahs and bay windows that brings a Transylvanian wedding cake to mind. The 52-year-old real estate broker works about 85 miles south in Manhattan where he has an apartment on the Upper East Side, but he considers the Millbrook house, where he has spent his weekends for the last 18 years, home. Set back a mile from the main road, beyond an impressive stone gatehouse, it can be accessed by invitation only.
The house has been called everything from “Queen Ann-style” to “Bavarian baroque,” but Charles Dieterich, the German-born acetylene gas magnate who built it as the main dwelling on his summer estate at the turn of the last century, simply called it “Daheim” — or home — a name Foreman carries on. A babbling stream flows north past Daheim, beneath a wrought-iron gate that opens on to 2,500 acres of cattle pasture and Hudson Valley back-country. Lunacy Hill unfurls out there along with sister hill, Ecstasy — names forgotten by all but those who lived on or visited the estate during the 1960′s, when the landscape was defined by the mansion’s then-tenants, a group of Harvard researchers led by Timothy Leary.
In 1963 Leary and colleagues Richard Alpert and Ralph Metzner launched the first of what was intended to be a string of psychedelic drug research centers at the mansion, in what they referred to as the “Big House.” Leary wrote his version of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, “The Psychedelic Experience,” in its drafty, wood-paneled rooms, and coined the rallying cry for the psychedelic movement, “Tune in, turn on, drop out,” in one of its showers. As ground zero for the psychedelic movement in America, the house hosted some of the most controversial and visionary personalities of the 1960’s.
Despite having served as a country outpost for American social and cultural movers over the last century Daheim has reverted to an eccentric house in the middle of a cow pasture. Yet odd details like the small water-stained American flag fastened to the corner of a dusty upstairs window, and the 70’s-era Cadillac under a drop cloth in the driveway, hint at the libertarian spirit and hedonistic lifestyle that once reigned here made it a destination for seekers from around the world.
In Flashbacks, his 1984 memoir, Leary describes the place as a “magical location” surrounded by elegant lawns, stables and an ornate two story chalet.”
The house belonged to the Hitchcocks, one of the more individualistic branches of the Andrew Mellon family. In the early 1960’s Peggy Hitchcock drifted into the whirlpool of academics, psychiatrists and hipsters that centered on Leary’s controversial Harvard Psylocybin Project in Cambridge which involved administering psychedelics to prisoners, graduate students and others interested in exploring uncharted realms of consciousness.
Following a brief affair with Leary, Hitchcock, then a jet-setting heiress in her late 20s, arranged for her brother William, a young stockbroker at Lehman Brothers, to be guided through an LSD trip. The experience appealed to William’s entrepreneurial aspirations. Envisioning the drug as a conduit to stock market success, he let the Harvard group use the Dieterich house, which was one of several on the rambling cattle ranch he and his brother had recently purchased in Millbrook, as a research center.
Taking the basis of Dieterich’s fortune – widespread illumination resulting from the adoption of acetylene gas lighting across the country– as a good omen, the hopeful dons left Boston and headed for Millbrook.
Upon arriving, the group’s first task was to pry the boards off the windows of the house, which had been shut down while the estate passed from Charles Dieterich’s heirs through Walter Tiegel, then-president of Standard Oil, to the Hitchcock family who own it to this day. Like many late-Victorian homes of the era, it had undergone a period of neglect. In the 1960’s the style was widely considered to be dark and dingy and buildings from the period were often razed. The Dieterich house survived by a fluke. Under Leary’s guidance the place was rehabilitated and furnished in a Middle Eastern harem-style, which was both cheap and conducive to far-out mental voyages. The house would eventually hold a fully stocked hotel-sized kitchen, a comprehensive library and a sound studio. Like Hugh Hefner in the Playboy Mansion, Leary — charming, glib and charismatic — created a sanctuary, isolated from the outside world, where the human capacity for revelation, wonder and mysticism could be nurtured and explored.
LSD was legal in the early 1960’s and visitors to the estate could take the drug in any way they wanted, provided they wrote up a report afterwards. By most accounts, people under the influence spent a great deal of time chanting, listening to records and skinny-dipping in a nearby pond.
The psychedelic movement was evolving concurrently with the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution, the anti-war movement and rock and roll, and all of these elements were part of the comic drama that was allowed to play itself out on the stage of Millbrook in an atmosphere of genteel anarchy that rendered all things permissible.
On any given night, Peggy Mellon might drop in for cocktails in an evening gown, while Ralph Metzner wandered around in a pair of psychedelic glasses fitted with tiny strobes and resident musician Maynard Ferguson blew jazz trumpet on the roof. Visitors — from behavioral psychologist R.D. Laing to pop-Buddhist teacher Alan Watts — came to experience the buzzed-about happenings at Millbrook firsthand. Warhol superstar Viva occasionally drove up on weekends to unwind from the frenetic pace of New York City and drop acid with professors from Harvard, MIT and Princeton. Timothy Leary once married a Swedish model on the lawn, Allen Ginsberg and companion Peter Orlovsky experimented with nudism and jazz legend Charles Mingus tested his paranoia level by allowing the predominantly white residents to lock him in a walk-in freezer.
As Leary put it in Flashbacks: “We saw ourselves as anthopologists from the 21st century inhabiting a time module set somewhere in the Dark Ages of the 1960’s. On this space colony we were attempting to create a new paganism and a new dedication to life as art.”
The renegade researchers believed that, like Ralph Waldo Emerson before them, their efforts would one day be appreciated and immortalized. But high-minded social experiments designed to chart untapped regions of the human brain and facilitate the liberation of humankind proved to be a hard sell among the residents of bucolic Millbrook.
“Once in a great, great while I’d have people come into the store and kid me about it.” recalls John Kading, who owned the Millbrook general store when Leary and his group lived on the Hitchcock Estate between 1963 and 1968. Kading is now 71, retired, and lives in a comfortable farm house across the road from the estate gatehouse. He has a barn full of sheep and a garage crammed with psychedelic-era bric-a-brac given to him over the years by estate residents.
“‘Is this where Leary was?’ they would say, ‘Well I used to come up here with my gang and my friends.’”
Kading is glad to reminisce about the 1960’s in Millbrook, and was fond enough of Leary, to whom he sold The New York Times each morning, to follow his career until Leary died of inoperable prostate cancer in 1996. Yet he maintains a small town disapproval of Leary’s legacy. The early years of Leary’s residence in Millbrook were, by most accounts, quiet and amicable. A revolving cast of estate denizens spent money in local shops and got along well with the town’s residents. But as news of events at Millbrook spread beyond the exclusive worlds of academia and old money, curiosity-seekers began to turn up in growing numbers and life on the Hitchcock estate took on an increasingly menacing quality.
“The longer he (stayed) the more and more kids kept coming up,” recalls Kading “I was on the ambulance squad at that time so there was many a call I’d make to the estate picking up these kids who were so out of it that it was unbelievable. We’d take them into St. Francis Hospital and they spent some time in there and that went on for quite a while.”
By the summer of 1965 life in the Big House was evolving from a quiet scholarly community to a drug resort where rowdy urbanites were using LSD to fuel omnisexual fun. The potent mid-60’s mixture of LSD and birth control pills proved to be too much for many of the local residents living along the peripheries of the estate. When rumors began to spread that acid and panties were being dropped with equal nonchalance at the Hitchcock estate, local parents waged a campaign to drive Leary from his lair.
In the fall of 1966, the house was raided by the Dutchess County sheriff’s office and assistant district attorney G. Gordon Liddy, who would go on to infamy (and a succession of federal prisons), for engineering the Watergate break-in.
The event marked the first encounter between Liddy and Leary, political and ideological rivals who would subsequently travel the lecture circuit together years later in a wildly successful point-counterpoint discourse on drugs and politics. Liddy’s account of the conversation they had in a quiet broom closet under the stairs of the Big House on the night of the raid in Will, his 1980 autobiography, serves as a vivid illustration of the clash between conservative and libertarian ideologies in the 1960s:
“This raid,” said Leary, “is the product of ignorance and fear.”
“This raid,” I replied, “is the product of a search warrant issued by the state of New York.”
We sparred like that for a few minutes, he trying to get me to see the error of my ways, I trying to pick up something I could use against him. Neither of us was very successful.
“The time will come,” Leary said finally, “when there will be a statue of me erected in Millbrook.”
We were both smiling. “I’m afraid the closest you’ll come is a burning effigy in the village square.” Leary rose and, by mutual acknowledgement, the interview was over.”
Liddy’s prediction turned out to be closer to the mark.
Despite the fact that no illegal drugs were found on the premises that night, a campaign of harassment ensued. Community disapproval and incessant police raids combined with dwindling financial resources to drive Leary out of Millbrook. Infighting among the tenants who remained resulted in members of Leary’s core research group moving to other dwellings on the estate or leaving Millbrook altogether. Eventually, the water and power were turned off and the doors to the Big House were locked. A giant yin and yang sign was spray-painted on the side of the house by one of the many starry-eyed pilgrims who camped out on the property and used the house as a comfort station. The Leary-era had come full circle. Soon an odious pall would settle on the derelict house. Leary’s legacy would dog Millbrook like a hangover that would worsen in direct proportion to the degree that the utopianism of the 1960’s faded.
John Kading recalls it.
“I can remember pulling up to the Ramble Inn Restaurant just outside Millbrook, which is now (The Daytop Village Rehabilitation Hospital.) We had a businessman’s dinner. Timothy Leary was there and I think he was one of the speakers. He spoke about what he was doing as far as the businessman’s association was concerned — and he at that meeting, believe it or not said: ‘Some day you people of Millbrook are going to build a monument in my memory of what I am doing here today.’ And you know what the monument is today? Daytop Village. All those kids up there in rehab.”
“We had a good ball here — a masked ball last weekend,” says John Foreman in his drafty book-lined den. “Everyone was in costumes. We had a band called The Flying Neutrinos. They were great!”
Foreman is tall, thin and just at the point when blonde hair begins to turn white. He is wearing an old powder-blue sweater with a hole at the elbow and mud-splattered riding boots. From his doorstep he can see a great expanse of muddy lawn with leafless winter trees clustered in the distance. A cat walks into room and meows at him. “Oh, there you are,” he says, scooping it up serenely. It is one of half a dozen cats that wander freely through the house.
Foreman shares the 38-room mansion with his 17-year-old daughter and ex-wife. Seven bedrooms and a servant’s quarters are currently in use and expertly if incompletely furnished with 19th and early 20th century antiques. Having published a number of articles on the era along with a book about the Vanderbilts’ estates, Foreman has used his expertise to restore a semblance of Victorian grandeur to the Dieterich estate. When he first came upon the house 18 years ago, it was uninhabitable and, had he not stepped in, it would likely have been destroyed.
Following the abuse it suffered at the hands of people Foreman refers to as “hippies,” it had been boarded up for ten years and was well into the final stages of structural degeneration.
“There were bats, mice, everything,” he recalls. “The ceilings were falling in. The plumbing had been allowed to freeze up. When I moved in here we turned on the water and just waited to see where it would start spouting through the walls and then that’s what we fixed. The boys from the property had established a perimeter around it with little bits of everything from snow fence to chain-link fence and it enclosed a dog run that ran all the way around the house in which they had an albino Great Dane named Geronimo.”
The first task for Foreman, as it had been for Leary two decades before, was prying the boards from the windows and cleaning the place up.
“I found a letter from Richard Alpert’s mother to him thanking him for a book.” recalls Foreman. “And it was amusing because she was totally in the dark as to what the hell was going on in his head at the time.”
Having graduated from college in the Summer of Love, and experimented with the psychedelic drugs of the era, Foreman is hip to the events that unfolded in the house during the Leary years but admits to no nostalgia.
“I’m very fond of this house but the psychedelic era is not what characterizes it. It was a passage — an unusual one. I lived through that. I was a hippie myself and I was certain the world was changing, the Aquarian age was coming and America was being greened — I’m no longer quite at that point.” says Foreman who, in middle age, has given up drugs like LSD and alcohol for somatic stimulants like horseback riding. With a view tempered by firsthand experience of the utopian crusades of the 1960s, Forman sees Leary, less as a fool than a fellow traveler.
“I look at the world around me and I see humanity striving for greater consciousness and I suppose that Leary at his best was sort of part of that movement. I think he was, perhaps,(a more self-indulgent person than many) and I’ve been there myself. I can’t believe he was any great hero — but neither was he a villain.”
Like the old Cadillac Foreman keeps under wraps in the driveway, the Leary years at Millbrook speak of a hedonism that can only be marveled at today. Isolated from the world at large and closed off from the Village of Millbrook by a functioning gatehouse, life at the Big House between 1963 and 1968 may have seemed like Camelot to those living there, but it looked like Frankenstein’s moated asylum to those outside. The fact that members of Leary’s group viewed themselves as an enlightened priesthhod offering humanity a shortcut to bliss while members of the establishment saw them as drug addled nuts running wild in the woods of Dutchess County, illustrates the extent to which the events that unfolded in the Big House embodied in miniature the yin and yang of the 1960’s.
Though the revolution Leary and his colleagues championed was demonized instead of lauded, there is no denying that the movement they spawned at Millbrook reverberated throughout the country in the psychedelic movement that altered the consciousness of a generation. Testaments to their work are today evident from the MOMA to the White House – Clinton’s, in any case. In 1995 I had an opportunity to talk with Timothy Leary about the future of technology. His predictions have proven to be remarkably accurate. Here is the transcript of our interview.