scenes from the writing life: robert stone on ken kesey, charles manson and the california of the late ’60s



A Hollywood joke of what might be called the “Manson period”: You’re in Hollywood, you’re walking the streets, you’ve eaten nothing but bananas (what else?) for four days. As you droop at the corner of Hollywood and Vine, a long black limousine pulls up beside you. The door opens: a fat man with short arms emerges. He’s wearing a beret and jodhpurs and there’s a cigarette holder between his lips. He’s definitely in the movies. He’s holding a sandwich and he says, “Hey, kid.”


Your attention is arrested. The sandwich is a very tasty-looking California sandwich, full of good things, like avocado and watercress. And you know somehow that it’s not just nourishment, but maybe…a career!


“You want this?” asks the Hollywood man. “It’s yours!”


You’re so hungry. It’s been days. You couldn’t face another banana even if you had one. You reach out. You reach out joyfully. Just at the moment when you’re about to take it, you notice that, so inconspicuously, on one corner, there’s a virtually infinitesimal but unarguably present teeny dab of shit. Naturally you hesitate. You stay your hand, you consider. Then, greedily, you seize the thing. You’re thinking: “I’ll eat around it.”


One day everything changed. One afternoon Janice and I were smoking dope with a couple of actors, a married couple, around our age. They were friends of John Wayne’s and often appeared in his westerns, and they observed that he would not have approved of their smoking gage. 


The wife had been to the beach, where she said she had seen two animals fighting. 


“What kind of animals?” I asked her, picturing, I suppose, Kodiak bears or elephant seals.


“I think…I think,” ventured the stoned lovely, “I think they were winkles.”


Everyone watched in leaden-eyed tolerance while I rolled around the fuzzy rug, convulsed. It was the funniest line I had ever heard in my life. Forty minutes later, when I had suppressed my last yak, we went outside to look over BenedictCanyon. It was the kind of Los Angeles summer day that Nathanael West could describe with such exquisitely turned admiration and loathing. Sumptuous, sensual, euphorbia-scented. Hummingbirds sipped nectar.


“That’s the house,” the young woman who had seen the animals said.


The four of us stood and looked down at an attractive greenswarded property on Cielo Drive in Bel-Air. I had stopped laughing. For quite a while we stood and looked at it. Everyone had to have a look.


I was walking into the coffee shop of the Beverly Hills Hotel the next day, and a couple of women who worked in the gift shop were in close converse. One listened open-mouthed and pale. The other, the speaker, said her husband was a deputy and had been to the house. He had seen awful things there and had been unable not to tell her.


“He said it looked like a fag murder,” the deputy’s wife said.


I filed the line away, never to use it, but her story sort of spoiled my day. I went back to the Chateau to do a joint with Janice.


“Where did you get the dope?” she asked. “Did you buy some?”


It was Jay Sebring’s dope, and he had given it to me at a party. Jay Sebring, who had named himself after the Florida seaside raceway, was now dead, a victim of the Mansonites. He had been a hairdresser from New Jersey, had reinvented himself in the Hollywood style, a nice man. He was a friend of Abigail Folger, a woman I knew a little. Abigail was born to ride in pursuit of those boars up in the CarmelValley, as beautiful a flower of California as grew. Her wealth came from coffee. She was intelligent and kind and as classy as could be. She spent a lot of time volunteering with children in Watts. Many people say they will never forget what she was like, what her smile was like, until the young nonconformists eviscerated her to write misunderstood Beatles lyrics in blood on the wall of the house on Cielo Drive.


It was saturnalia time in Hollywood, a very grim feast of the meaningless. The youngsters disappeared from the boulevard as though the bad father of the feast had eaten them. For some time Manson went uncaught and the police put out false leads. Before his capture, the most extraordinary speculations as to motive and perpetrator went around. The most unsettling involved the number of people who suspected one another of having a hand in the murders. This included famous people who used not to do such things.


Then the Manson Family went down, and the theorizing and the interpretation exfoliated. Nixon had done it. Why? To embarrass the antiwar movement. A well-known person offered a theory that naval intelligence had killed the victims, which I personally resented. A droll speculation, that one, because it involved the CNO, old Mormon Admiral Moorer, reviving the Phineas Priesthood and sending forth the assassins, all in the name of victory in Vietnam.


Fear appeared in a handful of dust. When the bearded trolls and their consorts were run out of town, fear remained. People hired bodyguards. At one house (I swear) the protection would follow a swimmer doing laps up and down the length of the swimming pool, admittedly a very long one. One movie person claimed she had fired her security when the man asked if he could come inside and play the piano.


“I’d just as soon…you know.” Indeed.


Something over five years after the John F. Kennedy assassination, and the event had something of the same resounding emptiness. Hollywood is a self-referential place and then as now it was full of rise and fall and blighted hopes, anger, disappointment, dope, and toadying and jealousy. Everything except maybe good sex. Suddenly something happens that makes everything even less sensible and significant than before, the total nothingness at the heart of thingness explodes in front of you. Not everyone’s a philosopher. Never did the lights go on so fast and the glitz come off the columns and the glass balls shatter as in the wake of a couple of murders.


Things could not be made to be the same. There was an earthquake, really–a small one, but we felt it at Oblath’s.


A number of people who were friends or acquaintances of Kesey passed through town. Kesey’s credo was that nothing human was alien to him, and most folks were close enough. Ken’s friends, a wandering band known as the Hog Farm, had coalesced around a cultural figure who called himself Wavy Gravy. Wavy had once been a cafe poet in New York and had followed the sixties trail to California, where some transcendent experience had provided him with a renewed identity and new name. One of the stories current about him was that he had been cashiered from the comedy troupe the Committee for appearing for a show in a tweed jacket with salami arm patches. The Hog Farmers were fine young people for all I ever knew, but it was bruited about that they spent some time out at the Spahn Movie Ranch with the Mansonites. Me, I was a friend of Kesey’s, too, a friend of a friend of Richard Baba Ram Dass Alpert, who had bum-tripped me back when. Alpert was the ex-colleague of Timothy Leary, who knew everyone and had connections with the Brotherhood of Eternal Life, who were considered heavy. And connections proliferated. Leary’s “archivist” was my NYU and Paris pal Michael, the man who would go on to become the father of a beautiful movie star, although this was naturally unknown at the time. We were smoking Jay Sebring’s dope, and so on and so on.


As the summer of 1969 lengthened, there was a whole lot of shaving going on in

Los Angeles. Good-humored tolerance of the neo-bohemian scene was suspended, and whatever it was was not funny. Fear inhibited.

We decided to go back to England. Life was sane, sort of, and relatively predictable. Before setting out for London we went to what might be called a farewell party. Nitrous oxide was currently big on the scene. In the nineteenth century, many will know, it played a role in American scientific and intellectual history. At Harvard, the very place Ram Dass and Leary were experimenting with LSD and turning students on to William James, the author of The Varieties of Religious Experience and brother of Henry, the brother of the master novelist had conducted his own experiment with nitrous oxide, some eighty-odd years earlier. Nitrous oxide was used early as an anesthetic in dentistry, and Harvard students had taken to frolicking with the stuff. So joyous were the cries of delighted insight that Professor James heard echoing through the Yard that the liberal-minded and adventurous scholar thought he might try some.


One evening the savant set a tank by his bed, connected to a pipe. As the chimes sounded across the gables, Professor James passed into a profound reverie. Suddenly he came to consciousness, his intellection ablaze with discovery. He had happened, with the aid of this wonderful elixir, on the very meaning–but the very meaning!–of life. Pen and ink were at hand. No sooner had he time to write than a second drowsy numbness passed over him. In the morning he awakened to the merry bells. Leaping from his stern scholar’s bed, he seized the sheet of paper upon which he had inscribed life’s meaning.


This is what he had written:


          Hoggamous Higgamous, Man is Polygamous
          Higgamous Hoggamous, Woman is Monogamous.

How true! And even the obvious must be reexperienced down the generations. That this wisdom not perish but be found by each age in its time may have been the reason for the sudden very-late-sixties popularity of nitrous oxide.


Another joke of the era:


“Man, can you fix me with a doctor that writes?”


“No, man. But I can put you with a hip dentist.”


Anyway, nitrous oxide and its discontents. The party we were attending was indeed a farewell party, since we were bound back to England, now home. But it was, further, a farewell party for the late owner of the nitrous oxide, a graduate student who had delighted in taking his gas while relaxing in a hot bath. While asoak, the luckless man passed out. While he was out, his head slipped beneath the water to rise…never.


Farewell, as Poe observes, the very word is like a bell, and Poe and this graduate student I’m certain would have liked each other.


There was a lot of gas left over, which was good because there were a lot of us there. Here I steel myself for confession. Few readers will fail to experience outrage at what I now feel bound to disclose. But if there is a God in heaven–William James would have known it.


All right, our kids were with us. Everybody’s kids were with them. So we were doing gas with balloons, and you know how kids are with balloons. I mean you had to be there. It was a beautiful day. The kids were having such fun! There was so much gas. And it was hardly as though the late owner of the gas were lying there drowned in a bathtub; he had passed on, and he certainly didn’t require any more gas.


And the kids so liked the balloons, and of course they liked the gas too, taking the gas from the balloons. How this happened, what happened next, nobody is sure because everybody was ripped and fighting greedily over the gas, and the children were fighting greedily over the gas too. So to square it, even-steven it, we declared, we the adult authority, come on, kids, just one balloon’s worth to a kid.


When, would you believe, this one little tyke made this snarky face right at me and said ha ha or hee hee or some shit, “These aren’t balloons! They’re condoms!” And by the spirit of William James, they were condoms. We’d been getting loaded watching small innocent children sucking gas from condoms.


So if the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children had finally caught up with me there, would not the cry have been: Exterminate the brutes!


So we left for London.


—from Robert Stone’s memoir Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties