In the latest episode of Mad Men Roger Sterling, the silver-haired drunkard rascal of SCDP, attends a high society LSD party. For some 21st century viewers this seemed strange – wasn’t LSD a hippie drug? Wasn’t it all about long hairs and weird tribal imagery? Eventually that would be the case, but the early of history of acid – before it became illegal – was filled with trippers who were at the very top of the social order – the richest and most famous people in America.
LSD was first synthesized in 1938 by Dr. Albert Hoffman in Switzerland, but it wasn’t until five years later that anybody knew what it did to you. That’s because it wasn’t until 1943 that Hoffman accidentally took some of the drug and embarked on history’s first acid trip. While man had been tripping on hallucinogens since the dawn of time – we have receptors in our brains designed to accept psychotropic chemicals – acid is quite different. And besides, it’s unlikely that Dr. Hoffman was doing a lot of peyote, so he wasn’t very prepared. His first experience was actually fairly nice, but three days later – April 19! A day before dumb 420! – he dosed himself on purpose. That didn’t go so well; bicycling home he really fell apart, thinking his neighbor was a witch and that LSD had poisoned him. Eventually he got his shit together and had a nice finale to the trip.
Everybody knows that the CIA seized on acid as a possible mind control drug, using it in their MKULTRA experiments. They would pay prostitutes to dose unsuspecting businessmen and then watch what happened; there were deaths, including that of Frank Olson, who either freaked out and jumped from a 13th floor window or was pushed by the CIA (the reason he was pushed, perhaps: he knew that in 1951 the CIA had dosed an entire French town, Pont-Saint-Esprit, leading to 50 psychotic episodes, a number of people being institutionalized and four deaths).
But acid wasn’t just being used for sinister purposes. At the same time that the CIA was conducting MKULTRA experiments, a Los Angeles psychiatrist named Oscar Janiger began experimenting with the drug for therapy, with a special focus on how it impacted creativity. While Timothy Leary will forever be remembered as the foremost medical advocate for LSD, Janiger was the true pioneer. His patients included Aldous Huxley (who had already written The Doors of Perception about his experiments with mescaline), Anais Nin, Andre Previn, James Coburn, Billy Wilder’s writing partner Charles Brackett and Cary Grant. Grant dropped acid probably well over a hundred times, a pretty remarkable number of trips for a guy who seems like the emodiment of the squarely suave 40s.