“Ken ‘Cuckoo Nest’ Kesey: One Who Wigged Out”
May 12, 1966
SAN FRANCISCO — Where is novelist Ken Kesey? It has been months and still no word on him. Not since O. Henry, 70 years ago, has an American literary figure taken it on the lam after getting into trouble with the law. O. Henry was accused of embezzling bank funds. Kesey has been convicted of possessing marijuana and sentenced to six months in jail. Then, while his case was under appeal, he was picked up again, for marijuana and also for resisting arrest locally, when he was taken one night from a Telegraph Hill rooftop with Mountain Girl, 19 years old. The neighbors had complained, as they have been doing ever since Kesey hit California.
O. Henry skipped because the idea of prison frightened him. Kesey ran because the “combine” was going to deny him justice and instead make an example of him. This is the way his followers, who reach from Portland, Oregon, down to Los Angeles, look at it. Others, not so fond of him, including novelist Robin White, say he ran because, despite the bull neck and the big biceps and the big talk, Kesey is a coward.
This is part of the Kesey fascination: he doesn’t add up. Mark Schorer, who has had two polite conversations with him, regards him as “a very retiring fellow, nothing aggressive about him and rather shy.” Herbert Gold, who knows Kesey from various places, said first about him, “He’s a warm-hearted person.” Robin White (Elephant Hill, All in Favor Say No) becomes incensed at the mention of Kesey: “He talks about himself as though he were Christ. If Kesey was in isolation, he’d disintegrate. He’s got to have buttressing, weak individuals he can exploit.”
Kesey, whose high domed head is nearly bald, is 30 years old. He regards himself as fiercely independent, no doubt as the McMurphy of his own novel, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. There are no limits. His buddies are LSD cultists, the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang, peace marchers, Allen Ginsberg (off and on), Jack Kerouac hangers-on, a bookshop owner, a helicopter pilot wounded in Vietnam, and people who prefer anonymity, like Mountain Girl, and the man she says she is going to marry. She is seven months pregnant.
Independence has a price. Kesey is convinced that the gutty individual is only doomed to failure and oblivion (like McMurphy). “Ken has as elaborate mystique about the system and retaliation,” a friend who knew him from the Palo Alto days said. In a weird record album made by Kesey and his LSD “trip” buddies, just before he skipped, voices, including Kesey’s, say in one segment:
“Oh my God, what does it mean? . . . Electrical impulses through all this statical feedback clicks . . . You do achieve a clarity that passes you one step over the be-good fence . . . He thinks I am dangerous. America doesn’t need these kind of impudent young snots . . . We are at war. ‘This is Franklin Delano Roosevelt speaking. The only thing you have to fear is fear itself.’ The only salvation is to be good. Be good.”
Kesey had no care for community sensibilities. He was the watcher of the scene, “having fun all the time,” and wherever he went, he dragged a camera and a tape-recorder. He explained his drug habit. “You don’t sit on a toilet and strain and come up with a new idea. To discover something new, you have to put yourself in a position where an accident can happen to you. It can’t be pre-determined.”
He had come down to Palo Alto from Oregon lumber country, where he was reared, in 1960, to work in a mental hospital and to attend creative writing classes at Stanford taught by Wallace Stegner and later by Malcom Cowley. The mentally ill had a powerful hold on Kesey and he had “lightning ways” of looking at things, including his relationship with patients. He organized hell-raising parties. He loaned his car to them for a “night out.” He protected them. When co-worker wouldn’t stop bullying a pitiful catatonic patient, Kesey, who had been a champion wrestler at the University of Oregon, lifted the attendant off the floor and heaved him through the shower room door — even as McMurphy did in the novel. He was fired a few months later — “Not interested in patient welfare,” the official discharge said.
Kesey lived on Perry Lane, Palo Alto (later celebrated in the work of Gwen Davis). Robin White had arranged it. “At the time,” he recalled, “Perry Lane was made up of nonconformists. After Kesey came on, it became conformist. There had to be sex parties, marijuana smoking, and you had to dress and speak in a certain way. Kesey became the master of ceremonies. He has a real capacity to perform which quite exceeds his ability to write.” Many nights Kesey lay wake in bed staring at the ceiling, scenes from the hospital burning themselves into his memory.
It was through Malcolm Cowley that Viking Press published. Kesey’s first novel in 1962. One Flew Over was well received. Critics found the plight of a ward of mental patients a parable of the whole human condition. The book sold some 14,000 copies in hard cover and was produced on Broadway with Kirk Douglas in the starring role. It was a dismal flop. Critically panned, it closed after 82 performances.
With money from the play, Kesey bought a 1939 bus, painted it in swirls of pink, green, and lavender, packed up his wife and three children, and headed cross-country in the summer of 1964 to film people “just having fun.” The bus driver was Neil Cassidy, the Dean Moriarty of Kerouac’s On the Road. Kesey told a newspaperman that he was through writing fiction. “I don’t think the novel has any place to go,” he said.
Sometimes a Great Notion, published in that summer of 1964, was the work of a robust talent, but it was not an entirely successful novel. Critics said Kesey was too windy, too detailed — unable, Julian Moynahan wrote in the New York Review of Books, “to imagine a whole word where whole men . . . can get together and make a whole life.” Newsweek called it “a barrel-chested counterfeit of life.”
Kesey shot 60,000 feet of film on his travels. He proposed to produce a documentary movie. His redwood house in the drowsy resort village of La Honda, California, south of here, was transformed into a vast pleasure pad, where his buddies made out and freaked out in the woods all around it. No one was kept away. Inside was the promise of bedlam: statues and metal pieces everywhere, pictures and furniture without names, incredible designs on the ceilings, the bathtub and toilet bowl splashed with paint. Kesey took a title for himself, The Navigator.
People complained. They harassed Kesey on the phone and cursed him from their cars. Kesey’s bright orange mailbox was picked with bullet holes. High on LSD, he and the gang went off and gave “shows” — one to an audience of 5000 in San Francisco’s Longshoremen’s Hall, Harry Bridges’s shrine.
Early last year, Federal and state narcotics agents started staking out Kesey’s pad. He considered it a monumental joke. He was clean, he said. But on April 23, 1965, agents raided the place and arrested Kesey and 13 guests. The agents said Kesey was in his bathroom trying to flush away the evidence. He said it had been planted. They won. Two days after his conviction, Kesey and Mountain Girl decided on a Telegraph Hill rooftop as the place to make a “big accident” happen. Residents of the apartment house called the police.
“They was coming on like gangbusters in the first row of the downtown Orpheus Theatre . . . I mean to say, watch them go. Their hooves was three feet above the ground and never touching down . . . ”
An officer discovered marijuana. Kesey told the cop to go to hell and wrestled him right to the edge of the roof: He was nailed there. He posted bond and took off.
His 1939 bus was found on January 31 of this year, abandoned on a desolate stretch of the California coast. The note Kesey left was beautiful: “Ocean, ocean, I’ll beat you in the end. I’ll break you this time. I’ll go through with my heels at your hungry ribs.” Suicide note or the put-on? While authorities were puzzling, the cult make a tactical error. It leaked word through one of its principal spokesmen that Kesey was in Mexico, when he wasn’t. The anticipated result was supposed to be: Now they’ll call off the dogs. Who’d chase all the way to Mexico for a guy who smokes pot?
The FBI. It filed a fugitive warrant and promptly joined the search. The United States Attorney’s office here says that the trail is cold now, though tipsters keep calling and the FBI never gives up. A close friend says he recently heard from Kesey. Peter Demma, who runs a bookshop in merry Santa Cruz, California, said Kesey “wants a confrontation with world society” and is touring.
Two weeks before he disappeared, Kesey, lugging a coffee can with over $3000 in it from a “show,” and his buddies cut a record, “The Acid Test,” during a 14-hour “trip” at Sound City here. The album sells for $5.95 and is moving at better than 100 copies a day. Sound City’s owner, Jim Safford, explained, “Anytime Ken Kesey wants to belch, there are at least 20 people around who want to hear it.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 11, 2019