Kesey Story 1

I read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest while I was in college and fell madly in love with the novel, which is one of the finest written by an American.  In 1982, at age 26, I was a room service waiter at the Sunset Marquis Hotel, writing plays, and wondering if I would ever succeed as a writer.  When it was slow, I would read, and I vividly remember devouring Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, which chronicled the adventures of Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters, who were instrumental in igniting the psychedelic brush fire of the 1960s.  My fascination with the Kesey legend was fueled by that book. What happened to this brilliant charismatic author who had once been so influential, but by this time had not published a novel in almost 20 years?  I knew only that he was living with his family on a farm in Oregon, and that many in the literary world had written him off as a flame-out who never lived up to his potential — a ghost story.

It was during this time that my first play, Memoirs of an Awkward Lover, was selected for a staged reading at The New Playwrights Theater in Washington D.C.  I was flown to the nation’s capital and had a fantastic week there as a director shaped my play for the reading and I was treated by the actors and crew as the thing I burned to be: a professional writer.

My last night there I stayed up drinking with my stage manager and her boyfriend in their wonderful bohemian apartment.  The long twisted strands of conversation eventually wound around to Kesey.  I spoke of how much I admired Cuckoo’s Nest and the stage manager’s boyfriend — whose name I have, alas, forgotten — popped out of his chair, his eyes aflame.  ”Cuckoo’s Nest is great,” he exclaimed, “but the masterpiece is Sometimes a Great Notion.  YOU HAVE TO READ IT!”  He pulled a first edition paperback off a shelf and pressed it into my hand with the fervor of an evangelist.

I took that creased and dog-earred paperback with me to California and the Sunset Marquis Hotel and read it every night on the graveyard shift and afternoons between serving omeletts at the pool.  It was a staggering work.  It told the story of a logging family, the Stampers, and two brothers who were bitterly divided in childhood by their stepmother.  The novel leaped backward and forward in time to span three generations of this family, and from one stream-of-consciouness point of view to the next, often changing perspective in mid-sentence.  At first this ever shifting mosaic of a family was disorienting, but as I became acclimated to it, it became intoxicating and revelatory.  Kesey had penetrated the inner life of his characters with a depth and insight that surpassed the achievements of even James Joyce and William Faulkner. When I reached the last sentence at 3:30 one morning, the power of the ending knocked the wind out of me.  I broke out in a sweat and could not catch my breath and realized I was on the verge of an anxiety attack.  No book since Of Mice and Men had had such a seismic effect on me.  I told the cook I was going to walk the hotel hallways to collect used food trays and wandered for hours as my thoughts raced and my pulse hammered.  I felt as if I had not read the book, but it had read me, looked straight into the very core of me and forced me to confront my deepest demons.  I knew then that I HAD TO MEET THE MAN WHO WROTE IT!

And so Ken Kesey became my white whale, and I pursued him with the mad intensity of Ahab.  About this time I had begun selling my first articles as a jounalist and had just written a cover story for L.A Weekly about street gangs called “This Fighting Life.”  I remember arriving at the L.A. Weekly offices in East Hollywood on Hyperion Avenue at dawn to watch the trucks load up my issue and ship 300,000 copies across the city.

I had finally made it.  I was a professional writer.  This was in December, 1984.  In January I wrote a letter to Kesey through his publisher, Viking Press.  I explained that I was a journalist for L.A. Weekly and wanted to interview him for the paper.  Of course, I had no assignment and was not really interested in writing an article.  I used this as a pretext to meet him.  I included a self-addressed stamped envelope to increase the odds that I would get an answer.

A couple of weeks later, my envelope came back with a postmark from Springfield, Oregon.  I ripped it open to find a piece of stationary embossed with the image of the Merry Pranksters’ legendary psychedellic school bus, “Further.”  On it, Kesey had scrawled a reply:  ”Dear David:  Naw, I don’t think so.  Publicity is no damn good unless you’ve got something to publicize.”  I was disappointed, but far from defeated.

Two years later I walked into a bookstore — they still existed in those days — to discover a new novel — Demon Box by Ken Kesey — prominently displayed.  I read it in one sitting.  Though it was uneven and not on the level of Notion or even Cuckoo’s Nest, it was a sporadically great novel that grappled with the failures of the 1960s counterculture — of which Kesey had been a prime architect — and Kesey’s own personal failures and despair.

I wrote another letter — this time to his home address in Springfield because he had included it on the reply he sent me two years earlier.  I wrote: “Dear Ken: It appears you now have something to publicize.”  And I again asked to interview him for L.A. Weekly.  I included no self-addressed stamped envelope this time and received no reply.

So I called information in Springfield and they gave me Kesey’s telephone number.  I called three or four times and the phone on the other end of the line rang and rang and rang, but no one ever picked up.  Finally, one night Kesey’s wife, Faye, answered.  Fighting to control the shiver in my voice, I stammered out my name and who I was and why I was calling.  ”Oh, yes, David,” Faye said. “Ken’s right here.  Let me ask him.”  I heard mumbling on the other end of the line, quaking with the realization that Kesey knew who I was and was one of the several voices I heard speaking in the background.  At last, Faye came back on the line.  ”Ken says he’s doing a reading from the book at the San Francisco Opera House on December 18th.  If you come, stand up at the end of the reading and shout out your name.  And he will give you the interview.”  Okay — I replied — I’ll be there!

A couple of weeks later I drove to San Francisco and attended the reading.  It was surreal to finally find myself sitting twenty feet from Kesey — the curly once red hair around his ears now gray, his powerful wrestler’s torso thickened by the decades, but still formidable.  He closed the show by reading a chapter entitled, “The Day After Superman Died.”  It was about the death of the beat hero, Neal Cassady, who had been the driver of the Merry Pranksters’ school bus.  While reading about Cassady’s death, Kesey struggled maintain his composure.

The reading ended.  The audience applauded.  But before I could stand and shout out my name, the velvet curtains closed and Kesey vanished back stage.  Fuck!  What do I do now?  The only thing I could do.  I bounded onto the stage, ducked through the curtain, and walked right up to Kesey, who was removing his costume and sweating profusely.

I introduced myself and Ken said, “Oh, so you’re David.”  He shook my hand and walked away from me to talk to Hugh Romney — aka Wavy Gravy, an associate of the Pranksters and the official clown at Woodstock.  The two talked about the reading, the emotions it dredged up, and about Cassady.  Suddenly, Kesey drew Romney into a fierce hug and broke down weeping uncontrollably.

When he had pulled himself together, he moved on to chat with other members of his crew.  I approached him again and tentatively asked when we could do the interview.  He shrugged with annoyance.  ”Right now.  I thought you’d have a tape recorder or something.”  Then he walked away from me again.

I was crushed, felt silly, felt like running out of this theater and forgetting this entire stupid quest.  But I didn’t.  Instead, I watched Kesey and his crew, which included his son Zane and daughter Sunshine, load the props from his reading into a truck behind the opera house.  Once everything was loaded, Kesey and his friends loitered in the small side street behind the facility and Kesey knelt to talk to a young girl, maybe four or five years old, named Bethany.  He pointed to the full moon shining silver-blue just above a bell tower in city’s skyline.  ”Look at that moon, Bethany.  It came right out of that bell tower.”  Suddenly, I heard myself interjecting.  ”That’s where they keep it.”  To my astonishment, Kesey laughed heartily, looked directly at me for the first time with his electric blue eyes, and said: “You may have a future as a writer.  My friend Larry McMurtry says the job of a writer is to make stuff up.”

In an instant, he warmed to me.  Kesey’s crew was going to a party thrown by the opera house management and he invited me to come along.

At the party, a moment presented itself when Kesey was alone at a table.  I asked him a question about Neal Cassady and Ken gestured for me to sit beside him.  He gave me his exclusive attention for the next half-hour, answering any question I came up with. I wanted to understand why he felt Cassady was such a creative genius.  Ken told one story after another that illustrated Cassady’s intuitive brilliance.  But I remained unconvinced.  I had read all of Cassady’s writing and listened to audio recordings of his famous raps, and I found him to be a prodigious but undisciplined intellect.  As he told yet another tale that illustrated Cassady’s alleged cosmic wisdom, I got the feeling Ken was trying to come to terms with Cassady’s squalid death from an overdose of downers and booze.  Being a man of imagination, Kesey could not accept the desolate reality of Cassady’s squandered potential, so he wove a heroic myth about Cassady that held many parallels the myth the Chief and other inmates of the mental hospital wove around Randall Patrick McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

At one point Kesey took the cap off a beer bottle, placed it between his thumb and index finger, and folded it in half as if it were made of cardboard instead of metal.  ”I can do that with any one of my fingers,” he bragged.  I believed him — his fingers were huge and wrapped tight with muscle and calloused flesh.  But I found it odd that he would make such a boast.  I can do it with a pair of pliers – I countered.

As the party broke up, Kesey and his friends made plans to meet at the Exploratorium in Golden Gate Park at noon the next day.  He looked right at me and said, “Got that?”  I said: I’ll be there.

The next day I showed up at the exploratorium at noon.  Kesey and the Pranksters were nowhere to be seen. I knew from reading profiles about him that promptness and adhering to a schedule were not his strong suits.  So I hung about at the Exploratorium for the next two hours, taking in all of the brain teasing exhibits, which revolved around the theme of the limits of our perceptions.

Finally, at around two, Kesey and the Pranksters showed up in the parking lot.  I joined them.  Kesey gave me a perfunctory hello then went on talking to his friends.  Suddenly, it was announced that they were heading back to Oregon.  Kesey strode toward his truck without a glance in my direction.  I fell in beside him and blabbered some semi-coherent mush about how much I admired Notion and what a profound effect it had on me.  Kesey nodded rapidly, embarrassed, and threw a huge thick arm around me.  ”That’s great, man.  If you have any other questions you want to ask me, you can call me at home.”

A week later I did just that.  I conducted two telephone interviews with him in which I mostly asked him about Cassady, the Pranksters, and the Grateful Dead, because I sensed these were topics he was much more eager to talk about than writing.  At the end of our second interview, he said. “If you happen to be up this way this summer, stop by.  We’ll go for a ride down the river.”

And so that summer I “just happened” to be up that way.  By this time I knew him well enough to understand that trying to make an appointment or set a date to visit would prove fruitless and frustrating.  So I simply drove up to Oregon and when I was about ten miles from Kesey’s farm I telephoned.  Faye answered.  I told her I was in the area and would like to stop by the farm the next day.  She said that would be fine and gave me directions.

Kesey and his family had left Haight-Ashbury and returned to Oregon in 1967, after he had served time on a prison work farm for marijuana possession, and after the promise of the Summer of Love had faded into the cold unforgiving Fall of Heroin Addiction and Street Crime.  Ken moved his family into a huge red barn on property his father had owned and converted it into a house.  He raised cattle, llamas, peacocks, miniature goats, hay, and a wide variety of lush vegetables.

I eased my Honda Accord into to the barn’s front yard to find Kesey in the open garage.  He glanced at me then slipped into a side door that led into the barn.  Great — I thought — feeling comfortable now!

I got out of the car and ventured to the barn’s open front door.  Through it I could see a kitchen and adjoining living room with a huge gleaming Zodiac symbol painted on the floor.  Blues music blasted from speakers, but no one stirred inside the huge space.  I called out a couple of times, but got no answer.  Oh swell.  What do I do now?  Slink back to my Honda and drive away?

As I stepped off the front porch, I glanced to the left spotted the ancient Merry Prankster school bus, Further, slumped in a field like a psychedelic compost heap, and decided to walk over and check it out.  I passed a small log cabin that I would later learn was called The Pump House because it housed pump equipment to circulate water from the back yard pond.  Tables and shelves in the Pump House were packed with reels of 16 mm film and audio tape.  Then I passed a tool shed in which every rake, pick, shovel, hammer, and screw driver was covered with rainbow swirls of Day-Glow paint.  Okay — I thought — you’re not in Kansas anymore.  You’ve landed on a strange and wondrous planet.

Finally, I arrived at the barbed wire fence that bordered the field where the bus rested.  I stared at it for a long time — the cracked glass of the accordian door, the pitted windshield — and thought to myself: Cassady actually sat behind that wheel.  It wasn’t just a story in a book, it actually happened.

Finally, I turned around and discovered Kesey now sitting in the doorway of the Pump House, staring at me with his electric blue eyes.  It was just as Tom Wolfe described in Acid Test — you never saw Kesey enter a room, all of a sudden he was just there.

I made the long walk over to him.  He stared at me all the way.  I extended my hand and reintroduced myself.  He nodded.  ”Of course, I remember you.”  Then turned his attention to a bucket before him where he was stirring up a batch of wet cement.  ”Joe’s going to sign his name in cement today,” he reported, offering no further explanation until he poured the cement into an octagon frame and called his black lab, Joe, over to dip his paw in the damp concrete.

Two long-haired teenagers who had been doing some work on the property showed up and the conversation somehow moved to the subject of weapons.  ”I found out in prison that people who were into knives had knife wounds.” Kesey observed.  ”Those who were into guns had gun wounds.  You get involved with weapons and the karma will blow back on you.  Better not to touch weapons at all.  I’ve given all my guns away.”

Having finished Joe’s memorial slab of concrete, Kesey announced that he and the two young men were going into town for lunch.  ”You’re welcome to join us, if you want to follow us there in your car.”  I eagerly agreed, though once behind the wheel I realized this would be an easy way for Kesey to get rid of me.  So be it — I was determined to squeeze whatever time I could out of him.

We met at a steak house directly across the street from the Eugene Symphony’s hall.  Kesey ordered a big bottle of red wine, which we consumed while discussing the politics of the day.  This was 1987 — the Iran hostage crisis, in which Islamist activists held the staff of US Embassy hostage in Tehran, had been resolved only a few years before.  Kesey said he understood the outrage on the part of many Americans, but pointed out that hostage taking was a long established tradition among enemy nations — the practice stretched all the way back to the dawn of civilization — so when his countrymen reacted as if this was an unprescedented act, Ken thought they were being naive.

I was trembling with anxiety, but I would not give into my shyness; I forced myself partake in the discussions as they moved from topic to topic.  When the bill came, I reached for it saying, “I’ve got it.”

Ken said, “No, that’s not necessary, David.”  The waiter hesitated, uncertain about who he should hand it to.  I said forcefully, “I’ll take the check.”

Kesey’s voice bristled, “Oh, you’ll take the check?”  I looked at him and simply smiled; something in my expression softened his anger and he let me pay for the meal.

Afterwards, we walked out to our cars.  ”What are you plans now, David?”  Kesey asked. I revealed I didn’t have any.  He said, “I’ve got some business to attend to in town, but why don’t you meet me out at the house later for supper?”  I said I would love to do that and drove off to kill time in a dusty little park in Eugene, riding a tidal wave of adrenaline as I absorbed the wonder of it:  Ken Kesey just invited me to dinner!

I drove back out to the house at around 6 p.m. and found Faye there alone, with her house cats and a Macaw Parrott named Taco.  Faye took me shopping at the local market, where she bought a huge salmon.  By the time we returned to the barn Ken had showed up and soon more people followed: Ken’s brother, Chuck, and his wife; his son, Zane; his daughter, Shannon; and movie producer Rob Miller, son of playwright Arthur Miller, along with his wife and kids.

It was a wonderful night filled with laughter and thoughtful discussions about books, movies, and politics.  After dinner, Kesey led the kids into the backyard to play hide-and-seek with his dog, Joe.  Joe would actually sit and wait while Ken and the kids fled into the shadows of the vast back yard, then at Ken’s command the dog would run out to find the kids, one at a time.

After hide-and-seek, Kesey lit a bunch of candles and handed them to each of the children.  ”Come on, kids, let’s take these candles out to the back yard!”  And like a psychedelic Pied Piper, he led the children into the inky depths of the yard — their candle flames bobbed and weaved in the dimness like a string of iridescent pearls, until they came upon an abstract metal sculpture, which I suddenly realized was the marker for the grave of his son, Jed.  Jed, who had been a wrestler like his father, had died a few years earlier when the University of Oregon’s wrestling team van careened off an icy mountain road.  The death had been devastating for Ken and Faye, yet here he was now playing with this group of children, as he must have played with Jed when he was young, and honoring his son’s memory by placing these candles on the marker.  It felt profoundly healthy, and magical.  Jed was still there, a part of Ken’s life.  To learn more about Jed’s death, click on the following link: Jed’s death.

Late that night, I found myself alone with Kesey in his living room.  ”I know what you should see!”  he suddenly exclaimed.  Ken moved off to a side room stacked high with video tapes.  He surfaced with a copy of the movie The Horse’s Mouth, adapted from the Joyce Carey novel.  In it, Alec Guinness plays a once famous now forgotten artist, Gulley Jimsom, and in the very first scene he is pursued by a young aspiring painter, who wants Jimsom to teach him to be a great artist.  Kesey patted me on the knee and said, “You go ahead and watch this, and I’ll see you in the morning.”

He didn’t mean it as a put down.  In fact, he loved the movie and believed it had a lot to say about art: principally, if you want to be great, you have to be fanatically committed to your craft.  Jimson manipulates and uses everyone around him to get the materials he needs to paint his next work.  An early scene featured Guinness taking over and destroying a rich patron’s home while he and his wife are out of town.  The sequence played as high slapstick, and Kesey doubled over with laughter, but it also carried a profound message.  ”When we first saw this movie, it came as a revelation to us,” Kesey said.  ”We didn’t know anyone could exist that way.  Living solely for their art.  I don’t know anyone doing that today.”

I spent the night in the back yard, lying on a mattress Kesey had laid out there, under a spectacular array of stars.  The next day, we went on a hike to the top of a nearby mountain peak.  And the next morning, I announced I was heading home.  Kesey was a little surprised, as if he expected I would stay a lot longer.  But I did not want to wear out my welcome.  Shortly before we parted, he mentioned that he intended to teach a course at the University of Oregon English Department in the fall in which he would have a class of graduate students write a group novel that he then intended to publish.  Kesey saw the exercise as an antidote to the overly precious writers’ workshop stories that most colleges were producing those days.

I made a note of this.  And two years later when the book was finished and about to be published, I pitched the project to Rolling Stone and they contracted me to write a feature article about it.  It was my first article in a national publication, a publication famous in American letters, and one that had featured many stories about and by Kesey over the years.  I traveled back to the farm to interview Kesey and his students, and here is the article that I published:

Click on this image to read my Rolling Stone article!

After the article hit news stands, I was terrified to call Kesey to find out what he thought of it. But, as I am sure will not shock the reader at this point, I could not restrain myself.  Trembling with anxiety, I dialed the number.  Ken got on the phone and said to me:  ”It was a wonderful article.  My family all enjoyed it, including my mother.  They appreciated all of the hard work and detail that went into it.”  My eyes teared up because I knew that his family meant everything to him, and by invoking it, Kesey was paying me his highest compliment.  One of the themes I had stitched into the article was the fact that Kesey used the class as a way of re-energizing his own writing and I had mentioned his long awaited, unpublished novel set in Alaska, Sailor Song.  Before hanging up, Ken said to me, without prompting.  ”And I am going to finish the Alaska book.”

When I visited the farm to interview him about the writing class, Kesey invited his friend, songwriter Mason Williams — who composed the 1960s hit Classical Gas — to dinner.  Williams and Kesey had been touring the northwest doing benefit concerts to raise money for the restoration of rivers that had been degraded by dam projects, habitat destruction, or pollution.  At the concerts, Williams and his band would play a series of American songs about rivers, and Kesey would punctuate the musical numbers with comic bits.  I had the treat of watching Kesey improvise a couple of routines that were later incorporated into the concerts.  The man was a born entertainer and could have been a first rate comedian.  (In college, before deciding to become a writer, he had briefly pursued acting.)  At one point Kesey told me he would be performing  with Mason in Sacramento, where my sister lived, and invited me to come see the show.

I told my sister, Tracey, about it and she said she wanted to come, too.  Then my older sister, Jeanne, decided she wanted to come also and then my father called to say he had spoken to Tracey and decided he wanted to attend.  My blood ran cold as ice water.  My father was an ex-Marine who had fought in some of the worst battles of the South Pacific.  In fact, I would later write a cover story about how those experiences permanently scarred him.  To read that story, click on the following link: Secrets at the Bottom of the Drawer.

My father was a right wing, Orange County Republican who hated liberals with a rabid passion.  Inviting him to this concert featuring one of the iconic figures of the 60s counter culture was a recipe for disaster.  I telephoned my sister and said, “What were you thinking?”  Tracey  calmly replied, “He wanted to go.  What was I supposed to do, tell him no?”

Dad knew how much I admired Kesey’s work, but did not really know the man’s history.  And I made no effort to educate him when he came with me to Sacramento.  I just hoped the concert would not be too political and that I could get through it without my father causing a major scene with all the ancillary trauma.

A strange thing happened.  My father sat through the entire concert, laughing and enjoying it, even when Kesey made left wing cracks about Ronald Reagan’s Contra Aid program and his war against drugs.  At one point my sister gave me an anxious look.  Dad could not have missed the political jokes, but because he knew how important Kesey was to me, he seemed to make a conscious decision to ignore them.

Afterwards, my entire family attended the VIP back stage party.  I did not approach Kesey right away.  Dad kept nudging me and saying: “When are you going to introduce me?” I gave vague, evasive answers, because the truth was I did not want to introduce Dad.  I was terrified he would make a spectacle of himself and embarrass me, or worse fill me with shame.

Finally, I approached Kesey and congratulated him on a hilarious performance.  He threw an affectionate arm around me then took me over to meet Ed McClanahan, a writer friend of his from Stanford, and an author I much admired.  While I was talking to McClanahan, out of the corner of my eye, I saw my father walk up to Kesey and stick out his hand.  My blood pressure shot through the top of my head – oh fuck, what is Dad going to say?

Later, I found out he said:  ”I want to thank you for being such a fine influence on my son.  He thinks the world of you.”  And Dad went on to explain to Ken that my two sisters were here.  Kesey’s eyes lit up.  ”David’s family is here?  I want to meet them!”

After finishing talking to McClanahan, I joined Kesey, who was with my entire family.  Ken threw his arm around me again and told them: “Yeah, we’re not even sure how it happened, but David’s become part of our life.”  After Ken left, Tracey said, “Wow, does he like you!”  And she described how he had spoken highly of several magazine stories I had written, including the one about him.

I next saw Kesey about two years later at the American Bookseller’s Association Convention in Las Vegas.  I had just signed a contract with Grove Press to write my first book, a biography of Sam Peckinpah, and was there to meet with my editor, Anne Godoff. Kesey was there to promote a new book — he was now publishing books almost every other year — and I had the opportunity to hang out with him and the Pranksters, including the legendary Caroline Adams (AKA Mountain Girl) and Ken Babbs.  Kesey had restored another old school bus into a psychedellic replica of the original “Further” and the Pranksters had driven it from Oregon to Vegas for the convention.  As they were preparing to depart, I climbed aboard the bus, shook Kesey’s hand, and said, “You know, I’m very proud of how my father acted at that Mason Williams concert.”  I explained my father’s background as a Marine and his politics and advanced my theory that he made an effort to set his politics aside that night.  ”Well, you know,” Kesey said, “those World War II guys are caught up in a whole whirlpool of stuff.  And no matter how hard they thrash, they can’t fight their way free of that whirlpool.  But underneath all that, when you get down to the core human beings, they are very solid individuals.”  We shook hands and parted ways again.

Over the next few years, I saw him when he came down to L.A. to do readings from his various new books.  Once, he did a reading at the Anson Ford Theater in the Hollywood Hills.  Dennis Hopper introduced him by saying: “I’ve been asked to introduce Ken Kesey.  Wow.  How do you do that?  It’s like being asked to introduce a cloud.”

After the reading, Kesey took questions from the audience.  Someone asked if he felt he’d done too much LSD and if he thought it had damaged his mind.  ”No,” Kesey said, “I don’t think so.  On the other hand, I’ve had too many gin martinies.  You see, I know what’s done me harm.  You are never going to have a major problem with hallucingenics in this country.  Heroin, yes, amphetimines, cocain — yes.  But you’re never going to have a major peyote problem.  There are a lot of people asking for less peyote, but not more.”

I think that was a very accurate assessment of his weaknesses, as I observed them.  In the years I knew him, Kesey did not do LSD on a daily, or even regular basis.  But he did drink excessively, and from what other people who spent more time with him have told me, I believe he was an alcoholic.  He also smoked pot every day, usually starting at around noon.  These habits definitely had a negative impact on his writing.  As was evident when he published Sailor Song, which was a pale shadow of his great novels written 30 years earlier.  It has a number of strong passages, but unraveled into a disorganized mess in the latter half of the book.  The reviews were mostly scathing, and I felt guilty about being one of those who goosed Kesey into finishing it.

The last time I saw him was shortly after he had turned sixty, in 1996, when he came to L.A. to promote The Last Round-Up, the second to last of his books to be published.  Kesey’s Jail diaries were published a few years after his death.  Round Up was considerably less ambitious than Sailor Song, and a better book.  I wrote a detailed account of the time I spent with Kesey for the Los Angeles Village View.  Here is a link to the article:

Click on this image to read the story.






I never saw him again after that.  It’s fitting that our last conversation was about mortality, a major theme in his work and in his life.  After he died in 2001, at age 66, I wrote a tribute to him in Orange County Weekly.  Here is the link to the online version: Love and Grief United.

Here are reproductions of the original pages of the same article: Love and Grief United.

The final article that I wrote about this man who was such a major influence on my life occurred in 2010, when, Mark Christensen, wrote an abominable “biography” that was in reality a protracted excercise in character assassination.  I was so angered by this piece of yellow journalism that I wrote a defense of Kesey in L.A. Weekly.  Here’s the link.  Artist As Outlaw.

Or click on the window below to read the article with the original artwork.

After it was published, I received a very nice note from Ken’s daughter, Sunshine, who thanked me “for defending a fellow writer.”

And so it came to pass, more than 35 years after I first wrote Ken asking to interview him for an L.A. Weekly article, that I finally wrote the piece for that publication.  I kept my word, and it felt good.

































2 thoughts on “Kesey Story 1

  1. The course was initially taught that year by Viking Press editorial consultant and Lost Generation eminence grise Malcolm Cowley, who was “always glad to see” Kesey and fellow auditor Tillie Olsen. Cowley was succeeded the following quarter by the Irish short-story specialist Frank O’Connor ; frequent spats between O’Connor and Kesey ultimately precipitated his departure from the class.

  2. 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 he had volunteered to experiment with. 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, Milos 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 and Bo Goldman ).

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