Trip Out with Timothy Leary's Ex-Girlfriend in My Psychedelic Love Story

A documentary describes a drug-fueled countercultural romance.


My Psychedelic Love Story. Showtime. Sunday, November 29, 9 p.m.

"In order to use your head, you have to go out of your mind," LSD guru Timothy Leary once told a reporter. It's an aphorism that Joanna Harcourt-Smith, one of his many girlfriends, took to heart. After a whirlwind and drug-addled romance with Leary, she spent nearly four years trying to get him out of prison, lying and whoring and snitching and plotting murders and stinging his followers with fake drug deals in the process. Her reward was to get unceremoniously dumped almost immediately after he was released.

My Psychedelic Love Story is Harcourt-Smith's nutty post-mortem torch song to Leary (he died in 1996, she last month) as well as a half-hearted attempt to settle some old feuds with her 1970s companions. It's also a sign that that the celebrated documentarian Errol Morris, who adapted this documentary from a 2013 memoir by Harcourt-Smith, is as talented as ever—maybe more so—but also on the verge of becoming dangerously unhinged.

Morris is known for documentaries featuring penetrating investigations and incisive interviews. But his last one, Wormwood, an account of the death of a CIA germ warfare researcher who sailed out a window after being secretly dosed with LSD, was hugely speculative and dismayingly flighty. My Psychedelic Love Story wanders further and perhaps irretrievably down that path.

Only baby boomers—and perhaps few of them—are likely to recognize Harcourt-Smith, the documentary's main subject. Hers was, for a brief interlude, a household name in the post-1960s counterculture as the handmaiden of Leary, a Harvard psychologist whose research into LSD turned him into a giddy Johnny Acidseed, spreading the good word about the drug while preaching his gospel of "turn on, tune in, drop out." In 1972, she hooked up with him in Switzerland, where he was hiding out after escaping from a California prison with the aid of the Weather Underground and the Black Panthers.

Harcourt-Smith was barely aware of who Leary was when they first met. But the news that the FBI was after him titillated her ("I always wanted to be with an outlaw"), and she was certainly no stranger to drugs. Seeking political asylum for Leary (Switzerland had just warned him that he couldn't stay there), they crisscrossed the continent for several weeks in a journey that, to hear Harcourt-Smith tell it, was right out of a Barbara Cartland novel: "We had traveled across Europe like shooting stars…plunging into the maddest romantic relationship you could ever imagine." Well, maybe Cartland as translated by the editors at High Times. On the eight-hour drive from Switzerland to Austria alone, they imbibed a prodigious quantity of acid, snorted cocaine and smoked hash to "ballast the LSD," then took Quaaludes washed down with aquavite for dessert.

Their journey ended in a truly hellish hangover. In Afghanistan, where they went because it had no extradition treaty with the United States, they were strong-armed onto a flight eventually ended back in California, where Leary was arrested for his escape from prison. Preposterously, he thought he'd be released on bail within a few days. He was surprised to learn that lots of judges consider prison escapees to be flight risks.

Facing more than three decades in possible prison sentences from old drug charges, Leary shocked his friends in the counterculture and the New Left by turning informer. Joanna, as she recounts with daft good cheer, enthusiastically joined in, wearing a wire for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to entrap Leary's old friends and keeping his spirits up with detailed accounts of her profligate sex life outside the walls.

Even so, some of her most glorious exploits, disclosed previously to journalists, aren't mentioned in My Psychedelic Love Story. She tried to seduce California Gov. Jerry Brown in hopes of winning Leary a pardon and nearly succeeded—at the seduction, not the pardon—and then did the same with U.S. Attorney General William Saxbe, with whom her wiles proved less alluring. Snapped Saxbe: "If I were your father, I'd spank you."

This is a wildly entertaining, if often incoherent, tale. Even when she is idiotic, amoral, or nearly indecipherable—which is pretty often—Harcourt-Smith is a charming storyteller as she weaves the Leary story through a kaleidoscopic loop of Eurotrash adventures, from Gstaad and San Moritz to Paris and Hollywood, from arms traffickers to Anita van Pallenberg to the Rolling Stones to Francis Ford Coppola to George McGovern to Andy Warhol. Morris has enlivened her narrative by scattering it with throbbing day-glo colored graphics and old film clips— for instance, a scene of Sean Connery as James Bond, tied up as a laser ray advances toward his junk, inserted as Harcourt-Smith remembers a hostile interrogation by an arms-dealer boyfriend.

How much of her story is true is much harder to divine. Leary was a serial liar and fantasist—among other things he expected we would all be launched into space by the 1973 appearance of Comet Kahoutek—and Harcourt-Smith, as she chatters way for the cameras, boasts of many instances of doing the same. At times her muddled narrative departs from what she's previously told of her life (though, admittedly, most of the major points are the same).

Even the avowed point of the film suggests what an unreliable narrator she is. In 1974, after it got out that Leary was spilling his guts to the DEA, his associates—who of course included hordes of dealers, not to mention political bandits like the Panthers and the Weathermen—were outraged. Many accused Harcourt-Smith of being some sort of Nixon administration Mata Hari who first led Leary into the hands of the cops, then seduced him into informing. There neither was nor is any evidence of that; Leary's own letters and memoirs make it plain he was desperate to avoid spending the rest of the century in San Quentin.

But when she saw the lurid CIA fantasies in his last film, Harcourt-Smith tells Morris, it occurred to her that maybe they were right: "It's while watching Wormwood that I said to myself, maybe I was a CIA  plant….Was I being manipulated, and if I was being manipulated, how far back did it go?"

That the Nixon administration, obsessed with its war on drugs, considered Leary Public Enemy No. 1 is beyond dispute. Morris has even found a clip from the White House tapes released during Watergate in which somebody, as Nixon rants about drugs, interjects a curse about "this guy Leary." Retorts Nixon: "I've got room in the prison." But Nixon had armies of cops, including the FBI and the DEA, to pursue Leary, who in any event made his own capture almost inevitable by being such a boob. Once, traveling in Europe with a squad of Black Panther security escorts, Leary nearly missed the plane because he wandered off to look at cameras in the duty-free store.

So there was no need for a deep-cover legion of CIA zombies to infiltrate Harcourt-Smith's teenage life and induce her to boinking arms dealers—the episode, by her own account, that triggered her crossing of Leary's path. And neither she nor Morris come up with even the slightest hint of CIA involvement. What they do manage to do, with their tales of duplicity, self-aggrandizement, and trivial hedonism, is to verify Jerry Rubin's verdict when the news of Leary's squealing broke: "This is the end of the '60s."

NEXT: Despite Election Wins, California GOP Needs a Makeover

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  1. >countercultural romance
    Did he stick it in her pooper?

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    2. Yes – in fact, Leary invented A2M.

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  2. This movie will make even boomers say “OK, boomer.”

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  3. Meh. Kesey and the Pranksters, even though they were filthy hippies, were at least fun and amusing. Dr. Leary was a self-absorbed, insufferable twunt. Also a snitch.

  4. Even though this all went down before I was born, Leary always repelled me.
    I never really understood the boomer era though.

    1. It’s not that hard to understand “boomers born 1946–1964*” if you study their influencers; ie their parents, “the greatest generation” (the guys that kicked Hitler’s and Tojo’s asses and the gals like Rosie the Riveter) 1910–1927* and their older siblings and cousins, “the silent generation” born 1928–1945*.

      Their “greatest generation”(GG) parents tried to instill in them civic and patriotic duty with a heavy dose of “government is good, the more the better”, rely on Social Security for your retirement for it was brought forth from the mountaintop** by St Franklin of Roosevelt and so on. In fairness, they had received from their parents such a heavy dose of Progressivism, eugenics and general claptrap that it’s hardly surprising they turned out the way they did. Hell, a whole bunch of them were out and out Communists.

      “The silent generation”(SG) were the counterculture, rebellious and distrustful of the establishment. The older of these were the beatniks of the fifties the younger ones were the first hippies.

      Like all generations before the boomers set themselves against their GG parents because, well, who doesn’t. But there was no ethos, no underlying philosophy just no.

      From their SG siblings and cousins OTOH the boomers were introduced to the counterculture and more especially drugs. The SG didn’t invent sex but they thought they had. Most of the SG, though, were actually dependable, industrious and to all appearances thoroughly unremarkable people. However they also valued social cohesiveness which is why for the most part they were pro-union in their work lives and supported some kind of welfare state for the disadvantaged and also for those who just through no fault of their own fell on hard times and needed some kind of support until they got back on their feet.

      Of course, the foregoing is a bunch of generalities that many if not most of the the people of these generations did not actually conform to. For the most part there are generally only a few people in each generation that drive the defining aspects that define their generations. For the most part people grow up get jobs, get married, buy houses, have children and live comfortable and contented lives with varying degrees of prosperity.

      If there is something to fault the boomers over it is that they believed their elders, the GG and the SG. Some of us finally realized that the New Deal and Managerial Liberalism*** were crocks and Social Security was a scam. Most didn’t and why should they have.

      *These dates are somewhat fluid. Other sources vary by a couple of years either way though, 1946–1964 is almost universally accepted as the baby boom years.

      Understand all of these things and you will understand boomers.

      **If only we had known there was no way that FDR could have climbed to the mountaintop on account of he was a cripple.

      ***Many here at Reason mistakenly refer to Managerial Liberalism as Socialism. It may look the same but it is not.

  5. These guys *sound* like the Sixties, but where are the beards?

    1. Lots of groups in the sixties didn’t have beards.

      To the best of my recollection, None of the Beach Boys ever grew beards, neither did any of the Rolling Stones nor Crosby, Stills, Nash, Young and whothefuck nor the Byrds nor the Beatles, hell Bob dylan never had a beard except he occasionally grew a ‘stache.

      OK, Ringo and George Harrison grew beards after the breakup but to my knowledge, neither Lennon nor McCartney eve grew facial hair.

      The fact is that the group in that video are pretty much typical of sixties rock groups especial those from Britain.

  6. I’m old enough to remember some of this shit. LSD was legal when Leary became a household name. But he is probably responsible for a pretty big chunk of the WOD that followed because the Greatest didn’t want their kids jumping out of windows and shit. Gave Nixon all the ammunition he needed. LSD was always my personal favorite back in the day. Good times.

    1. If you can remember it, you weren’t there, man.

    2. I always liked LSD too — once every summer.
      That shit is impossible to find (though I’ve been told otherwise by the commentators).

  7. That was the era when I started to figure out that hard drugs and hallucinogens were for wealthy people and people who didn’t have to get up in the morning.

  8. Currently I’m reading Diary of a Drug Fiend by Aleister Crowley!
    Going in with low expectations, it’s actually a very interesting.
    Not a diary, but fiction with autobio inspiration, loaned to me by my best friend who died last week of a heroin OD at 67 years old — he liked to party hard…..

  9. “Some of my best friends are Democrats”
    Read More

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