Near Greatness

The Man Who Turned on America

The night I inadvertently crashed Timothy Leary's final party

(Getty Images)

Have you ever had one of those moments in your life where you've asked yourself, "How the hell did I get here?"—but not necessarily in a bad way? I moved to Los Angeles from New Jersey to pursue a filmmaking career in 1987 and, by 1991, on my 30th birthday, I had sold my first screenplay to MGM. That's when the real became surreal.

I began meeting and befriending actors. It wasn't long after that that I had gone to see a play in Westwood starring a passel of film stars that included the delightfully quirky Parker Posey, whom I had once met only briefly. Afterward, I invited myself backstage to say hello. She was prancing off in a hurry but mentioned something to me about a party she was going to later that night, then took out a pen and wrote an address on the palm of my hand. We hardly knew each other, but spontaneously writing on someone's hand on the fly is what you do when you're Parker Posey.

When I arrived at the address, somewhere off Mulholland Drive in the Hollywood Hills, I found an insanely long row of parked cars that snaked all the way up the canyon hill via a gaggle of valet attendants. Parker's invite to me was simply "a party" and I could not imagine just whose party this was.

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Once inside, my first impression was that I was walking smack dab into the psychedelic party scene from "Midnight Cowboy." I entered via the living room. There were people everywhere. Through a shifting layer of pot smoke, I could see to the left, a beatnik dude wearing a beret, spiritedly rapping on a set of bongos. To the right, a woman sat on the arm of a mohair sofa, wearing black leather pants and a matching leather vest left unbuttoned with no shirt underneath to hold in her plainly visible ample bosom. Still others were in crazy getups and sequin jackets and gowns and flowered hippie smocks and sharkskin suits and everyone had funky hairdos.

I was completely out of place. It was hip, jazzy, insane and I loved it. Outside, where the party spilled out onto the patio through a set of sliding glass doors, I could see a helium tank for blowing up party balloons, only I didn't see any actual balloons floating around anywhere. I did, however, see people sucking from half-filled balloons and pinching them off and passing them to one another. Nitrous oxide, I would later find out.

With no sign of Parker, I grabbed a beer from a bartender in the yard and squeezed my way into the dining room, where a huge spread of food was laid out on the table. I didn't recognize anyone famous, as I thought may have been the case, as many young actors like Parker enjoy socializing in the same circles. So, it wasn't a "Hollywood" party, but I still hadn't a clue as to who was throwing this funky shindig.

That's when I observed, back in the living room, a video camcorder set up on a tripod, aimed at an older gentleman who was sitting in the middle of the big mohair sofa. He was there when I first walked in, but I only really noticed him on my second walkthrough (the woman with the open leather vest might have had something to do with that). Although unshaven and frail in his T-shirt and blue jeans, he was rather chatty and even a bit giddy. He looked a little familiar ... but not.

I then wandered into the kitchen, looking for clues as to the home's owner, when I found a few typed and handwritten letters hanging in cheap frames on the kitchen wall. They were addressed to a "Tim." One was signed at the bottom, "Yours, Oliver Stone." And then it hit me.

I walked back toward the old man on the sofa, when I finally spotted Parker Posey at the cold cuts with a young dude in chic mechanic's overalls with a patch sewn on the pocket that read "Dale." He had nail polish on his fingernails. I don't recall his name after she introduced us, but it wasn't Dale. I asked Parker just whose party it was and she confirmed my guess.

"Timothy Leary," she said matter-of-factly, before wandering off with not-Dale. I was 3,000 miles from N.J., where iconic figures of the past didn't exist in my reality, standing in the living room at the self-thrown, 75th birthday party of leading counterculture paragon, the Pied Piper of the psychedelic '60s, drug guru, LSD advocate, personal friend of Andy Warhol/Allen Ginsberg/The Beatles, public foe of President Richard Nixon, "The Man Who Turned On America"—Timothy Freaking Leary! How the hell did I get here?

Understand, it wasn't a matter of being starstruck, not in the least. It was simply the wonder of being a tangible part of the untouchable past. The Moody Blues wrote a song about him, for god sakes, which I found myself humming out loud. John Lennon wrote "Come Together" off Leary's campaign slogan in his bid for governor against Ronald Reagan! I felt obligated, to both Timothy and myself (more myself), to go up to him and shake his hand.

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I nervously approached him with my palm out and said, "Happy birthday, Mr. Leary." He placed his hand in mine and took it before actually looking up to see who the well-wisher was. But what I hadn't realized was that he was still talking to someone when I offered him my hand. It became one of those situations where he was focused on the other person, but still holding onto my hand with the subtext being, Don't leave, I'll be with you in a minute.

Except the minute seemed like forever. Here I was, essentially holding hands with Timothy Leary. My palm began to sweat and I started to feel self-conscious when people started eyeing me, wondering who I was in an intimate hand embrace with "Timmy." When he finally did look up, he looked directly into my eyes with a kind smile and squeezed my hand, rattling it slightly as a way of a shake, probably waiting for me to introduce myself. Or, perhaps he forgot my approach and was wondering why I was holding his hand.

"I'm a friend of Parker Posey's" was all I managed to blurt out. He blinked in confusion and I wished him a happy birthday again before letting go of his hand and sheepishly skittering off. I looked around for Parker but she had up and vanished. I never saw her again. Ever.

It turned out to be Mr. Leary's final birthday, and I'm certain he was already suffering from the cancer that would end his days. I would love to see the video from the camcorder that night. I wonder if I am on it.

   
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