Aldous Huxley's psychedelic Los Angeles life
Aldous Huxley is best remembered for his dystopian novel "Brave New World," depicting a future conformist society in which happiness is mandated and medicated. Huxley, who was born into a family of British intellectuals, was already an established critical thinker when the book was published in 1932.
So he might seem like an unlikely candidate for going to the Southern California desert to take a hallucinogen like mescaline -- but that's exactly what he did.
Huxley's Southern California adventures were the subject of a sold-out discussion this week at the LA Public Library's ALOUD series; as hundreds took their seats, more than 40 people waited fruitlessly in the standby line. Was all the excitement for Huxley? Maybe -- or maybe it was because John Densmore from The Doors was on the panel. And he brought a drum.
Director Mary Ann Braubach showed portions of her recent documentary "Huxley on Huxley" (available on DVD). In it, Huxley's second wife, Laura, talked about the role and influence of psychdelics in his life. Others featured in the film include Densmore and fellow panelist Don Bachardy, the artist and life partner of writer Christopher Isherwood.
Isherwood's 1956 diary included the passage "Aldous and Gerald [Heard] are having frequent lysergic episodes" (a reference to LSD, lysergic acid diethylamide). Braubach, who acted as moderator, asked Bachardy if he would describe Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood as good friends. "They were certainly good friends, but not good enough friends, apparently, that Aldous and Gerald would share their LSD with Chris," Bachardy laughed.
Not that Densmore does that kind of thing anymore. "Yes, I took LSD," he said, "but I quickly learned that it was very strong medicine."
Huxley moved to Southern California in 1937 for the same reasons many other writers did: to escape the brewing war in Europe and to work on scripts in Hollywood. Not surprisingly, he wound up doing literary adaptations; among the films he worked on were "Pride and Prejudice" (1940), "Jane Eyre" (1943) and "Alice in Wonderland" (1951).
Huxley came to Hollywood with his first wife, Maria ,and their son; their friend Heard often joined them. While in California, where Huxley also made a home in the desert town Llano, Huxley and Heard became deeply involved in the Vedanta Society, following Indian spiritual teachings and meditation practices.
"Another factor in his spiritual seeking was his near-blindness," scholar Ann Louise Bardach said at the library panel. "He was always fighting for the light and vision." Huxley's terrible vision was a third reason he'd come to L.A. -- for a Southern California doctor who he thought could help with his eyes.
Huxley's first wife Maria died in 1955 of breast cancer, and he married Laura the following year. Laura, Bardach explained, "was more partial to the psychedelics" than his religious inquiries, and he drifted away from Vedanta after their marriage. And he drifted toward drugs that a later generation would indulge in with enthusiasm.
In the clips from "Huxley on Huxley," and in her bestselling 1968 memoir "This Timeless Moment," Laura Huxley told the story of Aldous Huxley's death. In the last hours of his life, as he was dying of throat cancer, she maintained that he wrote a note asking for an injection of LSD. She gave it to him and sat beside him as he passed away, blissfully, on Nov. 22, 1963. Laura died at age 96 in 2007.
An audience member asked the panel, "Was Los Angeles an influence on Huxley?"
"Certainly," replied Braubach, referencing his history working for the movies and his move out to the desert. John Densmore jumped in. "Well, I just got into town about an hour ago," he sang as he picked up his drum, continuing with lyrics to "L.A. Woman." What that had to do with Huxley, exactly, wasn't clear, but it was nevertheless met with applause.
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Photo: Aldous Huxley, right with his wife Laura at their Hollywood Hills home. Credit: Rose Nys