With It’s All a Kind of Magic (The University of Wisconsin Press, 2013), Rick Dodgson surveys the early career of Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion. Revealing a youthful life of brilliance and eccentricity, this biography features a cast of characters that includes Tom Wolfe, Timothy Leary, Hunter S. Thompson, and the Grateful Dead. This excerpt from chapter 3, “Sin Hollow," chronicles Kesey’s time on the fabled Perry Lane, where Kesey’s beliefs in sexual freedom and experimentation challenged the social mores of the day.
The straight-laced Whites — Robin the son of missionaries, Marny a practicing Quaker — objected to the wild parties. They also disapproved of the drug use that would later develop on the Lane, but they particularly disliked the Keseys’ liberal sexual attitudes. It was not as if Perry Lane had previously conformed to the conservative sexual mores of the day — far from it — but the Keseys pushed those already extended boundaries a little further. Soon after they arrived, they made it known that they had an open marriage, and it did not take long for them to start exercising their sexual freedom. They befriended a young couple who lived across the street from their cottage. After a party during which Kesey had been necking with the woman and Faye with the man, they came back to the Lane and each couple paired off to separate houses. Thus began a brief, mutually satisfying exchange that ended only when the other couple started to feel that it was becoming a strain on their marriage and on their friendship with the Keseys. This wasn’t the only extramarital fling on the Lane. “What’s wrong with a little sex,” said a female character in Hughes Rudd’s story about the Lane in the early 1950s. “That’s what Perry Lane is for, isn’t it?” Not for nothing did some disapproving locals call it “Sin Hollow.” Over the years, the line between friend and lover on Perry Lane was often difficult to discern in a social milieu that Jane Burton once described as “an incredibly supportive group love affair.” Chloe Scott put it even more succinctly: “Everybody was sleeping with everybody.”
Nudity and sex became part of the social experiment on the Lane. When a couple of inches of snow fell on the Lane briefly during the winter of 1962 — a very rare occurrence on the mid-peninsula — Kesey, Vic, and the others quickly scraped up all the snow they could and lined their side of the street with snowmen and women copulating in Kama Sutra poses. “They didn’t last very long; you had to live on the street to see it,” recalled resident Paul De Carli. “Even with snow, [Kesey] would show a little bit of defiance of the norm.” Strip poker was not that unusual on the Lane, nor was the occasional topless moment or nude sunbathe. Even before drugs entered the fray — which tended to lower people’s inhibitions even further — things could get pretty loose. After another Hawaiian-style cookout in the summer of 1959 turned into a three-day marathon party, Kesey emerged from his bedroom early one morning to find at least five or six couples scattered around his living room floor. Most of them were just trying to sleep off their hedonistic endeavors, but much to Kesey’s voyeuristic delight he saw that two of the couples were engaged in breathless, frantic love-making, impervious to the people around them. The Whites would have been appalled, just as they would have been at the decorum of Judy, a young woman who participated in the opening ceremony of an event that their former neighbors dubbed the First Annual Perry Lane Olympics. “The torch consisted of a plumber’s helper with a burning rag stuffed in the cup,” Vic Lovell recalled. Judy “held it high, sitting naked on the back of a convertible which was driven around the block before its triumphant arrival.” Shocking stuff for some locals, but within a few years, nudity would become almost fashionable among a certain social set in the region. One of the most talked-about occasions involved a Passover celebration in which about forty naked people marked the traditional Jewish holiday in the living room of Group House, a Menlo Park office complex of psychologists.
Later in the sixties, organizations such as the Sexual Freedom League and the influential liberal sexologist Dr. Albert Ellis (author of American Sexual Tragedy , Creative Marriage , and Sex without Guilt ) would be at the forefront of the sexual freedom movement, but the sort of open sexual behavior that these people advocated was already being practiced by small groups of progressive artists, musicians, writers, and intellectuals scattered around the United States. Perry Laners knew they were not alone in these pursuits: Chloe Scott had been part of Jackson Pollock’s artistic circle when she lived in Long Island, and she was well aware that plenty of those people had engaged in the same bed-hopping “free for all” that some people enjoyed on the Lane. Nevertheless, Kesey’s promotion of sexual freedom among the Perry Lane community made a few individuals feel a little uncomfortable. “We were young people, there was some of that going on already,” Jim Wolpman remembered, “but it seemed like it became more so. . . . There was some pressure toward it.” While everything was above-board and consensual, there is a lingering sense among some of the participants that circumstances conspired to push them to engage in activities that they probably would not have done otherwise. Ken Kesey could certainly be a womanizer, but it would be too easy to dismiss his promotion of sexual freedom as merely a symptom of his raging hormones. “I think he thought it had to do with creating that large group that he wanted to create,” Jim Wolpman explained. “It seems to me that he didn’t just want to get women. . . . It seemed to be a higher motive than that.” Higher motive or not, Kesey discovered at his own cost that not every couple was capable of living with the consequences of an open marriage. In one instance, a friend and past resident of the Lane burned a draft of Sometimes a Great Notion, along with some other manuscripts that he found in Kesey’s writing room, after he discovered that Kesey had slept with his wife. Kesey was unrepentant, claiming that his friend had engaged in similar errant behavior. Still, the experience left its mark. “I was always for as much ‘free sex’ as you could get,” Kesey told one interviewer much later in life, “but I learned really quickly that it wasn’t all that ‘free,’ that you paid for it some place.”
The sexual experimentation on the Lane was part and parcel of a broader rebellion against what were seen by the Lane residents as the constraining cultural and social mores of the day. Chloe Scott recalled that from their perspective, “the fifties were pretty staid and there was a lot to rebel against . . . or refuse to go along with.” Sexual inhibitions were seen as just something else to rebel against, to challenge, or to leave behind. This is important if we want to understand what happens next. Well before drugs came on the scene, Kesey was already rebelling against the standards of the day according to his own understanding of what it meant to be an American. If this was the land of the free, then Kesey wanted to be free: free to challenge what he saw as dogmatic rules and conventions, free to express himself as an individual, free to live up to the ideals that America promised. The problem was an American Cold War culture that denied people the very liberty it was supposedly fighting to preserve. America had taken a wrong turn, it seemed to Kesey, and therefore, any right-thinking American should do what they could to set it back on track.
From It’s All a Kind of Magic: The Young Ken Kesey by Rick Dodgson. Reprinted by permission of the University of Wisconsin Press. © 2013 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. All rights reserved.