'My Psychedelic Love Story': Who was Timothy Leary? Did Joanna Harcourt-Smith have role in his capture by Feds?

Allen Ginsberg called her a 'CIA sex provocateur' after Leary was captured in Afghanistan and became an informant for the federal government


                            'My Psychedelic Love Story': Who was Timothy Leary? Did Joanna Harcourt-Smith have role in his capture by Feds?
Timothy Leary and Joanne Harcourt-Smith (Showtime)

Timothy Leary is often known as the "Father of the Psychedelic Movement" in the United States. He pioneered the study of psychedelic drugs while he was a clinical psychologist at Harvard University, working on the Harvard Psilocybin Project from 1960 to 1962. At the time, LSD and psilocybin were still legal in the country. Leary and his one-time girlfriend, Joanna Harcourt-Smith are the subjects of the new Showtime documentary, 'My Psychedelic Love Story'.

Leary’s experiments were highly controversial and he was dismissed from Harvard in 1963. He also ran into many troubles with the law while he was alive because of his association with psychedelics and other drugs. Cultural conservatives saw Leary as a corrosive influence on society — then-President Richard Nixon called him “the most dangerous man in America” — while many researchers felt that Leary delegitimized the serious study of psychedelic drugs.

After arrests in 1965 and 1968 for possession of marijuana and a prolonged legal battle, Leary was incarcerated in 1970. Later, he became an informant for the FBI in order to shorten his prison sentence and he entered the witness protection program upon his release in 1976, prompting his friends, Allen Ginsberg, Ram Dass and his son, Jack Leary, to denounce him. Anger at the pair was so great that the government put them in the witness protection program for their own safety, and they lived for a time outside Santa Fe under the aliases James and Nora Joyce. However, by then they had grown different. His years in solitary confinement had damaged him, she wrote in her book, 'Tripping the Bardo with Timothy Leary: My Psychedelic Love Story', on which the documentary is based. They were both alcoholics and fought constantly before splitting up.

Harcourt-Smith herself came from a troubled life. Her father died when she was 10. When she was abused as a child by her mother's chauffeur, her mother dismissed her, telling her that a good chauffeur was hard to find. When Harcourt-Smith met Leary, she was 26 and he was 52. Leary had been on the run in Switzerland after escaping from prison, and there, the pair fell in love and had an intense relationship between 1972 and 1979. Switzerland did not want to harbor the fugitive that Leary was -- who had been at one point referred to as "the most dangerous man in America" by President Richard Nixon. Leary did not want to extend his asylum there, so he and Harcourt-Smith fled, first to Vienna, then to Beirut. An informant tipped off the authorities about their travel plans, and when they landed in Kabul, they were rerouted to the United States.

However, many of Leary's friends believed that Harcourt-Smith herself had led Leary to the authorities. As a condition of Leary’s release after he was captured in Afghanistan, he and Harcourt-Smith agreed to become federal informants. Leary’s followers were outraged and blamed her for their guru’s becoming a traitor to the cause. The poet Allen Ginsberg called her “a CIA sex provocateur”. She always insisted that becoming informants was not her idea, that Leary had told her to tell the government that he was ready to cooperate and that she was being scapegoated.

'My Psychedelic Love Story' will premiere on Showtime on Sunday, November 29, at 9/8c.

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