Ken Kesey
Ken Kesey
Photo: Library of Congress

Ken Kesey

1935 - 2001

A successful novelist in his own right, Kesey is often cited as a livewire that connects and electrifies some of the most creative personalities in the beat and hippie worlds.

Awarded a fellowship in '58, Ken Kesey enrolls in Stanford's creative writing program. In his Palo Alto home, he begins writing a novel about the beat scene in nearby San Francisco, and meets many influential beat figures.

In 1960, he volunteers to participate in Army tests of mind-altering drugs at the VA hospital. He begins stealing LSD, and inviting friends to try acid at his home. By spring, Kesey works in the hospital's mental wards, where he finds inspiration for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. With his profits, Kesey moves to the hills above Palo Alto, where the acid-tests grow more experimental. Hunter S. Thompson, renowned for his own brand of insanity, calls it "the world capital of madness."

"What we hoped was that we could stop the coming end of the world."

Ken Kesey
on the Merry Pranksters

Around this time, Kesey and his cohorts name themselves the Merry Pranksters, and grow a reputation for open use of psychoactive drugs, outrageous attire, and street theater. Between pranks and parties, Kesey finishes Sometimes a Great Notion. In '64, the publishers want Kesey in New York, so the Pranksters go on an epic road trip. They travel in "Furthur," a former school bus that also serves as stage, canvas, and camp. The driver is Neal Cassady (aka Dean Moriarity in Jack Kerouac's On the Road). En route, they meet up with Kerouac himself, and acid advocate Timothy Leary.

By '65, with LSD remaining legal, Kesey moves his drug parties to bigger venues in San Francisco. A $1 cover charge buys a cup of "electric" Kool-Aid, and music by Kesey's friends The Warlocks (aka the Grateful Dead). The acid-tests are credited (or blamed) for setting the tone of Haight-Ashbury. But Kesey is no longer involved.

By October '67, Kesey is in jail on drug charges. There, Tom Wolfe interviews him for The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Out of jail in a few months, Kesey heads home to Oregon.

Through the 1970s he continues to write short stories and essays, and briefly publishes a literary journal. In his '60s, Kesey develops liver cancer. He dies of post-surgical complications on November 10, 2001. His own novels, and books about him, are classics of American literature taught at many colleges.

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