Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Psychedelic Pioneers Peggy Hitchcock and Susi Ramstein

Peggy Hitchcock in Dying to Know
The new documentary Dying to Knownow on Netflix, interviews Margaret "Peggy" Mellon Hitchcock, heiress to the Gulf Oil fortune, about her involvement with LSD.

Hitchcock heard that Professors Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert were looking for research subjects while at Harvard, and she volunteered to try the then-legal experimental drug. "It really confirmed a lot of things that I had hoped were true, that I had sort of glimpsed at various times in my life, that there was a larger reality than what my everyday, humdrum experiences were," she says.

Along with her brothers Billy and Tommy, Peggy made their Millbrook estate in upper New York available to Leary and Alpert (aka Ram Dass) after Alpert was kicked out of Harvard for giving psilocybin to an undergraduate student.

"As an intimate friend to both Leary and Alpert, Peggy was instrumental in establishing a communal living and research community in Millbrook, NY once Leary and Alpert left Harvard. Peggy convinced her brothers to allow the two professors to live and conduct their unfettered and continued research into the effect of psychedelic substances on the personalities of willing participants," reads her bio on the movie's website.

It's especially interesting because Peggy is the great grandniece of former US Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, and her mother Margaret's first husband may be at the source of the persistent and unverified rumor that a niece of Mellon's married Harry Anslinger, the first US drug czar.

Anslinger was married to the former Martha Denniston (1886-1961). There are no Dennistons in the Mellon family tree, but Harry Alexander Laughlin (1838-1922), son of James Laughlin of Jones & Laughlin Steel Co., married an Alice B. Denniston on 9/10/1860. (A later relative was James Laughlin IV, publisher of New Directions who was influenced by Gertrude Stein.)

Peggy's mother Margaret Mellon (1901–1998) was married to an Alexander Laughlin Jr. on 6/21/1924. Attending the wedding were both sitting Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon and Miss Alice Denniston Laughlin, "wearing a frock of gold crepe and a hat of brown straw," along with her grandmother Mrs. James B. Laughlin (the former Alice B. Denniston), "in white crepe with satin thread embroidery and a hat of orchid straw," according to the Pittsburgh Daily Post. So Anslinger apparently married into Pittsburgh society, if not directly into the Mellon family.*

Margaret was widowed and subsequently married polo player Tommy Hitchcock (the model for Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby) on 12/15/1928, and Andrew was at that wedding too. Whether or not she was a model for Daisy Buchanan, thought to be based on Fitzgerald's wife Zelda, is unknown. It must have been quite the family scandal when the Hitchcock kids sided against the drug war.

Narrated by Robert Redford, Dying to Know is produced and directed by Gay Dillingham, and also interviews researcher Joan Halifax, who along with Stan Grof pioneered psychedelic therapy for terminal cancer patients in 1967. Andrew Weil is interviewed in the film saying of those studies, "A guided psychedelic experience in a dying person often enabled that person to drastically cut doses of opiates for pain relief, which kept consciousness clear, and often greatly facilitated communication with family and friends and made the dying process easier."

This is the second psychedelic documentary produced by a woman of late: Connie Littlefield wrote and co-directed The Sunshine Makers about LSD chemists Nicholas Sand and Tim Scully, also viewable on Netflix.

And finally, it turns out Albert Hofmann wasn't alone on the bicycle ride that marked the first LSD trip on April 19, 1943: he was accompanied by his lab assistant, 21-year-old Susi Ramstein, who on June 12 of that year became the first woman to take LSD. According to Erowid.org, "She initially took a 100 mics—a higher dose than either Albert's co-worker Ernst Rothlin or his supervisor Arthur Stoll had tried—and she had a good experience. And although everyone working with Albert took acid at least once, Susi tried it two more times in order to help out with establishing some standards for the medical use of LSD."

Hats off to these female psychedelic pioneers, and the women who document their contributions.

*Researcher and activist Doug McVay has another connection: Thomas Mellon, Andrew's father, married Sarah Jane Negley (b. 1817) in 1843. Union Trust was established by Thomas's son Andrew W. Mellon in 1889. Samuel Philip Gerst was an assistant treasurer at Union Trust, worked there 43 years. Gerst's sister Sarah Margaret (b. 1874) married Edward C. Negley. Martha Kind Denniston Leet Anslinger's mother was Florence Gerst (b. 1861).

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