Psychedelic Pioneer and Confidence Man

By James PennerFebruary 19, 2020

Psychedelic Pioneer and Confidence Man

Divine Rascal by Andy Roberts

IN 1961, a mysterious Englishman surfaced in Cambridge, Massachusetts, equipped with a mayonnaise jar full of LSD-infused sugar paste. The 16-ounce jar, safely stored in Michael Hollingshead’s luggage, was rumored to contain no less than 5,000 potential trips. After befriending Timothy Leary, Hollingshead promptly moved into his attic and proceeded to take the Harvard psychologist on his first LSD trip in December 1961.

After turning Leary on, Hollingshead became an active participant in many of the ur-moments of psychedelic culture, such as the Concord Prison Project of 1961–’63 (where Leary used psilocybin and psychotherapy to reduce recidivism), the Good Friday Experiment of 1962 (where volunteers from Harvard’s Divinity School explored the spiritual properties of psilocybin), and the Millbrook commune Leary established in Upstate New York in 1963. Upon returning to London in 1965, Hollingshead became a founding member of the World Psychedelic Center (WPC), which was devoted to disseminating psychedelic literature and “turning on” intellectuals, writers, artists, and pop stars, including Donovan, Paul McCartney, and Mick Jagger. After the London police raided the WPC and found some cannabis that Hollingshead had failed to flush down the toilet, the psychedelic proselytizer was given a sentence of 21 months in Wormwood Scrubs. Upon release, the peripatetic Englishman, like many other hippies, eventually made the journey to Kathmandu, where he experienced samadhi when Gyalwa Karmapa, a Buddhist monk, gently touched his forehead while he was tripping on LSD. “I felt utterly and completely cleansed,” he wrote, “as though the divine thunderbolt had gone through me like a million volt charge.”

Andy Roberts’s provocative new biography of Hollingshead, Divine Rascal, suggests that there is something seriously wrong with this standard history. Roberts uncovers the fact that Hollingshead was not simply a benevolent trickster who turned people on with his beloved mayonnaise jar; he also possessed a dark side — one that does not appear in the various historical accounts of the psychedelic movement. In Divine Rascal, Roberts, an eminent historian of British psychedelic culture (e.g., Albion Dreaming: A Popular History of LSD in Britain [2012]), views Hollingshead with sober eyes.

The romantic myth of Hollingshead was created when he published his psychedelic memoir, The Man Who Turned on the World, in 1973. [1] The first generation of psychedelic historians who read the autobiography did not seriously question Hollingshead’s version of his own life. [2] In all fairness, I too was quite taken with Hollingshead’s memoir when I first encountered it. It is easy to be captivated by The Man Who Turned on the World because the narrator is clever, witty, erudite, and clearly in possession of a knack for being in the right place at the right time. Although the memoir remains a classic in the genre of “trip lit,” we now have to accept that Hollingshead was an unreliable narrator, albeit an extremely persuasive one. It would be wrong to accuse him of being an outright liar, but Roberts’s corrective biography shows how adept Hollingshead was at autobiographical sleight of hand: the art of selectively omitting the lovers, ex-wives, and wealthy patrons whom he deceived and swindled during his bumpy ride through the 1960s and early 1970s. At the beginning of Divine Rascal, Roberts warns readers about what lies ahead: “If you encountered Hollingshead’s dark side you were in danger of losing your money, your mind or possibly both.”

Hollingshead circa 1970. Reprinted with the permission of Andy Roberts.

Dust cover for Hollingshead’s memoir that was published in 1973.

Divine Rascal is an engaging read because the author is a diligent sleuth, carefully separating fact from fantasy. While Roberts establishes that the legendary mayonnaise jar did actually exist, he also shows that much of what we thought we knew about Hollingshead is probably untrue. Hollingshead was born Michael Shinkfield in Darlington (County Durham) in the north of England. The working-class Shinkfield, a natural mimic, refashioned himself as an Oxford-educated gentleman with a posh accent. As Roberts points out, LSD played a significant role in this Gatsby-like transformation: “With each successive trip he began to experience a profound metamorphosis. He felt cut off from his roots, drifting, with no destination in sight.” The experience of LSD-enhanced ego death facilitated his intense desire for a new identity — and thus he became “Michael Hollingshead,” a worldly raconteur with a serious appetite for travel, adventure, and mind-altering drugs.

Hollingshead with his wife, Sophie in New York City (early 1960s). Photo reprinted with the permission of Andy Roberts.

The story of Hollingshead’s transformation really began in New York City in 1961 when he and John Beresford, a British doctor, acquired a gram of LSD from Sandoz under the ruse of “bone marrow research.” Once Hollingshead started to experiment with the drug, he gradually became less focused on his day job at the Institute for British-American Cultural Exchange (IBACE). As Roberts shows, Hollingshead had an aristocratic aversion to work; in fact, his position at IBACE was one of the last serious jobs he would hold in his life. Up until his mysterious death in Bolivia in 1984, he managed to find alternative ways to fund his travels and exploits; thus, once he resigned from IBACE in 1961, he began to employ confidence tricks when he was short of cash. Roberts uncovers some of Hollingshead’s scams and deceptions, but I suspect there were many more that we still don’t know about. After all, people who get ripped off are not in the habit of going on the record about it.

Divine Rascal reads like an extended picaresque tale, with Timothy Leary kicking off the jaunt. When he first met Hollingshead for lunch at the Harvard Faculty Club, Leary was an ambitious academic who was convinced that psychedelics would revolutionize the field of clinical psychology. But Leary forgot to show up for a follow-up meeting, leading Hollingshead to become frustrated and alienated. In a moment of desperation, he penned an urgent letter in which he issued an ultimatum: if Leary did not respond before 5:00 p.m., Hollingshead would commit suicide. While such an aggressive tactic might have scared off many people, it spurred Leary to action: he promptly dispatched one of his graduate students to pick up Hollingshead, who at the time was living in a Brattle Street rooming house. When Hollingshead claimed that he was “penniless, out of work and separated from his wife and child,” Leary offered to help. He let Hollingshead borrow his car so he could drive to New York to pick up his wife and daughter and then allowed the three of them to move into the third floor of his suburban home in Newton Center.

At this point in the story — depending on your perspective — Hollingshead can be viewed as a “divine rascal” or a parasite; Roberts’s biography persuasively suggests that both readings are valid. Thus, when Hollingshead moved into Leary’s home, it was a fait accompli that the Harvard psychologist would soon sample the wares contained in the mythic mayonnaise jar. Although Leary was skeptical of LSD when he met Hollingshead, preferring “sacred mushrooms” to a synthetic “laboratory product [that] had fallen quickly into the hands of doctors and psychiatrists,” it was only a matter of time before Hollingshead convinced Leary to try it. Although Leary resisted at first, the future icon of the counterculture did not really need much coaxing.

Hollingshead’s stewardship of Leary’s first LSD trip can be viewed from different points of angles. One view — let us call it the cynical perspective — downplays Hollingshead’s role in Leary’s psychedelic education and suggests that he was merely in the right place at the right time. If Hollingshead had not appeared, Leary would have graduated to LSD sooner or later. The second view — the version promoted by Leary in all of his writings — suggests that Hollingshead was a shamanic figure who was divinely ordained to “turn on” the Harvard psychologist. As Leary wrote in his 1968 book High Priest, his relationship with Hollingshead underwent “the greatest change” following his initial trip: “I treated him with an awed respect. There was still a big part of my consciousness which saw him as messenger from a divinity. How right and beautiful it was that God should send his messenger in the form of this eccentric, impatient, and mildly disreputable Michael.” Leary, a devout atheist before he took psychedelics, resorts to religious metaphors to describe Hollingshead’s chaotic and disruptive presence in his life; grateful that his friend introduced him to the drug, he even realizes that he is destined to abandon his career as a respectable academic. By contrast, Roberts presents a less affirmative version of the Harvard psychologist’s first trip:

Leary glanced across at Hollingshead who was sitting on the floor, head between his knees. Leary now saw him not as a mortal man but as a sorcerer, a trickster figure responsible for initiating the revelatory experience he was undergoing. As he studied the face of this mysterious arrival in his life Leary knew that Hollingshead was in the grip of a higher power, compelled to turn him on to LSD.

Roberts, always aware of the man’s darker side, adds another layer to the enigma that was Michael Hollingshead. While Hollingshead was often labeled “divine,” Roberts never ignores his parasitical tendencies or his penchant for mischief and what some people described as “mind fucking.”

Hollingshead Playing an Imaginary Cello near the Royal Albert Hall. Reprinted with the permission of Andy Roberts.

Divine Rascal chronicles a long trail of people whom Hollingshead conned, ripped off, and exploited. Not surprisingly, there were some incidents of sexual assault, with Hollingshead employing LSD as a seduction tool. There was one case, however, that shocked me the most. Roberts reveals that Hollingshead once told his daughter Vanessa: “Only fools and mules work” — an aphorism that, as it turns out, applied to Hollingshead’s own writings. When he was in Kathmandu in the late 1960s, Hollingshead met the Polish poet Kristof Glinka, an Oxford-trained scholar of Sanskrit. When they met up again in the 1970s, Glinka agreed to ghostwrite Hollingshead’s autobiography, on the condition that he would receive a 50-percent split of the publisher’s advance and any future royalty payments. Glinka sifted through “several trunks full of letters, documents, and other ephemera” related to Hollingshead’s participation in the psychedelic movement and also conducted interviews with Hollingshead. After the interviews were transcribed, the ghostwriter constructed an autobiographical narrative of a spiritual journey that culminated in Hollingshead’s experience of samadhi in Kathmandu. When the manuscript was completed, Hollingshead secured a book contract with Blond & Briggs, a London publisher, that included an advance of £500. He then absconded to the United States without paying Glinka for his services.

Hollingshead (circa 1970s) standing in front of the Harvard Department of Social Relations, 5 Divinity Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Given Hollingshead’s moral shortcomings, it is not surprising that he opted to swindle Glinka. But I never would have guessed, before reading Roberts’s book, that The Man Who Turned on the World was largely written by someone else. And so I wondered to myself: Had I also been duped by the narrator? Was it possible that Hollingshead had conned his way into the history books? What should we do when we discover that an author’s memoir was actually written by someone else, especially if that ghostwritten book happens to be a great work of literature?

These are questions that readers will have to answer for themselves when they read Roberts’s brilliant exercise in demystification. In his afterword to Divine Rascal, Roberts describes how his subject morphed before his very eyes as he was writing the book:

I wanted Hollingshead’s story to be a story of psychedelic daring, of a flamboyant cosmic courier outwitting the authorities and helping people break free of their personal and societal conditioning. There was a degree of that, but those achievements were offset and outweighed by the sadness of Hollingshead’s life. Instead his story came to represent the dark side of the hippie dream, illuminating the cracks TV documentaries, social histories and memoirs often ignore or gloss over in favour of more celebratory narratives.

Roberts’s biography reads like a novel, each chapter gradually laying bare the mythic presence of Michael Hollingshead. Although Hollingshead traveled to Bolivia in the 1980s, he was unable to hide from his failings and the various relationships he had sabotaged during his lifetime. Separated from his daughter, he died a lonely death in a hospital in Cochabamba, Bolivia. (Vanessa Hollingshead had the best possible response to her father’s legacy: she converted her fragmented childhood into a stand-up comedy routine.)

Hollingshead drinking café in Cochabamba, Bolivia 1984. One of the last photos before his death. Photo reprinted with the permission of the New York Public Library (Timothy Leary Papers).

Hollingshead with camera shortly before his death in Cochabamba, Bolivia. This photo is reprinted with the permission of the New York Library (Timothy Leary Papers).

When I finished reading this engrossing biography, I too had to figure out what to do with Hollingshead. I still feel that The Man Who Turned on the World should be read and appreciated as a classic text in the history of psychedelics, but that reading must now be tempered by Roberts’s account of Hollingshead’s life and exploits. We must consider Kristof Glinka as a co-author who deserves, at the very least, equal billing. I do believe that Hollingshead wrote some of his book, but we will never know exactly how much. (Kristof Glinka, if you are reading this review, please respond and set the record straight.)

If Roberts’s Divine Rascal is a cautionary tale about the counterculture, what lessons can be learned from its subject’s flawed life? As the science of the 1960s and the present day has verified, LSD, when used humanely and therapeutically, can help and benefit those people who genuinely want to be helped. We must also acknowledge, however, that the drug is no panacea. It clearly did not help Hollingshead very much. I get the overall impression from Roberts that Hollingshead was great at navigating altered states of consciousness, but like many other Herculean trippers, he was not so good at dealing with what Freud called the “reality principle.” He never seemed to be able to apply the insights that he had gained to his own life.


James Penner is the editor of Timothy Leary: The Harvard Years (2014) and the author of Pinks, Pansies, and Punks: The Rhetoric of Masculinity in American Literary Culture (2011).


[1] The Man Who Turned on the World is an extremely rare book, with used copies going for more than $150. I found a copy on reserve at the Central Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, complete with smoky pages from the library fire of 1986.

[2] Both Martin Lee and Bruce Shlain, in their seminal history of the psychedelic movement, Acid Dreams: The Complete History of LSD: The CIA, the Sixties, and Beyond (1985), and Jay Stevens, in his enjoyable Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream (1987), were suspicious about Hollingshead, but because he died before their books were completed, they were unable to interview him to assess his credibility firsthand.

LARB Contributor

James Penner is the editor of Timothy Leary: The Harvard Years (2014) and the author of Pinks, Pansies, and Punks: The Rhetoric of Masculinity in American Literary Culture (2011).


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