Heroines?: Valentina Pavlovna Wasson and Psychedelic Wives

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from new contributing editor Peder Clark. Dr. Clark is a historian of modern Britain, with research interests in drugs, subcultures, health, everyday life, and visual culture. He completed his PhD in 2019 at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and he is currently a Research Associate at the University of Strathclyde. 

Cultural historian Mike Jay wrote an article last year which asked ‘why is psychedelic culture dominated by privileged white men?’ It’s a question worth answering, and one that Erika Dyck’s recent series on women in the history of psychedelic plant medicines for the Chacruna Institute does a fine job of addressing. As Dyck points out in her introduction, one doesn’t even need to look far to find female pioneers. Many of the “great men” of psychedelics, from Jean-Paul Sartre to Alexander Shulgin, were introduced to, or aided and abetted in their use of psychoactive substances by their wives and partners. In highlighting women such as Simone De Beauvoir or Ann Shulgin, Dyck’s introduction is redolent of Kate Zambreno’s polemical essay Heroines, which rages at the silencing, exclusion and neglect of “the wives and mistresses of modernism.” All writers themselves, women such as Vivienne Eliot, Jane Bowles and Zelda Fitzgerald have had their work side-lined, both deliberately and negligently, by the oversize literary reputations of their male partners.

María Sabina, photographed by Allan Richardson, from 
R. George Wasson, “Seeking the magic mushroom,” 
Life 49 no.19 (1957): 100–102, 109–120.

Which leads on to Valentina “Tina” Pavlovna Wasson, the wife of another of the “great men” of psychedelic culture, R. Gordon Wasson. A vice-president of investment bank J.P. Morgan, Gordon was the unlikely conduit through which “magic mushrooms” (psilocybin fungi) were introduced to the burgeoning psychedelic culture of the post-war Western world. Throughout the early 1950s, the Wassons made successive visits to Mexico, culminating in their meeting in 1955 with curandera María Sabina and Gordon’s first participation in a Mazatec mushroom ritual. These field trips, seemingly unwittingly funded by the CIA’s MK-Ultra program, were written up by Gordon for Life magazine in 1957. Accompanied by pictures taken by society photographer Allan Richardson, Gordon declared them to be the “the first white men in recorded history to eat the divine mushrooms,” and Gordon’s place was assured in counter-cultural lore (much to his apparent distaste). From the early 1960s, María Sabina was subsequently inundated with visits from the new “hippie” counter culture, with rock stars such as John Lennon, Bob Dylan and the Who’s Pete Townshend rumoured to have sought her out.

Photo of the Wassons by Allan Richardson, from R. George Wasson,
“Seeking the magic mushroom,” Life 49 no.19 (1957): 100–102, 109–120.

Tina Wasson’s participation in these ceremonies and research has arguably been largely obfuscated. Mycologist Lawrence Millman’s recent pocket guide Fungipedia has entries on María Sabina and Gordon Wasson without mention of his wife, while Andy Letcher’s cultural history Shroom devotes a chapter to exploring Gordon’s motivations and reputation with only passing allusion to Tina. Meanwhile the more fastidious researcher, consulting the inventory for the Tina and R. Gordon Wasson Ethnomycological Collection Archives held by Harvard’s Botany Libraries, could be forgiven for wondering what material in it relates to Tina, given the focus on Gordon’s correspondence with notables such as poet Robert Graves, anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, or chemist and synthesizer of LSD, Albert Hofmann.

In Heroines, Zambreno complains of the difficulties of researching her subjects and the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which archives and libraries frustrated her attempts. Zambreno denounces the “disappearance or willful destruction of these archives of these [literary] wives,” but also points to the more insidious ways that women’s expertise and achievements are downplayed or undermined.

She recounts visiting the collection of Mary Reynolds, an artist and bookbinder who was in a relationship with Marcel Duchamp for over twenty years, and the librarian expressing “skepticism about how much of the vision behind these extraordinarily bound books are Reynolds’, he suggests that they are mostly Duchamp’s design.”

Tina Wasson’s contribution to research on magic mushrooms hasn’t been so explicitly denigrated, but nonetheless she occupies a footnote to her husband’s renown. Perhaps this can partially be explained by her premature death from cancer in 1958, at the age of 57, while Gordon went on to expound his theories about the role of mushrooms in religion. Or that she missed the initial mushroom ceremony that her husband and Richardson attended, arriving a day later with their daughter, Masha. But Tina, a Russian émigrée who spent her career as a pediatrician, had played an essential role in Gordon’s enthusiastic amateur ethnomycology, as he was happy to admit.

The couple had met in London in 1921 and married there in 1926 before returning to the US and taking a delayed honeymoon the following year in the Catskill Mountains. In an incident that Gordon would mythologize endlessly – to the extent that even Masha doubted its veracity – the newly-wed Wassons stumbled across a bumper crop of fungi. Tina’s response was a “delirium of excitement” as she “began gathering them right and left in her skirt.” Gordon was less delighted, refusing to eat the meals that Tina cooked with them, fearful of the poisonous reputation of the “toadstools” and half-wondering if he “should wake up the next day a widower.” Fortunately both Tina and their fledgling marriage survived, and Gordon was converted, as he might have put it, from myco-phobia to myco-philia.

Indeed, throughout the early years of their partnership, it is fair to surmise that Tina’s interest drove the couple’s leisure-time activities. The privately-published book Mushrooms, Russia and History was reportedly conceived of as a cookbook by Tina and the couple’s Russian housekeeper Florence James, but had clearly taken quite a different shape by the time of publication. A sumptuously illustrated compendium of folklore, art history and anthropology, only 512 copies were published, and, at $125, “priced well beyond the reach of all but private collectors and university libraries.” As the preface written by Tina made clear, although published as a jointly-written venture, the bulk of the research was hers.

Gordon’s article for Life magazine had been written with the intention of popularizing the couple’s research, and it certainly achieved that aim, thrusting him into the public eye. Tina had her own article published a week later, in the less widely circulated This Week newspaper supplement. Although reticent to eat the “moist, greenish and very dirty” mushrooms, and doing so without the supervision of a curandera, Tina nonetheless reported a state in which her mind “was floating blissfully,” experiencing visions of “eighteenth century Versailles.” Ever the physician, Tina speculated that “if the active agent can be isolated and a supply assured,” the mushrooms could serve as “a vital tool in the study of psychic processes.” Although understandably cautious in her ruminations, Tina anticipated the recent bloom of research into the clinical and therapeutic possibilities of psilocybin.

Examining the lives and research of the wives and partners of the “great men” of psychedelics, similar to Zambreno’s approach, offers one route into broadening our histories. But there are also risks inherent in this method, similar to critiques that might be leveled at Zambreno’s project. By studying the partners of these “privileged white men,” we are generally still looking at the lives and achievements of an elite group, reproducing the systemic power and opportunities that were afforded to them in their lifetimes, even while we acknowledge their gendered disadvantage. While this article has focused on Valentina Pavlovna Wasson, what of María Sabina, the Mazatec curandera who facilitated the Wassons’ initial encounters with magic mushrooms? As anthropologist Ben Feinberg notes, “María Sabina became famous, [but] she died poor and her family has struggled to successfully monetize her legacy.” Our historical analysis should be intersectional, taking account of all the identities noted in Jay’s question; not just gender, but also class and ethnicity.

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