This is the first time researching a post in my “Hidden Figures of Drug History” series has legitimately pissed me off. Usually, when I’m trying to learn more about someone like Joan Ganz Cooney, Lenore Kandel or Kitty McNeil, the fantastically-nicknamed “Babbling Bodhisattva,” my research takes me to enlightening places, where I can locate the influential impact these unacknowledged women have made on America’s long history with intoxicant use.
But over the past few days, as I tried to learn more about the mysterious Melissa Cargill, I became enormously upset about how overshadowed this talented chemist was by her larger-than-life partner, Augustus Owsley “Bear” Stanley III, the man “responsible” for the purest LSD in San Francisco in the 1960s, as well as the Grateful Dead’s famous “Wall of Sound.”
But was Owsley really the one manning the beakers? Or was it Cargill all along?
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Note from Sarah Brady Siff: This post was written by Cecilia Burtis of Tiffin, Ohio, who earned an undergraduate degree in sociology from Miami University in 2018. See also Part 1.
In California, the entertainment industry brought drug use to the forefront of public attention, where the constant press coverage of movie stars exposed drug abuse and trafficking in vivid detail. In the 1940s and 1950s, two female stars in particular were known for their well-publicized struggles with drugs, though they occupied very different spaces in public opinion. Judy Garland and Billie Holiday are two contrasting examples of how the drug policies of the 1940s and 1950s selectively punished forms of drug addiction that were considered more dangerous. Although both women fought long battles with drug addiction, the attention given to each, as demonstrated through the media, shows very different receptions of drug dependency.
Garland and Holiday, though traveling career paths that seldom intersected, shared a surprising number of parallels. Garland was born in 1922, Holiday in 1915. Their careers both began when they were young, and they began using drugs at early ages. They were well-known singers, although Garland was an actress as well, and they both struggled with drug and alcohol dependence. They both were checked into treatment several times, both contracted cirrhosis of the liver due to immense alcohol consumption, and both died in their mid-40s of drug-related causes.
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Editor’s Note: Today we add another post to our ongoing Hidden Figures of Drug History series, which highlights the historic roles women have played in drug and alcohol culture in the United States. Note that next week Points will be taking off on Tuesday to celebrate Christmas, but we’ll be back on Thursday and throughout the rest of the year with more great content. Happy holidays to you and yours from your friends at Points!
In his introduction to the collected San Francisco Oracle archives, Oracle editor Allen Cohen described Kitty McNeil, better known as the paper’s “Babbling Bodhisattva,” as “a suburban housewife, theosophist of the Alice Bailey variety, a psychic, and a lover of LSD and hippies.”
McNeil had first introduced herself to Cohen when she wrote the paper a lengthy reply to a question Oracle columnist Carl Helbing, the “Gossiping Guru,” had reprinted in an earlier edition. Helbing, an artist and astrologer who lived in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood (along with most of the Oracle‘s staff), asked readers, “Who then can tell us further of Him who was born on February 5, 1962, when 7 planets were in Aquarius?”
McNeil’s response, according to Cohen, was “a joint meditation on the inner planes with all the world’s adepts providing the spiritual energy and will needed to bring about the birth of the next avatar.”
Pretty heavy stuff for a “suburban housewife,” even if she was a psychic and a lover of LSD. “Of course,” Cohen wrote, “we made her a columnist.”
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