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Biography of Ken Kesey (1935-2001)

Ken Kesey Ken Kesey

Ken Kesey, the older of two sons, was born on September 17, 1935, in La Junta, Colorado. In 1946 the family moved to Springfield, Oregon, where Kesey spent several years on his family's farm. He was raised in a religious household where he developed a great appreciation for Christian fables and a Christian ethical system. During high school and later in college, Kesey was a champion wrestler, setting long-standing state records in Oregon. Voted "most likely to succeed" in high school, Kesey was an unlikely candidate to become one of the more controversial figures of his age and one of the leading figures of the counterculture.

After high school, Kesey eloped with Faye Haxby, his high school sweetheart, and they had three children together: Jed, Zane, and Shannon. Kesey attended the University of Oregon with a degree in Speech and Communications. He also received a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship to enroll in the Creative Writing program at Stanford. His classmates in the program included Robert Stone, Larry McMurty, Ken Babbs, and Wendell Berry, all of whom would go on to be noted writers and lifelong friends of Kesey.

While at Stanford, he participated in government-funded experiments involving chemicals at the psychology department to earn extra money. These chemicals included psilocybin, mescaline, and LSD. This experience fundamentally altered Kesey, personally and professionally. While working as an orderly at the psychiatric ward of the local VA hospital, Kesey began to have hallucinations about an Indian sweeping the floors. This formed the basis for Chief Bromden (for "broom") in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, his writing project at Stanford.

At this time, Kesey lived at Perry Lane, a bohemian community in Palo Alto, where he became notorious for throwing parties in which certain chemicals mysteriously found their way into the punch. Kesey published One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in 1962. The novel was an immediate critical and popular success. Dale Wasserman adapted it into a successful stage play, and Milos Forman directed a screen adaptation in 1975.

To do research for his second novel, which dealt with a family of loggers, Kesey moved to La Honda, California, in the redwood hills of San Mateo County. Surrounded by old friends from Perry Lane and similarly adventurous-minded travelers, La Honda became a de facto bohemian rural community. Writer Hunter S. Thompson remembered La Honda as "the world capital of madness. There were no rules, fear was unknown and sleep was out of the question." While Kesey and others had their families, they simultaneously experimented with all types of drugs, and every night seemed to bring a blowout party with the likes of Allen Ginsberg, the Hells Angels, and the weirdest outliers of San Francisco.

Despite the chaos at La Honda, Kesey managed to finish his second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion (1964). The novel deals with the conflicts between West Coast individualism and East Coast intellectualism. In 1964, Kesey and his friends, who had become known as the Merry Pranksters, bought a 1939 International Harvest school bus and drove to New York to see the World's Fair. Kesey recruited Neal Cassady from Kerouac's On the Road to drive the bus. Kesey filmed a significant portion of the journey, and he later would show clips from the trip to chemically-induced audiences at his parties. Kesey became the proponent of a local band known as the "Warlocks," which later became the Grateful Dead.

Kesey and his Merry Pranksters became notorious for their "Acid Tests" and use of LSD and other drugs. Kesey's exploits with the Merry Pranksters during this period formed the basis for a best-selling book by Tom Wolfe (A Man in Full, The Bonfire of the Vanities) called The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. When the government made LSD illegal, Ken and the Pranksters fled to Mexico, where Kesey tried to fake a suicide in order to escape later prosecution. But when he returned to the United States for a final performance, he was arrested on a marijuana charge, leading to a five-month prison sentence at the San Mateo County Jail. Upon his release from jail, Kesey moved to a farm in Pleasant Hill, Oregon, with his wife to raise his four children. He quietly taught a graduate writing seminar at the University of Oregon.

Kesey published Kesey's Garage Sale in 1973. His later works include Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear, a children's book (1990); Sailor Song (1992); and Last Go Around (1994), his last book, about a famous rodeo in Oregon.

Decades after his counterculture experience, Kesey never settled down. As he attested on his website late in life, Kesey warned that every now and then he got the itch to do "something weird." Kesey died on November 10, 2001, following cancer surgery on his liver.

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