Update: 'Prankster' Ken Kesey Dies
Ken Kesey, a central figure of the psychedelic '60s who railed against authority in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and orchestrated an LSD-fueled bus ride that helped immortalize the era, died SatuKen Kesey, a central figure of the psychedelic '60s who railed against authority in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and orchestrated an LSD-fueled bus ride that helped immortalize the era, died Saturday (Nov. 10). He was 66. Kesey died at Sacred Heart Medical Center in Eugene, Ore., two weeks after cancer surgery to remove 40 percent of his liver.
After studying writing at Stanford University, Kesey gained fame in 1962 with "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," followed quickly with "Sometimes a Great Notion" in 1964. He went 28 years before publishing his third major novel.
With Neal Cassady, hero of Jack Kerouac's beat generation classic, "On The Road," behind the wheel, and a pitcher of LSD-spiked Kool-Aid in the refrigerator, Kesey led a group of friends known as the Merry Pranksters on a 1964 trip aboard his bus named Furthur to the New York World's Fair. The journey was documented in Tom Wolfe's 1968 account, "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test."
Kesey will forever be linked to the Grateful Dead, which played numerous Acid Test events on the West Coast, including the very first, at friend Ken Babb's Santa Cruz, Calif., residence when the band was still known as the Warlocks. After the death of Jerry Garcia and the demise of the Dead, Bob Weir and other former band members paid tribute to Kesey's bus by dubbing their annual summer caravan jam band tour the Furthur Festival.
"There was a lot of the frontiersman in him, an unwillingness to accept conventional answers to a lot of profound questions," said Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Larry McMurtry, who was in a Stanford writing seminar with Kesey. "We argued and debated a lot of things. But I never would not listen to him, even if I thought some of what he said was gobbledygook, because there would always be the perception of genius if you waited him out."
When the Los Angeles Times honored Kesey's lifetime of work with the Robert Kirsh Award in 1991, Charles Bowden wrote that "Anyone trying to get a handle on our times had better read Kesey. And unless we get lucky and things change, they're going to have to read him a century from now too."
"Sometimes a Great Notion," widely considered Kesey's best book, tells the saga of the Stamper clan, rugged independent loggers carving a living out of the Oregon woods under the motto, "Never Give a Inch." It was made into a movie starring Henry Fonda and Paul Newman.
But "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" became much more widely known because of a movie that Kesey hated. It tells the story of R.P. McMurphy, who feigned insanity to get off a prison farm, only to be lobotomized when he threatened the authority of the mental hospital.
The 1974 movie swept the Academy Awards for best picture, best director, best actor, and best actress, but Kesey sued the producers because it took the viewpoint away from the character of the schizophrenic Indian, Chief Bromden.
Kesey based the story on experiences working at the Veterans Administration hospital in Menlo Park, Calif., while attending Wallace Stegner's writing seminar at Stanford. Kesey also volunteered for experiments with LSD.
Another member of the Stegner seminar, poet, essayist and novelist Wendell Berry, keeps a picture of Kesey, himself, and Babbs on his desk in Port Royal, Ky. The photo was taken during a visit last fall to Oregon.
"He was one of the few people I ever knew who could stand straight up without putting his hands in his pockets or leaning on anything," Berry said. "He was freestanding in that way, if you know what I mean. That told a lot about him."
"He was a man, as far as I could tell, totally without pretense. He never was pretending to be somebody he wasn't. And he never pretended to be the man he was," Berry said.
After "Cuckoo's Nest," Kesey continued to write short autobiographical fiction, magazine articles and children's books, but didn't produce another major novel until "Sailor Song" in 1992, his long-awaited Alaska book, which he described as a story of "love at the end of the world."
"This is a real old-fashioned form," he said of the novel. "But it is sort of the Vatican of the art. Every once in a while you've got to go get a blessing from the pope."
Kesey considered pranks part of his art, and in 1990 took a poke at the Smithsonian Institution by announcing he would drive his old psychedelic bus to Washington, D.C., to give it to the nation. The museum recognized the bus as a new one, with no particular history, and rejected the gift.
In a 1990 interview with The Associated Press, Kesey said it had become harder to write since he became famous. "Famous isn't good for a writer. You don't observe well when you're being observed," he said.
In 1990, Kesey returned to the University of Oregon -- where he had earned a bachelor's degree in journalism -- to teach novel writing. With each student assigned a character and writing under the gun, the class produced "Caverns," under the pen name OU Levon, or UO Novel spelled backward.
Among his proudest achievements was seeing "Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear," which he wrote from an Ozark mountains tale told by his grandmother, included on the 1991 Library of Congress list of suggested children's books. "I'm up there with Dr. Seuss," he crowed.
Fond of performing, Kesey sometimes recited the piece in top hat and tails accompanied by an orchestra, throwing a shawl over his head while assuming the character of his grandmother reciting the nursery rhyme, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."
Born in La Junta, Colo., on Sept. 17, 1935, Kesey moved as a young boy in 1943 from the dry prairie to his grandparents' dairy farm in Oregon's lush Willamette Valley.
After serving four months in jail for a marijuana bust in California, he set down roots in Pleasant Hill, Ore., in 1965 with his high school sweetheart, Faye, and reared four children. Their rambling red barn house with the big Pennsylvania Dutch star on the side became a landmark of the psychedelic era, attracting strangers in tie-dyed clothing seeking enlightenment. Furthur rusted away in a boggy pasture while Kesey raised beef cattle.
Kesey's son Jed, killed in a 1984 van wreck on a road trip with the University of Oregon wrestling team, was buried in the back yard. Kesey also wrestled in college.
Kesey was diagnosed with diabetes in 1992.
In a recorded message on Kesey's office phone, Babbs said: "Ken Kesey, a great husband, father, granddad and friend. Done in by a bum liver. As always, he gave it a great fight, but his body pulled its last dirty trick and done him in. If he has one legacy it is for us the living to carry on with courage, compassion, generosity and love."
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