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Looking Back at George Leonard
George Leonard, whose dispatches for Look magazine came from the Eden of the West Coast before the Fall of Man, is dead at 86. His obit in the New York Times, which was a link on Tuesday morning’s Like the Dew, says he died of throat cancer on Jan. 6 at his home in Mill Valley, Calif.
I remember his writings on the Sixties in the glossy colorful pages of Look, a promise of redemption for a kid feeling stuck in a dusty old Atlanta high school while Something Big was happening out there. His book Education and Ecstasy seemed more original and damning of conventional life (i.e. my high school) than the liner-notes on a Dylan or Coltrane album. Leonard’s message was so ahead-of-the-curse (to stick with the Eden image), it announced a New Consciousness that is still possible, still unspoiled by our later cynicism and Tom Wolfish irony. When the Sixties went stale and sulky, Leonard caught a wayward updraft, shuffling off objectivity and journalism to become a pilgrim guide on the wild trips of the Human Potential Movement. He was Out There, “walking on the edge of the world,” as he called his memoir. But he was also a Georgia boy of the ‘40s, racing cars down Peachtree Street with his North Fulton High School buddies, and even in his later consciousness-raising, haunted by the South’s racial demons.
I finally met him at the world’s first (and last) Hog Encounter, in a Morningside living room in Atlanta. A tall striking figure with intense blue eyes, white hair, and the grace of a dancer, George Leonard was by then known as a leader of the movement centered at Esalen Institute in California. He became president of Esalen, co-founder and master teacher of a school in the martial art of aikido, president of the Association of Humanistic Psychology, and promoter of various new-age blends of spiritual, athletic and mental practices such as Leonard Energy Training (LET) and Integral Transformative Practice (ITP). Leonard’s books delineate his joyous radical vision in such basic areas of American life as education, marriage, leisure time, and health: Education and Ecstasy (1968), The Man & Woman Thing and Other Provocations (1970), The Transformation (1972), The Ultimate Athlete (1975), The Silent Pulse: A Search for the Perfect Rhythm that Exists in Each of Us (1978), The End of Sex (1983), Mastery: The Keys to Long-Term Success and Fulfillment (1991), and The Way of Aikido (1999). After he left Look in 1970, he embraced and mastered (or helped invent) practices that issued from the very phenomena he had covered (or discovered, as far as Middle America was concerned) in the 1960s.
The process began when Leonard orchestrated a special issue of Look in January 1961 touting the proposition that, as his essay put it, “Youth everywhere is exploding into action,” a clairvoyance defying the conventional wisdom that the rising generation was apathetic. Living in San Francisco, where he established a Look bureau, Leonard directed other special issues from the windy frontiers of cultural change, giving some thirty million Look readers a prescient, vibrant sense of the new meaning of California, hippies, psychedelic drugs, encounter groups, the sexual revolution, hot tubs, and Frisbees. His beat was not merely touchy-feely trends, but the whole notion of “lifestyle,” a term that Leonard introduced into the popular press before “Lifestyle” permeated American culture as a section title of metro newspapers everywhere. Look magazine’s editorial practice was to give one editor or team control over the words, design and photography of an entire package, so Leonard’s evangelizing for the new consciousness included his essays, his choice of artful photographs and the work of other writers of his choosing. For Leonard to participate in the humanistic revolution he was covering—giving Esalen seminars and experimenting with LSD, for example—was in keeping with New Journalism. A new, more penetrating and personal journalism was needed to cover what was happening. The question was this: What drove Leonard to make that leap into a new kind of journalism, and eventually led him to such explorations of the self?
According to his Walking on the Edge of the World, it was largely his upbringing in a segregated South that gave him his vague longing to break down social barriers. (“Breakdown is Breakthrough” he titles the final section of the memoir, on the human potential movement.) As a boy from Atlanta, he spent summers in a small Georgia town with his grandfather, a state senator, undertaker, and farmer. His grandfather took him to see the crowded shacks of the poor black families who worked on his farm. What do they do at night, the boy asked. His grandfather assured him they went to sleep happy. The boy knew this was not the case, but it was forbidden territory and it left him feeling very strange. Later, he witnessed a white mob gathered around the town’s courthouse as a black prisoner, accused of raping a white woman, was escorted through the crowd past the boy. “Something had happened to me when my eyes had met those of the black man. I had felt what he felt.” His heroes would be Southerners who questioned this system—Ralph McGill and Leonard’s own aunt, a novelist and Atlanta Journal columnist named Margaret Long, who once edited a progressive journal of the Southern Regional Council. So, for Look, he returned to the South several times to witness the non-violent protests of black students and the march from Selma, Alabama. He encouraged a young Georgia writer, Bill Hedgepeth, to open an Atlanta bureau for the magazine. Leonard wrote that he liked Hedgepeth because he was a colorful, madcap Southern writer who wore an eyepatch and white linen suits. In the late sixties, when ghettos were erupting, Leonard joined a group of fifteen senior editors from America’s major news outlets on a jetliner tour, sponsored by Time-Life and the Urban League. They dropped in on the country’s most racially troubled cities. Leonard mockingly called the project “seven ghettos in seven days,” convinced that the mentality of journalistic objectivity would block any understanding even if these editors could spend a month in the ghetto. At one point in the tour, in Watts, Leonard nearly exploded with rage, nose-to-nose with one of the militant black-power advocates who had been haranguing the white editors. Leonard was disgusted with the lack of response from his fellow editors, pathetic not just in their whiteness, but in their bloodless, colorless “objectivity.” Leonard believed that yelling back was healthy therapy, and his black attacker raised the volume even more. “It was a goddam, all-out black-white confrontation, and what made it wonderful was not the content of the words but the rhythm, the uninhibited release of pent-up feelings. I noticed vaguely during the uproar that my white colleagues were absolutely still and pale.” Race, for Leonard, remained a formidable inner wall, and the dream of breaking through that barrier connected his California mind-body trip with his Southern roots:
“On the matter of race, perhaps more than anything else, I dreamed of things that never were. Race was clearly a powerful searchlight that could illuminate individual neurosis and penetrate to the core of our national sickness. Through heartfelt confrontation and understanding, integration could become a two-way process. Black Americans could gain a fair share of the rewards of the mainstream culture. White Americans could tap into the richness of the black culture, could recognize the spontaneity, the joy, even the ability to perceive reality that we had kept hidden somewhere in the sterile suburbs of our senses.”