Get to know the real people behind Broadway’s ‘Flying Over Sunset’
What do a former conservative congresswoman, an Old Hollywood movie star, and the author of a book you read in English class have in common? In the 1950s, all three of them did LSD. No, you’re not hallucinating; you read that right.
The 1950s are remembered as idyllic and buttoned-up now, but the psychedelic drug was legal then, and Aldous Huxley, Cary Grant, and Clare Boothe Luce joined the movement at its high. And Flying Over Sunset, the new Broadway musical at Lincoln Center Theater, imagines what it might have been like for all three of them to drop acid together.
It’s an entertaining premise for a show, especially considering that in the musical all the characters only sing while high. But these characters were real, famous historical figures in their day, and they all lived fascinating lives, aside from experimenting with LSD. Believe it or not, they all worked in the theatre at some point or another! Take a trip through Huxley, Grant, and Luce’s lives below.
You may know Aldous Huxley (July 26, 1894 – November 22, 1963) as the author of the dystopian classic Brave New World, which you probably read in high school. But that’s just one of nearly 50 books the British author wrote in his career. His hefty portfolio included novels, essay collections, short stories, children’s books, poetry, and even travel books. He remains known as one of the most prominent intellectuals of his time.
And he was certainly destined to be — the Huxleys were a famously brainy family in all sorts of subjects. Huxley himself wanted to be a doctor, but an eye disease left him partially blind. So he wrote his first (unpublished) novel at 17, went to college for literature, and began writing seriously in his early 20s. He spent the 1920s and most of the 1930s writing and editing work about scientific progress and pacifism, most notably Brave New World.
Then, in 1937, he moved to Hollywood, where he lived for the rest of his life. Amid his other writing, Huxley took up screenwriting — he co-wrote film adaptations of Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre. He even pitched an Alice in Wonderland script to Disney called Alice And The Mysterious Mr. Carroll, but Disney rejected it for being “too literary.” But all in all, being “literary” served Huxley well — he was elected Companion of Literature by the Royal Society of Literature in 1962 and received nine nominations for the Nobel Prize in Literature in his lifetime.
Before trying LSD, Huxley made his first foray into the psychedelic-drug world in 1953 with the similar drug mescaline. He received it from the British psychiatrist Humphry Osmond (who also invented the word psychedelic!). Huxley tried LSD for the first time, with his second wife, on Christmas Eve of 1955 and did it many times since. The way he wrote about psychedelic drugs is evidence that he himself enjoyed doing them; in his 1962 utopian novel, Island, he describes drugs as “medicine” for the characters, providing the peace and understanding that makes the utopia work.
Huxley said drugs helped his creativity, and when he received a terminal cancer diagnosis, drugs may have helped ease his journey toward death. In fact, he even died on a drug trip — on his deathbed, he requested that his wife inject LSD into his muscle, which she did. He died shortly afterward.
- Before turning to creative writing, Huxley was a journalist in both England and America, writing about “everything from decorative plaster to Persian rugs” for magazines like Vogue, Vanity Fair, and House and Garden. He even did theatre criticism for the Westminster Gazette!
- This one’s for all you music fans! The rock band The Doors named themselves after Huxley’s book The Doors of Perception, in which he praised the effects of the LSD-like psychedelic drug mescaline.
- Huxley’s childhood nickname was “Ogie,” short for “Ogre” because he spent a lot of time thinking about “the strangeness of things,” according to his brother. (We’re sure it’s just a coincidence that the name of the eccentric Waitress character is Ogie, too.)
- Right after college, Huxley took up teaching for a year to pay off some of his debts. One of his students was fellow future novelist Eric Blair — but you know him as George Orwell, author of 1984 and Animal Farm.
Clare Boothe Luce
Clare Boothe Luce (March 10, 1903 – October 9, 1987) was many things in her 84 years of life — and one of those things was a theatre kid. At her mom’s urging, she got into acting from a young age, making her Broadway debut in 1914, at 10 years old, as an understudy in the detective comedy The Dummy. Her interest in theatre would continue into her adulthood; she never acted on Broadway after The Dummy, but she wrote four plays that appeared there.
The most famous is Luce’s 1935 play The Women, centered around the gossip shared between more than 30 Manhattan ladies, which received two Broadway revivals and a film adaptation. Her plays Abide With Me, Kiss the Boys Goodbye, and Margin for Error received one Broadway production each, and she also published two more plays (Child of the Morning and Slam the Door Softly), one screenplay (Come to the Stable), and three books (Stuffed Shirts, Europe in the Spring, and Saints For Now).
Like Huxley, Luce was also a journalist on top of all her creative writing. Her husband Henry Luce was the publisher and founder of Time, Life, and Fortune magazines, and she was even the first to suggest the idea of Life to him. Once it got off the ground, she was a war correspondent for the magazine in the 1940s. Before that, she had been a caption writer at Vogue and the managing editor at Vanity Fair.
Shortly after her tenure as a war journalist, Luce pivoted careers entirely and ventured into politics. She was a conservative Connecticut congresswoman from 1943-1947 and later became the U.S. ambassador to Italy. For her political career, former President Ronald Reagan gave her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1983, making her the first female congresswoman to receive the honor. In 1986, she received the Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement.
Philosopher, author, and LSD advocate Gerald Heard became a friend and mentor to Luce and her husband in the 1960s. (Heard was also friends with Aldous Huxley, and he appears in Flying Over Sunset!) At Heard’s recommendation, the Luces tried LSD once, supervised by a medical researcher, as part of government-sponsored research into therapeutic uses for LSD. Wilfred Sheed, Luce’s friend who later wrote a biography of her, wrote that Luce did the drug several times since.
According to Luce’s own notes, one of these times was on vacation in Majorca, Spain with Heard and his companion in August 1962. She had one bad acid trip there, writing that she felt fearful, sick, meaningless, and full of existential dread. Otherwise, she and her husband were enthusiastic about experimenting with the drug — Life magazine featured plenty of positive articles about LSD as its popularity was growing.
- Once she married Henry Luce, Clare Boothe Luce often got mistaken for the actress Claire Luce, who starred in more than a dozen Broadway shows including Much Ado About Nothing and Ziegfeld Follies of 1927.
- Between her plays and her magazine captions, Luce became known for her scathing wit. She coined phrases like “Widowhood is a fringe benefit of marriage” and “No good deed goes unpunished.” (Does that one sound familiar?)
- While ambassador to Italy, Luce became friends with Pope Pius XII and sometimes assisted him during his church services.
Cary Grant (January 18, 1904 – November 29, 1986) was the Leonardo DiCaprio of his day. He was one of Hollywood’s premier leading men, who starred in more than 70 films from 1932 to 1966. He received two Academy Award nominations for Best Actor: for Penny Serenade in 1941 and None but the Lonely Heart in 1944. The American Film Institute has dubbed him the second greatest male Golden Age Hollywood star, only after Humphrey Bogart. But before all that, Grant was just a kid who ran away with the circus.
Born in England, Grant learned to sing and dance from age 4 and enjoyed going to the theatre and the movies. As a kid, he befriended members of the Bob Pender Stage Troupe and trained as a stiltwalker in order to tour with them for a short time before going away to school. Three days after getting expelled, Grant rejoined the troupe and toured with them until he was 18. During that time, the troupe went to America, and Grant decided to stay there.
He performed in plays and vaudeville shows all across the country and even appeared in five Broadway shows between 1922 and 1931. His last Broadway appearance, in Nikki, got him a screen test for Paramount, and the rest of his acting career is history. His repertoire ranged from thriller films like Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest and To Catch a Thief to comedies like Arsenic and Old Lace and Bringing Up Baby to romances like Charade and The Philadelphia Story. He’s shared the screen with people like Audrey Hepburn, Katharine Hepburn, Ethel Barrymore, Mae West, Sophia Loren, and Doris Day. He was the shining example of the Hollywood dream.
Grant started taking LSD in the late 1950s, in sessions administered by radiologist Mortimer Hartman. He’s reported to have done so more than 100 times over several years. Grant’s wife at the time, Betsy Drake, was interested in psychotherapy and taught Grant about psychoanalysis, and she seemingly inspired him to experiment with the drug. Grant believed LSD would help him cope with his unhappy childhood and past failed relationships. He was still taking it in 1967 to save his relationship with his next wife, Dyan Cannon. At first, he said LSD made him feel truly happy for the first time and brought him peace of mind, but later in life, Grant doubled back and said he was foolish to have ever done the drug.
- Cary Grant was actually born born Archibald Alec Leach. The then-manager of Paramount Pictures, which signed a contract with Grant in 1931, had demanded he change it to something “more all-American.” He made Cary Grant his legal name upon becoming a U.S. citizen in 1938.
- His birth name wasn’t totally history after that, though. He got a dog in America, and he named it Archibald.
- After retiring from acting at 62, Grant became a businessman. He reportedly took a job with the Fabergé cosmetics company because it gave him unlimited access to the company’s private plane. (Pretty good perk, if you ask us.)