A summer to remember: Peter O. Whitmer

Princeton author/ psychologist reissues ‘Aquarius Revisited’
By  Pamela  H.  Sacks

TELEGRAM & GAZETTE

2007

As the 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love winds down, it seems fitting to pay a visit to Peter O. Whitmer.

In 1987, Whitmer, a writer and clinical psychologist, published a collection of profiles of seven counterculture icons. The book, “Aquarius Revisited,” which Whitmer wrote with Bruce VanWyngarden, was reissued last month, with an updated introduction.

Whitmer’s work is not simply the result of diligent research, although he did plenty of that. What makes it special is his personal perspective. He knew several of these men and met the balance as he worked on the project.

Whitmer was an undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley in the 1960s when Timothy Leary taught there. He had Leary as a professor for a psychology course. One day, Whitmer gave him a ride. They talked and Leary suggested they stay in touch. Leary later was thrown in prison for possession of marijuana and escaped with the help of the Weathermen, a radical left group.

When Whitmer wanted to write a biography of Leary, he got back in touch with the infamous proponent of the benefits of LSD.

“Tim subsequently opened the doors to others,” Whitmer said.

On a recent afternoon, Whitmer settled into a chair on the flower-filled porch of his home in Princeton. Tall and tan, with wavy gray hair, he was clad in a pink aloha shirt, jeans and sandals. He said that the men he profiled – Leary, gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, poet Allen Ginsberg, and authors Ken Kesey, Norman Mailer, Tom Robbins and William S. Burroughs – did not necessarily know each other. He added with a laugh that Thompson referred to Leary as “the dope doctor.”

Whitmer remarked that he and Thompson both knew Kesey, the author of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

“We’d hooked up in Florida and at Kesey’s home,” Whitmer said. “Hunter and I were the only people there who did not have Harleys. Hunter had not published a book at that time.”

Thompson later gained fame for his book “Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga,” an account of the time he spent with the motorcycle gang. Thompson subsequently suffered a vicious beating at the hands of gang members, who thought he should share the book’s profits with them.

Whitmer, 61, was born in Boston and, in his childhood, bounced between Austria, upstate New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Cambridge. He was completing high school in Los Angeles when he happened to meet Howard Kaylan, the lead singer of the rock group the Turtles. Whitmer could play the drums; Kaylan invited him to join the band.

Whitmer left the group when he started college. Much later, Kaylan told Whitmer’s wife, Candace, “Your husband made the right decision. He put down the drum sticks and picked up the books.”

After completing college, Whitmer was set to pursue a doctorate at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton. “I couldn’t cotton up to wearing a coat and tie,” he said. Instead, he earned a doctorate in clinical psychology at the University of Miami.

Following an internship at a veterans’ administration hospital in Los Angeles, Whitmer joined a private practice near the University of California at Los Angeles, specializing in diagnostic work.

In the late 1980s, he and his wife, who had grown up in Athol, moved to Boylston and then to their Tudor-style house on a secluded lot in Princeton. Mrs. Whitmer is a flight attendant for United Airlines. The Whitmers, who have no children, also have homes in Newport, R.I., and Montserrat in the British West Indies.

Since his youth, Whitmer had been fascinated with biography. In fact, he had majored in psychology, in part, because of his interest in the genre of psychological biography. He set a goal to publish a book while he was still in his 30s. Writing about the “impresarios of the counterculture,” he calls them, seemed a logical choice. The result was the first edition of “Aquarius Revisited.”

With “Aquarius” in circulation, Whitmer soon discovered the intrigue and curiosity swirling around Thompson. The subject was irresistible, especially since he had known Thompson.

In the course of conducting research, he contacted Thompson’s mother, who lived in Kentucky. He was going to be in the Blue Grass State to interview several people and asked if they could meet. She declined, saying she had the flu, so Whitmer sent her flowers.

Thompson went ballistic and took out an injunction against Whitmer. The writer has never figured out why.

“There was no logical reason that anyone else could understand,” Whitmer said. “No one, not even those closest to him, could figure that one out. He was overly reactive to anything that could be good or dangerous to him.” After considerable legal wrangling, Whitmer was served, in October 1991, with a permanent injunction ordering him never to contact Mrs. Thompson again. Uncowed, he completed and published his unauthorized biography of Thompson, “When the Going Gets Weird: The Twisted Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson.” A copy of the injunction appears opposite the book’s title page.

Whitmer writes in a basement office he calls “the cave.” He invited a visitor to take a look. A small Tiffany lamp gave off a soft glow. Ropes of red, white and blue lights enhanced the psychedelic effect. The many books and photographs are testimony to his wide ranging interests, from his home in Montserrat to his years as a rugby player. Of his three books, he said he is most proud of is his psychological biography of Elvis Presley, “The Inner Elvis,” which came out in 1996.

He picked up a collection of Ginsberg’s poetry and turned to “Howl.” He recited the first few lines and noted that he reads it often.

Whitmer’s interactions with

Ginsberg and Robbins were far less dramatic than with Thompson. Robbins, now in his 70s, is a good friend. Whitmer had a tough time persuading Mailer to cooperate for the profile. Just recently, Mailer e-mailed him asking for a copy of “Aquarius” (266 pp., Citadel Press Books, $13.95). Whitmer was thrilled.

Whitmer recalled talking with Burroughs in Kansas. The writer, who is perhaps best known for “Naked Lunch,” had spent years on the lam. He had fled Mexico City after he tried to shoot a glass of gin off his wife’s head and got her in the middle of the forehead, killing her.

When Whitmer asked him about the incident, Burroughs replied, “It was a piece of pure craziness.”

Today, Whitmer is as “cutting edge” as he was in the 1960s.

He is writing a book titled “The Navassa Island Murderers,” which is about an illiterate black teenager who has the power to topple the president of the United States. He said that it is one of the first 50 books chosen to be on mediapredict.com, which is an Internet media game allowing people to use virtual money to bet on whether a book will get a contract. Touchstone, an imprint of Simon and Schuster, is using mediapredict to help decide what to publish.