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Oregon Novelist, 60's Icon Ken Kesey, dead at 66

GRANTS PASS, Ore. -- Ken Kesey, who broke into the literary scene with "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and then helped immortalize the psychedelic 1960s with an LSD-fueled bus ride, died Saturday. He was 66.
Oregon Novelist, 60's Icon Ken Kesey, dead at 66
Oregon Novelist, 60's Icon Ken Kesey, dead at 66
Author Ken Kesey poses in this April 24, 1997 file photo in Springfield, Ore., with his bus, "Further", a descendant of the vehicle that carried him and the Merry Pranksters on the 1964 trip immortalized in the Tom Wolfe book, "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test." Kesey, whose LSD-fueled bus ride became a symbol of the psychedelic 1960s after he won fame as a novelist with "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,'' died Saturday, Nov. 10, 2001 in Eugene, Ore., followng cancer surgery on his liver hospitalofficials said. He was 66. (AP Photo/Jeff Barnard, File)

Done in by a bum liver'
Novelist, 60s Icon Ken Kesey Dead at 66
by Jeff Barnard

GRANTS PASS, Ore. -- Ken Kesey, who broke into the literary scene with "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and then helped immortalize the psychedelic 1960s with an LSD-fueled bus ride, died Saturday. He was 66.

Kesey died at Sacred Heart Medical Center in Eugene, 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, then went 28 years before publishing his third major novel.

In 1964, he rode cross-country in an old school bus named Furthur driven by Neal Cassady, hero of Jack Kerouac's beat generation classic, "On The Road." The passengers called themselves the Merry Pranksters and sought enlightenment through the psychedelic drug LSD. The odyssey is documented in Tom Wolfe's 1968 account, "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test."

"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."

"He's gone too soon and he will leave a big gap. Always the leader, now he leads the way again," said Ken Babbs, a longtime friend.

"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 Palo Alto, Calif., while attending Wallace Stegner's writing seminar at Stanford. Kesey also volunteered for experiments with LSD.

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 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 visits from myriad strangers in tie-dyed clothing seeking enlightenment.

Furthur rusted away in a boggy pasture while Kesey raised beef cattle.

Kesey was diagnosed with diabetes in 1992.

His 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.

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 on legacy it is for us the living to carry on with courage, compassion, generosity and love."
a very merry prankster 10.Nov.2001 13:59


what a sad day. ken stood for the breaking of norms and the testing of our society through his pranks and writing. we should all throw caution to the wind, as he and others have done. live it to the fullest. he will be missed.

kesey a true inspiration 12.Nov.2001 18:05


Kesey was a true inspiration fer CYBERBUSS. He helped people look at life differently. Because of him and the merry pranksters, today there are hundreds of converted school buses touring around north america searching for adventure and creating their own reality rather than accepting less desireable ones. He was a true American spirit alright.

C y b e r sAM

kesey a true inspiration
kesey a true inspiration