Hardly a week goes by that there’s not a news story about a celebrity who has a problem with drugs, sometimes with fatal consequences. It seems to get worse with each decade. But abusing drugs is not just a modern-day evil. Celebrities in the Golden Age of Hollywood had their own problems with drugs.
Cocaine and heroin are popular recreational drugs among today’s celebrities. But back in the silent film era, cocaine was a casual drug that stars carried around in snuff boxes for easy access and sharing. At the same time, depictions of drug use in films were commonplace, most often depicting opium dens. The use of cocaine was even used as a comedic tool in Douglas Fairbanks’s ”Mystery of the Leaping Fish,’‘ a 1916 movie in which he played a hyperactive detective named Coke Ennyday. It wasn’t until a production code was put in place in 1934 that the depiction of drug use in films was banned.
As talkies took over, we entered an era where the movie-going public idolized their favorite stars and the images of glitz and glamour they presented. Yet many of those stars hid dark secrets, including the use of illegal drugs and the abuse of prescription drugs. The stars had often had medical cause for using drugs, as in the case of Marilyn Monroe, who was prescribed multiple drugs for depression, anxiety, and insomnia. Sadly, an overdose of barbiturates took her life at the age of 36.
Worse still was what studio bosses did to their actors. Because image was everything, stars were forbidden by contract to behave in any way that might bring shame on the studio. However, it wasn’t uncommon for film studios to supply their stars with drugs to keep them working through exhaustion and the burn-out that resulted from the demands of appearing in film after film with no break. For example, MGM studios supplied Judy Garland with amphetamines to keep her going during the long days of filming and with barbiturates to help her fall asleep at night. There is no doubt that this early reliance on drugs led to her lifetime addiction, an addiction that ended in her death at age 47.
Stories of Hollywood stars being arrested for possession of marijuana are nothing new today, but the drug has been popular in celebrity circles for many years. Errol Flynn, that dashing swashbuckler, was known to be fond of pot. Robert Mitchum was arrested in 1948 as part of a sting by police and spent several weeks in jail. Despite the best efforts of the Hollywood establishment to keep his arrest under wraps, LIFE magazine published several photos of Mitchum in his jail cell. Instead of hurting Mitchum’s career, however, his next few films were box-office bonanzas.
Then along came LSD, aka acid. First synthesized in 1938 by Albert Hoffman, a chemist with Sandoz Pharmaceuticals, its hallucenogenic effects weren’t discovered by Hoffman until 1943—by accident—while working on crystallizing the compound. Psychiatrists used LSD in experiments with some of their patients from the 1940s through the 1960s. It was in the 1960s, the “hippie” era, that LSD became a popular recreational drug when psychologist Timothy Leary encouraged American students to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.”, thus creating a counterculture of drug abuse that spread around the world.
In the 1950s, more than 100 stars began using LSD as part of their psychotherapy. Among them were Esther Williams, Jack Nicholson, Rita Moreno, James Coburn, and Cary Grant. Grant, the quintessential British gentleman, was a keen advocate of LSD. First introduced to LSD by his then wife, actress Betsy Drake, he was very open about his love of LSD. Grant was so enamored with the drug he began publicizing its virtues by describing how it helped him curb his drinking habit and deal with early childhood conflicts with his parents. Articles about his use of LSD appeared in magazines such as Good Housekeeping, thus persuading other celebrities to try it, as well as the public. The drug was declared illegal in 1968, not that it’s illegality has stopped its use.
Interesting little factoid: President George H. W. Bush took LSD while head of the CIA. The CIA experimented extensively with LSD and many agents took it so they would know they were not going crazy if it was given to them.