By Peter Richardson
On this day in 1894, Aldous Leonard Huxley was born into a prominent family of writers, scientists, and physicians. He studied literature at Oxford and established himself as a successful novelist, poet, and journalist. A member of the Bloomsbury Set, he also befriended D.H. Lawrence and later edited his letters.
Huxley’s fifth novel, the dystopian Brave New World, appeared in 1932. It was both a jab at the earlier utopian works of H.G. Wells and a complex response to the fast-paced, unreflective, and technology-obsessed mass society that Huxley saw around him. Brave New World brought him even more notoriety, but his outspoken pacifism alienated him from his British peers, and he decided to move to the United States.
In 1937, Huxley and his family arrived in Hollywood. Like many established writers, he considered the film industry a reliable source of cash. As David King Dunaway documents in Huxley in Hollywood (1989), he and his wife Maria led a busy social life that included Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard, Grace and Edwin Hubble, Gerald Heard and Christopher Isherwood, Igor Stravinsky, J. Krishnamurti, Jake Zeitlin, Anita Loos, and Greta Garbo. Huxley’s film credits included Pride and Prejudice (1940), but he also worked on Madame Curie (1943) and Jane Eyre (1944). His film career collapsed in 1952 after a cover story in Counterattack, a right-wing magazine, described him as a Communist dupe.
Intrigued by the links amongst drugs, consciousness, and art, Huxley persuaded British psychiatrist Humphry Osmond to dose him with mescaline in 1953. The Doors of Perception (1954) recounted Huxley’s experience on that day. Reviewers panned the book, whose title echoed a passage from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, but Huxley was unfazed. He continued to trip several times a year for the rest of his life, and his book spread the word about the virtues of psychedelic drugs.
After Maria Huxley died in 1955, Aldous invited therapist Laura Archera to his home to guide a mescaline experience. Their relationship flourished—in part over their shared interest in hypnotism, psychedelics, and spirituality—and they married in 1956. Like Maria, Laura had romantic relationships with women, and the newly married couple bought a home in the Hollywood Hills close to Virginia Pfeiffer, her longtime friend.
In 1960, Huxley was diagnosed with cancer, but he managed to finish Island the following year. Frank Kermode called it “one of the worst novels ever written,” but along with Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land and Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, Huxley’s fiction chimed well with the rebellious spirit of that decade, especially on college campuses.
In 1962, Huxley accepted a teaching position at the University of California, Berkeley, but his health declined quickly the following year. He died in Los Angeles the same day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. His former daughter-in-law noted, “As he got older, I think he became more and more available … By the time he died, he was very young.”
Peter Richardson coordinates the American Studies and California Studies programs at San Francisco State University.