Inside the 1950s LSD Therapy That Changed Cary Grant’s Life

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Roberta Haynes and Cary Grant both attended Dr. Mortimer Hartman’s LSD therapy sessions. Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Photo by Getty Images

In the new Showtime documentary Becoming Cary Grant, viewers see a darker side of the chisel-chinned actor: Underneath one of the most sophisticated and poised movie stars in the world was a turbulent insecurity. Grant struggled for years to suppress the trauma of his childhood — channeling much of that pain into a brilliant and nuanced acting career — until an existential crisis in his 50s led him to try LSD psychotherapy, which broke open his subconscious, finally granting him a measure of peace.

“For many years I have cautiously peered from behind the face of a man known as Cary Grant,” Grant says in the film. (Filmmaker Mark Kidel quotes from Grant’s unpublished memoirs, as well as magazine articles and other published pieces throughout the film.) “The protection of that facade was both an advantage and a disadvantage. If I couldn’t see out, how could anybody see in?”

In 1958, Grant had just filmed Houseboat with Sophia Loren (whom he had inconveniently fallen in love with), when his then-wife, Betsy Drake, introduced him to Mortimer Hartman, a Beverly Hills doctor with whom she’d been taking LSD in a therapeutic setting. Drake had started seeing Hartman to deal with her picture-perfect but troubled marriage, and thought he could help Grant, too. Hartman described LSD as “a psychic energizer which empties the subconscious and intensifies emotion and memory a hundred times.”

Grant would go on to take acid 100 times under the care of Hartman, whom he referred to as “my wise Mahatma.” At the end of his sessions, he felt healed and whole.

“After weeks of treatment came a day when I saw the light,” he says in the film. “When I broke through, I felt an immeasurably beneficial cleansing of so many needless fears and guilts. I lost all the tension that I’d been crippling myself with. First I thought of all those wasted years. Second, I said, ‘Oh my God, the humanity. Please come in.’”

Grant wasn’t the only one whose life changed during those psychedelic hours in Hartman’s office. The doctor is known to have treated roughly 100 patients, including Esther Williams, talent agent Jay Kanter, and a slew of lesser-known Hollywood players. Roberta Haynes, an actress whose biggest role was 1952’s Return to Paradise with Gary Cooper, was also one of Hartman’s patients. Now 89, in good health, and living in Delray Beach, Florida, Haynes is likely one of a very small group still living who took LSD with Hartman in the late ’50s and early ’60s. She remembers seeing Grant in the waiting room on more than one occasion. Haynes describes the 18 LSD sessions she had with Hartman, beginning in 1959, as life changing. “I was not happy with my life before the LSD,” she says. “Afterward I was able to be happy. I really think I came out of it knowing what was important in life.”

When Haynes attempts to describe how the experience changed her exactly, she struggles somewhat to put it into words. “In regular Freudian therapy you get an intellectual change, but it doesn’t really change anything,” says Haynes. “What you get from LSD is an emotional change.”

Haynes, who grew up in Los Angeles, harbored dreams of becoming a lawyer, but that wasn’t something women did in those days. Her parents told her they didn’t want to waste money on law school when she would likely end up getting married and raising children. But being an actress was acceptable, so she studied at the Actor’s Lab in Hollywood and moved to New York, where she was soon cast on Broadway as the ingenue in Madwoman of Chaillot — and learned right away what she’d gotten herself into. She recalls that just as she was walking onstage for her soliloquy, the show’s star, Martita Hunt, hissed at her: “Bitch!” Haynes completed her speech and then burst into tears. “At the Actor’s Lab, they thought of the theater and of acting as a religion,” she says. “When I got on Broadway in New York, it was just the opposite. People didn’t really care about each other at all.” She soon landed some work doing live television and met and married Jay Kanter, who would go on to become a Hollywood superagent, representing Marlon Brando, Grace Kelly, Gregory Peck, and Marilyn Monroe. The two would divorce two years later.

Haynes soon moved back to Los Angeles. In 1950s Hollywood, her dark hair, dark eyes, and olive skin  meant she often played Mexican or Native American women on film. “I wanted to be a serious actress, to play the roles that Ingrid Bergman played. But I was always typecast as a ‘fiery Mexican,’” she says. “The ‘good girl’ roles always went to actresses with blond hair and blue eyes.”  She was cast in High Noon with Gary Cooper but ended up on the cutting-room floor; luckily, another Gary Cooper movie, Return to Paradise, called for someone with her look. The film tells the story of a young American man who travels to the South Pacific, and Haynes landed the part of the young Polynesian love interest, traveling to Samoa to shoot the film. Once again she ran into the seedier side of the acting business. Cooper, she says, was “wonderful” to work with, but the director, Mark Robson, treated her terribly. “I’d treat you better if I was paying you more,” he told her. Despite Cooper’s presence, the film wasn’t a box-office success, and Haynes struggled to find work when she returned to California. She was almost cast as the prostitute in From Here to Eternity, but the role went to Donna Reed instead. She’d achieved a measure of success, but felt empty.

Roberta Haynes. Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection/Everett Collection / Everett Col

“I always felt, Oh, if I could just be on Broadway, I’ll be happy. So I went to New York and I was on Broadway, and I was still miserable. So I thought, Well, if I can be a movie star, I’ll be happy. So I became a movie star and I was miserable,” she says.

By 1959 she was divorced from Kanter and back in L.A., living in the carriage house of Samson De Brier, a sometimes actor and occultist known as the “Hollywood Warlock.” His nightly salons were attended by a strange nexus of bohemians, gays, actors, and writers. Guests over the years included L. Ron Hubbard, Igor Stravinsky, Kurt Weill, Ray Bradbury and Dorothy Parker. Haynes met Anaïs Nin and Tennessee Williams there, along with Stanley Kubrick who, she says, was always there playing chess by himself in a corner. “I knew everyone who was in the closet,” she says.

She’d met Marlon Brando through her ex-husband years earlier, before he was famous, and the two had struck up a relationship which continued for years, on and off. “I was never in love with him, but I enjoyed being with him,” she says. “Maybe because we didn’t have to talk when we were together.” Back in L.A., they began spending time together again. “It was not a good relationship, not even a good friendship at that point. I was very repressed emotionally.”

She was also parrying advances from another old flame: Richard Burton, whom she’d met at a dinner party in the Hollywood Hills in the early ’50s. At that time, he was married to his first wife, Sybil Williams, and the two had a brief affair. He would knock on Haynes’s door “late at night, usually drunk,” she says. She soon ended it. “My agent and press agent wanted me to break it off because it would have been dangerous for my career if it had become public. It was verboten to do things like have extramarital affairs then.”

While she was livings at De Brier’s house, Burton was still calling her, asking to come over. “I really didn’t want to sleep with him because he was always drunk,” she says. Burton, she says, “was the kind of person who would test people: How bad do I have to behave before you stop loving me? That was his thing.” Plus, she says: “He was boring. Alcoholics are boring.” But she was kind to him, and if he wasn’t too in his cups, she would meet with him, usually under the watchful eye of a friend she recruited to chaperone the two of them, and they would talk.

She was young and beautiful, but she didn’t know how to handle her sexuality. “Men were always trying to get me into bed. I was chased around to death by movie executives. They all thought I was sexy, but in my mind, I was Peter Pan — completely asexual.” Between her strange relationship with Brando and being Burton’s mistress, she was sinking further into despair. “I was very unhappy. I didn’t particularly like having sex. None of my relationships were very healthy. And they were always with people like Marlon and Burton, who were also not able to have good relationships. They didn’t really know who they were, and I certainly didn’t know who I was yet.”

And despite her high-profile role in Return to Paradise, she was having trouble finding work. “I didn’t know what I was doing with my life,” she says now. “I didn’t know what I wanted. I knew I didn’t like Hollywood, and I knew I didn’t like what was happening to me. I was very depressed. This wasn’t the way I wanted to live.”

One day she was walking down the street when she ran into Jay Kanter. He was smiling, which, she says, seemed out of character. Kanter told her about a new therapist he’d been seeing, Mortimer Hartman. A little while later, she ran into an actress she knew, Judith Braun, and she, too, was unusually cheerful. When asked why, Braun replied: “Hartman.”

“I had been in Freudian therapy and regression therapy and nothing helped, so I thought I should try it,” she says. Burton had said to her once, “If you ever need anything, ask me.” So she asked him for $500; he gave it to her.

LSD was invented in 1938 by the Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman, who’d been experimenting with the ergot fungus, synthesizing lysergic acid diethylamide in an attempt to heal circulation and respiration problems. The compound didn’t work, but Hoffman didn’t forget LSD-25 (it was the 25th combination of lysergic acid he’d made) and five years later he made it again. At some point during the day he noticed that he’d become restless and dizzy, and “perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors.” He realized that a small amount of the compound had been absorbed into his blood through his fingertips.

The next day he deliberately took a small amount of LSD-25 and went home to find himself in a terrifying fever dream. But eventually the fear gave way to “a feeling of good fortune and gratitude, the more normal perceptions and thoughts returned, and I became more confident that the danger of insanity was conclusively past.”

Hoffman’s laboratory, Sandoz, wasn’t sure what to do with the new drug, and thought it might have some psychiatric benefits. They began giving it away for free to researchers, hoping to find some use for the drug. Psychiatrists began testing it on patients, attempting to cure alcoholism, neuroticism, PTSD, and other mental conditions. Hartman, a radiologist who had undergone five years of Freudian therapy, was one of them. With psychiatrist Arthur Chandler, he opened the Beverly Hills Psychiatric Institute and began charging clients for LSD therapy.

During Haynes’s first session at the institute, Hartman took her into a room with a small bed. He gave her an eyeshade and a blanket and handed her a pill. He said, “If you need me, knock on the wall.” Shortly after swallowing the pill, Haynes’s head felt swollen and achy. “The headache got worse and worse. Suddenly I felt cold and wet, and I realized what I was experiencing, but I was afraid to say it.” When Hartman came back some time later, she said to him: “Is it possible I can remember what I don’t think I can remember?” He said yes. “I knew I was experiencing my own birth.”

After the session, all she wanted to do was take a shower. “I wanted to get rid of the drug,” she says. “I wanted it off me.” But still, she sensed something powerful in the therapy, and returned a week later.

Grant, too, said he experienced his own birth again. As he told The New York Times Magazine decades later, “It was absolute release. You are still able to feed yourself, of course, drive your car, that kind of thing, but you’ve lost a lot of the tension.”

“We come into this world with nothing on our tape. We are computers, after all,” Grant continued. “The content of that tape is supplied by our mothers, mainly because our fathers are off hunting or shooting or working. Now the mother can teach only what she knows, and many of these patterns of behavior are not good, but they’re still passed on to the child. I came to the conclusion that I had to be reborn, to wipe clean the tape.”

Cary Grant. Photo: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

In Grant’s case, his trauma stemmed from a childhood out of Dickens. When he was 11 years old, Grant — then Archie Leach — came home from school to find his mother gone. (He was told she was at a seaside resort.) Soon after, his father abandoned him to start a new family with another woman. Left to live with his grandmother, Archie would go on to join an acrobatic troupe that would take him to America, where he was reborn as Cary Grant. Only as a grown man did Grant find out that his mother had been alive the whole time, committed to an asylum by his father. Grant’s relationships with his wives (he had five in total) bore the brunt of that early betrayal, and he harbored a deep-seated mistrust of women.

“LSD made me realize I was killing my mother through my relationships with other women,” he says in the film. “I was punishing them for what she had done to me … I was making the mistake of thinking each of my wives was my mother.”

Haynes, too, was able to reconcile her relationship with her mother — a “very difficult, unhappy” woman with whom she’d never been able to get along — through LSD. “I hallucinated that I was this big ball and I was hiding in the bushes, and in my ball I had a knife. I told Hartman that when my mother appeared I was going to kill her. He said, ‘Well, go ahead.’ So my mother came and I’m the ball and I’m biting her and pulling at her and trying to kill her and I said, ‘I can’t kill her,’ and he said, ‘Do you know why?’ and I said, ‘No,’ and he said, ‘It’s because you love her as well as hate her,’” Haynes recalls. “I was able to understand her more, and have a relationship with her that I’d never had before.”

Hartman and Haynes got into a routine. During the sessions, which occurred weekly or biweekly, Hartman — whom Haynes describes as he “tall and not very distinguished-looking but very kind and gentle,” would give her the pill, then leave her alone. She would go into a hallucination and then it would end and she would knock on the wall and she and Hartman would talk about what the hallucination meant. Then he would leave again, and she would have another vision.

“When I grew up, children didn’t cry, they didn’t throw tantrums, you were seen and not heard,” she says. “So I didn’t know what anger felt like because I had always suppressed it. Under LSD, I found out.”

Whenever Haynes had to go to the bathroom during one of her sessions, she would knock on the wall and a nurse would escort her. But one time, Hartman came in the room and told her she couldn’t leave. “I said, ‘If I don’t go, I’ll wet the bed.’ He said, ‘That’s okay.’ I said, ‘But my pants will get wet.’ He said, ‘Take them off under the blanket, then.’ I thought, He’s doing this for a reason, so I did, and afterward I started to cry and scream and I started to hit him.  And that was the first time I was able to get angry. I had never let it out before. And after that, I was able to get angry in a healthy way when I needed to.”

She also discovered what love felt like. One afternoon, Hartman sat down next to her on her bed and held her hand. “I just want to stay like this forever,” she told him. He said, “Do you know what you’re feeling? You’re feeling the beginning of love,” he said. And he was right, says Haynes: “At that moment I loved him.”

After nine months, Haynes had to go back to New York for medical reasons. She decided she was finished with her LSD therapy. She felt different — calmer, like she had some measure of control over her own life. “ I finally was able to allow myself to be happy,” she says. “I could have been a beachcomber and I would have been happy.”

While Haynes would continue to act for a few more years in order to make a living, she knew that it wasn’t the right profession for her anymore — she didn’t need the validation, or the constant harassment from men that came with show business. “I just didn’t care about Hollywood anymore,” she says. “I no longer wanted to be with depressed, crazy people.” she says. Burton and Brando disappeared from her life and soon she met a man that she truly loved, Larry Ward, an actor and a playwright. “I was able to have a normal, happy relationship with a man, and it was wonderful,” she says.

When the drug was legal, roughly 40,000 people would be treated with LSD. By the early ’60s, Timothy Leary had begun experimenting with LSD at Harvard University, from which he was soon fired; the media hype around Leary gave the drug a bad name, according to psychedelic historian and author Kliph Nesteroff. By 1962, the government began to crack down, requiring therapists to have a specific license in order to obtain the compound. By 1968, it was illegal.

It’s unclear when, exactly, Hartman and Chandler’s clinic shuttered its doors, but a Saturday Evening Post article from 1963 reports that three years earlier, Hartman had been found in his parked car in a haze. “At the station house he admitted having shot himself full of Ritalin,” the article says. “Upon evidence that he had long been using dangerous drugs, the State Board of Medical Examiners revoked his license for six months and put him on probation for 10 years without the right to prescribe any narcotic.”

“During my LSD therapy I learned a great deal,” Grant says in the film. “And the result of it all was rebirth. I got where I wanted to go — not completely, because you cut back the barnacles and find more barnacles, and you have to get these off. In life there is no end to getting well.”

As for Haynes, she eventually she got out from behind the camera, and began writing screenplays for ABC. She would go on to work in development at Viacom and eventually became a vice-president of movies and mini-series at 20th Century Fox Television. Now she lives alone in Florida in a two bedroom townhouse. She visits Paris, Rome, and Samoa — in 2015 she went back for the sixth time — this time in honor of the opening of a Return to Paradise resort on the same beach where the movie was filmed. “I’m never depressed anymore except when I have physical problems,” she says. “I don’t need a lot of people around, or a lot of money. I’m quite happy with my life. I know I’m not going to live forever, and I don’t want to.”

Inside the LSD Therapy That Changed Cary Grant’s Life