George Leonard, Voice of '60s Counterculture, Dies at 86
By DOUGLAS MARTIN
Published: January 18, 2010
George Leonard, a former journalist who foresaw the countercultural
tides of the 1960s, then dived into them when he helped define the
human potential movement at its de facto headquarters, the Esalen
Institute, died on Jan. 6 at his home in Mill Valley, Calif. He was 86.
The cause was complications of esophageal cancer, said his wife,
Annie Styron Leonard.
Mr. Leonard, as an editor and writer at Look magazine, was one of the
first journalists to predict the tumult and idealism of the '60s when
he wrote a January 1961 cover article called "Youth of the Sixties:
The Explosive Generation." A year later he predicted, accurately,
that the youth movements would first manifest themselves in California.
At the same time, he found himself wanting to become a part of the
changes he had foretold. Shedding the conventions of objectivity in
his reporting, he became a voice for an emerging new consciousness.
In 1965 Mr. Leonard met Michael Murphy, a co-founder of Esalen, in
San Francisco, where Esalen was opening a learning center. Soon Mr.
Leonard was visiting Esalen's main campus, a seaside complex in the
redwood-studded area of central California known as Big Sur.
"Explosion, catharsis, adventure" were the words Mr. Leonard used to
describe his first impressions in an interview with U.S. News & World
Report in 1992.
He went on to become the president of the institute's trustees for
many years and an important figure in expanding its concerns to
include issues of social justice.
It is hard to overstate the romance Esalen held for Beat Generation
heroes like Jack Kerouac, who embraced it, or for spiritual seekers
who followed. Wedged between surf and mountains three hours south of
San Francisco, Esalen began as a laboratory for new thought, from
Timothy Leary's psychedelics to Carl Rogers's humanistic psychology
to Joan Baez's folk music.
"A Cape Canaveral of inner space" was a common description.
Esalen was one of many schools for self-discovery that would lead to
the New Age movement and influence the many yoga and meditation
centers that dot the American landscape today, all promoting a belief
that human abilities are expandable.
Jeffrey J. Kripal, chairman of Rice University's department of
religious studies and author of "Esalen: America and the Religion of
No Religions," said in an interview that the human potential movement
that was significantly shaped by Esalen was more intellectually
grounded than the hippie culture of a few years later. Dr. Kripal
called Esalen "a high-end movement that helped generate the counterculture."
Mr. Leonard added a moral edge to the Esalen Institute's teachings
with his commitment to social justice. He began pressing his concerns
in his first meeting with Mr. Murphy on Feb. 2, 1965 a date Mr.
Leonard recalled as a watershed moment in his life. As Dr. Kripal
described the scene in his book, the two men talked until dawn,
writing ideas on pieces of paper as fast as they occurred.
In the course of their conversation, the two men came up with a term
to crystallize their ideas: human potential movement. The first two
words most likely came from a 1960 speech by Aldous Huxley heard by
Richard Price, the other founder of Esalen. Mr. Leonard suggested
adding the word "movement" largely because of his fierce support of
Because of this contribution and many others, Dr. Kripal calls Mr.
Leonard Esalen's third founder.
Mr. Leonard led many Esalen workshops, including one on how to
approach life like a samurai warrior. Another forced participants to
confront their own racism. He wrote "Education and Ecstasy" (1968),
which became one of the first popular manifestos of the human
He also helped start an exchange program with the Soviet Union that
included a visit by a future Russian president, Boris N. Yeltsin, in
1989. In an interview, Mr. Murphy said that Mr. Leonard, who wrote 13
books, became "the philosopher of the movement."
George Burr Leonard was born on Aug. 9, 1923, in Macon, Ga. His
father was an insurance executive. George built an electric motor
when he was 8, collected more than 100 live snakes a few years later
and read voluminously. At 16, he had his own swing band. After a year
at Georgia Tech, he flew a fighter in World War II.
He graduated in 1948 from the University of North Carolina with a
degree in English, joined the Air Force and became an intelligence
officer. He joined Look as an editor in 1953 and was assigned to San
Francisco in 1962. There, people kept saying to him, "You have to
meet Michael Murphy," Mr. Leonard's wife said in an interview.
When the men finally met, Dr. Kripal said, Mr. Leonard talked about
seeing racial cruelty while growing up in the South; in one instance
he came upon a black man chained in a town square. He told how as a
reporter he had covered the civil rights protests in Selma, Ala.
At 47, Mr. Leonard started practicing the martial art of aikido,
achieving a fifth-degree black belt. He had part ownership of an
aikido school and developed several self-help programs that apply the
discipline's techniques to real-life situations. Some of his 13 books
described these methods.
Mr. Leonard's marriages to Emma Jane Clifton and Lillie Pitts ended
in divorce. In addition to his wife, the former Annie Styron, an
artist, he is survived by three daughters, Emily Fraim, Burr Leonard
and Mimi Fleischman; two brothers, Edward and Wesley; and six grandchildren.
Esalen's history is a mélange of seemingly unrelated events, people
and principles: the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the cultural critic
Susan Sontag, sensory awareness experiments, the nuclear war theorist
Herman Kahn. Mr. Leonard said the unifying principle was, essentially, joy.
"How can we speak of joy on this dark and suffering planet?" he wrote
in an early statement of Esalen's purpose. "How can we speak of
anything else? We have heard enough of despair."