The Oregonian


All times a great artist, Ken Kesey is dead at age 66


Ken Kesey, whose novels "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "Sometimes a Great Notion" defined Oregon literature and whose psychedelic bus trip with the Merry Pranksters defined the 1960s, died Saturday morning in Eugene. He was 66.

Kesey underwent surgery Oct. 25 to have a tumor removed from his liver. Doctors removed 40 percent of his liver, but after a setback last week, he was placed on kidney dialysis and moved into intensive care. Kesey had diabetes and had suffered a stroke in 1997.

"He was an icon. One of the respected elders. Irreplaceable. We definitely lost one," said family spokesman Kit Kesey, a nephew of Ken Kesey.

Kit Kesey said a memorial is tentatively scheduled for Wednesday and that a burial service will be for family members only. He urged people to contact for more information.

Kit Kesey said many members of Kesey's family watched the Oregon-UCLA football game Saturday afternoon. When UCLA lined up for a game-winning field-goal attempt, everyone remembered how Ken Kesey, a vocal Ducks fan, was known for blocking kicks as a high-school player. When the field-goal attempt missed, Kit Kesey said, the family's reaction was that "Uncle Ken pushed that aside."

Charismatic, outspoken, and unpredictable, Kesey was one of the most famous Oregonians of the 20th century. "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" sold millions of copies since its publication in 1962 and was made into a popular play and a 1975 movie that was filmed in Oregon and won four Academy Awards, including best picture. Kesey got into a noisy dispute with the movie's producers and swore he never saw it.

The movie of "Sometimes a Great Notion," which Kesey said was the best thing he ever wrote, also was filmed in Oregon, but it was Kesey's 1964 trip with a group of friends who called themselves the Merry Pranksters that made him a symbol of the free-spirited '60s.

The trip to the New York World's Fair in a 1939 International Harvester school bus with "Furthur" and "Magic" painted on the front was chronicled in Tom Wolfe's 1968 book, "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" and was considered a bridge between the Beat Generation of the 1950s and the hippie movement of the 1960s.

Neal Cassady, an inspiration for Jack Kerouac's 1957 novel "On the Road," was the driver of the Merry Pranksters' bus.

Taking the acid test Wolfe depicted Kesey as a restless, rebellious leader who took massive amounts of LSD (then a legal substance) and attracted like-minded followers who put on parties called Acid Tests. The regular band at those parties became known as the Grateful Dead; Kesey was closely associated with the Dead for the rest of his life and was friendly with its leader, Jerry Garcia, until Garcia's death in 1995.

Such high-profile friendships and Wolfe's book made Kesey a celebrity, but it was his books that had a bigger impact at home.

"I cried this morning for Kesey," said Chuck Palahniuk, the author of "Fight Club."

"What a horrible surprise. As a person, he was so cool, and he wrote so poignantly about things that weren't traditionally considered poignant."

Craig Lesley, the author of "Winterkill," said reading "Sometimes a Great Notion" changed his life.

"I was living in Michigan, and when I started reading it I put it down for two weeks because I didn't want it to end," Lesley said. "When I finished it, I resolved to go back to Oregon and write."

Kesey's involvement with mind-altering drugs has become a counterculture legend. As a graduate student in creative writing at Stanford in the late 1950s, he volunteered for an experiment in the psychology department and took mescaline, peyote and LSD, an experience he said changed his life for the better.

Filling in the blanks later, Kesey worked as a night orderly in the psychiatric ward of a Veterans Administration hospital in Menlo Park, Calif., where he gathered the material that became the basis for "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."

The story of a loner who cheerfully defies authority and is denied his freedom by a corrupt system, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" was an instant success. Kirk Douglas bought the stage and screen rights (his son, Michael Douglas, was a producer of the movie) and a play made it to Broadway in 1963.

"I felt like Randle Patrick McMurphy was like what Jack Kerouac always dreamed of being," said David James Duncan, the author of "The Brothers K."

Kesey was proud of his first novel but always felt that "Sometimes a Great Notion" -- the story of an independent logging family in conflict -- was much better.

"I think 'Sometimes a Great Notion' is the best thing I'll ever write," he said in 1997. "Writing it was much different from 'Cuckoo's Nest,' which often seemed like filling in the blanks. 'Notion,' to my mind, is a great piece of work. People sometimes ask me why I don't write something like that again and I reply that I simply can't."

The activities of the Merry Pranksters were financed in part by the royalties from "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." After "Sometimes a Great Notion" was published in 1964, Kesey did not complete a full-length novel until "Sailor's Song" in 1992. He often said he turned his life into art after "Sometimes a Great Notion" and said he was not interested in pursuing a career as a novelist.

Tales of the bus "When people ask what my best work is, it's the bus," he said last year. "Those books made it possible for the bus to become. I thought you ought to be living your art, rather than stepping back and describing it."

The original bus, painted in a swirl of bright colors, has been sinking into a swamp on Kesey's farm in Pleasant Hill for many years. Kesey and his family and friends outfitted a replica and took it on numerous trips in the 1990s, including a 1997 journey called the Grandfurthur tour and a 1999 tour of England.

Kesey was born on Sept. 17, 1935, in La Junta, Colo. In 1946, he moved with his parents and brother, Chuck, to Springfield. A natural athlete and outstanding wrestler, Kesey graduated from Springfield High School in 1953 and married Faye Haxby, whom he had met in seventh grade, in 1956.

Kesey attended the University of Oregon on a wrestling scholarship and graduated in 1957. A campus leader, he wrote an unpublished novel while an undergraduate. His first published short story, "The First Sunday in September," appeared in the Northwest Review in 1957.

"I remember the first time I met him," said Brian Booth, a Portland attorney and longtime friend of Kesey's. "I was going through (fraternity) rush and he was a Beta. He was a one-man entertainment committee. He had a ventriloquist's dummy, he was doing card tricks and magic.

"When it came out later that he was a writer, people were shocked that this athlete, this character, was such a fine writer."

Kesey went to Stanford to do graduate work on a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, enrolling in the creative writing program founded by Wallace Stegner. Kesey's classmates at Stanford included Larry McMurtry, Robert Stone, Ernest Gaines and Wendell Berry. Even in that accomplished group, Kesey stood out, both for his talent and his personality. He often clashed with the more conservative Stegner, who admired Kesey's writing but not his constant pushing of societal boundaries.

After the success of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," Kesey moved to a large property in La Honda, Calif., and worked on "Sometimes a Great Notion." At the same time, he and a core group of friends who became the Merry Pranksters began staging the parties that evolved into the Acid Tests.

Madness, no fear, no sleep, the atmosphere was electric and chaotic. Hunter S. Thompson, another friend of Kesey's, described it as "the world capital of madness. There were no rules, fear was unknown, and sleep was out of the question."

After the bus trip of 1964, Kesey was arrested twice on drug charges and fled to Mexico. By the time of the Summer of Love in 1967, he was back on the farm in Pleasant Hill, where he would spend the rest of his life.

He had four children: Jed, Zane, Shannon and Sunshine, and three grandchildren. Jed Kesey, a wrestler at the University of Oregon, died in a van accident on the way to a meet at Washington State University in 1984. Kesey and his wife erected a memorial to their son and Lorenzo West, another wrestler who died in the crash, on Mount Pisgah, a few miles from their home.

Though Kesey never wrote another novel as brilliant as "Sometimes a Great Notion," he did write dozens of essays, articles, stories and children's books.

His other works include "Kesey's Garage Sale" (1973), "Demon Box" (1986), "The Furthur Inquiry" (1990), "Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear" (1990), "The Sea Lion" (1991) and "Last Go Round: A Dime Western" (1994), written with his longtime friend Ken Babbs.

Always animated in public, Kesey enjoyed performing his children's works, sometimes with an orchestra, and he staged a musical version of "The Wizard of Oz" called "Twister" with Babbs and other friends.

Desperately seeking Furthur Kesey and Babbs presided over an extended family of second-generation Pranksters and dealt gently with the seekers and lost souls who made the pilgrimage to Pleasant Hill, looking for Furthur and enlightenment.

Kesey often quoted Garcia as saying "the '60s ain't over until the fat lady gets high" and was unapologetic about his drug experiences.

"(Reporters) come up here expecting me and all my friends to be eaten by drugs and living out of garbage cans," he said in 1996, after the death of Timothy Leary. "And we're family people. We've put all our kids through college, and we're strong in the community. My wife teaches Sunday school. We're Norman Rockwell, when it comes down to it. We're corny old 'America the Beautiful' people."

In his last years, Kesey worked on compiling and releasing a series of videos of footage shot on the 1964 Prankster tour, which he and Babbs released through their Web site, (Their motto: "Our stuff is hot but it won't burn you.")

He continued to write, including a beautiful, brief essay on assisted suicide for The Oregonian in 1994 and a provocative article on the Springfield shootings for Rolling Stone in 1998.

In an April interview with the Associated Press, he told about meeting the woman who was the model for Nurse Ratched, the villain of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," working as a volunteer at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport.

"This perky little woman comes over and says 'Hi, Ken, remember me? Nurse Ratched' I was bowled over," Kesey said. "She says she has become kind of famous and appreciates it. A few years later, I got a letter from somebody who said she had died.

"The remarkable thing about what she was doing was she was forgiving me."

Alice Tallmadge, a correspondent for The Oregonian, contributed to this report.