Sunday November 11 7:17 AM ET

Author, Counterculture Icon Ken Kesey Dead at 66

By Bruce Olson

EUGENE, Oregon (Reuters) - Ken Kesey, whose 1962 novel "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" celebrated rebellion against rigid authority and whose exploits inspired the '60s hippie movement, died on Saturday, his family said. He was 66.

"He just snuck away," said his son, Zane Kesey.

"As usual he did things his own way. Even in dying, he did a really good job."

All his immediate family were by his side when he died at 3 a.m. PST at Sacred Heart Hospital in Eugene from complications from liver cancer. His condition was aggravated by diabetes and a minor stroke he suffered four years ago.

Kesey won fame both as an exuberant pop impresario who helped launch the consciousness-bending Age of Aquarius and as a serious novelist compared to Philip Roth and Joseph Heller.

His early novels, "Cuckoo's Nest" and "Sometimes a Great Notion" (1964) presented the struggle against conformity in heroic terms for a generation of readers rebelling against the rigidity of the Eisenhower Era.

In a legendary 1964 trip, Kesey rolled across the United States in a 1939 bus painted in psychedelic colors called "Furthur." With Beat Generation hero Neal Cassady at the wheel, Kesey oversaw the Merry Pranksters, a group that specialized in LSD parties and whose zany exploits became the basis for Tom Wolfe's 1968 book "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test."

Inspired by Kesey and LSD guru Timothy Leary, with the music of Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead in the background, millions of young Americans dropped acid and started a cultural revolution that spread around the world.

Zane Kesey said, "The rumor is that the bus was put in the Smithsonian, but that was just another prank. It's still out in our yard. We'd never give it up."

He said Kesey spent a last afternoon on Monday at his farm in Pleasant Hill, Oregon, near Eugene.


"He was doing really well and he came home. It was a beautiful day and he just walked around, then he lay down on his back on the porch and looked up at the sky for a while. It was like he was saying goodbye."

"He had a full life, that's for sure. He didn't just sit around," the son, who is 40, added.

Kesey died with a major project in the works, a film taken during the Pranksters bus trip. Two parts have been finished and were being sold through Kesey's Website

His son also said Kesey had several unpublished works, including the completion to his partially published "Seven Prayers of Grandma Whittier" and a book he wrote while he was in jail for four months for a marijuana bust in the mid-60s.

His son said "he was always writing. He was the total archivist. Everything was videotaped or filmed."

Zane said he helped out in the Thunder Machine, a crazed amalgam of sounds once featured in Grateful Dead concerts.

"We'd get together on the weekends and play the Thunder Machine," said Phil Dietz, who calls himself "the last Prankster" and who lives near Kesey.

The machine includes an old Thunderbird fender, piano strings, a smoke machine and other mixing gear and was a touchstone for Prankster jam sessions and featured in Dead concerts.

"Cuckoo's Nest" was a critical and financial success and became a play in 1963. Milos Forman directed a film version in 1975 that earned Oscars for him and best actor Jack Nicholson, best actress Louise Fletcher and the award for best picture.

Kesey died just a week after fellow Prankster Sandy Lehmann-Haupt, who passed away of a heart attack at age 59. Leary and Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia have also died in recent years.

Zane Kesey said plans were under way for "a big service" and said many of Kesey's friends had flown into Eugene to be with the merriest prankster at his death.

Kesey is also survived by his wife, Faye, his daughters, Shannon and Sunshine, and three grandchildren.