Hidden Figures of Drug History: Lenore Kandel (1932-2009)

Editor’s Note: As a working mother of an active toddler, I don’t  have a lot of time to keep up with popular culture. But a few months ago my husband and I finally watched Hidden Figures. The movie is well done, and it got me thinking. First of all, is there anything Janelle Monae can’t do? And second, what if we applied this same idea – revealing the hidden and important roles of women – to our own field of drug and alcohol history?

And voila – Hidden Figures of Drug History was born. Today’s post is the first installment, in which we discuss Lenore Kandel, a too-often ignored leader of the counterculture and Beat movements. Enjoy!

“When a society is afraid of its poets, it is afraid of itself. A society afraid of itself stands as another definition of hell.” – Lenore Kandel

Kandel, who died in San Francisco in 2009 at the age of 77 from complications of lung cancer, was an uncommon woman in both the Beat and hippie countercultures. A peer and a participant rather than a girlfriend or a muse, Kandel was one of the strongest, most poetic, and perhaps the most frankly sexual voice of the female experience of San Francisco in the 1960s. Though she published only two books of poetry during her lifetime and was virtually unheard of for nearly thirty years preceding her death, her small body of work attracted both critical and popular acclaim, as well as wide-ranging legal ramifications. Nonetheless, a thorough understanding of the artistic movement of the 1960s is simply incomplete without considering her poetic, political, and psychedelic contributions. Lenore Kandel was a pioneer, challenging conventions in the realms of female artistry, literature, and the fight against censorship. The countercultural canon is incomplete without her.

Born in 1932 in New York City, Kandel was an infant when she moved with her family to Los Angeles, where her father worked as a Hollywood screenwriter. She was already a student of poetry, Zen, and belly dancing by the time she moved to San Francisco in 1960, where she remained for the rest of her life. Through her work, her feminism, her radical and avant-garde politics, her belief in the powerful psychedelic potential of the counterculture, and her longtime residence in San Francisco, Kandel was a bridge between the Beats of the 1950s and the burgeoning California hippie movement of the 1960s.

Upon arriving in San Francisco, Kandel fell in with the poets Lew Welch and Gary Snyder, and had a brief affair with Jack Kerouac. (Kerouac used her as a model for Romana Swartz in his 1962 novel Big Sur.) She spent time at the East-West House, the San Francisco writer’s cooperative, read at a University of California Poetry Conference in November of 1964, and played a pot-smoking Deaconess in the 1969 Kenneth Anger film Invocation of My Demon Brother. In 1966, the same year she published The Love Book, Kandel became involved with the Diggers, which solidified her belief in the power of “community anarchy” as the group provided free food and medical care, along with consciousness-raising musical events.

The Love Book, her best-known work, was only four poems and eight pages long, but its “holy erotica” (her term for her erotically-charged free verse celebrating the divine nature of sexuality she became best known for) was deemed transgressive enough for newly-elected governor Ronald Reagan to authorize a police raid on the two San Francisco bookstores (City Lights and the Psychedelic Shop) that sold it. Reagan’s targeting of The Love Book was his first attack on the growing psychedelic counterculture that was forming in his state, and it launched a legal attack on what could “safely” be consumed by the growing number of hippies and counterculture activists in places like San Francisco.

Banned on violation of California’s obscenity codes shortly after it was published, The Love Book’s trial became the longest-running in San Francisco’s history, making its way all the way up to the California Supreme Court (the prosecution was finally overturned in 1974). Writing in the San Francisco Oracle after the bookstores’ bust, Kandel described The Love Book as being about “the invocation, recognition and acceptance of the divinity in man thru the medium of physical love.” She also refused to acknowledge the validity of Reagan’s belief in censorship as a means to protect the moral wellbeing of Californian society, insisting that censorship did more harm than good. “Any form of censorship, whether mental, moral, emotional or physical, whether from the inside or the outside in, is a barrier against self-awareness,” she wrote.

Kandel and Timothy Leary at the Human Be-In, 1967

Her prominent role in the hippie counterculture reached its peak when she was the only female speaker at the Human Be-In on January 14, 1967. In a coincidence the Zen student undoubtedly enjoyed, January 14th also happened to be her 35th birthday. After she read selections from The Love Book and declared that the god of the era’s dawning new age was Love, the crowd of roughly 25,000 serenaded her with “Happy Birthday.” Kandel’s performance, as well as the entire gathering, was in defiance of many of California’s new laws that specifically targeted the growing counterculture. After all, Kandel’s book had been banned on violation of obscenity codes in November of 1966, just a month after the psychotropic drug fueling much of the entire movement, LSD, was formally outlawed in California on October 6, 1966.

In 1967, Kandel published her first full-length (and final) collection of poems, Word Alchemy, which featured many of the same themes as The Love Book. In To Fuck With Love Phase III, a poem that continued a piece first featured in The Love Book, she wrote:

“I have whispered love into every orifice of your body
As you have done
to me

my whole body is turning into a cuntmouth
my toes my hands my belly my breast my shoulder my eyes
you fuck me continually with your tongue your look
with your words with your presence

we are transmuting
we are as soft and warm and trembling
as a new gold butterfly

the energy

almost unendurable

at night sometimes i see our bodies glow”

In 1970 Kandel and her lover Bill Fritsch, a poet and Hell’s Angel, were involved in a serious motorcycle crash that ruined her spine and left her permanently disabled. Both she and her work faded from the spotlight, though there was a renewed interest in her work in 2007 when she spoke at the 40th anniversary of the Human Be-In. Because of her long silence, her work has been eclipsed by other, generally male, poets who have come to define both the Beat and hippie eras.

Her importance to the movements of the 1960s and for the artistry of the era cannot be overstated, however. As Ronna C. Johnson wrote in her essay, “Lenore Kandel’s The Love Book: Psychedelic Poetics, Cosmic Erotica, and Sexual Politics in the Mid-sixties Counterculture” (from Reconstructing the Beats, Jennie Skerl, ed. [Palgrave Macmillan, 2004]), “As the poet Lenore Kandel saliently attests, women writers were radical exponents of Beat and San Francisco Renaissance poetics; at times also flouting censorship codes, they advanced the cultural reforms and oppositions the movements engaged. Moreover, challenging conventions about female passivity, sexual equality, and subjectivity, women’s avant-garde literary departures established the proto-feminist dimensions of Beat… Kandel elucidated the incipient feminism linking Beat to hippie ethics and aesthetics.” (89-90)

For her many artistic and social contributions, Lenore Kandel deserves both our recognition and remembrance.

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