Addictions, Media, and Power: Jay Richard Kennedy and Mind Control

Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post comes from Jocelyn Szczepaniak-Gillece, an associate professor of English and Film Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. She is the author of The Optical Vacuum: Spectatorship and Modernized American Theater Architecture (Oxford University Press, 2018) and the co-editor of Ends of Cinema (University of Minnesota Press, 2020).

In my earlier post, I told the story of To the Ends of the Earth, a docufiction hybrid about drug smuggling made with the assistance of Harry Anslinger. That movie’s production history includes Columbia Pictures and director Robert Stevenson, but the real engine behind the film was Jay Richard Kennedy, the credited Associate Producer. Born Samuel Solomonick, Kennedy was one of the twentieth century’s strangest and least-known charlatans. His bizarre career encompassed all manner of cultural phenomena: Hollywood, psychotherapy, drug and alcohol addictions, the Age of Aquarius, and, eventually, self-help cults. Like most self-aggrandizing fabricators, he kept focus on a single goal: the best way to manipulate American minds.

After his collaboration with Anslinger, Kennedy realized that mind control was not only possible with drugs and media. Another option was the talking cure. Kennedy’s wife, Dr. Janet Alterman Kennedy, was licensed in psychotherapy, and, like many therapists of her moment, Dr. Kennedy used psychodynamics, in which the interactions of the mind’s deepest energies were supposed to shape both the patient’s consciousness and reactions to other people. Kennedy found this irresistible. In 1949, a year after the release of To the Ends of the Earth, Kennedy wrote an article for the The Screenwriter arguing that the twentieth century’s two most important developments in constructive science and art were psychodynamics and film. Both, he wrote, served the “maximum function of revealing man to himself” [1].

These sentiments aptly summarized the later thrust of his life: that media and psychology were two sides of an instrument that ultimately promised control over others. As he had learned from Anslinger, mass media—like narcotics—were useful for tightening a grip on power. But without strict standards for both drugs and media, he believed, everyday Americans would become addicts and normal spectators would be transformed into madmen. Healing American society required specific approaches to addiction, governance, and media, and Kennedy knew the cure.

Jay Richard Kennedy Title Card
Left: Jay Richard Kennedy at his desk in 1953. Source: Parade Magazine, March 29, 1953.

Samuel Solomonick was born to Russian and Romanian immigrants Isidor and Erna Solomonick in the Bronx on July 22, 1911. In 1924, he dropped out of school to ride freight trains. The next decade or so is a little hazy, but, in 1929, Solomonick returned to manage the Ritz Theater and then worked as a day laborer, printer, and newspaperman. In 1939 after the Hitler-Stalin Pact, he quit as the circulation manager of the Daily Worker, the official newspaper of the Communist Party USA. And, when Solomonick learned that his former colleagues meant to ruin his name, he changed it to Jay Richard Kennedy—a quick fix for a short, Jewish, poor, first-generation American looking to make it big.

Jay Richard Kennedy in 1965
In 1965, Jay Richard Kennedy (right) gives a copy of his book, Favor the Runner, to Wyatt Tee Walker, an advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Source: Pittsburgh Courier, Dec. 4, 1965.

Many of the details of Kennedy/Solominick’s biography—like his name—were fluid and changeable. After To the Ends of the Earth, Kennedy published several novels, including Prince Bart (1953) and Favor the Runner (1965), and he also proceeded to fictionalize his own biography. Public relations material for Prince Bart said Kennedy “was born on July 23, 1904. Was orphaned at the age of three and lived on the south side of Chicago with an Aunt and her numerous children … he predicted the crash of 1929” [2]. At the United Press Association’s book release, drama critic Jack Gaver quoted Kennedy as saying: “I’ve always wanted to write ever since I was an orphan kid out of Chicago hoboing around the country” [3]. Meetings with stars and Hollywood power brokers further stoked his dreams of fame. In a 1966 memo, for example, he reminded himself to seek photographer Jack Entratter’s assistance in making him a celebrity [4]. But his most important takeaway was a confirmation that media, like narcotics, boasts powers of control.

For decades, Kennedy railed against addiction while indulging his savior complex. In interviews through the 1960s, Kennedy embraced pacifism in keeping with both the spirit of the Age of Aquarius and his faith in “international cooperation” [5]. But, unlike the counterculture, Kennedy saw intoxicants as detrimental to self-actualization, remarking in a 1969 interview, “I’m turned on, you might say, but without the use of drugs,” because, he said, they “leave holes in the mind” [6].

Instead, Kennedy believed, he could help show the path towards global enlightenment. He co-wrote the 1955 biopic about actress Lillian Roth, I’ll Cry Tomorrow, which frankly depicted Roth’s alcoholism and earned an Oscar (though not for the screenplay). Years later in 1972, Kennedy explained that the film was “a way of dealing with the human stories behind alcoholism and different pathways to redemption and cure, including though not limited to AA” [7]. Why was AA unsatisfactory? Simply because Kennedy was not involved with the organization. Rather, his squirrelly references to “redemption and cure” pointed toward his magnum opus: the Center for Human Problems in Sherman Oaks, CA, a rehabilitation, therapeutic, and research clinic where Kennedy served as “founder, board chairman and coordinator,” or, more bluntly, cult leader [8].

 In 1970, the year the Center was established, Kennedy chaired the First National Conference for Human Survival sponsored by National Educational Television (NET) at the WITF public radio affiliate in Hershey, Pennsylvania. The three-day event, which was recorded for three 90-minute TV specials called “Strategy for Survival,” explored “threats to enlightened society” and aimed to unleash “human potential” [9] and [10]. The conference argued that narcotics along with social and unconscious mental obstacles prevented humanity from reaching its highest powers. Kennedy insisted that his specific training and experiences as a writer, filmmaker, therapist (of sorts), theorist of addiction, and (backdoor) political operative meant that he possessed unique abilities to free Americans from whatever stopped them from achieving enlightenment—from drugs to alcohol to egomania.

In an unpublished book, Kennedy described the particular dangers that he believed young Americans faced. The generation gap, he wrote, manifested as anti-establishment sentiments expressed in the civil rights movements and in hippie culture—both of which tended towards substance abuse and promiscuity. Rampant drug use, in Kennedy’s mind, dampened self-actualization, and newly available prophylactics allowed sex without anxiety. Young people under such pressures, he theorized, suffered from fragmented personalities and “dropped out” in favor of “ever-wider use of drugs, and that curious configuration of a psychedelic, anti-Adult, self-sealing in-group which may … be known to history as the ‘wasted generation’” [11]. Exacerbated by narcotics and a flailing sexual revolution, American youth faced alienation only Kennedy could solve.

But Kennedy had a problem. His formal education had ended with the seventh grade. In the 1950s and 1960s, despite his lack of specific training, Kennedy had coauthored texts with his wife, Janet Alterman Kennedy, and had worked with her therapeutic practice—apparently serving as a consultant at Montefiore Hospital between 1956 and 1966. But Kennedy not only lacked graduate experience in psychology; he also did not have college or high school diplomas. By 1971, multiple University Without Walls programs—providing students with flexible and distance options as well as credit for life experience—had opened around the country. Among these was Antioch College/West in San Francisco, where Dr. Will Schutz, famous for his work with humanistic alternative medicine at the Esalen Institute, headed up the Holistic Psychology program.

As early as 1970, Kennedy listed himself as the “head psychotherapist” at the Center for Human Problems, even though his psychotherapy credentials can only be traced to 1975 when Dean Joseph McFarland of Antioch College/West approved Kennedy’s BA equivalency materials [12]. Three years later in 1978, Kennedy claimed a PhD in psychology. Yet, like so much of Kennedy’s story, this, too, was a confabulation. His doctorate was granted by the Sussex College of Technology, an unaccredited degree mill in England that had never been recognized as an institute of higher learning by the British government [13].

None of this stopped Kennedy from asserting control over the patients and other therapists at the Center for Human Problems. Although the Center had sponsored inoffensive programs for substance abuse and conducted research about runaway adolescents for much of the 1970s, by the next decade, the Center increasingly came under Kennedy’s mercurial control. Rather than operating as a rehabilitation, therapeutic, and research clinic as envisioned at its founding in 1970, the Center reportedly deteriorated into a cult-like atmosphere in support of Kennedy’s increasingly eccentric whims. Center therapists resorted to identifying and recruiting patients in the Los Angeles-area and bringing them in the fold. Like Kennedy, though, many of the Center’s therapists were unlicensed.

According to court filings by anti-cult lawyer Paul Morantz, who sued the Center in 1990 on behalf of Cynthia and Scott Daley, the Center was “unique in the history of psychotherapy. In one operation, they manage to breach all of the ethical code requirements” [14]. The Center’s “cult-like environment” was operated by “unlicensed individuals” dedicated to keeping patients “as long as possible as a source of income for Defendants, and to promulgate Defendants’ ‘new theories’” [15].

According to former patients, the Center’s “theories” included outlandish ideas like: Kennedy was perfect; Kennedy would live to 150; working with Kennedy would bring patients to a “higher state” where they, too, could live at least to 100; and the Center would create “a new species in our revolutionary cycle” [16]. Like most cults, when patients achieved one level of enlightenment; the Center would offer another level to pursue. And, if patients failed to live to 100 years of age, the Center argued that such failures only proved their neuroses still had a grip on their psyches.

Patients were shaken down for ever-more money; told Kennedy was their father; and, in a twisted version of psychoanalysis, taught that their biological parents were the source of all their problems. The Center further claimed that its methods were the only workable therapeutic efforts. And with female patients and staff members, Kennedy insisted that “unless they had sex with him they would never be cured” [17]. Naturally, these teachings tended to sever connections between patients and their families outside the Center.

While clients were the main focus of the Center’s efforts, the staff, many of whom had originally been clients, also fell under Kennedy’s spell. In meetings, Kennedy decried licensing requirements and advanced degrees, calling them a “bunch of bull,” and asserted that Center therapists were better than anyone with a PhD [18]. In addition to being the (self-proclaimed) best therapist who ever lived, Kennedy insisted that he never got sick, had a better memory than anyone on Earth, and could diagnose patients simply by looking at them. In addition to group, mini-group, and individual therapy sessions, the Center required patients to spend hours watching videotaped therapy sessions of Kennedy himself. And, in echoes of Scientology, Center staff repeated wild theories claiming Jesus had arriving from another planet and departed Earth in a spaceship.

By the late 1980s though, though, cracks appeared in the Center’s façade. Kennedy suffered a heart attack in May of 1987—but his closest advisors quickly covered it up. While in the hospital, his paranoia increased. He reportedly feared that “KGB” doctors sought to murder him and claimed that he was “Christ.” After Kennedy left the hospital, things deteriorated rapidly. Following Morantz’s lawsuit in 1990, the Center for Human Problems quickly fell apart. In October of 1991, a year after the Center closed, Kennedy died of heart failure at Westlake Hospital [19]. At the time of Kennedy’s death, his New York Times obituary listed his age as 80—70 years shorter than his promised life span and seven years younger than the Chicago-born orphan he sometimes claimed to be.

Kennedy’s colorful and controversial life took him far afield from his collaboration with Harry Anslinger on the post-war anti-drug movie To the Ends of the Earth. Yet, Kennedy’s varied obsessions from drugs to mass media to psychotherapy consistently revolved around notions of self-control and personal autonomy. His lifelong anti-drug campaigns which culminated in his bizarre and fraudulent drug abuse and other self-help counseling “theories” and practices underscored the conditions that make intoxicants both emblems of American culture and tantalizing objects for power. It’s not only the drug that controls the user’s mind. Sometimes it’s the cure.


References

[1] Jay Richard Kennedy, “Plots and Characters,” The Screenwriter, May 1948, 3–23 (quote on 3).

[2] Memo from Carolyn Wolf re: Prince Bart, November 24, 1952, Box 11, Jay Richard Kennedy papers, Howard Gotleib Archival Research Center, Boston University. See the Gotleib Center Jay Richard Kennedy Collection homepage for more information.

[3] A-Keep, Box 11, Jay Richard Kennedy papers, Howard Gotleib Archival Research Center, Boston University.

[4] Undated to-do list, Box 43, Jay Richard Kennedy papers, Howard Gotleib Archival Research Center, Boston University.

[5] This, of course, was a term he learned from Anslinger. See my earlier post: Harry Anslinger Goes to the Movies.

[6] “Life is Enough to Turn Him On” The Plain Dealer.

[7] Rough draft “Swannie Re Plans in the Industry,” Box 45, Jay Richard Kennedy papers, Howard Gotleib Archival Research Center, Boston University.

[8] Rough draft “Swannie Re Plans in the Industry,” Box 45, Jay Richard Kennedy papers, Howard Gotleib Archival Research Center, Boston University.

[9] NAL News, ABA Convention, Vol 2, Washington, DC, June 8, 1970 (New American Library), Box 45, Box 43, Jay Richard Kennedy papers, Howard Gotleib Archival Research Center, Boston University.

[10] Only twelve markets aired “Strategy for Survival” before Nixon demanded the broadcast’s cessation. Evidently, the series’ interest in biofuel at the expense of energy giants like Mobil was too much of a threat to the powers that be. National Crisis Series, Energy Part II “Straight Talk,” Convo with JRK, July 9, 1979, episode 1, Box 38, Jay Richard Kennedy papers, Howard Gotleib Archival Research Center, Boston University.

[11] Part III, Chapter 5-a 5/15/62, 5/21/62, Box 43, Jay Richard Kennedy papers, Howard Gotleib Archival Research Center, Boston University.

[12] Career history list, Folder “Kennedy, J.R.,” Box 46, Jay Richard Kennedy papers, Howard Gotleib Archival Research Center, Boston University.

[13] Bio data form for Who’s Who in Entertainment, Folder “Kennedy, J.R.,” Box 46, Jay Richard Kennedy papers, Howard Gotleib Archival Research Center, Boston University.

[14] Voluntary settlement conference brief, Court Filing re: Center for Human Problems, Box 45, Jay Richard Kennedy papers, Howard Gotleib Archival Research Center, Boston University.

[15] Voluntary settlement conference brief, Court Filing re: Center for Human Problems, Box 45, Jay Richard Kennedy papers, Howard Gotleib Archival Research Center, Boston University, 5

[16] Voluntary settlement conference brief, Court Filing re: Center for Human Problems, Box 45, Jay Richard Kennedy papers, Howard Gotleib Archival Research Center, Boston University, 21; Paul Morantz, “Escape from Center for Human Problems.”

[17] Voluntary settlement conference brief, Court Filing re: Center for Human Problems, Box 45, Jay Richard Kennedy papers, Howard Gotleib Archival Research Center, Boston University, 6.

[18] Voluntary settlement conference brief, Court Filing re: Center for Human Problems, Box 45, Jay Richard Kennedy papers, Howard Gotleib Archival Research Center, Boston University, 5

[19] “Jay R. Kennedy, 80, Writer for the Screen,” New York Times, Oct. 17, 1991.

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