He survived diabetes, a stroke and years of drug use, and it looked as if Ken Kesey might beat liver cancer too. Diagnosed last month, the author and guru of the ’60s psychedelic era underwent surgery in Eugene, Ore., on Oct. 25. Hours later, says his nephew Kit Kesey, 37, who manages the family’s yogurt company, “he was sitting up, telling me how to run my business. He loved telling me what to do with my life.”
But complications set in, and Kesey died at age 66 on Nov. 10. It was the end of a wildly original life in which telling people what to do played no small role. Acclaimed for two of his four novels, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962) and Sometimes a Great Notion (1964), Kesey won notoriety preaching the virtues of LSD. His ’64 cross-country bus trip with a band of addled pals he called the Merry Pranksters was chronicled by Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Above all, Kesey said then, his message was this: “It is possible to be different without being a threat.” It was a belief he held onto until the end.
He didn’t start out so different. Kesey grew up on a dairy farm in Springfield, Ore. A wrestling star, he married high school sweetheart Faye Haxby in 1956, graduated from the University of Oregon and studied writing at Stanford University. Then, in 1959, he volunteered for drug experiments at the Menlo Park, Calif., hospital where he later worked as an attendant in a psychiatric ward. The experience inspired him to spread the LSD gospel—and to write Cuckoo’s Nest, which became a 1963 play and then a 1975 Oscar-winning film starring Jack Nicholson.
Kesey spent his later years raising cattle on his Pleasant Hill farm with Faye, now 66, and their children Shannon, 41, Zane, 40, and Sunshine, 34. (Son Jed died in a car crash at age 20 in ’84.) He partly blamed past indulgences for his failure to write another bestseller. “He said, ‘I don’t have the concentration I used to,’ ” recalls novelist and friend Larry McMurtry. Still, he had few regrets. Says nephew Kit: “His life was packed full.”