The Sex Messiah Who Tried To Get The World Hooked On Free Love

May 20, 2013
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Visitors making the long, zig-zagging journey up into the Malibu hills to the sprawling Sandstone Retreat were rewarded at the top with a magnificent view of the Pacific.

But an even more heart-stopping sight awaited them if they turned away from the sea and looked into the windows of the main house.

Under the chandeliers of a spacious, wood-panelled sitting room, dozens of men and women chatted over drinks — some warming themselves beside the blaze in the huge fireplace, others lounging around on sofas or squatting on the beige shagpile carpet.

All of them — doctors, university professors, lawyers, housewives, even Hollywood stars — had one thing in common: they were completely naked. But the nudity was just the beginning.

For as guests including singer Bobby Darin and his actress wife Sandra Dee, and Rat Packers Sammy Davis Jr, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop discovered, no one in Hollywood threw a party quite like the Sandstone Foundation for Community Systems Research.

Downstairs was a far more shocking scene as — across a sea of mats, cushions and waterbeds — strangers paired off with each other or engaged in threesomes or moresomes, often in full view of their spouses and scores of others. Their passion spent, they would wander back upstairs and casually chat to someone else.

The death at the age of 80 from cancer of Sandstone’s founder, John Williamson, at the end of March went barely noticed. But the man who revelled in the nickname of the ‘Messiah of Sex’ presided in the late Sixties and early Seventies over one of the most extraordinary experiments ever undertaken in the name of ‘free love’.

Tucked away from prying eyes on a 15-acre mountainside estate in the Topanga Canyon near Los Angeles, the sexual revolution pioneer and his followers created a place for couples to lose their inhibitions.

And if the retreat’s notorious parties resembled a giant wife-swapping orgy, that was never the intention, Sandstone’s survivors told me this week.

Mr Williamson, a former rocket engineer who had worked on the Nasa space and Polaris missile projects, and his wife, Barbara, wanted to usher in a social revolution through total sexual liberation.

They believed if couples — particularly the women — could be completely honest with each other about their sexual needs, they argued, men and women could live far more fulfilling lives together and not be tempted into secretly cheating on each other.

‘The idea was “consensual adultery”,’ explains Gay Talese, a celebrated New York writer and ‘participating observer’ at the retreat, whose bestselling 1980 book about the sexual revolution, Thy Neighbour’s Wife, put Sandstone on the map for many Americans.

‘The theory is that if both parties know what the other is doing, or thinking of doing, it can be understood and perhaps condoned without it being a cause of divorce. They were re-defining “‘sin.”’

John Williamson was a pioneer of the sexual revolution as co-founder of Sandstone Retreat, where nudity and free love took place with abandon.

John Williamson was a pioneer of the sexual revolution as co-founder of Sandstone Retreat, where nudity and free love took place with abandon.

When I tracked down Barbara Williamson this week, now 74 and running a wildlife sanctuary in Nevada, she told me they had personal motives, too — though many would regard them as utterly misguided.

‘We just knew that a traditional heterosexual marriage could not last because two people could not give each other everything they need,’ she said. ‘So we built a bigger marriage.’

In her case, a much bigger marriage. When I asked how many sexual partners she had at Sandstone in the six years she lived there, she estimated, apparently without shame, ‘under 200’. Still, she insists, they were married for 47 years and their many partners never strained the marriage.

Their quest for this perverse Utopia started in 1968 when — inspired by Atlas Shrugged, the libertarian thinker Ayn Rand’s novel about industrialists who drop out of an oppressive society — Williamson gave up his electronics firm and his wife threw in her insurance sales job.

They wanted to opt out of mainstream society, so they bought Sandstone, a collection of rundown buildings perched 1,700ft above the Pacific, for $130,000 and moved in with a handful of like-minded couples.

Clothing was optional at Sandstone, and nearly everyone spent their days naked, even when they were driving tractors and bulldozers renovating the property.

Their night-time debaucheries were advertised largely by word of mouth, but also in advertisements in an LA underground newspaper.

It’s difficult to imagine many of their libidinous guests cared two hoots for the Williamsons’ intellectual pretensions, but their parties — every Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday — were certainly popular.

Guests included Rat Packers Sammy Davis Jr, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop.

Guests included Rat Packers Sammy Davis Jr, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop.

Some drew as many as 500 swingers at a time — each member had to bring a guest of the opposite sex to keep the gender balance — and organizers say that, in all, 4,600 people passed through the retreat’s stone-pillared gates during its lifetime.

There were about 500 paying members — parting with $160 to join and then paying $10 a month, relatively small amounts that, in the end meant the retreat’s owners simply couldn’t make ends meet.

Photographs taken at the time show groups of men and women bouncing naked on a large trampoline, or strolling naked through woodland, as though it were the most natural thing in the world.

Talese first visited Sandstone in 1971 with a woman friend from LA, who had told him it would provide good material for his book. It certainly did. Keen to tap into this outrageous community, he persuaded the Williamsons to let him stay on for months.

Living in a guest house on the estate, he was introduced to Sandstone’s idea of sexual freedom within two days when Barbara Williamson knocked on his door one afternoon and virtually frogmarched him into his bedroom.

Rigorous investigator that he was, he also threw himself fully into the parties. His wife, he told me this week, tolerated his ‘research’, but declined his invitations to join him there. Talese’s perseverance paid off when he later sold the film rights for his book for $2.5M.

He recalled his inaugural visit to a Sandstone party, at which first-timers were encouraged to start off by plunging nude into the retreat’s swimming pool to lose their inhibitions. (After a few visits, many would be so enthusiastic they would stripping off while they were still driving up in their cars.)

‘You initially had to surrender your clothes and it was awkward for me being nude. Boy, does it change your personality,’ he recalls.

‘What’s more, you’re doing it in the presence of dozens and dozens of other people. And I assure you, it wasn’t a beauty parade: it was people of all shapes, sizes and ages.’

The days of swinging finally ended in 1995 when Williamson and his wife moved to Nevada.

The days of swinging finally ended in 1995 when Williamson and his wife moved to Nevada.

In the main house, he recalls seeing John Williamson, a burly blond man with a pot belly, holding court in the center of the upstairs room. But no one was admitted until they were first cleared in an ante-room by the host’s no-nonsense wife.

Wearing nothing more than gold-rimmed spectacles, she would check a list and refuse entry to non-members and anyone who was behind on their membership dues. Talese remembers them having membership cards. ‘It was just like a golf club,’ he laughs.

But inside the party room it was more like a literary salon, he adds, as businessmen chatted with writers, and scientists talked to academics. There were doctors and even the odd Protestant clergyman and his wife.

The image of total respectability was rounded off with a buffet dinner cooked by a professional chef who was one of the permanent residents.

Talese remembers seeing Dr Alex Comfort, the British author of the notorious how-to manual The Joy Of Sex, and Daniel Ellsberg, the military analyst who famously leaked top-secret Pentagon papers.

They revealed that the U.S. government had lied about the Vietnam War. It was known early on that the war was unwinnable and that the casualties among U.S. personnel would be much greater than predicted.

Dr Comfort — known across the world as Dr Sex — was a regular, while the likes of Sammy Davis Jr and Peter Lawford, the British actor who married John F. Kennedy’s sister, Patricia, are understood to have visited several times.

Although Mrs Williamson jokes that she probably ‘saw more naked Hollywood stars than any other woman’, she and her friends are discreet about the names of those who are still alive.

Talese insists that permanent nudity is anything but an aphrodisiac, but for some the sex would start before the buffet had been cleared as people coupled in corners, just yards from where others were discussing art and politics.

One might think such abandon was driven by alcohol, but there was very little around at the parties, where the policy was strictly bring-your-own-bottle.

Most people could restrain their urges until they descended a red-carpeted staircase to the ‘ballroom’ on the floor below, a dimly lit 20ft by 60ft room lined with soft mats and large pillows, where writhing bodies could be made out in the orange glow from an open fire.

The ‘sighs and cries of ecstasy’ competed with the sounds of laughter, murmuring and music from the stereo, Talese recalls. On a warm night, the fornication would spill out onto the lawn and into the swimming pool.

‘Everything that Puritan America had ever tried to outlaw, to censor, to conceal behind locked bedroom doors, was on display in this adult playroom,’ says Talese.

He recounts how the late Dr Comfort, who got most of his research for The Joy Of Sex from Sandstone, traipsed attentively between the heaving bodies, reassuring the self-conscious and hesitant, and occasionally putting down his cigar to ‘join a friendly clutch of bodies and contribute to the merriment’.

Visitors to a Sandstone party didn’t always know what they were in for. Former stockbroker Marty Zitter first went in 1969, when the Williamsons hosted a Halloween party for 300 staff and students from the neuro-psychiatric institute of the University of California.

‘It turned out to be a lot more than a Halloween party,’ he remembers, laughing. ‘But no one had to convince us or tell us what to do.’

Amazingly, only a handful of the academics walked out when they realized what was afoot — but it was the Sixties after all.

Although Mr Zitter estimates most people took just 15 minutes to get used to being nude, he compared his first visit to the Sandstone ballroom to experiencing a psychedelic drug. ‘It’s traumatic. You have no idea how you’ll react.’

Barbara Williamson recalls how almost salivating male guests tended to see Sandstone as a ‘candy store’, dragging along their reluctant wives or girlfriends, only to get upset when the women shed their clothes and ‘got comfortable’ with other guests.

Mr Zitter and his wife, Meg, liked it so much they moved into Sandstone a few months later and stayed until it closed in 1976. As the retreat’s membership director, he and his wife would ‘interview’ prospective members who were invited to come and mingle with the retreat’s full-time residents on the afternoon before their first party.

There were some hard-and-fast rules: no one under 18, and no drugs or sexual harassment were allowed. The morbidly obese, heavy drinkers, druggies and any couple admitting they saw it as a way of saving their marriage were turned down.

The Williamsons were particularly keen on welcoming educated professionals who might ‘spread the word’. Psychologists and anthropologists — and plenty wanted to visit Sandstone — were told they were welcome only if they put down their notepads and got involved?.?.?.? in everything.

Talese concedes the Williamsons couldn’t eliminate jealousy and sexual possessiveness between couples, as they had hoped.

In fact, they often did quite the opposite, as married people watched their spouses become emotionally attached to someone else, usually the ‘godlike figure’ of chubby John Williamson.

Of course, the couple never got to see their world sexual revolution. Unable to make their retreat profitable, they ran out of money and sold Sandstone in 1973 to a fellow believer who kept it going as a couples’ club for three more years.

‘We just needed a few more members,’ says Mrs Williamson, maybe not choosing her words as carefully as she might. ‘Many people didn’t want to pay for personal growth and development.’

The couple reluctantly went back into mainstream life: Mr Williamson returned to electronics and his wife to insurance.

Their days of swinging ended in 1995 when they moved to Nevada to set up a sanctuary for lions and tigers and decided they were happy to be faithful at last.

Today, Mrs Williamson and her old friends still spout the same Sixties psychobabble about how Sandstone was about ‘freeing people from their sexual shackles’, and ‘using experimental learning processes to help people loosen the dysfunctional cultural demands placed on them’.

Or, to put it more bluntly, throwing lots and lots of orgies.


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