Midnight Climax

By Livia Albeck-Ripka

 In the 1950s and 60s, the CIA hired prostitutes to lure men into a Greenwich Village building, where they were drugged with LSD and secretly monitored

The trials were shut down in the 1960s, but didn’t come to light until 1977. (The Austin American Statesman)

On June 8, 1953, the CIA’s head chemist, Sidney Gottlieb, met with a man named George Hunter White at 81 Bedford Street in New York City and handed him $4,123.27. The money would go toward rent for White’s Greenwich apartment, plus a few expenses: tape-recording equipment, two-way mirrors, a $35 picture of a French can-can dancer, cleaning services, and three framed Toulouse-Lautrec posters.

White, a federal narcotics agent, had rented the apartment under an alias, Morgan Hall. One year earlier, Gottlieb had hired him as a special “CIA consultant.” His job? Recruit prostitutes to lure men into the Bedford Street apartment, where they would be slipped the hallucinogenic Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD) and observed.

Named “Operation Midnight Climax,” Gottlieb’s project was part of a CIA mind-control program during the 1950s and 60s known as MKUltra, in which intoxicating substances were secretly administered to unsuspecting people to understand their effects. It was part of the United States’ Cold War effort to produce a kind of “truth serum.” Later, testifying to a joint Senate committee in Washington in 1977, then-CIA director Stansfield Turner would describe the work as “totally abhorrent.”

The experiments formed the basis of a 2009 movie.

But in the 1950s, White spent a lot of his time perched on portable toilet behind two-way glass while his employees entertained their drugged visitors. He had relocated the operation from New York City to 55 Chestnut Street, San Francisco. There, he had kept a full pitcher of martini mix in the fridge, and in the cabinet by the front window, which overlooked San Francisco Bay, photographs of shackled women in black tights. It was never referred to by CIA operatives as the apartment, but as “the pad.”

“So far as I was concerned, ‘clear thinking’ was non-existent while under the influence of any of these drugs,” White wrote to Berkeley psychiatrist Harvey Powelson in 1970 letter. Curious, he had decided to try the drug himself. “I did feel at times that I was having a ‘mind-expanding experience,’” White wrote, “but this vanished like a dream immediately after the session.”

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