In a rainy spring night in 1974, an unmarked panel truck with Pennsylvania plates rolled out of the Holland Tunnel onto Manhattan’s wet streets and headed uptown, finally pulling over at an address in Greenwich Village. Three young men met the driver at the curb to unload a pallet of boxes. They carried them into a musty basement that served as an office and communal living space.
Opening the boxes, they found copies of a magazine fresh from the printer. A shiny silver-foil cover showed a woman hold- ing a mushroom tantalizingly close to her lips. It was the first issue of High Times.
The creation of “The Magazine for High Society” (as it was billed back then) is shrouded in the smoke of a thousand joints. Some say it was started as a joke; others whisper of shadowy conspiracies. A motley parade of individuals have claimed to be the “founder” of High Times, although the true founder’s name — Thomas King Forçade — is nowhere to be seen in that first issue.
At least one eyewitness — Ed Dwyer, who was listed as editor on the masthead—is willing to testify that I was there that night, helping him and Robert Singer, a future High Times editorial director, unload those boxes. I’m sure that I paused for a brief moment to check out my own name on the masthead. For an ambitious 23-year-old journalist, working as a contributing editor on a new magazine is usually a career boost — even if it was a magazine for dope fiends.
Relying on my tattered diaries and the equally tattered mental faculties of some of my former colleagues and old comrades (those still kicking), I have put together some lesser-known facts concerning the birth of High Times.
1. It all began in a Greenwich Village basement.
The Vietnam War raged on, Richard Nixon insisted that “I am not a crook,” Patty Hearst was robbing banks, and everything in America was hanging fire. It was the autumn of 1973, and for those who still counted themselves among the sex-drugs-and-rock’n’roll contingent of the so-called counterculture, the ’60s revolution seemed to have gone terribly wrong. Winter was closing in.
One place the revolution still simmered was at 283 West 11th Street, a brownstone in the heart of Greenwich Village. Visitors descended beneath the stoop to a basement entranceway, past a bronze plaque that read “Institute for Advanced Studies,” and entered the world headquarters of the Underground Press Syndicate. The organization was overseen by Thomas King Forçade, already legendary for his exploits as a pie-throwing political gadfly, outspoken pot advocate and radical media mastermind.
Forçade was pushing forward with plans for a new magazine that he described as “Playboy for the counterculture.” Many of those in the room referred to it instead as “free pot”: If you dropped by to help, you usually got some. But there was a price.
“You were seduced into an endless conversation of dope-addled brilliance,” Dwyer recalls, “about politics, sex and everything that was happening in the world.”
The brainstorming sessions might include Dwyer, formerly with Warner Publishing; the aforementioned Robert Singer, then a brainy young staff writer for Penthouse; A.J. Weberman, the opinionated Dylanologist; Yossarian, the sardonic underground cartoonist; Dana Beal, mercurial leader of the Zeitgeist International Party (a.k.a. the Zippies); quirky cannabis-cultivation expert Ed Rosenthal; a pixieish chain-smoking blonde who called herself Anastasia Sirocco; and a revolving cast of characters comprising anyone who was either crashing in the communal space or scoring a bag of weed from Tom Forçade.
“Everyone who walked in the door was a focus group,” Dwyer says. “We were going for 100 story ideas.” The potential articles accumulated like roaches in an ashtray:
“Pyramids and Ancient Highs”
“The Hashmaker’s Art”
“A Consumer’s Guide to Paraphernalia Tracking the Magic Mushroom”
“The Dope Scene in Russia”
“Making a Sexual Pleasure Dome”
“I Was Kennedy’s Grass Dealer”
Dwyer remembers contributing that last one. “I made it up!” he confesses, many years later. Fueled by pot and balloons inflated from a 50-pound tank of nitrous oxide (another office amenity), the basement sessions yielded enough ideas to fill a very large table of contents
2. The magazine’s soon-to-be-iconic name was first unveiled in a marketing brochure.
Absurdly slick in its double meaning, foolishly bold given the repressive era to come, High Times was the perfect title for “The Magazine of High Society” — but its initial appearance predated the magazine’s cover.
No one recalls exactly who came up with the title, but it was first announced in a promotional brochure, the result of an inspired ad hoc business plan. Contributing editor Ed Rosenthal had been selling a line of candles wholesale to the headshop owners attending the annual National Fashion and Boutique Show. What better place for a pot magazine to find advertisers, he and Forçade decided, than among the proliferating paraphernalia companies? And they might even score distribution via those headshop owners, who attended from all over the country.
But the magazine wasn’t ready yet, and the Boutique Show was fast approaching. The solution was an 11″ x 17″ brochure on gold-colored stock, typeset in an Optima font, designed to attract advertisers and subscribers ahead of the event.
“Why advertise in High Times?” the pitch began, targeting paraphernalia wholesalers. Then it supplied the answer: “Satisfies the ultimate criteria to make the sale.”
The copy, laid out in regular columns, featured the long list of articles dreamed up in those stoned-out basement sessions, many of which did eventually appear in the magazine. The business address — Box 386, Cooper Station, New York, NY — was shared with the Underground Press Syndicate.
“The magazine would not have happened without the brochure,” declares Ron L., who handled its layout and printing and was one of the handful of people living in the communal office. Originally from Waterloo, IA — the Midwestern hometown of ultraconservative Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann — today Ron prefers not to be associated with High Times.
“My 90-year-old mother doesn’t need this!” he said over the phone from somewhere in Silicon Valley, where he works as a software engineer. But whatever the importance of the brochure to the magazine’s initial success — and with all due respect to mothers everywhere — Ron’s full name can still be found on the masthead of High Times #1.
3. Without the jeans business, High Times might never have taken off.
A new product in search of a market, the world’s first marijuana magazine found it at the aforementioned Boutique Show.
Created in 1970 by two fashion-industry veterans, brothers Alan and Harold Larkin, the National Fashion and Boutique Show was a wild, sexy rendezvous of entrepreneurs on the trembling edges of American culture. It was a time when “boutique” was still an exotic word in 1970s small-town America. Jeans — Jordache! Sassoon! Calvin Klein! — were suddenly the pants you’d wear in the city, not just on the farm.
“It’s new! They’re young! They’re alive!
There are 35,000 young, alive, vibrant, boutique-oriented people here,” one of the show’s organizers told New Yorker writer Lillian Ross in a “Talk of the Town” piece published in February 1971. Among the 800 vendors taking up 10 floors of space at the McAlpin Hotel in the heart of Manhattan’s Garment District were companies like Aquarian Enterprises, Now Accessories, Love n’ Stuff, Funky & Groovy, Truth & Soul, Groovy Headwear, Easy Rider and Naked Grape.
By 1972 and ’73, the business of rolling papers, bongs, hash pipes and other “paraphernalia” was expanding from headshops in San Francisco and New York to a host of other cities. Manufacturers like EZ Wider, Bambú, Job and Marygin now began promoting their brands at the Boutique Show, and before long had taken over their own section. High Times #1 made its debut at the June 1974 show and was an instant success, selling out its first run of 10,000 copies and getting reprinted twice.
“The Boutique Show was where the paraphernalia industry discovered High Times, and where relationships were built that filled the magazine with ads,” says Andy Kowl, who was running an underground newspaper on Long Island when he accepted Forçade’s invitation to sign on as publisher for the second issue and helped build the advertising and sales part of HT’s business.
The paraphernalia industry also became the foundation of the magazine’s expanding distribution network, according to Kowl, who works these days as a publishing consultant. High Times returned the favor by exposing thousands of retailers and millions of consumers to products they’d never heard of before. “Other than an occasional classified in Rolling Stone,” Kowl points out, “no other national publication took these kinds of ads before.”
And so things changed. “They used to talk revolution, and now they talk success,” the Boutique Show’s Alan Larkin told Lillian Ross on her second visit in 1976. It was probably not quite what the would-be revolutionary Tom Forçade had in mind when he started the magazine — but that’s another story. By 1976, the highlight of the Boutique Show was the High Times party.
4. The girl on the cover of the first issue was …
The new magazine needed a cover, and Dwyer knew a photographer, a former sweetheart named Robyn Scott. She was taking a photography class at the Tyler School of Art and a photojournalism course at Temple University, and she lived in a Pennsylvania farmhouse overlooking Perkiomen Creek.
Scott had a friend named Elizabeth Donoghue –“beautiful, half-Irish, half- Basque,” says Dwyer — who was an actress with a theater group at nearby Haverford College. She agreed to model for the cover.
Dwyer doesn’t recall any editorial discussions about the magazine’s image or meetings to decide what the cover should look like. Scott came up with the idea
for the picture. It was meant to evoke a certain feeling, she told Dwyer recently: “Going on a safari, a trip, escape from reality. It was about a journey.” So she
and Donoghue drove over to a grocery store and picked up a box of salad-variety mushrooms.
Although they attempted to shoot outdoors, they decided the light just wasn’t right. Inside the farmhouse, Donoghue posed with a single choice mushroom and wore a real safari hat. Scott clicked off shots with her single-lens reflex 35mm camera.
Now a grandmother working for an upscale screen-door company, Scott has lost touch with her model, who never asked for money and didn’t get any. As for Donoghue, her first and only appearance on the cover of High Times did more to launch the magazine than it did her acting career, but she may be tickled to know that High Times #1 — including her alluring image — is enshrined today as a highly valued collector’s item as well as an iconic piece of counterculture history.
5. HT’s Main Line connection was also Tom Forçade’s key collaborator.
An essential midwife to High Times’ birth came not from the Lower East Side, Haight-Ashbury, Woodstock or anywhere else on the countercultural axis, but from the leafy enclaves of America’s one percent. She was a diminutive blonde in a Girl Scout uniform with a tailored microminiskirt, an animated presence in the 11th Street office with either a joint or a cigarette always hanging from her lips. She called herself Anastasia Sirocco, and she was identified in High Times #1 as the advertising director.
Her real name was Cindy Ornsteen. Born into a wealthy Jewish family, Ornsteen grew up in Gladwyne, an uppercrust town along Philadelphia’s fabled Main Line, and eventually became Tom Forçade’s lover. The two were an odd couple given her privileged East Coast upbringing and his Arizona-bred cowboy roots — sort of Leather & Lace crossed with Bonnie & Clyde.
The couple’s first visit to Dwyer’s apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in 1973 was memorable. “She was in hot pants, and he was carrying a sawed-off shotgun in a gym bag,” precalls. Forçade asked him a favor: Could he stash the shotgun for a while? A few weeks later, Forçade returned, collected his gun and, as a token of appreciation, left behind a bag of weed. He also invited Dwyer — unemployed at the time — to come down to the office and look over some articles slated for a new magazine that he was publishing. So began Dwyer’s editorial role at High Times.
Forçade and Ornsteen had met at a Philadelphia advertising agency called Concert Hall Publications, which brokered ad sales for the Underground Press Syndicate. Concert Hall was the go-to agency for record labels, movie studios and other companies trying to reach the “youth market” through the syndicate’s 200-plus member newspapers. The agency also did music-festival marketing: The program for the 1969 “Woodstock Music & Art Festival” was a Concert Hall production, with copy written by then-college student Dwyer.
On his way east to assume the reins of the Underground Press Syndicate in late 1969, Forçade off stopped in Philly to talk business with Concert Hall’s owners, Bert Cohen and Michael Forman. The most important thing he took away from that meeting was Cohen’s secretary, Cindy Ornsteen, whose acerbic wit and kick-ass attitude matched — and often outdid — Forçade’s icy anarchism.
“I used to call her my dark sister,” says her cousin Blair Sabol, then a writer for Esquire and The Village Voice. Ornsteen was a key collaborator with Forçade, shaping his tastes and encouraging his creativity. Visiting a paper warehouse together, she called his attention to a pallet of silver-foil stock left over from a holiday catalog — the perfect cover for the new magazine. Forçade bought the whole pallet, and they drove it down in Cindy’s car to the printer in Bucks County.
“They spread the mechanicals for the magazine out on my dining-room table,” recalls Michael Prestegord, the owner of NeoLitho Printing. He’d been Concert Hall’s printer for the Woodstock program, a connection that brought him the High Times gig. So how much did he charge to print that first issue? “I don’t remember,” Prestegord laughs, “but Tom paid me in street money.”
Cindy Ornsteen passed away in 2005, but her voice lives on in the article that she helped devise for issue #1: “A Lady Dealer Talks.”
6. The first High Times party almost happened at the Plaza Hotel.
If all of the people who claim to have attended High Times’ first party were gathered together in the same room, you’d need Grand Central Station to handle the overflow. In fact, there have been many High Times parties over the years, all of them “crawling with the usual suspects among New York’s ‘beautiful people,’” as Robert Sabbag describes it in his dope memoir Down Around Midnight. But I actually helped to throw the very first party.
The evidence exists in the strange notations that appear in my 1974 journal, beginning on Monday, April 8: “Plaza with Tom,” it says. On Tuesday, May 2: “uptown w/Forçade, Yossarian and Charlie.” But what were we doing at the swanky Plaza Hotel? Why were we uptown? And who was Charlie?
A week later, on Tuesday, May 7: “uptown hotels.” Then on Thursday, May 9: “Impeachment begins, Gramercy Park Hotel,” with a note that says we returned there the next day. And on Wednesday, May 22: “8PM meeting/Forçade abt party.”
It seems that as the historic impeachment of Richard Nixon rocked the nation, Tom and I were trying to secure a venue for a celebration of High Times’ first issue. The Plaza Hotel would probably not have been happy with the gathering, but the Gramercy Park Hotel—then in a shabby state of benign neglect — was perfect for a pothead bash.
We rented a large suite of connected meeting rooms on a lower floor. I don’t recall the catering arrangements, if any. A very distinctive feature of the event was a pair of towering brass fountains, rented from a party-supply outfit in Harlem. Red wine gushed from multiple spouts on one of the fountains, white wine from the other. We also established a High Times tradition by installing not one but two 50-pound tanks of nitrous oxide so there would be no waiting on line, along with plentiful balloons.
According to my journal, the party took place on Thursday, May 23, 1974, from 7 to 10pm Who showed up and what occurred, my journal fails to say. But it must have gone well! In fact, I’m sure it did, because a single scrawled word in my journal sums it up, both the party and pretty much the whole High Times adventure: “Fun.”
61⁄2. Seeing the first issue of High Times was pretty cool — and hard to describe in retrospect.
On that particular spring night, after unloading the truck (printer Michael Prestegord says, “That was me driving! Same truck I drove to Woodstock!”), I imagine we sat back on the office’s threadbare secondhand couches, smoked a joint with Tom and marveled at the 50-page publication — neither as slick as the glossy newsstand magazines of the day, nor as funky as the underground newspapers where many of us had toiled. The next issue would be better: more professional, with real ads instead of ones clipped from other publications. Maybe even a full-color cover. If there was a next issue
We could not have foreseen how long High Times would last — or that Tom would be gone in just a few years. A lot of bongwater has passed under the bridge. But that night, for just a moment, we held the unlimited possibilities of a truly New Age in our hands.