Paul De Carli: Hanging out with Ken Kesey on Perry Lane
Perry Lane, a sliver of a street in unincorporated Menlo Park just west of Sand Hill Road, was once the epicenter of Bohemian Menlo Park. And SRI senior scientist emeritus Paul De Carli can dish the dirt – and spin the yarns – about life on the street for 50 years.
“We owned 11 & 13 Perry [of which #13 remains, pictured below],” says Paul. “Ken Kesey lived at #9. He was an OK neighbor – I enjoyed going to his parties. He’d cook pineapple chili. It sounds weird but it was good.”
Kesey’s house is gone, along with the other cottages that surrounded a giant oak tree. They were torn down around 1964, and new ranch style houses were built. Says Paul about Kesey: “Ken was a big faker. During the day he’d act like he didn’t have a care in the world – he’d be out shooting baskets. But I’d see him hunched over his typewriter in the middle of the night – he was writing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He never wanted to advertise that you have to work like hell to write a book.”
Paul and his wife Anne lived in 13 Perry and rented the cottage they owned at #11. Their tenant during the Kesey years was Gene Farmer (who went on to be a successful TV comedy writer – The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Chico and the Man, That’s My Mama, Sanford and Son). “A little portion of our yard was screened off,” recalls Paul. “Gene came over one day and said, ‘Take a look at that.’ The pot that Ken had planted was higher than the screen. Gene said he’d take care of it, and when I came home from work it was gone.”
Paul and Anne left Perry Lane last year and are renting an apartment near downtown Menlo. Most of their neighbors are gone, too. Their occasional house sitter – and official Merry Prankster – Roy Sebern lives in East Palo Alto. Dancer Chloe Scott now lives in Oregon closer to family. Retired psychologist Vic Lovell, who suggested that Kesey volunteer to test LSD, is also gone.
The cottages, built as shotgun houses when adjoining Stanford University was taken over as an Army camp in World War I, are also disappearing. “Most of the Perry Lane houses were only marginally modernized,” says Paul. “And even those that were don’t suit the tastes of people nowadays. Our house was over 100 years old and didn’t meet any current building codes. I had to work hard to keep the house alive without attracting attention of officials.” (Aside: Street signs say “Perry Avenue” but locals it Perry Lane.)
Paul relishes the fact that he spent most of his life in unincorporated Menlo Park because, he says frankly, “I hate the city of Menlo Park. ”
His passion resonates from a time he shared space with three roommates on Laurel Dr. while he was attending Stanford. “We only had one parking space but more than one car. Menlo Park had [and still does] a no overnight parking rule. We’d get tickets for parking overnight. We went to the city to get overnight parking permits. The flat answer was “no.'”
Years later the city of Menlo Park was considering annexing the small triangle of streets that included Perry Lane [map above]. Paul was vociferous in opposition. “At one meeting the city manager explained that the overnight parking prohibition was helpful to the Menlo Park police. I pointed out that the police work for us, not the other way around.”
According to Paul, Perry Lane always marched to it own tune. “We had a big housewarming are our guests played music from Handel’s Royal Fireworks. At the conclusion, some of our guests decided to top things off by throwing fire crackers into a 50 gallon oil drum. The explosion brought out the deputy sheriffs who told us to cool it.
“They showed up again the next mooring. Turns out that the noise wasn’t the issue. What they really wanted to warn us about was having parties that were racially mixed.”
By the mid-60s, Kesey had moved to La Honda, taking the Merry Pranksters with him. “Ken was OK, ” says Paul, “but what annoyed me was his followers. He loved having that attentive audience.” As for Perry Lane: “It had an infamous reputation long before Ken Kesey moved on it.”
Photo of Paul DiCarli by Linda Hubbard Gulker
Photos of Perry Lane house and street sign by Chris Gulker