Paul De Carli: Hanging out with Ken Kesey on Perry Lane

by Linda Hubbard on May 29, 2010

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.”

Number 13 Perry Lane, an authentic holdover from the days of Ken Kesey and the Merry PrankstersPaul 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.”

It's actually Perry Avenue, but everyone calls it Perry LaneAccording 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


Jym Clendenin May 29, 2010 at 9:05 am

This is a great story. It clarifies the relation of Perry Lane to its various inhabitants and the relation of what I’ve heard called the “Stanford triangle” to Menlo Park. The map (date?) is interesting in itself. Apparently the old Searsville-Mayfield Rd (now Sand Hill Rd) was for awhile called University Avenue, Vine extended to Santa Cruz Ave, and College Ave has since been eliminated. And what is that running along Vine, a railway? Real or proposed?

Corry May 29, 2010 at 9:55 am

The map appears to be circa 1906. The legend says “Peninsular Electric Railway” (plus some preceding words I can’t read). The Peninsular ran from Santa Clara to Palo Alto, and there were plans to extend Northward to Menlo Park and San Mateo County, but the expansion never took place.

Palo Alto did have a comparatively extensive streetcar system up through the 1920s. The cars ran up and down University to Ravenswood (East Palo Alto), and South on on Waverley, as well as South on El Camino Real. The Stanford Campus connected to El Camino on Galvez, so the Vine Street extension probably would have reached to El Camino and/or Stanford. South of El Camino, the railway headed towards San Jose on (more or less) what is now Junipero Serra Blvd.

The streetcars were electrified by a huge generator on Hawthorne Avenue (at High) in Palo Alto. The oddly-shaped structure is still there.

Ester Bugna June 03, 2010 at 12:33 pm

Questions for Paul De Carli;

Do you or anyone you know recall the name of the book [fiction] that was based on Perry Lane & its inhabitants. My recall is from the late ’50s – early ’60s. It was a paperback with old-fashioned mail boxes on the cover. Those of us who were familiar with Perry Lane could definitely connect the fictional characters to ‘real persons’. It was before Ken Kesey time, I think. Also do you know perchance the whereabouts of Robin White – the writer? He was part of Stegner’s Creative Writing Program at Stanford.

Georgianna de la Torre January 28, 2011 at 4:18 pm

This is well after your post, but Robin White passed away in December 2010 at the age of 82. Here is a link to his obituary in the LA Times:

Mark Weiss May 19, 2013 at 5:51 pm
Gwen Davis on her blog, in 2005, tells a long anecdote about she and Kesey and the genesis of this book.

Katy Boyd November 10, 2010 at 9:36 am

This is indeed a good article. And a great picture of Paul. As a former resident of the neighborhood (I grew up down the road from the Di Carlis) who is currently in exhile in the UK, I especially appreciate the story – and the map! I would love to see a bigger and better copy of it. The lots on the map do not seem to correspond to the lots in the 50s and 60s, and I am curious how these changed. And there was certainly never any evidence of a railroad down Vine! You can see how Sand Hill was once University all the way into Palo Alto (not Menlo Park’s University Ave), that was perhaps broken up by the building of the hospital or more road development on campus… are there any maps showing this? I think the shopping center was built in the 50s.

Also, love to get a hold of the book mentioned. The only one I know of, of course, is the Tom Wolfe book, which is not specifically about Perry Lane.

Jym Clendenin November 17, 2010 at 9:56 am

Jogged down Perry Lane/Avenue the other day and was shocked to see the classic shingled cottage at #13 where the DiCarli’s lived for so long is now gone–the lot has been completely cleared.

Joe January 31, 2015 at 2:25 am

Great article! I was honored to be the deCarlis’ tenant at #11 from 1970-1971 while doing my Master’s at Standford and working at SRI. I particularly remember Paul’s 4th of July block party with a bottomless chili kettle, and political speeches – a tradition I briefly re-awakened in Portland, OR in the late 90’s.

Howard Young July 23, 2019 at 12:42 pm

I remember a Leadbelly record rattling the windows of Kesey’s cabin while we drifted in and out. Kesey was probably drifting in and out of someone else’s cabin.

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