Ray Charles Plays the "Harvard Club"

The most grandiose structure on the McLean Hospital campus in Belmont, Massachusetts, is Upham Memorial Hall, a brick mansion larger than many hotels but built to house just nine mental patients. Now abandoned, it was known as the "Harvard Club" because "at one time, each of its majestic corner suites was said to have been occupied by a graduate of Harvard College," often found among McLean's clientele, writes Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam in Gracefully Insane: The Rise and Fall of America's Premier Mental Hospital (PublicAffairs, $26). In the 1950s and '60s, Upham became "a dumping ground for chronically ill, elderly patients--practically all of them rich--whose families had cut lifetime financial deals with the hospital. There was little incentive to 'cure' the Uphamites because their families had paid good money never to see them again." One day in 1966 the residents had a surprise visitor. Bluesman Ray Charles, then 35 years old, came onto the hall for a week-long "observational" visit.

Charles was on Upham not by the grace of a well-invested trust fund but by the grace of a broad-minded federal judge. A year earlier, customs agents at Logan Airport had busted Charles for possession of heroin and marijuana when he landed in Boston at 3 a.m. after a private plane flight from Canada. The blind singer's lawyers managed to delay sentencing for a year, and when the case came before Judge Charles Wyzanski ['27, J.D. '30, LL.D. '58], he offered Charles an alluring deal: four years' probation if the defendant agreed to check into McLean every six months for observation and if he tested negative for drugs. Charles described his first visit to Upham in his 1978 autobiography Brother Ray:

"I went to sleep at about eight. At midnight I woke up to go to the toilet, and I was freezing to death. Godamn, it's cold in here. Can't understand it. Don't these people care about heat? I wondered. So I put on my robe and tiptoed out to the hall. Man, it was warm as toast out there--comfortable and cozy as it could be.

"I knew what they were up to. When you're withdrawing from drugs, coldness quickens your sickness. You'll probably have chills when the temperature is normal, but when it's really cold, you suffer something awful. They wanted to see how bad I'd start shaking.

"I called for the head nurse.

"'Look mama,' I said. 'I'm not blaming you. I know you don't make the rules. But sweetheart, if I catch pneumonia, I'm gonna sue this place so bad that everyone here is gonna be working for me. I'm gonna own this joint. Got it?'

"Five minutes later warm air was flowing through the ducts and I was snuggled back in bed."

There was a piano in Upham's huge, ground-floor living room, and Charles gave impromptu concerts for his hall mates. He reported that he played with a "classical cat, who could really wail." "The nicest part was meeting one of the nurses who I got next to a little later on," he added. Charles and the nurse remained an item during his subsequent visits to McLean, where he never tested positive for drugs.

       

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