Altered states

From Keith Richards to Aleister Crowley, exploring the world’s largest collection of drug-related paraphernalia
By Clementine Zawadzki | 16 January 2018

Image from Altered States: The Library of Julio Santo Domingo by Peter Watts

Julio Mario Santo Domingo Jr (b. 1957 – d. 2009) collected drug-related ephemera on a incredible scale. Spanning decades and filling his houses, warehouses and secret libraries, his private library contained over 100,000 incredibly rare and fascinating items.

Moving in the circles of icons such as the Rolling Stones (he actually toured with the band for more than a year), Julio, the eldest son of Columbian businessman Julio Santo Domingo, was fascinated by drugs, sex, magic, and rock ‘n’ roll. Dedicating his life to his interests, he would spend much of his time searching through specialist bookstores, auction houses and personal collections in order to acquire relics from key cultural figures; Sigmund Freud to Andy Warhol, from Allen Ginsberg to Keith Richards, the Marquis de Sade, Charles Baudelaire, and Jack Kerouac to Lenny Kravitz. 


Cultural markers from different epochs and cultures, the collection reached far and wide, from a copy of Pitigrilli’s Kokain (Cocaine) annotated by Adolf Hitler to the beakers in which Alexander Shulgin synthesised MDMA for the first time, rare manuscripts to government reports on ‘coke cola’, 19th-century Chinese paintings illustrating opium production to MacDonald ‘coke’ spoons, X-rated early 1970s underground comics and Rolling papers from the Watergate era. Later becaming known as the Ludlow-Santo Domingo Library (with the fitting acronym LSD), today 50,000 of these pieces are housed at Harvard University.

With an interest in collectors and their treasure troves, writer Peter Watts stumbled upon Julio’s story through a friend of the family and was immediately awed by the scale and detail of Julio’s collection. What followed was several years of research and design resulting in a book documenting this exhaustive collection and its message – Altered States: The Library of Julio Santo Domingo –offering an unprecedented insight into the effect of drugs on art, science, and politics over the centuries.

Here, the writer talks to us about his book and shares an insight into the world’s largest drug-related collection.

Image from Altered States: The Library of Julio Santo Domingo by Peter Watts

Clementine Zawadzki: Firstly, this collection is just enormous!
Peter Watts: It was huge! The first time I went to see it was in a warehouse in Geneva, and I went into the first room and offices where it was and I thought that was it, and then there were two more just as big; each one in my view about the size of a house – a three-bed terraced house – and it was crammed with stuff, some boxes hadn’t been opened, and shelves and shelves of things of all types. It wasn’t just books, which I think is what I was expecting.

Clementine: Did your idea for the book change much from the initial concept to the end result?
Peter: It was always going to be along the lines of how it is. I think it grew . . . there was another version of this book that’s twice as big and that’s the original book – it was about 800 pages and we then cut it down to about 400 pages for this publication. I think that was the main problem, there was so much stuff to put in, it was very hard to leave things out and we were always finding new things that were kind of exciting, interesting or important. A lot of the collection is in Harvard, and every now and then I look at their blog and they’ll be writing about something I’d never seen, which just seems fascinating.

Clementine: How did you come across Julio’s story?
Peter: I came across it through a friend, a guy called Carl Williams who is a book dealer, who worked with Julio in Geneva for a few years. Carl and I became friends and he told me about it and talked about it. The opportunity came up to write about it because he knew the family well, and they liked my writing.

Image from Altered States: The Library of Julio Santo Domingo by Peter Watts

Clementine: What part of his story initially sparked your interest, because there are so many different angles given what the collection encompasses…
Peter: I’ve got to be honest, until the approach was made for me to actually do it, I hadn’t given it that much thought. Carl had talked to me about it, but at that time it was all quite quiet and private – Julio hadn’t died that long before – and a lot of collectors like to do things quietly. I hear about collectors or collections, and it’s not a story because they don’t want to publicise it. I was more interested in the collection than in Julio, because I wasn’t writing a biography of him, I was writing a biography of the collection. So obviously he comes out of it and it’s incredibly his vision, but I wasn’t trying to overly psychoanalyse the human behind it. I was interested in his motivations and intentions, but the collection always fascinated me…

Clementine: What someone collects though says a lot about them, so I imagine you inadvertently got a lot of Julio’s story from the items you found.
Peter: Yeah, I think so, and that was always something I talked about with the family; how we were going to tell the story of the man through the collection. This was an uncontrollable, sprawling vision, and he had this incredible ability of being able to draw almost anything into his vision, and that’s what made it uniquely personal and important, because he was collecting stuff that no other collector would imagine had importance, but certainly in the future people will realise that it’s not just about books, it’s about ephemera and the culture context of these things.

Clementine: Was it difficult not to go off on tangents with the direction of the book after you’d looked at the collection?
Peter: I think there was definitely an element of that, but this was always going to be fairly visual; my job was to essentially be a caption writer and through those captions tell a story of the collection and of drugs, altered states, and try and tie it all together, so that kept me occupied rather than go down blind alleys. I wasn’t particularly interested in the subject before I started researching it, but then I became quite consumed by the book, and I became really fascinated in drugs, altered states… not so much in the idea of whether drugs really do transport you to another universe and outer space and whether that’s reality, I just found it really interesting to progress with the history of various drugs and how they’ve been treated by society and by the law and how they’ve been used, and how there’s recurring patterns of criminalisation – that always seems to come up as this bid to put something back in its box which never actually manages to do that, it just makes things worse.

Image from Altered States: The Library of Julio Santo Domingo by Peter Watts

Clementine: Did anything stand out to you?
Peter: I remember one thing that really fascinated me was these two photo albums – they were red and green – and they were memories of South Vietnam, and they looked just like anybody’s sort of personal photo albums, but inside them there were loads of photographs taken by US soldiers (particularly marines) in the early 70s. I sort of grew up watching films like Platoon and Apocalypse Now and they would present this idea of the American solider also quite heavily consumed by surrounding drug culture, and these photographs completely brought that out; these were normal soldiers listening to music and getting high and photographing that, and I found that really touching because these are people’s lives, these are personal items. I have no idea what happened to those men; presumably, some of them died and some are still alive.

Clementine: It would be easy in that collection to pick an item that once belonged to a famous musician or writer, but it’s that human element that got to you.
Peter: Yeah, I think that’s it. It’s fascinating; I mean, to be privileged enough to own first edition Baudelaire’s or the original manuscript for Story of O, I mean that’s quite an incredible thing, but those museum artefacts possibly didn’t move me as much as the small personal ones, precisely because it’s an insight into people’s lives.

Clementine: What do you think can be discovered about this subject matter now, with the book acting as a sort of starting point?
Peter: Yeah that’s a good question, I think it’s making people aware of what this man was doing. He was well known in the circles in which he operated, but most people wouldn’t have had a clue what was going on and this range of things he was bringing together. It’s great to see people become aware of what he was trying to do.

Altered States: The Library of Julio Santo Domingo by Peter Watts is available now via Anthology Editions.

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