Sylvia Plath called McLean mental hospital the best mental hospital in the United States. U.S. News & World Report did too.
Though McLean mental hospital has excellent staff and conducts groundbreaking research, its reputation rests mostly on its rich and famous residents. They lend the place an odd glamour when they come to dry out, get sane or avoid prison.
So many Boston Brahmins stayed at McLean that it was said a proper Bostonian lived on Beacon Hill and had an uncle at Mclean mental hospital. Louis Agassiz Shaw II, for example, strangled his Irish maid and spent the rest of his life there surrounded by his books.
Creative people and their relatives also stayed at McLean mental hospital, including Al Capp’s daughter, John P. Marquand’s son, two of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s brothers and two of Van Morrison’s sidemen. Even, perhaps, William James.
McLean Mental Hospital History
In 1811, prominent Bostonians founded the Asylum for the Insane in Charlestown, Mass., to care for the homeless mentally ill.
In 1823, a Boston merchant named John McLean left a generous bequest to the insane asylum, which renamed itself after him. Another renaming — to McLean Hospital — reflected the evolution of thinking about mental illness.
Originally built around a Charles Bulfinch mansion, in 1895 it moved to the Boston suburb of Belmont.One of the 11 famous people who stayed at McLean mental hospital chose the new site.
McLean combines teaching, treatment and research, unlike most hospitals for psychiatric disorders. Today it is a private, nonprofit division of Massachusetts General Hospital and a teaching hospital for Harvard University’s medical residents. But most people know it through the songs, poems, books and movies that its patients created over the decades.
- Frederick Law Olmsted selected the site for McLean mental hospital when it moved to Belmont. Toward the end of his life he went to McLean after showing signs of dementia. Olmsted reported ‘noises in his head.’ His influence makes the place look more like a college campus than a mental hospital.
- John Nash, the mathematical genius and subject of the movie A Beautiful Mind spent a month at McLean in 1959. Doctors diagnosed him with paranoid schizophrenia, and he spent the next 11 years in and out of psychiatric hospitals. In 1970 he began to control his illness, and in 1994 he won the Nobel Prize in Economics.
- Ray Charles: In 1963, police arrested Ray Charles for possession of pot and heroin, but a sympathetic judge sent him to McLean for observation. “The nicest part was meeting one of the nurses who I got next to a little later on,” Charles wrote in his biography, Brother Ray. He also entertained the other patients when he found another piano player. ‘A classical cat,’ he wrote, ‘who could really wail.’
- James Taylor: As a high school senior at Milton Academy, James Taylor fell into a deep depression, sleeping 20 hours a day. He was sent to McLeanmental hospital, where he was heavily medicated but grateful to be there. After 10 months, he checked himself out against medical advice. He later wrote a song about it: Knocking ‘Round the Zoo. Brother Livingston and sister Kate also spent time at McLean.
- Susanna Kaysen was the daughter of John F. Kennedy’s deputy national security advisor, Carl Kaysen. In high school, her parents sent her to McLean mental hospital for treatment for depression. Doctors diagnosed her with borderline personality disorder. She left after 18 months. In 1993 she wrote a memoir about her time at McLean, Girl, Interrupted, made into a movie starring Winona Ryder in 1999.
- Marianne Faithfull had a couple of hit singles and a relationship with Mick Jagger in the 1960s. She got addicted to drugs and alcohol, made a comeback, tried to dry out in Minnesota and then checked into McLean in 1985.
- David Foster Wallace published his literary best-seller, Infinite Jest, at the age of 34. In it he describes the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House, based on Granada House in Brighton, Conn. He spent time there after a four-week stay at McLean Mental Hospital for help with alcoholism, drug addiction and depression. At 46, he committed suicide.
- Steven Tyler, Aerosmith’s lead singer, was confronted by his bandmates about his drug use in the mid-80s. So he checked himself into the rehabilitation wing of McLean Mental Hospital. He stayed off drugs after his stay until he fell off the wagon with painkillers. Tyler returned to an unnamed rehab hospital.
- In 1953, a depressed 20-year old Smith student named Sylvia Plath crawled under her house and swallowed a bottle of her mother’s sleeping pills. She lay under the house for three days until she was found. Plath then entered McLean Mental Hospital for six months of treatment, which she wrote about in her novel The Bell Jar. She, too, committed suicide.
- Stanley McCormick, heir to the International Harvester Fortune, played champion tennis at Princeton but fell prey to mental illness later on. T. Coraghessan Boyle later portrayed him as a sex-mad recluse in his novel Riven Rock.
- The Brahmin poet Robert Lowell suffered from manic depression all his life. He stayed at McLean Mental Hospital four times in eight years. Of his stay at McLean he wrote the poem Waking in the Blue in 1976. In it, he described ‘Mayflower screwballs.’
Image: McLean Mental Hospital administration building By John Phelan – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9715880. Robert Lowell By Elsadorfman – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26201157. This story about the McLean Mental Hospital was updated in 2020.