John Williamson, Co-Founder of the Sandstone Retreat, Dies at 80

Sandstone Foundation

A trampoline on the property.

Published: May 4, 2013
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John and Barbara Williamson always insisted that Sandstone Retreat was about more than sex. By all means, help yourselves to each other, they would say. But the goal was larger than spouse-swapping or fulfilling forbidden lust.

Photographs, via Sandstone Foundation

John and Barbara Williamson founded Sandstone Retreat on 15 acres near Los Angeles. The goal, they said, was to understand society, and set it free.

Photographs, via Sandstone Foundation

Barbara Williamson

They said that their 15 unconventionally inhabited acres in the Topanga Canyon area near Los Angeles, formally known as the Sandstone Foundation for Community Systems Research, was about understanding society — and setting it free.

“We believe in the sexual self as being at the core of organized social behavior,” Mr. Williamson told The Los Angeles Times in 1972, three years after Sandstone was formed. “When sexuality is distorted, it leads to a distortion of the basic self.”

Mr. Williamson, whose death on March 24 in Reno, Nev., was not widely reported, had spent most of the last two decades running a nonprofit sanctuary for tigers and other big cats rescued from neglect or abandonment. Mr. Williamson was 80, more than four decades removed from his bold moment at the forefront of the sexual revolution.

At the peak of its popularity, Sandstone had a handful of couples who were full-time residents and about 500 paying members ($240 to join, then $15 per month), with a wide range of prominent names among them, including Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, and the singer Bobby Darin. But it was a journalist who put it on the cultural map.

“He walked in the building and said, ‘I’m Gay Talese, I’m a writer from New York, and I’m here to write a book about you,’ ” Marty Zitter, one of Sandstone’s earliest residents, said in an interview on Tuesday, recalling the day Mr. Talese arrived in 1971. “I said, ‘Take a number.’ ”

The book, “Thy Neighbor’s Wife,” an examination of America’s changing sexual culture, became a best seller when it was published in 1980. By then — Mr. Talese spent nine years researching and writing, including considerable time experiencing Sandstone in the flesh — the retreat had closed, in part because of financial problems, and the Williamsons had re-entered the clothed confines of mainstream society.

“We merged back into the culture that we disliked so much,” Mrs. Williamson said in an interview on Tuesday.

John Decatur Williamson was born on July 31, 1932, near Mobile, Ala. He grew up poor, joined the Navy at 17 and was soon traveling the world, spending time in California and the South Pacific. He learned electrical engineering in the service and in the late 1950s worked on the Polaris missile project in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

He returned to California and, in 1966, met Barbara Cramer, an insurance saleswoman who was making her pitch to the electronics firm he was managing.

They soon found that they shared an interest in psychology, including studies by Abraham Maslow that emphasized the possibility of achieving “self-actualization” through the sequential fulfillment of basic needs. Five weeks later, they married while double-parked outside a chapel in Las Vegas.

They had immediately known that they were meant for each other, Mrs. Williamson said, and for others. “We just knew that a traditional heterosexual marriage could not last, because two people could not give each other everything they need,” she said. “So we built a bigger marriage.”

They built it at Sandstone. Upstairs, people would lounge and talk — some naked, some not — in a room with gold-colored shag carpet, a huge fireplace and vast views of the canyon. Downstairs was known as the Ballroom.

“It was like the Algonquin,” Mr. Zitter said of the upper floor. “Then people would go downstairs and have sex, and then they’d come back up and talk some more.”

“Some people,” he added, “wanted to have sex right there in the conversation.”

Mr. Talese listened and watched and participated.

“Like the founding fathers of other utopian settlements in the past, he was unhappy with the world around him,” he wrote of Mr. Williamson. “He regarded contemporary life in America as destructive to the spirit, organized religion as a celestial swindle, the federal government as cumbersome and avaricious; he saw the average wage earner, who was excessively taxed and easily replaced, as existing only with detached participation in a computerized society.”

Mr. Talese sold film rights for his book for $2.5 million, a startling amount, and though it was never made into a movie, the Williamsons and another couple received payments of $50,000.

In an interview on Thursday, Mr. Talese said one of Mr. Williamson’s central ambitions was for people to be honest about their personal and sexual lives and not be embarrassed about it.

“It wasn’t really about sex, because they got beyond the sex to the stage where they didn’t have to lie about anything,” he said. “If you didn’t have to lie about sex, you almost didn’t have to lie about anything.”

Mr. Williamson died of cancer, Mrs. Williamson said. Other survivors include a daughter from a previous marriage, Sheila Ellington, and a granddaughter. A son from his first marriage died in a drowning accident when he was 5.

The Williamsons had sold Sandstone by early 1973. They tried but failed to raise money to start a much larger “growth center” in Montana that was to include 1,000 residents. Scientists and theologians were to be invited, and everyone would live in geodesic domes linked by enclosed walkways to protect naked residents from the cold.

Mr. Williamson eventually returned to a career in electronics, and Mrs. Williamson to insurance. They lived in the San Francisco area and, Mrs. Williamson said, “had some great parties.” Their open-marriage policy ended in 1995, the year they moved to Nevada to devote themselves to the big cats.

“They just really gave us a lot of satisfaction,” Mrs. Williamson said.

A version of this article appears in print on May 5, 2013, on page A24 of the New York edition with the headline: John Williamson, 80, Co-Founder of Retreat Known for Sex.

John Williamson Dies: Who Is The ‘Messiah Of Sex’? Sexual Revolution Pioneer’s Nude Sandstone Retreat [REPORT]

By Staff Reporter | May 3, 2013 12:34 PM EDT

John Williamson Dies: The

John Williamson Dies: The “Messiah of Sex” co-founded the Sandstone Retreat, a free love getaway in Topanga Canyon. (Photo: Creative Commons)

John Williamson, known as the “Messiah of Sex” for his pioneering role in the sexual revolution, has died of cancer at the age of 80. Williamson passed away on March 24 at a hospital in Reno, Nev., his wife Barbara Williamson said.

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The “sexual pioneer” and his wife were the co-founders of Topanga Canyon’s Sandstone Retreat, a clothing-optional compound where visitors gathered to explore the dimensions of free love.

The couple were newlyweds in 1968 when they purchased a compound of rundown buildings on 15 acres looking over the Pacific Ocean. They turned the property into the Sandstone Foundation for Community Systems Research and quickly became the talk of the town — and a major player in the sexual revolution that exploded in the late 1960s.

John and Barbara Williamson’s Sandstone Retreat was more than just a sex club in the canyon. Sandstone offered seminars on human bonding, relationships and sexuality. But the retreat’s weekend festivities, when up to 500 people would congregate to lounge around naked, trade spouses, and enjoy group sex, made the place quite notorious.

WATCH A VIDEO of the Sandstone Retreat from VH1’s SEX: The Revolution (NSFW)

“We actually had open sexuality and nudity, but it was optional,” Barbara Williamson told the Associated Press. “Everything was optional. We provided a wonderful, wonderful environment in a natural setting, and that natural setting just sort of gave people permission.”

John Williamson, as the spokesperson for Sandstone, became known as the “messiah of sex.” Barbara said he wore the title proudly.

John and Barbara were together for 47 years, during which they experimented widely with their sexuality. The couple exchanged partners and rejected monogamy, believing it was not fulfilling people’s sexual needs and was preventing them from living life to its fullest.

Sandstone Retreat was said to have hosted many celebrities over the years. Barbarah Williamson joked Thursday that she probably “saw more naked Hollywood stars than any other woman.”

For all the joy the Sandstone Retreat brought its visitors — and Barbara Williamson said membership flourished — it never took in enough money to pay the bills. The couple sold the property in 1972, and Sandstone closed a few years later.

John Williamson and Barbara moved to Montana, San Francisco, and finally to Nevada, where they began taking in big cats — lions and tigers, that is — whose owners wanted to get rid of them. At the time of his death, Williamson was trying to turn their property into a wild animal sanctuary and educational center.

Along with Barbara, John is survived by a daughter, Sheila Ellington, and a granddaughter.

See also:

Tom Hatfield – The Sandstone Experience – a totally honest day by day perception of life at Sandstone. Including a barebones awareness of the writer’s own personality and limits.

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