“Don’s Illness”

In late November 1961, Don and Phil were inducted into the Marine Corps Reserves for six months of training, and at the end of that time, they appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in their dress blues. A week before the Sullivan show, Don had married a Hollywood starlet in the base chapel. As the brothers shook hands with Sullivan, the host asked Don if it were true that he had put on twenty pounds. Don said he had.

Despite the Marine buzz cut, Don looked terrific. Prior to boot camp, he had looked skeletal. But the food, exercise, and regular nightly sleep had worked miracles on Don’s body, and those positive factors were boosted by one negative: the absence of the drug methylphenidate in Don’s body.

Don (and Phil) were not getting speed from a pusher. Methylphenidate, more commonly known by a brand name, Ritalin, is a stimulant currently used to treat attention deficit disorder (ADD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and narcolepsy. The drug was first licensed in the United States in 1955, but only a few physicians prescribed it until the 1960s. Its long-term effects were not known. No one thought of it as an addicting drug, and dosages were still experimental.

Don probably did not even know a name for the drug, or even that he was using it. He took it with other drugs in a “cocktail” injection he believed, for the first few years he took it, to be vitamins.

Archie Bleyer, the head of Cadence Records, sent first Phil and then Don to a well-known Manhattan physician who concocted prescriptions in his own lab. The doctor said the injection contained a mixture of vitamins to counteract the stress and fatigue of the touring. Vitamin B12 and other vitamin deficiencies were known at the time, so this made some sense.

The speed doctor. The physician, Dr. Max Jacobson, was a “physician to the stars.” Don has said that he sat in the doctor’s waiting room with Eddie Fisher. Jacobson treated Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Elizabeth Taylor, and Marlene Dietrich. He treated singers from Elvis Presley to Johnny Mathis to Judy Garland to Maria Callas to Paul Robeson. He treated Truman Capote and Cecil B. DeMille.

And Dr. Max Jacobson treated John F. Kennedy, both before and after Kennedy became President of the United States. Jacobson even traveled with President Kennedy to Europe to personally inject the President.

It would take time before the Don recognized the drug in his system as speed. Methylphenidate is a cousin of amphetamine, a drug usually taken in the form of tablets. Amphetamine tablets were used on both sides during World War II. (My uncle took it as a crew member on missions flown out of England.) Amphetamine tablets were available both by prescription and as a street drug after the war. By then musicians were using it to stay awake and enhance performance, and athletes were using it to lose weight and enhance performance.

In his autobiography, Charlie Louvin recalls complaining to his manager about the distance between the venues he and his brother Ira played. The Louvin Brothers got to their performance dates by car, and Charlie did all the driving because he did not trust Ira, an alcoholic, behind the wheel. When Charlie said it was hard to perform after driving all night, his manager put it to him plainly, “That’s what the little pills are for.” The little pills were amphetamine tablets.

But the Everlys did not get pills from a pusher. They thought they were getting vitamins from an excellent physician.

Dr. Max Jacobson was sometimes called “Miracle Max” in his days of practice. He is now part of American history as “the original Dr. Feelgood.” Much more was written about him after the full account of his association with President Kennedy came to light. Jacobson injected Kennedy with a concoction that was intended to assuage Kennedy’s chronic back pain. Although some of Kennedy’s inner circle believed the injections were the source of erratic behavior on JFK’s part, Kennedy himself insisted on the injections, saying, “I don’t care if it’s horse piss, it works.”

Effects of methylphenidate. The impact of methylphenidate varies from person to person. I had experience of my own with the drug in the early 1990s. I have an uncommon sleep disorder that two very good neurologists thought might be a slightly atypical narcolepsy. One of them prescribed methylphenidate, and I took the drug for about six weeks before I began hallucinating.

The prescribing neurologist warned me not to take it again, telling me that although the drug was currently considered safe enough that it was prescribed for children, different people had different susceptibilities. I have often wondered if that is why Phil did not suffer long-term effects, but Don became addicted.

Exactly when Don became addicted is not known. Likewise, the public does not know precisely when Don realized he was addicted, or when he began to overcome the addiction. Don was certainly addicted before he entered the Marine Reserves, but he probably did not realize he was addicted until years later. The time in the military service detoxed Don’s body for awhile and enabled him to add much-needed weight he had shed. Don would later say that the Marines literally saved his life. However, when The Everly Brothers set off on the grind of touring the following year, Don started using the injections again.

Suicide attempts. Roughly a year after the Don joined the Marine Reserves, he was in London for the beginning of a tour of Great Britain. Don was twenty-five years old. He was talented, rich, sexy, famous, and successful. He had shed his starter wife for a trophy wife that would be the envy of his peer group.

And he attempted suicide twice within twenty-four hours.

At his hotel, he tried to kill himself by ingesting an overdose of drugs. He was rushed to the hospital, where (presumably) his stomach was pumped and (again presumably) he was rehydrated. He was released from the hospital a few hours later, and he went back to his hotel and did the same thing all over again. The public was told only that Don was ill.


Don was sent back to the United States and a mental hospital, and then another mental hospital. Don has said himself that he was not treated for an addiction, but rather for being mentally ill. Don apparently did not realize that he was addicted to something, and the doctors treating him did not detect that.

Today, one of the first things a mental health practitioner tries to establish is whether or not the patient is addicted to anything. The addiction has to be treated first before a correct diagnosis can be established. That simply did not happen in Don’s case, and the complications that grew from this were enormous.

Shock treatment. While hospitalized, Don was treated with Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT), more commonly know as “electric shock therapy.” Electrodes are applied to the temples, the tongue is secured, and convulsions are deliberately induced. This practice is still controversial, and for that reason is not widely used in the United States. In the early 1960s, it was applied very crudely.

The video clip embedded here is from the film adaptation of the bestselling novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The shock therapy scene is the pivotal point of the movie. [Note: The YouTube video is mislabeled to some extent. There is no lobotomy in this scene of the film, and Don was not lobotomized.]

After the shock “treatment,” patients are calmer, but they frequently lose bits of memory, which was apparently what happened to Don. For awhile, he feared he would never write a song again.

A few months later, Don was propped up to be “best man” at Phil’s show wedding to Jackie Ertel, stepdaughter to Archie Bleyer. Don looked like a zombie marching the maid of honor down the aisle.

Zombie Don walks maid of honor down the aisle
Zombie Don walks maid of honor down the aisle at Phil’s wedding to Jackie Ertel

There is a photo of Don’s wife tying Don’s cravat before the ceremony. He looks as though he is not capable of dressing himself. She looks as though she’s done with him. (She would soon file for divorce, then change her mind. She was not a stand-by-your-man, until-death-do-us-part sort of gal. She had been married to her previous hubby, Russ Tamblyn, for a year and a day—from one Valentine’s Day to the next. No kidding.)

Don’s wife dressing him for Phil’s first wedding. Don was “best man.”

The nature of “Don’s illness.” First fan magazines and now Internet fan sites have glided through what is euphemistically termed “Don’s illness” as though he had had a lengthy bout of influenza or maybe a case of pneumonia. Fans usually think of it as a bad few months, and others offer inane and ridiculous observations about how nice he looked at Phil’s wedding, as though pretending will revise the history captured in photographs.

Everyone should take a deep breath, stop, and think this thing through.

Don suffered. He would go for days without sleep and suffered hallucinations. Since he did not understand that he was addicted to something in his “vitamin” shots, he may have feared he was losing his mind.

The shock therapy was in itself a horrific thing. I knew a woman who was put through this “therapy” about the same time Don went through it. She was actually suffering what we would recognize today as post-natal depression. She never forgave her husband for putting her through the ordeal, which did not relieve her depression anyway. Don has also said that the therapy did not work for him. His wife would have had to be the one to sign Don into institutions and authorize this procedure, which may have added even more strain to the marriage. One can only wonder how Margaret, who was accustomed to calling the shots, responded in the role of bystander.

Such serious treatment demanded a mental health diagnosis. Because the doctors overlooked the possibility of addiction, the diagnosis was probably wrong, but there had to be a diagnosis of some sort of mental illness. In the least Don would have been diagnosed as severely depressed, but because he experienced hallucinations, it is more likely that the diagnosis was something more severe, such as bipolar disorder, which was then called manic depression, or even schizophrenia. In the 1960s, there was an enormous social stigma attached to mental illness.

Even today, if you are diagnosed as “crazy,” the people who know about the diagnosis think of you and treat you differently. Because the people who are most likely to know about the diagnosis are the closest friends and the family, the very people who should be the patient’s support network and help the patient back to a “normal” lifestyle end up altering the nature of their relationships with the sufferer. Typically they begin interacting with the person as though the patient is not quite a responsible adult. They withhold certain information because they think the sufferer is not “up to handling it.” In close relationships, they try to make decisions for the patient, and they often question the decisions the patient makes. Overall, friends and family are less trusting of the patient, and they often feel superior to the “crazy” family member or one-time close friend.

Who could Don turn to? Don’s family was not very supportive of him in the best of times. Margaret betrayed him. He and Phil did not like each other and wore on each other’s nerves. Don’s new wife already had a foot out the door, and she was, after all, the one who signed him up for the shock therapy.

I find it heartbreaking to think of what Don must have gone through, not for months but for years, until he himself figured out that there was speed in the injections and that he was addicted. He has said that it took between two and three years to get the drug out of his system and to fully recover from the addiction.

So while Don was struggling, his second marriage proved to be a misery of its own, and Phil, with the prodding of his new wife, was pushing to finally be a full partner in the act. As she saw it, Phil “was half of the billing” and therefore should be as prominent onstage as Don. 

So Don went through all the pain and the struggle to get healthy again while fighting Phil over every and any decision, and the relationship between the brothers continued to worsen.