John Williamson has died at age 80. The 1960s free love advocate and founder of Topanga Canyon’s once infamous Sandstone Retreat passed away quietly of cancer in a Reno, Nevada hospital on March 24. As Williamson’s wife of 47 years, Barbara Williamson boasted in his belated Associated Press obituary on Thursday that “[I] saw more naked Hollywood stars than any other woman.”
At the height of the Sandstone Retreat’s popularity, John Williamson modestly allowed himself to be called the Messiah of Sex. Clothing and group sex or swapping activities were optional, but Barbara said that they had a beautiful setting that allowed people to go with the flow and lose their natural inhibitions. She and John participated in the activities, which she said hadn’t caused a strain in their very lengthy marriage.
They first met in 1966, when John Williamson had already quit a defense-industry job in disgust, reportedly after reading Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. The two bonded and eventually decided to open the free love retreat, although Sandstone may have turned out a bit more Robert Heinlein than Ayn Rand.
According to the Sandstone Foundation website, much reporting of the day was sleazy and focused on sensationalizing the sex.
Indeed, for much of middle America, the retreat became famous after it was already shuttered, as a result of Gay Talese’s 1981 best-seller Thy Neighbor’s Wife. That book explored changing sexual attitudes, including wife-swapping. Talese researched the story in part by getting busy with another woman at the Sandstone Retreat.
With the dawn of the AIDS era, and the passing of the sexual revolution, John and Barbara Williamson were largely forgotten by younger generations. For the last 18 years, they have been operating a big cat rescue on a Northern Nevada ranch called Tiger Touch.
It isn’t clear where the Sandstone Foundation or Tiger Touch will go next in the wake of John Williamson’s death.
[Topanga Canyon photo by JCS via Wikipedia Commons]