Puff, the Magic Marijuana Rumor

It all started with a 1964 Dorothy Kilgallen column.

The career of Dorothy Kilgallen was truly remarkable. If you’re not familiar with her many journalistic exploits, starting with a round-the-world race in 1936 against fellow reporters Bud Ekins (New York World-Telegram) and Leo Kieran (New York Times), do yourself a favor and read this bio.

Many folks today remember Kilgallen from her years as a panelist on TV quiz show What’s My Line?, from 1950 to 1965 (when she passed away). Others connect her to the final days of JFK.

But for Lenny Lipton, the Brooklyn native and current Laurel Canyon resident whose poem Puff, the Magic Dragon was the basis for the 1963 smash song by Peter, Paul and Mary, he will forever think of Kilgallen as the reason why – five decades later – he still has to tell reporters the poem and song are not about marijuana:

Lipton says he thinks it’s unlikely that either “the question” or the drug perception will die. “Fifty years ago, I could not have imagined we’d still be having this conversation.” The only reason it remains a point of contention with Lipton is that he’d like to see the story of Puff turned into a feature film. “It’s not a good thing because it’s prevented my dramatic exploitation of the property. It’s inhibited it. There are some people for whom that would be a stumbling block.”

As music blogger Adam Mason reminds, it was Kilgallen’s 1964 insinuations of hidden meaning that got the bogus ball rolling. A few years later, her hallucinations became a self-fulfilling prophecy:

Kilgallen wrote a piece in Newsweek pointing out that the song contained references to smoking marijuana cigarettes, thereby consigning it to an endless round of drug gossip that would eventually define it. This gossip revolved around the idea that “Jackie Paper” symbolized the cigarette paper by which to roll joints, that “puff” meant to smoke said joints, that the “autumn mist” in the song stood for the cloud of smoke consequently produced and that the town of “Honalee” was actually a real place on the island of Kauai (unbeknownst to the writer when he composed the words), renowned for its marijuana plants, beaches and accompanying cliffs that were said to look like a dragon.

With consequent accusations in the air that Peter, Paul and Mary condoned drug use, the group nevertheless continued to perform “Puff” in their live sets, as on the Tonight in Person TV show in 1966, before the song was well and truly adopted by the hippie counterculture amidst increasing recreational drug use among the youth.

We made some efforts to track down that original Newsweek column, but came up empty-handed. However, we did get a kick along the way out of reading some of Kilgallen’s “Voice of Broadway” columns in the New York Journal-American. Think: lots of random celebrity observations and lots of […], just like Larry King’s USA Today column (coincidentally, King interviewed Kilgallen during his early Miami radio days).

Kilgallen was, by some unverified accounts, a pot smoker herself. Maybe that’s the best explanation for all this “Puff” business and various other Journal-American column tidbits, like this one from June 1963:

New York hippies have a new kick – baking marijuana in cookies…