Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec painted during the time of the impressionists as the movement overcame Paris. He was famous for preferring the company of sex workers and brothels, as he painted here in Au Salon de la Moulin Rouge in 1894. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Today, floor-to-ceiling windows fill a former CIA safe house on San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill with natural light, and the spacious bedrooms give no indication of the lurid operation that once took place within its walls.
The sprawling, six-bedroom duplex with sweeping views of San Francisco Bay was once decorated with Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec prints, large wall mirrors, and pornographic posters. Decades earlier, it was home to the CIA’s Operation Midnight Climax, a decadelong operation that began in 1953 in which the CIA recruited female sex workers to lure men into the upscale San Francisco bordello and subjected them to scientific experiments in mind control.
The women gave every “John” — as their targets were known — a hefty dose of lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD, in order to distort his senses and impair his judgment. In addition to LSD, the operatives sometimes used other psychotropics. Needless to say, none of the clients consented to the drugs or the experimentation.
The wall mirrors weren’t merely decorative — they were one-way portals through which CIA “researchers” studied their unsuspecting subjects under direct observation. In his 2019 book, Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties, investigative journalist Tom O’Neill writes: “The goal [of Midnight Climax] was to see if LSD, paired with sex, could be used to coax sensitive information from the men — something of a psychedelic honeypot experiment.”
According to a blog for American points of interest, the CIA agents “grew fascinated with the kinky sex games that played out between the johns and the hookers.”
From behind the glass, CIA agents could watch, listen (usually through recording devices hidden in the electrical outlets), and drink martinis all night as they took copious notes on their “subjects.”
Operation Midnight Climax ran for ten years, from 1953 until the agency phased out the safehouses in 1963. The operation had two other upscale bordellos operating in San Francisco and another in Greenwich Village, New York City. The operation was entirely defunct by 1965, but it was part of a more extensive mind-control experimentation operation known as MK-Ultra — run by the chemist and spymaster Sidney Gottlieb — that continued until 1972.
The Midnight Climax operation was headed by George Henry White, an underling of Gottlieb’s who loved the job so much that he installed a minifridge and a portable toilet in the observation room so he never missed a moment of action. One of White’s lieutenants, Ike Feldman, described him as a “son of a bitch, but he was a great cop.”
In a note to Gottlieb, White later wrote: “I toiled wholeheartedly in the vineyards because it was fun, fun, fun. Where else could a red-blooded American boy lie, kill, cheat, steal, rape, and pillage with the sanction and blessing of the All-Highest?”
Believing the Soviets were pursuing mind-control techniques and medications, the CIA’s MK-Ultra program experimented with a range of psychotropic drugs and comprised some 149 separate projects. The intelligence agency was fascinated by the program’s potential applications, particularly with conducting assassinations and interrogations.
“The project’s broadest goal was ‘to influence human behavior,” O’Neill writes.
Gottlieb launched the MK-Ultra Program in 1953 under CIA Director Alan Dulles. The program was so secretive that, when John McCone took over as CIA director in 1961, he wasn’t told about it. When the MK-Ultra program shut down in 1972, Director Richard Helms, the third director to oversee the mind-control program, ordered the agency to destroy all files related to the operation. The move frustrated a Senate investigation into the operation spurred by a revelatory story in The New York Times by Seymour Hersch.
Gottlieb earned his nickname, the “Black Sorcerer,” because he “developed gadgetry straight out of schlocky sci-fi: high-potency stink bombs, swizzle sticks laced with drugs, exploding seashells, poisoned toothpaste, poisoned handkerchiefs, poisoned cigars, poisoned anything,” O’Neill writes.
Midnight Climax was only one program in MK-Ultra’s portfolio. Other endeavors, such as Project Bluebird, Project Artichoke, and Operation Chaos, still remain in relative obscurity — decades later, their extensive psychological damage and victim counts remain unknown.
As for the CIA’s bordello on Telegraph Hill, homeowners reportedly paid $10.5 million for just one apartment in the duplex in October 2015.
Lauren Coontz is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. Beaches are preferred, but Lauren calls the Rocky Mountains of Utah home. You can usually find her in an art museum, at an archaeology site, or checking out local nightlife like drag shows and cocktail bars (gin is key). A student of history, Lauren is an Army veteran who worked all over the world and loves to travel to see the old stuff the history books only give a sentence to. She likes medium roast coffee and sometimes, like a sinner, adds sweet cream to it.
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