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John Williamson, 80; founded sex retreat, ran tiger sanctuary

To Barbara and John Williamson, the Sandstone Retreat was about liberation and understanding society.

Photos courtesy Sandstone Foundation

To Barbara and John Williamson, the Sandstone Retreat was about liberation and understanding society.

NEW YORK — 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.

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.

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‘‘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 March 24 in Reno 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. He 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 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 Tuesday, recalling the day 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 in 1980. By then —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,’’ Barbara Williamson said in an interview.

John Decatur Williamson was born July 31, 1932, near Mobile, Ala. He grew up poor, joined the Navy at 17 and traveled the world, spending time in California and the South Pacific. He learned electrical engineering in the military 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, she 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,’’ 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.’’

Talese listened and watched and participated.

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 last week, 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, Barbara Williamson said. He also leaves 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 his wife to insurance. They lived in the San Francisco area and, his wife 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,’’ she said.

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