Hunter S Thompson
rah at shipwright.com
Tue Feb 22 13:10:10 PST 2005
Hunter S Thompson
Hunter S Thompson, who shot himself on Sunday, aged 67, was the explosive,
funny and frequently shocking self-styled "Mad Doctor of Gonzo Journalism".
Where Tom Wolfe and the "orthodox" New Journalists were observers, Dr
Thompson (he had a doctorate in Divinity, bought by mail order) cast
himself as catalyst and participant, charging into situations with a
headful of hallucinogens and a safari jacket weighed down with guns and
bottles. His most famous book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1972),
concerned a trip to Vegas with his 300lb Hawaiian-shirted Samoan attorney,
supposedly to cover a motorcycle race and a national drug enforcement
convention. But in carrying out the assignment Thompson largely ignored
both events and instead focussed on his own antics.
The opening paragraph set the tone: "We were somewhere around Barstow on
the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying
something like: 'I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive... ' And
suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of
what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around
the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to
Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: 'Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn
animals?'" Later on Thompson remarks: "This is not a good town for
psychedelic drugs. Reality itself is too twisted."
Before becoming national affairs editor of Rolling Stone magazine in 1970
(a title he held until 1999), Thompson had worked as a freelance, writing
relatively straight reports on sports and South America, plus an excellent
book about the Hell's Angels (1966), some of whom became close friends,
until the book appeared and they beat him up.
He invented "Gonzo" journalism when he and his favourite colleague, the
British cartoonist Ralph Steadman, were sent by Scanlan's Magazine to cover
the 1970 Kentucky Derby (held at Thompson's home town of Louisville).
Unable to produce a piece, Thompson ripped pages straight out of his
notebook, numbering them and sending them to the printer. The technique was
fuelled by terrifying quantities of drugs, alcohol and tobacco.
He wrote later that Gonzo was "a style of 'reporting' based on William
Faulkner's idea that the best fiction is far more true than any kind of
journalism - and the best journalists have always known this". He also
admitted his own work was not Gonzo, that it was all a failure because he
was unable to write or report his reactions to events literally as they
occurred. He said that "the writer must be participant in the the scene
while he's writing it", and that such instantaneous effort was beyond him.
In the 1960s and early 1970s Thompson was also celebrated for his
excoriating political reporting - the writer Nelson Algren called him the
finest political reporter in America, whose "hallucinated vision strikes
one as having been, after all, the sanest". Thompson's coverage of the
McGovern-Nixon election in 1972 resulted in his best book, Fear and
Loathing on the Campaign Trail (1973), in which he famously characterised
the Republican candidate as speaking to "the Werewolf in us, the bully, the
predatory shyster". "Jesus! Where will it end?" Thompson mused. "How low do
you have to stoop in this country to be President?"
Nixon's victory effectively brought an end to Thompson's career as a
political journalist, although he became a self-confessed "Watergate
junkie". While he went on to write several more extraordinary books,
including The Great Shark Hunt (1980), he later became more widely known
for his own bad behaviour, and as the model for Duke, the dope-addled
character in the comic strip Doonesbury.
Journalists who visited Thompson at his cabin discovered that it was fatal
to try and drink with him. Thompson's biographer E Jean Carroll described
his routine: "3pm rise. 3.05 Chivas Regal with the morning papers,
Dunhills. 3.45 cocaine. 3.50 another glass of Chivas, Dunhill. 4.15
cocaine. 4.54 cocaine. 5.05 cocaine... 9pm starts snorting cocaine
seriously. 10pm drops acid. 11pm Chartreuse, cocaine, grass. 11.30 cocaine,
etc, etc... 12.05 to 6am Chartreuse, cocaine, grass, Chivas, coffee,
Heineken, clove cigarettes, grapefruit, Dunhills, orange juice, gin,
continuous pornographic movies.
In later years, the biographical note in Thompson's book described him as
living as a "freelance country gentleman" and existing "in a profoundly
active Balance of Terror with the local police authorities".
Hunter Stockton Thompson was born at Louisville, Kentucky, on July 18 1937.
His father sold insurance and died when Hunter was 14, an event that
propelled the boy, so he recalled, into becoming "an outlaw". Thereafter,
his mother became alcoholic and slovenly, while Hunter became a leader of
his gang, and was much admired by girls. Aged 18 he was jailed for his part
in a robbery, and he took a writing course in prison.
On release, he joined the United States Air Force, doing sports writing for
a base newspaper in Florida until his commanding officer noted that "his
flair for invention and imagination" and "rebellious disregard for military
dress and authority seem to rub off on the other airmen". Honourably
discharged, Thompson took, and was quickly fired from, a job with the
Middletown (New York) Record, then did a traineeship at Time magazine.
He worked for a bowling magazine in Puerto Rico and in 1960, at least
partly in emulation of Jack Kerouac, drove across country to California.
While living at Big Sur, he began work on The Rum Diary, an
autobiographical novel based on his beginnings as a journalist in Puerto
Rico, which was eventually published in 1998.
After investigating the beatnik scene in San Francisco, Thompson spent two
years in South America, sending dispatches to the National Observer.
Returning to San Francisco, he combined freelance journalism with driving a
cab, before being commissioned by Random House to write Hell's Angels. The
first reporter to meet with the Hell's Angels on their own turf instead of
relying on police information, Thompson rode with them for a year.
In 1963, Thompson moved to the Rockies so that he would be free to live by
his own anarchic rules - among his stunts were blowing up the pool table in
his local bar and driving around drunk with a glass of bourbon in hand. Not
surprisingly, he deplored Aspen's subsequent fashionability, the influx of
"Day-Glo fur and Manhattan chic".
In a bid to "prevent the greedheads from moving in" he ran for sheriff in
1970 on a "freak politics" ticket, promising to turf the streets, rename
Aspen Fat City and put dishonest marijuana dealers in the stocks. He lost
by 1,533 votes to 1,068.
Thereafter he resorted to "direct action", using what he called "firepower
demonstrations", such as firing 50 shots from his automatic rifle over the
house of an arriviste property developer.
In 1990 he was accused of assaulting a former porn film actress who had
come to his house to interview him. The woman, Gail Palmer-Slater, accused
Thompson of "squeezing and twisting her left breast and threatening to blow
her head off" after she refused to join him in his hot tub. Thompson said
she was drunk, and was seeking publicity for a new range of sex aids and
A police raid on the house turned up white powder, explosives, a 12-bore
shotgun and a.22 calibre machine-gun. Claiming he was a victim of a
revitalised police state unleashed by the Bush administration anti-drug
hysteria, Thompson suggested a newspaper headline: "Life-style police raid
home of crazed Gonzo journalist. Eleven-hour search by six trained
investigators yields nothing but crumbs."
He promised to enliven the the court case by showing the actress's movies
Hot Legs and Prisoner of Paradise at the Aspen Opera House. Not that
criminal proceedings interfered with his lifestyle. "The whiskey stores
opened at seven, and I didn't have to be in court until ten," he wrote in
Songs of the Doomed.
The charges were soon dropped, after potential witnesses failed to
co-operate with the prosecutors. "We beat them like stupid rats," Thompson
declared. "We beat 'em like dogs." Stopping in Aspen to load his car up
with beer, he then sped off, firing blanks.
Fearful of "growing old and helpless", he admitted in interviews that
suicide had occurred to him, saying in 1998 that he planned to fill his
house with "cold liquid glass" so it was preserved forever, with him
inside, "and people can come and look through the front window".
Hunter S Thompson married first, in 1963, Sandra Dawn Conklin. They had a
son, Juan, "and seven miscarriages". She left him in 1978. He is survived
by his second wife, Anita Beymunk.
R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at ibuc.com>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <http://www.ibuc.com/>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'
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