There’s a certain amount of danger when writing about a man like Hunter S. Thompson. Figuratively and literally. Figuratively, in that Thompson is still vital and practicing his art. Any biography, therefore, will be incomplete. Literally, in that Thompson is a violent and unstable man with a fondness of firearms and extreme action. He’s the type to come looking for you.
Thompson has been many things to many people, which is a testament to his talent. His books have transcended social barriers and have become almost required reading for many diverse, almost diametrically opposed audiences — law enforcement officials and restless youth, politicians and journalism students, to name a few. If this sounds a bit bold, consider the following:
His first published novel, The Hell’s Angels, was the first detailed expose written from within the motorcycle club. It was so in-depth on the workings of the Angels that it became a training manual on dealing with motorcycle clubs for many police departments.
Probably his most famous work, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, became a living bible for the drug culture and rebel youth, having a similar impact as On The Road did in the previous decade.
His following novel Fear and Loathing on the ’72 Campaign Trail was and still is a must-read for politicians and those whose livelihoods depend on understanding the workings of the political arena.
What made these works so special is not so much the subject matter, but the way in which Thompson wrote. His form was wild and breathless, catching action as it was happening, cutting through the bullshit, fictionalizing here and there, and making sense of it all later (It’s no surprise to learn that Kerouac was one of Thompson’s biggest influences). Thompson’s form became known as “Gonzo Journalism”, a term which was coined by Thompson’s good friend, occasional cohort and fellow journalist, Bill Cardoso.
While to the general public Thompson is often portrayed as a subversive, drug-addled novelist, the truth is that he is and always was a sports writer (as well as a self-proclaimed political addict). And his road to literary success, like most authors/journalists, was a crevice-filled journey to say the least.
Thompson abilities as a writer and, more importantly, as a ruthless con man were evident early in his life. He was born July 18, 1937 in Louisville, Kentucky. As a youth, he had several run-ins with the law but was regarded as brilliant by his high school English teacher. Even then he wrote in a sardonic style and constantly attacked the status quo.
After graduating (which he did while in a jail cell, serving a six-week sentence for robbery while the rest of his fellow graduates were receiving their diplomas), Thompson enlisted in the Air Force and graduated from Scott Air Force Base in Belleville, Illinois. In 1956, he was assigned to Eglin Air Proving Ground in Pensacola, Florida. Eglin was where he first began in the field of journalism.
When he arrived, he discovered that the base’s newspaper, the Command Courier, was looking for a sports editor. Since he didn’t really fit in with armed forces “lifestyle”, Thompson conned his way into the position by claiming to have a journalistic background. As Thompson wrote at the time, “The people who hired me didn’t bother to check too closely on my journalistic background … I’ve managed to keep them in safe ignorance for about a month now.”
A quick learner and gifted writer, Thompson soon caught on and excelled as a journalist. He began moonlighting on another competing newspaper in the area (under the pseudonym Thorne Stockton). He kept a very hectic schedule and was helped by a sergeant who respected Thompson’s talent enough to overlook his numerous infractions of military protocol.
Thompson was always interested in literature and knew that his best bet was to make it as a writer. He studied the classics but was particularly taken with current writers of the time like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Ayn Rand and an emerging group known as the Beats.
Thompson had an interesting way of studying the writers he loved. He would take and transcribe their works on his typewriter in an effort to discover each writer’s particular rhythm and flow. He typed The Great Gatsby and A Farewell To Arms in their entirety. He also was a constant letter writer and kept thorough records of his correspondences, much as Kerouac did.
It was also during this time that Thompson discovered the writer who was to have perhaps the biggest influence on his career, H.L. Mencken.
In October of 1957, Thompson was delighted to receive an honorable discharge from the Air Force. After the service, he spent time in Pennsylvania and New York, living nearly in poverty. He was fired from one newspaper job because he kicked in a vending machine that cheated him. It was at this time that he began writing his Fitzgeraldian novel Prince Jellyfish, which to this day is unpublished in its entirety.
He was tired of the climate in the east and, in 1959, became determined to find work in the Caribbean. He responded to an ad for a sports editor for the San Juan Star in Puerto Rico in typical Thompson style:
“I have given up on American journalism. The decline of the American press has long been obvious, and my time is too valuable to waste in an effort to supply the ‘man on the street’ with his daily quota of cliches, gossip, and erotic type. There is another concept of journalism, which you may or may not be familiar with. It’s engraved on a bronze plaque on the southeast corner of the Times Tower in New York City.”
He received a negative reply, just as cynical, from a young editor named William Kennedy, who went on to win the Pulitzer for the novel Ironweed. Thus began a correspondence that continues today. Although Kennedy rejected him, Thompson was able to secure a job on El Sportivo, a new English-language weekly bowling publication.
He finally got his wish and, just after the new year in 1960, he moved to San Juan.
Things in San Juan did not go as smoothly as Thompson had hoped. ‘Prince Jellyfish’ continued to be ignored, eliciting little more than form letters from publishers; El Sportivo was bombing and his paychecks were consistently bouncing, if they came at all; and he was becoming increasingly jealous of his girlfriend, Sandy Conklin, who was living in New York.
But soon his personal life turned around as Conklin joined him in San Juan and became his common-law wife. He also was receiving the occasional infusion of cash for writing freelance articles for the New York Herald Tribune and Louisville Courier-Journal, as well as working as a male model.
Nine months later the pair returned to New York. Thompson began working on a novel called The Rum Diary, which detailed his time in the Caribbean. A few months later, Thompson and high school buddy Paul Semonin hitchhiked to the West Coast searching for work as writers.
Thompson settled for a time in Big Sur while Semonin moved to Denver. While in Big Sur, Thompson wrote an article on the well-known creative haven for Rogue magazine and earned his largest paycheck to date: $350. It also earned him an eviction from his Big Sur home as his landlady did not approve of his characterization of the local inhabitants.
Ever the restless writer, in mid-1962 Thompson set off abroad, this time to South America. This time he was writing for the National Observer. And it was at this time that he first gained the attention of the national media. His pieces on South America were receiving high praise throughout the journalism community. He also gained a new drinking buddy, Charles Kuralt of CBS News.
A year later he was back in the States to make his common law wife his official wife. Later in 1963, the Thompsons moved to Aspen, Colorado, staying with Semonin before setting down stakes in the small mountain hamlet of Woody Creek.
One of the biggest impacts on Thompson’s life occurred on November 22, 1963 when Kennedy was shot. He felt it signaled a turn in society. In a letter to Semonin, he wrote: “This savage unbelievable killing, this monstrous stupidity, has guaranteed that my children and yours will be born in a shitrain.”
In another letter to William Kennedy, who was back in New York, he used the phrase “fear and loathing” to describe the way he felt after the murder.
What became Gonzo journalism started in 1964 as “impressionistic jounalism”, in Thompson words. It took the time-honored tradition of objective journalism and gave it a 180. Thompson, like Tom Wolfe, felt that there was nothing more interesting than the reporter’s perception of what was going on — not just the facts and figures.
Thompson continued to write for the Observer, and the publication loved his fresh approach. He also began soliciting President Johnson to appoint himself Governor of Samoa. For awhile, amazingly enough, the Johnson administration remained in contact with Thompson. Thompson eventually withdrew his offer in outrage over the President’s handling of Vietnam.
The Thompsons moved once again, this time back to San Francisco, where Thompson began trying to get on with The Nation and the magazine gave him the idea to write about the Hell’s Angels. His articles received much praise and led to his first publishing contract with Ballantine Books, who wanted him to write an entire book on the subject.
In early 1966 Thompson finished his book. To say it was a success would be an understatement. He spent a year with the motorcycle club, not as a writer (they were distrustful of journalists because of their consistent maligning) but almost as a member. His ability as a con man came through for him once again.
Thompson became ingrained in the culture and presented the Angels in a fair light, something that had not been done until this time, even though he had once been on the losing end of a severe beating at the hands of the Angels. There are numerous accounts of what happened, but what’s for sure is that the old Angel law — when you fight one Angel, you fight them all — was definitely true. Thompson even included the beating as the postscript to the book.
The first edition of the book sold out immediately and it broke into the New York Times bestseller list, although Thompson had a few problems on the book tour, showing up drunk for most interviews. He was, after all, a writer.
The success of Hell’s Angels quickly catapulted Thompson to the front of the journalistic avant garde. He received numerous offers from popular publications like Esquire and Saturday Evening Post. In 1968 Thompson began nurturing an addiction that still is with him today: politics. This started with a simple letter to Eugene McCarthy, whose anti-Vietnam War stance Thompson admired, pledging his service to McCarthy in his run at the Democratic candidacy for president. The snowball began to gain momentum.
Thompson also was in the beginnings of a friendship with Oscar “Zeta” Acosta, a radical, militant lawyer from East Los Angeles. Acosta, who was one of the driving influences behind the burgeoning Brown Power scene in L.A., met Thompson on a visit to Aspen in 1967. The Thompson-Acosta correspondences are some of the most entertaining correspondences in print. They swing from acidic fantasy to personal issues to decisions that would ultimately alter aspects of our nation’s history.
While in New York, Thompson met with his publishers regarding his next book. Thompson pitched the idea of a book on the “The Death of the American Dream.” Thompson’s idea was to write a book that would “do up a massive indictment, focusing on the murderers of the so-called ‘American Dream.'” His main targets were the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs and Lyndon Johnson, to name a few. For the next two years, the book was the focal point of Thompson’s energies. And although it never appeared in print, it helped set Thompson down the path towards creating two of his most influential and best known works, ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ and ‘Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72’.
In 1969, Thompson was hired by Playboy to do a piece on Jean-Claude Killy, an Olympic skier turned pitchman. What Thompson returned with was the first true piece of Gonzo literature to be published, entitled “The Temptations of Jean-Claude Killy”. Except it was never published in Playboy because the editors felt it was too mean-spirited. The fact was Thompson had stepped beyond the who, what, where, when and why mentality of the press and delivered something quite different: a piece where the writer was not objective but subjective, allowing the writer’s personality and impressions of the situation come out. The piece was eventually published in Ramparts magazine, the first magazine to recognize that Thompson was doing something new and exciting.
Soon after the Killy piece, Thompson, along with the Thompson-recommended Ralph Steadman, an English illustrator, were sent to cover the Kentucky Derby for the magazine. “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” provided readers with a vicious and, at the same time, hilarious description of the Southern sporting classic. Steadman’s illustrations were done in lipstick and were perverse and humorous, much like Thompson’s writing. It was the beginning of a life-long working relationship. Most recently, Steadman provided the illustrations for the opening and closing sequences in the movie, ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’.
Thompson was really getting his fat into the fire. His next target was an old nemesis who had returned stronger and smarter: Richard Nixon. By fluke, Thompson was allowed to interview the candidate and discovered that the washed-out politician was “brighter and therefore more dangerous than I surmised. He was a brute in need of extermination.”
Thompson and Nixon did have two things in common: they both were political addicts (although Nixon in the worst definition of the concept) and football addicts. Thompson has recalled fondly the depth of Nixon’s knowledge, including his ability to recall a seemingly unimportant, but strategically crucial play from the previous year’s Super Bowl.
However, it wasn’t Nixon that pulled Thompson into politics so much as the violence that erupted during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, a convention which Thompson was covering at the time, for material for his book.
Thompson returned to his home in Woody Creek a new man with a new mission: to beat the fuckers at their own game. And thus he began what is still one the most memorable and strategically effective anti-campaigns in the history of the U.S: the Freak Power ticket.
It was the fall of 1969 and the Aspen Mayoral election was coming up. Thompson was so disgusted by the candidates that he and a group of local friends ran their own candidate for mayor: a 29-year-old hippie bike-racer named Joe Edwards. Their campaign began three weeks before the election and nearly caused the upheaval of the small Western town.
This wasn’t a whim or joke. Thompson noticed that there was a very low voter turnout in previous elections and determined that for the most part, it was the 18 to 25 year olds who were missing. So the theory he perpetuated was that if any candidate could garner the young vote, they would have the power to not necessarily win, but at least change the outcome of the election.
But the Freak Party got more than it bargained for. With only three weeks to organize, Joe Edwards lost the mayoral race by one vote. In reality, Edwards won the actual vote by six — but lost the absentee ballot by seven. As Thompson wrote, “we scared the living shit out of the Aspen Power Structure.”
In the final analysis, the group that really cost the Freaks the election wasn’t the conservatives but the old-school liberals who supported the Democratic candidate. They were so scared of the possibility of a Freak Power mayor that they cannibalized their own candidate and voted Republican.
The close loss whetted Thompson’s appetite and the next year the Freak Power Party entered the political arena with a vengeance. And not only in Aspen. Freak Power blossomed in Kansas, Berkeley and Los Angeles, where Acosta tallied 110,000 votes out of 2 million cast in the L.A. County sheriff race.
Thompson himself ran for sheriff and his platform was pretty direct: an end to the selling-off of Aspen. What follows is an excerpt from an advertisement Thompson took out in the Aspen Times: “And now we are reaping the whirlwind-big-city problems too malignant for small-town solutions, Chicago-style traffic in a town without stoplights, Oakland-style drug busts continually bungled by simple cowboy cops who see nothing wrong with kicking handcuffed prisoners in the ribs while the sheriff stands by watching, seeing nothing wrong with it either.”
The Freak Party campaign was unique to say the least. The Party posters bore a red fist clutching a peyote button. Thompson shaved his head clean. The Freak Power Party proposed changing the city name to “Fat City” to scare off investors. It’s hard to gauge if people actually believed this. On the question of drugs, as Thompson wrote, “We ran straight at the bastards with an out-front mescaline platform … marijuana got lost in the scramble.” Thompson relented a bit before the election, saying he would refrain from taking mescaline while on duty.
In the end Thompson lost the race 1500 to 1065. He did delight in the fact that he won the city vote, where the Freaks made up 30% of the electorate. But he was trounced in the county vote — even losing 300 to 90 in his own precinct of Woody Creek.
Perhaps the most clear description of Freak Power came from one of the many campaign posters written by Thompson: “This is the real point: that we are not really freaks at all — not in the literal sense — but the twisted realities of the world we are trying to live in have somehow combined to make us feel like freaks. We argue, we protest, we petition — but nothing changes.”
Thompson’s campaign attracted quite a bit of attention. But the most interested media outlet was Rolling Stone, a fledgling rock-and-roll mag out of San Francisco. The owner and editor, Jann Wenner, became a good friend and recurring nemesis of Thompson’s. Much like the Acosta letters, the correspondences between the two are legendary.
Thompson’s first article for Rolling Stone, “The Battle of Aspen”, was published in the October 1, 1970 issue. It was during this time, while working on a piece for Rolling Stone, that Thompson stumbled upon the city of Las Vegas.
In two issue of Rolling Stone in 1971, there appeared articles by the author “Raoul Duke” entitled ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’. As Douglas Brinkley wrote, the book “essentially … follows Duke and his three-hundred pound Samoan attorney, Dr. Gonzo, to Las Vegas, ostensibly to cover a motorcycle race and then a convention of district attorneys.”
Raoul Duke had become Thompson’s alter ego previously in correspondences. Thompson realized that it allowed him to say things that he couldn’t with the name “Hunter S. Thompson”. It allowed him to blur fact, fiction and fantasy together.
Thompson felt he had a classic on his hands and a few people echoed this. However, when ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ was published in book form it did not sell nearly as well as ‘Hell’s Angels’. But it did solidify Thompson’s conviction in what he was doing.
Thompson’s next big job for Rolling Stone was covering the Democratic party during the 1972 election. Thompson harbored a basic hatred for typical politicians but became quickly enamored of South Dakota senator George McGovern. McGovern ran on a anti-Vietnam ticket and was the more politically correct manifestation of the Freak Party. Except that after McGovern won the Democratic nomination, he relented to party politics and, instead of staying on the path that got him the nomination, tried to bring together all the splinter Democratic groups, thus losing the very voter base that had put him in position to take the presidency from Nixon.
In the end, McGovern lost in a landslide but Thompson turned out what still stands today as the preeminent and most insightful piece ever written on a presidential election, ‘Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72’. And he made a life-long friend in George McGovern.
Also, during the election, Thompson developed a strange friendship with a young Republican speechwriter named Pat Buchanan. Even though they were polar opposites in terms of philosophy, they both respected the fact that each of them could “leave it on the field” and go have a drink in a bar together without killing each other.
Over the next few years, Thompson kept himself busy by covering the withdrawal of American troops in Vietnam, the fall of Laos and also putting together an often-overlooked political summit. In 1974, Thompson along with a group that included Wenner, ex-RFK campaign veterans and McGovern strategists, gathered in Elko, NV to create a liberal strategy for political victory following the fall of Nixon. What resulted, as Thompson recalled, was complete “gibberish.”
Around this same time, Thompson had been made aware of a very sad situation: the disappearance of Oscar Acosta in the Spring of 1974. To this day, it’s not known what happened to the “Brown Buffalo” who “stomped on the terra” as Thompson described him. Some believe he went underground, but most others feel he was murdered by drug traffickers. But to this day, the case has never been solved.
As Nixon fell apart and, along with him, the Republican party, Thompson became more involved in national politics. He became a friend, proponent and unofficial advisor to Jimmy Carter before and during his run for the presidency in 1976. Thompson even stayed at the Carter’s home in Plains, Georgia for a couple of days in 1975. When there were rumors about Thompson possibly running for president, Carter sent Thompson a note saying he’d drop out in support of Thompson.
Needless to say, Thompson didn’t run. But a prediction he made two years previously, when Carter was known as “Jimmy-who?” in the press, came true: Carter trounced Ford to become President. And Thompson had another great piece of political writing for Rolling Stone.
As the ’80s began, Thompson sensed a whole new era of political fatbacks and greedheads. And he was right.
During the ’80s, Thompson, much like Charles Bukowski in Los Angeles, wrote periodic columns for the San Francisco Examiner, as well as continuing to freelance. Thompson’s pace remained busy, though he no longer moved at the break-neck speed of the previous decades. Most of his work during this period is featured in the ongoing book series, The Gonzo Papers. Thus far, there have been three volumes, The Great Shark Hunt, Generation of Swine and Songs of the Doomed. The volume that covers the ’80s is appropriately subtitled, ‘Tales of Shame and Degradation in the ’80s’.
Also, during the ’80s Thompson finally became involved in a medium that had intrigued him for years — film. The movie Where the Buffalo Roam loosely chronicles his adventures with Acosta. It movie did not do well at the box office.
In the film, Bill Murray played Thompson to a tee while Acosta was portrayed by Peter Boyle. Murray was so affected by Thompson that many sensed a difference about him after the movie was made. On the set of Saturday Night Live, Murray began showing up late and becoming noticeably more irritable.
Thompson continued to be eerily accurate in his political predictions, especially during the Iran-Contra affair. However, one prediction he made that didn’t come true was in regards to a certain Vice President going to jail for a long, long time, a la Spiro Agnew. Unfortunately, just the opposite came true — George Bush became president. Thompson once again had a new target, although he wrote a letter to the newly elected president asking for a job. Once again, pure Thompson.
The ’90s opened on a high note for Thompson, with Bush’s back being broken. Thompson, while supporting and actively campaigning for Clinton, sensed a similarity between the new president and Nixon: they both came to the Hill to play hard ball. Thompson’s resulting novel was Better Than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie.
As the ’90s progressed, Thompson became a counter-culture godfather. After all, he was one of the only voices from the time who was still pertinent and coherent. He continued to appear occasionally in print, but largely remained in his “heavily fortified compound” in Woody Creek.
What was arguably Thompson’s most successful venture came in 1998 when Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was finally made into a major motion picture. Thompson had been pitching the idea for thirty years and finally the film was produced. It was directed by Terry Gilliam, with Johnny Depp playing Thompson’s character and Benicio Del Toro playing Dr. Gonzo. Once again Thompson had affected another young actor, as it’s been said that Depp had a hard time shaking off the character after production finished.
There have been many arguments between Thompson devotees regarding which movie was better, Fear and Loathing or Where the Buffalo Roam. Most seem to lean to Fear and Loathing but surprisingly a majority believe both movies came up short.
Thompson devotees also differ on the issue of Murray versus Depp. Depp looks strikingly similar to Thompson in his youth. But while Depp did an excellent job acting, it felt just like that — acting. Murray seemed more natural and, thus, believable. But that’s just this writer’s opinion.
As the century closed out, another dream of Thompson’s came true as his second novel, The Rum Diary, was finally published. There are rumors of the book being in the pre-production stages of becoming a movie. Screwjack, a book of older short stories, was published as well.
Thompson career came full circle in 2001. His first job in journalism was as a sports reporter at Eglin Air Force and in 2001 he once again became a sportswriter as a weekly columnist for ESPN.com’s “Page 2” section. His column is called “Hey Rube!”. Thompson definitely still has his teeth — thus far he’s written scathing indictments of everything from the second coming of satan, lil’ George Bush, to the entire NBA.
To summarize Thompson’s career would be foolish. That’s why this piece is so long. It’s because of the layers and depth of everything he did, which, at the time, was not always apparent. He’s successfully written about everything from the Hell’s Angels and the dope scene of San Francisco to Super Bowls and Presidential elections. His friends throughout life includes the likes of Pat Buchanan, George McGovern and Jimmy Carter, as well as Ken Kesey, William Burroughs and Warren Zevon.
Thompson, much like Kerouac, is a WRITER. He WRITES. Whereas many writers stick to one style or genre, Thompson’s been successful writing about many seemingly opposing subjects.
Today he’s still writing as well as ever, although there have been detractors who say he’s seen better days. His work on “Page 2” proves otherwise. He even predicted that Jenna Bush would become the wild-child that would cause problems for the new President.
It’s just further evidence that Thompson had that inexhaustible, inextinguishable IT — the stuff that all great artists possess.
Hunter S. Thompson, who carried the beat romanticism of Jack Kerouac, the political conviction of Allen Ginsberg and the acidic skepticism of William S. Burroughs into the world of popular journalism, died a Hemingway-esque death in Colorado on February 20, 2005.