This week marks 46 years since Scanlan’s Monthly published Hunter S. Thompson’s legendary piece, The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.
words, art and photos courtesy of Ralph Steadman
I had only just arrived in America in late April of 1970 and was staying with a friend in the Hamptons on Long Island to decompress. His name was Dan Rattiner, who ran the local newspaper, THE EAST VILLAGE OTHER. After a week I began to feel I was getting in the way and it was time to make my trip into New York to look for work.
He had so generously picked me up at Kennedy Airport a week earlier and we drove into New York and out the other side. I roll my own cigarettes and without thinking lit up in his car. Dan said, rather sweetly, I thought, that they tended not to encourage that kind of habit, particularly in a car, because it was a bit like “giving cancer to your friends.” I gulped down the smoke. Then I lowered the window and choked the filthy excrement out into the city.
That was OK, even in 1970, and I respected his guarded request. It was then that I first saw the crossing sign at intersections which came up in green and red, pronouncing, WALK, and then, DON’T WALK. I laughed about it for some reason. I think it was the tone. The command. The admonition.
Which ever one you obeyed, you were guilty. I was beginning already to like the city. DRINK, DON’T DRINK. SMOKE, DON’T SMOKE. PUSH THAT OLD LADY OUT OF YOUR WAY. DON’T PUSH THAT OLD LADY OUT OF YOUR WAY. BOMB THE SHIT OUT OF SOMETHING. DON’T BOMB THE SHIT OUT OF SOMETHING. RULE THE WORLD. DON’T RULE THE WORLD. OK. FORGET IT. WE CAN DO ANYTHING. WHAT D’YA NEED? HAVE A NICE DAY! $$$$$$$$$$$$. FOREIGN POLICY? WHAT WAS THAT?
It kept me in a kind of reverie until we got to the Hamptons. It was my first true vision of the American way of life — a slice of the American Dream. The law-abiding vision of madness contained in a mechanical device. It was the law masquerading as a road sign. DON’T, was the true mantra. Americans love DON’T. Thou shalt not. The bedrock of received knowledge — the Ten Commandments. The God-fearing pioneers who still had a long way to go. GO! DON’T GO. FUCK YOU GOD! We’re on our way . . .
I spent the week with Dan and his wife Pam. Enjoying their spontaneous kindness. Their joy in themselves. Their genuine desire to be nice to strangers and make them happy. It was then that I began to think that it was time I moved on and leave them inside their euphoric bubble. Bless their hearts. It was time to go into New York.
Of course, the very next day the phone rang and it was for me: ”Are you Ralph Steadman?”
“I bin lookin all over for you. Dey told me that you was already in de States. I got a job for yer. Do yer wan it??”
It was a call from JC Suares, art editor of Scanlan’s magazine in New York. He said, “We bin lookin’ all over for ya!” He growled with a pronounced Brooklyn accent. “How’d ya like to go to de Kentucky Derby wid an ex- Hell’s Angel who just shaved his head, huh! and cover de race. His name is Hunter Thompson.”
“Johnson? Never heard of him,” I replied. “What’s he do? Does he write?”
“The what?” I replied.
“De Duuurby,” he repeated.
“You mean the DAAARBY!”
“OK,” He said, “De DAAARBY!” We were in agreement. “But he doesn’t want a photographer. He wants sometink weird and we’ve seen yer work, man!”
The editor – a gentle smiling Englishman and gentleman called Don Goddard had been the New York Times foreign editor before he had taken on the scrofulous job of breathing a certain respectability into this dustbin journal and he had picked up my first book of collected work on a recent trip to London (Rapp & Whiting, 1969, Still Life with Raspberry). He had taken the book back to New York. He must have thought I looked naïve enough to take on the job and mess with the devil. I was looking for work anyway — so I was up for it. We agreed that I would stop off at their place for dinner before going out to the airport to get on my way. It was all so very fine until I realized that I had left my artist’s materials in the back of the cab. Don’s wife, Natalie, who was an important representative for Revlon, came up with a brilliant idea. She had boxes full of make-up samples and she said that I was welcome to take whatever I needed. I had never used make-up before to create art and these weird and waxy colours looked perfect to produce whatever it was I thought my brain desired. All art works like that. You make from what you have. In fact, Natalie’s Revlon samples were the birth of Gonzo art . . .
Finding Hunter — or indeed anyone covering the prestigious Kentucky Derby who is not a bona fide registered journalist — was no easy matter and trying to explain my reason for being there was even worse. Especially as I was under the impression that this was an official trip and I was an accredited press man. Why shouldn’t I think that? I assumed that Scanlan’s was an established magazine. Thinking of the decent, upstanding, cigar-smoking gentleman from England, y’know — Donald Goddard, ex-New York Times journalist – convinced me of that.
But I got in. I don’t know how, except that in certain circumstances my Welsh englishness comes to the fore and commands respect or suspicion. I was not to be fucked with. It was obvious that I was a force to be reckoned with who had come so far to be so near. What does a piece of paper mean? Just a trifle.
I spent two days looking for Mr. Johnson and I was not about to give up.
I asked at the Press Lobby and said that the person I was looking for had my credentials. “Surely, you must know of him?” “What’s his first name?” “It was weird,” I said, “like Howard, or Humphrey. I’m sorry. They said it had all been taken care of.” I think they sensed that I was genuine because they let me go inside the inner sanctum of the press box where the cream of journalistic respectability hung out. What the hell? I was in.
I had been watching someone chalk racing results on a blackboard while I sipped a beer, and I was about to turn and get myself another when a voice like no other I had ever heard cut through my thoughts and sank its teeth into my brain. It was a cross between a slurred Karate chop and gritty molasses.
“Um — er’ you — er – wouldn’t be from England — er — would you — er an artist — maybe er — what the!!”
I had turned around and two fierce eyes, firmly socketed inside a bullet-shaped head were staring at a strange growth I was nurturing on the end of my chin.
“Holy shit!” He exclaimed, “they said I was looking for a matted-haired geek with string warts and I guess I’ve found him.”
“Ah!” I replied, “have you got our credentials?” “Fuck no!” he said. “They would never give them to us. We are outsiders on a mission! This is Kentucky. No one gets in here without being members of the club,” he said mysteriously. “Well, how was I able to get in?” “Fuck knows,” he snapped. “Maybe it’s your English accent and that — er — weird growth on your chin. People shave in these parts. Do you drink beer?” “Sure!” I said, “but I could use another.”
We took a beer together and sat in the press box balcony. Somehow he had got our accreditation and we were in. He asked me if I gambled and I said only once in 1953. I put 2 old English shillings on Early Mist to win in our Derby and I did. “Then perhaps you should try again.” So I picked a horse at random but didn’t bet and it won. “Impressive!” said my new friend. “Maybe you should try for real.” So then I picked another, backed it on the nose with a dollar, and lost. “That’s why I don’t gamble,” I said.
“I thought you had been picked up,” he replied. “Picked up??” I didn’t quite understand. “Er — yes — the police here are pretty keen. They tend to take an interest in something different. The er — um — the beard. Not many of them around these parts. Not these days anyway.”
I was beginning to take in the whole of the man’s appearance and his was a little different too. Certainly not what I was expecting. No time-worn leather, shining with old sump oil. No manic tattoo across a bare upper arm and strangely no hint of menace. This man had an impressive head chiselled from one piece of bone and the top part was covered down to his eyes by a floppy brimmed sun hat. His top half was draped in a loose fitting hunting jacket of multi-coloured patchwork. He wore seersucker blue pants and the whole torso was pivoted on a pair of huge white plimsolls with a fine red trim around the bulkheads. Converse, I learned later, was the name given to them and they became the archetypal design for anything athletic and American, designed by an all-star professional called Chuck Taylor. In 1923 he twiddled with the old shoes and revitalized them to become the shoes to wear and play better. Chuck went on to become an Ambassador of Basketball, make a fortune, inspire youth, sanction coach clinics, whatever they are, and incited the young to love basketball. “Pumps,” I said. “Couldn’t help noticing you are wearing pumps.” “Pumps!!” he repeated. “Pumps!! What the fuck are pumps??” “Those shoes you are wearing. In England, that’s what we call them. Gymnastic pumps. Kids wear them and suffer physical instruction at the mercy of an imbecilic maniac who thinks it is good for us.” He smiled. “Goddammit, Ralph! You are right!! But they are comfortable and that’s why I wear them!”
I was watching him closely as he spoke. He was peculiarly impressive and yet his body movements expressed the soul of someone who was not altogether comfortable in the body he was trapped inside. Damn near six-foot, six-inches of solid bone and meat. This was a sensitive man holding a beaten-up leather bag across his knee and a loaded cigarette holder between the arthritic fingers of his left hand. Arthritis was to plague him all his life, as was the football knee injury that left him with one leg shorter than the other, but it never truly encumbered his physical rage or his action-packed approach to a deep respect and love of writing — and righteousness. We found the decadent, depraved faces of Louisville by the end of the first week we spent together. They were staring at us from a mirror in the gent’s toilet on the infield, where the rest of the riffraff, who are not eligible to stand in the privileged boxes of the chosen few, spent their time at the races. Just like us.
We spent many assignments together, bucking the trend, against the cheats and liars, the bagmen and the cronies; me an alien from the old country and him raging against the coming of the light. “Fuck them, Ralph,” he would say, “we are not like the others.” Well, he wasn’t anyway. But I was easily led.