Hunter Stockton Thompson (July 18, 1937 – February 20, 2005) was an American journalist and author. Born in Louisville, Kentucky, to a middle-class family, Thompson had a turbulent youth after the death of his father left the family in poverty. He was unable to formally finish high school as he was incarcerated for 60 days after abetting a robbery. He subsequently joined theUnited States Air Force before moving into journalism. He traveled frequently, including stints in California, Puerto Rico, and Brazil, before settling in Aspen, Colorado, in the early 1960s.
Thompson became internationally known with the publication of Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs (1967). For his research on the book he had spent a year living and riding with the Angels, experiencing their lives and hearing their stories first-hand. Previously a relatively conventional journalist, with the publication in 1970 of “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” he became a counter cultural figure, with his own brand of New Journalism which he termed “Gonzo“, an experimental style of journalism where reporters involve themselves in the action to such a degree that they become central figures of their stories. The work he remains best known for, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream (1971), constitutes a rumination on the failure of the 1960s counterculture movement. It was first serialized in Rolling Stone, a magazine with which Thompson would be long associated, and was released as a film starringJohnny Depp and directed by Terry Gilliam in 1998.
Politically minded, Thompson ran unsuccessfully for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado, in 1970, on the Freak Power ticket. He became well known for his inveterate hatred of Richard Nixon, whom he claimed represented “that dark, venal, and incurably violent side of the American character” and whom he characterized in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. Thompson’s output notably declined from the mid-1970s, as he struggled with the consequences of fame, and he complained that he could no longer merely report on events as he was too easily recognized. He was also known for his lifelong use of alcohol and illegal drugs, his love of firearms, and his iconoclastic contempt for authoritarianism. He remarked: “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.”
While suffering a bout of health problems, Thompson committed suicide at the age of 67. Per his wishes, his ashes were fired out of a cannon in a ceremony funded by his friend, Johnny Depp, and attended by a host of friends including then Senator John Kerryand Jack Nicholson. Hari Kunzru wrote that, “the true voice of Thompson is revealed to be that of American moralist … one who often makes himself ugly to expose the ugliness he sees around him.”
Thompson was born into a middle-class family in Louisville, Kentucky, the first of three sons, to Jack Robert Thompson (September 4, 1893, Horse Cave, Kentucky – July 3, 1952, Louisville), a public insurance adjuster and World War I veteran, and Virginia Ray Davison (1908, Springfield, Kentucky – March 20, 1998, Louisville), who was head librarian at the Louisville Public Library. His parents were introduced to each other by a friend from Jack’s fraternity at the University of Kentucky in September 1934, and were married on November 2, 1935. Thompson’s first name came from a purported ancestor on his mother’s side, the Scottish surgeon John Hunter.
On December 2, 1943, when Thompson was six years old, the family settled at 2437 Ransdell Avenue, in the affluent Cherokee Triangle neighborhood of The Highlands. On July 3, 1952, when Thompson was 14 years old, his father, aged 58, died of myasthenia gravis. Hunter and his brothers, Davison Wheeler (born June 18, 1940) and James Garnet (February 2, 1949 – March 25, 1993), were raised by their mother. Hunter also had a much older half-brother, James Thompson, Jr., from his father’s first marriage, who was not part of the Thompson household. Virginia worked as a librarian to support her children, and is described as having become a “heavy drinker” following her husband’s death.
Interested in sports and athletically inclined from a young age, Thompson co-founded the Hawks Athletic Club while attending I. N. Bloom Elementary School, which led to an invitation to join Louisville’s Castlewood Athletic Club, a club for adolescents that prepared them for high-school sports, where he excelled in baseball, though he never joined any sports teams in high school, where he was often in trouble.
Thompson attended I. N. Bloom Elementary School, Highland Middle School, and Atherton High School, before transferring to Louisville Male High School in September 1952. Also in 1952, he was accepted as a member of the Athenaeum Literary Association, a school-sponsored literary and social club that had been founded at Male High in 1862. Its members at the time, generally drawn from Louisville’s wealthy upper-class families, included Porter Bibb, who became the first publisher of Rolling Stone. During this time Thompson read and adored J. P. Donleavy‘s The Ginger Man.
As an Athenaeum member, Thompson contributed articles and helped edit the club’s yearbook The Spectator; but the group ejected Thompson in 1955, citing his legal problems. Charged as an accessory to robbery after being in a car with the robber, Thompson was sentenced to 60 days in Kentucky’s Jefferson County Jail. He served 31 days and, a week after his release – and one day after sinking nearly every boat in a local harbor by shooting holes beneath their waterlines – enlisted in the United States Air Force. While he was in jail, the school superintendent refused him permission to take his high school final examinations, and as a result he did not graduate.
Thompson completed basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, and transferred to Scott Air Force Base in Belleville, Illinois, to study electronics. He applied to become an aviator, but was rejected by the Air Force’s aviation–cadet program. In 1956, he transferred to Eglin Air Force Base near Fort Walton Beach, Florida. While serving at Eglin, he took evening classes at Florida State University. At Eglin, he landed his first professional writing job as sports editor of the The Command Courier by lying about his job experience. In this capacity, he covered the Eglin Eagles, a football team that included future professional players Bart Starr, Max McGee and Zeke Bratkowski. Thompson traveled with the team around the US, covering its games. In early 1957, he wrote a sports column for The Playground News, a local newspaper in Fort Walton Beach, Florida. He could not use his name on the column because the Air Force did not allow airmen to hold other jobs.
Thompson was discharged from the Air Force in June 1958 as an Airman First Class, having been recommended for an early honorable discharge by his commanding officer. “In summary, this airman, although talented, will not be guided by policy”, Col. William S. Evans, chief of information services wrote to the Eglin personnel office. “Sometimes his rebel and superior attitude seems to rub off on other airmen staff members.”
Early journalism career
After the Air Force, he worked as sports editor for a newspaper in Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania, before relocating to New York City. There he audited several courses at theColumbia University School of General Studies During this time he worked briefly for Time, as a copy boy for $51 a week. While working, he used a typewriter to copy F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s The Great Gatsby and Ernest Hemingway‘s A Farewell to Arms in order to learn about the writing styles of the authors. In 1959, Time fired him for insubordination.Later that year, he worked as a reporter for The Middletown Daily Record in Middletown, New York. He was fired from this job after damaging an office candy machine and arguing with the owner of a local restaurant who happened to be an advertiser with the paper.
In 1960, Thompson moved to San Juan, Puerto Rico, to take a job with the sporting magazine El Sportivo, which folded soon after his arrival. Thompson applied for a job with the Puerto Rican English language daily The San Juan Star, but its managing editor, future novelist William J. Kennedy, turned him down. Nonetheless, the two became friends and after the demise of El Sportivo, Thompson worked as a stringer for the New York Herald Tribune and a few stateside papers on Caribbean issues with Kennedy working as his editor. After returning to the States, Hunter hitchhiked across the United States along U.S. Hwy 40, eventually ending up in Big Sur, California working as a security guard and caretaker at the Big Sur hot springs for an eight-month period in 1961, just before it became the Esalen Institute. While there, he published his first magazine feature in the nationally distributed Rogue magazine, on the artisan and bohemian culture of Big Sur. Thompson had had a rocky tenure as caretaker of the hot springs, and the unexpected publicity from the article finally got him fired. During this period, Thompson wrote two novels, Prince Jellyfish and The Rum Diary, and submitted many short stories to publishers with little success. The Rum Diary, a novel based on Thompson’s experiences in Puerto Rico, was eventually published in 1998, long after he had become famous.
From May 1962 to May 1963, Thompson traveled to South America as a correspondent for a Dow Jones-owned weekly newspaper, the National Observer. In Brazil, he spent several months as a reporter for the Brazil Herald, the country’s only English-language daily, published in Rio de Janeiro. His longtime girlfriend Sandra Dawn Conklin (aka Sandy Conklin Thompson, now Sondi Wright) later joined him in Rio. They were married on May 19, 1963, shortly after returning to the United States, and lived briefly in Aspen, Colorado, where they had a son, Juan Fitzgerald Thompson (born March 23, 1964). The couple conceived five more times, but three pregnancies were miscarried, and the other two produced infants who died shortly after birth. Hunter and Sandy divorced in 1980 but always remained close friends.
In 1964, the family relocated to Glen Ellen, California, where Thompson continued to write for the National Observer on an array of domestic subjects. One story was about his 1964 visit to Ketchum, Idaho, to investigate the reasons for Ernest Hemingway‘s suicide. While there, he stole a pair of elk antlers hanging above the front door of Hemingway’s cabin. Thompson severed his ties with the Observer after his editor refused to print his review of Tom Wolfe‘s 1965 essay collection The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, and moved to San Francisco. He immersed himself in the drug and hippie culture that was taking root in the area, and soon began writing for theBerkeley underground paper The Spyder.
In 1965, Carey McWilliams, editor of The Nation, hired Thompson to write a story about the California-based Hells Angels* motorcycle club. After the article appeared (on May 17, 1965), Thompson received several book offers and spent the next year living and riding with the gang. The relationship broke down when the bikers perceived that Thompson was exploiting them for personal gain, and demanded a share of the profits from his writings. An argument at a party resulted in a savage beating for Thompson (or “stomping”, as the Angels referred to it). Random House published the hard cover Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs* in 1966, and the fight between Thompson and the Angels was well-marketed. CBC Television even broadcast an encounter between Thompson and Hells Angel Skip Workman before a live studio audience.
A reviewer for The New York Times praised it as an “angry, knowledgeable, fascinating and excitedly written book”, that shows the Hells Angels “not so much as dropouts from society but as total misfits, or unfits — emotionally, intellectually and educationally unfit to achieve the rewards, such as they are, that the contemporary social order offers.” The reviewer also praised Thompson as a “spirited, witty, observant and original writer; his prose crackles like motorcycle exhaust.”
Following the success of Hell’s Angels, Thompson was able to publish articles in a number of well-known magazines during the late 1960s, including The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Pageant, and Harper’s. In the Times Magazine article, published in 1967, shortly before the “Summer of Love“, and titled “The Hashbury is the Capital of the Hippies”, Thompson wrote in-depth about the Hippies of San Francisco, deriding a culture that began to lack the political convictions of the New Left and the artistic core of the Beats, instead becoming overrun with newcomers lacking any purpose other than obtaining drugs. It was an observation on the 1960s’ counterculture that Thompson would further examine inFear and Loathing in Las Vegas and other articles.
By late 1967, Thompson and his family moved back to Colorado and rented a house in Woody Creek, a small mountain hamlet outside Aspen. In early 1969, Thompson finally received a $15,000 royalty check for the paperback sales of Hell’s Angels and used two-thirds of the money for adown payment on a modest home and property where he would live for the rest of his life. He named the house Owl Farm and often described it as his “fortified compound.”
In early 1968, Thompson signed the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War. According to Thompson’s letters and his later writings, at this time he planned to write a book called The Joint Chiefs about “the death of the American Dream.” He used a $6,000 advance from Random House to travel on the 1968 Presidential campaign trail and attend the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago for research purposes. From his hotel room in Chicago, Thompson watched the clashes between police and protesters, which he wrote had a great effect on his political views. The planned book was never finished, but the theme of the death of the American dream would be carried over into his later work, and the contract with Random House was eventually fulfilled with the 1972 book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He also signed a deal with Ballantine Books in 1968 to write a satirical book called The Johnson File about Lyndon B. Johnson. A few weeks after the contract was signed, however, Johnson announced that he would not stand for re-election, and the deal was cancelled.
In 1970, Thompson ran for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado, as part of a group of citizens running for local offices on the “Freak Power” ticket. The platform included promoting the decriminalization of drugs (for personal use only, not trafficking, as he disapproved of profiteering), tearing up the streets and turning them into grassy pedestrian malls, banning any building so tall as to obscure the view of the mountains, and renaming Aspen “Fat City” to deter investors. Thompson, having shaved his head, referred to theRepublican candidate as “my long-haired opponent”, as he wore a crew cut.
With polls showing him with a slight lead in a three-way race, Thompson appeared at Rolling Stone magazine headquarters in San Francisco with a six-pack of beer in hand, and declared to editor Jann Wenner that he was about to be elected Sheriff of Aspen, Colorado, and wished to write about the “Freak Power” movement. Thus, Thompson’s first article in Rolling Stone was published as The Battle of Aspen with the byline “By: Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (Candidate for Sheriff).” Despite the publicity, Thompson narrowly lost the election. While carrying the city of Aspen, he garnered only 44% of the county-wide vote in what had become a two-way race. The Republican candidate agreed to withdraw a few days before the election in order to consolidate the anti-Thompson votes, in return for the Democrats withdrawing their candidate for county commissioner. Thompson later remarked that the Rolling Stone article mobilized his opposition far more than his supporters.
Birth of Gonzo
Also in 1970, Thompson wrote an article entitled “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” for the short-lived new journalism magazine Scanlan’s Monthly. Although it was not widely read, the article was the first to use the techniques of Gonzo journalism, a style Thompson would later employ in almost every literary endeavor. The manic first-person subjectivity of the story was reportedly the result of sheer desperation; he was facing a looming deadline and started sending the magazine pages ripped out of his notebook. Ralph Steadman, who would collaborate with Thompson on several more projects, contributed expressionist pen-and-ink illustrations.
The first use of the word “Gonzo” to describe Thompson’s work is credited to the journalist Bill Cardoso. Cardoso first met Thompson on a bus full of journalists covering the 1968 New Hampshire primary. In 1970, Cardoso (who was then the editor of The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine) wrote to Thompson praising the “Kentucky Derby” piece as a breakthrough: “This is it, this is pure Gonzo. If this is a start, keep rolling.” According to Steadman, Thompson took to the word right away and said, “Okay, that’s what I do. Gonzo.” Thompson’s first published use of the word appears in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: “Free Enterprise. The American Dream. Horatio Alger gone mad on drugs inLas Vegas. Do it now: pure Gonzo journalism.”
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
The book for which Thompson gained most of his fame had its genesis during the research for “Strange Rumblings in Aztlan“, an exposé for Rolling Stone on the 1970 killing of the Mexican-American television journalist Rubén Salazar. Salazar had been shot in the head at close range with a tear gas canister fired by officers of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department during the National Chicano Moratorium March against the Vietnam War. One of Thompson’s sources for the story was Oscar Zeta Acosta, a prominent Mexican-American activist and attorney. Finding it difficult to talk in the racially tense atmosphere of Los Angeles, Thompson and Acosta decided to travel to Las Vegas, and take advantage of an assignment by Sports Illustrated to write a 250-word photograph caption on the Mint 400 motorcycle race held there.
What was to be a short caption quickly grew into something else entirely. Thompson first submitted to Sports Illustrated a manuscript of 2,500 words, which was, as he later wrote, “aggressively rejected.” Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner was said to have liked “the first 20 or so jangled pages enough to take it seriously on its own terms and tentatively scheduled it for publication — which gave me the push I needed to keep working on it”, Thompson later wrote.
The result of the trip to Las Vegas became the 1972 book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which first appeared in the November 1971 issues of Rolling Stone as a two-part series. It is written as a first-person account by a journalist named Raoul Duke on a trip to Las Vegas with Dr. Gonzo, his “300-pound Samoan attorney”, to cover a narcotics officers‘ convention and the “fabulous Mint 400”. During the trip, Duke and his companion (always referred to as “my attorney”) become sidetracked by a search for the American Dream, with “… two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-coloreduppers, downers, screamers, laughers … and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether, and two dozen amyls.”
Coming to terms with the failure of the 1960s countercultural movement is a major theme of the novel, and the book was greeted with considerable critical acclaim, including being heralded by The New York Times as “by far the best book yet written on the decade of dope”. “The Vegas Book”, as Thompson referred to it, was a mainstream success and introduced his Gonzo journalism techniques to a wide public.
Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72
Within the next year, Thompson wrote extensively for Rolling Stone while covering the election campaigns of President Richard Nixon and his unsuccessful opponent, SenatorGeorge McGovern. The articles were soon combined and published as Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. As the title suggests, Thompson spent nearly all of his time traveling the “campaign trail”, focusing largely on the Democratic Party‘s primaries (Nixon, as an incumbent, performed little campaign work) in which McGovern competed with rival candidates Edmund Muskie and Hubert Humphrey. Thompson was an early supporter of McGovern and wrote unflattering coverage of the rival campaigns in the increasingly widely read Rolling Stone.
Thompson went on to become a fierce critic of Nixon, both during and after his presidency. After Nixon’s death in 1994, Thompson famously described him in Rolling Stone as a man who “could shake your hand and stab you in the back at the same time” and said “his casket [should] have been launched into one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles. He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president. [He] was an evil man—evil in a way that only those who believe in the physical reality of the Devil can understand it.” Following Nixon’s pardon by Gerald Ford in 1974, Hunter ruminated on the approximately $400,000 pension Nixon maneuvered his way into by resigning before being formally indicted. While the Washington Post was lamenting Nixon’s “lonely and depressed” state after being forced from the White House, Hunter wrote that ‘[i]f there were any such thing as true justice in this world, his [Nixon’s] rancid carcass would be somewhere down around Easter Island right now, in the belly of a hammerhead shark.’ There was however one passion shared by Thompson and Nixon: a love of football, discussed in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.
According to Jann Wenner, co-founder and publisher of Rolling Stone, Thompson’s journalistic work began to seriously suffer after his trip to Africa to cover “The Rumble in the Jungle” in 1974. He missed the boxing match while intoxicated at his hotel, and did not submit a story to the magazine. Wenner is quoted as saying in the 2008 documentary of Thompson’s life, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, “After Africa he just couldn’t write. He couldn’t piece it together”.
Thompson was to provide Rolling Stone with coverage for the 1976 presidential campaign that would appear in a book published by the magazine. Reportedly, as Thompson was waiting for a $75,000 advance check to arrive, he learned that Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner had cancelled the assignment without informing him. Wenner then asked Thompson to travel to Vietnam to report on what appeared to be the closing of the Vietnam War. Thompson accepted, and left for Saigon immediately. He arrived with the country in chaos, just as South Vietnam was collapsing and other journalists were scrambling to find transportation out of the region. While there, Thompson learned that Wenner had pulled the plug on this excursion as well, and Thompson found himself in Vietnam without health insurance or additional financial support. Thompson’s story about the fall of Saigon would not be published in Rolling Stone until ten years later. These two incidents severely strained the relationship between the author and the magazine, and Thompson contributed far less to the publication in later years.
The year 1980 marked both his divorce from Sandra Conklin and the release of Where the Buffalo Roam, a loose film adaptation of situations from Thompson’s early 1970s work, with Bill Murray starring as the author. Murray would go on to become one of Thompson’s trusted friends. After the lukewarm reception of the film, Thompson temporarily relocated to Hawaii to work on a book, The Curse of Lono, a Gonzo-style account of a marathon held in that state. Extensively illustrated by Ralph Steadman, the piece first appeared in Running magazine in 1981 as “The Charge of the Weird Brigade” and was excerpted in Playboy in 1983.
On July 21, 1981, in Aspen, Colorado, Thompson was pulled over at 2am for running a stop sign, and began to “rave” at a state trooper. Consequently he was arrested, but the drunk-driving charges against him were later dropped.
In 1983, he covered the U.S. invasion of Grenada but would not discuss these experiences until the publication of Kingdom of Fear 20 years later. Later that year he authored a piece for Rolling Stone called “A Dog Took My Place”, an exposé of the scandalous Roxanne Pulitzer divorce and what he termed the “Palm Beach lifestyle.” The article contained dubious insinuations of bestiality (among other things) but was considered to be a return to proper form by many. Shortly thereafter, Thompson accepted an advance to write about “couples pornography” for Playboy. As part of his research, in the spring of 1985 he spent evenings at the Mitchell Brothers O’Farrell Theater striptease club in San Francisco and his experience there eventually evolved into a full-length novel tentatively titled The Night Manager. Neither the novel nor the article has been published.
At the behest of old friend and editor Warren Hinckle, Thompson became a media critic for the San Francisco Examiner, writing a weekly column for the newspaper in the mid-to-late 1980s. Thompson’s editor at the Examiner, David McCumber (who wrote a Mitchell brothers biography not long after Jim Mitchell fatally shot his brother Art in 1991), would later ruminate on the erratic quality of Thompson’s writing by this juncture, opining that “one week it would be acid-soaked gibberish with a charm of its own. The next week it would be incisive political analysis of the highest order…”
In 1990, former porn director Gail Palmer visited Thompson’s home in Woody Creek. She later accused him of sexual assault, claiming that he twisted her breast when she refused to join him in the hot tub. She also described cocaine use to authorities. A six person 11-hour search of Thompson’s home turned up various kinds of drugs and a few sticks of dynamite. All charges were dismissed after a pre-trial hearing. Thompson would later describe this experience at length in Kingdom of Fear.
By the early 1990s, Thompson was said to be working on a novel called Polo Is My Life, which was briefly excerpted in Rolling Stone in 1994, and which Thompson himself described in 1996 as “… a sex book — you know, sex, drugs and rock and roll. It’s about the manager of a sex theater who’s forced to leave and flee to the mountains. He falls in love and gets in even more trouble than he was in the sex theater in San Francisco“. The novel was slated to be released by Random House in 1999, and was even assigned ISBN 0-679-40694-8, but was not published.
Thompson continued to contribute irregularly to Rolling Stone. “Fear and Loathing in Elko”, published in 1992, was a well-received fictional rallying cry against Clarence Thomas, while “Mr. Bill’s Neighborhood” was a largely non-fictional account of an interview with Bill Clinton at a Little Rock, Arkansas steakhouse. Rather than embarking on the campaign trail as he had done in previous presidential elections, Thompson monitored the proceedings from cable television; Better Than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie, his account of the 1992 Presidential Election campaign, is composed of reactionary faxes sent to Rolling Stone. A decade later, he contributed “Fear and Loathing, Campaign 2004″—an account of a road jaunt with John Kerry during his presidential campaign that would be Thompson’s final magazine feature.
Thompson was named a Kentucky Colonel by the Governor of Kentucky in a December 1996 tribute ceremony where he also received keys to the city of Louisville.
The Gonzo Papers
Despite publishing a novel and numerous newspaper and magazine articles, the majority of Thompson’s literary output after the late 1970s took the form of a 4-volume series of books called The Gonzo Papers. Beginning with The Great Shark Hunt in 1979 and ending with Better Than Sex in 1994, the series is largely a collection of rare newspaper and magazine pieces from the pre-gonzo period, along with almost all of his Rolling Stone short pieces, excerpts from the Fear and Loathing books, and so on.
By the late 1970s, Thompson received complaints from critics, fans and friends that he was regurgitating his past glories without much new on his part; these concerns are alluded to in the introduction of The Great Shark Hunt, where Thompson suggested that his “old self” committed suicide.
Perhaps in response to this, as well as the strained relationship with Rolling Stone, and the failure of his marriage, Thompson became more reclusive after 1980. He would often retreat to his compound in Woody Creek and reject assignments or refuse to complete them. Despite the dearth of new material, Wenner kept Thompson on the Rolling Stonemasthead as chief of the “National Affairs Desk”, a position he would hold until his death.
Fear and Loathing redux
Thompson’s work was popularized again with the 1998 release of the film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which opened to considerable fanfare. The book was reprinted to coincide with the film, and Thompson’s work was introduced to a new generation of readers. Soon thereafter, his “long lost” novel The Rum Diary was published, as were the first two volumes of his collected letters, which were greeted with critical acclaim.
In July 2000, Thompson accidentally shot his assistant, Deborah Fuller, while attempting to scare a bear away from her lodging on The Owl Farm. He fired a shotgun at the ground near the bear, and the pellets ricocheted upward, hitting her in in the right arm and leg. She was quoted as saying “I screamed ‘You son of a bitch, you shot me.’ And poor Hunter. I don’t think I had ever seen him run so fast. He felt horrible.” No charges were filed for the incident.
Thompson’s next, and penultimate, collection, Kingdom of Fear, combined new material, selected newspaper clippings, and some older works. Released in 2003, it was perceived by critics to be an angry, vitriolic commentary on the passing of the American Century, and the state of affairs after the September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Thompson married Anita Bejmuk, on April 23, 2003.
Thompson completed his journalism career in the same way it had begun: writing about sports. Thompson penned a weekly column called “Hey, Rube” for ESPN.com’s “Page 2“. The column ran from 2000 until his death in 2005. Simon & Schuster bundled many of the columns from the first few years and released it in mid-2004 as Hey Rube: Blood Sport, the Bush Doctrine, and the Downward Spiral of Dumbness.
Thompson died at Owl Farm, his “fortified compound” in Woody Creek, Colorado, at 5:42 p.m. on February 20, 2005, from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. His son Juan, daughter-in-law Jennifer, and grandson Will were visiting for the weekend. Will and Jennifer were in the next room when they heard the gunshot, but they mistook the sound for a book falling and didn’t check on him immediately.
Anita Thompson, who was at The Aspen Club, was on the phone with her husband as he cocked the gun. According to the Aspen Daily News, he asked her to come home to help him write his ESPN column, and then set the receiver on the counter. Mistaking the cocking of the gun for the sound of his typewriter keys, she hung up as he fired it.
Juan Thompson found his father’s body. According to the police report and Anita’s cell phone records, he called the sheriff’s department a half-hour later, and then walked outside and fired three shotgun blasts into the air. “Juan told me he had shot a shotgun into the air to mark the passing of his father,” Pitkin County Deputy Sheriff John Armstrong said.
The police report stated that in Thompson’s typewriter was “a piece of paper carrying the date ‘Feb 22 ’05’ and the single word ‘counselor’.”
Those present told the press that they did not believe his suicide was out of desperation, but was a premeditated act resulting from his many painful and chronic medical conditions, which included a hip replacement. What Doug Brinkley describes as a suicide note written by Thompson to his wife was later published by Rolling Stone in the September issue No. 983. Titled “Football Season Is Over”, it read:
- “No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun — for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your (old) age. Relax — This won’t hurt.”
Artist-collaborator and friend Ralph Steadman wrote:
- “… He told me 25 years ago that he would feel real trapped if he didn’t know that he could commit suicide at any moment. I don’t know if that is brave or stupid or what, but it was inevitable. I think that the truth of what rings through all his writing is that he meant what he said. If that is entertainment to you, well, that’s OK. If you think that it enlightened you, well, that’s even better. If you wonder if he’s gone to Heaven or Hell, rest assured he will check out them both, find out which one Richard Milhous Nixonwent to — and go there. He could never stand being bored. But there must be Football too — and Peacocks …”
On August 20, 2005, in a private funeral, Thompson’s ashes were fired from a cannon. This was accompanied by red, white, blue and green fireworks-all to the tune of Norman Greenbaum‘s “Spirit in the Sky” and Bob Dylan‘s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” The cannon was placed atop a 153-foot (47 m) tower which had the shape of a double-thumbed fist clutching a peyote button, a symbol originally used in his 1970 campaign for Sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado. The plans for the monument were initially drawn by Thompson and Steadman, and were shown as part of an Omnibus program on the BBC titled Fear and Loathing in Gonzovision (1978). It is included as a special feature on the second disc of the 2003 Criterion Collection DVD release of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and labeled as Fear and Loathing on the Road to Hollywood.
According to his widow, Anita, the funeral was funded by actor Johnny Depp, who was a close friend of Thompson. Depp told the Associated Press, “All I’m doing is trying to make sure his last wish comes true. I just want to send my pal out the way he wants to go out.” An estimated 280 people attended, including U.S. Senators John Kerry andGeorge McGovern; 60 Minutes correspondents Ed Bradley and Charlie Rose; actors Jack Nicholson, John Cusack, Bill Murray, Benicio del Toro, Sean Penn, and Josh Hartnett; singers Lyle Lovett, John Oates and David Amram, and artist and long-time friend Ralph Steadman.
Thompson is often credited as the creator of Gonzo journalism, a style of writing that blurs distinctions between fiction and nonfiction. His work and style are considered to be a major part of the New Journalism literary movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which attempted to break free from the purely objective style of mainstream reportage of the time. Thompson almost always wrote in the first person, while extensively using his own experiences and emotions to color “the story” he was trying to follow. His writing aimed to be humorous, colorful and bizarre, and he often exaggerated events to be more entertaining. The term Gonzo has since been applied in kind to numerous other forms of highly subjective artistic expression.
Despite his having personally described his work as “Gonzo”, it fell to later observers to articulate what the term actually meant. While Thompson’s approach clearly involved injecting himself as a participant in the events of the narrative, it also involved adding invented, metaphoric elements, thus creating, for the uninitiated reader, a seemingly confusing amalgam of facts and fiction notable for the deliberately blurred lines between one and the other. Thompson, in a 1974 Interview in Playboy addressed the issue himself, saying “Unlike Tom Wolfe or Gay Talese, I almost never try to reconstruct a story. They’re both much better reporters than I am, but then, I don’t think of myself as a reporter.” Tom Wolfe would later describe Thompson’s style as “… part journalism and part personal memoir admixed with powers of wild invention and wilder rhetoric.” Or as one description of the differences between Thompson and Wolfe’s styles would elaborate, “While Tom Wolfe mastered the technique of being a fly on the wall, Thompson mastered the art of being a fly in the ointment.”
The majority of Thompson’s most popular and acclaimed work appeared within the pages of Rolling Stone magazine. Along with Joe Eszterhas and David Felton, Thompson was instrumental in expanding the focus of the magazine past music criticism; indeed, Thompson was the only staff writer of the epoch never to contribute a music feature to the magazine. Nevertheless, his articles were always peppered with a wide array of pop music references ranging from Howlin’ Wolf to Lou Reed. Armed with early fax machines wherever he went, he became notorious for haphazardly sending sometimes illegible material to the magazine’s San Francisco offices as an issue was about to go to press.
Robert Love, Thompson’s editor of 23 years at Rolling Stone, wrote that “the dividing line between fact and fancy rarely blurred, and we didn’t always use italics or some other typographical device to indicate the lurch into the fabulous. But if there were living, identifiable humans in a scene, we took certain steps … Hunter was a close friend of many prominent Democrats, veterans of the ten or more presidential campaigns he covered, so when in doubt, we’d call the press secretary. ‘People will believe almost any twisted kind of story about politicians or Washington,’ he once said, and he was right.”
Discerning the line between the fact and the fiction of Thompson’s work presented a practical problem for editors and fact-checkers of his work. Love called fact-checking Thompson’s work “one of the sketchiest occupations ever created in the publishing world”, and “for the first-timer … a trip through a journalistic fun house, where you didn’t know what was real and what wasn’t. You knew you had better learn enough about the subject at hand to know when the riff began and reality ended. Hunter was a stickler for numbers, for details like gross weight and model numbers, for lyrics and caliber, and there was no faking it.”
Thompson often used a blend of fiction and fact when portraying himself in his writing as well, sometimes using the name Raoul Duke as an author surrogate whom he generally described as a callous, erratic, self-destructive journalist who constantly drank alcohol and took hallucinogenic drugs. Fantasizing about causing bodily harm to others was also a characteristic in his work used to comedic effect and an example of his brand of humor.
In the late sixties, Thompson acquired his famous title of “Doctor” from the Universal Life Church. He later preferred to be called Dr. Thompson, and his “alter-ego” Raoul Dukecalled himself a “doctor of journalism”. Thompson was as fond of personae as W.C. Fields: besides “Raoul Duke”, Thompson also toyed with the idea of taking the names “Jefferson Rank”, “Gene Skinner”, and “Sebastian Owl” for various purposes literary and non-literary, naming his “compound” in Woody Creek, Colorado, “Owl Farm” after the last of these.
A number of critics have commented that as he grew older the line that distinguished Thompson from his literary self became increasingly blurred. Thompson himself admitted during a 1978 BBC interview that he sometimes felt pressured to live up to the fictional self that he had created, adding “I’m never sure which one people expect me to be. Very often, they conflict — most often, as a matter of fact. … I’m leading a normal life and right along side me there is this myth, and it is growing and mushrooming and getting more and more warped. When I get invited to, say, speak at universities, I’m not sure if they are inviting Duke or Thompson. I’m not sure who to be.”
Thompson’s writing style and eccentric persona gave him a cult following in both literary and drug circles, and his cult status expanded into broader areas after being portrayed three times in major motion pictures. Hence, both his writing style and persona have been widely imitated, and his likeness has even become a popular costume choice forHalloween.
In the documentary Breakfast with Hunter, Hunter S. Thompson is seen in several scenes wearing different Che Guevara T-shirts. Additionally, actor and friend Benicio del Torohas stated that Thompson kept a “big” picture of Che in his kitchen.
Although Thompson rarely personally endorsed political labels or programs in his writings, in his letters he expressed affinity with the far left. In a 1965 letter to his friend Paul Semonin, Thompson explained an affection for the Industrial Workers of the World, “I have in recent months come to have a certain feeling for Joe Hill and the Wobbly crowd who, if nothing else, had the right idea. But not the right mechanics. I believe the IWW was probably the last human concept in American politics.” In another letter to Semonin, Thompson wrote that he agreed with Karl Marx, and compared him to Thomas Jefferson. In a letter to William Kennedy, Thompson confided that he was “coming to view thefree enterprise system as the single greatest evil in the history of human savagery.”
Thompson wrote passionately on behalf of African American rights and the African American Civil Rights Movement. He strongly criticized the dominance in American society of, what he called, “white power structures”. He was a proponent of the right to bear arms and privacy rights. A member of the National Rifle Association, Thompson was also co-creator of “The Fourth Amendment Foundation”, an organization to assist victims in defending themselves against unwarranted search and seizure.
Part of his work with The Fourth Amendment Foundation centered around support of Lisl Auman, a Colorado woman who was sentenced for life in 1997 under felony murdercharges for the death of police officer Bruce VanderJagt, despite contradictory statements and dubious evidence. Thompson organized rallies, provided legal support, and co-wrote an article in the June 2004 issue of Vanity Fair outlining the case. The Colorado Supreme Court eventually overturned Auman’s sentence in March 2005, shortly after Thompson’s death, and Auman is now free. Auman’s supporters claim Thompson’s support and publicity resulted in the successful appeal.
Thompson was a firearms and explosives enthusiast (in his writing and in life) and owned a vast collection of handguns, rifles, shotguns, and various automatic and semi-automatic weapons, along with numerous forms of gaseous crowd control and many homemade devices.
Thompson was also an ardent supporter of drug legalization and became known for his detailed accounts of his own drug use. He was an early supporter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and served on the group’s advisory board for over 30 years, until his death. He told an interviewer in 1997 that drugs should be legalized “[a]cross the board. It might be a little rough on some people for a while, but I think it’s the only way to deal with drugs. Look at Prohibition: all it did was make a lot of criminals rich.”
After the September 11 attacks, Thompson voiced skepticism regarding the official story on who was responsible for the attacks. He speculated to several interviewers that it may have been conducted by the U.S. Government or with the government’s assistance, though readily admitting he had no way to prove his theory.
In 2004, Thompson wrote: “Nixon was a professional politician, and I despised everything he stood for—but if he were running for president this year against the evilBush–Cheney gang, I would happily vote for him.”
Thompson wrote a number of books, publishing from 1966 to the end of his life. His best-known works include Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and The Rum Diary.
As a journalist over the course of decades, Thompson published numerous articles in various periodicals. He wrote for many publications, including Rolling Stone, Esquire, The Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, Time, Vanity Fair, The San Juan Star, and Playboy. He was also guest editor for a single edition of The Aspen Daily News. A collection of his articles for Rolling Stone was released in 2011 as Fear and Loathing at Rolling Stone: The Essential Writings of Hunter S. Thompson. The book was edited by the magazine’s co-founder and publisher, Jann S. Wenner, who also provided an introduction to the collection.
Thompson wrote many letters, which were his primary means of personal communication. He made carbon copies of all his letters, usually typed, a habit begun in his teenage years.
The Fear and Loathing Letters, is a planned three-volume collection of selections from Thompson’s correspondence, edited by the historian Douglas Brinkley. The first volume,The Proud Highway was published in 1997, and contains letters from 1955 to 1967. Fear and Loathing in America was published in 2000 and contains letters dating from 1968 to 1976. A third volume, titled The Mutineer: Rants, Ravings, and Missives from the Mountaintop 1977–2005 has yet to be published.
Accompanying the eccentric and colorful writing of Hunter Thompson, illustrations by British artist Ralph Steadman offer visual representations of the Gonzo style. Steadman and Thompson developed a close friendship, and often traveled together. Though his illustrations occur in most of Thompson’s books, they are conspicuously featured in full page color in Thompson’s The Curse of Lono, set in Hawaii.
Thompson was an avid amateur photographer throughout his life and his photos have been exhibited since his death at art galleries in the United States and United Kingdom. In late 2006, AMMO Books published a limited-edition 224-page collection of Thompson photos called Gonzo, with an introduction by Johnny Depp. Thompson’s snapshots were a combination of the subjects he was covering, stylized self-portraits, and artistic still life photos. The London Observer called the photos “astonishingly good” and that “Thompson’s pictures remind us, brilliantly in every sense, of very real people, real colours.”
The film Where the Buffalo Roam (1980) depicts heavily fictionalized attempts by Thompson to cover the Super Bowl and the 1972 U.S. presidential election. It stars Bill Murrayas Thompson and Peter Boyle as Thompson’s attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta, referred to in the movie as Carl Lazlo, Esq.
The 1998 film adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was directed by Monty Python veteran Terry Gilliam, and starred Johnny Depp (who moved into Thompson’s basement to “study” Thompson’s persona before assuming his role in the film) as Raoul Duke and Benicio del Toro as Dr. Gonzo. The film has achieved something of a cult following.
The film adaptation of Thompson’s novel The Rum Diary was released in October 2011, also starring Johnny Depp as the main character, Paul Kemp. The novel’s premise was inspired by Thompson’s own experiences in Puerto Rico. The film was written and directed by Bruce Robinson.
At a press junket for The Rum Diary shortly before the film’s release, Depp said that he would like to adapt The Curse of Lono, “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved“, and Hell’s Angels for the big screen: “I’d just keep playing Hunter. There’s a great comfort in it for me, because I get a great visit with my old friend who I miss dearly.”
Fear and Loathing in Gonzovision (1978) is an extended television profile by the BBC. It can be found on disc 2 of The Criterion Collection edition of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
The Mitchell brothers, owners of the O’Farrell Theatre in San Francisco, made a documentary about Thompson in 1988 called Hunter S. Thompson: The Crazy Never Die.
Wayne Ewing created three documentaries about Thompson. The film Breakfast with Hunter (2003) was directed and edited by Ewing. It documents Thompson’s work on the movie Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, his arrest for drunk driving, and his subsequent fight with the court system. When I Die (2005) is a video chronicle of making Thompson’s final farewell wishes a reality, and documents the send-off itself. Free Lisl: Fear and Loathing in Denver (2006) chronicles Thompson efforts in helping to free Lisl Auman, who was sentenced to life in prison without parole for the shooting of a police officer, a crime she didn’t commit. All three films are only available online.
In Come on Down: Searching for the American Dream (2004) Thompson gives director Adamm Liley insight into the nature of the American Dream over drinks at the Woody Creek Tavern.
Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride: Hunter S. Thompson on Film (2006) was directed by Tom Thurman, written by Tom Marksbury, and produced by the Starz Entertainment Group. The original documentary features interviews with Thompson’s inner circle of family and friends, but the thrust of the film focuses on the manner in which his life often overlapped with numerous Hollywood celebrities who became his close friends, such as Johnny Depp, Benicio del Toro, Bill Murray, Sean Penn, John Cusack, Thompson’s wife Anita, son Juan, former Senators George McGovern and Gary Hart, writers Tom Wolfe and William F. Buckley, actors Gary Busey and Harry Dean Stanton, and the illustrator Ralph Steadman among others.
Blasted!!! The Gonzo Patriots of Hunter S. Thompson (2006), produced, directed, photographed and edited by Blue Kraning, is a documentary about the scores of fans who volunteered their privately owned artillery to fire the ashes of the late author, Hunter S. Thompson. Blasted!!! premiered at the 2006 Starz Denver International Film Festival, part of a tribute series to Hunter S. Thompson held at the Denver Press Club.
In 2008, Academy Award-winning documentarian Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side) wrote and directed a documentary on Thompson, titled Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. The film premiered on January 20, 2008, at the Sundance Film Festival. Gibney uses intimate, never-before-seen home videos, interviews with friends, enemies and lovers, and clips from films adapted from Thompson’s material to document his turbulent life.
Lou Stein’s adaptation of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” was performed at the Battersea theatre. Stein persuades London’s ‘Time Out’ Magazine to put Thompson up for a fortnight, in exchange for him writing a cover story to publicize the play. Thompson doesn’t write the story, but does rampage around London on Time Out’s expense account. The play was revived for the Vault Fringe Festival in 2014.
GONZO: A Brutal Chrysalis is a one-man show about Thompson written by Paul Addis, who also played the author. Set in the writing den of Thompson’s Woody Creek home, the show portrays his life between 1968 and 1971. James Cartee began playing the role soon after Addis’s arrest in 2009, and again after Addis’s death in 2012.
Accolades and tributes
- Author Tom Wolfe has called Thompson the greatest American comic writer of the 20th century.
- Asked in an interview with Jody Denberg on KGSR Studio, in 2000, whether he would ever consider writing a book “like [his] buddy Hunter S. Thompson”, the musicianWarren Zevon responded: “Let’s remember that Hunter S. Thompson is the finest writer of our generation; he didn’t just toss off a book the other day…” 
- Thompson appeared on the cover of the 1,000th issue of Rolling Stone, May 18 – June 1, 2006, as a devil playing the guitar next to the two “L”‘s in the word “Rolling”. Johnny Depp also appeared on the cover.
- The Thompson-inspired character Uncle Duke appears on a recurring basis in Doonesbury, the daily newspaper comic strip by Garry Trudeau. When the character was first introduced, Thompson protested, quoted in an interview as saying that he would set Trudeau on fire if the two ever met, although it was reported that he liked the character in later years. Between March 7, 2005 (roughly two weeks after Thompson’s suicide) and March 12, 2005, Doonesbury ran a tribute to Hunter, with Uncle Duke lamenting the death of the man he called his “inspiration”. The first of these strips featured a panel with artwork similar to that of Ralph Steadman, and later strips featured various non-sequiturs (with Duke variously transforming into a monster, melting, shrinking to the size of an empty drinking glass, or people around him turning into animals) which seemed to mirror some of the effects of hallucinogenic drugs described in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
*^ The name of the Hells Angels motorcycle club has no apostrophe, but in the title and in the text of Thompson’s book a possessive apostrophe was added to the name, rendering it as Hell’s Angels.
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