For the musician, see Hunter G.K. Thompson.
|Hunter S. Thompson|
Thompson in 1971, left, with his lawyer, Oscar Zeta Acosta
|Born||Hunter Stockton Thompson|
(1937-07-18)July 18, 1937
Louisville, Kentucky, U.S.
|Died||February 20, 2005(2005-02-20) (aged 67)|
Woody Creek, Colorado, U.S.
|Literary movement||New Journalism|
|Notable works||Hell's Angels|
The Rum Diary
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72
The Curse of Lono
|Spouse||Sandra Conklin (m. 1963; div. 1980)|
Anita Bejmuk (m. 2003; his death 2005)
Hunter Stockton Thompson (July 18, 1937 – February 20, 2005) was an American journalist and author, and the founder of the gonzo journalism movement. 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 the United 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 adapted into a film starring Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro 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, who 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."
After a bout of health problems, Thompson committed suicide at the age of 67. In accordance with his wishes, his ashes were fired out of a cannon in a ceremony funded by his friend Johnny Depp and attended by friends including then-Senator John Kerry and 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 of Virginia Ray Davison (1908, Springfield, Kentucky – March 20, 1998, Louisville), who worked as head librarian at the Louisville Free Public Library and Jack Robert Thompson (September 4, 1893, Horse Cave, Kentucky – July 3, 1952, Louisville), a public insurance adjuster and World War I veteran. His parents were introduced to each other by a friend from Jack's fraternity at the University of Kentucky in September 1934, and married on November 2, 1935. Thompson's first name came from a purported ancestor on his mother's side, the Scottish surgeon John Hunter. Hunter Stockton was named for his maternal grandparents, Prestly Stockton Ray and Lucille 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 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. Ultimately he never joined any sports teams in high school.
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 dated to 1862. Its members at the time, generally drawn from Louisville's wealthy upper-class families, included Porter Bibb, who later became the first publisher of Rolling Stone at Thompson's behest. During this time Thompson read and admired J. P. Donleavy's The Ginger Man.
As an Athenaeum member, Thompson contributed articles to and helped produce the club's yearbookThe Spectator. The group ejected Thompson in 1955, citing his legal problems. Charged as an accessory to robbery after being in a car with the perpetrator, Thompson was sentenced to 60 days in Kentucky's Jefferson County Jail. He served 31 days and, a week after his release, 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 the Air Force's aviation-cadet program rejected his application. 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 Command Courier by lying about his job experience. As sports editor, Thompson traveled around the United States with the Eglin Eagles football team, 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 November 1957 as an Airman First Class, his commanding officer having recommended him for an early honorable discharge. "In summary, this airman, although talented, will not be guided by policy," chief of information services Colonel William S. Evans 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, Thompson worked as sports editor for a newspaper in Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania, before relocating to New York City. There he audited several courses at the Columbia 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 for a few stateside papers on Caribbean issues, with Kennedy working as his editor. After returning to the States, Thompson hitchhiked across the United States along U.S. Highway 40, eventually ending up in Big Sur working as a security guard and caretaker at Slates 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 his unflattering portrayal of Big Sur was not well-received by the residents. His over-the-top antics were finally too much for Vinnie MacDonald Murphy, the owner of Slates Hot Springs. Even though Thompson promised to "retreat down to the rocks or up in the canyon whenever I feel the need to shoot," she evicted him on August 12, 1961.
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.
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 (a.k.a. Sandy Conklin Thompson, now Sondi Wright) later joined him in Rio. They 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 told of 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 the Berkeleyunderground paperSpider.
See also: Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs
In 1965 Carey McWilliams, editor of The Nation, hired Thompson to write a story about the Hells Angels*motorcycle club in California. The article appeared on May 17, 1965, and after that Thompson received several book offers and spent the next year living and riding with the club. 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 Thompson suffering a savage beating (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 the work 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 in Fear 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 a down 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 book was never finished, and the theme of the death of the American dream would be carried over into his later work. 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 run for re-election, and the deal was cancelled.
See also: The Battle of Aspen
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 the crew cut-wearing Republican candidate as "my long-haired opponent."
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
Main article: Gonzo journalism
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. For that article, editor Warren Hinckle paired Thompson with illustrator Ralph Steadman, who drew expressionist illustrations with lipstick and eyeliner. Thompson and Steadman collaborated regularly after that. 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.
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 in Las Vegas. Do it now: pure Gonzo journalism."
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Main article: 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-colored uppers, 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
Main article: Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72
Beginning in late 1971 Thompson wrote extensively for Rolling Stone on election campaigns of President Richard Nixon and his unsuccessful opponent, Senator George 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 the Republican 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 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"—the world heavyweight boxing match between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali—in 1974. He missed the match while intoxicated at his hotel, and did not submit a story to the magazine. Wenner is quoted by the film critic Roger Ebert 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.
By the late 1970s, Thompson had 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.
The majority of Thompson's literary output after the late 1970s took the form of a four-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.
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.
In addition to his divorce from Sandra Conklin, 1980 marked 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, at the behest of Terry McDonell, 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 Theatrestriptease 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.
Shortly thereafter, Thompson became a media critic for The San Francisco Examiner, writing a weekly syndicated column for the newspaper in the mid-to-late 1980s. The position was arranged by old friend and fellow Examiner columnist Warren Hinckle. Thompson's editor at the Examiner, David McCumber (who would go on to write a Mitchell brothers biography not long after Jim Mitchell fatally shot his brother Art in 1991), has ruminated 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..." Many of these columns were published in Gonzo Papers, Vol. 2: Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the '80s (1988) and Gonzo Papers, Vol. 3: Songs of the Doomed: More Notes on the Death of the American Dream (1990; a bricolage of autobiographical reminiscences, recent articles and previously unpublished material).
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 publish irregularly in Rolling Stone, ultimately contributing to seventeen pieces in the magazine between 1984 and 2004. "Fear and Loathing in Elko," published in 1992, was a well-received fictional rallying cry against Clarence Thomas, while "Trapped in 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. In 1994, the magazine published "He Was a Crook," Thompson's "scathing" obituary of Richard Nixon. In November 2004, Rolling Stone published his final magazine feature ("The Fun-Hogs in the Passing Lane: Fear and Loathing, Campaign 2004"), a brief account of the 2004 presidential election in which he compared the outcome of Bush v. Gore to the Reichstag fire and formally endorsed SenatorJohn Kerry, a longstanding friend.
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.
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 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: Loathsome Secrets of a Star-Crossed Child In the Final Days of the American Century, was widely publicized as Thompson's first memoir; in practice, the text combined new material (including reminiscences of the O'Farrell Theater), selected newspaper and digital clippings, and other older works in the expected fashion. 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 completed his journalism career in the same way it had begun: writing about sports. From 2000 until his death in 2005, he penned a weekly column called "Hey, Rube" for ESPN.com's Page 2. 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 married assistant Anita Bejmuk on April 23, 2003.
At 5:42 p.m. on February 20, 2005 Thompson died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head at Owl Farm, his "fortified compound" in Woody Creek, Colorado. His son Juan, daughter-in-law Jennifer, and grandson were visiting for the weekend. His wife Anita, who was at the Aspen Club, was on the phone with him as he cocked the gun. According to the Aspen Daily News, Thompson asked her to come home to help him write his ESPN column, then set the receiver on the counter. Anita said she mistook the cocking of the gun for the sound of his typewriter keys and hung up as he fired. Will and Jennifer were in the next room when they heard the gunshot, but mistook the sound for a book falling and did not check on Thompson immediately. Juan Thompson found his father's body. According to the police report and Anita's cell phone records, he called the sheriff's department half an hour later, then walked outside and fired three shotgun blasts into the air to "mark the passing of his father". The police report stated that in Thompson's typewriter was a piece of paper with the date “Feb. 22 ‘05” and a single word, "counselor".
Thompson's inner circle told the press that he had been depressed and always found February a "gloomy" month, with football season over and the harsh Colorado winter weather. He was also upset over his advancing age and chronic medical problems, including a hip replacement; he would frequently mutter "This kid is getting old." Rolling Stone published what Doug Brinkley described as a suicide note written by Thompson to his wife, 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."
Thompson's 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 Nixon went 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 2004 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 $3 million 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 and George McGovern;60 Minutes correspondents Ed Bradley and Charlie Rose; actors Jack Nicholson, John Cusack, Bill Murray, Benicio del Toro, Sean Penn, and Josh Hartnett; musicians Lyle Lovett, John Oates and David Amram, and artist and long-time friend Ralph Steadman.
Main article: Gonzo journalism
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."
Main article: Raoul Duke
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 Duke called 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 alongside 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 for Halloween.
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. 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 murder charges 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 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."
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 the free enterprise system as the single greatest evil in the history of human savagery." 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 Toro has stated that Thompson kept a "big" picture of Che in his kitchen. Thompson wrote on behalf of African-American rights and the Civil Rights Movement. He strongly criticized the dominance in American society of, what he called, "white power structures".
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 bythe 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 evil Bush–Cheney gang, I would happily vote for him."
Main article: Hunter S. Thompson bibliography
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, The San Francisco Examiner, 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 100 of his columns from The San Francisco Examiner was published in 1988 as Gonzo Papers, Vol. 2: Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the '80s. 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
In an October 1957 letter to a friend who had recommended he read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, Hunter S. Thompson wrote, “Although I don’t feel that it’s at all necessary to tell you how I feel about the principle of individuality, I know that I’m going to have to spend the rest of my life expressing it one way or another, and I think that I’ll accomplish more by expressing it on the keys of a typewriter than by letting it express itself in sudden outbursts of frustrated violence. . . .”
Thompson carved out his niche early. He was born in 1937, in Louisville, Kentucky, where his fiction and poetry earned him induction into the local Athenaeum Literary Association while he was still in high school. Thompson continued his literary pursuits in the United States Air Force, writing a weekly sports column for the base newspaper. After two years of service, Thompson endured a series of newspaper jobs—all of which ended badly—before he took to freelancing from Puerto Rico and South America for a variety of publications. The vocation quickly developed into a compulsion.
Thompson completed The Rum Diary, his only novel to date, before he turned twenty-five; bought by Ballantine Books, it finally was published—to glowing reviews—in 1998. In 1967, Thompson published his first nonfiction book, Hell’s Angels, a harsh and incisive firsthand investigation into the infamous motorcycle gang then making the heartland of America nervous.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which first appeared in Rolling Stone in November 1971, sealed Thompson’s reputation as an outlandish stylist successfully straddling the line between journalism and fiction writing. As the subtitle warns, the book tells of “a savage journey to the heart of the American Dream” in full-tilt gonzo style—Thompson’s hilarious first-person approach—and is accented by British illustrator Ralph Steadman’s appropriate drawings.
His next book, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72, was a brutally perceptive take on the 1972 Nixon-McGovern presidential campaign. A self-confessed political junkie, Thompson chronicled the 1992 presidential campaign in Better than Sex (1994). Thompson’s other books include The Curse of Lono (1983), a bizarre South Seas tale, and three collections of Gonzo Papers: The Great Shark Hunt (1979), Generation of Swine (1988) and Songs of the Doomed (1990).
In 1997, The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955-1967, the first volume of Thompson’s correspondence with everyone from his mother to Lyndon Johnson, was published. The second volume of letters, Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist, 1968-1976, has just been released.
Located in the mostly posh neighborhood of western Colorado’s Woody Creek Canyon, ten miles or so down-valley from Aspen, Owl Farm is a rustic ranch with an old-fashioned Wild West charm. Although Thompson’s beloved peacocks roam his property freely, it’s the flowers blooming around the ranch house that provide an unexpected high-country tranquility. Jimmy Carter, George McGovern and Keith Richards, among dozens of others, have shot clay pigeons and stationary targets on the property, which is a designated Rod and Gun Club and shares a border with the White River National Forest. Almost daily, Thompson leaves Owl Farm in either his Great Red Shark Convertible or Jeep Grand Cherokee to mingle at the nearby Woody Creek Tavern.
Visitors to Thompson’s house are greeted by a variety of sculptures, weapons, boxes of books and a bicycle before entering the nerve center of Owl Farm, Thompson’s obvious command post on the kitchen side of a peninsula counter that separates him from a lounge area dominated by an always-on Panasonic TV, always tuned to news or sports. An antique upright piano is piled high and deep enough with books to engulf any reader for a decade. Above the piano hangs a large Ralph Steadman portrait of “Belinda”—the Slut Goddess of Polo. On another wall covered with political buttons hangs a Che Guevara banner acquired on Thompson’s last tour of Cuba. On the counter sits an IBM Selectric typewriter—a Macintosh computer is set up in an office in the back wing of the house.
The most striking thing about Thompson’s house is that it isn’t the weirdness one notices first: it’s the words. They’re everywhere—handwritten in his elegant lettering, mostly in fading red Sharpie on the blizzard of bits of paper festooning every wall and surface: stuck to the sleek black leather refrigerator, taped to the giant TV, tacked up on the lampshades; inscribed by others on framed photos with lines like, “For Hunter, who saw not only fear and loathing, but hope and joy in ’72—George McGovern”; typed in IBM Selectric on reams of originals and copies in fat manila folders that slide in piles off every counter and table top; and noted in many hands and inks across the endless flurry of pages.
Thompson extricates his large frame from his ergonomically correct office chair facing the TV and lumbers over graciously to administer a hearty handshake or kiss to each caller according to gender, all with an easy effortlessness and unexpectedly old-world way that somehow underscores just who is in charge.
We talked with Thompson for twelve hours straight. This was nothing out of the ordinary for the host: Owl Farm operates like an eighteenth-century salon, where people from all walks of life congregate in the wee hours for free exchanges about everything from theoretical physics to local water rights, depending on who’s there. Walter Isaacson, managing editor of Time, was present during parts of this interview, as were a steady stream of friends. Given the very late hours Thompson keeps, it is fitting that the most prominently posted quote in the room, in Thompson’s hand, twists the last line of Dylan Thomas’s poem “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night”: “Rage, rage against the coming of the light.”
For most of the half-day that we talked, Thompson sat at his command post, chain-smoking red Dunhills through a German-made gold-tipped cigarette filter and rocking back and forth in his swivel chair. Behind Thompson’s sui generis personality lurks a trenchant humorist with a sharp moral sensibility. His exaggerated style may defy easy categorization, but his career-long autopsy on the death of the American dream places him among the twentieth century’s most exciting writers. The comic savagery of his best work will continue to electrify readers for generations to come.
. . . I have stolen more quotes and thoughts and purely elegant little starbursts of writing from the Book of Revelation than from anything else in the English Language—and it is not because I am a biblical scholar, or because of any religious faith, but because I love the wild power of the language and the purity of the madness that governs it and makes it music.
HUNTER S. THOMPSON
Well, wanting to and having to are two different things. Originally I hadn’t thought about writing as a solution to my problems. But I had a good grounding in literature in high school. We’d cut school and go down to a café on Bardstown Road where we would drink beer and read and discuss Plato’s parable of the cave. We had a literary society in town, the Athenaeum; we met in coat and tie on Saturday nights. I hadn’t adjusted too well to society—I was in jail for the night of my high school graduation—but I learned at the age of fifteen that to get by you had to find the one thing you can do better than anybody else . . . at least this was so in my case. I figured that out early. It was writing. It was the rock in my sock. Easier than algebra. It was always work, but it was always worthwhile work. I was fascinated early by seeing my byline in print. It was a rush. Still is.
When I got to the Air Force, writing got me out of trouble. I was assigned to pilot training at Eglin Air Force Base near Pensacola in northwest Florida, but I was shifted to electronics . . . advanced, very intense, eight-month school with bright guys . . . I enjoyed it but I wanted to get back to pilot training. Besides, I’m afraid of electricity. So I went up there to the base education office one day and signed up for some classes at Florida State. I got along well with a guy named Ed and I asked him about literary possibilities. He asked me if I knew anything about sports, and I said that I had been the editor of my high-school paper. He said, “Well, we might be in luck.” It turned out that the sports editor of the base newspaper, a staff sergeant, had been arrested in Pensacola and put in jail for public drunkenness, pissing against the side of a building; it was the third time and they wouldn’t let him out.
So I went to the base library and found three books on journalism. I stayed there reading them until it closed. Basic journalism. I learned about headlines, leads: who, when, what, where, that sort of thing. I barely slept that night. This was my ticket to ride, my ticket to get out of that damn place. So I started as an editor. Boy, what a joy. I wrote long Grantland Rice-type stories. The sports editor of my hometown Louisville Courier Journal always had a column, left-hand side of the page. So I started a column.
By the second week I had the whole thing down. I could work at night. I wore civilian clothes, worked off base, had no hours, but I worked constantly. I wrote not only for the base paper, The Command Courier, but also the local paper, The Playground News. I’d put things in the local paper that I couldn’t put in the base paper. Really inflammatory shit. I wrote for a professional wrestling newsletter. The Air Force got very angry about it. I was constantly doing things that violated regulations. I wrote a critical column about how Arthur Godfrey, who’d been invited to the base to be the master of ceremonies at a firepower demonstration, had been busted for shooting animals from the air in Alaska. The base commander told me: “Goddamn it, son, why did you have to write about Arthur Godfrey that way?”
When I left the Air Force I knew I could get by as a journalist. So I went to apply for a job at Sports Illustrated. I had my clippings, my bylines, and I thought that was magic . . . my passport. The personnel director just laughed at me. I said, “Wait a minute. I’ve been sports editor for two papers.” He told me that their writers were judged not by the work they’d done, but where they’d done it. He said, “Our writers are all Pulitzer Prize winners from The New York Times. This is a helluva place for you to start. Go out into the boondocks and improve yourself.”
I was shocked. After all, I’d broken the Bart Starr story.
What was that?
At Eglin Air Force Base we always had these great football teams. The Eagles. Championship teams. We could beat up on the University of Virginia. Our bird-colonel Sparks wasn’t just any yo-yo coach. We recruited. We had these great players serving their military time in ROTC. We had Zeke Bratkowski, the Green Bay quarterback. We had Max McGee of the Packers. Violent, wild, wonderful drunk. At the start of the season McGee went AWOL, appeared at the Green Bay camp and he never came back. I was somehow blamed for his leaving. The sun fell out of the firmament. Then the word came that we were getting Bart Starr, the All-American from Alabama. The Eagles were going to roll! But then the staff sergeant across the street came in and said, “I’ve got a terrible story for you. Bart Starr’s not coming.” I managed to break into an office and get out his files. I printed the order that showed he was being discharged medically. Very serious leak.
The Bart Starr story was not enough to impress Sports Illustrated?
The personnel guy there said, “Well, we do have this trainee program.” So I became a kind of copy boy.
You eventually ended up in San Francisco. With the publication in 1967 of Hell’s Angels, your life must have taken an upward spin.
All of a sudden I had a book out. At the time I was twenty-nine years old and I couldn’t even get a job driving a cab in San Francisco, much less writing. Sure, I had written important articles for The Nation and The Observer, but only a few good journalists really knew my byline. The book enabled me to buy a brand new BSA 650 Lightning, the fastest motorcycle ever tested by Hot Rod magazine. It validated everything I had been working toward. If Hell’s Angels hadn’t happened I never would have been able to write Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or anything else. To be able to earn a living as a freelance writer in this country is damned hard; there are very few people who can do that. Hell’s Angels all of a sudden proved to me that, Holy Jesus, maybe I can do this. I knew I was a good journalist. I knew I was a good writer, but I felt like I got through a door just as it was closing.
With the swell of creative energy flowing throughout the San Francisco scene at the time, did you interact with or were you influenced by any other writers?
Ken Kesey for one. His novels One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion had quite an impact on me. I looked up to him hugely. One day I went down to the television station to do a roundtable show with other writers, like Kay Boyle, and Kesey was there. Afterwards we went across the street to a local tavern and had several beers together. I told him about the Angels, who I planned to meet later that day, and I said, “Well, why don’t you come along?” He said, “Whoa, I’d like to meet these guys.” Then I got second thoughts, because it’s never a good idea to take strangers along to meet the Angels. But I figured that this was Ken Kesey, so I’d try. By the end of the night Kesey had invited them all down to La Honda, his woodsy retreat outside of San Francisco. It was a time of extreme turbulence—riots in Berkeley. He was always under assault by the police—day in and day out, so La Honda was like a war zone. But he had a lot of the literary, intellectual crowd down there, Stanford people also, visiting editors, and Hell’s Angels. Kesey’s place was a real cultural vortex.