Hunter S. Thompson: Gonzo Extraordinaire

“The Edge… There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over.” 

Hunter S. Thompson

These are the perfect words to describe the life of Hunter S. Thompson. He was a writer who is best known for his semi-autobiographical novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and he was the founder of “gonzo journalism”. He has gone down in history as being one of the wildest writers in American history.

Early Life

Hunter S. Thompson was born in Louisville, Kentucky on July 18th, 1937. His father Jack was a World War I veteran, and an insurance salesman. He was suffering from a disease called myasthenia gravis, and passed away when Hunter was just 14 years old. His mother, Virginia, was a librarian, and she was left to shoulder all of the responsibilities alone. She struggled financially, and began drinking heavily to cope with her grief.

Hunter S Thompson in high school.

Hunter was very intelligent, and it’s no surprise that being raised by a librarian helped him love reading books his entire life. So when he entered High School, he joined a club called the Athenaeum Literary Association. They wrote a newsletter together, and Thompson was always very witty and sarcastic. Through this literary society, he became friends with the rich kids in town, since they were the only ones who shared his passion for reading and writing. Most of the boys in Kentucky enjoyed practicing marksmanship and hunting wild animals in the woods. Hunter did, as well, but he was sort of caught in between both worlds. Since his family was so poor, he felt like the outsider of his new friend group.

 

His friends began to vandalize and participated in robberies in his local neighborhood, and they were able to get alcohol, even though they were still underage. One night, they were caught by the police, and kept in custody. His friends all had rich parents who were able to pay lawyers and bail them out. Unfortunately for Hunter, his mother could not afford to pay for his legal defense. He ended up serving time in jail, and could not attend his own high school graduation.

In 1956, he decided to join the US Air Force, but he wasn’t exactly good at taking orders. He began writing for the air force base newspaper, but his defamatory claims got him in so much trouble, he was discharged in 1957. 

Airman second class Hunter S. Thompson at his desk in 1957 as sports editor of the Command Courier, a military publication serving the Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle.

Becoming a Journalist

All writers have an author that they look up to, and Hunter S. Thompson’s favorite authors were F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. He would read The Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms, and wish he could write with the same kind of emotion. So he would copy the book word for word on his typewriter over and over again just to feel the rhythm of what it felt like to write his favorite books. 

 

He spent a year living in Rio De Janeiro writing for the English-language newspaper called The Brazil Herald. This gig only lasted a year, though, and he returned to the United States to marry his longtime girlfriend, Sondi Wright, in 1963. They moved to Aspen, Colorado together.

 

Instead of working on a staff, he became a freelance journalist making roughly $100 per article. He would hunt elk so that he and his wife had something to eat, and they barely had any food besides that. There were many months where they almost didn’t make rent. They had a son together named Juan Fitzgerald Thompson. Sadly, Sondi suffered through 5 more miscarriages, and Juan remained their only child.

 

In 1964, Hunter S. Thompson reported on the suicide of Ernest Hemingway in Idaho. He stole the famous writer’s antlers and skull that had been hanging on his wall as a souvenir. Hunter and his family moved to California, and he encountered hippie culture in San Francisco for the first time. He was given an assignment by a publication called the nation requesting that he do with investigative piece on the motorcycle gang called the Hell’s Angels. They were known for being incredibly dangerous, and purposely trying to break all of the rules of society. Many journalists had attempted to write about the gang before, but they were far too afraid to get involved. But Hunter was wild enough to hang. He fit in just fine.

 

During one of the parties, Thompson witnessed one of the gang members beating his wife and his dog. Hunter approached the man saying, “Only a punk beats his wife and dog.” The gang began to beat up Hunter S. Thompson for defending the man’s wife. His face was beaten to a pulp, and his rib was broken. He went to the police station and reported the beatings to the authorities. He realized that he did not want to be involved with this group any longer. Thompson wrote, “I was finished. The Angels had taken me to The Edge. There could be no going back now, even if I wanted to.”

 

Hunter compiled his articles into a book called Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga. He was given a $15,000 check as an advance, and he used the money to buy a house and land in Aspen, Colorado, which he named “Owl Farm”, and he lived there the rest of his life. When the book was published it, was on the New York Times bestseller list. Despite the success hunter wanted to continue to push himself to do better in his writing career. 

After the time he spent with the Hell’s Angels, Hunter S Thompson formed an obsession with collecting guns. He used them to hunt, but he was also interested in marksmanship, and practiced shooting targets on a daily basis. It may not be a coincidence that he began collecting weapons after becoming hated by one of the most dangerous gangs in the country.

 

Going Gonzo

Even after the success of his first book, Hunter S. Thompson was still a freelance journalist. His success helped him secure work for various magazines, where he offered to cover sporting events. While working for Scanlan’s Monthly, He became friends with an illustrator named Ralph Steadman, and introduced him to drugs for the first time. Steadman took psilocybin mushroom before they went to go watch the 1970 Kentucky Derby.

SVG rendition of the infamous Gonzo fist, characterized by two thumbs and four fingers holding a peyote button, was originally used in Hunter S. Thompson’s 1970 campaign for sheriff of Aspen, Colorado. It has become a symbol of Thompson and gonzo journalism as a whole.

During the race, Steadman illustrated the people in the crowds who were watching, gambling, and drinking. The drugs heightens their experience watching the strange atmosphere of the race, instead of talking about the horses. The article was called “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.”

 

After that piece was published, one of Thompson’s co-workers commented, “That piece was totally ‘gonzo.’” – as in it was completely nuts. At first, Thompson felt as if the piece had been one of his biggest failures, and he decided that he would never do drugs before writing again. To his surprise, he began to get phone calls from people who called him “brilliant”. He realized that the style of writing was actually working in his favor. He decided to call it “Gonzo Journalism”. 

He later said, “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.”

Hunter S. Thompson in Las Vegas 1971

He continued this “gonzo” style in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. What should have been a relatively boring day in the desert reporting on a motorcycle race became a psychedelic adventure about searching for The American Dream. The Rolling Stone really only wanted a few paragraphs describing the motorcycle race, he came back with was a 60 page manifesto of everything that he had experienced while high on drugs. The story was published, and he got a book deal with Random House Publishing. After the success of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S Thompson saw this as evidence that he needed to continue his wild lifestyle. So he began to take drugs and drink pretty much every day of his life. 

 

Hunter S. Thompson once wrote out his daily routine, where he consumed so many substances, it is truly a miracle that he didn’t die of a heart attack. “3:00 p.m. rise…3:05 Chivas Regal with the morning papers, Dunhills. 3:45 cocaine…4:05 first cup of coffee, Dunhill”. Then, between 4 and 5 PM, he snorts more cocaine, only at 6:00, he smokes “grass to take the edge off the day”. Then, he finally leaves at 7:05PM, to the “Woody Creek Tavern for lunch; Heineken, two margaritas, coleslaw, a taco salad, a double order of fried onion rings, carrot cake, ice cream, a bean fritter, Dunhills, another Heineken, cocaine, and for the ride home, a snow cone (a glass of shredded ice over which is poured three or four jig­gers of Chivas)

9:00 starts snorting cocaine seriously.” This goes on until midnight, when he finally starts writing until 8AM, when he falls asleep.

Politics

Many people know Hunter S. Thompson’s reputation for getting high and shooting guns, but far fewer people know about his attempt at establishing a political career. In 1968, he witnessed the riots at the Democratic National Convention, and wrote that the brutality shown by the police beating protests was ten times worse than anything he had ever witnessed while living with the Hell’s Angels. He wrote that “the American dream was clubbing itself to death.” 

 

Thompson believed that the City of Aspen was being destroyed, because trees were being torn down to make way for new roads and luxury homes for people who are coming to have a skiing holiday. He wanted to push for preserving the natural landscape and making marijuana legal in Colorado. This attention to his campaign brought a lot of hippies to visit Aspen. In 1970, he wrote about the mayoral election of 1969 for Rolling Stone Magazine, and he titled the article,  “The Battle of Aspen.” He got such a huge response from readers, that he decided that he would run for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado in 1970.

 

At first, his campaign sort of started as a joke, because he knew that he had absolutely no experience in politics. But the longer it went on, the more he started to believe that he could actually win. He convinced a lot of people to register to vote who had never participated in a local election before. His campaign team began to hang posters around town with his logo of a raised fist with two thumbs holding a peyote cactus. This became known as “The Gonzo Fist”. 

 

Hunter was balding, so he asked the barber to completely shave his head just so he could deliver a joke in his speech-, “unlike my long-haired opponents…” He got into the habit of wearing long, ridiculous wigs. One of the editors of Rolling Stone said during a single interview, Hunter S Thompson was switching out his wigs multiple times during one conversation. His friends helped Hunter film a commercial for his campaign, which was basically just him riding a motorcycle, but his fans loved it all the same. Not surprisingly, he lost the election, and he never got to serve as sheriff. But it inspired him to continue writing about politics in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72. He began having a reputation of being an anarchist, rather than a real journalist.

 

Since he was not trying to become a political reporter full-time, Hunter S Thompson was not afraid to insult the politicians and anyone else that he noticed was acting ridiculously on the campaign trail.  He did not need to worry about burning professional bridges, because he wasn’t going to be there long, anyway. Because of this his brutally honest coverage, it actually caught the attention of the politicians more than a typical articles that were being written about them.

 

He absolutely hated Richard Nixon with a fiery passion. He comparing him and his family to Barbie dolls. He said that Nixon represented everything that was wrong with the United States. Even when he died, Thompson wrote a scathing eulogy in Rolling Stone, where the subject line said, “THE DEATH OF RICHARD NIXON: NOTES ON THE PASSING OF AN AMERICAN MONSTER…. HE WAS A LIAR AND A QUITTER, AND HE SHOULD HAVE BEEN BURIED AT SEA…. BUT HE WAS, AFTER ALL, THE PRESIDENT.”

 

In his books on politics, he sought to see if it was even possible for a good man to become a politician. He concluded that George McGovern was the closest thing to a good man on the campaign trail. But, of course, he didn’t win the Presidential election. Just like all of the subjects he wrote about fear, loathing, and depravity, this was yet another moment where he felt that the American Dream was dead. 

 

During the next election, Hunter S. Thompson wrote about Jimmy Carter on the campaign trail, and many people believe that his articles actually helped him become president. At that point, people trusted his insight in the character of these politicians. Thompson became one of the most memorable political writers of his time, and he broke every single rule along the way.

The Price of Fame

In 1980, Billy Murray starred in a comedy movie called Where the Buffalo Roam, which was based on his various exploits as a journalist. Since they used his real name in the movie, this launched Thompson into a new level of fame. He also inspired a character named Uncle Duke in the Doonesbury comic strip. Thompson became friends with other celebrities, like Jimmy Buffet, Bob Dylan, Jack Nicholson, and Bill Murray. 

Hunter S. Thompson Longbeach, 1989 License: Creative Commons

He struggled with the fact that everyone imagined him as this caricature of the person that they saw in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and the comic strip. This made him feel like people had this expectation that he should behave “Gonzo” 24/7. Because of that, he began to show up to interviews completely high, or acting crazy, because he thought that that is what people expected of him. During an interview with the BBC, he said that the myth of this caricature had become bigger than who he truly was. “Most people are surprised that I walk on two legs. The idea that I would have a wife or a child…I think people think I’m a violent version of that comic strip.” He once said that he was actually getting in the way and then I would be better off if he died so that the myth could live on. He said, “This myth is growing, and mushrooming, and getting more and more warped. When I get invited to speak to universities, I don’t know who they’re inviting- Duke, or Thompson. I’m not sure who to be. It makes me want to kill off one life, and start another one.”

 

He reached a point where even if people had not read his articles or books, they knew him from the movies and comics. Groupies began to flirt with him and flock to The Woody Creek Tavern, because it was well-known that he loved to hang out there, even after he became famous. When he was awake, he would have invite over strangers to the house and have parties. Hunter was caught having multiple affairs with these women. Eventually, his wife had enough, and she asked for a divorce in 1980.

 

At this point, he was such a successful and famous writer, that the editor at Rolling Stone did not know what kind of assignments to give him any more. It would almost seem as though nothing was worthy of Hunter S. Thompson. He was assigned to cover a boxing match with Muhammad Ali, because he had written about him successfully in the past.

Hunter S. Thompson

In his typical Gonzo style, Thompson got high and swam in the hotel pool. Hunter missed Muhammad Ali’s fight completely. When asked what he thought of the match, Thompson replied, “What fight? Oh, I didn’t go to the fight. I stayed in the hotel swimming pool. I lay on my back looking at the moon coming up and the only person in the hotel came and stared at me a long time before he went away. Maybe he thought I was a corpse. I floated there naked. I’d thrown a pound and a half of marijuana into the pool—it was what I had left and I am not trying to smuggle it out of this country—and it stuck together there in a sort of clot, and then it began to spread out in a green slick. It was very luxurious floating naked in that stuff, though it’s not the best way to obtain a high.”

 

Needless to say, paying him to get high and not write a story isn’t exactly good for business. Stunts like these proved that he was no longer as prolific as he once was. He was forced to take a break from writing. 

Later Life

Thompson had earned a significant amount of money from his book sales and selling movie rights, so he was able to essentially retire from his journalism career. When they began filming Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in 1997 to 1998, Johnny Depp wanted to get to know him, so that he could portray the character more accurately. On the day they met, Depp said that he was asked to meet Hunter S. Thompson at The Woody Creek Tavern. Hunter made a grand entrance by holding a cattle prod that was lighting up the room with sparks. People were jumping out of the way, as Thompson shouted, “Out of my way, you bastards!”

 

Obviously, this made quite the impression of Johnny Depp, and he started living with Hunter S. Thompson in order to understand him better. They spent many long nights shooting guns, blowing things up, and reading books to one another. During this time, Hunter would ask Johnny Depp to read his own work out loud to him. Thompson explained to him the exact cadence of how he wanted his work to be read. Depp stumbled upon the unpublished manuscript of a book called The Rum Diary, which told the story of one of his adventures in Puerto Rico when he was in his early 20’s. He read it, and encouraged Thompson to publish it, so he finally did. Johnny Depp would also go on to star in the movie version of The Rum Diary in 2011.

 

For years, Hunter S. Thompson told his friends and family that he plans to kill himself one day. When he met his second wife Anita when she began working as his personal assistant in 1999. They fell in love, and got married in 2003. 

 

On February 20th, 2005, Anita had just made him breakfast, and she noticed that Hunter was acting strange. He told her to get out of the room. This shocked her, because he had never been so cruel to her before. She left the house, and he called her to apologize and say that she could come back if she wanted to. However, she began to hear clicking noises and the other end. Anita assumed he was about to use the typewriter but when she arrived home she realized that he had committed suicide and the clicking noises were the sound of him preparing is gun. His son Juan was the one to find his body, because he had been home at the time.

 

Even long before his suicide, he was already making plans for a monument to be built for his funeral, and even had a film crew document him preparing his last will and testament. He asked to have his ashes shot out of a fist-shaped cannon. Loads of his celebrity friends showed up to his funeral, and it looked more like an extravagant party. There was a stage full of Japanese drummers, and colorful fireworks went off before his ashes scattered over the mountains of Colorado. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VlAZV_EsSSE

After his death, his wife Anita did not want to touch anything in his office, which he called “The War Room”. Years later, after she had time to grieve, it became clear that Hunter S. Thompson had become a legendary writer. She decided to turn it into a museum and allow his fans to see it. She also runs an organization called The Gonzo Foundation, where she plans to open up Owl Farm for writing retreats.

 

Even though there are plenty of his friends and family who still miss him dearly, Thompson wouldn’t have wanted anyone to feel sad about his death. He once said, “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!” 

 

Sources:

https://www.amazon.com/Gonzo-Life-Work-Hunter-Thompson/dp/B001EDFSIQ

https://www.biography.com/people/hunter-s-thompson-9506260 

https://www.brainyquote.com/authors/hunter_s_thompson

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zkWupnH8Uvs 

http://articles.latimes.com/2005/feb/26/nation/na-thompson26 

https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/06/when-hunter-s-thompson-ran-for-sheriff-of-aspen/372949/ 

 

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