Thompson, Hunter S(tockton)

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Thompson, Hunter S(tockton)

(b. 18 July 1937 in Louisville, Kentucky; d. 20 February 2005 in Woody Creek, Colorado), iconoclastic writer and self-described doctor of gonzo journalism, considered one of the greatest comic writers of the late twentieth century.

Thompson was the oldest of three sons of Jack Robert Thompson, an insurance salesman, and Virginia Davidson Ray Thompson, a librarian. He began writing for his neighborhood newspaper, the Southern Star, when he was ten years old and developed interests in sports and literature. As a teen, Thompson attended Louisville Male High School and joined the prestigious Athenaeum Literary Society, an honor usually reserved for the children of Louisville’s elite, but he was distinguished mostly by his considerable charm and not his ambitions as a writer.

Thompson was just fifteen when his father died; the family was deeply affected by the loss. Work took his mother away from home, and her eldest son drifted toward a career as a juvenile delinquent. He missed his high school graduation because he was jailed on a robbery charge and, upon release, enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1956. While stationed at Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle, Thompson began working as sports editor and columnist for the base newspaper, the Command Courier, and working off base for a civilian newspaper. Enjoying both the power (primarily the access to events) and the audience of the journalist, Thompson believed he had found his niche. After leaving the service in 1958, he ran through a few jobs on small newspapers and served a brief stint as a copy boy for Time. While living in near poverty in New York City, he began writing his first novel, the still-unpublished “Prince Jellyfish.”

A job with a sports magazine in Puerto Rico (1959–1960) took Thompson to the Caribbean, the setting for his second novel, The Rum Diary (finally published in 1998). He began freelancing for the New York Herald Tribune and the National Observer. The Observer, conceived as a Sunday edition of the Wall Street Journal (though published on Mondays), was a feature-heavy paper that gave Thompson space and license to develop his journalistic vision. He wrote about tin miners, smugglers, and renegades—not the usual sort of material found in most American newspapers. The editors admired his insights and storytelling ability, but when Thompson returned to the United States after traveling throughout the Caribbean and South America in 1962–1963, his working relationships with Observer editors soured.

Thompson married Sandra Dawn Conklin on 19 May 1963 and moved to San Francisco, where he supported himself as a day laborer while his wife worked as a motel maid to supplement his meager freelance income. Their son and only child was born in 1964. Thompson’s luck changed when a piece he wrote for the Nation on the Hells Angels motorcycle club, “The Motorcycle Clubs: Losers and Outsiders,” caught the attention of publishers. He signed a deal with Ballantine Books for Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga (1967), published after he had spent a year riding with the club and, eventually, being beaten by them.

He moved to Woody Creek, Colorado, near the jet-set resort town of Aspen, and spent the remainder of his career at Owl Farm, which he called his “fortified compound.” Thompson got involved in politics at the local level, running for sheriff, and at the national level, covering the 1968 presidential campaign, during which he conducted an exclusive interview with the press-shy Richard M. Nixon. Still, he fell back into the hand-to-mouth existence of most freelance writers. Eager for a follow-up to Hell’s Angels, Thompson signed a deal with Random House for a big book on the death of the American Dream, but beyond a series of visionary letters to his editor, he never seemed to get a firm grasp on the concept or on the story he wanted to tell.

Thompson made a series of breakthroughs at the start of the 1970s, beginning with an association with the short-lived magazine Scanlan’s Monthly, edited by Warren Hinckle. Hinckle sensed that Thompson’s eye on American culture would provide a unique vision and sent him back home to Louisville to cover the Kentucky Derby. Hinckle teamed Thompson with the British artist Ralph Steadman, whose chaotic drawings matched Thompson’s over-the-top prose. It was not just a horse race, in Thompson’s eyes. The Kentucky Derby was an orchestrated clash of cultures—youth against the establishment, haves against have-nots. Thompson conceived the article on a grand scale, but, frustrated by a fixed deadline, he was unable to put together the lucid and coherent report on the Derby that he believed the magazine wanted. He began faxing unedited pages from his notebook to the editors and assumed that he would never write for a major magazine again.

To his surprise, the magazine printed “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” verbatim in the June 1970 issue, and it was hailed as a breakthrough in American journalism. One friend, Bill Cardoso of the Boston Globe, congratulated Thompson, calling the article “pure gonzo.” The name—derived from a term used to describe the last man standing after a drinking marathon—became the description for whatever Thompson wrote. He embraced “gonzo journalism,” sometimes referring to himself as a “doctor of gonzo journalism.” Asked to define gonzo, Thompson was usually hard to pin down. He called it “free lunch, final wisdom, total coverage.” The best definition was simply “whatever Hunter Thompson writes.” His style was so distinctive that other writers appeared ridiculous trying to copy it.

Thompson still labored on his “Death of the American Dream” project but had little luck. It was while running for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado, that Thompson got to know Jann Wenner, editor of Rolling Stone. Thompson went to San Francisco in 1970, hoping that the editor of America’s most popular youth magazine would be interested in a story on his campaign for sheriff. Wenner hired Thompson to write an article on the campaign and then gave him a few other assignments.

Thompson’s major work drew from two failed magazine assignments that took him to Las Vegas. In 1971 Sports Illustrated sent him to cover the Mint 400 desert motorcycle race. Since he was already in Las Vegas on the expense account of Sports Illustrated, Wenner assigned Thompson to cover a law-enforcement conference on drug abuse for Rolling Stone. Although he had been at this point stymied for years on the American Dream project, Thompson was able to take some of his concept and meld it with the two failed magazine stories into the book that became his masterwork, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream (1972). The book appeared first as a two-part article in Rolling Stone, illustrated by Steadman.

After the success of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Wenner agreed to have Thompson cover the 1972 presidential campaign for the magazine. Thompson’s reporting included occasional flights of fancy and healthy doses of skepticism and opinion. The more traditional reporters from major newspapers and networks at first derided him because of his unconventional manner and controversial habits (he rarely worked without a drink in his hand). But soon those reporters began to admire him, once they read his dispatches in Rolling Stone. Wenner gave Thompson license in his reporting to say the sorts of things the other reporters thought but could not write. Thompson saw that the mainstream reporters were merely being used by the politicians and noted that they traveled in a pack, basically reporting the same story with only slight variations. He pointed out this tendency toward pack journalism to his traveling assistant from Rolling Stone, Timothy Crouse, and encouraged him to write a book on the political press. The result, The Boys on the Bus (1973), became a highly regarded analysis of the weakness of modern journalism. Thompson’s own reporting of the campaign was collected in the book Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 (1973).

The Watergate scandal—a series of events involving the breaking into and wiretapping of the offices of the Democratic National Committee—brought down Thompson’s nemesis, President Richard Nixon, but it was not Thompson’s kind of story. He had made his name as a writer by avoiding the standard conventions of journalism, including the requirement of objectivity. Thompson instead played the largest role in his stories; no matter the subject he was assigned to write about, he ended up writing about himself. He had built his reputation with Hell’s Angels, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72—three books that allowed him to indulge in first-person narrative. He made the process of getting the story into the subject of his writing. Watergate was a story driven by Congress, as the U.S. government did its own laundry, moving deliberately toward impeachment. There was no place for Thompson in it, and though he wrote about it, these efforts at political commentary were not his strength. He was not comfortable to be merely an observer.

After Nixon’s resignation and exile, Thompson faded from the scene for a few years. In some ways, Nixon had been his muse. With Nixon gone and a man Thompson admired (Jimmy Carter) in the White House, his output slowed. He covered the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War for Rolling Stone in 1975, but negotiations over pay and benefits with Wenner angered Thompson; his complete story was not published in the magazine for another ten years. Thompson stayed at the forefront of American culture, though, with a collection of his early writings, The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time (1979). From time to time a magazine assignment would turn into a lengthy manuscript—like The Curse of Lono (1983), a book-length collaboration with Steadman that grew from an article on the Honolulu Marathon. After Thompson and his wife divorced in 1980, he took occasional assignments, but it was not until his signing as a columnist with the San Francisco Examiner in the mid-1980s that he increased his output. Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the ’80s (1988) was a collection of his Examiner columns. Although he was still the mad-dog gonzo reporter he had been for Rolling Stone, he toned down some of the language and lifestyle references, since he was writing for a mainstream newspaper.

Starting with Generation of Swine, Thompson’s production increased, and he began publishing regularly near the end of the 1980s, inspired in part—so he claimed—by the ascent of President George H. W. Bush. He had finally found someone to replace Richard Nixon as his muse. Songs of the Doomed: More Notes on the Death of the American Dream (1990) contained sections of “Prince Jellyfish” and The Rum Diary and generous helpings of memoir. It also included a long section devoted to a 1990 run-in with the law. Local authorities had raided his home, suspecting that an assault had occurred. That charge did not hold, but police did find trace amounts of drugs. Thompson fought what he called this “lifestyle bust” and was acquitted.

Better Than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie (1994) focused mostly on the 1992 presidential campaign, but it seemed the most thrown together of his books—several of the pages were reproductions of Thompson’s faxes. His involvement in his stories had always been key, but this time he covered the 1992 presidential campaign mostly by watching television coverage on the Cable News Network. He still experimented with the boundaries between fiction and fact with Screw-jack (originally published in a limited edition in 1991 and published commercially in 2000). He also toiled on another novel, “Polo Is My Life,” portions of which were published in Rolling Stone.

A tireless correspondent, Thompson saved a copy of nearly every letter he ever wrote. He filled three huge volumes with his correspondence—The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955–1967 (1997), Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist, 1968–1976 (2000), and The Mutineer: Rants, Ravings, and Missives from the Mountaintop, 1977–2005 (2007)—forming a loose autobiography. Kingdom of Fear: Loathsome Secrets of a Star-Crossed Child in the Final Days of the American Century (2003) filled in a few gaps in his life story. He signed with the website of the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network to write a column. Although the column was ostensibly about sports, the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 turned Thompson’s attention back to politics. His columns were collected in Hey Rube: Blood Sport, the Bush Doctrine, and the Downward Spiral of Dumbness (2004).

Thompson married his longtime assistant, Anita Bejmuk, on 24 April 2003. Portrayed twice in films—by Bill Murray in Where the Buffalo Roam (1980) and by Johnny Depp in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)—Thompson was also (to his chagrin) the model for the character of “Uncle Duke” in Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” comic strip. Thompson committed suicide by shooting himself on 20 February 2005 in his home at Woody Creek. A memorial held on his farm on 20 August 2005 featured Thompson’s ashes blasted from a tower modeled after his trademark gonzo fist—double-thumbed, holding a peyote button, and sitting atop a dagger—while Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” played, echoing through the mountains. The writer Tom Wolfe, in an obituary for the Wall Street Journal, compared his friend to Mark Twain, suggesting that Twain was the nineteenth century’s gonzo writer. Thompson, he said, was the twentieth century’s “greatest comic writer in the English language.”

William McKeen, Hunter S. Thompson (1991), is a study of Thompson’s career through Songs of the Doomed. Three biographical works appeared in the early 1990s: Fear and Loathing: The Strange and Terrible Saga by Paul Perry (1992), Hunter: The Strange and Savage Life of Hunter S. Thompson by E. Jean Carroll (1993), and When the Going Gets Weird: The Twisted Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson by Peter Whitmer (1993). Gonzo: An Oral History, by Corey Seymour (2006), is a tribute to Thompson that grew from Rolling Stone’s memorial issue to its most famous contributor. Obituaries are in the Washington Post (21 Feb. 2005), the New York Times (21 and 22 Feb. 2005), the Wall Street Journal (22 Feb. 2005), and Rolling Stone (24 Mar. 2005).

William McKeen

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Thompson, Hunter S(tockton)

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