Hunter Stockton Thompson (July 18, 1937- February 20, 2005) was an American journalist and author.
He was known for his flamboyant writing style, most notably in his novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which blurred the distinctions between writer and subject, fiction and nonfiction. He is the creator of Gonzo journalism and, as such, is widely imitated
A Louisville, Kentucky native, Thompson grew up in the Cherokee Triangle neighborhood of the Highlands and attended Louisville Male High School. His parents, Jack (d. 1952) and Virginia (d. 1999), married in 1935. Jack's death left three sons—Hunter, Davison, and James,to be brought up by their mother, who was a heavy drinker. Thompson's difficult youth, and its influence on his behavior and the development of his misanthropic worldview, awaits serious literary analysis.
After early trouble with the law, including an arrest in 1956 for robbery, he enlisted in the Air Force as part of his sentence. At Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, in 1956, he began working as a sports journalist, writing for the base newspaper and moonlighting for various local newspapers on the side, despite regulations. He was discharged in 1958. On the GI Bill Thompson attended the Columbia University's School of General Studies where he took classes on short story writing, while maintaining a beat-inspired lifestyle in New York City.
During this time he also worked briefly for Time Magazine as a copyboy for $50 a week. While at Time he also copied two novels in their entirety on a typewriter in order to learn about the writing styles of the authors. They were F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell To Arms. He was fired from the job at Time in early 1959 for insubordination. Later that year, he also worked briefly as a reporter for the Middletown Daily Record in upstate New York. He was fired from this job after damaging an office candy machine and, separately, 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 soon folded. However the move to Puerto Rico was the beginning of a period during which Thompson was to travel extensively in the Caribbean and South America writing freelance articles for a number of U.S. daily newspapers. While in Puerto Rico he befriended noted journalist William Kennedy. Thompson also spent time as a South American correspondent for a Dow Jones-owned weekly newspaper, the National Observer. In the early 1960s he lived and worked as a security guard at Big Sur Hot Springs at the time it became the Esalen Institute.
n these years Thompson wrote two serious novels (Prince Jellyfish and The Rum Diary) and many short stories, submitting them to many publishers. The Rum Diary was only published in 1998 long after Thompson had become a celebrity. Kennedy later remarked that he and Thompson were both failed novelists who had turned to journalism in order to make a living.
He married his long-time girlfriend Sandra Dawn Conklin (a.k.a. Sandy Conklin Thompson, now Sondi Wright) on May 19, 1963. The couple had one son, Juan Fitzgerald Thompson, born March 23, 1964. The couple conceived five more times together, however, three were miscarriages, and two died shortly after birth. In Rolling Stone issue 970, a tribute issue for Hunter, Sandy wrote, " I ... want to acknowledge the five children Hunter and I lost, two full term babies, three miscarriages.... I had so wanted more Hunters! One of the most beautiful gifts that Hunter ever gave me ... Sarah, our full term, eight-pound baby, lived about twelve hours. I lay there in Aspen Valley Hospital waiting, and when I saw the doctor's face it was unbearable. I thought I might go mad. Hunter leaned over the bed and said, 'Sandy, if you want to go out there for awhile, do that, just know that Juan and I really need you.' I was back." After nineteen years together and seventeen years of marriage, Hunter and Sandy divorced in 1980; the two remained close friends until Hunter's death.
Thompson got his big break in 1965 when he was approached by The Nation editor Carey McWilliams with an idea for a story based upon his experience with the notorious Hells Angels motorcycle gang. Thompson had spent a year living and riding with the Hells Angels, but the relationship broke down when the bikers suspected that Thompson was making money from his writing, and they demanded a share of the profits. The author ended up with a savage beating, or 'stomping' as the Angels referred to it. After the article was published by The Nation (May 17, 1965), numerous book offers on the subject came his way, and Random House published the hard cover Hells Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs in 1966.
In the late 1960s, Thompson received a "doctorate" in Divinity from a mail-order church while living in San Francisco. He was jocularly referred to as "the Good Doctor" on account.
Thompson went on to work for Rolling Stone magazine where his next two books, Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing On the Campaign Trail 1972, were first serialized.
Published in 1971, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream is a first-person account by a journalist (Thompson himself, under the pseudonym "Raoul Duke") on a trip to Las Vegas with his "300-pound Samoan" attorney, "Dr. Gonzo" (a character inspired by Thompson's friend, Chicano lawyer Oscar Zeta Acosta) to cover a narcotics officers' convention and the "fabulous Mint 400" motorcycle race. During the trip, he and his lawyer become sidetracked by a search for the American dream, with the aid of copious amounts of alcohol, LSD, ether, adrenochrome, mescalin, (synthesized from peyote), cocaine, marijuana and other drugs. Ralph Steadman, who collaborated with Thompson on several projects, contributed expressionist pen and ink illustrations.
Fear and Loathing On the Campaign Trail '72 is a collection of Rolling Stone articles he wrote while covering the election campaigns of President Richard M. Nixon and his unsuccessful opponent, Senator George McGovern. The book focuses largely on the Democratic Party's primaries and its breakdown due to splits between the different candidates; McGovern was extolled while Ed Muskie and Hubert Humphrey were ridiculed. Thompson would go on to become a fierce critic of Nixon, both during and after his presidency. After Nixon's death in 1994, Thompson famously described him in Rolling Stone as a man who "could shake your hand and stab you in the back at the same time" and said "his casket [should] have been launched into one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles. He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president."
Thompson debuted in Rolling Stone with an article describing his 1970 bid for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado on the "Freak Power" ticket. Thompson narrowly lost the election, having run on a platform promoting drugs decriminialization (but for use only, not trafficking, as he disapproved of profiteering), tearing up the streets and turning them into bike paths, and renaming Aspen, Colorado to "Fat City" — . The incumbent Republican sheriff whom he ran against had a crew cut, prompting Thompson to shave his head bald and refer to his opposition as "my long-haired opponent."
Thompson's last book, Kingdom Of Fear, is an angry commentary on the passing of the American Century. Thompson also wrote a web column, "Hey Rube," for ESPN. He had at times also toured on the lecture circuit, once with John Belushi.
Thompson was fond of firearms and was known to keep a keg of gunpowder in his basement.
Thompson's brother James (born 1949 and died from AIDS complications in 1994) claimed Thompson was offended by his homosexuality, and the two were never close. James complained how the burden of caring for their drunken mother fell to him over the many years Hunter was away, including sometimes having to take a taxi to pick her up off the pavement where she had passed out.
Hunter married Anita Bejmuk, his long-time assistant, on 24 April 2003.
Thompson died at his fortified compound in Woody Creek, Colorado, at 5:42 pm on February 20, 2005 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. He was 67 years old.
Thompson's son (Juan), daughter-in-law (Jennifer Winkel Thompson), and grandson (Will Thompson) were visiting for the weekend at the time of his suicide. Will and Jennifer were in the adjacent room when they heard the gunshot. They reported to the press that they do not believe his suicide was out of desperation, but was a well thought out act resulting from Thompson's many painful medical conditions. Thompson's wife, Anita, who was at the gym at the time of her husband's death, was on the phone with Thompson when he ended his life.
Artist 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..."
Three months later, Rolling Stone released what was claimed to be Thompson's final written words, written with a marker four days before his death, The title was "Football Season is over":
"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."
On August 20, 2005, in a private ceremony, Thompson's ashes were fired from a cannon atop a 150-foot tower of his own design (in the shape of a double-thumbed fist clutching a peyote button) to the tune of Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man," known to be the song most-respected by the late writer. Red, white, blue and green fireworks were launched along with his ashes. As the city of Aspen would not allow the cannon to remain for more than a month, the cannon has been dismantled and put into storage until a suitable permanent location can be found. There is talk of a public party sometime in the summer of 2006. Johnny Depp, a close friend of Thompson (and who portrayed Thompson in the movie adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), financed the funeral, according to widow Anita 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." Other famous attendees at the funeral included US Senator John Kerry and former-US Senator George McGovern; 60 Minutes correspondent Ed Bradley; actors Bill Murray (who portrayed Hunter S. Thompson in the movie Where the Buffalo Roam), Sean Penn, and Josh Hartnett; singers Lyle Lovett and John Oates as well as numerous other friends of Thompson. An estimated 280 people attended the funeral.
The plans for this impressive monument were initially drawn by Thompson and Ralph Steadman, and were shown as part of an "Omnibus" program on the BBC, titled "Fear and Loathing in Gonzovision" (1978). It is included as a special feature on the second disc of the 2003 Criterion Collection DVD release of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The video footage of Steadman and Thompson drawing the plans and outdoor footage showing where he wanted the cannon constructed were played prior to the unveiling of his cannon at the funeral.
Douglas Brinkley, a friend and now the family's spokesman, said of the ceremony: "If that's what he wanted, we'll see if we can pull it off."
Writing Style and Persona
As a writer, Thompson is remembered most for his flamboyant and humorous style, employing action verbs to comically spin outlandish tales that were completely unbelievable, yet provided a unique viewpoint to accurately describe the underlying reality at hand. Thompson almost always wrote in first person narrative, and his stories became so colorfully contrived that they easily slipped into the realm of fiction; however, the basic framework of the story he told was very often true.
Thompson's writing style has been widely imitated; his influence on American Writers of the latter half of the 20th century is undeniable.
In his writing, he cultivated the persona of a dangerously absurd, drug-crazed journalist bent on comic self-destruction. While his fictional persona largely mirrored his actual life, Thompson noted during the aforementioined BBC interview that he sometimes felt obligated to live up to the fictional self that he had created.
A slogan of Thompson's, "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro," appears as a chapter heading in both Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Kingdom of Fear. He was also quoted as saying, "I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence or insanity to anyone, but they've always worked for me." Another one of his favorite sayings, "Buy the ticket, take the ride," is easily applied to virtually all of his exploits. "Too weird to live, too rare to die", a phrase applied to Dr. Gonzo in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, has been widely used to qualify the "Good Doctor" after his death.
The Hawaiian word "mahalo" also frequently appears in Thompson's works and correspondence. Loosely translated, it means "may you be in divine breath." On more than one occasion, "mahalo" followed Thompson's usage of "buy the ticket, take the ride."
Thompson was a prolific letter writer; letters served as Thompson's primary avenue for personal conversation. Beginning in his teenage years, Thompson made carbon copies of all his letters, which were almost always typed. Thompson's letters include all of his noted flamboyancy, and were sent to both dear friends and unsuspecting public officials and reporters.
Some of his letters have begun to be published in a series of books called The Fear and Loathing Letters. The first volume, The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman 1955 - 1967, is over 650 pages, while the second volume Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist passed 700. Douglas Brinkley, who edits the letter series, said that for every letter included, fifteen were cut. Brinkley estimated Thompson’s own archive contains over 20,000 letters. The last of the three planned volumes of Thompson's letters has yet to be published; it will be released October 1, 2006 as The Mutineer: Rants, Ravings, and Missives from the Mountaintop 1977-2005.
While Thompson did not write an autobiography, his letters can serve as one. Since his early days in the US Air Force, which he claimed discharged him as "totally unclassifiable", Thompson's letters contained comic "asides" to "his biographers" that would presumably be "reading-in" on his collected letters. Some of these letters were already bundled into Thompson's Kingdom of Fear, though it is not considered an autobiography. Three biographies have been written about him.
Accolades and direct influence
A new-journalism contemporary of Thompson's, Tom Wolfe, has called Thompson the greatest American comic writer of the 20th century.
Hunter Thompson lives on as Uncle Duke in Doonesbury, the Garry Trudeau comic strip. (Raoul Duke was a pseudonym used by Thompson.) When the character was first introduced, Thompson protested vociferously, although he supposedly took a liking to the character in later years. Between 7 March 2005 (roughly two weeks after Thompson's suicide) and 12 March 2005, the strip ran what was referred to as a tribute to the late Doctor, with Uncle Duke lamenting the death of the man he called his "inspiration." The first of these strips featured a panel with artwork similar to that of Ralph Steadman, and later strips featured various non sequiturs (with Duke variously transforming into a monster, melting, and shrinking to the size of an empty drinking glass) which seemed to mirror some the effects of hallucinatory drugs described in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Similarly, Spider Jerusalem, the gonzo journalist protagonist of Warren Ellis's Transmetropolitan, is based on Thompson.
Columnist Ed Anger of the Weekly World News shows a clear Thompson influence.
Although letters from Thompson to his friends note that he had taken an early interest in Ayn Rand's school of Objectivism, he eventually drifted away from Rand's version of anti-establishment politics into his own field. While distinctly embracing the notion of democracy and its virtues as evidenced in his political writings in both the 1972 and 1976 elections, Thompson was acutely aware of the flaws in such a system and regularly advocated radical approaches to politics that veered between libertarian, anarchist, and elements of socialism. In the documentary "Breakfast With Hunter", Thompson can be seen in several scenes wearing different Che Guevara t-shirts, while his son Juan Thompson acknowledges that his father had 'a perverse resistance to security and predictability, and a deliberate disregard for propriety.'
Thompson's official biographer and longtime friend Douglas Brinkley said:
"He's both a kind of old-fashioned believer in democratic virtues, but also an anarchist. There's always that unpredictable element with him. In any given situation, as soon as he feels there's a system closing in, he'll destroy it."
Regarding contemporary politics, 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." (Fear and Loathing, Campaign 2004, Rolling Stone)