In his 1977 Rolling Stone article "The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat," Hunter S. Thompson eulogized his friend Oscar Zeta Acosta, on whom he had modeled the Samoan lawyer in his classic 1971 book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
"You were not real light on your feet in this world," Thompson wrote, "and you were too goddamn heavy for most of the boats you jumped into." Acosta, he said, was "one of God's own prototypes -- a high-powered mutant too weird to live and too rare to die."
The thoughts seem just as appropriate for Thompson, who shot himself in the head on Sunday, Feb. 20, at his home in Woody Creek, Colo. He was 67. Books such as Las Vegas are most remembered for their depictions of bad behavior on an epic scale, typified by the first line of Las Vegas: "We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold."
But such lines can overshadow Thompson's often lyrical evocations of optimism and loss. In Las Vegas, he also wrote these words about San Francisco in 1968:
"There was a fantastic sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning ...
"And that, I think, was the handle -- that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn't need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting -- on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave ...
"So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark -- that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back."
FROM THE MID-1960S TO THE MID-1970S, Hunter S. Thompson was one of the most brilliant chroniclers of what he called the "Death of the American Dream." His outrageous stories purported to be journalism,\ but constantly blurred the line between fiction and fact, between him and his persona, operating in a literary no-man's land where assessing his merits became tricky.
His much-imitated brand of journalism helped create the alternative press. But when Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist 1968-76 was published in 2000, The Guardian's Ian Penman dismissed Thompson as "a minor stylist, a figure very much of his era who became stranded when times moved on and he refused to budge."
On the other hand, in the 1997 literary journalism anthology The Art of Fact, editor Ben Yagoda wrote that Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas "revealed more about contemporary America than any number of traditional objective dispatches. Pulling something like this off is harder than it looks, as Thompson's merely self-indulgent heirs have abundantly proved."
Yagoda's take is the more common one. In The Wall Street Journal, Tom Wolfe recently eulogized Thompson: "He was also part of a century-old tradition in American letters, the tradition of Mark Twain, Artemus Ward and Petroleum V. Nasby, comic writers who mined the human comedy of a new chapter in the history of the West, namely, the American story, and wrote in a form that was part journalism and part personal memoir admixed with powers of wild invention, and wilder rhetoric inspired by the bizarre exuberance of a young civilization."
New Orleans historian Douglas Brinkley defends Thompson's literary legacy: "He has three classic, enduring works and a range of other acerbic, witty collections of essays and things, and three volumes of correspondence, which he envisioned as like Churchill's history of the second World War."
Those collections of letters -- 1997's The Proud Highway, 2000's Fear and Loathing in America and a third volume due out in November -- are the result of a personal friendship between the two men. Their friendship developed to such a degree that Brinkley, who directs the Eisenhower Center for American Studies, is now executor of Thompson's literary estate. It also meant that New Orleans played a prominent part in the last chapter of Thompson's life.
Brinkley met Thompson in the early '90s, when the educator was conducting "The Majic Bus," a series of tours taking high school students around the country to meet American authors. He took students to Colorado to meet Thompson in 1993, and it became the students' favorite stop.
"Instead of autographing books, Hunter would shoot a hole through each book," Brinkley recalls, speaking last week by phone from Snowmass, Colo., near Woody Creek. "One time I had a student who had blue hair. Hunter had his talons out: 'You've got blue hair. Are you that good? I'm all for blue hair if you're good enough to wear the blue hair. Blue hair's cool if you can meet the requirements of having blue hair.'"
Telling the story, Brinkley imitates Thompson's machine-gun cadence, an effect best achieved by speaking quickly without moving your lower jaw. But Thompson's challenge to the student, no matter how uttered, was typical. Friends had to prove they had some spine before they got close.
In Brinkley's case, he had to suffer driving in the Colorado mountains with Thompson. "He took me in a convertible and I thought, 'Ohmigod, I'm going to die,'" Brinkley says. "He was speeding down mountain roads, but after a while I realized he knew what he was doing and trusted him. He put a lot of obstacles to overcome, but once you got to trust, it was full.
"He's got more friends than anyone else I know," Brinkley continues, counting off names like George McGovern, Sandy Berger and former president Jimmy Carter and his family. Thompson introduced Billy Carter to Heineken, according to Brinkley.
Last summer, Thompson also became friends with then-presidential candidate John Kerry. At a campaign stop in Colorado, Brinkley recalls, Kerry said, "I'm here to announce today my candidate for vice-president is Hunter S. Thompson." Shortly after his loss, Thompson called Kerry and said, "In defeat is where you make your friends."
According to Brinkley, "All Hunter's best friends are from the McGovern campaign, and they got clobbered, but they felt they stood for something and they were on the right side of what was happening. Even though they lost, the kinship that was created was eternal."
At Thompson's Woody Creek home, his broad circle of friends meant that his house, particularly his kitchen, was often a salon where people from all walks of life intersected at almost any time of day. He was also a fiercely loyal friend. "He thought that's the core of what existence is about," Brinkley says. "If someone attacked me, he'd write them a vicious letter, and not just with me."
Besides the friendship that grew from their professional relationship, they worked similar hours, Brinkley recalls. "I also have midnight habits. I often do my writing from midnight to 3 or 4 a.m., and I don't get any other phone calls in those hours but Hunter. Those are his working hours, so if the phone rang, I knew it was him."
After the Majic Bus experiences, Brinkley helped edit Thompson's 1995 essay collection Better Than Sex and worked with him on the selected letters project. "I was blown away by the number of letters. In his archives, there were boxes and boxes of letters he had saved since he was a child." The letters themselves often commented on Thompson's masterworks, and were often impressive themselves -- "five-page letters with no mistakes on a typewriter, with great lines like you or I wish we wrote," says Brinkley.
THOMPSON'S AFFECTION FOR NEW ORLEANS dates to his childhood. "As a boy in Louisville, it was the city he always dreamed of," Brinkley says. In a 1957 letter published in The Proud Highway, Thompson recounted taking his brother to New Orleans to see a family friend, Henry Eichelburger:
"We arrived at Eichelburger's apartment around midnight and departed immediately for the Quarter. In the short space of about six hours, I tried to give him as comprehensive a tour as possible on our limited funds, having a fine time in the process. After getting to bed at around 6:00 am, we awoke around noon, had an excellent meal in one of the Tulane restaurants and spent several hours shooting the bull ... ."
The visit sounds awfully tame for Thompson. But later references in the letter to fatigue on the trip home and a vaguely remembered goodbye suggest he had the sort of fun you'd expect him to have in New Orleans.
Decades later, his projects with Brinkley meant that Thompson could mix business with pleasure. During one trip, he stayed in Bay St. Louis, Miss., where he hung out at the Firedog Saloon under the pseudonym "Ray." Remembers Brinkley: "Everybody knew him as 'Ray.' Nobody knew who he was until his cover got blown when some kid recognized him. They thought he just drifted off the highway."
Thompson also was in New Orleans when former President Richard Nixon died April 22, 1994. Nixon was Thompson's nemesis, the man he credited with doing as much damage to the American Dream as anyone. In Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, Thompson described Nixon as someone who "represents that dark, venal and incurably violent side of the American character almost every other country in the world has learned to fear and despise. ... He speaks for the Werewolf in us; the bully, the predatory shyster who turns into something unspeakable, full of claws and bleeding string-warts, on nights when the moon comes too close ... ."
The night of Nixon's death, Thompson and Brinkley went to the home of historian Stephen Ambrose, author of a three-volume history of Nixon. They watched the coverage on television and talked about the former president until the sun came up. Later that trip, Thompson wrote his obituary for Nixon, "He Was a Crook."
"He was staying at the Pontchartrain Hotel and eating at the St. Charles Tavern," Brinkley says of Thompson. "He wrote on his typewriter the obituary of Richard Nixon, and he based it on (critic H.L.) Mencken. Mencken wrote a scathing obituary about William Jennings Bryant, and Hunter made that his yard mark. He wanted to out-Mencken Mencken. He wanted to be more brutal to Nixon than Mencken had been to Bryant, and he achieved it."
To that end, Thompson wrote: "If the right people had been in charge of Nixon's funeral, his casket would have been launched into one of those open-sewerage 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."
Extreme language like that fueled Thompson's critics, who felt it didn't befit a man of letters in America to hurl such invective around. But in "He Was a Crook," Thompson also cast a wider net of blame: "It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place. He looked so good on paper that you could almost vote for him sight unseen. He seemed so all-American, so much like Horatio Alger, that he was able to slip through the cracks of Objective journalism. You had to get subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful."
THOMPSON'S PRINCIPLE SUBJECT was a painful one, which he dealt with using brutal humor and wild hyperbole. The letters in Fear and Loathing in America document him trying to get a project off the ground that he referred to as "Death of the American Dream," and most of his great writing came from this period. Chapters projected for the book grew to such a size that they made more sense as stand-alone books. In 1966's Hell's Angels, 1971's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, 1973's Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 and many of the articles collected in 1979's The Great Shark Hunt, Thompson examined his theme, again and again.
If his writing seemed less inspired after that, it might be because you can only ask the same questions so many times before you know the answers. He had faced enough greedheads, fixers and dirty fighters to know what happened. After more than 10 years of asking those questions, he kept asking them anyway in different contexts, but he couldn't always summon the same energy and enthusiasm. Next to the incredible intensity of his American Dream books, works like Generation of Swine and Songs of the Doomed couldn't help but seem smaller.
Brinkley suggests other reasons why Thompson's later work generally paled by comparison. "He got so big, if he would cover, say, McGovern, more people were interested in getting his autograph than McGovern's," Brinkley says. He became a celebrity, and in 1974, found himself caricatured as "Uncle Duke" in "Doonesbury."
"Whenever I had a problem and mentioned it to Hunter, he said, 'Well, try being a cartoon character for 35 years!'" Brinkley says.
Trudeau actually based Duke on what was at least a partial misconception. Thompson certainly did his part to create the myth in his writing and his life, and he often showed up drunk or stoned for speaking engagements in the '80s. According to Brinkley, though, "He didn't like people being drunk or stoned or screwed up around him. The guy survived because he was the one that was twisted, the people around him were supposed to keep the lights going, run the books. Nobody wants a screw-up accountant or a drunken lawyer, or whatever. He didn't want those people around."
Though Thompson led the wild life, he was also a professional. He would work on short stories and articles even when he wasn't on assignment, starting projects, filing them away and returning to them when inspired or assigned.
For these reasons, Thompson resented Garry Trudeau's strip, which further intruded on his privacy by giving lines to his then-wife, Sandy. He also felt mocked by strips that joked about him blowing Rolling Stone deadlines. "He dealt by becoming the character," Brinkley says. "Hunter loathed Trudeau until the day he died."
THOMPSON'S LAST VISIT was just about a month ago, and he was in good spirits. He reportedly was covering the filming of All the King's Men, but he also found time to head down to Magazine Street to buy a shave at Aidan Gill for Men and a seersucker suit at Perlis Clothing. One night at the Circle Bar, he happened upon a set by Mike Hurtt & the Haunted Hearts and the band's set of hillbilly rock and country made him ecstatic -- so much so that he took a copy of the band's flyer and promised Hurtt to try to get his music into All the King's Men.
"He's got that Kentucky blood in him," Brinkley says. "If you put on Earl Scruggs or Bill Monroe, Hunter would get physically all up. He loved that sound."
But Thompson was also in a fair amount of pain. Years of hard living were catching up with him, and he was having hip and back problems. In the "Hey Rube!" column he penned for ESPN.com, he wrote in July 2003 about surgery he had just had and how he was a new man:
"I can walk again, and I like it, because last month I felt acute spasmodic pain in my spine when I walked. There was nothing cute about it, no socially redeeming factor." Later in the piece, he wrote: "I hate pain, despite my ability to tolerate it beyond all known parameters, which is not necessarily a good thing."
Brinkley says that Thompson was becoming conscious of his mortality. "He used to say when he turned 65, 'We're the New Olds, now.'"
Plus, contemporaries Ken Kesey and Warren Zevon -- with whom Thompson co-wrote "You're a Whole Different Person When You're Scared" for Zevon's 2002 CD My Ride's Here -- had died recently, and Thompson was facing a future with limited mobility. "Hunter didn't like being confined to a wheelchair and it was hurting to move around," Brinkley says. "He hated institutions, so the concept of being hospitalized was not an option for him. Hunter had an imbued anarchistic spirit since his childhood that never left him. He was always going to lead his life his way."
Thompson's son, Juan, told the Associated Press he didn't think his father's suicide was motivated by pain. "He was not unhappy, he was not depressed, none of the things you would associate with someone who took his own life," Juan said. "One thing he said many times was that 'I'm a road man for the lords of karma.' It's cryptic, but there's an implication there that he may have decided that his work was done and that he didn't want to overstay his welcome; it was time to go."
His widow, Anita, told the Aspen Daily News that Thompson had been talking about suicide in his last days. According to Anita, "He wanted to leave on top of his game."
Hunter Thompson was cremated the Tuesday after his death. His family is now trying to figure out just how to shoot his ashes out of a cannon -- a typically grand, gonzo act in accordance with Thompson's wishes. At press time, the final disposition of Thompson's remains was not yet determined.
After Thompson's suicide, Ralph Steadman, the artist who illustrated Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and other Thompson works, wrote in The Guardian that he remembered that when they were filming a 1977 BBC documentary, the writer revealed how he wanted to go out:
"Hunter said: 'Ralph, we've got to go to a funeral director's. We've got to plan the monument for the event of my death.' I said: 'How about some 100ft upright stainless steel tubes gathered into one bunch, and on top there'll be the fist of gonzo?' 'Two thumbs!' said Hunter, 'always remember, two thumbs!' God knows why. It was just gonzo. You can't explain it any more than you can explain why certain phenomena happen in the world.
"The funeral director was taking it all seriously. The plan was that after he'd been cremated, some sort of cannon or explosive device would fire his ashes from within the fist, across the valley that he could see from his house in Colorado. It was all romantic and lovely."
Additional reporting by Alison Fensterstock
- Daniel Dibble
- Douglas Brinkley
- Douglas Brinkley looks over Hunter S. Thompson's letters in Thompson's Woody Creek home. "I was blown away by the number of letters," Brinkley says. "In his archives, there were boxes and boxes of letters he had saved since he was a child."