Hunter S. Thompson

thompson for sheriff

Hunter S. Thompson (1937 – 2005) was an American journalist and author. He is credited as the creator of Gonzo journalism, a style of reporting where reporters involve themselves in the action to such a degree that they become central figures of their stories.

He is known also for his unrepentant lifelong use of alcohol, LSD, mescaline, and cocaine (among other substances); his love of firearms; his inveterate hatred of Richard Nixon; and his iconoclastic contempt for authoritarianism. While suffering a bout of health problems, he committed suicide in 2005, at the age of 67.

Interested in sports and athletically inclined from a young age, he excelled in baseball, though he never joined any sports teams in high school, where he was often in trouble. He was accepted as a member of the Athenaeum Literary Association, a school-sponsored literary and social club. Its members at the time included Porter Bibb, who became the first publisher of Rolling Stone. The group ejected Thompson in 1955, after he was charged as an accessory to robbery after being in a car with the robber, was sentenced to 60 days in Kentucky’s Jefferson County Jail. He served 30 days and, a week after his release, enlisted in the United States Air Force. Thompson was discharged from the Air Force in 1958, having been recommended for an early honorable discharge by his commanding officer. ‘In summary, this airman, although talented, will not be guided by policy,’ he wrote. ‘Sometimes his rebel and superior attitude seems to rub off on other airmen staff members.’ In a mock press release Thompson wrote about the end of his duty, he claimed to have been issued a status of ‘totally unclassifiable.’

After the Air Force, he worked as sports editor for a newspaper in Pennsylvania before relocating to New York City, where he attended the Columbia University School of General Studies part-time on the G.I. Bill, taking classes in creative writing. Thompson’s friends and letters from this period note he was an avid reader of the Beat Generation during his early years as a writer and that he associated himself with the Beat culture while living in New York City. He would later befriend such Beat authors as Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. 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, hwas fired from another newspaper for 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 soon folded after his arrival. Thompson applied for a job with English-language ‘The San Juan Star,’ but its managing editor, William J. Kennedy, turned him down. Nonetheless, the two became friends and after the demise of El Sportivo, Thompson worked as a stringer (freelance) for the New York Herald Tribune and a few stateside papers on Caribbean issues with Kennedy working as his editor. After returning to the States, he lived in California, working as a security guard and caretaker at the Big Sur Hot springs in 1961. While there, he was able to publish his first magazine feature in the nationally distributed Rogue magazine on the artisan and bohemian culture of Big Sur. The unwanted publicity generated from the article got him fired from his job as a caretaker. 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,’ which fictionalized Thompson’s experiences in Puerto Rico, was eventually published in 1998, long after Thompson had become famous.

Thompson married his longtime girlfriend Sandy Conklin in 1963. Their marriage was marked by several miscarriages, and they divorced in 1980, but remained close friends until Thompson’s death. In 1964 Thompson was writing for the National Observer on an array of domestic subjects, including a story about his visit to Ketchum, Idaho, to investigate Ernest Hemingway’s suicide. While working on the story, Thompson stole a pair of elk antlers hanging above the front door of Hemingway’s cabin. Thompson and the editors at the Observer eventually had a falling out after the paper refused to print Thompson’s review of Tom Wolfe’s 1965 essay collection ‘The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,’ and he moved to San Francisco, immersing himself in the drug and hippie culture that was taking root in the area.

In 1965, The Nation, offered Thompson the opportunity to write a story based on his experience with the California-based Hells Angels motorcycle club. After The Nation published the article, Thompson spent the next year living and riding with the Hell’s Angels. The relationship broke down when the bikers concluded that Thompson was exploiting them for his personal gain. The gang demanded a share of the profits from his writings and after an argument at a party Thompson ended up with a savage beating, or ‘stomping’ as the Angels referred to it. ‘Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs’ was published in 1966. A reviewer praised it 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.’

Following the success of ‘Hells Angels,’ Thompson was able to publish articles in a number of well-known magazines during the late 1960s. In the Times Magazine article, published in 1967, ‘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 60s’ counterculture that Thompson would further examine in ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ and other articles.

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. He never wrote the book he was researching about the ‘death of the American dream, and instead fulfilled his contract with his publisher with ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,’ which was published in 1972. 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 ‘Hells 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 1970 Thompson ran for sheriff of Pitkin County 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 his opponent as ‘my long-haired opponent,’ as the Republican candidate had a crew cut. 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 the next 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.’ Despite the publicity, Thompson ended up narrowly losing the election.

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. Although it was not widely read at the time, the article is the first of Thompson’s to use techniques of Gonzo journalism, a style he 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. Artist, Ralph Steadman, who would later collaborate with Thompson on several projects, contributed expressionist pen-and-ink illustrations.

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 L.A. 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 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.’

Within the next year, Thompson wrote extensively for Rolling Stone while covering the 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.’ Thompson was an early supporter of McGovern and wrote unflattering coverage of his 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 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. [He] was an evil man—evil in a way that only those who believe in the physical reality of the Devil can understand it.’ The one passion they shared was a love of football, which is discussed in ‘Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.’

In 1976, Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner 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 the United States was preparing to evacuate and other journalists were scrambling to find transportation out of the region. While there, Thompson learned that Wenner had pulled the plug his excursion, and found himself stranded in Vietnam. Thompson’s story about the fall of Saigon would not be published in Rolling Stone until ten years later. The severely strained the relationship between the author and the magazine, and Thompson contributed far less to the publication in later years.

The year 1980 marked both his divorce from Sandra Conklin and 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 most trusted friends.

Despite publishing a novel and numerous newspaper and magazine articles, the majority of Thompson’s literary output after the late 1970s took the form of a 4-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. By the late 1970s Thompson received complaints from critics, fans and friends that he was regurgitating his past glories without much new on his part. 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 Stone masthead as chief of the ‘National Affairs Desk,’ a position he would hold until his death.

Thompson died in 2005, from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. A suicide note was written by Thompson four days before his death, and left for his wife. It was later published by Rolling Stone, titled ‘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.’ In a private ceremony, Thompson’s ashes were fired, per his instructions, from a cannon atop a 153-foot (47 m) tower of his own design (in the shape of a double-thumbed fist clutching a peyote button) to the tune of Norman Greenbaum’s ‘Spirit in the Sky’ and Bob Dylan’s ‘Mr. Tambourine Man.’ Red, white, blue, and green fireworks were launched along with his ashes.

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. 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 close friends with 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.’

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. Although Thompson rarely personally endorsed political labels in his writings, in his letters he expressed affinity with the far left. 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.’

Thompson wrote passionately on behalf of the Civil Rights Movement. He strongly criticized the dominance in American society of, what he called, ‘white power structures.’ 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. Thompson was a firearms and explosives enthusiast (in his writing and in real 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 other homemade devices.

Thompson was also an ardent supporter of drug legalization and became known for his less-than-shy 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 ‘Across 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.’

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