Today is the 78th birthday of the man that 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!”: Hunter S. Thompson. The world is a better place because he was in it and still feels the loss that he has left.
BEST KNOWN FOR: A counterculture icon, Hunter S. Thompson was an American journalist best known for writing 1971’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and creating “Gonzo journalism.”
Hunter Stockton Thompson was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on July 18, 1939. The future author was the son of an insurance agent who died while he was in high school, and an alcoholic mother, who was left penniless.
A natural prankster and troublemaker, Thompson was arrested along with two friends for stealing a man’s wallet while he was in high school. Given a choice of prison or the military, Thompson joined the United States Air Force.
Thompson got his first exposure to journalism as a sports reporter for an Air Force newspaper at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. After being honorably discharged in 1958, Thompson pursued journalism as a career and landed a series of jobs at a variety of small-town newspapers, as well as a short stint as a copy boy at Time magazine.
“Yesterday’s weirdness is tomorrow’s reason why.”
Thompson later said that the “Gonzo journalism” was born while he trying to piece together a story about the Kentucky Derby on deadline. The resulting rambling first-person story, The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved, which was more about the experience of watching the race rather than the actual race, was published in Scanlan’s Monthly in June 1970. At the time, the piece was hailed as a breakthrough in journalism. Thompson was inundated with fan mail and phone calls, which he said was like “falling down an elevator shaft and landing in a pool of mermaids.”
Fueled by alcohol and drugs, Thompson was always on the lookout for a story and was especially interested in anything that would skewer what he saw as America’s hypocrisy. Thompson chronicled the cultural shift occurring in America during the late 1960s and 1970s. He was not only a cultural observer, but also a participant in that he was often the central part of his stories.
Thompson wrote his first novel, The Rum Diary, based on his experience working as a freelance journalist in Puerto Rico, in 1959. The book was first published in 1998.
In his first book, Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, published in 1967, Thompson, in typical gonzo journalism style, chronicled his time infiltrating the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang. “I was no longer sure whether I was doing research on the Hell’s Angels or being slowly absorbed by them,” he wrote about the experience.
In 1970, Thompson unsuccessfully ran for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado, on the “Freak Power Movement” ticket. His story about the campaign experience, The Battle of Aspen, was his first of many contributions to Rolling Stone magazine. He was national affairs editor of the magazine until 1999.
In 1971, what began as an assignment for Sports Illustrated turned into Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, a best-selling book based on Thompson’s drug-fueled journey through Las Vegas. “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold,” reads the first line of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Both a critical and commercial success, the book was adapted into a film in 1998, directed by Terry Gilliam and starring Benicio del Toro and Johnny Depp, a big Thompson fan. (Depp later starred in the 2011 film version of The Rum Diary.) Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, a collection of Thompson’s writings for Rolling Stone about the 1972 presidential campaign, was published in early 1973.
Thompson was notorious for his outrageous antics, rebellious, anti-authoritarian attitude, and unconventional reporting style. Sent to Zaire in 1974 to cover the famous “Rumble in the Jungle” fight between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali, Thompson skipped the boxing and instead spent the time floating in the hotel pool, into which he had tossed a pound and a half of marijuana.
A counterculture icon, Thompson served as the model for the gun-toting, drug-ingesting Uncle Duke character in Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury comic strip.
After several bouts of poor health, Thompson died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound on February 20, 2005, at his compound in Woody Creek, Colorado, near Aspen. In August 2005, in a private ceremony commemorating his life, Thompson’s ashes were shot from a cannon to the tune of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
Thompson married Sandy Conklin in 1963 and they had one son, Juan, the following year. Although their longtime marriage ended in divorce in 1980, they remained friends until Thompson’s death in 2005.
In 2003, Thompson married his longtime assistant, Anita Beymunk.