Hunter Stockton Thompson was born on July 18, 1937 in Louisville, Kentucky. He grew up in the Highlands neighborhood. His mother, Virginia Ray nee Davison from Springfield, Kentucky, was head librarian at the Louisville Free Public Library. His father, Jack Robert Thompson, from Horse Cave, Kentucky, was a World War I veteran and public insurance adjuster.
Thompson first appeared on my radar around 1968, when I read his 1966 book, Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. According to a New York Times review, Thompson relates how he “drank at their bars, exchanged home visits, recorded their brutalities, viewed their sexual caprices, became converted to their motorcycle mystique, and was so intrigued, as he puts it, that ‘I was no longer sure whether I was doing research on the Hell’s Angels or being slowly absorbed by them.’ ”
I grew up on motorcycle movies, from the 1953 classic The Wild One to the 1967 film Hell’s Angels on Wheels. I thought motorcycle gangs were vicious and scary—and they were. The book ends with the Hell’s Angels “stomping” Thompson badly. I never liked violence or violent people, but I begrudgingly admired Thompson’s gutsiness and nerve.
In 1970, Thompson wrote a feature story, “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” for Scanlan’s Monthly. According to Wikipedia: “Faced with a deadline and without any coherent story for his editors, Thompson began tearing pages from his notebook, numbering them, and sending them to the magazine. Accompanied by Ralph Steadman’s sketches (the first of many collaborations between Thompson and Steadman), the resulting story, and the manic, first-person subjectivity that characterized it, were the beginnings of the gonzo style of journalism.
“The article is less about the actual race itself — indeed, Thompson and Steadman could not actually see the race from their standpoint — but rather focuses on the celebration and depravity that surrounds the event....Thompson provided up-close views of activities in the Derby infield and grandstand at Churchill Downs, and a running commentary on the drunkenness and lewdness of the crowd, which he states in the article as the only thing he was focusing on with the work.”
An excerpt reads: “Thousands of raving, stumbling drunks, getting angrier and angrier as they lose more and more money. By mid-afternoon they’ll be guzzling mint juleps with both hands and vomiting on each other between races.”
In 1972, my senior year of high school, I read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, a 1971 novel by Hunter S. Thompson. Wikipedia describes it as “a roman à clef, rooted in autobiographical incidents. The story follows its protagonist, Raoul Duke [Thompson], and his attorney, Dr. Gonzo, as they descend on Las Vegas to chase the American Dream through a drug-induced haze, all the while ruminating on the failure of the 1960s countercultural movement. The work is Thompson’s most famous book, and is noted for its lurid descriptions of illegal drug use and its early retrospective on the culture of the 1960s. Its popularization of Thompson’s highly subjective blend of fact and fiction has become known as gonzo journalism. The novel...was later adapted into a film of the same title in 1998 by Terry Gilliam, starring Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro who portrayed Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo, respectively.”
Fear and Loathing was “required reading” for young hippie pseudointellectuals such as I was at that time. But I did not enjoy the book as literature, and I literally could not believe the drug abuse Thompson described: “We had 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. Not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get locked into a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.” The prodigious drug abuse described in Fear and Loathing would send the hardiest druggy to the madhouse or the morgue.
There is a Latin phrase, In vino veritas; it means “in wine lies truth.” Thompson’s manic drug-fueled rants went far beyond mere truthfulness and candor. His writing was oftentimes brutal, raw, and vicious—but it made compelling reading. “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me,” Thompson famously said.
In 1996, Louisville Mayor Harvey Sloane presented Thompson with the key to the city, and Gov. Paul E. Patton bestowed the title of Kentucky Colonel on Thompson and Owensboro native Johnny Depp. In 2014, Thompson was inducted into the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame.
In his fledgling days as a writer, Thompson used a typewriter to copy F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms just to get a feel for writing a great novel. Reportedly, Thompson shared a certain morbid code with Hemingway. He once told his friend Ralph Steadman: “I would feel real trapped in this life if I didn’t know I could commit suicide at any time.”
On Feb. 20, 2005, Thompson died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head at his farm in Woody Creek, Colorado. He was 67. Rolling Stone published a suicide note written by Thompson to his wife titled “Football Season Is Over.” It read:
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 age. Relax — This won’t hurt.
Johnny Depp paid for an elaborate $3 million funeral. Thompson’s ashes were fired from a cannon, while multi-colored fireworks exploded in the sky. An estimated 280 people attended, including US Senators John Kerry and George McGovern, 60 Minutes correspondents Ed Bradley and Charlie Rose, and actors Jack Nicholson, John Cusack, Bill Murray, Benicio del Toro, Sean Penn, and Josh Hartnett.
“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 Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955-1967
Mark Heinz lives at Nolin Lake. Visit his website at amazon.com/author/markheinzbooks.