Hunter Stockton Thompson (July 18, 1937 – February 20, 2005) was an American journalist and author, famous for his novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. 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 the central figures of their stories. He is also known for his promotion and use of psychedelics and other mind altering substances (and to a lesser extent, alcohol and firearms), his libertarian views, and his iconoclastic contempt for authority.
A native of Louisville, Kentucky, Thompson grew up in the Cherokee Triangle neighborhood of the Highlands. He was the first son of Jack Robert (1893 – 3 July 1952), an insurance adjuster and a U.S. Army veteran who served in France during World War I, and Virginia Davidson Ray (1908 – 1998), a reference librarian and secretary who, while a student at the University of Michigan, had joined the Alpha Gamma Delta sorority. Introduced by a mutual friend from Jack's fraternity in 1934, they married in 1935.
Jack died of myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular disease, on 3 July 1952, when Hunter was 14 years old, leaving three sons — Hunter, Davison, and James (1949–1994) — to be brought up by their mother. Contemporaries indicated that after Jack's death Virginia became a "heavy drinker."
Interested in sports and athletically inclined from a young age, Thompson joined Louisville’s Castlewood Athletic Club, a sports club for teenagers that prepared them for high-school sports, where he excelled in baseball, though he never joined any sports teams in high school. He was constantly in trouble at school.
Thompson attended the I.N. Bloom Elementary School, and then Atherton High School, transferring to Louisville Male High School in 1952 following the death of his father. That same year he was accepted as a member of the Athenaeum Literary Association, a school-sponsored literary and social club that had been founded at Male High in 1862. Its members at the time, generally drawn from Louisville’s wealthy upper-class families, included Porter Bibb, who became the first publisher of Rolling Stone. As an Athenaeum member, Thompson contributed articles and helped edit the club’s yearbook The Spectator; however, the group ejected Thompson from its membership in 1955, citing his legal problems.
Charged as an accessory to robbery after having been in a car with the person who committed the robbery, Thompson was sentenced to serve 60 days in Kentucky’s Jefferson County Jail. He served 30 days of his sentence, and joined the U.S. Air Force a week after his release.
In 1965, Carey McWilliams, editor of The Nation, offered Thompson the opportunity to write a story based on his experience with the California-based Hells Angels motorcycle gang. After The Nation published the article (17 May 1965), Thompson received several book offers and spent the next year living and riding with the Hell's Angels. The relationship broke down when the bikers suspected that Thompson would make money from his writing. The gang demanded a share of the profits and Thompson ended up with a savage beating, or 'stomping' as the Angels referred to it. Random House published the hard cover Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs in 1966. A reviewer for The New York Times 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." The reviewer also praised Thompson as a "spirited, witty, observant and original writer; his prose crackles like motorcycle exhaust."
Following the success of Hells Angels, Thompson was able to publish articles in a number of well-known magazines during the late 1960s, including The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Pageant, and others. In the Times Magazine article, published in 1967 shortly before the "Summer of Love" and entitled 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.
In late 1968, Thompson and his family purchased a modest home and property named Owl Farm near Woody Creek, Colorado, a small mountain hamlet outside Aspen where Thompson lived for the rest of his life. He often described this house as his "fortified compound".
According to Thompson's letters and his later writings, at this time he planned to write a book called The Joint Chiefs about "the death of the American dream." 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. The planned book was never finished, but the theme of the death of the American dream would be carried over into his later work, and the contract with Random House was eventually fulfilled with the 1972 book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Thompson also signed a deal with Ballantine Books in 1968 to write a satirical book called The Johnson File about Lyndon B. Johnson. A few weeks after the contract was signed, however, Johnson announced that he would not stand for re-election, and the deal was cancelled..
In the late sixties, Thompson also obtained his famous title of "Doctor" from the Universal Life Church. He later preferred to be called Dr. Thompson, and his "alter-ego" Raoul Duke called himself a "doctor of journalism".
In 1970 Thompson ran for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado, on the "Freak Power" ticket, 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 it. Thus, Thompson's first article in Rolling Stone was published as The Battle of Aspen with the byline "By: Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (Candidate for Sheriff)." Despite the publicity, Thompson ended up narrowly losing the election. While actually carrying the city of Aspen, he only garnered 44% of the county-wide vote in what became a two-way race as the Republican candidate for sheriff agreed to withdraw from the contest a few days before the election in order to consolidate the anti-Thompson votes, in return for the Democrats withdrawing their candidate for county commissioner. Thompson later remarked that the Rolling Stone article mobilized his opposition far more than his supporters.
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. Ralph Steadman, who would later collaborate with Thompson on several projects, contributed expressionist pen-and-ink illustrations.
The first use of the word Gonzo to describe Thompson's work is credited to the journalist Bill Cardoso. Cardoso had first met Thompson on a bus full of journalists covering the 1968 New Hampshire primary. In 1970, Cardoso (who, by this time had become the editor of The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine) wrote to Thompson praising the "Kentucky Derby" piece in Scanlan's Monthly as a breakthrough: "This is it, this is pure Gonzo. If this is a start, keep rolling." Thompson took to the word right away, and according to illustrator Ralph Steadman said, "Okay, that's what I do. Gonzo."
Thompson's first published use of the word Gonzo appears in a passage in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream: "Free Enterprise. The American Dream. Horatio Alger had gone mad on drugs in Las Vegas. Do it now: pure Gonzo journalism."
The book for which Thompson gained most of his fame had its genesis during the research for Strange Rumblings in Aztlan, an exposé Thompson was writing for Rolling Stone on the 1970 killing of the Mexican-American television journalist Ruben Salazar. Salazar had been shot in the head at close range with a tear gas canister fired by officers of the Los Angeles 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, Nevada, 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 the November 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."
Coming to terms with the failure of the 1960s countercultural movement is a major theme of the novel, and the book was greeted with considerable critical acclaim, including being heralded by the New York Times as "by far the best book yet written on the decade of dope". "The Vegas Book", as Thompson referred to it, was a mainstream success and introduced his Gonzo journalism techniques to the masses.
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. As the title suggests, Thompson spent nearly all of his time traveling the "campaign trail," focusing largely on the Democratic Party's primaries (Nixon, as an incumbent, performed little campaign work) in which McGovern competed with rival candidates Ed Muskie and Hubert Humphrey. Thompson was an early supporter of McGovern, and it could be argued that his unflattering coverage of the rival campaigns in the increasingly widely read Rolling Stone played a role in the senator's nomination.
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.
Thompson was to provide Rolling Stone similar coverage for the 1976 Presidential Campaign that would appear in a book published by the magazine. Reportedly, as Thompson was waiting for a $75,000 advance cheque to arrive, he learned that Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner had pulled the plug on the endeavor without telling Thompson.
Wenner then 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 on this excursion as well, and Thompson found himself in Vietnam without health insurance or additional financial support. Thompson's story about the fall of Saigon would not be published in Rolling Stone until ten years later.
These two incidents severely strained the relationship between the author and the magazine, and Thompson contributed far less to the publication in later years.
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 had to spend several months living with Thompson to get his character down, and it is rumored that during this time Thompson tied Murray to a chair, blind folded him and threw him into a pool. Murray escaped and would go on to become one of Thompson's only trusted friends. Co-actors of Murray's on Saturday Night Live said that it took him months to break Thompson's character and that he would frequently come into the studio smoking a cigarette in a holder. After the lukewarm reception of the film, Thompson temporarily relocated to Hawaii to work on a novel, The Curse of Lono, a gonzo-style account of a marathon held in that state. Extensively illustrated by Ralph Steadman, the piece first appeared in Running magazine in 1981 as "The Charge of the Weird Brigade" and was excerpted in Playboy in 1983.
On July 21, 1981, in Aspen, Colorado, Thompson ran a stop sign at 2 a.m. and began to "rave" at a state trooper. He also refused to take alcohol tests. Because of his refusal he was arrested, but the drunk-driving charges against the journalist were later dropped.
In 1983, he covered the U.S. invasion of Grenada but would not discuss these experiences until the publication of Kingdom of Fear 20 years later. Later that year he authored a piece for Rolling Stone called "A Dog Took My Place," an exposé of the scandalous Roxanne Pulitzer divorce and what he termed the "Palm Beach lifestyle." The article contained dubious insinuations of bestiality (among other things) but was considered to be a return to proper form by many.
Shortly thereafter, Thompson accepted an advance to write about "couples pornography" for Playboy. As part of his research, he spent time at the O'Farrell Theater strip club in San Francisco and his experience there eventually evolved into a full-length nonfiction novel tentatively titled The Night Manager. Neither the novel nor the article was ever published. By the early 1990s Thompson was said to be working on a fictional novel called Polo Is My Life, which was briefly excerpted in Rolling Stone in 1994, and which Hunter himself described in 1996 as "...a sex book — you know, sex, drugs and rock and roll. It's about the manager of a sex theater who's forced to leave and flee to the mountains. He falls in love and gets in even more trouble than he was in the sex theater in San Francisco". The novel was slated to be released by Random House in 1999, and was even assigned ISBN 0679406948, but was never actually published.
At the behest of old friend and editor Warren Hinckle, Thompson became a media critic for the San Francisco Examiner from the mid-1980s until the end of that decade.
Thompson continued to contribute irregularly to Rolling Stone. "Fear and Loathing in Elko," published in 1992, was a well-received fictional rallying cry against Clarence Thomas, while "Mr. Bill's Neighborhood" was a largely non-fictional account of an interview with Bill Clinton in an Arkansas diner. Rather than embarking on the campaign trail as he had done in previous presidential elections, Thompson monitored the proceedings from cable television; Better Than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie, his account of the 1992 campaign, is composed of reactionary faxes sent to Rolling Stone. A decade later, he contributed "Fear and Loathing, Campaign 2004" — an account of a road jaunt with John Kerry during his presidential campaign that would be Thompson's final magazine feature.
Thompson was named a Kentucky Colonel by the Governor of Kentucky in a December 1996 tribute ceremony where he also received keys to the city of Louisville.
Thompson ended his journalism career in the same way it had begun: writing about sports. Thompson penned a weekly column called "Hey, Rube" for ESPN.com's "Page 2". The column ran from 2000 to shortly before his death in 2005. Simon & Schuster bundled many of the columns from the first few years and released it in mid-2004 as Hey Rube: Blood Sport, the Bush Doctrine, and the Downward Spiral of Dumbness - Modern History from the Sports Desk.
Thompson died at his self-described "fortified compound" known as "Owl Farm" in Woody Creek, Colorado, at 5:42 p.m. on February 20, 2005, from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
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. Mistaking the shot for the sound of a book falling, they continued with their activities for a few minutes before checking on him. Thompson was sitting at his typewriter with the word "counselor" written in the center of the page.
Paul William Roberts in his Globe and Mail article of Saturday, February 26, 2005 wrote the following:
Hunter telephoned me on Feb. 19, the night before his death. He sounded scared. It wasn't always easy to understand what he said, particularly over the phone, he mumbled, yet when there was something he really wanted you to understand, you did. He'd been working on a story about the World Trade Center attacks and had stumbled across what he felt was hard evidence showing the towers had been brought down not by the airplanes that flew into them but by explosive charges set off in their foundations. Now he thought someone was out to stop him publishing it: "They're gonna make it look like suicide," he said. "I know how these bastards think . . ."