Monday, August 31, 2009

Folks: In Honor of our New Dog, Gonzo

Hunter Stockton Thompson (July 18, 1937 – February 20, 2005) was an American journalist and author, most 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 central figures of their stories. He is also known for his use of psychedelics, alcohol, firearms, 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 – July 3, 1952), an insurance adjuster and a U.S. Army veteran who served in France during World War I, and Virginia Davidson Ray (1908 – 1998). Introduced by a mutual friend from Jack's fraternity in 1934, they married in 1935.[1]

Jack died of myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular disease, on July 3, 1952, when Hunter was 14 years old, leaving three sons — Hunter, Davison, and James (February 2, 1949 – March 25, 1993)[2] — to be brought up by their mother. Contemporaries indicated that after Jack's death, Virginia became a "heavy drinker."[1] James was openly homosexual, and died of AIDS.[3]

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, where he was constantly in trouble.[1]

[edit] Education

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.[1] 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.[1]

[edit] Military career

Thompson did his basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, and later transferred to Scott Air Force Base in Illinois to study electronics. He applied to become a pilot but was rejected by the Air Force's aviation-cadet program. In 1956, he transferred to Eglin Air Force Base, near Pensacola, Florida. There he worked in the information-services department and became the sports editor of the base's newspaper, The Command Courier. In this capacity, he covered the Eglin Eagles, a base football team that included such future professional stars as Max McGee and Zeke Bratkowski. Thompson traveled with the team around the U.S., covering its games. In 1957, he also wrote a sports column anonymously for The Playground News, a local newspaper in Fort Walton Beach, Florida.[1]

Thompson left the Air Force in 1958 as an Airman First Class, having been recommended for an early honorable discharge by his commanding officer. "In summary, this airman, although talented, will not be guided by policy," Col. William S. Evans, chief of information services wrote to the Eglin personnel office. "Sometimes his rebel and superior attitude seems to rub off on other airmen staff members." Thompson claimed in a mock press release he wrote about the end of his duty to have been issued a "totally unclassifiable" status.[4]

[edit] Early journalism career

After the Air Force, he worked as sports editor for a newspaper in Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania[5] before moving to New York City. There he attended Columbia University's School of General Studies part-time on the G.I. Bill, taking classes in short-story writing.[6]

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.[7]

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.[6] Later that year, he worked as a reporter for The Middletown Daily Record in Middletown, New York. He was fired from this job after damaging an office candy machine and arguing with the owner of a local restaurant who happened to be an advertiser with the paper.[6]

In 1960 Thompson moved to San Juan, Puerto Rico, to take a job with the sporting magazine El Sportivo, which soon folded. Thompson had first unsuccessfully applied for a job with the Puerto Rico English-language daily The San Juan Star and its managing editor, future novelist William J. Kennedy.[8] After the demise of El Sportivo, Thompson worked as a stringer for the New York Herald Tribune and a few stateside papers on Caribbean issues with Kennedy working as his editor.[9] After returning to the States, Hunter lived in California, working as a security guard and caretaker at the Big Sur Hot springs for an eight-month period in 1961, just before it became the Esalen Institute. 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 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.

From May 1962 to May 1963, Thompson traveled to South America as a correspondent for a Dow Jones-owned weekly newspaper, the National Observer. In Brazil, he spent several months working also as a reporter on the Brazil Herald, the country's only English-language daily, published in Rio de Janeiro. His longtime girlfriend Sandra Dawn Conklin (aka Sandy Conklin Thompson, now Sondi Wright) later joined him in Rio.

Thompson and Conklin were married on May 19, 1963, shortly after they returned to the United States. They briefly relocated to Aspen, Colorado, and had one son, Juan Fitzgerald Thompson, born March 23, 1964. The couple conceived five more times together. Three of the pregnancies were miscarried, and the other two pregnancies produced infants who died shortly after birth. Hunter and Sandy divorced in 1980 but remained close friends until Thompson's death.

In 1964 the Thompson family then moved to Glen Ellen, California, where Thompson continued to write for the National Observer on an array of domestic subjects, including a story about his 1964 visit to Ketchum, Idaho, in order to investigate the reasons for Ernest Hemingway's suicide.[10] While working on the story, Thompson symbolically 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,[11] and he moved to San Francisco, immersing himself in the drug and hippie culture that was taking root in the area. About this time he began writing for the Berkeley underground paper The Spyder.[12]

[edit] Hells Angels

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 (May 17, 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 was only friends with them so he could make money from his writing. The gang demanded a share of the profits and after an argument at a party 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."[13]

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.[14] It was an observation on the 60s' counterculture that Thompson would further examine in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and other articles.

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.[15] 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.[16]

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 in Woody Creek where Thompson would live for the rest of his life.[17] He named the house Owl Farm and often described this house as his "fortified compound".

Middle years

In 1970 Thompson ran for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado, 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.[18] 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 garnered only 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.[19]

[edit] Birth of Gonzo

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."[20]

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 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.[21]

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".[22] "The Vegas Book", as Thompson referred to it, was a mainstream success and introduced his Gonzo journalism techniques to the masses.

[edit] Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, 1972

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."[23] 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.[18]

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.[18]

These two incidents severely strained the relationship between the author and the magazine, and Thompson contributed far less to the publication in later years.


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. The police report concerning his death stated that in a typewriter in front of Thompson, they found "a piece of paper carrying the date 'Feb 22 '05' and the single word 'counselor'."[29]

They reported to the press that they do not believe his suicide was out of desperation, but was a well-thought out act resulting from Thompson's many painful and chronic medical conditions. Thompson's wife, Anita, who was at a gym at the time of her husband's death, was on the phone with him when he ended his life.

What family and police describe as a suicide note was delivered to his wife four days before his death and later published by Rolling Stone. 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 old age. Relax — This won't hurt."[30]

Artist and friend Ralph Steadman wrote:

"...He told me 25 years ago that he would feel real trapped if he didn't know that he could commit suicide at any moment. I don't know if that is brave or stupid or what, but it was inevitable. I think that the truth of what rings through all his writing is that he meant what he said. If that is entertainment to you, well, that's OK. If you think that it enlightened you, well, that's even better. If you wonder if he's gone to Heaven or Hell, rest assured he will check out them both, find out which one Richard Milhous Nixon went to — and go there. He could never stand being bored. But there must be Football too — and Peacocks..."[31]

[edit] Funeral

On August 20, 2005, in a private ceremony, Thompson's ashes were fired 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.[32] Red, white, blue, and green fireworks were launched along with his ashes. As the city of Aspen would not allow the cannon to remain for more than a month, the cannon has been dismantled and put into storage until a suitable permanent location can be found. According to his widow Anita, Thompson's funeral was financed by actor Johnny Depp, a close friend of Thompson. Depp told the Associated Press, "All I'm doing is trying to make sure his last wish comes true. I just want to send my pal out the way he wants to go out."[32]

Other famous attendees at the funeral included U.S. Senator John Kerry and former U.S. Senator George McGovern; 60 Minutes correspondents Ed Bradley and Charlie Rose; actors Jack Nicholson, Bill Murray, Benicio Del Toro, Sean Penn, and Josh Hartnett; singers Lyle Lovett, John Oates and numerous other friends. An estimated 280 people attended the funeral.

The plans for this monument were initially drawn by Thompson and Ralph Steadman and were shown as part of an Omnibus program on the BBC entitled Fear and Loathing in Gonzovision (1978). It is included as a special feature on the second disc of the 2003 Criterion Collection DVD release of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (labeled on the DVD as "Fear and Loathing on the Road to Hollywood"). The video footage of Steadman and Thompson drawing the plans and outdoor footage showing where he wanted the cannon constructed were planned prior to the unveiling of his cannon at the funeral.

via Wikipedia

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