Hunter S. Thompson

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Hunter S. Thompson

Hunter Stockton Thompson (July 18, 1937February 20, 2005) was an American journalist and author. He was known for his flamboyant writing style, most notably deployed in his novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which blurred the distinctions between writer and subject, fiction and nonfiction. It became known as gonzo journalism and was widely imitated.


Early years

A Louisville, Kentucky native, Thompson grew up in the Cherokee Triangle neighborhood of the Highlands and attended Louisville Male High School. His parents, Jack ( – 1952) and Virginia ( – 1999), married in 1935. Jack's death left three sons: Hunter, Davidson, and James to be brought up by their mother, who had a problem with alcohol abuse.1 Thompson's difficult youth, and its influence on his behavior and the development of his misanthropic worldview, has not received significant literary exploration.

After early trouble with the law, including an arrest in 1956 for robbery, he enlisted in the Air Force as part of his punishment. At Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, in 1956, he began working as a sports journalist, writing for the base newspaper. He was discharged in 1958. Thompson worked briefly as a copy editor for Time Magazine while maintaining a beat-inspired lifestyle in New York City.

Thompson traveled extensively in the Caribbean and South America, writing freelance articles for a number of U.S. daily newspapers. While in Puerto Rico, he befriended the journalist William Kennedy. Thompson eventually became a South American correspondent for a Dow Jones-owned weekly newspaper called The National Observer.

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A modification of one of Thompson's original Gonzo flyers during his bid for sheriff of Aspen, Colorado.

In the meantime, Thompson wrote two serious novels (Prince Jellyfish and The Rum Diary) and many short stories. Despite repeated submissions to publishers, only "The Rum Diary" was ever published—in 1998, long after it was written, and long after he had become a celebrity. Kennedy later remarked that he and Thompson were both failed novelists who had turned to journalism in order to make a living.

He was married to Sandra Dawn Conklin on 19 May, 1963; they divorced in 1980. In between three miscarriages and two children who died immediately after birth, the couple had one son, Juan Fitzgerald Thompson, born March 23, 1964.

Thompson got his big break in 1965 when he was approached by Carey McWilliams with an idea for a story based upon his experience with the notorious Hells Angels motorcycle gang. Thompson had spent a year living and riding with the Hells Angels, but the relationship broke down when the bikers suspected that Thompson was making money from his writing, and they demanded a share of the profits. Thompson ended up with a savage beating, or 'stomping' as the Angels referred to it. After the article was published by The Nation (May 17, 1965), numerous book offers on the subject came his way, and Random House published the hard cover Hells Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs in 1966. Radical feminist Susan Brownmiller strongly criticized Thompson's book's treatment of gang-rape by Hells Angels in her own book, Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape.

In the late 1960s, Thompson received a "doctorate" in Divinity from a mail-order church while living in San Francisco.

Middle years

He went on to work for Rolling Stone magazine, and Ron Shen, where his next two books Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 1972 were first serialized.

Published in 1971, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream is a first-person account by a journalist (Thompson himself, under the pseudonym "Raoul Duke") on a trip to Las Vegas with his "300-pound Samoan" attorney, "Dr. Gonzo" (a character inspired by Thompson's friend, Chicano lawyer Oscar Zeta Acosta) to cover a narcotics officers' convention and the "fabulous Mint 400" motorcycle race. During the trip, he and his lawyer become sidetracked by a search for the American dream, with the aid of copious amounts of LSD, ether, adrenochrome, marijuana and other drugs. Ralph Steadman, who collaborated with Thompson on several projects, contributed surreal pen and ink illustrations.

Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 is a collection of Rolling Stone articles he wrote while covering the election campaigns of President Richard M. Nixon and his unsuccessful opponent, Senator George McGovern. The book focuses largely on the Democratic Party's primaries and the breakdown of the party as it splits between the different candidates; McGovern was extolled while Ed Muskie and Hubert Humphrey were ridiculed. Thompson would go 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." Returning the favor after Thompson's death, Henry Kissinger said, "Nixon didn't shoot himself like that unstable buffoon who could not even string a correct grammatical sentence together."

Thompson debuted in Rolling Stone with an article describing his 1970 bid for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado on the "Freak Power" ticket. Thompson narrowly lost the election, although he ran on a platform promoting decriminalization of drugs and the sale thereof, tearing up the streets and turning them into bike paths, and renaming Aspen, Colorado to "Fat City", amongst other things. The incumbent Republican sheriff whom he ran against had a crew cut, prompting Thompson to shave his head bald and refer to his opposition as "my long-haired opponent."

Later years

Thompson's last book, Kingdom of Fear, is an angry commentary on the passing of the American Century. Thompson also wrote a Web column, "Hey Rube," for ESPN. He had at times also toured on the lecture circuit, once with John Belushi.

In his writing, Thompson liked to employ what he called "action verbs" to comically spin outlandish tales that were completely unbelievable, yet provided a unique viewpoint to accurately describe the underlying reality at hand. Thompson almost always wrote in first person narrative, and his stories became so colorfully contrived that they easily slipped into the realm of fiction; however, the basic framework of the story he told was very often true. In his writing, he cultivated the persona of a dangerously absurd, drug-crazed journalist bent on comic self-destruction.

Thompson was fond of firearms and was known to keep a keg of gunpowder in his basement.

His brother, James Garnett Thompson (born 1949), died from AIDS complications in 1994. James reportedly believed that his brother was offended by his homosexuality. He also resented how Hunter treated him during childhood, and the two were never close. When his much older brothers moved from home, James was left to cope with his mother's perpetual drunkenness, sometimes having to take a taxi to pick her up off the pavement where she had passed out.

Thompson was married to Anita Bejmuk, his long-time assistant, on 24 April, 2003.


Thompson died at his fortified compound in Woody Creek, Colorado, on February 20, 2005 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. He was 67 years old.

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. 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 medical conditions.2 Thompson's wife, Anita, who was at the gym at the time of her husband's death, was on the phone with Thompson when he ended his life.

On February 22, 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..." 3

Funeral plans

Thompson's family and friends are currently trying to arrange for Thompson's ashes to be fired out of a cannon, as he wished. This might take some time, because the cannon he envisioned was to be in the shape of a double-thumbed-fist, 150 feet in length. The firing of his ashes is currently scheduled for a private ceremony August 20, 2005, after which the cannon will remain as a memorial. There are currently talks of a public party sometime in the summer of 2006. Johnny Depp, who portrayed Thompson in the movie adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, recently announced he would be financing 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 British television, titled "Fear and Loathing in Gonzovision". It is included as a special feature on the second disc of the Criterion Collection DVD release of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

According to Marc Williams, pyrotechnic expert and owner of Night Musick Inc. in suburban Denver, it's not uncommon for families to have their loved one's ashes scattered across the sky in a fireworks shell. He said that if he were to arrange the service, he'd probably launch Thompson's cremated remains from a 12-inch-diameter mortar 800 feet into the sky, with a huge secondary blast to scatter them amid a massive colored explosion about 600 feet across. "If you were going to light up a flash-bomb worthy of Hunter S. Thompson, you'd want to make it an earth-shaker."

"If that's what he wanted, we'll see if we can pull it off," said Douglas Brinkley, a friend and now the family's spokesman.4

Suspicious circumstances

According to the Toronto Globe and Mail Thompson believed he had uncovered hard evidence of a conspiracy in the September 11, 2001 attacks and told its reporter, in a voice atypically laden with fear, "They're gonna make it look like suicide. I know how these bastards think..."5 The article also cited a February 25 Associated Press report stating the shot that ended his life occurred bizarrely in mid-conversation with his wife regarding his forthcoming ESPN column.


Famous quotations

A slogan of Thompson's, "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro," appears as a chapter heading in Kingdom of Fear. He was also quoted as saying, "I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence or insanity to anyone, but they've always worked for me". Another one of his favorite sayings, "Buy the ticket, take the ride", is easily applied to virtually all of his exploits.

Thompson identified the death of the American Dream as his "reporter's beat", and covered the subject in one fashion or another throughout his writing. During an interview with, however, Thompson was asked whether he was not, in fact, the living embodiment of the classic American Dream. He answered the question by first screaming a string of frustrated obscenities and then admitting that, in actuality, he probably was.


Thompson was a prolific letter writer. Letters served as Thompsonís prime avenue for personal conversation. Beginning in his teenage years, Thompson made carbon copies of all his letters, which were almost always typed. Thompsonís letters include all of his noted flamboyancy, and were sent to both dear friends and unsuspecting public officials and reporters.

Some of his letters have begun to be published in a series of books called The Fear and Loathing Letters. The first volume, The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman 1955 - 1967, is over 650 pages. Douglas Brinkley, who edits the letter series, said that for every letter included, fifteen were cut. Brinkley estimated Thompsonís own archive contains over 20,000 letters. The last of the three planned volumes of Thompsonís letters has yet to be published, but it is perhaps inevitable that additional letters will be collected and published, as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (or, "the Vegas book", as he referred to it) immediately jumped back onto the bestseller list following the author's death.

While Thompson did not write an autobiography, his letters serve that function. Since his early days in the US Air Force, Thompson's letters contained comic "asides" to "his biographers" that would presumably be "reading-in" on his collected letters. Some of these letters, poured into a story by narrative passages, were already bundled into Thompsons Kingdom of Fear, though it is not considered an autobiography. Three biographies have been written about him.


A new journalism contemporary of Thompsonís, Tom Wolfe, has called Thompson the greatest American comic writer of the 20th century. By comparison, Mark Twain is given the 19th century honor.

Hunter Thompson showed up frequently as Uncle Duke in Doonesbury, the Garry Trudeau comic strip, to loud protests from Thompson himself, though he supposedly took a liking to the character in later years.

Similarly, Spider Jerusalem, the gonzo journalist protagonist of Warren Ellis's Transmetropolitan, is (more lovingly) based on Thompson.

Outre columnists Ed Anger of the Weekly World News and Matt Brock of Pro Wrestling Illustrated show a clear Thompson influence.


The film Where The Buffalo Roam (1980) depicts Thompson's attempts at writing stories for both the Super Bowl and the 1972 U.S. presidential election. It stars Bill Murray as Thompson and Peter Boyle as Thompson's attorney Oscar Acosta, referred to in the movie as Carl Laslow, Esq.

The 1998 film adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was directed by Monty Python veteran Terry Gilliam, and starred Johnny Depp (who moved into Hunter's basement to 'study' Thompson's persona before assuming his role in the film) as Raoul Duke and Benicio Del Toro as Dr. Gonzo. Thompson received credit as the screenwriter, and could be seen in the scene at "The Matrix" sitting at a table. The film has achieved something of a cult following.

The film Breakfast With Hunter (2003) was directed and edited by Wayne Ewing. It documents Thompson's work on the movie Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, his arrest for drunk driving and his subsequent fight with the court system.

A new film is currently (2005) in production, based upon Thompson's novel The Rum Diary. Both Depp and Del Toro will be starring in this new Thompson film. Del Toro was supposed to have directed, but he withdrew in January 2004. Bruce Robinson is directing.



  • The Rum Diary: The Long Lost Novel (1959; Simon & Schuster, 1999, ISBN 0684856476)
  • Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga (New York, Random House, 1966; Ballantine Books, 1996, ISBN 0345410084)
  • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Other American Stories (New York, Random House, 1971; Vintage, 1989, ISBN 0679724192; Vintage, 1998, ISBN 0679785892)
  • Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72 (San Francisco, Straight Arrow Books, 1973; Warner Books, 1985, ISBN 0446313645)
  • Gonzo Papers, Vol. 1: The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time (New York, Summit Books, 1979; Simon & Schuster, 2003, ISBN 0743250451)
  • The Curse of Lono, illustrated by Ralph Steadman (Bantam Books, 1983)
  • Gonzo Papers, Vol. 2: Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the '80s (New York, Summit Books, 1988; Vintage, 1989, ISBN 0679722378; Simon & Schuster, 2003, ISBN 0743250443)
  • Gonzo Papers, Vol. 3: Songs of the Doomed: More Notes on the Death of the American Dream (New York, Summit Books, 1990; Pocket, 1991, ISBN 0671743260; Simon & Schuster/Touchstone, 2002, ISBN 0743240995)
  • Screwjack and Other Stories. (Santa Barbara, Neville Press, 1991; Simon & Schuster, 2000, ISBN 0684873214)
  • Gonzo Papers, Vol. 4: Better Than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie Trapped Like a Rat in Mr. Bill's Neighborhood (New York, Random House, 1994; Ballantine Books, 1995, ISBN 0345396359)
  • The Fear and Loathing Letters, Volume I — The Proud Highway — Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman 1955 - 1967 (New York, Random House, 1997; Ballantine Books, 1998, ISBN 0345377966)
  • Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist 1968-1976 (Collection of Papers first appeared in Time magazine, 1997; Simon & Schuster, 2001, ISBN 0684873168)
  • Kingdom of Fear: Loathsome Secrets of a Star-Crossed Child in the Final Days of the American Century (Simon & Schuster; 1st Simon edition, November 1, 2003, ISBN 0684873249)
  • Hey Rube: Blood Sport, the Bush Doctrine, and the Downward Spiral of Dumbness Modern History from the Sports Desk (Simon & Schuster, August 11, 2004, ISBN 0684873192)


External links

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Online sources

  • American Collection (
  • BookRags (

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