A Tribute to Hunter S. Thompson

Deb Charney

Hunter S. Thompson, the pioneer of “gonzo journalism,” took his own life on February 20th, in his Colorado compound. Thompson, who died at the age of 67, was associated with the journalism movement of the 1960s characterized by personal, often crude and overtly honest, approaches to stories. Thompson will be remembered for his unique writing style, as well as his personification of 1960s California counterculture. Although he once described himself as “a San Francisco Boy,” Thompson was born in Kentucky on July 18, 1937. He graduated from Louisville Male High School, but did not receive his diploma, as he was in jail at the time of his graduation ceremony. Thompson then purchased a mail order doctorate degree after which he began to refer to himself as “Dr. Thompson.” Throughout all of this, Thompson maintained an interest in writing. However, before his career as a novelist and journalist took off, he served in the United States Air Force and ran for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado on the Freak Power Party ticket on the platform of decriminalizing drugs. Thompson then went on to pursue a career as an author. He found himself in the limelight after the release of his 1966 best seller, Hell’s Angels. He spent over a year following California’s Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang as they traveled up and down the Pacific coast. It was in the movie version of Hell’s Angels that Thompson portrayed California as a paradise in which laws had no meaning, drugs were at the forefront of hippie counterculture and rebellion was celebrated. Hell’s Angels introduced readers to his unorthodox style of writing. These descriptive, novelistic accounts of the wild escapades of a motorcycle gang in the 1960s were published like never before for the American public to read. Prior to the release of Hell’s Angels, Thompson explored his journalistic potential by covering the 1964 Free Speech Movement at the University of California at Berkeley. It was there he began to completely immerse himself in hippie subculture. Thompson was an instant celebrity after his publication of previously unspeakably wild events in Hell’s Angels, and it was soon evident that he was not only writing of substance abuse and subculture rebellion, but was living that life himself. References to his own drug and alcohol use in his journalistic pieces and novels drove his hippie persona into the spotlight, establishing him as a hero in 1960s counterculture. In 1971, Thompson published his best-known work. Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream was described by CNN as “his account of a drug-fueled trip to cover a district attorney’s anti-drug conference as a writer for Rolling Stone Magazine.” Thompson described Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as a tribute to the 1960s and its “sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil,” as well as a lament of the passing of an influential decade. The following notable passage from this controversial yet widely read book gives a glimpse into the uniquely descriptive and strikingly honest style of Thompson: “There was no point in fighting – on our side or theirs … We all had the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark – the place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”One year after the publication of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson wrote Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72, in which he described the campaigns of the 1972 United States Presidential Election and the subsequent re-election of Richard Nixon. In this work, Thompson was once again painfully honest, describing Nixon’s re-election as “brutal” and “depraved.” He closely observed the election’s front-runners and didn’t fail to tell the world what he thought of each and every one of them. He openly stated his negative opinions toward Senator Ed Muskie, claiming that he had been abusing the psychoactive drug Ibogaine, and taunted Senator Hubert H. Humphrey by repeatedly referring to the candidate as “The Hump.” For instance, Thompson wrote, “there is no way to grasp what a shallow, contemptible and hopelessly dishonest old hack Hubert Humphrey is until you’ve followed him around for awhile.” Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 was yet another example of how Thompson wasn’t afraid to take risks in his writing, no matter how offensive those risks proved to be. Neighboring Aspen, Colorado resident John Hoag stated, “There’s no one in the world these days who writes the truth … as he seems to, to me. He spoke to the world and said what people were afraid to say.”Following the publication of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72, Thompson continued writing for Rolling Stone and wrote several more books. These included The Great Shark Hunt, a collection of essays from the time of the Watergate scandals, Generation of Swine, which examined and critiqued the generation of youth in the 1980s, Better than Sex, his account of the 1992 presidential election and victory of Bill Clinton, The Rum Diaries, his only entirely fictional work and The Proud Highway: The Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, a collection of letters published in 1997.More recently, Thompson extended into another branch of the media, film. His first brush with Hollywood was in 1980, when Thompson was portrayed by acclaimed actor Bill Murray in the feature film Where the Buffalo Roam. Murray accurately depicted Thompson in his many “adventures” as the pioneer of “gonzo journalism” – Thompson’s style of stream-of-consciousness, blatantly honest writing. Eighteen years later, one of Thompson’s own works became the subject of a major motion picture. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was released in 1998, starring Johnny Depp in the lead role as the journalist. Currently, it has been reported that a film version of The Rum Diaries is in the early stages of production.Thompson also dabbled in television, writing the script for a two-hour television movie with neighbor and fellow pop culture icon Don Johnson. Their movie was entitled “Bridges,” and was the story of an alcoholic, drug-addicted police officer in Los Angeles. Included in the story line were events such as the cop’s dating of a mafia boss’s daughter and incidents involving the protagonist’s Latino partner. At the time of its proposal, NBC rejected “Bridges,” likely due to its controversial subject matter. However, in 1996, NBC bought the script and adapted it into the television series “Nash Bridges.”Also, in recent years, Thompson increased the spread of his fame when he became the inspiration and model for the character of Uncle Duke in the “Doonesbury” comic strip. In addition, Thompson wrote a sports column entitled “Hey Rube” for the ESPN website. His final piece, which was released online on February 15, was characteristically offbeat and described a recent incident in which he and a friend shot golf balls near his compound in Aspen. Hunter S. Thompson will be remembered as a journalist, author and 1960s hippie personality who never failed to speak his mind. He confidently broke the mold, even when it was at the risk of offending politicians, public figures or general audiences of his written works and films. CNN correspondent Bruce Morton sums it up well when he says, “he was also, it’s fair to say, a very good writer. You read his stuff in Rolling Stone magazine, and maybe it wasn’t what you’ve seen and maybe it wasn’t what had happened, but by golly, it was good stuff.”