|Hunter S. Thompson…yes, he was quite a force. A whirlwind unto himself. In college, as I worked my way up through the ranks of reporter to editor, I had a signed picture of him on my desk that was once held for ransom. Apparently, even his pictures lead interesting lives all their own.
Pat and I used to go every year to see Hunter Thompson at the Kabuki. The first time I met Hunter it involved a diversion in a hotel lobby, the accessing of a computer system I was unfamiliar with and an awkward knock at Hunter’s hotel room in the middle of the night. Yes, just as anyone else in “J” school, I idolized him. The generation before me had Bob Woodward. I had Thompson. Someone who could mix psychedelics, huge amounts of alcohol and r/evolving ethics…and meet deadlines. What was not to idolize?
Stepping back…as I sat around, at the not-so-tender age of 14, in a smoke-filled room shooting the shit with my pals (think That ’70s Show), I wondered how on earth I would turn my writing into a career that would afford me the lifestyle of Hunter where I could apply my tenacity for not giving a rat’s ass what people thought.
He was the cat’s pajamas when he wasn’t the horse’s ass. As I read his articles in Rolling Stone and his books with drugs, guns and money as the main characters I got ideas of my own. At the age of 17, I already had an assistant DA friend whom I could call and consult with about various matters. Friends in the DEA, and people whom I associated with (but, would never admit to knowing in a public forum) became who became the fodder of my life and writing. Elements of my writing. Characters. From his pages, and the Beats before him, I had learned that life can be an adventure, or you can lead an existence. I chose the former. Funny thing...where life’s lessons come from. Some people learn them the hard way, others learn from the pages of books. Books that if the religious right had its way, would end up piled like cords of wood and reduced to non-text holding ashes.
I found myself having a gonzo life. What, actually does that mean? A friend had written to Hunter that his writing had gone totally gonzo. Some guess the term comes from the Spanish slang gonzagas (a word that basically means, Ha! Fooled you!). The word is now listed in English-language dictionaries as a synonym for "bizarre." Thompson is quoted as saying that it meant "literary cubism,” journalism with only the loosest rules.
I thought of Hunter as I conducted (as a cub-reporter at the college paper) an interview with Charlton Heston. I had no idea who Charlton was – and there was no Google back then. Carrying a 35-unit load, I didn’t have a chance to go to the library and look anything up. My assignment? To interview this old guy named Charlton Heston. I had to cancel a date to do the interview… I had never seen any of his movies and I probably couldn’t even identify him from a lineup. Before the interview, I opened it up to the newsroom — “Anyone have any questions I can ask this guy?” So, as a hazing of sorts, I was given the brilliant suggestion of, “Why don’t you ever play the good guy?” I wrote the question down in my long and narrow reporter’s notebook (I loved those things), confident that it was the Holy Grail of questions for the evening. I had also been told of Heston’s pentient for guns, and I’d hear his talk before the interview — I felt I could fake it from there.
As I interviewed Mr. Heston about his thoughts on guns, I began to ask my last question — you know, one that I thought would be the zinger. He looked at me with that big face (he is a very large man to a 19-year-old girl) and he barred down upon me with that booming voice dripping with a holier-than-thou contempt.
“What do you mean!” He hadn’t even posed it as a question. Then he took a moment to think…to collect his thoughts. Oh shit, I thought. “You’ve never seen any of my movies, have you!” Again, a statement, not a question.
What else could I say, “No, this jerk in the newsroom told me to ask the question.” I was giving myself an A for honesty. He was giving me an F for fake. Shit.
“You mean your paper sent someone to interview me who has NEVER seen any of my movies?”
“Yes, that’s right,” I said, flatly, being frank. He was being a real asshole, and seemed to be waiting for me to crumple into a whimpering ball at his feet. All of a sudden, I thought about Hunter and I got a backbone. I didn’t know him. I didn’t need to be nice to him. He was nothing to me. He was old news, and all wrinkled and I would spite him by living longer. Apparently, he’s still in the running.
“You ARE kind of OLD. Where WOULD I possibly see one of your movies? I don’t have a TV and I don’t rent movies. You’re old.” I felt like I was 12-years-old. What could possibly come next? Was I going to make fun of his hair? Fuck. Things had gone from bad to worse, but I refused to be intimidated. I stood there, staring back at him. It was awkward for sure. A hundred years earlier we’d be like two cowboys, hands on our guns, trigger fingers itching, waiting for the other to blink.
I felt kind of mean, but he was trying to put me in a strange position. Yes, I had myself to blame. But, still…. He was towering over me, his jaw was all tight and scary. His steel-eyes were piercing me, daring me to say anything further. His hands were all balled up and at his side. Had that been me, I would have been gracious and blown it off. Now, neither one of us could back out of it gracefully. The interviewer and the interviewee had no words left. How to say goodbye? Who would storm off first? It was his green room. The interview was over. I told him that I would outlive him, and left before he called security.
I recently saw Fahrenheit 911 www.fahrenheit911.com/, and I got out a kick out of his meeting with Heston. I laughed. At first. Then it was like being back in that green room with him. Him being mean. Me being mean. And now, him with Alzheimers…. I’ve seen it first hand…how it wastes people away slowly. I then felt pretty sorry for him. It was like I had forgiven him for being an ass. Like I had forgiven myself for not doing the research. I’m getting old and soft.
Heston was an easy target for Moore; like shooting fish with two double-barreled shotguns while parting the sea riding on a chariot. Perhaps Moore had thoughts about whether he should air the Heston interview. I had not written about all the meanness of that Heston interview…when everything went sidewaze (stet). It would have been a good gonzo story, but would have also made me look like an idiot for not researching first. And what would making him look like the heavy do for me? Today, I write the story because it’s appropriate in a 20/20 rearview mirror kind of way. But, all those years ago…there I stood, fight or flight on high. Thinking…”What would Hunter say?” There were no classes in “J” school about what to do it when you’ve completely blown it and there was nowhere to go…but down. So, I reached back and got what I needed from the lessons learned from Hunter. Tear down the curtains on your way out the door.
I have to admit, for most of my early career I wondered, “What would Hunter do?” I think he said it all with his last actions, his silent words. I wonder what he was thinking before he pulled the trigger of his smoking gun. One last time. The big smoking barrel looking like a middle finger to all of us. The, “Sure, it’s against the law, but I’m going to do it anyway. Audios, amigos!” Or, was it just a whimper before an, I’m too old to be doing this shit? What did Hunter think before he pulled the trigger?
How did I find out? I had been notified by a young writer whom I am a mentor to — she had sent me an email. That’s how I heard about Hunter. Although I had lost touch with Hunter, and not paid much attention to his writing in the last decade — I was saddened by his reported violent behavior and his painful emotional and physical decline. He filed stories from his Colorado compound. I had always thought he’d be a shooting star, leave a good-looking corpse at the height of his career and end up overdoing something, somewhere. But, he didn’t. He lived on and on, but I expected one day that someone would find him in his home, a bullet in his head from one of the many firearms he held near and dear. Most of us had been expecting it. For many of us, Hunter had been dead for a while.
My mentoree was shocked by the news. She was his biggest fan, and she was hurt by what he had done. Like he hadn’t taken her feelings into consideration first. She called him something akin to a chickenshit for taking the easy way out. I reminded her that he had been pretty brave his whole life, and his life wasn’t about her — he was responsible for his own life. Anyone has the right to take their own life when they’re done. Done, you know…et al. Fini. He was finished - #30. Story filed.
His last story was filed (although it looks like there was one filed on ESPN on April 15, 2005) at sports.espn.go.com/espn/page2/story?page=thompson/xxxx with a bio that has him still living. There is another posted the day of his death — February 20. It was titled Death in the Afternoon proxy.espn.go.com/espn/page2/story?id=1996510. Perhaps there’s something in this teaser paragraph that is key to his frame of mind, I just couldn’t bring myself to signing up with ESPN (it’s a slippery slope to watching NASCAR races…), and sifting through sports euphemisms about people I couldn’t identify (if my life depended on it) for clues. Here’s the first paragraph, you’ll have to click on the above link to get the rest of the story (only by signing up).
Death in the Afternoon
By Hunter S. Thompson
Page 2 columnist
The violent death of Dale Earnhardt hit the sport of professional auto racing harder than anything in memory since the assassination of John Kennedy. People who'd never even watched a NASCAR race were deeply disturbed by it, for reasons they couldn't quite explain. It seemed to send a message, an urgent warning signal that something with a meaning beyond the sum of its parts had gone Wrong & would go Wrong again if something big wasn't cured -- not just in racing, but in the machinery of the American nation.
What does it mean? I haven’t a clue. I imagine he was depressed as the rest of the people in this country who are clued into the Bush Dynasty of King George and the continued shredding of the Constitution. Maybe he didn’t kill himself. He was an enemy of the government. Who knows? All I know is that his son truly believes he killed himself, and he’s supposedly close to the situation. He found the body. The police ruled it a suicide.
Hunter was born July 19th, 1937 – ironically months before the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act passed (one of the cornerstone bills that led to the criminalization of Cannabis) en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marijuana_Tax_Act. And a month before George Allen & Unwin, Ltd. of London published the first edition of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J._R._R._Tolkien. It was also the year Howard Hughes set a new air record by flying from Los Angeles to New York City in 7 hours, 28 minutes and 25 seconds (takes just as long today if you count prowling the airport parking lot to stash your car and going through Homeland security lines). The New Deal en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Deal was pushed through the same year. In California, in 1937, the Golden Gate Bridge opened to pedestrian traffic between San Francisco and Marin. The next day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt pushed a button in Washington, DC signaling the start of vehicle traffic over the Bridge en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_Gate_Bridge.
What does anyone know about someone so outrageous, so eccentric, so illusive? To outsiders, he was a walking wall of funhouse mirrors ready to explode into laughter, or anger at any moment. He lived in shadows, managing to slink in and out of engagements and into the low-profile bar down the street before anyone knew he had dashed out of the backstage area. He made outrageous demands of just about everyone who wanted to be near him, and said things just to piss you off. If you were quiet and waited, he might say something else like he’d never said it, or just blow it off because it was an editorial observation (for which he’s usually paid quite a bit to make — and you got it for free). Lucky you. Maybe he’d just get up and leave without a word. Perhaps he’d smile that wide-open smile of his that ended in a smirk and make some real insightful observation. You never knew what he’d do. What would Hunter do?
I imagined him quite lonely, but reveling in his solitude, at the end of his life. His father, Jack Robert Thompson (an insurance salesman) died in 1954. His mother, Virginia Davidson Ray Thompson, died in 1999. His brother, James Garnett "Jim" Thompson (a disc jockey), died of AIDS in 1994.
He authored Hell's Angels (1966, nonfiction), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1972, novel), Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72 (1974, nonfiction), The Great Shark Hunt (1977, essays), Generation of Swine (1988, essays), Songs of the Doomed (1990, essays), Better Than Sex (1994, essays), The Proud Highway (1997, letters), The Rum Diary (1998, novel, written 1959) and Fear and Loathing in America (2000, letters). He was glorified and vilified by Bill Murray as Hunter Thompson in the movie Where the Buffalo Roam (1980) www.imdb.com/title/tt0081748/. Johnny Depp played Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) www.imdb.com/title/tt0120669/, and also depicted Thompson's fictionalized protagonist in The Rum Diaries (2004) www.rumdiary.cjb.net/. Depp was a fond friend of Hunter’s. Wayne Ewing, one of his neighbors whom he was on good terms with, filmed the 2003 documentary Breakfast with Hunter www.breakfastwithhunter.com/. Another neighborhood buddy of Thompson’s, Don Johnson, says he wrote scripts for Nash Bridges during the good ol’ dot-com days.
He was who he was — and he never needed anyone’s approval to go, be, do, die. He lived life to excess until there was no more energy to expend. The slowly shooting star had splashed across the celestial skies for decades. What would Hunter do? He did what was right, for him. No one has the right to feel cheated. He was a man. A 69-year-old man. A man who had lived life how and when he wanted. A man who had died on his own terms.
I imagine Hunter caught in some space/time continuum, hanging out with other of his ilk and infamy - Richard Brautigan www.rooknet.com/beatpage/writers/brautigan.html /,1935-1984, suicide with a .44; Jerzy Kosinski newyorkmetro.com/nymetro/arts/features/1063/ (supposedly, he avoided death when his luggage was sent to the wrong city when he was traveling to a dinner party at Sharon Tate's on August 8, 1969 and missed unexpected guests Charles Manson and friends users.adelphia.net/~mansonmurders/), 1933 –1991, suicide, cyanide; Kurt Cobain, www.cobain.com/cobain.html, www.cobaincase.com/index2.html,1967-1994, suicide/ overdose/shotgun shell; Lenny Bruce, www.fadetoblack.com/foi/lennybruce/, 1925-1966, suicide/overdose prompted by a deep depression brought on by the FBI and law enforcement agencies; Ernest Hemingway www.ernest.hemingway.com/, 1899-1961, suicide/gun; Margaux Hemingway www.cnn.com/SHOWBIZ/9608/20/hemingway.suicide/, 1955-1966, suicide/sedative overdose (fifth person in her immediate family to commit suicide); Cleopatra waltm.net/cleodead.htm, 69 BC-30 BC, suicide by self-induced Egyptian cobra bite; George Eastman www.infoplease.com/ce6/people/A0816611.html, 1854-1932, suicide/single gunshot to the heart; Thomas King Forcade www.nndb.com/people/419/000048275/, 1945-1978, suicide/.22; Spalding Gray www.nndb.com/people/291/000024219/, 1941-2004, suicide/drowning after watching movie Big Fish; Sylvia Plath www.nndb.com/people/004/000047860/, 1932-1963, suicide/head in gas oven; Virginia Woolf ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/malcolmi/suicide.htm, 1882-1942, suicide/drowning.
Whew – what a list! They say there’s a gene of self-destruction in artists…good artists AND bad artists. Perhaps it’s true, it would make for a good PhD thesis. I picture Hunter in interesting company among others just as moody as himself, keeping himself entertained throughout eternity with self-imposed deadlines, hard liquor on the rocks and endless cigarettes. I raise a glass to Hunter. We should all have Hunters in our lives. The world needs Hunters every era…we were lucky to have him.