Remembering Hunter S. Thompson
When people ask me what Hunter Thompson was like I tell them he was just like the character in his books, and they smile and nod and leave me alone. I’m allergic to small talk, and despite my years at the National Enquirer, I really hate sharing gossip about celebrities. Besides, they say it’s not right to speak ill of the dead.
But that bastard Thompson nearly got me fired because he couldn’t keep his mouth shut about our nocturnal activities. And he broke his solemn promise not to drag my good name into any of his wretched works of fiction. That’s right, fiction that he sold as journalism. So, yeah, let’s kick some dirt at the maniac’s ghost.
Thompson in Aspen in 1981
Let’s start in Palm Beach in 1983. Peter and Roxanne Pulitzer were having a messy public divorce and the national press corps was having fun in Florida covering the trial. Thompson was reporting the event for Rolling Stone, Reggie Potterton for Playboy, and I was covering it for the Enquirer. We didn’t mix well with the straight press, and so it was natural for the three of us to pool our resources.
A few weeks into this circus, in the middle of one night, Thompson calls me up and says he has an emergency. He’s always having emergencies and I told him to call 911. But he’s says he’s having a problem with the Pulitzer story and needs my help.
That woke me up. The secretive, reclusive, sociopathic egomaniac wants my help? This was totally uncharacteristic. Hunter was a solo operator. He was a lone wolf. He would never ask for help.
Thompson loved playing with fire.
So I go over to his low rent bungalow in West Palm, and find both the front and back doors are wide open, and the lights are off. So I turn on the lights and no one is home. The living room was littered with bottles and overloaded ashtrays and dead junk food. Remember the cheap hotel rooms where Nicholas Cage drank himself to death in Leaving Las Vegas? Just like that.
Eventually, Hunter ambles inside wearing only a bathrobe and dark aviator glasses, and of course his cigarette holder is clutched between his teeth. He was gripping a long black flashlight in one hand and a Colt 45 Combat Commander in the other. And there was a cut on his balding head that was leaking a little blood. He was mumbling more loudly than usual, and there was a hillbilly lope to his gait which gets really pronounced when he’s drunk.
This is all completely normal behavior for Thompson, and I did’t see any emergency that justifies getting me out of bed.
Certainly, there was no sense asking him why he was running around in the dark with a flashlight and handgun. I would never get a straight answer. He often reminded me of an autistic child who was off in his own world. A world, I suspect, that was populated by some pretty fearsome demons. Not that Hunter would ever show fear or turmoil or doubt, but he had a head full of trouble.
One nice thing about Hunter is that he could pull the big master switch in his brain and turn off the psychopath and turn on a personality that could communicate with the real world. His uncanny ability to shape shift his personality was a talent that let him make a living. And it kept him out of the slammer on many occasions. In fact, on rare days, he could be actually charming.
So he switches on an agreeable personality and pours us drinks and stuffs some typewritten sheets of paper in my hands. He asks me to read his first draft of the Pulitzer story.
And it’s garbage. Pulitzer is hardly mentioned. It is the unprintable ramblings of an intoxicated lunatic.
I didn’t know what to say or do because Thompson still had the gun in his hand. And he was waving it around and making incoherent noises.
It is fitting that Thompson died from a gun shot wound to the head. He was a gun nut. The most fun he had in Florida was going to the Everglades on the weekends and shooting up the tropical flora and fauna with exotic automatic weapons. Guns were exciting and wonderful toys to Hunter and he seemed oblivious to the danger they posed to himself and others, which is probably why he shot so many people. Yeah, accidentally.
So, while I sat on his bed, waiting to be shot, I re-read the Pulitzer piece, and it seemed better after I reordered some of the pages. And after a third reading, key lines were jumping out at me and I suddenly got it. The master craftsman had shifted the focus of the story away from the Pulitzer divorce trial and he had launched a howling indictment of Palm Beach society.
Brilliant. The Pulitzer story was small potatoes. Who cared that Roxanne Pulitzer had sex with a trumpet and drank too many daiquiris. Certainly not the readers of Rolling Stone. But the Palm Beach society angle was good. F. Scott Fitzgerald good. He had stumbled upon a diamond as big as the Ritz. This was class warfare. He had discovered why they called the denizens of Palm Beach filthy rich.
And we started talking about this angle and he got excited and he put down the gun.
Soon it was sunrise. Hunter was not fond of early morning light and I managed to escape, exhausted and drunk, but not shot.
And so it went when Thompson got into your life. It was an unending series of close scrapes with disaster, but it was also like hanging out with an alien life form that did not understand, or care about, the customs and laws of pathetic Earthlings. While Hunter could mix with bikers, madmen and drunks, he also had a subtle aloofness. He enjoyed being different. He enjoyed being smarter than the rest of us.
He also liked being unpredictably aggressive. When David Letterman made the mistake of inviting Thompson on Late Night to promote the film Where the Buffalo Roam with Bill Murray, Thompson attempted to take over the show. I mean he physically tried to get Letterman out of his desk and take over the show. And there was a nasty rumor that he had brought an explosive device on the set. The good doctor of gonzo journalism was escorted off the set and his antics were edited from the segment.
After the broadcast I asked him what had happened and he denied bringing a bomb to the show, and he said he was just trying to give Letterman the same rough treatment that the TV comedian gave all his guests. Or whatever.
In the picture below, at the film premier of Fear & Loathing, you can see Thompson holding a ripped bag of popcorn which he had been throwing at Johnny Depp. Yeah, Hunter could act like a two year old.
He had to be the center of attention. If there was another celebrity in the room on whom all the cameras were focused, he would do something like set the room on fire. Unless, of course, he wanted to be left alone. He’d rip your head off if you stumbled uninvited into his space. And forget about waking him up if he was late for an appointment.
Despite his violent mood swings and prickly personality, people everywhere adored him. On countless occasions on the street I saw all kinds of people approach him and ask for autographs. I was always amazed at the warmth the public had for a man with such an unwelcome reputation.
In fact, Thompson had groupies who would follow him from story to story. This puzzled him. He never could figure out how they knew what he was working on because not only was he obsessively secretive, but because he seldom knew himself what he was working on or where he might be tomorrow. Most of these groupies were young women who would do anything for some face time with the doctor.
Of course these deluded hormone-soaked creatures got the shock of their lives when they got up close and personal with Hunter, who was as liable to lash out and humiliate them as he was to bend them over. Which is not to say that he was a misogynist; he was more of a misanthrope. He really didn’t care for anyone getting too close or too personal.
I was happy to learn that he got married a few years ago, hoping that he had mellowed, and praying that Anita would live through the experience with her sanity intact. And I was not shocked to learn that he blew his brains out last week and left instructions to have his cremated remains shot out of the end of a canon. A perfect ending to a crazy life.
News reports say Anita was talking to him on the phone when he pulled the trigger. She later told reporters that he wanted to get out “while he was still on top of his game.”
He was pushing seventy and you can say he got out before his brains turned to mush. You can argue that the whole fear and loathing thing was getting old in the 21st Century, but in some ways, here in the brave new era of political correctness, we probably need Hunter Thompson more now than we did in the counterculture years.
We will always need blasphemous iconoclasts who are willing to tell anyone who’ll listen that your President is a liar and the government is not working in your best interest. The legend of Hunter Thompson is so shrouded in the trappings of his eccentric lifestyle that we tend to overlook his contributions. And there were many.
"America is just a nation of two hundred million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns and no qualms about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable."
- Hunter S. Thompson
Long before anyone had heard of Woodward and Bernstein, Thompson was telling us that Nixon was a crook. Long before most Americans knew where Iran was on the map, Thompson was warning us that Jimmy Carter was weak. He told us Reagan was senile before Alzheimer’s was a household word. And he’d been telling us Bush was not an honest man long before we invaded Iraq.
But Thompson was more than a political prophet. He tore down the façade of objective journalism by showing that a reporter is always part of the story, and that an observer always disturbs what he is observing. Thompson was always telling us that there is no such thing as “fair and balanced.” He knew that his drug-addled perspective on our society was just as skewed as – and just as valid as – the family value howlings of Bill O’Reilly.
Even loaded to the gills with alcohol, it takes actual courage to put your name on a story in a national publication and call the President of the United States a liar. Years before anyone else had a clue.
So an era has passed. A great American is gone. A warrior has fallen.
Which one of you will pick up his sword?