Incredible Impact The life and legacy of Hunter S. Thompson, his gonzo journalism and the “American Dream”

 

“We were somewhere around Barstow around the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”

So begins one of the most remarkable works of journalism of the 20th century, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. This “savage journey to the heart of the American dream” follows the course of fictional journalist Raoul Duke and his attorney as they plow through Vegas in a drug-addled frenzy. It’s 1971 and as a former participant in the orgy of cannabis, LSD and free love of the 1960s, he is looking for what it all meant. He finds only madness and hypocrisy.

Its success catapulted author Hunter S. Thompson, then a relatively unknown journalist, to stardom. His writing style became known as “gonzo journalism.” He would write many other books and articles, cutting and often hilarious takes on everything from the Kentucky Derby to the presidential campaign, with himself, the booze-swilling, pill-popping, cannabis-smoking, cocaine-snorting character at the heart of it, looking for truth, for what it’s all really about. Some was fiction, but some was not, and when he took his own life at his home in Aspen, Colorado, in 2005, the 67-year-old was in constant pain and suffering the ill effects of a lifetime of alcoholism.

“When he’d get stoned, he’d get relaxed, happier, and he’d start telling these rambling stories. He was a great storyteller, and the stories tended to not actually start and end, but they were entertaining, to follow them on that wandering path.”

Thompson would play many roles—candidate for Aspen sheriff, political activist, beloved local curmudgeon. He would be played in major films by two popular actors, Bill Murray in Where the Buffalo Roam and Johnny Depp in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The Rum Diary. Even comic strip “Doonesbury” had a character based on Thompson.

But in the 12 years since his death, it’s his writing that has stood the course of time, and it is this legacy that those who loved him are trying to preserve. His son, Juan Thompson, of Denver, last year wrote the memoir Stories I Tell Myself: Growing Up with Hunter S. Thompson. His widow, Anita Thompson, has written several books and is in the process of turning the home she shared with him in Aspen into a private museum. She is also in the early stages of launching a cannabis line based on Hunter’s favorite staple strains. Both spoke with CULTURE recently about the man, the myth of Thompson and the legacy he left behind.

What did you fall in love with about Hunter?

Anita Thompson: Hunter liked to say he was a teenage girl trapped in the body of an elderly dope fiend. His sense of curiosity, sense of humor and his energy level were so much higher than anybody I’d ever met, particularly at his age. And it was fascinating to me. He had a temper that didn’t discriminate against any race or gender that would come out once in a while but it was short-lived, like a teenage girl, with a curiosity and level of energy almost identical. And he was not cynical—he had faith in humanity that often diminishes as people see as much as he did. I miss that to this day.

What made you decide to write the memoir?

Juan Thompson: I wanted people to know there was a lot more to Hunter than that persona. I wanted them to know he was a very complex person. He was first and foremost a writer. He wasn’t a political activist. He was not a party animal. He was a writer, and he took that very seriously. He was very much an idealist in his politics, which is what made his political writing so powerful.

How much did his public image match the person you knew?

Juan: Being known as a wild man, a crazy man—that was not the most important thing to him. Did he have fun with that? Sure. Did he like messing with people, pushing their buttons to see how they’d react? Absolutely. He liked to see how close he could get to the limits of his own self-control and come back in one piece . . . I think the Raoul Duke character was another persona he was kind of playing with, and that’s the one that stuck in the public imagination. I don’t think he was planning to spend his life from 30 to 67 as that persona, but that’s what he became, and that’s what people responded to. And I think that’s what people wanted. When he went on speaking tours, they didn’t want some quiet sober guy talking about the details of the federal election process. They wanted some entertainment, and he gave it to him. There wasn’t a whole lot of correspondence between that persona and who he really was, though he used it to his advantage when it served him—to be a celebrity, to get a suite or fly first class, then he’d use it.

Anita: Taking a road, paving a new path and doing the least expected thing at any given moment—that was Hunter. He was full of surprises and was constantly looking for what was underlying in any given situation or conversation he was having. He was always searching for the deeper truth, for more. His personality was like that. In terms of his lifestyle, he definitely had a rich lifestyle, a lot of great food, a lot of substances.

“His philosophy was ‘the government has no business telling me what I can do in my own home, as long as I’m not hurting other people . . .’”

So much of his work is about the “American Dream.” Why do you think he was so focused on that theme?

Juan: I think it was extremely important to him to know the truth. He was brilliant and extremely observant and perceptive. He was really concerned about the gap between the “American Dream,” the idea of it, and what it meant about our country. The “American Dream” isn’t like a personal goal; it’s an essential part of what this country used to be about. That gap between the ideal and the reality of what it actually meant, how it actually manifested itself, was something that he thought was really important. It was this vast hypocrisy that he thought needed to be called out, that this dream is bullshit.

Anita: It was a constant thought of his and he studied it for his entire career; just what is this “American Dream?” He often wrote about it being dead. There’s truth to that in his mind, but he never gave up bringing it back, ever. And he had confidence in the younger generation, as much as he complained about them . . . He thought they were smarter and more competent; that they could stand up and get involved and take back some of the “American Dream” that was destroyed by the corruption and corporatization of America.

What do you think his lasting contributions are to the worlds of journalism and literature?

Juan: There’s nothing like his voice. No one else can write like that. You’ve seen many people try, and it just never goes well. It was so powerful and direct and raw and funny and cutting, just powerful . . . Somewhere in his letters he talks about that; basically fiction gets closer to the truth than non-fiction, because you can exaggerate and use images and all that to really make a point much more clearly. If you just said, “Nixon is dishonest,” well, okay, yes he is. But call him a “werewolf with bleeding string-warts running across the White House lawn,” or say “Richard Nixon is so crooked he has to screw his pants on in the morning,” that’s powerful.

Anita: Empowerment, for sure. The self-confidence that comes when you read his work, I think it’s an antidote to fear. We’re surrounded by fear inside and out, and there are some writers like Hunter and Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway that awake our innate self confidence. Whenever you need it just open one of his books.

Most journalists can’t take sides. He could say what he felt.

Anita: He didn’t think it was really possible to not take sides if you’re writing a story. I do a presentation at schools on the difference between Associated Press and Gonzo. It’s the inverted pyramid. The natural “who, what, where, when, why and hows” always come at the end, and it starts with “the story.” It’s more fun to read, and it’s more fun to write. And it was important for him to have fun, because he found writing to be difficult, all his life. It wasn’t fun for him. It was work . . . When he saw the corruption of Nixon or any politician and later of the Bush era, it was heartbreak. The best cure or treatment—to stay confident and active in politics, to get these people out of office—is humor.

“He used [cannabis] as a tool, to elevate his senses, to elevate his observational skills—not to dull them.”

What was Hunter’s relationship to cannabis? What would he think of it being legal in so many places?

Juan: He was an early supporter of NORML back in the ’70s. I think he’d say, “Thank God. Finally.” In many ways, he had a Libertarian streak. His philosophy was “the government has no business telling me what I can do in my own home, as long as I’m not hurting other people” . . . When he’d get stoned, he’d get relaxed, happier, and he’d start telling these rambling stories. He was a great storyteller, and the stories tended to not actually start and end, but they were entertaining, to follow them on that wandering path.

Anita: He used it as a tool, to elevate his senses, to elevate his observational skills—not to dull them. There were some strains of hash that would make it difficult for him to write but made him more balanced, in his body chemistry and brain chemistry. And there were some strains that improved his ability to write.

Hunter went out on his own terms. Was that a shock to the family or was there an inkling?

Juan: When it happened, I was completely taken by surprise; but, the fact it happened was not a surprise. What would have been a surprise is if he had gone to the hospital and lingered on a ventilator for a month. That would have been a surprise because that was not his style. If he was done, if his writing days were done, if he was deeply unhappy and his body was starting to disintegrate after all that time and all that booze, by God, he was not going to go into a nursing home.

Anita: I forgave him, of course, but not right away. He was in so much pain; I have to accept his decision, but it’s something I still deal with personally . . . I was heartbroken like the rest of the people who loved him, and in a way I’ll never be able to shake that, but I’m so grateful he left his work. Imagine in a twisted universe if he somehow took his work with him and all the pages were left blank in his absence. That would really be a tragedy. It was a tragedy losing him, and there was a lot of chaos and darkness at the time, but his work is what brings people together and makes me realize he is still here in many ways. I can always look around me, here, feel his spirit where his ashes are scattered on the land that he loved, here at the owl farm, and open up one of his books . . .

My last question is how do you think he’d feel about President Trump?

Juan: He’d be enraged. He’d be depressed. I was talking to a reporter yesterday about the parallels between Nixon and Trump, and he’d certainly pick up on those. He’d be enraged and appalled. He thought Nixon was bad. Well, Nixon’s got nothing on this guy.

Anita: I don’t think he would be surprised at all, and I wish like everyone else to hear what he had to say and what we should do. His most common thread in all of his work is “we” is the most important word in politics. As long as we stand together, Trump has nothing. Even though it’s extreme and seems insurmountable, with all the damage he could do, as long as we keep fighting, we have checks and balances for this reason. Hunter would be the first to remind us of the checks and balances in the experiment of democracy.

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