Hunter S. Thompson: Contentment Was Not Enough

The last days at Owl Farm with the gonzo journalist and 'Rolling Stone' contributor

Hunter S. Thompson Credit: M. Caulfield/WireImage

Back in 1964, when Hunter S. Thompson was freelancing for the National Observer, he made a pilgrimage to Ketchum, Idaho, in search of why novelist Ernest Hemingway committed suicide in the Sawtooth Mountains courtesy of his trusty 12-gauge shotgun. In these pre-gonzo days — before LSD and Freak Power and Rolling Stone were in counterculture vogue — Hunter emulated Hemingway more than any other writer. His first two narrative efforts, Prince Jellyfish and The Rum Diary, were, in truth, largely Hemingway-derivative, albeit with an original, double-edged twist of sobering invective and inebriated humor. To a degree, Hunter was parodying the Lost Generation icon in these early works. A whiskey-touched Hemingway may have shot lions in the green valleys of Africa, but a rum-besotted Thompson blasted away rats on the garbage heaps of Puerto Rico.

When Hunter finally arrived at Hemingway's empty alpine chalet, after journeying 700 miles from Aspen, he was in a feverish, bleary-eyed state of mind. After two days of interviewing locals, he came up with a matter-of-fact conclusion about his idol's sad last days. "He was an old, sick and very troubled man," Hunter wrote, "and contentment was not enough for him."

Besides reporting on "Papa's" death for the National Observer — the article was later anthologized in The Great Shark Hunt as "What Lured Hemingway to Ketchum?" — Hunter engaged in an act of symbolic thievery. Genetically inclined to case every home/edifice he encountered, Hunter eyed a high-end souvenir: an elegant pair of elk horns that hung proudly over the entrance to Hemingway's house. "So I took them." Hunter confessed to me in 1998. "Forget running with the bulls or reeling in marlins or slaughtering rhinos. I had Hemingway's horns, and with that came an immense literary responsibility. It was now 'Fuck you' to the competition. I had broken from the pack, and there was no turning back."

Hunter showed me these elk horns when I first met him, in 1993. I was taking twenty-seven college students in two natural-gas-fueled buses across America for a nearly three-month, 15,000-mile educational adventure. Part of the curriculum was meeting distinguished writers at their residences and discussing their literary output: We visited Toni Morrison in New York, Arthur Miller in Connecticut, Studs Terkel in Illinois, William S. Burroughs in Kansas, Ken Kesey in Oregon. But my students were most excited about visiting Owl Farm.

As Hunter had instructed, we parked our buses in front of the Woody Creek Tavern and trudged inside for cheeseburgers. An hour later, he arrived in trademark style, wearing his omnipresent Tilley hat and Converse sneakers, a large glass of Chivas Regal in hand. I noticed his eyes dashing mischievously about, measuring the potential fun factor for the evening. One of my students, his hair day-glo blue, started asking Hunter if he really "sucked ether," as written in the Vegas book. Hunter leered at him. "You better be good," he snapped. "Verrry good. Otherwise you come off as a rank asshole with blue hair." Somewhat embarrassed, the student lowered his head, blushed and declared, "I'm good!" Pleased by the response, Hunter chuckled, walked over to him and firmly grabbed the scruff of his neck: "We'll see about that, sonny boy. We'll see."

At one juncture, Hunter summoned me outside to confer privately in his jeep about my collegiate circus. He offered me whiskey, pot and fatherly advice. "You're doing remarkably well with these punks," he asserted. "But be meaner. Slap the little bastards around. Take no crap." I remember thinking, "This is the poet laureate of Haight-Ashbury and the Summer of Love?" There was nothing hippieish about him. With a skull pipe clenched in his teeth, he looked — and sounded — strangely like Douglas MacArthur on amphetamines.

Before long, Hunter, with a flirtatious eye on the women in my classroom-on-wheels, invited us all up to Owl Farm for refreshments. A few students worried he was going to spike their Pepsi with acid — he didn't. But he did pull out his .45 Magnum and ordered them to queue up. In assembly-line fashion he had them — one by one — prop their personal copies of Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72, Songs of the Doomed, et al., against a tree and then blasted bullet holes through the text. "Next" is all he uttered in staccato voice after each shot, adding an occasional primal scream to keep everybody on high alert.

Sometime around midnight, after a couple of hours of talk, we became fast friends. He asked me to help edit his upcoming book about Bill Clinton, titled Better Than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie. I said sure, it would be an honor. From 1993 to 2005, we usually spoke five to six times a week. Both of our clocks were nocturnal, and as Hunter used to say, you know who your real friends are at 2 A.M. Most of the time we gossiped about politics and sports and his beleaguered self. His take on everything was always the exact opposite of conventional wisdom. It was what he called his 180-degree philosophy. Whatever a U.S. politician or media maven publicly pronounced, the truth, he believed, was 100 percent in the other direction.

While not a contrarian, Hunter definitely saw the downside of any cherished plan or organized thought. "It's never as it seems, Bubba," he used to say. Facts were, to his mind, always weirder than fiction. And, more than any writer I've ever encountered; he was devoid of professional envy or jealousy. He wished all writers success — they were, after all, colleagues. It was editors and agents who made his skin crawl. Yet, ironically, he relied on them more than any other major literary figure since Thomas Wolfe. Besides being the straight man in Hunter's nonstop carny show, I also became the editor of his vast correspondence. Together we published The Proud Highway: The Fear and Loathing Letters, Volume One and Fear and Loathing in America: The Gonzo Letters, Volume II to superb reviews. Because these books showcased Hunter's gifts as a masterful prose stylist and trenchant satirist, his literary stock rose upward. But it was getting lonelier all the time for Hunter. His core constituency of friends — Oliver Tribeck, Ken Kesey, Warren Zevon, among others, were gone. Suddenly cast as the Elder Statesman of the Counterculture, he grew uncomfortable with the horrific role. He hated the notion of being spokesman for the "New Old."

Without question, Hunter's greatest nonliterary gift was the sharing of friends. He loved to matchmake, to connect the dots between far-flung members of his specially anointed tribe. A true chieftain, if he tapped you for friendship you became — in his mind — his accomplice in crime. Bold, devious, unrelenting and cruel, he was the man to have at your side. Trench warfare was his specialty: combat his muse; demolition his delight. He took no prisoners. He truly did march on a road of bones.

His Rolodex was equal to those found at Newsweek or Time, with telephone conference call (on speaker phone) being his primary mode of communicating with his eccentric circle of cronies. And he took a fiendish pride in waking up these journalistic pals in the middle of the night. Sleep, as Hunter saw it, was for the weak and feeble.

While Hunter was an inspired friend on the telephone or in Woody Creek, he was, as Warren Zevon once noted, the "Patron Saint of Bad Travel." Engulfed with raging paranoia, endless drugs and surprising self-doubt, Hunter really preferred holing up in a hotel suite with friends than mingling with bar folks or lecturing to fans. In public, Hunter was never his true self; he was playing Brando-gone-mad, a true, dyed-in-the-wool, 100 percent all-American showman. His core genius was that he created one of the greatest living protagonists in American folklore/literature: "the Hunter Figure." Cartoonist Garry Trudeau called this character Uncle Duke in "Doonesbury," while Bill Murray and Johnny Depp played it in major motion pictures. Illustrator Ralph Steadman, recognizing the genius of "the Hunter Figure," began drawing caricatures of it in books and magazines; it became his obsession. Documentarian Wayne Ewing captured the phenomenon in his film Breakfast With Hunter.

Politically, Hunter was a fierce libertarian, a stalwart believer that the individual controlled his or her own destiny. If you trespassed onto Owl Farm — his property — you would get shot at. Period. Although he usually voted for Democratic presidential candidates (he wrote in Dick Gregory in 1968 and pulled the lever for Ralph Nader in 2000), he had limited sympathy for the poor or down-trodden or weak. He was not a bleeding-heart liberal or a U.N. enthusiast. He championed "freaks" and "anarchists," however, because they had made a conscious decision to rebel against conformity. That, after all, like protesting an unjust war or demanding civil rights, took courage. A believer in social Darwinism, he admired craftsmen and workers who did their job well.

Hunter's favorite literary technique was running down hypocrisy and giving it the sword. He belonged to no school of thought. He insisted P.J. O'Rourke and Tom Wolfe — both quasi-conservatives — were the most brilliant journalists around. However, his bitter disdain for Big Business and Christian Fundamentalism and Trumped Up Patriotism meant there was no room for him in the Republican Party. He found solace in George McGovern's humbleness, Jimmy Carter's tenacity and, of late, Barack Obama's cunning. And, to my great consternation, he naively romanticized Fidel Castro circa 1959 — the besieged rebel hiding out in the Sierra Maestra Mountains of Cuba — to the bitter end. He believed that politics truly was a blood sport, and his all-seasons political heroes were the Kennedy brothers. Jack, Bobby and Teddy, Washington mavericks all, had a hubristic Massachusetts spirit Hunter embraced as if it were his own. He deemed the Kennedys giants in a playing field of pygmies. Because of this, many mistakenly branded Hunter a "Kennedy liberal"; he was not. He was an NRA member and Patrick Buchanan enthusiast; his favorite all-time motto emanated from the Revolutionary War: "Don't Tread on Me."

Unfortunately, the indignities of aging trod on Hunter the past two or three years. A grim combination of hip-replacement surgery, a broken leg, a lung infection, regular dehydration, an intestinal condition, severe spinal pain — the list could go on — incapacitated him physically and depressed him emotionally. He hated hospitals. Every doctor he met —  at first sight — was Kevorkian, every nurse Mildred Ratched out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. He loathed following medical directions, deeming the AMA a cabal of golf-loving quacks. Over the years, he had created his own well-regimented diet, which included just the right amount of recreational drugs and over-the-counter vitamins. Suspicious of holistic medicine, he preferred, in the health department, the folk wisdom of friends. Muhammad Ali told him to eat massive amounts of grapefruits, so he did. Ken Kesey frightened him into understanding that a heavy drinker like himself had to eat heaping quantities of food to survive — so lumberjack-style breakfasts usually started his days. He monitored his blood pressure daily on the advice of Jerry Garcia. Swimming was the one exercise he fully embraced; the rest of our fitness culture he lampooned as vanity run amok, the central theme of his novel The Curse of Lono.

Given his youthful spirit, grappling with health maladies triggered rage in Hunter. Ever since 1977, when he fantasized about jumping out of Rolling Stone's twenty-eighth-floor Fifth Avenue offices in New York, plunging into the Plaza fountain below, he always kept suicide open as an option. It was never Plan A or Plan B, but it was the Joker in his playing deck, the card he could comically spring when the appropriate time came. It was not so much a Hemingway death wish as a pragmatic, logical alternative to boredom and suffering. A natural-born control freak, Hunter, in all his grandiosity, disdained the thought of God determining his final outcome. He after all, had created the ongoing "Hunter Figure." and he, and he alone, would write the character's final chapter. The thought of dying from a heart attack or cancer or rickets worried him. If he let disease or strokes intrude, his biography (his masterpiece) would end on a wrong, unacceptably pedestrian, mere-mortal note. He refused to let that happen.

Over the past few years, Hunter wrote nearly a dozen letters lampooning the hazards of becoming a senior citizen. "Who knows?" he wrote to one friend in 1997, "I might live to be 144 and get sharper every year. That would be Horrible for some people. Jesus. Can you imagine the hideous nightmare of feeling yourself slipping into a fuzzy kind of coma & drooling when you try to talk & never quite remembering just Who was Who in the terrible Fusion of all yr. memories & haunted for the rest of yr. life by sudden flashbacks of Mussolini & Pablo Casals in Paris, or maybe St. Louis or Tangier in the fog or the winter or maybe when the sun was turning orange off the Big Sur Coast sinking down to China & somebody who was either yr. grandfather or Mick Jagger fondling yr. nuts."

Starting around the time George W. Bush got re-elected, Hunter descended into a deep funk. Traditionally, when the blues appeared it would last for a day or two and then his arch humor would creep back in full force. A prank telephone call or a backyard bomb explosion or a tab of Orange Sunrise usually brought his mood around. But not in November 2004. The jokes disappeared and never came back, replaced by incessant talk of his having fulfilled his life mission. Death was now always on the table. One evening, for example, around Thanksgiving, he matter-of-factly told me he was not afraid to kill himself — as his authorized biographer, he wanted me to know that for the record. Around the same time, he and his wife, Anita, began fighting with a shrill, relentless intensity. She refused to listen to his suicide talk. There was too much work that needed to be done. Johnny Depp was making a movie out of The Rum Diary, and Sean Penn was likewise preparing to shoot The Curse of Lono in Hawaii with Jack Nicholson. I was editing volume three of his letters, which would document his life from 1977 to 2004, and be published in November. A spoken-word album needed to be cut, his novel Polo Is My Life finished, a book of his photographs compiled, and ideas were under way to globally market the gonzo dagger brand.

As New Year's Eve rolled around, Hunter was sharp as a tack, but he could also turn listless on a dime. A woeful, faraway look started sweeping over him at unexpected moments. He lost his great capacity for listening to friends carefully. He was in his own deep-think kingdom. Instead of high-octane rock & roll or fast bluegrass, he suddenly preferred nostalgic songs like Zevon's "Mutineer" and Dylan's "Billy," Without getting overdramatic, it was as if a quarter of his being had disappeared. When friends visited Owl Farm, he gave them goodbye trinkets and tearful adioses and adieus. He was methodically, with coy calculation, engaged in the premeditative rituals of death.

In late January, Hunter flew to New Orleans to catch up with me and with Sean Penn, who was in town filming All the King's Men. His moods fluctuated wildly. A constant of his nine-day visit, however, was ill health. Wherever he went, a wheelchair was needed. Although he found huge pleasure in the old-timey aspects of the Big Easy — i.e., a hot-towel shave at Aidan Gill for Men, oysters at Pascal's Manale, hillbilly music at the Circle Bar, clothes shopping at Perlis and an endless series of stiff drinks in various Garden District parlors — he was not a well man. Ostensibly on assignment from Playboy, he was too distracted to write. Desperate to cheer him up, Penn brought actors Jude Law and Johnny Knoxville to Hunter's dreary suite at the Pontchartrain Hotel to read out loud from The Curse of Lono and Hey Rube. Hearing the music of his own words, and the respect these youngish actors had toward his craft, lifted his sagging spirits considerably. But it was temporary. He was constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Nothing — not even a flashing police escort arranged by Penn to whisk him around New Orleans — alleviated the despair. At a party thrown by James Carville, an executive producer of All the King's Men, Hunter was unable to climb a staircase to make it to the open bar/buffet. This humiliated Hunter to no end. He sulked at the downstairs bar, muttering cryptic things to me like "My time has come to die, Dougie," and making a knife-slit motion to his neck. Like Florence Nightingale, Anita flew in from Colorado to bring him home.

Back at Owl Farm, Hunter was constantly in a foul mood, shouting obscenities and turning conspiratorial about everything. Suddenly suicide was no longer a buried Joker in his card deck but his secret. Ace of Spades he could throw down at any time. Throughout the week before his February 20th suicide, he turned oddly businesslike, discussing with me his hope that his massive archive would eventually be sold to a university and clearing up contractual agreements with his publisher Simon & Schuster. Lawyers were consulted on a variety of matters. His feuding with Anita got so vicious that she left him for a few days, headed up to Fort Collins for a spell, unable to handle the verbal abuse. Divorce was hinted at but not in a serious way.

Over the years, Hunter had grown exceedingly close to his only son, Juan, age forty, who lives in Denver. In February 2005, Juan telephoned Hunter and asked if he could bring his wife, Jennifer, and their six-year-old son, William to spend a snowy weekend at Owl Farm. Hunter said, "Sure." That Saturday evening, something happened that, in my mind, led to Hunter's final suicide decision. At first, things seemed to be jolly. In fact, Ben Fee, a twenty-four-year-old artist who occasionally ran errands for Owl Farm, even videotaped the spontaneous family gathering, at Hunter's impromptu direction. There were a lot of laughs and good cheer. Then Hunter made a terrible mistake. While sitting on his command-post swivel chair in the kitchen, chatting up Juan and Anita, he suddenly pointed a pellet gun at a large golden gong only fifteen yards away, positioned directly behind the leather chair Anita was seated in. Boom. He fired at his target, hitting it but missing Anita's head by only a foot.

It was a reckless, foolish thing to do, particularly because Hunter regarded himself as a professional when it came to handling weaponry. An understandably livid Anita, realizing she could have easily lost an eye, responded by shouting out, "You're in big trouble with me." With fury in her voice, she reminded him of how William S. Burroughs had killed his wife by playing a lethal William Tell game, back in 1951, accidentally putting a bullet through her head. Anita stormed out of the room, sleeping that evening in the Owl Farm basement bedroom, the dank, spider-infested cubby-hole where Johnny Depp lived when preparing to play "the Hunter Figure" in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Hunter called it "Johnny's room."

With Anita distraught, crying downstairs, Hunter sat up late with Juan that evening and discussed his mortality but never hinted at suicide. Earlier that day, he had ordered Juan to put two engraved silver cups that had been in the Thompson family for generations — and a box of rare, limited-print editions of his novella Fire in the Nuts — in his car. These heirlooms would be part of Juan's inheritance, Hunter also told Juan he wanted him to have the handsome Aztec medallion Oscar Zeta Acosta — the model for Dr. Gonzo in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas — had given him. Honored, Juan agreed that he would accept it when Hunter passed away. This necklace was Hunter's good-luck charm. It was a deeply sentimental moment. He also told Juan to make sure Anita, when he died, was presented with an emerald pendant that he had acquired as a Rolling Stone reporter in Saigon back in 1975. These were Hunter's two prized jewelry possessions. Even more ominous, Hunter told Juan that in the event of his death he wanted to be cremated and have his ashes fired out of a gonzo-fisted cannon at Owl Farm. When the familial conversation ended, father and son were in sync. An understanding about the future had been reached. They were united in love — and, when the time came, death. They were looking forward to working together in the coming years on a number of projects. They even agreed that together they would work to create a new Gonzo International LLC.

When Anita woke up Sunday morning, she immediately practiced yoga. "Calm down," she thought. She was determined to have a peaceful morning. When Hunter eventually rose they made up ... sort of. He was ashamed about the gong incident but insisted he never meant to harm her. She told him it was all right, letting him off the hook. Suicide was not mentioned, although a recapitulation of Hunter's behavior that weekend now makes it clear that he was preparing to check out — soon. By late afternoon, Anita headed down valley for a workout at the Aspen Club and Spa. Meanwhile, Hunter, sitting in his kitchen chair, stared at the big screen TV, played with his grandson Will, who called him "Ace" and typed out a couple lines to lawyer Hal Hadden on his IBM Selectric. On his refrigerator was a sign that read NEVER CALL 911. NEVER. THIS MEANS YOU. (Another sign he recently posted read GUESTS OF GUESTS CANNOT INVITE GUESTS.) Although his true hero was Muhammad Ali, in recent days he turned against the boxing champ, who hailed from his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, deeming it "sad and pathetic" to watch a CBS profile of him behaving like a docile Hallmark-like imp.

We will never know what precisely Hunter was thinking as he polished his .45-caliber handgun that morning. But we do know that his warped humor hadn't left him. The last book he read, with Anita, had been Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. He had long thought the novel hysterical; in particular he took to quoting the line "Mistah Kurtz, he dead," and, of course, once again chuckled at Conrad's golden oldie "Exterminate all the brutes." While Anita was lifting weights in Aspen, he called his neighbor Ed Bastian and told him, "Come on over at 4:00 P.M. There'll be some shooting. Hee, hee, hee."

At 5:16 P.M., Anita telephoned in from the health club. Hunter picked up the handset, and they talked in hushed tones for ten minutes. Once again they spoke about the pellet gun. As the conversation wound down, however, they had made up. "Come home, Anita, everything is all right," Hunter cooed. "Come home." But while he was saying this, she heard a strange clicking noise. "I thought he was doing something to the TV," she recalled. "So I casually hung up." Thinking that Anita was still on the line. Hunter finished loading the .45-caliber gun, placed the barrel in his mouth and pulled the trigger. The telephone — not hung up — dropped and dangled at his side. Juan, in another room, heard the loud thud and thought it was a book falling to the ground. He rushed into the kitchen to find his father slumped over in his chair. The bullet had exited the back of Hunter's skull and was imbedded in the metal stove vent behind him.

Once the reality struck Juan, he thought about what Hunter would have wanted him to do. Carefully, Juan wrapped his father's body in gold scarves. He then walked outside, in a state of sadness and anger, and fired a nickle-plated 12-gauge shotgun into the Western sky. Eventually Sheriff Bob Braudis — one of Hunter's closest friends — was called and the coroner arrived. The official time of his death was 5:42 P.M.

Anita found out about the tragedy from Robin Smith, a local jeweler who sold Hunter an occasional watch. They were together in the health-club bathroom. "She was pale and nervous," Anita recalled. "She asked, 'Is Hunter OK? My husband just called with bad news. I'll sit with you. Better call home.'" Anita checked her messages. There was one from Juan: "Anita: You have to come home. He is dead."

Word of Hunter's suicide spread throughout the Aspen Valley like wildfire. Emotions of family and friends varied. I accompanied Anita to the Farnum-Holt Funeral Home in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, and saw his body lying in wake, surrounded by flickering candles. A boombox in the small room played "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Lawyers, Guns and Money," his anthems. He looked oddly at peace, a smile on his lips. Hunter used to joke that he was the Dalai Lama's twin brother, separated at birth. The wild fabrication suddenly seemed possible. I wrote him a letter, at Anita's suggestion, and placed it in his seersucker suit pocket. All I could think of to say as I left the room was "Adios, King," a valediction Jack Kerouac once gave to Neal Cassady.

Through the tears and shrieks and sadness, however, a prevailing sentiment rose to the forefront. It was that Hunter, in death, like in life, Walked Tall. In a world where homogenization and gentrification are the altars we worship on, Hunter the individualist shined through like a ray of pure light. He walked the tundra full of wild humor and constant high jinks. His irrepressible spirit will haunt the hills around Aspen like the rascal Pancho Villa's does along the Rio Grande. And on cool evenings, when dark clouds drift on the Elk Mountains, and a roar of thunder is heard, those who love him will look up and smile. And all we'll say is "Bravo."