Hunter S. Thompson: Growing Up Gonzo

Before he invented an entirely new literary genre, the writer spent years struggling to pay the bills and find his voice

Hunter S. Thompson at CineVegas Film Festival on June 21st, 2003. Credit: Denise Truscello/WireImage/Getty

I. COMING OF AGE IN LOUISVILLE 

Sandy Thompson (now Sondi Wright) met Hunter in 1958 and was married to him for seventeen years.
Hunter was born different – very differ­ent. He was angry. He was charming. He was a lot of trouble. And what I always used to say – which is interesting, in light of the end of his life – was that he shot out of the womb angry. And then he left that same way.

Neville Blakemore grew up with Hunter in the Highlands neighborhood of Louisville, Kentucky.
My grandmother owned a house a block away from Hunter's. It was a neighbor­hood in which people would sit on the porch and talk to the people walking by. In the afternoon we'd listen to radio programs like Superman and Sky King. Television did not exist.

Deborah Puller was Hunter's personal assis­tant from 1982 to 2003.
Hunter's mother told me that he was born a night owl. She cursed him for that – "Oh, God, he never slept at the same time as his brothers." But Virginia loved him and was very proud of him. She told me he was very charismatic as a young man, even as a boy. Kids – boys and girls – would come around to the house and sit on the front steps to wait to walk to school with Hunter.

Neville Blakemore
My parents didn't like my hanging around with him – they thought he was a bully. But we always wanted to go over to his house. There was always some­thing going on. We had toy soldiers and we'd play these huge war games. World War II was a big influence. We'd play Germans and Japanese and have battles all over the neighborhood. People would have cardboard guns and cap pistols and backpacks and helmet liners. Some guys had BB guns.

Behind another friend's house was Beargrass Creek and a culvert. A lot of African-Americans lived on the other side of the creek. Hunter and his group would shoot these guys with BB guns and hurl racial insults, and the black guys would finally have enough and swarm down into the culvert and up the wall, and Hunter and the others would retreat into their friend's house and hide. They'd start these little mini race wars.

Another time, when I was twelve or thirteen, I had all the neighbor kids over for lunch, and we played soldiers in the back yard. Hunter stole a bunch of my soldiers. It really hurt me. My father said, "Well, I'm very sorry, but it shouldn't be that much of a surprise, be­cause that's the kind of guy he is." That for me meant, "OK, he's fun to be around, but be careful."

Gerald Tyrrell also grew up a block away from Hunter.
Our group would go to Cherokee Park to play football, or go to the basketball courts, or grab a dime and go down­town to the movies – we would go all over the place. But going to the library and reading books was always given equal billing. Hunter would say, "Let's go to the library," and seven or eight of us would grab our bikes and ride down. It'd be all grab-ass and,being rowdy and loud marching up the steps of the library – and then we'd be quiet as church mice inside and each pick out a book and sit down and read for a couple of hours – and then put the books back and leave and be rowdy and grab-ass and ride our bikes home. And it wasn't just on rainy days. It was year-round.

We were all very keen on athletics. One of Hunter's big disappointments was that he didn't grow in the ninth and tenth grades, when he was fifteen and sixteen. He was short. It wasn't until his junior year that he grew – maybe three or four inches. But by that time it was all over – —he was a smoker and a drinker, and he wasn't the athlete that he really wanted to be.

Since Hunter couldn't be an athlete, he had to turn his energies to something else – and he turned it to social activities based around various shapes of bottles. Now when we took the bus downtown for hot dogs and orange drinks, we'd put gin in our drinks and go to the movies.

Lou Ann Iler was Hunter's high school sweetheart.
Hunter's father died in July between our freshman and sophomore years. Hunter showed up on my doorstep –— I had a large porch —– and sat for hours, not saying too much. One of the loneliest things I've ever seen was Hunter walking away from my porch to catch the bus on the night his father died. It was dark, and the streetlight was on. He wasn't openly emotional, but I held his hand.

Sandy Thompson
Hunter's father had been quite a strict disciplinarian. So I'm guessing that he held Hunter in check. And then he was gone. Virginia became an alcoholic. And even though Hunter was drinking then, he hated Virginia's drinking.

Porter Bibb grew up with Hunter in Louisville.
Louisville had what we called literary societies, but they were basically social clubs. The one that Hunter and I were in, the Athenaeum Literary Association, was 125 years old and very prestigious. We would meet every Saturday night for several hours, wear suits and ties, and different members would stand in front of the rest of the group and read some­thing they'd written and be critiqued. After the meeting was over, you took off your tie and your jacket and went out and raised a lot of hell and got drunk.

We all believed we were Fitzgerald incarnate. Hunter was as passionate as the rest of us about this. This is when he started typing out Fitzgerald and Hemingway books word by word. I used to kid Hunter a lot and say, "You're not Fitzgerald. What the fuck are you typ­ing The Great Gatsby for? That's the stu­pidest thing I've ever seen."

"You know," he said, "I just like to get the feel of how it is to write those words."

I just took that as pure pretension.

He obviously intuited that he was dif­ferent from the rest of us very early on. He had it in his head that he was going to do something else, but I don't think he knew yet what it was. Among other things, he saved every single thing that he wrote. This was way before Xerox­ing, so he had to use carbon paper, which was real messy and time-consuming.

Paul Semonin was a boyhood friend of Hunter.
We did some street-theater things. We just thought of them as high jinks –— like the fake kidnapping in front of the Bard Theater. The kidnapee was in on the joke. We just grabbed him out of the ticket line and stuffed him into a car and then drove off. He was screaming and resisting, of course. It had nothing to do with gonzo, or with journalism, or even writing back then. It was more a finger in your eye to the establishment –— but with a certain humor and a certain kind of bravado. I mean, this was '53, '54. We felt constrict­ed or repressed in some way, and we were trying to explode out of that.

Porter Bibb
I was always amazed at Hunter's net­working ability. He was solidly middle-class, yet he was hanging with some multi-multimillionaire families. Hunter had friends in both high and low soci­ety. He took me to places in Louisville that I never would have known existed. We hung out in black nightclubs when it was still very segregated, got drunk and did pretty much everything bad together. You'd see Hunter sometimes with four or five guys you'd never see in the social circles that he spent most of his time in –— they were basically ju­venile delinquents, and you knew they were going to end up as convicts for the rest of their lives.

Neville Blakemore
Hunter wrote a third-prize essay for the Athenaeum Spectator called "Open Letter to the Youth of Our Nation," which began, "Young people of America, awake from your slumber of indolence and harken to the call of the future! Do you realize that you are rapidly becom­ing a doomed generation? . . . O ignorant youth, the world is not a joyous place. The time has come for you to dispense with the frivolous pleasures of childhood and get down to honest toil until you are sixty-five. Then and only then can you relax and collect your Social Security and live happily until the time of your death." He signed it, "Fearfully and disgustedly yours, John J. Righteous-Hypocrite."

Porter Bibb
People gave him, when he was growing up, a huge amount of latitude. I mean, he was a real bad boy. We had guns in our cars. We shot houses, mailboxes, garbage cans. We shoplifted. We broke into liquor stores. We'd jimmy a lock or break a window. I never paid a hotel bill when I was with Hunter, and it wasn't his initiative as much as mine. We'djust go out the window or the fire escape. That was just normal.

Paul Semonin
Hunter was a black sheep with the Ath­enaeum by 1955, his senior year. The Ath­enaeum was split between his partisans and the people who thought he was a dis­grace, and they managed to vote him out.

Neville Blakemore
One night Ralston Steenrod, who was in the Athenaeum with Hunter, was driving, and Hunter and another guy he knew were in the car. As they were driv­ing through Cherokee Park, the other guy said, "Stop. I want to bum a ciga­rette from that car." People used to go park and neck at this spot. And the guy got out and apparently went back and mugged them. The guy who was mugged got their license number and traced the car, and within a very short time they were all three arrested.

Just before this Hunter had been blamed for a nighttime gas-station rob­bery, and before that he and some friends got arrested for buying booze under­age at Abe's Liquor Store on Frankfort Avenue by the tracks. So Hunter had a record, and he was already on proba­tion. He was given an ultimatum: jail or the military. And Hunter took the Air Force. He didn't graduate with his class.

Porter Bibb
The two other guys arrested with Hunt­er –— well, one's father was the ex-DA of the city, and the other one's father was a very prominent lawyer. The other two got sprung by their fathers —– it was that kind of world. And Hunter's father wasn't there. Nobody sprung Hunter. He was hung out to dry.

We all dismissed that, but it stayed with Hunter for a long time.

II. AN ITINERANT PROFESSIONAL

Doug Brinkley is the literary executor of Thompson's estate and the editor of three volumes of his letters.
The Air Force was his college. He learned a lot from various military types, and used this knowledge in his writing a lot – how the hillbilly grunt has to deal in a world of hard-nosed authority. Imagine such a rebellious spirit being forced into boot camp and mess-hall drills and hav­ing to keep his boots polished perfectly and observe lights-out. Hunter would brag about his deviation from the rules, but that was one percent of the time. Ninety-nine percent of the time it was "Yes, sir!"

He got into a tangle with some of the rules as a journalist. Quarterback Bart Starr was apparently finagling special treatment from the Air Force top brass so he could sign with the Green Bay Packers. Hunter found this appalling, so he snuck into base headquarters and found Starr's discharge and snuck it onto the front page of the Command Courier at the last minute. Hunter was just pushing it too far; they had to call him on it.

Gene McGarr lived and worked with Hunter in New York after Hunter was discharged from the Air Force.
The last thing he did, in November 1957, was to write up a press release describing a riot that took place at Eglin when the enlisted men attacked the women's quarters and the officer's mess – stole all the booze, got drunk as shit, attacked the women, beat up the officers. It was a very funny and colorful story –— com­pletely fictional, of course – and he sent a copy of it to the AP and to UPI, left a copy on his captain's desk, then drove like a son of a bitch for the gate.

He headed north; he'd read in Editor & Publisher about a small-town news­paper that wanted a sports editor. He wrote them a letter, and they said to come up. This was a place called Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania.

Now, it turns out that Jersey Shore was just a bleak, hideous place with coal dust in the air. Dreadful, and no women in town that were worth looking at. Hunter got a room over a bar and started working for the paper, describing horse pulls and wrestling matches with "Popo the Killer Jap" and all kinds of things with this peculiar Dadaist approach. Everybody knows how it's phony as ba­loney, but he played it straight. Well, not exactly straight; he was writing things like "People were carried out of the ring with broken backs," "His neck was bro­ken in three places"— – stuff like that. Ap­parently nobody really cared whether it was true or not.

Hunter fled Jersey Shore after a disas­trous date with his editor's daughter that ended in the boss's car being destroyed by a tractor. He spent the next several years in New York, living with friends in the West Village and bouncing from job to job. He took courses at Columbia Univer­sity, worked for a few weeks as a copy boy at "Time" magazine before getting fired for being drunk and insulting his superiors, and began writing a novel. He also began a long-running and passionate affair with Sandy Conklin, the woman who would be­come his first wife and the mother of his son, Juan. After another short-lived stint as a reporter for the "Daily Record" in Middletown, New York – he was fired after a few months for kicking in the candy machine – he headed south for Puerto Rico.

William Kennedy, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of ''Ironweed,'' was the managing editor of the "San Juan Star" in 1959.
We advertised for a sports editor, and Hunter answered the ad. He said that the job interested him because it was in Puerto Rico, outside of the "great Rotarian democracy." Our publisher was a Ro-tarian, so that was the first misstep. He said he had kicked in the candy machine at the Middletown Record because it ate his nickel, and had gotten fired for it. He wrote, "I have given up on American journalism. The decline of the Ameri­can press has long been obvious, and my time is too valuable to waste in an effort to supply the 'man in the street' with his daily quota of clichés." If I could have hired him, I would have.

We often looked back on those days and those all-night conversations. Final­ly the sun would come up and we'd have some breakfast and call it a night. I re­member how freewheeling it was – also, we were drinking a lot of rum, one of the great liberating forces.

I remember talking with him about an essay by James Baldwin about the writer's quest for wisdom. Baldwin viewed the generation of American lit­erary giants – Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos and Faulkner – as looking at the world as "a place to be corrected, and in which innocence is inexplicably lost." The key phrase for Hunter was Baldwin's view that "innocence must die, if we are ever to begin that journey toward the greater innocence called wisdom." Baldwin was certain that "the curtain has come down forever on Gatsby's career: There will be no more Gatsbys." Hunter didn't buy this. He thought of himself as Gatsby, and he rev­eled in that kind of fate – that green light always receding, boats against the cur­rent, borne back into the past. This was a romantic notion that prevailed in him until he died.

Sandy Thompson
I went down to Puerto Rico and spent a week in Vieques, and, again, it was total romance. Both of us were really smitten. I think Hunter really loved the fact that I had a college degree and that I had majored in international relations and then economics, and that I had traveled, and that I was a free spirit. And I had a great body. I really did. And Hunter – he was just gorgeous.

Paul Semonin
I followed Hunter down to Puerto Rico. We ended up living there for about nine months, and Hunter wrote a little piece about me for the Louisville Courier-Journal. The headline was something like "Louisvillian in Voodoo Country." Hunter did some interviews with me, but then when he showed me the draft of the article, every single quote from me was totally fabricated. I said, "Hunter, that's not what I said." But he sent it off and it was published. "Voodoo Coun­try" is something that will grab the eye of any reader and pull him into the story, and Hunter was a master at that. That's what purpose his exaggerations and his buffoonery served – —fantastic, eye-grab­bing stuff for the reader.

Bob Bone knew Hunter from the Middletown "Daily Record."
Hunter wanted to go to South America – he figured that was where the interesting stuff was. He had begun to make contact with the National Observer, which was becoming interested in South America, and he decided he was going to go down on a smuggler's boat. He'd heard that in Aruba, people smuggled liquor and ciga­rettes into Nicaragua or somewhere like that, so he took a flight to Aruba and did indeed go on a smuggling boat into South America – to hear him tell it, anyway.

Clifford Ridley was Hunter's editor at the "National Observer."
There wasn't anything in his back­ground that said that he was going to be good – his only credentials that I remem­ber were from the Middletown paper – but we knew that he was good when we got his first piece. Hunter probably wrote a piece a month when he was in Latin America, and a lot of them ended up running on the front page.

We didn't have a problem with him injecting himself into his stories. We were going in the direction of personal journalism at that point, experiment­ing with allowing more personality in our pieces. Given today's journalistic climate, though, we might be a lot more skeptical about some of his details: The rich British man hitting golf balls from his penthouse terrace over the down­town slums of Cali, Colombia, in be­tween sips of his gin-and-tonic is a little too perfect. He may have embellished just a tad . . . but there was no arguing over the quality of his writing. He was extraordinary for us, and for journalism at that time.

Bob Bone
I was driving an old MG convertible with a friend of mine along Copacabana Beach in Brazil, and I suddenly saw Hunter loping along. We picked him up, so now it was three of us piled in this tiny MG. Hunter was a little drunk, but he said, "That's nothing. The thing that's drunk is in my pocket." He had a drunk monkey in his pocket. The way he ex­plained it was that he got off the plane in Rio with the monkey and went to a bar, and somebody said they would buy him a drink as long as they could buy the mon­key a drink at the same time. It probably was a bit of an exaggeration, but back in the MG, the monkey had thrown up in his pocket, and he was kind of smelly.

That monkey eventually committed suicide —– we figured it had the D.T.'s. The maid saw it jump off the tenth-story balcony of the apartment.

William Kennedy
For Hunter it was a career and lifestyle breakthrough. His life was professionally itinerant after he went to South America for the National Observer. He went anyplace and wrote whatever moved him in his own way – up to a point. It was heavily edited, and there were limitations on what he could say. But it established his name, modestly, and he managed to distinguish himself through subject matter and attitude.

III. HELL'S ANGELS

Sandy Thompson
We moved to San Francisco and got a place at the top of Golden Gate Park, right at the edge of the Haight. The Haight-Ashbury scene was just begin­ning – this was in '65.

We had very little money. Every once in a while there would be an article and a little more money, and one of these was the piece for The Nation on the Hells Angels. So that's where it all began. Ian Ballantine, who would become Hunter's book editor, came out from New York and offered Hunter a contract.

Dr. Bob Geiger met Hunter in Sonoma, California, in 1964.
I'd drive down to San Francisco to see Hunter when he was writing Hell's An­gels. It was kind of a typical old San Fran­cisco apartment, long and narrow. He had drilled holes through the ceiling and tapped into the phone line of the empty apartment upstairs, so for a little while he was able to use the phone as much as he wanted.

Sandy Thompson
I was working for a realtor and I made $90 a week, so there was $2 or something that he could spend on beer. He heard the Jefferson Airplane and got friendly with them, and he took acid for the first time. They all came back to the apartment and then the band left and Hunter was there with me and Juan, who was in a crib. I didn't know anything about acid except that it seemed awfully dangerous. Hunt­er said, "Get me my gun." I had hidden the gun. I said, "Absolutely not." He started to get really angry. He said, "If you don't get me that gun, I'm going to throw this boot through the window." These were plate-glass windows, big windows. And he did. He threw this boot – WHAM! – through the window, and I was shak­ing. I reached up – this was a mom pro­tecting her son – and scratched his face. There was blood. And it was weird, but he stopped. I guess that jolted him.

Hunter had a motorcycle, and he went out and got on it and rode up to Bob and Terri Geiger's in Sonoma. I called up there an hour or so later and said, "Is Hunter there?" And Terri said, "Oh, yeah, he's here. And you know, I've never seen him like this. He's out there coloring with the two little girls." They were maybe two and three years old.

Sonny Barger was president of the Hells Angels Oakland chapter.
He was definitely different. He didn't fit in. We hung out at his house, and wher­ever we went, he went. And I don't think Hunter ever tried to act like one of us. He always knew that he was apart from us. Some people get into thinking they're one of us, and they really run into problems.

Paul Semonin
Hunter spoke about the Hells Angels in a strange kind of way. There was an identification with the Angels as out­casts – downtrodden outcasts and vic­tims, if you will. He saw them as a kind of emblem of honor and rebellion. It wasn't only Hunter but people like Ken Kesey as well who somehow thought that an alliance between the Hells Angels and the peace movement was going to make or break the whole struggle.

Sandy Thompson
Hunter had met Ken Kesey at a radio show, and Kesey said, "I'm kind of inter­ested in the Hells Angels. Do you think they might want to come and meet my friends?" Hunter told him that he could arrange that, and then one Sunday he said to me, "Let's go for a drive." Which was really bizarre: Hunter, like a normal human being, saying, "Let's take the little fam­ily for a drive." Juan was with us, and he was still an infant.

We drove up through these big ever­greens, and we knew that Kesey and the Merry Pranksters were under surveillance at the time. There were narcot­ics agents in the hills looking to catch anybody doing anything wrong. And then we saw this huge banner stretched across the road that read "The Merry Pranksters Welcome the Hells Angels." I can't imagine what the law must have thought when they saw that sign.

Neal Cassady was there, and Allen Ginsberg. Kesey played this four-hour documentary of the Magic Bus and the Merry Pranksters doing their thing. Af­ter a while you couldn't watch anymore – it was just endless people smoking and being high and being silly. Kesey's chil­dren, who were maybe five or seven, were there – they had taken acid too, though Hunter didn't. At some point we jumped in a car with Ginsberg to go get some booze. We got stopped by the po­lice, and they asked us who we were. All Ginsberg would say was, "I'm a poet. . . . I'm a poet," which Hunter and I thought was funny.

When we got back, I noticed some of the Angels leaving Kesey's house, where we were all hanging out, through a side door from time to time. When we got in the car to leave, Hunter was very, very agitated. He said, "Do you know what just happened? There was a gangbang." A woman was in the cabin next door to the main house. Hunter happened to open the door. She wasn't screaming or yelling or resisting. She might have been passed out part of the time. It was not violent, but it was continual; lots of dif­ferent Angels got involved.

This was the scene he wrote about toward the end of Hell's Angels. It was very disturbing to him. He felt partially at fault for bringing them all together, and he felt sick.

Dr. Bob Geiger
I would say, "Hunter, why are you writing about these losers? These guys are crazies, and you're glorifying them –— they're nothing. You wouldn't stop to piss on them if they were on fire, so why the hell are you writing a book about them?" But he said, "No – these guys are really showing us where society is go­ing." And I totally missed it, because he was absolutely right.

James Silberman was the editor in chief at Random House in 1965.
I got onto Hunter because he had written this very good piece in The Nation about the Angels, and the subject seemed great. He didn't need any help writing the book – but he needed help organizing the narrative. He hadn't yet discovered his full voice, but he was already beyond standard journalism. He was his own subject. He was put­ting himself into situations and not only letting them develop but making them develop. He was interested in results. I said to him, "Hunter, I know how you do your research. You tie yourself to a set of railroad tracks and wait for the train." That's what happened at the end of Hell's Angels. He was on the tracks the whole time he was working on that book.

Tom Wolfe is the author of numerous best-selling books.
Hell's Angels is a beautiful mixture of very brassy reporting and very real thinking. He hadn't been trying to in­terpret the Angels all through the book, and then at the end he comes up with the meaning of the Angels –— "Exterminate all the brutes!" —which is from Conrad in Heart of Darkness. It was an awfully good combination of real reporting, real thinking and the comic style.

Sonny Barger
He didn't belittle us. If there's any false­ness to the book, it's more on the glam­orous side than on the detractive side. He made us even more of a myth than we were at the time.

William Kennedy
I noted the transformation of Hunter into a public personality for the first time when he was doing publicity for Hell's Angels in 1968. He was in New York, and he turned up with a cowboy hat and very bizarre sunglasses —– bright red or green, glow in the dark. It was a costume for Halloween, and that per­sona was what he was after, that look. I asked him, "What are you made up for? What are you trying to prove?" He had always shown up at my house wearing sweaters, slacks – clothes, not costumes. But now the image was foremost.

I believe Hunter was captured by that persona, and that his writing was transformed –— more and more it was about that persona, not about what it used to be about. And it seemed he was reveling in it.

IV. FEAR AND LOATHING

Ralph Steadman, the British artist, met Hunt­er at the Kentucky Derby.
I got a call one day from a magazine called Scanlan's, and I thought, "Scanlan? What type of magazine is that? It's the name of a little-known pig farmer from Notting­ham." It was a very anti-establishment thing – they got on Nixon's blacklist. J.C. Suarez, the art editor, said to me, "How would you like to go to Kentucky and meet an ex-Hells Angel? He's a tall guy and he's shaven-headed, you know, and he wears hunting jackets."

When Hunter walked into a room, ev­erybody noticed him. He'd have a drink in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and his foot wouldn't go on the floor. He'd be sort of perched and looking 'round, with a funny hat on. I thought the one-foot-off-the-floor thing was his way of making an impression, but later he told me he'd had some football injury when he was younger, which gave him this pe­culiar limping gait.

We met his brother Davison in a res­taurant, and I drew him, and it was a horrible picture. Hunter said, "You've upset my brother, you know that? I really don't think we should stay around much longer. As it happens, I have mace in my pocket, so we can get out of here. People don't like what you're doing. It's a nasty, unpleasant thing."

"But it's what I came to do, Hunter."

"Well, do it later. We've got to get out of here." And he maced the restaurant. He maced the restaurant!

It was a terrible thing to do. I mean, we got maced too. The whole damn place got maced. People were cough­ing and sputtering, "Get me outside!" It was the first time I realized, "Oh, God – this is not an ordinary person. This is somebody that does things with a para­noiac fever."

Sandy Thompson
When he wrote the Kentucky Derby article for Scanlan's, the drugs and the booze and all that stuff was getting in­volved in his life. This was no longer the Hunter who would sit down and rewrite a piece three times. He could get out a page, maybe, or a paragraph, a really neat, wild paragraph – and then some gibberish. He couldn't come out with a full piece.

Ralph Steadman
He was always going to be against the people who belong and for those who don't, and this particular story was about the people that he really despised in Louisville – the establishment that had rejected him many years ago. He was back to settle a score. They had made him know he was not going to be anything, certainly not a writer.

William Kennedy
"The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved" is a wonderful story, really a departure piece, and I think that that was a moment where he used all his fic­tional talent to describe and anatomize those characters and just make it all up. I'm sure some of it was real.

In time he found a way to turn him­self into this singular, first-person itinerant journalist who was interesting no matter what he wrote about. He put himself into the picture and he became the story.

Sandy Thompson
When "gonzo" first happened, Hunter's first reaction to it was terrible guilt –— just terrible. They didn't get it. But he could also see that here was an avenue; people seemed to really like this, and they were going to pay him for it. He thought it was gibberish.

Paul Scanlon was the managing editor of "Roll­ing Stone."
There was a round oak table in the editorial bullpen, and Hunter would make this big production out of opening up his satchel and unpacking it. We all kind of wandered over to see what was going to come out – fresh grapefruits, notepads, a can of mace, a tape record­er, a carton of Dunhills, spare cigarette holders, a bottle of Wild Turkey, a large police flashlight, lighter fluid, a bowie knife –— the usual stuff.

One day Hunter came in, and I'm standing there with Charlie Perry and another editor, Grover Lewis, and he pulls out a sheaf of manuscript, legal size and all neatly stapled together, and he handed one to me and one to Charlie and one to Grover and then stomped out. It was the first chapter of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." I went into my office to read it, and I started howling when the bats started coming out of the sky, and by the time I finished reading it I was pounding on my desk and I couldn't stop laughing. I wandered into Grover's office and he was hunched over his desk, wheezing. I thought, "Shit, he's having a seizure!" And he turned around, and there were tears in his eyes and he couldn't stop laughing.

We spent the next hour just reading lines back and forth to each other. Everybody was really flat knocked out. Nobody expected it.

Charles Perry was the copy chief of "Roll­ing Stone."
We passed around the manuscript to the editors. I remember someone say-ing that the day after you read it, life just seemed incredibly dramatic, like you never knew when a pack of pythons might come attack you from the corner.

Even at Rolling Stone, which had been journalistic in its approach to things, the accepted way of talking about psychedelics was the Timothy Leary way, which was essentially as a spiritual experience. Hunter was writing about the fact that sometimes when you're on acid, you're just totally fucked up. It was a breath of fresh air.

William Kennedy
What he wrote was a singular work that was a mutation of the fiction­al form, which is why his place is secure, because nobody can ever do that again. You can't duplicate him; it's just so obvi­ous when anyone tries. There's no way you can follow that mind or that career.

Jann Wenner is the founder and editor of "Rolling Stone."
Working with Hunter was already a major hand-holding job. It meant a minimum of two, maybe three people assigned to the task, including me. He liked having a team of people work­ing on his stuff, and he liked the crisis atmosphere.

But "Vegas" was completely differ­ent. He did that on his own. It took him several months to write it. He'd send me pages. I'd change a word here or suggest a little thing there, but it was already completely formed. I'd ask him to write transitions to make the narra­tive more complete, but he politely and firmly refused. It was his pure fantasy coming directly out of his own mind. There was no real reporting involved, except when he wanted to go back and do the district attorney's conference, which was hysterical and had pure gonzo potential.

Hunter Thompson in a memo to Jann Wenner as he was finishing "Vegas."
The central problem here is that you're working overtime to treat this thing as Straight or at least Responsible jour­nalism . . . whereas in truth we are dealing with a classic of irresponsible gibberish. You'd be better off trying to make objective, chronological sense of "Highway 61," The Ginger Man, "Mis­ter Tambourine Man," or even Naked Lunch. . . .

I can't work up much enthusiasm for treating "Fear & Loathing" like a news story. No doubt the holes and kinks should be filled, but for some reason I just can't work up much zeal for the job. Maybe after 12 or 20 hours of sleep I might think differently, but I wouldn't count on it. . . .

My general feeling is that you have a hell of a lot more important things to concern yourself with than perfecting the chronology of Vegas/Fear & Loath­ing. I have the feeling that it's a pretty fair piece of writing, as it stands, and I've developed a certain affection for it. . . .

I like the bastard. So why not get on to more important things? . . . We have enough, and 90% of it is absolutely right – on its own terms.

And that, after all, is the whole point.

Ciao,
H