Hunter S. Thompson, the dean of gonzo journalism and a longtime contributor to Rolling Stone, died Sunday in his Colorado home of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was sixty-seven.
Thompson gave the phrase “fear and loathing” its cultural relevancy, writing the darkly comic altered-states novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and the maniacal political reportage of Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72.
His first book, Hell’s Angels, published in 1966, was an inside look at the notorious biker gang. For his efforts, Thompson got himself roughed up by some of the gang’s members. From then on, however, it was Thompson who did the roughing up, with words that he wielded like weapons. His political coverage was famously irreverent, often to the brink of viciousness. In a recent piece for Rolling Stone on the 2004 presidential campaign, he called George Bush a “treacherous little freak.” To Thompson — who once threatened to run for the presidency himself and narrowly lost an election in 1970 for sheriff of the Aspen area, running on the Freak Power Party ticket — politics was a blood sport, and American politicians, so prone to corruption, were only too deserving of contempt. Observing President Bush’s poor performance in a debate with “my man” John Kerry, he wrote for the magazine, “I almost felt sorry for him, until I heard someone call him ‘Mister President,’ and then I felt ashamed.”
Reclusive and often unintelligible in conversation, Thompson had a persona that was ripe for caricature. Both Bill Murray and Johnny Depp portrayed him in feature films (Murray in Where the Buffalo Roam, Depp in the film adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). He was also Garry Trudeau’s inspiration for Uncle Duke, the loose cannon of the Doonesbury comic strip. Thompson’s incorrigible behavior, his mumbling incoherence, his fishing hats, aviator frames and cigarette holders all made for a larger-than-life presence. He was a hardboiled writer of the old Hemingway school, terse and piercing, enamored of guns. Yet he will be forever associated with the counterculture of the hippie era for his ruthless dogging of the Nixon administration and his gleeful experimentation with psychedelic drugs, two subjects which he often wrote about in tandem.
Born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1937, Thompson spent two years in the Air Force as a young man, working as a sports reporter for the base newspaper. During the course of his career he filed memorable coverage of the Kentucky Derby, the Super Bowl and other sporting events; a consistent outlet for Thompson’s writing in recent years was his “Hey Rube” column for the ESPN Web site. The world of sports also came into play for his biggest interview, when he rode in a limousine with his future nemesis, Richard Nixon, during the 1968 presidential campaign on the grounds that they would discuss only football.
Besides Hell’s Angels and the Fear and Loathing books, highlights of Thompson’s career as an author include The Great Shark Hunt (1979), the first of several anthologies of his newspaper and magazine writing; The Curse of Lono (1983), a sort of Hawaiian sequel to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas lavishly illustrated by Ralph Steadman, whose furious images would become inextricably linked with Thompson’s prose; and The Rum Diary (1999), the writer’s “lost” novel, begun in 1959 when he was living in Puerto Rico after being fired by Time magazine, unpublished until 1999.
His wild, licentious writing style lost him innumerable assignments, but Thompson invented a whole new genre when a fellow journalist called his feature on the skier Jean-Claude Killy “gonzo.” The piece was written for Playboy, which turned it down; it was published by a fellow maverick, San Franciscan Warren Hinckle. Thompson later said that his realization that he could “get away with” such an outrageous writing style convinced him to stop trying to write “like the New York Times. It was like falling down an elevator shaft and landing in a pool full of mermaids.”
Thompson’s first pitch for Rolling Stone was similarly the stuff of legend. A staffer later recalled the writer drinking a six-pack, playing with his wig and ranting non-stop for an hour with publisher Jann Wenner, who was sufficiently overwhelmed to hire him.
In 2002 Thompson collaborated with his friend, the late Warren Zevon, on a song lyric for Zevon’s album My Ride’s Here. The song was titled “You’re a Whole Different Person When You’re Scared.”
If he feared anything, Thompson knew how to hide it well. “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence or insanity to anyone,” he once said, “but they’ve always worked for me.”