Hunter S. Thompson: Growing Up Gonzo
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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