The life of Hunter S. Thompson is an extremely long, complicated, and troublesome one. Though a brilliant political writer, Thompson was a man whose past was riddled with trouble and whose escapades cost him quite a few jobs. We know him as the writer of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Deprived”, and The Rum Diary, but some of you may not know how he came to write these pieces and what he had to go through to create political reflections of the years he spent exploring the United States and its politics.
Thompson was the eldest of three children, born on July 18, 1937 in Louisville, Kentucky, to Virginia Ray Davidson, a librarian, and Jack Robert Thompson, a World War I vet and a public insurance adjuster. Thompson Sr. passed away at the age of fifty-eight when Thompson was fourteen from myasthenia gravis, which is “is an autoimmune neuromuscular disease leading to fluctuating muscle weakness and fatiguability” (Wikipedia). As a result of his father’s death, his mother, Virginia, turned to alcohol while she raised the three children on her own.
Though Thompson was an athletic child who excelled in baseball, he did not join any of the teams in high school. Instead, he opted for being a troublemaker, which only shows how his rebellious streak in his writing was a technique that he’d gained from personal experiences growing up.
Even with a troublesome life, Thompson showed a love of writing and this can be witnessed by his admission into the Athenaeum Literary Society in 1952. The exclusive society was founded in 1862 at Male High and it consisted mainly of higher-class students. In fact, one of the members during Thompson’s time in the society was Rolling Stone’sfirst publisher, Porter Bibb. Shortly after his acceptance, his membership was revoked due to legal charges against Thompson for being an accessory to a robbery, since he was caught in a car with the robber charged. As a result of these charges, Thompson was sentenced to sixty days in Kentucky’s Jefferson County Jail. But Thompson ended up only serving thirty-one days and a week after his release, he joined the United States Air Force.
At this point, Thompson starts a new path in his life that still entertains his joy of writing. His military service spanned close to seven years. When Thompson completed his basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas during his years of serving, he was transferred to Bellville, Illinois to study electronics. However, when Thompson applied to be an aviator, he was denied.
Perhaps the more important aspect of Thompson’s years in the military was his first job as a writer. He worked as a sports editor for The Command Courier in Fort Walton Beach, Florida. He was able to attain this job by lying about his level of experience. An interesting fact about Thompson’s time spent writing for this courier is who he covered. Thompson wrote about the Eglin Eagles football team, which resulted in him coming into contact with Bart Starr, Max McGee, and Zeke Bratkowski. He also wrote on the side as an anonymous writer of a sport column for The Playground News, a local paper in Fort Walton Beach, Florida. Thompson earned early honorable discharge by his commanding officer and he left the military with the title of Airman First Class in June, 1958.
Thompson’s early life was a complexity of figuring out what he wanted out of life, but when he left the military, he let himself become part of the writing world. Under the G.I. Bill, Thompson took a part-time creative writing course at Columbia University, School of General Studies. While he studied, he took on odd jobs in the writing world. Some were:
- He worked as a copy boy for Time Magazine. He made fifty-one bucks per week, but was fired in 1959 for insubordination.
- That same year, Thompson was hired as a reporter for The Middletown Daily Record, in Middletown, NY… but he was fired when he broke an office candy machine and when he started an argument with a restaurant advertiser with the paper.
- A personal job he took on was more for creative purposes than monetary gain. Thompson began typing out both Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms so that he could become better acquainted with their writing style.
After his adventures in New York, Thompson moved to San Juan, Puerto Rico so that he could work for El Sportivo, which quickly folded after he arrived. Even though William J. Kennedy, the novelist, turned Thompson down for a job at The San Juan Star, the two became good friends. While living in Puerto Rico, Thompson had a job as a Stringer for the New York Harold Tribune.
When he finally returned to the U.S., Thompson hitch-hiked his way through the country, until finally settling in Big Sur, California, where he worked as a security guard and a caretaker. Though Thompson was a wanderer for these last few years, he wrote two novels during his adventures:
- Prince Jellyfish
- The Rum Diary
- And he submitted many short stories to publishers, but they were all rejected.
Between the years of 1962 and 1963, Thompson journeyed to South America as a correspondent for a Dow Jones-owned weekly newspaper: National Observer.
What has yet to be explored however, is Thompson’s relationship with his long-term girlfriend, Sandy Conklin [Thompson]. The two lovers were married on May 19th, 1963 and had a son shortly after name Juan Fitzgerald Thompson on March 23rd, 1964. Unfortunately, the couple did get pregnant five more times, but Sandy suffered three miscarriages and the other two children died in their infancy.
While Thompson settled into his new life with his wife and son, he attained a job forThe National Observer in 1964. He wrote a story for the paper based on his trip to Ketchum, Idaho, where he’d gone solely to learn more about Hemingway’s suicide.
Curious fact: Thompson famously stole the Elk antlers that Hemingway had hanging above the front door of his cabin.
Thompson was fired from The National Observer after having a falling out about Tom Wolfe’s essay collection titled The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. As a result, Thompson moved his family to San Francisco and entered the hippie culture and the world of drugs.
Cool fact: Thompson began writing The Spyder paper during his time immersed in the hippie and drug culture.
Ah, but Hunter S. Thompson’s adventures weren’t even close to being done. In 1965, Thompson was asked to write a story by Carey McWilliams’s experiences with the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club.
What resulted from this adventure?
- He received multiple book offers
- The Hell’s Angels did not exactly take his piece with a good heart, they beat the crap out of him, or as they called it: a stomping, because they felt like they were being exploited.
- Publication in several magazines: New York Times, Esquire, Pageant, and others.
Thompson’s life took a turn for the political when he signed The Writer’s and Editors War Tax Protest. To learn more about this movement check it out here. Thompson planned a novel called The Joint Chiefs and approached Random House, who gave him a six thousand dollar advance. With this money, Thompson was able to follow the 1968 presidential campaign around the U.S. It was during his stay in a Chicago hotel room, that he witnessed the protesters following the campaign and the police fighting and colliding down on the streets from his hotel room’s window.
Thompson never finished the novel that he’d promised to Random House, but he did fulfill his contract in 1972 by writing and publishing Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Even so, watching the riots affected Thompson in such a way, that his work started carrying elements of what he’d seen and witnessed.
Random Facts you might not have known:
- When Thompson and his family purchased their first modest home, he nicknamed his house “Owl Farm” because it was his fortified compound.
- Ran for sheriff of Pitkin county, Colorado and as a result, while in the lead, he went to Rolling Stone and told editor Jann Wenner that he was going to be elected…so he wrote a piece called “The Battle of Aspen”, but unfortunately, he lost the election.
- His platform was as follows: The platform included promoting the decriminalization of drugs (for personal use only, not trafficking, as he disapproved of profiteering), tearing up the streets and turning them into grassy pedestrian malls, banning any building so tall as to obscure the view of the mountains, and renaming Aspen “Fat City” to deter investors” (Wikipedia).
Perhaps one of Thompson’s most successful point in his career is when he made the Gonzo style of journalism a prominent fixture in the political writing community. According to wikipedia, Gonzo Journalism is: “ a style of journalism that is written without claims of objectivity, often including the reporter as part of the story via a first-person narrative” (Wikipedia).
Thompson’s more well-known piece of Gonzo Journalism is “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Deprived”, which he wrote for Scanlan’s Monthly in 1970. He also left behind him a legacy of Gonzo papers, which are described in the following quote: “[T]he series is largely a collection of rare newspaper and magazine pieces from the pre-gonzo period, along with almost all of his Rolling Stone short pieces, excerpts from the Fear and Loathing… books, and so on” (Wikipedia).
1980 was a year that was double-edged for Thompson. A film loosely based on his writing career in the 1970’s called Where the Buffalo Roam was released, featuring Bill Murray as the writer in the film, who later became a good friend of Thompson’s. But with these good news, came the bad. Sandy and Hunter divorced, but remained good friends until his death.
Hunter S. Thompson committed suicide in his “Owl Farm” home on February 20th, 2005. Though he ended his life abruptly, Thompson left behind a legacy of inspiring and powerful pieces that are still held as some of the best pieces of political literature today.
Some extra information about Thompson that might intrigue you:
- He used a blend of fiction and fact when describing his life.
- Sometimes wrote under Raoul Duke (who was described as “Callous, erratic, and a self-destructive journalist” (Wikipedia).)
- Gained the title of “Doctor” from the Universal Life Church.
- Gained a cult following with both literature and drug circles.
- It is thought that as he aged, Thompson lost sight of what was fact and what was fiction.
- He was an avid amateur photographer!
Some of his pieces were made into films as well:
- Where the Buffalo Roam (1980)
- Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
- The Rum Diary (2011)
There are also a ton of documentaries that are featured on the Wikipedia page that I will be linking as a source!
If you’re thinking of checking out some of his work, here’s a list!
1. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is the best chronicle of drug-soaked, addle-brained,
rollicking good times ever committed to the printed page. It is also the tale of a long weekend road trip that has gone down in the annals of American pop culture as one of the strangest journeys ever undertaken.”
2. The Rum Diary
“Hunter S. Thompson worked in the late 1950s and early 1960s as a reporter for a variety of publications, notably The Nation, the National Journal, and the well-received stories, but he really wanted to be a novelist. As such, he created The Rum Diary, a roman-a-clef about a drunken young journalist in the tropics. Now, with Thompson’s reputation at an all-time high, this novel has been resurrected and revealed. It is a work of exuberance, madness and comedy, the first true sign of the genius that is Hunter S. Thompson”
3. Hell’s Angels
“California, Labor Day weekend … early, with ocean fog still in the streets, outlaw motorcyclists wearing chains, shades and greasy Levis roll out from damp garages, all-night diners and cast-off one-night pads in Frisco, Hollywood, Berdoo and East Oakland, heading for the Monterey peninsula, north of Big Sur… The Menace is loose again.” Thus begins Hunter S. Thompson’s vivid account of his experiences with California’s most no-torious motorcycle gang, the Hell’s Angels. In the mid-1960s, Thompson spent almost two years living with the controversial An-gels, cycling up and down the coast, reveling in the anarchic spirit of their clan, and, as befits their name, raising hell. His book successfully captures a singular moment in American history, when the biker lifestyle was first defined, and when such countercultural movements were electrifying and horrifying America. Thompson, the creator of Gonzo journalism, writes with his usual bravado, energy, and brutal honesty, and with a nuanced and incisive eye; as The New Yorker pointed out, “For all its uninhibited and sardonic humor, Thompson’s book is a thoughtful piece of work.” As illuminating now as when originally published in 1967, Hell’s Angels is a gripping portrait, and the best account we have of the truth behind an American legend.”
4. Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ‘72
“Hilarious, terrifying, insightful, and compulsively readable, these are the articles that Hunter S. Thompson wrote for Rolling Stone magazine while covering the 1972 election campaign of President Richard M. Nixon and his unsuccessful opponent, Senator George S. McGovern. Hunter focuses largely on the Democratic Party’s primaries and the breakdown of the national party as it splits between the different candidates.
With drug-addled alacrity and incisive wit, Thompson turned his jaundiced eye and gonzo heart to the repellent and seductive race for president, deconstructed the campaigns, and ended up with a political vision that is eerily prophetic”
5. The Gonzo Papers Anthology (1-3)
“Hunter S. Thompson was the creator of a new kind of journalism and invented a new style of writing. Gonzo was a wild often drug- and drink-fuelled adventure, in which Thompson examined the politics, people, and values of his times.
In the three great collections of Gonzo writings, “The Great Shark Hunt”, “Generation of Swine”, and “Songs of the Doomed”, he dissected the 60s, 70s, and 80s with violence, wit, anger, and occasional compassion.
Collected together for the first time, “The Gonzo Papers Anthology” is an indispensable compendium of decadence, depravity, and a remarkably skewed common sense.
‘No other reporter reveals how much we have to fear and loathe, yet does it so hilariously’ Nelson Algren”
6. Better Than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie
“Hunter S. Thompson is to drug-addled, stream-of-consciousness, psycho-political black humor what Forrest Gump is to idiot savants.”
—The Philadelphia Inquirer
Since his 1972 trailblazing opus, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, Hunter S. Thompson has reported the election story in his truly inimitable, just-short-of-libel style. In Better than Sex, Thompson hits the dusty trail again—without leaving home—yet manages to deliver a mind-bending view of the 1992 presidential campaign—in all of its horror, sacrifice, lust, and dubious glory. Complete with faxes sent to and received by candidate Clinton’s top aides, and 100 percent pure gonzo screeds on Richard Nixon, George Bush, and Oliver North, here is the most true-blue campaign tell-all ever penned by man or beast.”
7. Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist, 1968-1976
“Louisville’s finest returns with another huge batch of his private correspondence, hammered out from Woody Creek on his typewriter with the frenzied rat-tat-tat report of shots from the hip. Covering the Wonder Years, from the election of Nixon (which first fired his invective), Vietnam, the 1972 campaign, publication of the instantly notorious Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, to Watergate, the walking pharmacy reveals himself to be a surprisingly dedicated librarian, having dutifully filed carbons of all his correspondence for such an eventuality. By 1968, the success of Hell’s Angels had seen his stock, if not his income, rise, and on the magazine Scanlan Monthly was born Gonzo journalism, dismissing objectivity for furious spontaneity fired from both barrels. However, the hidden image on the Polaroid was a bleary-eyed moralist in deadly earnest, uncontrollably seized by the free-associative rantings of a Tourette’s sufferer.”
8. The Curse of Lono
“The Curse of Lono is to Hawaii what Fear and Loathing
was to Las Vegas: the crazy tales of a journalist’s “coverage” of a
news event that ends up being a wild ride to the dark side of
Americana. Originally published in 1983, Curse features all of
the zany, hallucinogenic wordplay and feral artwork for which the
Hunter S. Thompson/Ralph Steadman duo became known and loved. This
curious book, considered an oddity among Hunter’s oeuvre, has been
long out of print, prompting collectors to search high and low for an
Hunter S. Thompson has written MANY different political texts and I suggest going here for the full list.
This was a long one to write and very overdue! I apologize for the amount of time it took me to write this, but Thompson had a very busy life! He was a man who can literally say, wherever he is now, “I came, I saw, I conquered” the literary world of politics.
These are the sources I used for this feature:
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hunter_S._Thompson (this link is where you will find a list of documentaries for your viewing pleasure!)
I know this post is long, but this man, though he died abruptly, lived a very full life.