Last reviewed: June 2018
July 18, 1937
February 20, 2005
Woody Creek, Colorado
Hunter Stockton Thompson—“gonzo” journalist, legendary wild man, and would-be local politician—was born in Louisville in 1937 to Jack R. and Virginia Thompson; his father was an insurance agent. Thompson stood out as an intelligent, charismatic individual and a troublemaker in high school. He was a member of the Athenaeum, the school’s prestigious literary society, but he also began to have run-ins with the law and was arrested more than once. He finally served thirty days in jail while his friends were graduating from high school.
Thompson joined the Air Force in 1955 and was stationed at Eglin Air Proving Ground in Florida, where he began writing entertaining sports articles for the base newspaper. He soon chafed under the restrictions of military life, however, and he managed to get his separation papers in 1957. Thompson moved to New York, where he worked as a copyboy for Time-Life, read F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner, wrote fiction, and met Sandy Dawn Conklin, the woman he would marry in 1963. He soon went west to Big Sur, California. Then, in 1962, he moved to Brazil and wrote pieces for the National Observer, truly beginning his life as a journalist.
Returning to the United States, he moved to San Francisco in 1964, after having bought property (Owl Farm) in Woody Creek, Colorado, near Aspen. His and Sandy’s son, Juan Fitzgerald Thompson, was born in March 1964. In California, Thompson received an offer to write a magazine piece about the notorious motorcycle gang Hell’s Angels; the article spawned book offers, eventually coming to fruition as Hell’s Angels. Thompson, an inveterate motorcyclist, spent considerable time riding and partying with the Angels. The book was well received.
The frenetic style for which Thompson became famous, “gonzo journalism,” was born in a piece written for Scanlon’s Monthly, “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” published in the fall of 1970. Thompson had found himself unable to complete the article and, with the deadline upon him, gave pages of handwritten notes to the magazine, which published them essentially as they were—disjointed and frantic, with the “journalist’s” descriptions of his own actions and feelings more important than the event he was supposed to have been covering. Gonzo journalism is Thompson’s form of participatory journalism, and his style projects an on-the-edge immediacy.
Also in 1970, Thompson began a five-year stint as the “national affairs editor” at Jann Wenner’s Rolling Stone, then a newspaper-style weekly. Many of his signature pieces were first published in the magazine through the years. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas appeared serially in Rolling Stone beginning in 1971.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a work like no other, a conflation of real events and exaggerated paranoid fantasies, and a description of alcohol and recreational drug use of preposterous proportions. Mexican American activist and attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta accompanied Thompson on his trip to Las Vegas, which in reality was an attempt to get away from Los Angeles to finish a story they were working on for Rolling Stone. Acosta is referred to as Thompson’s “Samoan attorney” and as Dr. Gonzo in the book, and Thompson adopts the persona of sportswriter “Raoul Duke”; the use of thinly fictionalized personas was one of Thompson’s characteristic techniques in his writing and life (he often called himself Dr. Thompson, for example, although he had no college degree of any sort).
A review in The New York Times called the book “a kind of mad, corrosive prose poetry” and placed Thompson among writers such as Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe. Both loved and reviled, the book has sufficiently stood the test of time to be reissued in 1996 as part of the Modern Library series. Thompson, as the Rolling Stone editors saw immediately, wrote in his own voice, “inventing his own vocabulary,” coining such evocative phrases as “fear and loathing,” “bad craziness,” and “greed-heads”: “When the going gets weird,” he wrote, “the weird turn pro.”
Thompson was captivated by politics all his adult life. At the national level, he developed a particular fascination with Richard M. Nixon, viewing him as all that is “dark and venal” in the American psyche; Nixon inspired Thompson to new heights of invective, so much so that Thompson dedicated The Great Shark Hunt to Nixon, who, he said, “never let me down.” Thompson covered George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign, first in the primaries, then against incumbent Nixon; the account was published as Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72. At the local level, in 1970 Thompson had run for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado—he was by then living at his farm in Woody Creek—on the Freak Power ticket, losing the election narrowly. In the ensuing years, Thompson remained one of the area’s more controversial but influential political figures. When, in 1995, he sided with opponents of a proposed airport expansion, the measure went down to defeat.
As the 1970s progressed, Thompson went overseas to cover stories—or at least to write about his own experiences and perceptions of events—including, in 1974, a world heavyweight boxing championship in Zaire and, in 1975, the fall of Saigon. By the late 1970s his marriage to Sandy was in trouble, and the two went through a difficult divorce that dragged on for nearly two years.
In the 1980s and early 1990s Thompson wrote articles and went on college lecture tours, but he spent most of his time at home in Colorado. Collections of his writings appeared in 1988 and 1990. In 1990, he was forced to go to court on drug possession charges resulting from a police search that occurred after a woman accused him of harassing her at his home. Thompson was acquitted; he maintained that the trial was politically motivated—a “life-style bust.”
The descriptions and effects of Thompson’s intake of alcohol and, particularly, a variety of other drugs, formed a significant and unique part of his writing. Eventually, the drug use began to take its toll. The Curse of Lono, for example, is a rehashing of the style of earlier works without their brilliance. People who knew Thompson have spoken of his “great dark side,” of his heavy alcohol and drug use, and of the depression and pain that must have underlaid his anger, recurrent desires for revenge, and fascination with violence. Nevertheless, as the creator of a unique form of New Journalism, he left a mark on American writing—and on popular culture as well, having been portrayed by Bill Murray in the 1980 film Where the Buffalo Roam and Johnny Depp in director Terry Gilliam’s 1998 film of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, as well as being caricatured as “Uncle Duke” in Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury comic strip beginning in 1974.
For the final years of his life, Thompson returned to writing about sports in the form of a regular column titled Hey Rube, written for ESPN.com. While the articles were largely based around sports topics, they often veered into territory that included social commentary and politics per his writing tendencies. Following an increase in medical ailments that included back pain and hip replacement surgery, he committed suicide at his home in Woody Creek at the age of sixty-seven on February 20, 2005. The circumstances of his suicide caused debates that continued to rage into the second decade of the twenty-first century. His private funeral, which included firing his ashes from a cannon—per his wishes—was largely attended.