On February 20, 2005, the world of journalism took a devastating blow when the founder of Gonzo journalism Hunter S Thompson died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head at Owl Farm, better known as his “fortified compound” in Woody Creek, Colorado.
Thompson joined the United States Air Force before entering the world of journalism. Thompson settled in Aspen, Colorado, in the early 60’s, and gained international attention after the publication of “Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs” in 1967.
Hunter spent a year living with the Hell’s Angels for his research to write the book. Thompson had a falling out with the group after members believed he was exploiting them for personal gain and began demanded a share of the profits from the book.
At a party hosted by the Hell’s Angels, Thompson was beaten by members of the bike club. Thompson claims that the fight happened after he had tried to stop a member of the Hell’s Angels from viciously beating his “old lady.”
Gonzo Journalism Is Born
In 1970, Gonzo journalism was born when Thompson wrote an article titled “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” for a new magazine called Scanlan’s Monthly. Scanlan’s Monthly was a very short lived outlet, and the article was not spread very wide spread. Despite the negatives behind the outlet, the article marked the beginning of Thompson’s use of Gonzo journalism.
That same year, Thompson’s most well-known book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was born. Thompson was doing research for a piece titled “Strange Rumblings in Aztlan.” The piece was an expose for Rolling Stone about the 1970 killing of Mexican-American journalist Rubén Salazar. One of Thompson’s sources for the story was Mexican-American activist and attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta.
Thompson and Acosta decided they could not work under the racial tension of Los Angeles, so they took a trip to Las Vegas. The two took advantage of an assignment from Sports Illustrated in which Thompson was supposed to write a 250-word photograph caption on the Mint 400. Instead, Thompson turned in a 2,500-word manuscript that Sports Illustrated was said to have “aggressively rejected.”
In Search Of The American Dream
Despite the negative response from Sports Illustrated, Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner liked the first 20 “jangled pages” enough to take the piece seriously on its own, giving Thompson the encouragement he needed to continue moving forward with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
The book first appeared in a two-part series in a November 1971 issue of Rolling Stone. In 1972, the book was released, showing Thompson’s hunt for the “American dream,” armed with “two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers … and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether, and two dozen amyls.”
Throughout 1971, Thompson took on the daunting task of covering the election campaigns of President Richard Nixon and Senator George McGovern for Rolling Stone. Those articles were pieced together and made into the book “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.”
Thompson was a strong supporter of McGovern and was not afraid to display his hatred of Nixon both during and after his presidency. After Nixon’s death, Thompson was quoted saying, “his casket [should] have been launched into one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles. He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president. [He] was an evil man—evil in a way that only those who believe in the physical reality of the Devil can understand it.”
Rumble In The Jungle
Wenner said in Thompson’s later years his writings began to drastically suffer after attempting to cover the “Rumble in the Jungle”—a world heavyweight boxing match featuring George Foreman and Muhammad Ali—located in Africa in 1974. Instead of submitting a story to Rolling Stone, Thompson was intoxicated at his hotel and did not even make it to the match.
In 1976, Thompson was set to cover the 1976 presidential election for Rolling Stone. Thompson was waiting for a $75,000 cash advance when he learned that Wenner had canceled the story without informing him. Wenner then asked Thompson to travel to Vietnam to cover the end of the Vietnam War.
Thompson arrived in Vietnam only to find other journalists trying desperately to get out of the area. Once he was there he found out that Wenner had canceled the Vietnam piece, leaving Thompson in the middle of a war zone without even having health insurance.
The Gonzo Papers
In the late 70’s, the majority of Thompson’s literary work became a four-volume series known as the “Gonzo Papers.” The series started with “The Great Shark Hunt” in 1979 and ended with “Better Than Sex” in 1994. The series was a collection of pre-gonzo newspaper and magazine pieces, along with excerpts from the Fear and Loathing books.
While Thompson battled with a struggling relationship between him and Rolling Stone, he also went through a divorce from his wife Sandra Conklin in 1980. Thompson was said to become much more reclusive after the divorce and began rejecting and not completing assignments given to him while locked away in his Woody Creek compound. Despite Thompson’s seclusion, he still held his title of “National Affairs Desk” until the day he died.
Where The Buffalo Roam
In 1980, the film “Where the Buffalo Roam” was released. Bill Murray starred as Thompson in the loose film adaption of Thompson’s work throughout the 70’s. Murray would end up becoming a close friend to Thompson.
Thompson would release pieces here and there in the years that followed, but it was not until 1998 when the film adaption of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas came out that he become an underground hero for generations to come. Johnny Depp played Thompson in the film, and like Murray, he too would end up becoming close friends with the man who founded Gonzo journalism.
In July of 2000, Thompson reportedly accidentally shot his assistant Deborah Fuller while trying to scare off a bear. “I screamed ‘You son of a bitch, you shot me.’ And poor Hunter. I don’t think I had ever seen him run so fast. He felt horrible,” Fuller said at the time of the incident. Fuller did not press charges against Thompson for the accidental shooting.
Kingdom Of Fear
In 2003, Thompson released “Kingdom of Fear: Loathsome Secrets of a Star-Crossed Child In the Final Days of the American Century.” Kingdom of Fear had a different kind of anger buried within as Thompson wrote of witnessing the passing of the American Century and life in a post 9/11 America. Thompson also married his assistant Anita Thompson that same year.
Thompson’s career ended with him appropriately writing about sports once again, the same subject that began his career. From 2000 until his death, Thompson wrote a weekly piece for ESPN titled “Hey, Rube.” In 2004, “Hey Rube: Blood Sport, the Bush Doctrine, and the Downward Spiral of Dumbness” was released. It was a collection of Thompson’s work with ESPN put together by Simon & Schuster.
Spirit In The Sky
Thompson’s funeral was as unique as his everyday life. Depp paid for Thompson’s $3 million dollar funeral which featured a 153-foot (47 m) tower shaped as a double-thumbed fist clutching a peyote button with a cannon on top that fired his ashes into the sky. The symbol was used in 1970 when Thompson ran for Sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado.
Thompson’s ashes were shot off with red, white, blue, and green fireworks as Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” and Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” played in the background.
Thompson lived his life as he wanted. While some wondered if Thompson felt as if he did not belong on this Earth, those who knew him say he just did not give a rat’s ass what people thought. Thompson did things his way, regardless of the opinion of others.