Who Was Hunter S. Thompson?
Hunter S. Thompson showed a knack for writing at a young age, and after high school began his career in journalism while serving in the United States Air Force. Following his military service, Thompson traveled the country to cover a wide array of topics for numerous magazines and developed an immersive, highly personal style of reporting that would become known as “Gonzo Journalism.” He would employ the style in the 1972 book for which he is best known, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which was an instant and lasting success. For the remainder of his life, Thompson’s hard-driving lifestyle — which included the steady use of illicit drugs and an ongoing love affair with firearms — and his relentlessly antiauthoritarian work made him a perpetual counterculture icon. However, his fondness for substances also contributed to several bouts of poor health, and in 2005 Thompson committed suicide at the age of 67.
Hunter Stockton Thompson was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on July 18, 1937. His father, Jack, was a World War I veteran and insurance agent who died while Thompson was in high school, and his mother, Virginia, was an alcoholic left penniless and in charge of their charming but incorrigible son and his two younger brothers. Frequently involved in mischief, Thompson ran with a group of friends that were constantly testing the limits. At the same time, he was also developing a deep love of writing, and his talent was such that, while still in high school, he was accepted into the venerable Athenaeum Literary Association, an organization whose membership was mostly comprised of the children of well-to-do families.
But Thompson was not to be contained, and his contributions to the group’s newsletter were typically sarcastic and incendiary. While honing his literary craft, Thompson simultaneously built upon his reputation as a hooligan and prankster as well, escalating his extracurricular activities from more harmless endeavors, such as dumping a truckload of pumpkins in front of a hotel, to shoplifting, vandalism and, eventually, robbery. It was during this time that he also developed what would become a lifelong fascination with firearms and a taste for drugs and alcohol.
By his senior year, Thompson found himself squarely on the wrong side of the law and was arrested several times. His misdeeds soon led to his ejection from the literary group and also earned him a few weeks in jail. Hoping to cure him of his wicked ways, the judge in his robbery case offered him the choice between prison or the military. Thompson chose the latter, and in 1956 joined the United States Air Force.
After completing his basic training, Thompson was stationed at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, where he coped with the rigid environment by working as a sports editor for the Command Courier. However, a handful for even the toughest commanding officers, he received an early discharge in 1958, and though his military career was at an end, a legendary future in journalism awaited him.
For the next few years, Thompson bounced around the country, working for a string of small-town newspapers and spending a short stint as a copy boy for Time magazine. He also spent a brief period in Puerto Rico, where he worked for a sports magazine. In his spare time, Thompson worked on more personal writing projects as well, including the autobiographical novel The Rum Diary. Rejected by publishers at that time and for decades to come, it would eventually see the light of day in 1998.
Though Thompson’s wild ways frequently cost him his job, they also endeared him to the counterculture that was gaining strength around the country at that time and helped establish him as a fearless journalist with a unique voice. In 1965 these bohemian credentials earned him an assignment to write an article for The Nation about the Hells Angels motorcycle club. Published in May, the story was a huge sensation and led to a book deal for Thompson, who embedded himself with the notorious gang for a year. Though its members nearly killed him at the end of his time with them, Thompson came out the other side with the book Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, published in 1967. The immersive and hallucinatory first-person account of his experiences was an instant smash, firmly establishing Thompson as a journalistic force and launching what would be his trademark style.
'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas'
In 1971, Thompson received an assignment from Sports Illustrated to cover the Mint 400 motorcycle race in the Nevada desert. Although he did travel there in March to witness the event, the resulting piece wound up as something else entirely—a substance-soaked, out-of-control tale about his alter ego, Raoul Duke, and his lawyer, Dr. Gonzo (Thompson’s friend Oscar Acosta) traveling around Las Vegas in search of the American Dream.
Soundly rejected by Sports Illustrated, it appeared in a serialized format in Rolling Stone that November and was later expanded upon to become what is Thompson’s best-known work, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. Published in hardcover by Random House in 1972, and once more featuring illustrations by Ralph Steadman, the book was both a critical and commercial success and is considered a modern classic.
In 1998 Fear and Loathing was adapted into a film, directed by Terry Gilliam and starring Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro. Depp, who is an admirer of Thompson’s work, would develop a friendship with the author and also later starred in a 2011 adaptation of The Rum Diary.
Riding high on his newly won celebrity — and any number of controlled substances — Thompson set out on his next assignment, to cover the presidential campaigns of Richard Nixon and George McGovern. Appearing initially as a series of articles in Rolling Stone, Thompson’s incendiary and humorous accounts were later collected and published as Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.
However, around this time, Thompson’s hard-driving lifestyle began to take its toll on his output. Sent to Zaire in 1974 to cover the famous “Rumble in the Jungle” boxing match between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali, Thompson skipped the fight and instead spent his time floating in the hotel pool, into which he had tossed a pound and a half of marijuana. The article never materialized, nor did many other of Thompson’s projects in the coming years that were begun in earnest only to be abandoned later. In 1980, his wife, Sandy, divorced him as well.
Later Works and Death
For the remainder of his life, Thompson continued to write, though much of his published work would be from his earlier, more productive periods. From the years 1979 to 1994, Random House released four volumes of his collected writing under the series title The Gonzo Papers, and in 2003 — a year in which he remarried, to his assistant Anita Bejmuk — his semi-autobiographical rambling Kingdom of Fear was published by Simon and Schuster.
By 2005, Thompson had grown chronically depressed, disillusioned by the world around him, frustrated with aging and suffering from numerous health problems. Sick of it all, on February 20, 2005, at his Owl Creek compound, Thompson shot himself in the head. That August, in a private ceremony commemorating his life that was attended by hundreds of his friends and admirers, Thompson’s ashes were shot from a cannon to the tune of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
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