Hunter S. Thompson, 1937-2005
It is not yet clear whether Hunter S. Thompson left a suicide note. If not, his last written words may have been “So long and Mahalo” – which is Hawaiian for thank you.
The words appeared at the bottom of a column he wrote on February 15, just five days before he shot himself on Sunday.
Thompson, 67, whose death was announced yesterday, will be mourned by his family, but also by millions of readers who were hooked on his style, which came to be known as “New Journalism” or “Gonzo journalism”, where the writer became an important part of the story.
He was most famous for his 1971 masterpiece Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas but there were many other books, all replete with fast and furious prose.
Take the famous first lines from Fear and Loathing: “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like ‘feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive …’ And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: ‘Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?'”
Thompson cultivated an image as a dangerous, drug-crazed journalist, but it was also all true.
He drank to excess. He smoked countless cigarettes and took drugs. He kept firearms and, when people stopped by to fete him at his “compound” in Woody Creek, near Aspen, Colorado, he shot bullets into the dirt around their feet.
One of his most famous lines was: “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.”
In recent years, Thompson had started to speculate about why he wasn’t dead already. “The fact that I’m not dead is sort of puzzling to me,” he said recently. “It’s sort of an awkward thing to deal with.”
He was born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1937. His youth was misspent; at one point, he joined the air force as part of his parole.
He began writing at an early age, first from South America, where he established himself as a foreign correspondent when he was still in his late teens.
His first novel, The Rum Diary, was written in 1959 but not published for 30 years. His journalism career started at The Nation and his first published book, Hell’s Angels, began as a piece of reportage for the magazine.
Instead of doing what journalists normally did – reporting by asking questions – Thompson bought a motorbike and joined the leader of the Hell’s Angels on a ride. He had to end the experiment when there was a disagreement, and some members stomped on and broke his nose.
His next books, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72, were serialised in Rolling Stone.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was an account by a journalist of a trip to Las Vegas with his lawyer to cover a narcotics convention. During the trip, the duo begin a search for “the American Dream”, aided by LSD, ether, and alcohol.
In the 1990s the book was turned into a film starring Johnny Depp, which delighted Thompson, who once said he lived every day in the hope that one day somebody would play him in a film.
In Campaign Trail Thompson described the lead-up to Richard Nixon’s re-election, saying: “Jesus, where will it end? How low do you have to stoop in this country to become president?”
He loathed politics so much that, in 1970, he stood for sheriff of a county in Colorado, saying he wanted to legalise drugs.
He also planned to rename Aspen, Colorado, “Fat City”. Thompson’s heyday was the late 1960s to the late ’70s but he continued to work as a sportswriter until last week.
His last book, Kingdom of Fear, published in 2003, was an angry commentary on the state of US politics. In interviews to publicise the book he revealed himself as thoroughly fed up with the Bush Administration. “Who does vote for these dishonest shitheads?” he said. “They are the racists and hate mongers among us – they are the Ku Klux Klan. I piss down the throats of these nazis.”
He said the US had suffered a “nationwide nervous breakdown” since the September 11 terrorist attacks. But he told the online magazine Salon that while the US was spinning out of control, he was a “model of consistency – doing what the hell I want”.
Thompson was a life-long member of the National Rifle Association, and his home was decorated with mounted animal heads. There was also a human skeleton in the front room. Depp said his friend fired a gun at a home-made bomb during some talks about the movie.
An ambulance responded to a call from Thompson’s compound on Sunday. An hour later his home in Woody Creek Road was sealed off by a sheriff’s van. Thompson’s death was announced by his son, Juan Thompson.
Susan Chenery, a Sydney writer, visited and interviewed Thompson several times.
“He could be a bully,” she said yesterday. “He had a shocking, violent temper … But there was another side to him that was very generous, very funny and loving.”
She said she saw guns lying around throughout the house. “It was pretty unnerving.”
In 1977 Thompson wrote in the introduction to a collection of his journalism, The Great Shark Hunt: “I have already lived and finished the life I planned to live.”
Asked about that in 1990, he said: “I did assume, at that time, early on, and shit, forever, that I would be dead very soon. I never started any savings account. I just figured: ‘Bye, bye, Miss American Pie, good old boys drinkin’ whiskey and rye, singin’ this’ll be the day that I die.’ ”
“Yeah,” he said. “I just felt that all along.”