The Seven-Ton Typewriter
Hunter S. Thompson's chronicles of rage
By Peter O. Whitmer

From Gadfly June 1998


The Great American Dream: Hollywood buys your book and casts a young stud to play your role, thus immortalizing you simultaneously in celluloid and DVD. And they pay in cash. With any luck, you are still fit enough to enjoy the spending spree, bask in the glory and appreciate this rare form of life‑achievement award. This scenario is called a "dream" because it happens with the frequency and probability of getting hit in the ear with a moon rock. Regardless, when it does happen, and indeed it has for Hunter S. Thompson, one typically reacts with ecstatic joy, boundless pride and a spirit glowing as brightly as a convoy of alien spacecraft cruising Roswell, New Mexico, on a Saturday night. In the dark of the moon.

Not so for America's first, last, foremost and only Gonzo Journalist, the man who has gnawed on the skull of the American Scene for five decades, chewing loudly, sending us all reports on just how it tastes: bitter. Hunter S. Thompson reacts to Johnny Depp playing him in Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas with his signature emotion, red‑hot anger, mixed with a dash of sardonic humor. The original director was fired, the movie now mired in post‑production Hell, but not to Thompson's total surprise. Twenty years ago Hollywood tried to do this and failed. "How do you film fear?" he asked rhetorically of attempts to capture the essence of his masterpiece, his own version of The Great American Dream, knowing his writing cannot be replicated in any other medium. "And a certain kind of psychosis?"

Indeed, how does one film the work of Doctor Hunter S. Thompson? And why? Because he is the excitement, exhilaration and outrage of the twentieth century, the Gutenberg Bible of sixties excess personified. A rock star trapped in the mind of a journalist, a man not only drawn narcissistically to the limelight of adulation, but possessed with strange powers of illumination such that he can stick his head—and typewriter—into the darkest, most painful nooks and crannies of the American experience, then emerge with tales to tell. Dr. Thompson never warmed his stethoscope before taking the pulse of America; he simply leaped on the back of the beast and acted out every reader's most bizarre fantasy.

His life has arced a brilliantly incandescent trajectory above the post-World War II landscape, an existence he chronicled carefully—obsessively—and cloaked in the most vivid of reds, whites and blues. Hunter Thompson is Forrest Gump with a head full of strange chemicals, saying to the world, "Gonzo is what Gonzo does," and offering us from his truly weird box of chocolates the following: to ride with the Hell's Angels; arm‑wrestle with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters; talk football with Richard M. Nixon; wander the back streets of Saigon the night of its fall; debate drugs with Abbie Hoffman and Timothy Leary; interview Keith Richards while he interviews you; observe Bill Clinton's style of eating french fries, or... drive at 97 miles an hour in your convertible with the top down, with the trunk so full of drugs it looks like a mobile police lab, and head straight for Las Vegas in search of the American Dream.

Anger is the purest—and most purifying—of the emotions. Few people get depressed because of its cathartic, cleansing effects. Anger is also at the core of the American tradition. The Boston Tea Party was done with primal whoops, war paint and sharp hatchets, not idle gossip, rouge and sterling spoons, and it was the prelude to revolution, not evolution. Hunter S. Thompson, regardless of his life‑long self‑description, I AM NOT LIKE THE OTHERS, actually fits quite snugly within this and a number of other American traditions. He felt from an early age that he was different, brilliant and destined to become a great writer—of fiction. He did not choose his muses so much as he "recognized" them intuitively, for each one stirred within him embers already glowing. He inspected each, looking not only at the style and content of their writing, but at the targets of their anger and how these men lived out their lives. In particular, he resonated loudly to the traditions of Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner and J. P. Donleavy.

When Hunter Thompson was born 61 years ago in Louisville, Kentucky, the town was still so antebellum in attitudes and behavior as to be called "An American Museum Piece... under glass... [where] the curious may see memorials of the 'American Spirit' in its purest form." As if heralding his arrival, that year the entire city was flooded and two earthquakes recorded. Even as a youngster, Hunter's budding‑but‑defiant talent was quickly recognized; a grade school teacher saw him as "a little dictator."

Despite radical differences in social background, upon reaching Louisville's Male High School, Hunter became a fully initiated member of the august Athenaeum Literary Association, an organization intent on preserving gentrified etiquette by fostering creative writing, cotillion attendance, college (especially Ivy League) preparation, a proper dress code, greeting style and handshake, and a good excuse for hearty overindulgence in alcohol: all great Southern traditions.

When Hunter was 14 his father died, and his mother worked as a secretary for the fathers of many ALA members. The social class difference was not so much a gap as a chasm, and bridging it presented a challenge to the teen—to discover how he could be "better" than them. He would always be different. There was a dimension to Hunter's presence that others picked up when they first met him, and it set him apart from the herd. At first, it was his brilliance that showed through. At age 11 he started his own newspaper, The Southern Star, and wrote terse reports of local sports teams. He played basketball and baseball with great skill, but by high school he had given up sports. Some friends pointed to his fear of pain and injury that, they said, bordered on cowardice. Others were more direct: "whiskey."

During weekly ALA meetings, he would stand, reading aloud from his most recent piece of creativity. The others, already accepted to Yale and Princeton, would listen, rapt, laughing so hard they cried, seeing him as noisy, funny, self‑confident, polite and—at first—courtly. "Shock value," one ALA member said. "That was Hunter's forte. He was a skunk of a different stripe."

His readings, a center point for the organization, were soon replaced with a new medium. Late in his senior year, Hunter found a new, high‑tech tool, the perfect device for capturing the immediacy of his wildly creative, speed of light, spark‑shower style of thinking, a way to snare those thought bursts and store them for later use. The tape recorder. It took his "readings" to a new level. "We all sat entranced, and listened," an ALA member said. "Hunter found out how to record what was going on in that mind of his, and he got an incredible audience."

Creativity and destruction often go hand‑in‑hand. Throughout his senior year, a series of church desecrations and various acts of vandalism were done by culprits who left behind a note calling themselves "The Wreckers." When The Wreckers vandalized one church, cutting off all the left sleeves of the choir robes, the ALA members thought this so bizarre that only Hunter could have done it. Hunter was jailed briefly several times, once for causing $200 damage—from inside a jail. The Louisville Police Department assigned a special officer to trail Hunter; he was once led out of school in the middle of day in handcuffs. "That was not acceptable behavior," said a classmate and ALA member. Hunter was soon excommunicated from the organization, thus providing him with a sense of social stigma that he would use as fuel to power his career.

Then, eleven days before his graduation, driving home from a party, another friend stopped at a teen gathering place to bum a cigarette, stole seven dollars in the process, and landed Hunter—an unwitting accomplice—in front of the Juvenile Judge. The father of the actual thief was familiar to the judge; an attorney and past president of the Kentucky Bar Association, his father was a man of some influence. Hunter was also familiar with the judge—from numerous previous appearances, when Hunter had always promised to mend his ways.

"I feel I have done you an injustice by waiting so long to take a positive step," the judge told Thompson. He then fined the admitted robber $50 and sentenced Thompson to sixty days in the adult county jail, with no bail, after which he was to go directly into the Air Force.

"He didn't say a word throughout the whole proceeding," his attorney recalled, "didn't give a damn, and was not going to lower himself to beg for anybody to help him." With no tape recorder allowed, Hunter spent his free time during his 60-day sentence perfecting his future craft, creatively harnessing his anger into writing letter upon letter, carving out his concise, barbed, epistolary style of reporting what he saw, felt and thought. From the depths of prison, he wrote:

The worst thing about jail is the terrible loneliness. Every now and then, I talk to somebody for a while but it's not the same thing as talking to someone with some intelligence or someone you know. This desire to talk usually comes at night along with a terrible urge to get out and a wild rage at being in here. It is during these "fits" that I develop an unreasonable hate for everyone and everything. When the "fits" pass I usually go into a deep melancholy mood during which I write or whistle.

The experience of jail is a tradition in itself, from Socrates to Thoreau to Brendan Behan and Norman Mailer. From Hemingway, Hunter observed that one could be an autodidact and a writer—and get away with it. Faulkner's "Barn Burning" empowered the angry sharecropper within Thompson and demonstrated how to avenge his sense of social injustice against Southern aristocracy. From F. Scott Fitzgerald, he learned the power of compressed, tight language, and that the rich truly are different; they don't go to jail. When Hunter read J. P. Donleavy's controversial best seller, The Ginger Man, he saw his future in the main character, Sebastian Dangerfield, a writer. Dangerfield was smart, but refused to go to class. He saw himself as stuck at the bottom of the social ladder; he stiffed his landlords, sneaked out on his wife, shirked responsibility, and drank others under the table while snarling at the bartender, "Five for the road." His motto was "We Have The Fangs of Animals," and his work was marked by incomplete sentences, explosions of thought, and such a fear of his public that he refused to go outside without wearing sunglasses, saying "Do you want me to be recognized? Do you?"

Hunter continued to invent himself, polishing both his writing and his persona through his Air Force stint spent working on the base newspaper, then a two‑week job with a Pennsylvania daily, cut short after wrecking his boss's car. In December 1957, he headed to New York City, a highly energized 20‑year‑old with a two‑word resume, "sports writer." He worked for Time‑Life as a copyboy on the twenty‑ninth floor of the RCA building, "In a league of indigent actors, writers, artists and bums." He took General Studies courses at Columbia, visited friends at Yale and Princeton, and spent the long hours of late night—or early dawn—working with his style of "lucidity after midnight," on the single most important document of his career.

His Greenwich Village apartment, near the corner of Fourth, on Perry Street, was a subterranean cave below street level behind a huge furnace that kept the room blazing hot in the coldest of times. Windows, walls and ceiling were painted black, and to get to the main room one crossed a catwalk past the heating plant for the entire building. The furnace door was broken; orange and crimson flames leaped about wildly, illuminating the black hole by flickering menacingly on the walls. This was Thompson's world, where he lived, slept, read and wrote: underground writing from Hell.

Beneath a banner on which he had written F. Scott Fitzgerald's dictum ACTION MAKES CHARACTER, Hunter would read, re‑read, outline and then type long passages of The Great Gatsby, with the intent of "knowing in his own neurological system how it felt to write that kind of prose." Thompson wanted to understand intimately how The Great Gatsby ticked with such American precision. Romancing the dollar, infatuated with extravagant automobiles, intensely ambivalent and thoroughly enraptured by the very rich, cutting alcohol consumption to only thirty beers a day—this was Fitzgerald in the twenties. It was Thompson all his life. So, too, was Fitzgerald's sense of fantasy mixed with burlesque, his constant groping for that permeable membrane separating the real from the dream, and in his writings a sense of synesthesia of the senses that predated the drug‑induced hallucinations of the sixties.

Thompson made a three‑page‑long outline and kept it folded carefully in his pocket. It would stay there for years. He would hang on to his carefully prepared documen—his literary blueprint—until just the right time came along, and he would use the outline to update his version of the American Dream.

On one level, his existence was hedonic. He learned to smoke dope ("a hanging offense in Kentucky..."), listened to bebop jazz, discussed orgone boxes, and met his future wife and mother of his only child, Juan. Sandra Dawn Conklin worked as a secretary for Nuclear Research Associates, a company that monitored underground explosions. At work, she would type reports of another sort of blast from below, as Hunter would send back free‑lance articles from his travels to be typed (never a carbon copy) and submitted.

On another level, Hunter felt trapped—existentially, and by his inability to break out of the world of journalism and launch a career in fiction. He spoke of his life in "this tomb of grey chaos called Manhattan," expressing self‑doubts for his future as a writer and describing his job as a copyboy as:

...a weird and poverty‑covered business with little or no appeal to a man who aspires to a four‑button suit and a "respectable and secure position." One of the real tragedies of life, I think, is the apparently congenital inability of human beings to communicate with each other. When I think of all the people I lived with for years and knew so little about, I wonder if I'll ever be able to write anything worth a groveling damn.

Always one to see and seize opportunities for self‑advancement, Hunter quickly realized there was no need to study others, no need to know them such that his writing could allow readers to "communicate with each other." Hell‑bent in his pursuit of autonomy, fiercely self‑propelled and self‑controlled, he created his own "signature act" of shock appeal: He made his employers force him to jump in over his head into the pool of life's experiences and write about himself: what he experienced slowly but surely became "worth a groveling damn." His signature act was to get himself fired—not once but repeatedly—by venting his rage on a hapless bystander. First, it was a Coke machine at Time‑Life, so thoroughly kicked and wrecked he was fired from a place notorious for never firing anyone.

He enjoyed the bucolic existence in the countryside at his next job, the Middletown, New York, Daily Record. In the city he had been beaten so badly by a gang that hospital medics put him in a tiled room with a drain at the center and hosed him off to locate the wounds. He took to carrying a lead pipe after that. Now, he grew a beard and lived in a small cabin in the woods. Many who knew him thought this a Hemingway affectation. He told one friend that, since he was going to be a great writer, it didn't really matter if he started with the life style, then worked his way into the material. Often, he would wake up his roommates with his laughter—while he remained asleep. He was conjuring fantasies, wildly satirical versions of reality. His colleagues found him wildly entertaining. His boss felt otherwise. Hunter was fired after yet another attack on a vending machine—candy, this time. "Other writers have earned their right to be idiosyncratic," his boss said on Thompson's way out the door. "You are being idiosyncratic without any backup. Go earn the right to be flakey." Words of wisdom.

Attempting to "earn the right to be flakey," Hunter next spent time in Puerto Rico writing for El Sportivo, a short‑lived bowling magazine, before crewing aboard a boat intended to take him, Sandy and another friend back to the U.S. They were marooned in Bermuda, living in caves, stealing cabbages out of gardens. The Bermuda Royal Gazette Weekly did a front-page, photo article on their plight in paradise that included the revelatory quote: "Why settle down so early in life? There is meaning somehow in all this, but right now it's a little hard to find." In his next stop, Hunter did settle down for a long stretch. And he managed to find—and publish—some meaning in these frantic wanderings.

Like the weather, social change comes from the West. And in the first year of the 1960s—the decade whose rapidly evolving spirit Thompson would capture in Las Vegas—Hunter headed in that direction in search of the next font of inspiration. He knew just where to go. Even before leaving New York, Hunter had been smitten with a best‑selling book whose film rights were quickly sold. The book was The Sergeant, and the author was Dennis Murphy, the same age as Thompson. While Murphy lived in Big Sur, California, the land of Jack London, John Steinbeck and Henry Miller, he was also renowned for his Greenwich Village drinking bouts with Jack Kerouac; the two had the same editor, Malcolm Cowley, at Viking Press. They would roll into a Village bar—the Cedar or Googies or the San Remo—and have a few drinks before Kerouac would pull out of his coat pocket Murphy's latest reviews and begin to read them—loudly—to everyone within earshot. This was the stuff of local legend. When Murphy left for California, Hunter tracked him down.

The time spent at Big Sur was a meaningful interlude for Thompson. He became part of a rag‑tag collection of people living on land owned by Dennis Murphy's family. Dennis's brother Michael and Dick Price were breaking ground for new construction on the place. They planned to change the name—and the spirit—of Slate's Hot Springs to the Esalen Institute. Hunter was hired as caretaker to look over the grounds.

Hunter got to spend time first hand with a best‑selling writer of fiction who was both creative and savvy enough to write the book and sell the rights to Hollywood, and crazy and violent enough to get into a knife fight with a local artist, stabbed nine times in the neck, one wound just missing his jugular vein. But all the while, Thompson never revealed to Murphy his own intention of writing fiction. "Sandy was always saying to me that Hunter was going to be a great writer," was the amazed recollection of Dennis Murphy, who knew Hunter from touch football matches on the lawn and good Irish social drinking at night. He didn't know if Hunter could spell; it was just not part of the relationship. One day Dennis sneaked into Thompson's room and what he found stunned him: a thoroughly annotated copy of The Sergeant and the beginnings of Rum Diary, a fictional account of Thompson's days in Puerto Rico. When Murphy saw the vivid scenery in Hunter's work, he knew Thompson had the makings of a great writer.

Regardless of Murphy's admiration, the first piece of writing Thompson ever published, Big Sur: The Tropic of Henry Miller, appeared in what Thompson considered an embarrassing place— Rogue, "a titty magazine," his friends said, categorized by the Library of Congress as "pornography." Then, again, Big Sur had been broadcast to the world in an article whose title, The New Cult of Sex and Anarchy, guaranteed instant celebrity status. The topic of Hunter's article was, of course, the ace "pornographer" of all, Henry Miller, who actually left the area permanently before Thompson ever got there, but who had entrusted a neighbor to collect his mail. While Thompson was composing his article for Rogue, the U.S. Post Office Department allowed Grove Press to publish Miller's Tropic of Cancer; in the first week it sold 68,000 copies. Thompson stopped Miller's assistant returning from the mailbox one day, loaded with correspondence. He asked if Miller had much trouble with uninvited guests, conveying that when he got famous, he didn't want to put up with such disturbances.

The Murphy brothers' grandmother, who owned the entire commune, did not like the article in Rogue. Aged 86, nose like a parrot, one‑eyed like a pirate, in a black Cadillac chauffeured by a mahogany‑skinned Filipino, she rolled into Slate's, and called for the caretaker. Thompson approached.

"Young man," she said, a copy of Rogue in one hand. "You have twenty‑four hours to get out of here."

In his expulsion from Big Sur, Thompson was cast out of a community of castaways, done in by his first published work. But this was 1962, and just up the road in San Francisco, the philosophical and social ferment was quickly becoming a heady brew. Thompson left Big Sur, but he became the first person to go from there to San Francisco via Rio de Janeiro.

Aruba. Bogota. Cali. Diarrhea. Equador. Finances. Out of chaos emerged an alphabetical order to Hunter's progression the hard way through South America, where he was now walking the tight‑rope with no net, submitting free‑lance articles, repeatedly bellowing for money, feeling undervalued and unappreciated by editors. "Most everything I say," Thompson fired off to National Observer Editor Cliff Ridley, a boss he'd never met, from a cheap hotel next to a noisy church in Guayaquil, "revolves in one way or another around money. There seems to be a universal impression that I am on some sort of Divine Dole, and the theory that I require money in order to make money has not yet gained wide acceptance. I trust you have sufficient background in Personal Economics to grasp the full meaning of this... stop ringing these bells... a lunatic in the belfry and worms in the stomach... I definitely mean to base here (Rio)... It is about time I lived like a human being for a change."

Finally in Rio, he hooked up with another reporter and took to his old sports: rat‑shooting at the Rio dump. His best companion rode in the front pocket of his baggy pants; a suicidal, alcoholic monkey won in a drinking contest in Bolivia. After a particularly bad bout with the DT's, the animal leaped to its death from Hunter's ninth‑story apartment, an omen that made Hunter himself feel out of sorts. "I found myself at the point," Hunter said, "where I was twenty‑five years old and wearing a white suit and rolling dice at the Domino Club — the foreign correspondents' club—and here I thought, 'Jesus Christ, what am I going to do now?' Then I would roll the dice more and more. And I wrote less and less, and worried about it until I'd have a nervous breakdown. It [the nervous breakdown] kinda makes you change whatever you are doing."

Hunter needed "change." He stormed back to the U.S. "in a sort of frenzy of patriotism, Kennedy, Peace Corps," and joined forces with perhaps the oddest coalition of partners in cultural crime ever assembled. Almost single‑handedly, Hunter brought together three of the more disparate groups of the sixties: the "baby‑raping" Hell's Angels; the reigning king (and his court) of San Francisco Bay area counterculture, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest author Ken Kesey, and the Merry Pranksters; and the more straight‑laced intelligentsia from Berkeley and Stanford. He began with the motorcycle group, for whom he had an affinity, saying, "I had a lot in common with the Angels. But I had a gimmick. I could write."

Acting first as the Margaret Mead of scum, he detailed their vile and violent tribal life style from the inside out as a member without portfolio: he refused to drive a Harley Davidson, as all offered were stolen. He ended up as the Impresario of the Weird, teaching at Berkeley, then making a near‑suicidal attempt to stop the Angels from "stomping" marchers in a nationally publicized Viet Nam Day protest.

With Angels' "Maximum Leader" Sonny Barger, Terry the Tramp, Kesey and Thompson trying to sit in the lotus position, the group smoked dope and talked philosophy while Ginsberg chanted a mantra and tinkled his finger cymbals. A carnivore among vegetarians, other than the generational sense of outrage Thompson never fit into the sixties mind‑set. He saw "hippies" as unmotivated and their guru, Timothy Leary, as "a huckster, really, for his own interests. I distrusted his credentials as an outlaw." Still, it was Thompson who brought together this crew in an attempt to avoid massive bloodshed.

"Allen is a good hearted fucker," Thompson said, but when he told Barger he loved him and that they were all in it together, "Barger never believed a single word! That was what I tried to tell Ginsberg. They are mean fuckers!"

How mean? In the end, he summarized his experience, quoting Joseph Conrad's Kurtz from The Heart of Darkness: "The horror... the horror." The book, Hell's Angels, is fully—and aptly—titled The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. A departure from two‑page articles, it was Thompson's first book, a lurid documentation of what his childhood friends had called his forte in "shock value," chock‑full of scenes of random fornication, gang‑rape, public drunkenness, a carnaval noire of hedonistic sex and aggression.

The book's results were startling. The Angels stomped him, angered they would "not get a million bucks," beating him badly on a lonely beach at night, nearly crushing his skull with a huge stone. During the Summer of Love, while this chronicle of anger hung on the best‑seller list like a glob of 50‑weight motorcycle oil, Thompson took to a publicity tour, filled with rage. America was at war, and Thompson said that "President Lyndon Johnson would make a good Hell's Angel; he is mentally qualified." Norman Mailer met him in a Denver TV studio, saying of Thompson, "He was a guy on the make. He said things like, 'This book has got to sell. I wanna get a little back.'" In Chicago, Studs Terkel interviewed him, finding the writer "sitting in a little bar, drinking Wild Turkey and he had a six‑pack of beer."

"Politics is an art of survival," Hunter said of his next foray into the American process, an unsuccessful run for Sheriff of Aspen's Pitkin County on a platform allowing his deputies to eat mescaline on slow days, and tearing up the streets of Aspen, replacing asphalt with sod. "It's like watching big weights moving around. It has to do with controlling your environment... I didn't want to be the Sheriff. I just wanted to own the Sheriff."

His fascination with power and politicians became skin‑close, when he followed Richard Nixon's presidential campaign in New Hampshire, chasing the candidate, racing at high speeds over icy New England roads, drinking straight out of a bottle of Jack Daniels as he drove. He pestered aides Pat Buchanan and Ray Price to allow him an interview; they finally caved in, on the grounds the two talk only football. Riding with Nixon in the back seat of his limo, Thompson came away staggered by Nixon's detailed knowledge of the game. Nixon told Hunter that campaigning messed up his football season and if he had it to do all over again, he would like to be a professional sportswriter. Thompson saw this as the ultimate con, a fantastic whopper from a power‑starved man, saying the only way he would touch him would be "with a long cattle prod." Ultimately, Nixon became the prime focus of Thompson's wrath; he would dedicate his best‑ever selling book, The Great Shark Hunt: "To Richard Milhous Nixon, who never let me down."

Not only did Nixon never let him down, he set the stage for the biggest breakthrough in Thompson's career, an event that freed up the writer from his incessant urge to write fiction, and provided him with his own unique voice. The term "deadline" comes from prison patois; it is the perimeter line beyond which inmates will be shot and killed. Facing a deadline for a story on the Kentucky Derby, Hunter experienced severe writer's block and holed up in a New York hotel, sitting in a bathtub drinking White Horse Scotch from the bottle: Nixon had just ordered an invasion of Cambodia, and four students protesting this had been shot at Kent State.

Thompson, along with Welsh illustrator Ralph Steadman, had indeed covered the Derby, wheedling press passes, being kicked out of the elitist Pendennis Club, trying to mace the Governor, and composing a nosology of inebriation: strutting drunk; staggering drunk; and stumbling drunk, where true Kentucky Colonels are easy to spot, because when they vomit they are careful to miss their clothing, but always get some on their shoes. It was Hunter's return home, a chance to even the score with his blue‑blooded friends... and he could not write.

Copyboys were sent to Thompson's room. Out of futility he gave them handwritten notes from his note pad. An hour later, a copyboy returned, asking for more. Thompson was disbelieving, but sent his entire note pad over the telecopier, then slunk back to Aspen, feeling tawdry for his butchered attempt at investigative journalism. He misjudged his efforts: the phone rang off the hook and mail poured in. The ragged realism of the raw, elemental thought‑bursts—where the story was the scene, not the main event, and where anger was the vehicle—hit a nerve that was in direct synch with the increasingly fragmented and indignant American culture. A letter came to Thompson from another journalist and drinking companion, lavishly praising Thompson's style of journalism, referring to it with a term the South Boston Irish used to describe the last man left standing at the end of a marathon drinking bout. "Gonzo."

"That's one of my proudest achievements," Thompson says of "Gonzo" making its entrance to the Random House Dictionary, sandwiched between "gonorrhea" and "goo." However, the definition, "adj. Slang. fiercely advocative or partial without regard for balance or objectivity. [1970‑75, Amer.: appar. first used by U.S. journalist Hunter S. Thompson (b. 1939); perh. < It: simpleton (of uncert. orig.)]," fails both in accuracy of his birthdate (1937) and in conveying the truly bizarre dimension of "Gonzo" that only Thompson's presence can. For example, when he first interviewed for a writing job at Rolling Stone, he wore his now‑famous Hawaiian shirt, sunglasses and cigarette holder, but that was just the beginning. He carried with him a six‑pack of beer, a straw bag with paper and strings coming out of it, and wore a cheap grey Dynell lady's wig that he kept taking off, straightening and putting back on.

Thompson presented founder and editor Jann Wenner with a one‑sided monologue of his political views. The magazine owner knew his audience; he had dropped out of Berkeley during his freshman year, actually reviewing galley proofs of Thompson's Hell's Angels in the school newspaper, dismissing him as "another hippie journalist," and founded the first magazine to target baby‑boom music fanatics, as his own vehicle "to meet John Lennon."

Perplexed at what he saw that day, during one of Thompson's trips to the men's room he turned to an assistant and said, "I know I am supposed to be the youth representative in this culture... but what the fuck is that?"

"That" was the future—of the magazine and Thompson's career as a Gonzo journalist, wandering the world with editorial immunity and a bottomless expense account. "I've always looked at publishers as people paying for my continuing education," Thompson said, and now all tuition bills were sent to Wenner who provided a long and tolerant editorial leash. And it was in the pages of Rolling Stone that Hunter first revealed to the world what could come from combining a life‑long pursuit of the American Dream, with a three‑page outline of The Great Gatsby.

Fireworks marked the first serious editorial meeting between Hunter and Alan Rinzler, shortly before serialization of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. In the black of night, after having consumed LSD, Thompson approached Rinzler carrying a box full of Roman candles. He lit one. He handed it to Rinzler, saying in his monotonic, challenging way, "Hold this." It was a vivid metaphor for the book that begins with the narrator yelling, "I want you to know that we're on our way to Las Vegas to find the American Dream," to a terror‑struck Okie hitchhiker caught in the back of the red Chevy convertible, screaming east across the desert near Barstow at 110 miles an hour, shortly after "the drugs began to take hold."

In writing Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson was true to his Gatsby outline, right down to the length: discounting blank pages and Ralph Steadman's caricatures, both are 182 pages long. Issues of race, class and status, music, and especially the car appear in the two books, showing how little has changed since Fitzgerald expressed his concerns in 1925. Jay Gatsby had two grand parties at his house, and if Las Vegas is West Egg, the Circus‑Circus is Gatsby's mansion. Thompson finds the American Dream twice in that casino.

First, while masquerading as a sportswriter, he feels he has found "the main nerve" of the American Dream. While drinking Wild Turkey at a revolving bar and watching the action, he realizes the "fantastic possibilities of life in this country," and lists some of them: Shooting the pasties off a ten‑foot bull dyke; watching a high‑wire trapeze act featuring a half‑naked teenage girl chased through the air by snarling wolverines; or seeing a 200-foot‑tall Nazi screaming "Woodstock Uber Alles." He finds himself stumbling, in an ether‑fueled stupor, into a nocturnal madness, rather than a "dream."

The story comes full circle when he changes his target, next covering a Vegas National District Attorneys Conference on Dangerous and Narcotic Drugs. The authority figures of the time—or any time—are little different from the Hell's Angels; brainless thugs, intent on preserving moral values while the government busies itself defiling foreign countries. He considered educating the D.A.'s by offering his hotel room as a "life‑slice exhibit." The ambiance of the room—the dorm of any college student—was that of a failed zoological experiment involving whiskey and gorillas; the bed was charred, the carpet green with marijuana seeds, and the bathroom floor so thick with vomit, soap bars, grapefruit rinds and broken glass that Thompson commented, "I had to put my boots on every time I went in there to take a piss."

The end of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas leaves the reader facing the failed American Dream, as did the conclusion of Gatsby. The book ends at the Denver Airport with Thompson using fake Doctor of Divinity identification to purchase amyl nitrate poppers. "Another fucked‑up cleric with a bad heart," is Dr. Thompson's state of health, and of the nation.

The book very nearly disappeared into a legal wasteland, never ever to be seen, when Thompson's traveling partner, a Chicano attorney in real life named Oscar ("The Brown Buffalo") Acosta, looked at the manuscript and said, "My God! Hunter has stolen my soul! He has taken my best lines and has used me. He has wrung me dry for material." To avoid a lawsuit, lawyers cut a deal allowing Acosta to publish two of his own books, today used in Hispanic Studies courses, and to have his photo appear on the original hardback.

The manuscript, unlike his ground‑breaking piece on the Kentucky Derby, was re‑written five times. He intended it to be an American classic, and indeed, it has become just that. Two‑time Pulitzer Prize‑winner Tony Lukas called it "the definitive piece on that time period." "Amazingly true," was George Plimpton's take of it, and Norman Mailer observed, "When I saw Las Vegas, I just knew he had the mark of excellence." The New York Times provided the book with an epigram: "The Best Book of the Dope Decade."

Capturing the story for the first film version in 1979—titled Where the Buffalo Roam—provided its own form of Fear and Loathing, especially for the producer and screenwriter when they visited Thompson on his own territory, Owl Farm, in Woody Creek, near Aspen, to get a sense of their main character and the movie's possibilities. Starting on the wrong foot, Thompson drove them from the airport, first smashing a van that blocked their way, then getting stopped by police for going 70 in a 35‑m.p.h. zone, the car filled with alcohol and drugs. The stint ended a few sleepless days later, with both Hollywood men sitting on the airport lawn, painfully aware there was potential in this man's story, and assessing who was more deserving of the last Valium in their possession. The producer‑director Art Linson won.

In one of the most eerily accurate casting jobs ever done, Bill Murray, then a Saturday Night Live actor, played Thompson. Murray had been a huge Thompson fan for years, seeking him out at Aspen's Jerome Bar, where Thompson toyed with him, calling the actor "Houdini," taping him into a metal pool‑side chair and throwing him in the deep end. When Murray did not surface, Thompson dove in and rescued him. John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd also openly embraced Hunter, where every SNL show was an assault mission; Aykroyd called it "Gonzo Television."

Murray's investment into the role was so thorough that later, upon returning to the set of SNL, one of the writers said, "Billy was not Bill Murray. You could not talk with him without talking to Hunter Thompson." Aside from taking a pitchfork and stabbing it upright in the director's pile carpeting as a way of emphasizing his need for expense money, and breaking a cast iron chair at the apartment he shared with Murray, Thompson simply observed. He was going through tough times himself, in the middle of a difficult divorce from Sandy. He needed money, and sold the rights for $63,000 with an additional $25,000 as a "consultant": he would advise on matters, such as showing Murray his traditional way of taping the tape recorder on his arm to capture every word of conversation (Thompson still keeps all the tapes made during his and Acosta's trip to Las Vegas at Owl Farm).

As the prototypical Outlaw Journalist, ferociously independent and appearing in public rarely and furtively, to sell his life story to Hollywood was seen by some as politically incorrect. Gary Trudeau had been a student at Yale's Davenport College a few years earlier when Hunter appeared on a panel discussion. Late to arrive, sleeping through half the day's events, Thompson finally responded to repeated knocks on the door of his guest suite by throwing open the door. Standing in his underwear, he extended one arm, palm up, and slapped it repeatedly with the other hand, saying, "... you want me to shoot up in front of the students? Is that what you want?" The then‑budding cartoonist saw a real "character," casting him as Uncle Duke in Doonesbury, a cartoon strip with a heart of compressed political satire perfectly in synch with Thompson's writings.

Regardless of his own success, Trudeau, who has never met Thompson, wrote him, implying he had "gone mainstream" with the movie deal. Thompson, always enraged that Trudeau was making money off him, did two things that showed his sense of desperation and bile. He responded to Trudeau, writing, "You silly little fart. Don't lay your karmic nightmares on me... " Then, in nearly the same breath, in legal preparation for divorce proceedings, on a list of pre‑trial witnesses and exhibits, he included Trudeau, to "testify as to the public image of the life style of the petitioner; of the petitioner's relationship with Owl Farm," even offering to exhibit a "Dunesbury [sic] comic strip... " in an attempt to keep from Sandy a valuable piece of property, and the lair of the myth himself. When illustrator Ralph Steadman accused Hunter of selling out, Thompson again disagreed, but offered his reasoning. He depicted Hollywood as "... a huge tit. We're just supposed to fasten on and feed."

The movie was plagued with problems at the beginning, middle and end. Peter Boyle, cast as Acosta (who had disappeared off Mazatlan), played a Chicano attorney one day, then "Lazlo," a Hungarian drug lawyer the next, after a Chicano rights group protested a non‑Chicano playing that role (luckily, no Hungarian rights protesters were heard from). Late, over budget, far beyond deadline, in dire need of a "punch‑up," the ending of the movie never seemed quite right until Hunter was paid another $25,000. He and Murray holed up in a high‑tech womb with gear allowing them to make the leap directly—with no intervention—from script to screen. It provided Thompson with the ultimate non‑drug high, literally doing somersaults, shouting, "Hot damn, we have done it! Oh, we've flogged the beast home with this one." Nevertheless, the movie lasted mere weeks in the theater before it quietly entered the land of video Cult Classic.

In keeping with yet another literary tradition, that of Oscar Wilde, it seemed that after writing Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson "devoted his talent to writing, his genius to living." His works took on a ragged, disjointed quality, often compilations of articles, like The Great Shark Hunt, or of old newspaper columns, such as Generation of Swine. His editor for a decade, Alan Rinzler, saw his increased consumption of alcohol and drugs seriously eroding his genius, until he became "... like a smart little brat, writing graffiti, calling attention to himself." And clearly, it has been his genius for living that, to this day, garners attention and keeps his persona on a high and visible plateau. The examples are legion.

Covering the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman fight in Kinshasa, Hunter goofed off, doing so little work and having so much fun that Norman Mailer said his writing style was like playing tennis with no net; Thompson's readers were interested in what happened to Hunter. He would sign his bar tabs, "Martin Bormann," spreading rumors of a huge Nazi torpedo being constructed across the river, aimed at the city; he tried to locate a house filled with pygmies, not to go in, but to lie in front and watch; he searched for a sewer in which a cobra lived—from time to time the reptile would pop his head up to look around.

As the fight drew near, he bought a small car with its steering broken in such a way that it would only turn to the left, then bought and strapped to the side two huge elephant tusks. While careening toward his hotel, he was stopped and boarded by a soldier who shoved a machine gun in his ear and told him to drive to the city jail. Thompson jabbered back in Spanish, dodged potholes, rolled to a stop in front of the hotel, then ambled through the lobby and up to his room with a tusk under each arm.

For the fight itself, Hunter's ringside seat between Mailer and George Plimpton was empty: he had "taken the night off," staying at the empty hotel, tossing a pound and a half of local marijuana in the pool, floating naked under a rising moon. He commented later, "It's not the best way to get high."

In Saigon, days before the fall, he hooked up with two seasoned war correspondents to get close to the action at the front; he began the day dressed in shorts, shades, Aloha shirt and cigarette holder, hiring two 60‑year‑old room boys in white pajamas to load a cooler of beer in the back of their jeep. "Hunter Thompson was going to war," observed Newsweek's bureau chief, Nick Proffitt. Their jeep was strafed by jet fighters near the combat zone; Thompson, who had been popping handfuls of pills washed down with beer, first remained silent, then emitted a primal shriek that totally unnerved their driver. He lost control, smashing the jeep nose‑down in a culvert. "There were four giant pterodactyls that just went overhead," Thompson explained as Proffitt grabbed him by the throat and threatened to kill him.

As sensitive as he is assaultive, Thompson rankled when William F. Buckley, in The New York Times, reviewed one of his books (under the title "Blunt Instruments") and stated "Hunter Thompson has no apparent interest in sex." His angry reaction took many forms for many years. Much was fueled, most likely, by his awareness that his younger brother, Jim, was actively gay and terminally ill with AIDS, and that Jann Wenner was also gay. Thompson strived to demonstrate his heterosexuality... in his own way.

First, he got a job as "Night Manager" at San Francisco's Mitchell Brothers Theater, known as "the Carnegie Hall of sex." While dozens of buck naked women performed incredible sex acts—the double‑ended dildo and group‑shower‑spanking are but a sampling—writhing on the tables and stage below, Hunter occupied himself in an office above, making videos... of dune buggies slamming into one another, producing twisted wrecks of steel and rubber.

Next, he wrote an article for Rolling Stone on the heavily publicized Palm Beach divorce trial of Peter and Roxanne Pulitzer. The press indulged themselves with charges of lesbianism, menage‑a‑trois, cocaine use, and such bizarre sex partners that the New York Post ran the banner line "I Slept with a Trumpet," about which Thompson commented, "We all sleep with trumpets. The real question is, is Peter Pulitzer jealous of the trumpet?" He got some of his material by wrangling an invitation to a dinner party Roxanne was attending, arranging to be seated next to her. On the eve of publication, after days spent arguing with libel attorneys, Thompson said, "I've taken a lot of shit for not writing about sex. These people want sex and violence and cocaine, I'll give it to them. Yes, sir! You can really feel this one." When the piece appeared, Roxanne Pulitzer was warned by a friend, "... not to even get near the article..."

Hunter has long claimed to be "part Kentucky hillbilly, part Southern gentleman," and his weird style of dealing with sex in the age of Internet porn, Sidney Sheldon books and White House wildness may simply be a steel‑plated resolve to protect his "Southern gentleman" image in the eyes of his mother. In 1992, while researching for a biography of Thompson, after many pleasant telephone conversations with Thompson's mother in Louisville, this author had arranged a scheduled interview with her. It was to be more than a pro‑forma meeting—Virginia Thompson, and my father, Robert Whitmer, had been in the same class at the University of Michigan. Just before the interview, Mrs. Thompson canceled, stating she had the flu; other Thompson family members thought she was "put out" over having to talk about her son. Carrying a lovely bouquet of fresh flowers, I stopped by her apartment on the way to another interview and handed them to her saying simply, "These are from Peter Whitmer; I hope you have not been bothered by all the questions. Feel better."

Within hours, Hunter had contacted a local attorney with the intent of suing me for harassment. Within days, a "Stipulation" had been carefully worded and sent to a judge for final proclamation. When the document, preventing me from ever delivering flowers to Hunter's mother, became public, wire services around the world went non‑linear with headlines such as "Gonzo Journalist Sues, Wilting Era Of Flower Power."

To this day, rarely venturing far from Owl Farm, Hunter works sporadically on the most current version of Rum Diary, the autobiographical work first seen by Dennis Murphy at Big Sur in 1961. He guards this work carefully, as if completion might be some omen of his pre‑occupation with death, where as a teen he thought he would live only until age 27. At one point, he sold the manuscript, then paid a secretary to steal it back for him. The title has changed to Polo Is My Life, and perhaps by not finishing the work, releasing instead his first volume of collected letters, he feels he is buying time on his Faustian bargain.

With age, politicians, whores and even ugly buildings gain respect. Perhaps Gonzo journalists as well. And like Gatsby, Thompson still believes in the green light; it may be the dawn of a new era. It may be another acid flashback. Or it may be the stunning success of Johnny Depp in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. But until this happens, Thompson's ultimate questions remain unanswered: "How do you film fear? And also a certain kind of psychosis?"