Born: July 18, 1937, Louisville, Kentucky
Died: February 20, 2005, Woody Creek, Colorado
Scanlan’s Monthlywas one of those short-lived magazines nobody would remember, except for one 1970 article: “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,” by Hunter S. Thompson.
The Louisville-born journalist had returned to his hometown with British illustrator Ralph Steadman, and in a drunken stupor on deadline produced a stream-of-consciousness essay that would leave a lasting impression on the Derby, transform Thompson’s literary career and create Gonzo journalism — a new, widely imitated genre of reporting and writing that places the author as a central character in the story.
This rambling first-person story was more about the experience of watching the race and the atmosphere surrounding the race than the race itself. At the time, the piece was hailed as a breakthrough in journalism. Thompson was inundated with fan mail and phone calls, which he said was like “falling down an elevator shaft and landing in a pool of mermaids.” Biographer William McKeen has called it “one of the most famous and least read articles in Thompson’s career.”
Thompson may be best known as the author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas(1971). His hard-driving lifestyle, which included the steady use of drugs and firearms, made him a counterculture icon, especially popular among college-age readers.
Thompson great up in a middle-class Louisville family, the oldest of three sons of Virgniia Ray Davison, a librarian, and Jack Robert Thompson, an insurance adjuster. He attended Atherton and Male high schools, but never graduated because of legal problems. He was charged as an accessory to robbery and served 31 days in the Jefferson County Jail. A week after his release, he joined the Air Force.
His first exposure to journalism was as a sports reporter for the newspaper at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. After his discharge in 1958, Thompson pursued journalism as a career and landed a series of jobs at a variety of small-town newspapers, as well as a short stint as a copy boy at Time magazine.
In his first book, Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga (1967), Thompson, in typical “Gonzo” style, chronicled his time infiltrating the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang. “I was no longer sure whether I was doing research on the Hell’s Angels or being slowly absorbed by them,” he wrote about the experience.
In 1970, Thompson unsuccessfully ran for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado, on the “Freak Power Movement” ticket. His story about the campaign, “The Battle of Aspen,” was his first of many contributions to Rolling Stone magazine. He was national affairs editor of the magazine until 1999.
What began as an assignment for Sports Illustrated magazine turned into Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, a best-selling book based on Thompson’s drug-fueled journey through Sin City. Both a critical and commercial success, the book was adapted into a film in 1998, directed by Terry Gilliam and starring Benicio del Toro and Johnny Depp, a big Thompson fan. (Depp later starred in the 2011 film version of The Rum Diary.) Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, a collection of Thompson’s writings for Rolling Stone about the 1972 presidential campaign, was published in early 1973.
Thompson ended his article about the Derby by describing the chaotic scene at the end of the most famous two minutes in sports:
Moments after the race was over, the crowd surged wildly for the exits, rushing for cabs and buses. The next day’s Courier told of violence in the parking lot; people were punched and trampled, pockets were picked, children lost, bottles hurled. But we missed all this, having retired to the press box for a bit of post-race drinking. By this time we were both half-crazy from too much whiskey, sun fatigue, culture shock, lack of sleep and general dissolution.
This could well have been a description of Thompson’s life — he was notorious for his outrageous antics, rebellious, anti-authoritarian attitude, and unconventional reporting style. After several bouts of poor health, Thompson died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his compound near Aspen, Colorado. In August 2005, in a private ceremony commemorating his life, Thompson’s ashes were shot from a cannon topped with a clinched fist to the tune of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. New York: Random House, 1967.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. New York: Random House, 1971.
Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. San Francisco: Straight Arrow Books, 1973.
The Great Gonzo Papers, Vol. 1: The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time. New York: Summit Books, 1979.
The Curse of Lono, illustrated by Ralph Steadman. New York: Bantam, 1983.
Gonzo Papers, Vol. 2: Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the ’80s. New York: Summit Books, 1988.
Gonzo Papers, Vol. 3: Songs of the Doomed: More Notes on the Death of the American Dream. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990.
Gonzo Papers, Vol. 4: Better Than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie. New York: Random House, 1994.
Mistah Leary – He Dead. New Orleans: X-Ray Book Company, 1996.
The Fear and Loathing Letters, Vol. 1: The Proud Highway: The Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman 1955–1967. New York: Random House, 1997.
The Rum Diary. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998.
Screw-Jack. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.
Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist 1968–1976. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.
Kingdom of Fear: Loathsome Secrets of a Star-Crossed Child in the Final Days of the American Century. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.
Hey Rube: Blood Sport, the Bush Doctrine, and the Downward Spiral of Dumbness Modern History from the Sports Desk. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.
Happy Birthday, Jack Nicholson. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.
Gonzo: Photographs by Hunter S. Thompson. Los Angeles: AMMO Books, 2006.
The Mutineer: Rants, Ravings, and Missives from the Mountaintop 1977–2005. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008.
Fear and Loathing at Rolling Stone: The Essential Writings of Hunter S. Thompson. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011.
“Fire in the Nuts.” Tucson: Gonzo International/Steam Press Sylph Publications, 2004.
Selected Magazine Articles:
“Freak Power in the Rockies.” Rolling Stone 1 October 1970: 30-37.
“Strange Rumblings in Aztlan.” Rolling Stone 29 April 1971: 30-37.
“Memo From the Sports Desk: The So-Called ‘Jesus Freak Scare’” (as Raoul Duke). Rolling Stone 11 November 1971: 24.
“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream” (as Raoul Duke) 11 November 1971: 36-48.
“Conclusion of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream” (as Raoul Duke). 25 November 1971.
“He Was A Crook: The Death of Richard Nixon.” 16 June 1994.
“The Temptations of Jean-Claude Killy.” Scanlon’s Monthly. March 1970. 89-100.
“The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved. Scanlon’s Monthly. June 1970: 1-12.
“The Great Shark Hunt.” Playboy. December 1974: 183-184.
Artist Ralph Steadman in 2019 remembered Hunter S. Thompson and their famous trip to the Kentucky Derby: