Not Guided By Policy- Hunter S. Thompson and the Birth of Gonzo Journalism

Hunter-S-Thompson“We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold.” This is the opening line from the highly acclaimed roman à clef Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream written by Hunter S. Thompson, one of America’s most countercultural and anti-authoritarian writers. The untamed master of his own self-titled genre, “gonzo journalism,” Thompson set ablaze the American standards for journalism during the 1960s and 70s with a cornucopia of drugs, alcohol, gun toting, and most notably, his exemplary writing.

Hunter Stockton Thompson was born in Louisville, Kentucky on July 18, 1937, to Virginia Ray Davison, a local librarian, and Jack Robert Thompson, an insurance agent and World War I veteran. Thompson’s father, however, suffered from myasthenia gravis, a debilitating neuromuscular disease, and passed away when Thompson was just fourteen years of age. After the loss, Virginia Thompson delved into heavy alcoholism and Hunter followed suit.

Beyond heavy drinking, during his senior year of high school, Thompson was arrested as an accessory to an armed robbery and was sentenced to sixty days in the Kentucky Jefferson county jail. While imprisoned, the superintendent of his high school denied him permission to take his final examinations, and subsequently, Thompson failed to graduate.

Thompson received an early release on the condition that he would join the United States Air Force. Before leaving Kentucky, he purchased a case of beer and spitefully threw each bottle one by one through the windows of the superintendent’s house.

After being initially rejected by the Air Force’s aviation program, Thompson transferred to Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida panhandle in 1956 where he was reassigned to electronics. Shortly after, he began paving the way for his future journalism career by attending night classes at Florida State University. As a former sports enthusiast, Thompson also talked his way into a sports editor position for The Command Courier, the base’s onsite publication, after fabricating stories about his prior experience in the field.

In an interview with The Paris Review by Douglas Brinkley and Terry McDonell, Thompson describes how he learned the fundamentals of journalism: “I went to the base library and found three books on journalism. I stayed there reading them until it closed. Basic journalism. I learned about headlines, leads: who, when, what, where, that sort of thing. I barely slept that night. This was my ticket to ride, my ticket to get out of that damn place.”

Despite the military’s policy about employment off campus, Thompson defied protocol and began writing for a local paper called The Playground News in Fort Walton Beach, Florida. To quote Thompson, “I’d put things in the local paper that I couldn’t put in the base paper. Really inflammatory shit. The Air Force got very angry about it. I was constantly doing things that violated regulations.”

In one instance, Thompson wrote about Arthur Godfrey, a popular radio broadcaster who had been invited to the base for a firepower demonstration, but instead Thompson covered how Godfrey had been previously caught illegally shooting animals from the air in Alaska: “The base commander told me: ‘Goddamn it, son, why did you have to write about Arthur Godfrey that way?’”

After multiple instances of insubordination, now a recurrent theme for Thompson, it was no surprise that in 1957 his commanding officer, Col. William S. Evans, discharged him early. What was a surprise was that it was an honorable discharge. To quote Col. Evans concerning the discharge, “In summary, this airman, although talented, will not be guided by policy.”

Although there were no beer bottles thrown in the direction of the colonel, or jet fuel leaked from the airplanes and set ablaze, Thompson did concoct a fictionalized press release that was actually published in The Command Courier through which his comedic hyperbole shines. He writes, “An apparently uncontrollable iconoclast, Thompson was discharged today after one of the most hectic and unusual Air Force careers in recent history.”

In 1959, Thompson relocated to New York City where he audited courses at Columbia University. He acquired a position as a copy boy for Time where he took in $51 a week in wages (about $408 today). However, it wasn’t long before he was fired for insubordination. Shortly after, he began reporting for The Middletown Daily Record in Middletown, New York, but his employment didn’t last long there either; he was fired for destroying an office candy machine and arguing with a local restaurant owner who happened to be the paper’s main advertiser.

In 1961, Thompson began a peregrination across the country. He settled down in Big Sur, California to work on two novels, Prince Jellyfish and The Rum Diary (the latter remained untouched until rediscovered by actor Johnny Depp who had been living in Thompson’s basement. Depp encouraged Thompson to revisit the novel and it was finally published in 1998). During the same year, a group of religious cultists founded their institution near his property. To try to get rid of them, Thompson fastened the head of a wild boar to the group’s front door and hung the entrails around the rear view mirror of one of the member’s vehicles.

In 1962, Thompson served as a correspondent in South America for The National Observer, formerly a Dow Jones-owned weekly publication, as well as reported for the Brazil Herald in Rio de Janeiro, the nation’s sole English-written publication. While there, Thompson had acquired, for unknown reasons, a pet monkey. Tragically, the monkey died after reportedly leaping, or at least falling, off the hotel balcony where Thompson was staying. (See: Do Non-Human Animals Commit Suicide?) It is unclear whether the monkey had an alcohol issue prior to the unofficial adoption. However, it would seem the monkey did partake from Thompson’s stash. Friend and travel author Robert W. Bone commented by saying, “Everyone figured the monkey, being an alcoholic, had the DTs (Delirium Tremens).”

After leaving Brazil in 1964, Thompson returned to California where he continued to work for the National Observer and was assigned to examine the suicide of Ernest Hemingway in Ketchum, Idaho. During his investigation, Thompson stole a pair of elk antlers that hung above Hemingway’s door seeing them as a ceremonious and posthumous bequeathal. However, even his stay with the National Observer was short-lived. After a disagreement with his editor, who had refused to publish Thompson’s review on Tom Wolfe’s The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, Thompson quit and moved to San Francisco to work for The Spyder, an alternative and underground Berkeley paper, submerging himself into the pervasive drug and hippie lifestyle.

At this point, The Nation hired Thompson to cover the outlaw motorcycle gang Hell’s Angels, who had permeated the California scene in the 1950s and 1960s. After the article, The Motorcycle Gangs: Losers and Outsiders, was published in 1965 and began reaping vast attention, Thompson began riding, partying, and living among the notorious group, gathering information for his soon-to-be-hit Hells Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga. Thompson made no secret of the fact that he was a journalist working on a book featuring the Angels while he was with them, something they surprisingly didn’t mind, and even were quite open with him. However, at one point, the gang severely beat Thompson. There are conflicting accounts as to why this happened, but the general story is that it had something to do with a comment made by Thompson about Hell’s Angel “Junkie George.” Junkie was beating his wife, and Thompson reportedly stated of this, “Only a punk beats his wife,” drawing the ire of the Angels around at the time, who he later stated were none of the ones he was close to.

The publication in 1966 was the beginning of Thompson’s personal and immersive dive into finding his voice within journalism. He discarded all the detached and unbiased journalistic conventions and instead explored his own baptismal plunge into a world of contrarianism, with himself as the central figure. This style later became known as gonzo journalism.

More specifically, Thompson stated that gonzo journalism is a style of reporting that bases itself on William Faulkner’s idea “that the best fiction is far more true than any kind of journalism and the best journalists have always know this.”

In 1970, he wrote The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved, an article published by Scanlans Monthly magazine. Although some critics claim that Hells Angels signified the start of his gonzo journalism, the Kentucky Derby piece is generally considered more representative of the style. However, according to Thompson, Hells Angels was the instrumental key to his calling as a vagabond and pioneer journalist: “Hell’s Angels all of a sudden proved to me that, Holy Jesus, maybe I can do this.”

As to the name of this offshoot of the 1960s “New Journalism” trend, this is credited to the then editor of the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, Bill Cardoso, who wrote to Thompson concerning the Kentucky Derby piece stating, “This is it, this is pure Gonzo. If this is a start, keep rolling.” Thompson liked the word as a name for this style of journalism and adopted it. As to how Cardoso came up with it, it has been variously stated it was slang for the “last man standing” among a group of binge drinkers; that it was slang for “bizarre”; or that it was borrowed from the 1960 song by James Booker, “Gonzo.”

Whatever the origin of the name, Thompson himself first used it in his most notable work, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a story which he sarcastically quipped is “a vile epitaph for the Drug Culture of the Sixties.” This drug-addled and psychotic adventure during the uprising of drug criminalization first appeared as a series in Rolling Stone in 1971 and then became a published book in 1972. Thompson was inspired to write the book while he was on assignment for Sports Illustrated to write a 250-word caption for the Mint 400, a desert off-road race in Las Vegas.

Thompson himself concluded that the book was a failure, but not in terms of success or abhorrence towards his own work, but a failure in that his initial goal was to script the entire Vegas journey in one unedited notebook and publish it. This, he states, would have been true gonzo journalism. In retrospect, Thompson acknowledged that in order to have achieved his goal he would have had to be the director, producer, cameraman, and lead actor all at the same time to pull off his story correctly.

Instead, he reworked the piece, taking liberties to create scenes where he had been heavily intoxicated, as well as precautions to protect the identities of certain individuals for their security.  He also played around with the chronology of certain events, changing a month’s time to a mere few days.

Towards the end of his career and life, Thompson resided at Owl Farm, his compound in Woody Creek, Colorado. After writing several other successful books such as Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 72 and covering other political and social issue stories, Thompson came full circle as a writer, working for ESPN covering sports in his typical frenetic, poetic style starting in 2000.

This all ended in February of 2005 when Thompson shot himself in the head in his home at Owl Farm. While some conspiracy theorists contend he was actually killed due to, at the time, working on a piece on the terrorist attacks on 9/11, it should be noted that his grandson and daughter-in-law were in the room next to him when he died and reported nothing suspicious leading up to the suicide. He was also talking on the phone to his wife, Anita, a mere few seconds before he shot himself. She even heard him cock the gun, but assumed the sound she heard was him hitting a typewriter key- getting back to work after he set the phone down, so she hung up.

A note written by Thompson served as something of a suicide letter. He inscribed, “No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun — for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your (old) age. Relax — This won’t hurt.”

On August 20, 2005, a private funeral was arranged for all of Thompson’s closest friends and family. His ashes were fired from a cannon on top of a 153-foot tower to the music of Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” and Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” The sendoff was accompanied by a great display of fireworks and completely funded by Johnny Depp who previously portrayed Thompson in the screen adaption of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and, later in 2011, The Rum Diary.

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy our new popular podcast, The BrainFood Show (iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Feed), as well as:

Bonus Facts:

  • Thompson sometimes referred to himself as Dr. Thompson because he had purchased a doctorate of Divinity by mail order.
  • As a hobby, Thompson loaded barrels and oil drums with explosives and then shot at them with one of his many firearms.
  • In July of 2000, Thompson accidentally shot his assistant, Deborah Fuller, in an attempt to scare away a bear. The bullets had ricocheted and hit both her arm and leg. No charges were filed. She stated of this, “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.”
  • Thompson once pranked Jack Nicholson on his birthday by firing ammunition near Nicholson’s house while simultaneously blaring a tape which was described by Nicholson’s girlfriend, Anjelica Huston, as, “terrible and dying animal cries.” Thompson then proceeded to place a frozen elk heart on the doormat outside of Nicholson’s home where the blood began to seep into the living room. Thinking it was a stalker doing it, Nicholson alerted the FBI. To make matters worse, Thompson later sent Nicholson’s nine-year-old daughter a Christmas present- a box containing a model of a dead rat caught in a trap. Attached to the present was a note saying, “Dear Lorraine. This will teach you a lesson about trusting men which will be valuable later in life. You’re welcome, Uncle Hunter.”
  • In 1970, Thompson ran for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado on the Freak Power Ticket. He was unsuccessful.
  • In an article with ESPN, Thompson recounts a conversation with actor Bill Murray explaining his revolutionary sport idea called Shotgun Golf. Thompson elaborates, “The game consists of one golfer, one shooter and a field judge. The purpose of the game is to shoot your opponent’s high-flying golf ball out of the air with a finely-tuned 12-gauge shotgun, thus preventing him (your opponent) from lofting a 9-iron approach shot onto a distant ‘green’ and making a ‘hole in one.’ Points are scored by blasting your opponent’s shiny new Titleist out of the air and causing his shot to fail miserably. That earns you two points. But if you miss and your enemy holes out, he (or she) wins two points when his ball hits and stays on the green. And after that, you trade places and equipment, and move on to round 2.”
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  • Great article! For the pleasure of everybody out there I’d like to quote some text from Hunter S. Thompson’s obituary in the Middletown Record (which still exists now as the Times Herald Record in Middletown), as he described his getting fired to a friend via letter. It’s pretty darn funny:

    “Several weeks ago I outraged a long-time Record advertiser by sending a meal back to his kitchen for immediate consignment to the garbage can. This consequently resulted in a rather ugly session between me, the advertiser, and the Record’s editor and publisher. The judgment was definitely not in my favor and I was told that my job would henceforth rest on very thin ice.

    “Several days ago I was instrumental in the looting of an office candy machine. I had put two nickels in the thing without getting anything out of it. I then gave it a severe rattling which rendered the coin slot obsolete. Word got around in the backroom — notably the managing editor. I was fired the next day.”

    – Hunter S. Thompson

    It further states that he sternly refused to wear shoes in the newsroom ever, and wrote “The Rum Diary” while on the job.

    I also want to add that the Record is my local paper, and give them props for still being a pretty decent paper.