Hunter Stockton Thompson (July 18, 1937 – February 20, 2005) was an American journalist and author who wrote The Rum Diary (1998), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971), Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 (1973), The Curse of Lono (1983), and Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs (1966).
He is credited as the creator of Gonzo journalism, a style of reporting where reporters involve themselves in the action to such a degree that they become central figures of their stories. He is known also for his lifelong use of alcohol, LSD, mescaline, and cocaine (among other substances); his love of firearms; his inveterate hatred of Richard Nixon; and his iconoclastic contempt for authoritarianism. While suffering a bout of health problems, he committed suicide in 2005 at the age of 67.
Thompson was born in Louisville, Kentucky, the first of three sons, to Jack Robert Thompson (September 4, 1893, Horse Cave, Kentucky – July 3, 1952, Louisville), a public insurance adjuster and World War I veteran, and Virginia Ray Davison (1908, Springfield, Kentucky – March 20, 1998, Louisville), a librarian. His parents were introduced to each other by a friend from Jack's fraternity at the University of Kentucky in September 1934, and were married on November 2, 1935.
On December 2, 1943, when Thompson was six years old, the family settled at 2437 Ransdell Avenue, in the Cherokee Triangle neighborhood of The Highlands. On July 3, 1952, when Thompson was 14 years old, his father, aged 58, died of myasthenia gravis. Hunter and his brothers, Davison Wheeler (born June 18, 1940) and James Garnet (February 2, 1949 – March 25, 1993), were raised by their mother. (Hunter also had a much older half-brother, James Thompson, Jr., from his father's first marriage. James, Jr. was not part of the Thompson household.)
Virginia worked as a librarian to support her children.
In 1965, Carey McWilliams, editor of The Nation, offered Thompson the opportunity to write a story based on his experience with the California-based Hells Angels motorcycle club. After The Nation published the article (May 17, 1965), Thompson received several book offers and spent the next year living and riding with the Hell's Angels. The relationship broke down when the bikers concluded that Thompson was exploiting them for his personal gain. The gang demanded a share of the profits from his writings and after an argument at a party Thompson ended up with a savage beating, or "stomping" as the Angels referred to it. Random House published the hard cover Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs in 1966. A reviewer for The New York Times praised it as an "angry, knowledgeable, fascinating and excitedly written book", that shows the Hells Angels "not so much as dropouts from society but as total misfits, or unfits — emotionally, intellectually and educationally unfit to achieve the rewards, such as they are, that the contemporary social order offers." The reviewer also praised Thompson as a "spirited, witty, observant and original writer; his prose crackles like motorcycle exhaust."
Following the success of Hells Angels, Thompson was able to publish articles in a number of well-known magazines during the late 1960s, including The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Pageant, and others. In the Times Magazine article, published in 1967, shortly before the "Summer of Love", and entitled "The Hashbury is the Capital of the Hippies", Thompson wrote in-depth about the Hippies of San Francisco, deriding a culture that began to lack the political convictions of the New Left and the artistic core of the Beats, instead becoming overrun with newcomers lacking any purpose other than obtaining drugs. It was an observation on the 1960s' counterculture that Thompson would further examine in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and other articles.
In early 1968, he signed the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War. According to Thompson's letters and his later writings, at this time he planned to write a book called The Joint Chiefs about "the death of the American Dream." He used a $6,000 advance from Random House to travel on the 1968 Presidential campaign trail and attend the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago for research purposes. From his hotel room in Chicago, Thompson watched the clashes between police and protesters, which he wrote had a great effect on his political views. The planned book was never finished, but the theme of the death of the American dream would be carried over into his later work, and the contract with Random House was eventually fulfilled with the 1972 book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Thompson also signed a deal with Ballantine Books in 1968 to write a satirical book called The Johnson File about Lyndon B. Johnson. A few weeks after the contract was signed, however, Johnson announced that he would not stand for re-election, and the deal was canceled.
By late 1967, Thompson and his family moved back to Colorado and rented a house in Woody Creek, a small mountain hamlet outside Aspen. In early 1969, Thompson finally received a $15,000 royalty check for the paperback sales of Hells Angels and used two-thirds of the money for a down payment on a modest home and property where he would live for the rest of his life. He named the house Owl Farm and often described it as his "fortified compound."
In 1970, Thompson ran for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado, as part of a group of citizens running for local offices on the "Freak Power" ticket. The platform included promoting the decriminalization of drugs (for personal use only, not trafficking, as he disapproved of profiteering), tearing up the streets and turning them into grassy pedestrian malls, banning any building so tall as to obscure the view of the mountains, and renaming Aspen "Fat City" to deter investors. Thompson, having shaved his head, referred to the Republican candidate as "my long-haired opponent", as he wore a crew cut.
With polls showing him with a slight lead in a three-way race, Thompson appeared at Rolling Stone magazine headquarters in San Francisco with a six-pack of beer in hand and declared to editor Jann Wenner that he was about to be elected the next sheriff of Aspen, Colorado, and wished to write about the Freak Power movement. Thus, Thompson's first article in Rolling Stone was published as The Battle of Aspen with the byline "By: Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (Candidate for Sheriff)." Despite the publicity, Thompson ended up narrowly losing the election. While actually carrying the city of Aspen, he garnered only 44% of the county-wide vote in what became a two-way race as the Republican candidate for sheriff agreed to withdraw from the contest a few days before the election in order to consolidate the anti-Thompson votes, in return for the Democrats withdrawing their candidate for county commissioner. Thompson later remarked that the Rolling Stone article mobilized his opposition far more than his supporters.
Also in 1970, Thompson wrote an article entitled The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved for the short-lived new journalism magazine Scanlan's Monthly. Although it was not widely read at the time, the article is the first of Thompson's to use techniques of Gonzo journalism, a style he would later employ in almost every literary endeavor. The manic first-person subjectivity of the story was reportedly the result of sheer desperation; he was facing a looming deadline and started sending the magazine pages ripped out of his notebook. Ralph Steadman, who would later collaborate with Thompson on several projects, contributed expressionist pen-and-ink illustrations.
The first use of the word Gonzo to describe Thompson's work is credited to the journalist Bill Cardoso. Cardoso had first met Thompson on a bus full of journalists covering the 1968 New Hampshire primary. In 1970, Cardoso (who, by this time had become the editor of The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine) wrote to Thompson praising the "Kentucky Derby" piece in Scanlan's Monthly as a breakthrough: "This is it, this is pure Gonzo. If this is a start, keep rolling." Thompson took to the word right away, and according to illustrator Ralph Steadman said, "Okay, that's what I do. Gonzo."
Thompson's first published use of the word Gonzo appears in a passage in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: "Free Enterprise. The American Dream. Horatio Alger gone mad on drugs in Las Vegas. Do it now: pure Gonzo journalism."
The book for which Thompson gained most of his fame had its genesis during the research for Strange Rumblings in Aztlan, an exposé for Rolling Stone on the 1970 killing of the Mexican-American television journalist Rubén Salazar. Salazar had been shot in the head at close range with a tear gas canister fired by officers of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department during the National Chicano Moratorium March against the Vietnam War. One of Thompson's sources for the story was Oscar Zeta Acosta, a prominent Mexican-American activist and attorney. Finding it difficult to talk in the racially tense atmosphere of Los Angeles, Thompson and Acosta decided to travel to Las Vegas, Nevada, and take advantage of an assignment by Sports Illustrated to write a 250-word photograph caption on the Mint 400 motorcycle race held there.
What was to be a short caption quickly grew into something else entirely. Thompson first submitted to Sports Illustrated a manuscript of 2,500 words, which was, as he later wrote, "aggressively rejected." Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner was said to have liked "the first 20 or so jangled pages enough to take it seriously on its own terms and tentatively scheduled it for publication — which gave me the push I needed to keep working on it", Thompson later wrote.
The result of the trip to Las Vegas became the 1971 book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas which first appeared in the November 1971 issues of Rolling Stone as a two-part series. It is written as a first-person account by a journalist named Raoul Duke on a trip to Las Vegas with Dr. Gonzo, his "300-pound Samoan attorney", to cover a narcotics officers' convention and the "fabulous Mint 400". During the trip, Duke and his companion (always referred to as "my attorney") become sidetracked by a search for the American Dream, with "...two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether, and two dozen amyls." Duke i.e.Thompson soaked the floor mat on the driver's side with ether. He told his attorney, "There is nothing more helpless and irresponsible, and depraved than a man in the depths of an ether binge." Then they proceeded on their way.
Coming to terms with the failure of the 1960s countercultural movement is a major theme of the novel, and the book was greeted with considerable critical acclaim, including being heralded by The New York Times as "by far the best book yet written on the decade of dope". "The Vegas Book", as Thompson referred to it, was a mainstream success and introduced his Gonzo journalism techniques to a wide public.