Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Jersey Shore, Clinton County
Legendary 1960s gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson's widely varied career included a stint at the Jersey Shore Herald.
Hunter S. Thompson was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on July 18, 1937. After two years in the service and a few brief stints with papers like The Jersey Shore Herald in Clinton County, Pennsylvania, and Esquire, Thompson found his niche with Rolling Stone. He covered a mixture of sports, politics, and pop culture, turning out controversial stories that were half truth, half hallucination. Thompson ended his career the way he’d begun, as a sports writer and, in his free time, had a hand in the development of his books that were adapted to the big screen. Thompson took his life at his ranch in Colorado on February 20, 2005.
Born in Louisville, Kentucky, on July 18, 1937, Hunter Stockton Thompson was the first son of Jack Robert Thompson, an insurance adjuster and US Army veteran, and Virginia Davidson Ray. As a child, Thompson was athletically inclined and interested in sports, which led him to become a member of Louisville’s Castlewood Athletic Club. This program was meant to prepare children for high school sports—oddly enough, Thompson never joined any teams once he got to high school even though he excelled in baseball.
During his freshman year at Atherton High School, Thompson’s father passed away from myasthenia gravis (a neuromuscular disease) and the young Hunter transferred in 1952 to Louisville Male High School. That same year, he was accepted into the Athenaeum Literary Association—members of this club were generally from Louisville’s wealthy upper-class families; in fact, Porter Bibb, the first publisher of Rolling Stone was a member. Through this association, Thompson contributed articles and his editing skills to The Spectator, the club’s yearbook. Though he was generally in trouble throughout high school, the breaking point came when Thompson was charged as an accessory to robbery and the ALA expelled him in 1955. Thompson was sentenced to serve 60 days in the Jefferson County, Kentucky Jail; after 30 days, he joined the Air Force as a condition of his parole.
After finishing basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, Thompson was transferred in 1956 to Eglin Air Force base, in Niceville, Florida. Not only did he become the sports editor for The Command Courier, the on-base newspaper, but also anonymously wrote for the sports section of The Playground News, the local paper for Walton Beach, Florida. Thompson earned an early honorable discharge in 1958 and left the Air Force as an Airman First Class. “In summary, this airman, although talented, will not be guided by policy,” Col. William S. Evans, chief of information services wrote to the Eglin personnel office. “Sometimes his rebel and superior attitude seems to rub off on other airmen staff members.”
Thompson continued his career as a sports writer after being discharged, “[w]hen I got out of the Air Force I got a job in Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania, which, for some queer reason as an innocent child I believed was on the Jersey Shore somewhere. It turned out to be like 400 miles into the mountains and down the road from Penn State.” In Songs of the Doomed, the third set of Gonzo papers, Thompson describes his experience as sports editor of the Jersey Shore Herald, working afternoons and being utterly bored for most of his time there; then, just as fast as he started working there, disaster struck and he left town. Thompson had a way of stirring up trouble; in this case, it had to do with a woman—a colleague of his set him up with his daughter, the colleague let him borrow his ‘49 Chevy, with which Thompson ended up getting stuck in a river bank. The next day, the angry co-worker drove the car into work and Thompson said, “I knew heavy trouble was coming …I just got up, took my coat off the rack and went out the front door. Didn’t even collect my pay. Went straight the apartment, loaded the car and drove to New York.”
After moving to New York and he enrolled as a part-time student in Columbia University’s School of General Studies on the G.I. Bill and took classes on short story writing. During his time as a student, he worked as a copy boy for TIME Magazine making $51 a week. Thompson used the typewriter at work to copy F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and Ernest Hemingway's AFarewell to Arms in order to study the authors’ writing styles. In 1959, Thompson was fired for insubordination and later that year worked on the staff of The Middletown NY Daily Record, as a reporter. After leaving The Middletown Daily Record, Thompson traveled to Puerto Rico and wrote articles for stateside magazines such as The National Observer (a Dow-Jones owned weekly paper) and Rogue, where his first magazine feature was published.
Thompson wrote two novels during his time in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. The first, Prince Jellyfish, was written around the time that he studying Fitzgerald intensely and remains unpublished. Described as a coming of age novel, it essentially tells the story of a boy moving to the big city to make his way. His second novel, The Rum Diary (finally published in 1998 and is set to be released as a movie in 2010), is about a journalist, loosely based on Thompson himself, who moves to a big newspaper and involves treachery, lust, alcoholism and the general tangled love story.
Once he returned stateside, he stayed employed through The National Observer and traveled to South America as a correspondent for the paper. Shortly after returning to the U.S., on May 19, 1963, Thompson married his longtime girlfriend Sandra Dawn Conklin. The couple moved to Aspen, Colorado, and had their only child, a son, Juan Fitzgerald Thompson on March 23, 1964.
Thompson continued his work with the Observer, moving to Glen Ellen, California, and wrote on an array of domestic topics such as a piece dedicated to investigating Ernest Hemingway’s suicide. After a falling-out with the editors when they wouldn’t publish his review of Tom Wolfe’s essay collection The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, Thompson quit and moved to San Francisco where he began writing for the underground Berkeley paper The Spyder. TIME’s opinion of him consisted of the following, “[l]ike a lot of addicted people, Thompson often appeared to be rather sweet-souled, almost passive, when he was clear-minded. His rage came out when he was alone at the typewriter, pounding out copy against deadlines that he almost always missed.” Thompson, with all of his obscenities and his bewildering thought process was considered by TIME, as well as most other magazines and papers, to be an interesting character, “[d]espite Dr. Thompson’s political wise-guyism and all the macho whisky-and-drug talk, this is not opium for the masses but Dr. Pepper for the credulous.”
Thompson spent the year 1965 living and riding with the Hell’s Angels motorcycle club after a story about his experience with them brought several book offers forward. The Nation published the story on May 17, 1965, and Thompson continued to ride with them until a dispute over earnings from the collection of stories published by Random House left him with a ‘stomping.’ “Sandy remembered Hunter calling from the hospital to report the beating and his arrival home a couple of hours later with his face swollen and turned a few varying colors.” After taking a photograph of himself and writing the book’s postscript, Thompson’s adventure with the Angels came to an end. The book “was a best seller before it was published” and sold out quickly due to Random House underestimating demands and only printing an original 20,000 copies. The New York Times Book Review stated “Thompson has presented us with a close view of a world most of us would never encounter. His language is brilliant, his eye remarkable.” This was the beginning of Thompson’s writing career, as well as the fame and publicity he’d never asked for.
Following the success of his stint with Hell’s Angels, Thompson continued free lance work through the New York Times, Pageant, Playboy, and Esquire. He also wrote for Scanlan’s Monthly and Ramparts until his outrageous writing and political views, in addition to his difficulty to turn pieces in on deadline, became too much for the editors to handle.
In April of 1970, Thompson made his way to Rolling Stone’s founder and editor, Jann Wenner, and the result was an article focused on Hunter’s up-coming campaign for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado. At the same time, he wrote “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” sent it to Scanlan’s—when his friend Bill Cardoso read it, he commented “I don’t know what the f--- you’re doing, but you’ve changed everything. It’s totally gonzo.” Finally, there was a name for Thompson’s style of writing. According to Merriam-Webster, ‘gonzo’ is defined as ‘bizarre,’ idiosyncratically subject but engaging, or free-wheeling or unconventional to the point of outrageousness. The idea of ‘parajournalism,’ coined by Dwight Macdonald of The New Yorker, predates gonzo journalism but follows the same concept: Macdonald considered it a ‘bastard form’ of writing which “exploit[ed] the factual authority of journalism and the atmospheric license of fiction.” William Faulkner’s belief that ‘[t]he best kind of fiction is truer than any kind of journalism,’ is one that Thompson fully embraced.
Thompson was parodied in Gary Trudeau’s comic strip Doonesbury with the character Uncle Duke. Like Thompson, Duke can’t meet deadlines, has a fondness for firearms and is a huge drug user/alcoholic; to top it all off, he works for The Rolling Stone under the direction of Jann Wenner.
While Thompson continued writing for Scanlan’s and Rolling Stone, he was also three years overdue on a book deal with Random House. So in the spring of 1971, Thompson began writing an account of his time in Las Vegas, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. This account was published as a two-part article in Rolling Stone on November 11 and 23, 1971, and the full manuscript was published by Random House in July 1972. A review from the New York Times by Crawford Woods comments “A flurry of picaresque disasters alters their plans as the dope alters their minds. Drug and dream, event and recollection become inseparable.” The Times continues, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a scorching epochal sensation. There are only two adjectives writers care about any more! “Brilliant” and “Outrageous!” And Hunter Thompson has a freehold on both of them. What goes on in these pages makes Lenny Bruce seem angelic! The whole book boils down to a mad, corrosive prose poetry that picks up where Norman Mailer’s An American Dream left off and explores what Tom Wolfe left out.”
A San Francisco Chronicle review by Sam Whiting commented, ““Fear and Loathing” [had] started out as a Sports Illustrated assignment for Thompson to drive from Los Angeles to Las Vegas and cover the Mint 400 motorcycle race. Thompson had a reputation to uphold, having published “Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs,” so he expense-accounted a red convertible and every illicit drug known to humankind, and a few that weren’t, like extract of human adrenal gland. He recruited his attorney, a deranged and lecherous hulk nicknamed Dr. Gonzo, and they took off across the desert on “a savage journey to the heart of the American Dream.” What followed were several days of sleepless depravity and insulting behavior, only loosely connected to the motorcycle race. Thompson taped every word and sent it in verbatim. Sports Illustrated declined to print the story or cover the exorbitant hotel bill, which included a trashed suite and room service that averaged $33 an hour for 48 straight hours.”
As an avid political junkie, Thompson began covering the 1972 political election with bi-weekly reports, following Richard Nixon and George McGovern. These reports were eventually published into part of the series of Gonzo Papers. “Thompson’s book, with its mixed, frenetic construction, irreverent spirit and, above all, unrelenting sensitivity to the writer’s own feelings while on the political road, most effectively conveys the adrenaline-soaked quest that is the American campaign. Crisscrossing the country often two times a day, stopping in hotels, shopping marts and factories in obscure Midwestern towns, Thompson might have been running for office himself. By monitoring his own instincts and observations in the process, he shows us what it must be like for the candidates,” as New York Times critic, Tom Seligson says. Thompson continued his political coverage through the Watergate Scandal and “Fear and Loathing at the Watergate” was published in September 1973.
The Fear and Loathing theme followed through other series of articles including “Fear and Loathing in the Doldrums,” Fear and Loathing in the Bunker,” “Fear and Loathing in Saigon,” “Fear and Loathing in Washington,” and “Fear and Loathing at the Super Bowl.”
His next two stints with Rolling Stone were cancelled shortly after he started work on them; the first was a plan to cover the 1976 elections, and the second, on the fall of Saigon during the Vietnam War. Wenner cut off his funding for both projects which led to a strained relationship between the author and magazine.
Thompson divorced Sandra Conklin in 1980 and temporarily relocated to Hawaii to work on The Curse of Lono, a novel based on the Honolulu Marathon. This novel was published in 1983 but only stayed in print for a short while. In 1983, Thompson also covered the American invasion of Grenada; however, his experiences were not made public until Kingdom of Fear was published twenty years later. Then, from the mid-1980s till 1990, Thompson became a media critic for the San Francisco Examiner.
In his coverage of the 1992 political election, Thompson gathered the materials for his final set of Gonzo Papers, Better Than Sex—another hit. New York Times critic Michael Ross said, “Better Than Sex” reads like a hodgepodge, a series of dispatches hurriedly lashed together. But in his own cracked, inimitable style, Mr. Thompson proves to be an upbeat Jeremiah, a civic-minded curmudgeon. “It is a very elegant feeling,” he writes, “to wake up in the morning and go down to your neighborhood polling place and come away feeling proud of the way you voted.” Spoken like a true patriot.” It wasn’t just a hit because of its sarcasm, Thompson had found a way to be honest that was almost frightening to other writers.
The Gonzo Papers, all four volumes, grew as a precarious collection of his essays, a mixture of sports, politics and pop culture that presents an almost dizzying read. The Flint Journal reviewed the fourth addition saying, “This is a very, very funny book. No one can ever match Thompson in the vitriol department, and virtually nobody escapes his wrath.”
In 1998, Thompson’s work was revived when Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was transferred to the silver screen. With the strong positive reception that the movie received, the novel was re-released and shortly thereafter, The Rum Diary was finally published. “Drugs must have done wonders for Hunter S. Thompson, if we can go by his first novel, ‘‘The Rum Diary.’’ There are no narcotics in this early work, and there is also none of the maniacal wit and deranged exuberance that roared through the ‘‘Fear and Loathing’’ books,” said New York Times Book Review by David Kelly.
On April 23, 2003, Thompson married his long-time assistant Anita Bejmuk (after three years of living together). “We were always fighting,” Anita admitted, “we started fighting almost the day we met, but the fights were pretty dramatic towards the end. We had pretty loud fights. We were pretty intense people.” While Anita and Thompson had no children, Thompson’s son Juan, from his first marriage, remained in his life, along with his grandson William.
His final Fear and Loathing piece, “Fear and Loathing, Campaign 2004,” covered the Kerry campaign—this was his last contribution to Rolling Stone. From 2000 to 2005, Thompson wrote for ESPN.com; his weekly column ‘Hey Rube’ was the ending of his career.
Hunter Thompson had been writing suicide notes his whole life, which was his way of being prepared to always have the last word; on February 20, 2005, Thompson finally made good on the suicide notes at Owl Creek from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. His note, entitled “Football Season is Over,” was later published by Rolling Stone, “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.”
In accordance with his wishes, Thompson was cremated and in a private ceremony funded by actor Johnny Depp, on August 20, 2005, his ashes were fired from a cannon. His character and wit lives on through his off-kilter quotes as well as his creation of Gonzo journalism; he is, as his character Raoul Duke says, Too weird to live, and too rare to die.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. New York: Vintage, 1971.
The Rum Diary. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998.
Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw of Motorcycle Gangs. New York: Ballantine Books, 1966.
Short Story Collection
Screwjack. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991.
Great Shark Hunt (Gonzo Papers Volume 1). New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979.
Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the 80’s (Gonzo Papers Volume 2). New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988.
Songs of the Doom, More Notes on the Death of the American Dream (Gonzo Papers Volume 3). New York: Simon & Schuster,1990.
Better Than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie (Gonzo Papers Volume 4). New York: Ballantine Books, 1994.
Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist 1968–1976. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.
Hey Rube: Blood Sport, the Bush Doctrine, and the Downward Spiral of Dumbness: Modern History from the Sports Desk. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.
Brinkley, Douglas. “Football Season is Over.” Rolling Stone 8 Sept. 2005. 68.