He was the founder of the Gonzo movement, a written style without objectivity and first person narrative and became a prominent writer within counter culture for his life long use of alcohol, drug use, firearms and his contempt for authoritarianism. He was unique and unpredictable, leaving his mark on the literary and real world with a literal bang.
Hunter Stockton Thompson was born July 18th, 1937 in Louisville, Kentucky, the first of three sons to parents, Virginia Ray Davison, a librarian, and father, Jack Robert Thompson, a WW1 Veteran and insurance agent.
When Hunter was 14, tragedy would hit the family when Jack died of the autoimmune disease, Myasthenia Gravis when he was 58, leaving Virginia to work and raise three boys. She soon turned to alcohol as a coping mechanism. As teenagers, it became a common occurrence for James, the youngest son to be notified when his mother was passed out drunk in public.
As a child and teenager, Hunter was highly intelligent and had a natural knack for writing as well as a interest in sports, although despite his athleticism, he never joined any sports team during his high school years. It soon became clear that aside from his talents, he had a disdain for authority.
In 1952, while still at high school he was accepted into the elite school sponsored Athenaeum Literary Association, an organization whose memberships mostly were made up of children from wealthy families. While his contributions were published in what would become his writing style; sarcastic and incendiary, it also seemed to serve as another platform to continue his reputation as a hooligan and prankster from seemingly harmless acts that developed into more serious acts of vandalism and robbery.
By his senior year, he had developed his life long fascination with firearms and the beginning tastes of drugs and alcohol. His misdeeds soon found him on the wrong side of the law and he was arrested several times, leading to his ejection from the Athenaeum Association and landing himself in jail for a few weeks, leaving him unable to graduate high school.
Forced to choose between prison or military life, Hunter chose the latter and so in 1956 he joined the United States Airforce. He completed his basic training in Texas and then transferred to Illinois to pursue studies in electronics. His application to become an aviator was rejected so he transferred to Florida where he took evening classes and lied his way into a job as a sports editor for The Command Courier giving him solid experience as a journalist and a way of surviving the Air Force with his continued disregard for authoritarianism. He was discharged early from the Air Force in 1958.
With his journalism career awaiting him he bounced around the country for a few years working for small town newspapers including a brief stint in Puerto Rico, again as a sports editor while working on personal projects.
In 1961, he started writing his famed autobiographical novel, The Rum Diary, although it would be rejected by publishers for decades, only to be finally published in 1998, followed by the film starring Johnny Depp in 2011.
But, his penchant for doing what he wanted didn’t always work in his favour and he was fired or quit a lot of these jobs, quickly realizing that working in an office with a boss wasn’t for him. Becoming a freelancer allowed him his creative freedom albeit the starving artist kind. During this time, he worked hard on another novel, Prince Jellyfish but never had it published. He continued writing articles, writing to friends and moved constantly, sleeping during the day and keeping one step ahead of his bills and amassing a small trail of debt across the country. Despite the chaos, the was meticulous with his work keeping carbon copies of everything he wrote neatly labelled in folders.
In May 1963, he married his long time girlfriend Sandy Conklin and they lived for a time in Aspen, Colorado and had a son together, Juan Fitzgerald Thompson, born March 23rd 1964. He and Sandy would later divorce in 1980.
The same year their son was born, they relocated to Glen Ellen, California where Hunter continued writing on various topics. One of these stories, written for the National Observer told of his visit to Ketchum, Idaho to investigate the reasons for Ernest Hemingway’s suicide. While visiting Hemingway’s home, he stole a pair of deer antlers from the front of the cabin.
After severing ties with the National Observer for their refusal to print his Tom Wolfe’s 1965 essay collection review, the Thompson’s moved to San Francisco where Hunter immersed himself in the drug and hippie culture of the 1960’s and wrote for underground publications.
In 1965 after being hired to write an article about the Hells Angels motorcycle club, he received several book offers and spent the following year living and riding with the Hells Angels only coming to an end when the club perceived that Hunter was exploiting them for personal gain and demanded a share of the book’s profits. An argument at a party soon followed and Hunter was beaten savagely as a result.
The book, Hells Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of The Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs published in 1967 received huge critical success and gave him the opportunity to publish articles in more popular magazines.
With the proceeds from the book, he purchased a compound on the outskirts of Colorado that he named Owl Creek and decided to run for Sheriff of Pitkin County on the ‘Freak Power’ ticket, a platform that included relaxed penalties for drug offenses which Hunter had plenty of. He narrowly lost the election and decided not to re-elect.
In 1971, as assignment for Sports Illustrated became content for what would become his all time bestselling book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey into the Heart of The American Dream. The book was the narration of a drug fuelled journey across Las Vegas and was published in 1972 followed by the highly acclaimed movie of the same name, again starring Johnny Depp in 1998.
In 1974 his professional life began to decline. On one assignment he was sent to Africa to cover a boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman and failed to show. He was found intoxicated at his hotel instead.
Becoming more dependent on alcohol and drugs, he had issues finishing assignments and meeting deadlines, becoming more reclusive during the 1980’s and 1990’s and started receiving criticism for repetitiveness and relishing his past glories instead of further developing his style or exploring new topics.
He continued writing articles though much of his further published works would be from earlier more productive years and in 1990 began working on a new novel, Polo is My Life although, it too was unpublished. Soon after, he began refusing assignments and reclused further.
From 2000 to his death he would continue and finish his journalistic career the same way he started, writing about sports and wrote a weekly column for ESPN.com’s Page 2, titled, “Hey, Rube”.
In 2003, he remarried, to his assistant, Anita Bejmuk and published a semi-autobiographical rambling, Kingdom of Fear, publicized as his first memoir and received high praise for its unflinching candour and madness.
But, by 2005, he had become chronically depressed, disillusioned and angry with the world around him and frustrated with ageing and health problems largely caused by his excesses in drugs and alcohol.
Determined to end things on his terms, it was no secret to many that he had thought about suicide for many years if he ever felt trapped in life, and so, at 5.42pm on February 20th 2005 he wrote his final words on paper and put a .45 calibre pistol to his head and pulled the trigger, seconds after the last phone call with his wife.
As per his wishes, at his private memorial a few months later, his ashes were shot out of a cannon as two hundred of his friends and admirers, including Johnny Depp looked on as Bob Dylan’s Mr. Tamborine Man played in the background.
He was 67 years old.
“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey into the Heart of The American Dream. The book was the narration of a drug fuelled journey across Las Vegas and was published in 1972 followed by the highly acclaimed movie of the same name, again starring Johnny Depp in 1998.”