Articles and essays


1994/1997 copyright Christine Othitis


Through his writing, antics and ego, Hunter S. Thompson made himself a public figure, long before he was even famous. His charisma and exaggerated style of writing, he has established a myth and a following that his friends have likened him to Charles Manson (Carroll, p19). If he ever dies, he will live on in popular culture.

As a child, Hunter was the magnet that everyone was attracted to, partly because of his reputation as a hell-raiser and partly because had a commanding presence. Gerald Tyrell remembers Hunter as a great organizer who made up baseball teams and rounded up beer on Friday nights (Carroll, p19). Hunter was, and still is, very deft at manipulating people. Tyrell also remembers Hunter "hobnobbing" (Carroll, p54) with the most socially untouchable people at school. Later on, Hunter came to have the most astounding friendships among a diverse group of people - writers, sports promoters, musicians and politicians as well as their families.

A prime example of Thompson being able to work his way out of situations happened during his El Sportivo period. One night, he and Robert W. Bone (a photographer friend from The Middletown Daily Record) went to the San Juan dump to shoot rats. The police spotted them, and Bone recalls how Hunter almost go away with it.

"(W)e were arrested and taken to jail. But Hunter, of course, with his considerable charm, began to make friends with the police. Naturally we had gotten rid of the there was some doubt...eventually we and the cops were having coffee together. Then Hunter put his feet up on the desk and leaned back (and) the.357 Magnum bullets rolled out of his pocket. They threw us back in jail and the embassy was called. (Carroll, p92)".

Then there is the string of editors - "The basic crux of it was that people wanted to know if the stuff in the books was really true...I think they came away feeling like it's probably not the whole truth. It was probably much worse than that," (Carroll, p188) so says Laura Ross, who was a young college student when she had the opportunity to work with Hunter in the 1970s. Other magazine editors - Rob Fleder, Vicki Sufian, Tim Crouse and Charles Perry echo her comments. While they all agree that Thompson is a great writer and fun to have around, working with him could be extremely hard, because of Thompson's own stubborness and violence. Rob Fleder described the experience as being "stuck on a pin and having your wings pulled off" (Carroll, pxx).

Using what Bill Kennedy (editor of the San Juan Star, author) described as his "meritous wounded ego" and "self-righteous etc (Kennedy, 1997, p106), he wormed his way into the news and popular culture. Gonzo journalism was a new phenomenom of sorts that everyone wanted to be in on. He had groupies. He still has an audience, which, through the Internet, becomes wider each day. And he still has high-profile forums for his writing, such as Rolling Stone, the San Francisco Chronicle, and sometimes Esquire or Vanity Fair (most recently, Cycle World. "Song of the Sausage Creature" caused a fury and the magazine reported that in it's 33 year history, this was the most mail it had ever received on a single story).

"He first showed up in my office wearing a gray bubble wig, with a huge satchel full of God knows what and three six packs in one hand and talked for an hour straight," Jann Wenner wrote in the forward of the first of three 25th anniversary editions of Rolling Stone. The bizarre interview led to a story on HST's campaign for sheriff of Pitkin County in Colorado (most of which are reprinted in The Great Shark Hunt). By now a public relations master, Thompson, with his "Freak Power" candidates and shaved head, lost by only 465 votes. The election, recounted in Better Than Sex, attracted the attention of national media and camera crews.

From there a legend was truly born, and Thompson has attained a sort of folk hero status, with punk rock songs penned in his honour.

Probably the first to life the 'gonzo' name were the basement t-shirt shops that reproduced the 'Gonzo Family Crest' used on his campaign posters, which were designed by Tom Benton. "The t-shirts are revolving. People give them to me and I give them to other people," (Carroll, p13) he says, describing tees from places like The Tremmel T-Shirt Co. (with the frontispiece from Las Vegas on them; apparently Tremmel is out of business, but you can still get shirts from Doodah Designs), the collector's items from The O'Farrell Theatre (a skeleton dancing around a jug of Chivas proclaiming 'the weird never die') to the gonzo wear available from various Aspen shops.

There are some, like Robert Fleder, who say that Hunter lives a very comic book life. Knowing this, it is little wonder that his life and writing translate so well into cartoons and comic strips. Besides famous the caricatures by Ralph Steadman, there are at least two other cartoon incarnations of Thompson. The lesser known is the Fear and Laughter comic book published independently by Bill Stout in 1977 (cover reprinted in Hunter).

The more famous rendition is the "Uncle Duke" character that first appeared in 1975 in the satirical strip Doonesbury by Garry Trudeau.

Trudeau's portrayal threw Hunter into a fit. At one point he was convinced that Trudeau had spies watching him (Carroll, pxx). When Trudeau admitted that he was skimming ideas from his books, Thompson refused to believe it. Trudeau himself was shocked at his ability to capture Hunter's personality, having not actually met him. In 1993, a collection of Uncle Duke strips was published. Titled Action Figure, it spanned 23 years of Duke escapades - from his governorship of Samoa (a position Hunter claims he was offered) to lecturer (based on the riotous results of a talk at Duke University) to owner of Club Scud in Iraq. Of special interest to collectors was the plastic posable figure that came with the book, turned out in fatigues, a plastic AK-47, whisky bottle and wine glass.

In the strip, Duke is the uncle of Zonker Harris, a free spirited hippie with an extremely weird take on life. The "Duke" name comes from one of Thompson's pseudonyms, Raoul Duke, which he originally wrote Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas under. Trudeau's Duke takes his turns as a reporter for Rolling Stone, ambassador to China, governor of Samoa, ships captain to Donald Trump, NRA spokesman, guest lecturer, suspect in the JFK assasination, and most recently, director of an orphanage. In both cases, Duke is a sportswriter and ambassador to China, where from (allegedly) comes to drag Hunter out of hiding in Songs of the Doomed (Thompson, 1990, p11). From this angle, Trudeau gives Uncle Duke a Chinese girlfriend/secretary, Honey.

Uncle Duke has done much to start and perpetuate rumours about Thompson as well as to preserve the myth that surrounds him. For instance, no one can really be sure if Hunter really told John Denver to "Rocky mountain high-tail it off my property or else your guitar won't be the only thing with a hole in it!" (Trudeau, 1993). What is known is that the folk singer actually did visit Hunter. Almost actually. He knocked on the door of their neighbours, Anne and Billy Noonan.

"He had on little glasses and had a little bowl haircut and a plaid shirt and I thought he was creepy...(h)e had won a song contest...and was looking for Hunter, who had some notoriety by then," (Carroll, p115).

Trudeau, as a cartoonist and satirist, manages to pin down the cantankerous qualities of Thompson's personality, the often bizarre aspects of his lifestyle and sharp humour accuarately.

(Note: Due to the fact that I cannot reproduce the few strips originally included in the essay, I will skip over the commentary. I would suggest reading Action Figure or Virtual Doonesbury and try to pick out all the gonzo references. You might also want to visit Doonesbury Electronic Town Hall for more strips and merchandise.)

At least one feature film has been made about HST and that is Where the Buffalo Roam, starring Bill Murray as Hunter and Peter Boyle as his Hungarian attorney Lazlo (Chicano groups protested using a white actor to portray Oscar Acosta). The movie was adapted from Las Vegas, Campaign Trail and an article called "The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat" (reprinted in The Great Shark Hunt), which is about the disappearance and possible death of his best friend, Oscar Acosta. While it was not a box office hit, it was not a failure and has become a cult classic, often appearing late at night. Reviews ranged from raves (Roger Angell, "the movie is a raunchy comedy...(I)t is made for me by the performance of Bill Murray") to disgust (Merrill Schindler, "The movie is, at best, gonzo dreck).

After almost twenty years, Las Vegas is (hopefully) being produced as a movie. Rhino Films sought to produce it, with Johnny Depp starring as Thompson. Alex Cox (Repo Man) was originally chosen as the director; he bowed out and was replaced by Terry Gilliam, of Monty Python and Brazil fame. Previous attempts at making it into a movie included scripts by Larry McMurty and Jack Nicholson.

Gonzo regularly appears in most media. The Wonderstuff named their last and final album "If the Beatles had read Hunter...". The song "Ventura Highway" copyrighted 1972, contains the Vegas-esque line "alligators, lizards in the sky".

Don Johnson's new series, Nash Bridges, is loosely based on a script written by him and Hunter. The original idea was "to have a Fuhrman-style recovering alcoholic cop who was dating a mobster's widow with a bad case of Tourette's syndrome." That didn't quite fly with network TV, but every now and then Johnson spews that immortal line: "You got that right Bubba." (Christine: A little too often for my liking. My mom is a big fan. However, I could just kill every time he says that!)

Elsewhere, Scott Bakula played Peter Hunt, a gonzo journalist on Murphy Brown. Thompson has appeared in Arts and Entertainment Biography specials for Annie Liebowitz and Jimmy Carter, as well as on David Letterman.

The most recognizable gonzo is The Great Gonzo, a freakish, fuzzy blue Jim Henson muppet. He is obsessed with chickens, just as Hunter loves owls and peacocks. Gonzo is described by friends Kermit and Fozzie as a "weirdo". Indeed. The muppet is, and looks, uncomparable to anything else, just like Thompson. Gonzo possesses a strange manic energy, with a penchant for explosions and craziness, just as HST is prone to driving the wrong way on freeways at night (Green, 1992, RS 632).

As a word, "gonzo" has come to mean anything weird or crazy. It appears in most slang dictionaries and the OED as such. The word takes on an even larger meaning in a series of mystery novels aimed at juvinile readers. "Mike Gonzo", created by adult mystery author William L. Crider, is a rather dorky kid who doesn't shy away from strange situations such as a pair of disappearing sneakers.

Thompson made news in 1990 for the famous "breast-tweaking incident". A porn-star-turned-ophthamologist's-wife named Gail-Palmer Slater visited Owl Farm, enjoyed herself apparently, all in attendence drank somewhat heavily; then what follows is unclear on all accounts. What resulted, however, was an eleven-hour search by the Colorado Beaureau of Investigation, which turned up (Christine: what else? Jeezus!) various amounts of explosives and "uncontrolled substances" (Thompson, 1990, p293-294).

The case made headlines everywhere and Entertainment Tonight even ran several segments about it. However, it was two carloads of strippers from the >O'Farrell Theatre - friends from HST's days as night manager there - who attracted the most attention. Often scantily clad, they picketed the courthouse with a giant buffalo head.

Eventually Thompson was aquitted on lack of evidence; Palmer-Slater claims she never wanted to press charges (Carroll, pxx) and holds no hard feelings. Many feel that the incident was an attempt to rid Woody Creek/Aspen of its famous resident. Thompson's neighbours, which happen to be millionaires and movie stars, regularly complain that he is constantly shaking the foundations of their homes. This strange neighbourliness is known as The Battle of Aspen.

Thomspon's infiltration into American culture is rather a strange one. He was able to because he and his writing was, and still is, so different and unique from what anyone had ever seen before. He is in some ways a folk hero, the young man who went West and found fortune, the outlaw who delivers common people from their opressed (and perhaps repressed) lives.

Evan Nescent runs The Death Game. It is a betting game run by a group of actuaries in New York (interestingly enough, the Thompson family has long been involved in insurance). "There are some people who think he's immortal...he's either immortal, or he's going to die immediately. I mean, you know, we can't really find a middle ground." (Carroll, p270-271). That comment seems to sum up Hunter's life; he constantly pushes his luck, for example, the stomping at the end of Hell's Angels. It makes him seem like a mythical hero, but one who is more realistic. Instead of being virtuous, he is depraved. But his integrity and ideals are intact and he stays true to them.

He is a modern Achilles, seeming impervious to great quantities of alcohol and drugs. He is a journalistic Prometheus, breaking away from the normal rules of reporting. He is a witty and clever orator who understands human motivation. His life is one long Dionysion ritual, and even he admits, "The myth has taken over. I'm really that way as a person" (Carroll, pxx).

Through his brilliant and daring (and most important) contemporary writing, he "has so deeply impressed so many readers that he has infiltrated the culture. Gonzo. Fear and Loathing. He's all over the place. Can you imagine Vladmir Nabokov in Doonesbury?" (Carroll, p148).

At a time when the social fabric of American society was unravelling, along came Hunter S. Thompson with his gonzo journalism and robust personality. He talked down to no one except politicians and neither encouraged or condoned his own personal addictions. Most important of all, such as in Las Vegas and Hell's Angels, he was able to prove that a peacenik could be just as patriotic as John Bircher. As a child, Hunter was the pain in everybody's backside. As an adult and writer, he was, and still is, a thorn in the lion's paw, painfully reminding everyone of the deceit, treachery and unfairness that prevail in this world. With the help of admirers, and other artists and writers, Thompson has perpetuated his owns myths thad by new readers of gonzo to come.


Rather than rewrite the whole thing to include this note, which occured to me in a webforum:

We all tell stories, however, few grow to the grand scale of myths. Perhaps that is because we are a larger community and because our stories don't have any scietific meaning; they don't answer why the sun shines or why rhinos have wrinkled skin. Just like their are so many versions of myths, there are many versions of family stories because everyone remembers what happened in a different way.

For example, one of my favourite authors has created his own personal myths through his writing; his readers tend to think that life happens to him in a most extraordinary way, when it really doesn't. It is through the power of his own writing and storytelling abilities. He is able to take the most ordinary, everyday act, and exaggerate it so that it seems almost a super-human feat. Of course, no one can substantiate what he writes about, which even adds to the aura of his writing.


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