Biography of Hunter S. Thompson, Writer, Creator of Gonzo Journalism

Hunter S Thompson
Hunter S. Thompson, Gonzo Journalist, at his ranch standing against a bookcase with a Ralph Steadman picture on the wall on October 12, 1990 in Woody Creek, Aspen, Colorado. Paul Harris / Getty Images

Hunter S. Thompson emerged from the late 1960s counter-culture as the first of a new breed of journalist who eschewed old rules of objectivity and formal writing. His writing style was intensely personal and made him into a literary hero for many who saw his muscular, sometimes purplish prose as exciting and imaginative. His reporting style was immersive; Thompson believed in inserting himself into the story in order to experience what his subject’s experienced. Traditionalists regard his brand of journalism to be more self-regarding and closer to fiction than actual reporting, but his persona, carefully crafted and shaped over the course of his entire career, remains an iconic symbol of the 1960s and 1970s culture he reported on.

Fast Facts: Hunter S. Thompson

  • Full Name: Hunter Stockton Thompson
  • Known For: Journalist, writer, celebrity persona
  • Born: July 18, 1937 in Louisville, Kentucky
  • Parents: Virginia Ray Davison and Jack Robert Thompson
  • Died: February 20, 2005 in Woody Creek, Colorado
  • Spouses: Sandra Conklin (1963–1980), Anita Bejmuk (2003–2005)
  • Child: Juan Fitzgerald Thompson
  • Selected Works: Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Rum Diary.
  • Notable Quote: “I have a theory that the truth is never told during the nine-to-five hours.”

Early Years

Hunter Stockton Thompson was born into a comfortable middle class family that moved into The Highlands neighborhood of Louisville when he was six years old. His father passed away in 1952 when Thompson was 14 years old; his death affected Thompson’s mother a great deal and she began to drink heavily as she raised her three sons.

As a child, Thompson was athletic but already demonstrated a streak of anti-authoritarianism; despite being physically talented, he never joined any organized sports team while at school. Thompson was an avid reader, and gravitated towards the emerging counter-cultural work of Jack Keuroac and J.P. Donleavy. While attending Louisville Male High School, he joined the literary society and contributed work to the yearbook.

Hunter S. Thompson
Hunter S. Thompson. Neale Haynes/Getty Images

Thompson’s behavior became increasingly wild while he attended high school, drinking and engaging in an escalating series of pranks that began to push up against the boundaries of lawlessness. He was arrested several times, culminating in his arrest for robbery during his senior year in 1956, when a car he was a passenger in was linked to a mugging. The judge in Thompson’s case hoped to shock Thompson into better behavior, and offered him a choice between prison and military service. Thompson chose the latter and joined the Air Force. He attempted to complete his studies, but the principal refused to send him the necessary materials. As a result, Thompson never formally graduated from high school.

Early Writing Career (1958-1965)

  • The Rum Diary, 1998

Thompson served in the Air Force until 1958. He spent the next several years moving around the country, taking writing jobs where he could find them and slowly building a reputation as a talented writer. He spent some time in New York City and attended courses at Columbia University School of General Studies, and took a job as a "copy boy" at Time magazine. He was fired from that job in 1959.

In 1960, Thompson moved to San Juan, Puerto Rico, to work for a sports magazine located there. When the magazine went out of business, Thompson worked as a freelancer for a time and produced two novels, Prince Jellyfish, which was never published, and The Rum Diary, a story directly inspired by his experiences in Puerto Rico and which Thompson tried to get published for years, finally succeeding in 1998. After a stint in South America, Thompson eventually settled in San Francisco in 1965, where he embraced the burgeoning drug and music scene brewing there and began writing for the counter-cultural newspaper The Spider.

Hell’s Angels, Aspen, Scanlan’s Monthly, and Rolling Stone (1965-1970)

  • Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs (1967)
  • The Battle for Aspen (1970)
  • The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved (1970)

In 1965, Thompson was contacted by The Nation and hired to write an article about the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club. The article was published in May 1965, and was well-received. Thompson quickly accepted an offer to expand the article into a book, and spent the next year not simply researching and interviewing members of the Hell’s Angels, but actually riding with them and immersing himself in their lifestyle. Initially, the bikers were friendly and relations were good, but after several months the Hell’s Angels became suspicious of Thompson’s motivations, accusing him of profiting unfairly from their relationship. The Club demanded that Thompson share any revenues gained from the book with them. At a party, there was an angry argument over the matter and Thompson was beaten badly.

Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs was published in 1967, and the time Thompson spent riding with the Angels and the violent end of their relationship were major factors in its marketing. Thompson behaved poorly on the tour promoting the book, and later admitted to being inebriated for much of it. Regardless, the book was well-received and reviewed, and sold fairly well. It established Thompson as a major writer with a national presence, and he began to sell articles to major publications like Esquire and Harper’s.

Hunter S. Thompson at Press Conference
This meeting at Yale University was held to discuss the influence of the press on the presidential election. From left of the picture are Charles Wheeler, chief correspondent for U.S. for BBC, Edwin Diamond, writer for New York Magazine, Professor Dahl of Yale, Frank Mankiewicz, campaign manager for McGovern, Hunter Thompson national affairs editor for the Rolling Stones. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Thompson moved his family to a small town just outside Aspen, Colorado, where he used book royalties to purchase a house. Thompson became involved in local politics as part of a loose political party calling itself the Freak Power Ticket. He endorsed and campaigned for Joe Edwards, a 29-year old lawyer, for mayor of Aspen, and in 1970, Thompson decided to run for Sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado. He did surprisingly well, narrowly leading polls and prompting the Republican candidate to drop out in order to consolidate the anti-Thompson support behind the Democratic candidate. Thompson wrote to Jann Wenner, the publisher of Rolling Stone, and Wenner invited him to the magazine’s offices to discuss writing a piece about the campaign. Thompson agreed, and The Battle of Aspen was the first article he wrote for the magazine, launching the most successful professional relationship of Thompson’s career. Thompson lost the election narrowly, and later speculated that the article inspired his opposition to unite against him.

That year, Thompson also published the article The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved in a short-lived counter-cultural magazine Scanlan’s Monthly. Thompson was teamed with illustrator Ralph Steadman (who would become a long-time collaborator) and went home to Louisville to cover the Derby. Thompson procrastinated the actual writing of the article, and in order to meet his deadline began taking raw pages from his notebooks and sending them to the magazine. The resulting piece almost completely ignored the race in favor of a frenetic, first-person account of the debauchery and partying the locals engaged in around the race. In retrospect, the article is considered the first piece of what would become known as Gonzo Journalism.

Gonzo (1970-1974)

  • Strange Rumblings in Aztlan (1970)
  • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1972)
  • Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 (1972)

Bill Cardoso, editor of The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, wrote to Thompson praising The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved, calling it "pure Gonzo." Thompson liked the term and adopted it.

In 1971, Rolling Stone commissioned Thompson to write a story about the death of Mexican-American television journalist Rubén Salazar during an antiwar protest. At the same time, Sports Illustrated hired Thompson to contribute a short photo caption for a motorcycle race being held in Las Vegas. Thompson combined these assignments and took one of his sources for the Salazar piece (eventually published as Strange Rumblings in Aztlan) to Las Vegas. The piece he sent to Sports Illustrated was much longer than the assignment and was rejected, but Jann Wenner liked the piece and encouraged Thompson to keep working on it.

Rolling Stone #96, November 1971
Rolling Stone #96, November 1971.

The end result was Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson’s most famous work. It was originally published in two parts in Rolling Stone in 1971 and then in book form in 1972. The book codified what Gonzo Journalism was: Intensely personal, wildly fictional, soaked in drug use and excess, and yet informative and well-observed. Thompson used the persona of Raoul Duke, traveling with his attorney to Las Vegas to cover both a narcotics officers’ convention and the Mint 400 Motorcycle Race that inspired the Sports Illustrated commission. The famous first line of the novel, “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold,” set the tone for the rest of the hallucinogenic, paranoid, and bitingly funny story that aggressively blurred the line between journalism, fiction, and memoir. The book explores the sense of doom and sadness surrounding the increasingly clear failure of the counter-culture to affect any sort of real change in the world, and the souring of drug culture into criminality and addiction.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was a critical and commercial success, and cemented Thompson’s position as a major new writer as well as introducing the Gonzo aesthetic to the world. Thompson continued to work for Rolling Stone, and was sent to cover the 1971 presidential campaign. In accordance with the Gonzo ethic, Thompson spent months following the candidates on the campaign trail and detailing what he saw as the disintegration of the Democratic party’s focus, which ultimately allowed Richard Nixon to win reelection. Thompson utilized the relatively new technology of the fax machine to push his Gonzo style to its limits, often transmitting pages of material to Rolling Stone just before his deadline.

The resulting articles were combined into the book Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‛72. The book was well-received and introduced the Gonzo concept to political journalism, influencing future political coverage significantly.

Decline and Later Work (1974-2004)

  • The Gonzo Papers (1979-1994)
  • Better Than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie (1994)

In 1974, Rolling Stone sent Thompson to Africa to cover “The Rumble in the Jungle,” the world heavyweight boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Thompson spent almost the entire trip in his hotel room, intoxicated on a variety of substances, and never actually submitted an article to the magazine. In 1976, Thompson was scheduled to cover the presidential election for Rolling Stone, but Wenner abruptly canceled the assignment and sent Thompson instead to Vietnam to cover the official end of the Vietnam War. Thompson arrived just as other journalists were leaving in the chaotic wake of America’s exit, and Wenner then canceled that article as well.

This strained relations between Thompson and Wenner, and began a long period of isolation and decline for Thompson. Although he continued to write articles from time to time for Rolling Stone and other venues, his productivity fell off significantly. At the same time, he became increasingly reclusive and left his Colorado home less and less frequently.

Between 1979 and 1994, his main published output were the four books that compose The Gonzo Papers (The Great Shark Hunt, 1979; Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the '80s, 1988; Songs of the Doomed: More Notes on the Death of the American Dream, 1990; Better Than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie, 1994), which largely collected older articles, more current pieces, and personal essays. Thompson continued to follow politics closely, however, and he obsessively watched television coverage of the 1992 presidential campaign that saw Bill Clinton elected. He collected his thoughts and observations on the campaign in the book Better Than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie.

Thompson’s early novel The Rum Diary was finally published in 1998. Thompson’s last article, The Fun-Hogs in the Passing Lane: Fear and Loathing, Campaign 2004 appeared in Rolling Stone in November, 2004.

Thompson And Depp
Author Hunter S. Thompson and actor Johnny Depp attend a book signing at Virgin Megastore, New York, 1998. Rose Hartman / Getty Images

Personal Life

Thompson married twice. He married Sandra Conklin in 1963 after dating her for several years; the couple had a son, Juan Fitzgerald Thompson, in 1964. The couple divorced in 1980. In 2000, Thompson met Anita Bejmuk; they married in 2003.

Death

Thompson committed suicide by shooting himself in the head on February 20, 2005; he was 67 years old. His son Juan and his family were in the house; Anita was away from the house and was on the phone with Thompson when he shot himself. Friends and family described Thompson as depressed about his age and declining health. Thompson’s friend, actor Johnny Depp, arranged to have Thompson’s ashes fired from a cannon in accordance with his wishes. The funeral was held on August 20, 2005, and reportedly cost the actor $3 million.

Legacy

Thompson is credited with creating the genre known as Gonzo Journalism, a reporting technique that infuses the personal observations, motivations, and thoughts of the writer directly into the event being covered. Gonzo is marked by a highly personal style of writing (as opposed to the traditionally objective style utilized by journalists) and fictional and speculative elements. Often the subject of the piece becomes a minor part of the writing, used largely as a springboard into the larger themes the writer wants to explore. For example, Thompson’s The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved is more concerned with the behavior and moral character of the people attending the Kentucky Derby than the sporting event, despite the race being the reason for the article.

He was also a towering cultural icon, closely connected to the counter-culture of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The visual image of Thompson wearing Ray Ban sunglasses and smoking a cigarette using a long holder remains instantly recognizable.

Sources

  • Doyle, Patrick. “Rolling Stone at 50: How Hunter S. Thompson Became a Legend.” Rolling Stone, 18 July 2019, https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-news/rolling-stone-at-50-how-hunter-s-thompson-became-a-legend-115371/.
  • Brinkley, Douglas, and Terry McDonell. “Hunter S. Thompson, The Art of Journalism No. 1.” The Paris Review, 27 Feb. 2018, https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/619/hunter-s-thompson-the-art-of-journalism-no-1-hunter-s-thompson.
  • Marshall, Colin. “How Hunter S. Thompson Gave Birth to Gonzo Journalism: Short Film Revisits Thompson's Seminal 1970 Piece on the Kentucky Derby.” Open Culture, 9 May 2017, http://www.openculture.com/2017/05/how-hunter-s-thompson-gave-birth-to-gonzo-journalism.html.
  • Stevens, Hampton. “The Hunter S. Thompson You Don't Know.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 8 Aug. 2011, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/07/the-hunter-s-thompson-you-dont-know/242198/.
  • Kevin, Brian. “Before Gonzo: Hunter S. Thompson's Early, Underrated Journalism Career.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 29 Apr. 2014, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/04/hunter-s-thompsons-pre-gonzo-journalism-surprisingly-earnest/361355/.