"I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence or insanity to anyone but they always worked for me." Hunter S Thompson

The act of suicide for some sections of society is, somewhat strangely, frowned upon. In the case of Hunter Stocton Thompson, the self-proclaimed "doctor" of gonzo journalism, though, it seems somewhat bizarrely appropriate.

The outlandish journalist and author of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" who killed himself with a gunshot to the head on the 20th February 2005, chronicled the American life since the late 1950s.

According to Joseph DiSilvio, of the Pitkin County sheriff's office, the death was not witnessed but said: "At this point in the investigation we feel confident this was suicide." Thompson used a .45-calibre automatic handgun to kill himself. According to sources reported in the "Rocky Mountain News", Thompson, although apparently in good spirits, had previously hinted at killing himself.

The writer Norman Mailer said that Thompson "had more to say about what was wrong with America than George W Bush can ever tell us about what is right."

Thompson, who is largely credited with inventing the term gonzo journalism, rejected the orthodox stance of journalism in being detached and objective from the subject and giving a balanced account of events. Instead, Thompson, along with the likes of Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe and Truman Capote, put themselves at the heart of the action, bringing themselves into the story in an attempt to capture the truth as they saw it. The followers of what became known as the new journalism saw that traditional journalism had failed to capture the reality of 60's America and they sort out a new means of expression. Effectively, Thompson would live and breathe the same air as his subject, recounting the tale in a pacy, stream of consciousness style. As he wrote in 'The Great Shark Hunt', "the writer must be a participant in the scene... like a film director who writes his own scripts." He became, in effect, the enfant terrible of journalism.

Thompson's aggressive, cynical and sceptical style was at odds with the orthodox political reporting style of the time embodied by the likes of Theodore H. White. Thompson broke up the notion of unquestioning respect for politicians that journalists previously had and placed himself as an active observer. Beneath all the drug-crazed antics was a sane and moral commentator that specialised in "the death of the American Dream".

The phrase "fear and loathing" that has now passed into the lexicography of everyday life was first used by Thompson in a letter to a friend in 1963 to describe his reaction to the assassination of John F Kennedy. The phrase was used as part of the title to his most famous book - 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas' (published 1972) - about a drug-fuelled trip to the American city to cover an ill-defined journalistic assignment for a "fashionable sporting magazine in New York". The novel, which grew out of two features for "Rolling Stone", captured his wild trademark style dealing with paranoia, rage, anxiety and self-absorption as he set out to burst the idealised notion of the American dream. Spending the expense account on a cocktail of drugs the protagonist Raoul Duke and his attorney spend a manic time breaking orthodox conventions.

And Thompson's lifestyle matched the hard-living attitude expounded in his work. The Duke, as he was also known, would consumer vast amounts of drink and drugs on a daily basis making him an iconic figure with rock and roll musicians - and even working with Warren Zevon. His influence also stretched to music journalists - most notably the respected rock critic Lester Bangs.

As a teenager in high school in Louisville, Kentucky, he went off the rails after the death of his father, an insurance agent, when he was 15 and fell into acts of petty crime like vandalism, theft, break-ins and heavy drinking. At 17 he was sentenced to 60 days in Louisville's children's centre for armed robbery. On being released after 30 days he supposedly bought a case of beer and threw one bottle at a time through the window of the school head who had blocked his return to school and so ensuring that Thompson didn't actually graduate.

For the following 10 years Thompson largely drifted aimlessly working at various jobs like a copyboy for Time magazine and even enlisted in the air force. He even started on an autobiographical novel called 'Prince Jellyfish' but never finished it.

In the early 1960's, though, he began to get recognised for his off-beat profiles of bikers, hippies, migrant workers and drifters as he spent two years as the Caribbean correspondent for the "National Observer". Also of great concern was the subject of politics and politicians, whom he generally considered to be criminals and no good. He delivered his political opinions with brutal bluntness. He once wrote, during the re-election campaign of President Nixon in 1972: "How low do you have to stoop in this country to be President?"

Thompson saved most of his vitriol for then presidential candidate Richard Nixon. Interviewing Nixon during the election of 1968, Thompson described him as "a brute in need of extermination" saying that he spoke "for the werewolf in us". In 1979 Thompson dedicated his collection of articles, 'The Great Shark Hunt', to Richard Milhous Nixon who "never let me down". In return, Nixon described Thompson as representing "that dark, venal and incurably violent side of the American character".

He moved to San Francisco in 1963 where he became steeped in the city's burgeoning hippie culture and would have a fundamental effect on his outlook.

'Hell's Angels', Thompson's first book published in 1966, was a vivid portrayal of the outsider biker gang. In researching the book he spent a year living with the bikers but didn't quite immerse himself fully in the role. Maintaining his distance by not riding the motorcycle of choice, a Harley Davidson, and keeping away from dressing in black leather. Thompson ultimately got a severe beating from the group after they suspected him of profiteering from his writing at their expense. Thompson though managed to get enough information to write his book about his experience, which later he would describe as a "bad trip". 'Hell's Angel's' marked the arrival of a new voice in journalistic circles and commissions quickly came in from the likes of 'Esquire' and 'Harper's' and people embraced his outspoken style.

His first assignment for 'Rolling Stone' - published as 'The Battle of Aspen' - was his account of unsuccessfully running for sheriff in Pitkin County, Colorado in 1970 as part of the Freak Power Movement.

His gonzo style reached maturity with 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas' - which, in part, was inspired by his admiration for Beat writer Jack Kerouac's 'On the Road'as well as other American writers such as F Scott Fitzgerald and JP Donleavy.

Although Thompson was a hero to members of the counter culture, he did not sit comfortably with liberal ethics. He blamed America's failure in Vietnam on "cowardly faggots and spies".

At the height of his powers Thompson burned extremely brightly but inevitably he couldn't maintain the intensity. He effectively ran out of steam and became something of an object of parody. Garry Trudeau's balding character Uncle Duke in his Doonesbury comic strip effectively lampooned the writer. "I suspect writing is a bit like f**king," Thompson once wrote, "which is only fun for amateurs. Old whores don't do much giggling."

He is survived by his wife of two years, Anita and his son, Juan, from his first marriage to Sandy Conklin.

Hunter Stocton Thompson, journalist and author, was born 18th July 1937; died 20th February 2005, aged 67.


Hell's Angels (1969)
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1972)
Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 (1973)
The Great Shark Hunt (1979)
The Curse of Lono (1983)
Generation of Swine (1988)
Songs of the Doomed (1990)
Silk Road (1990)
Better Than Sex (1993)
The Proud Highway (1997)
The Rum Diary (1998)
Screwjack and Other Stories (2000)
Fear and Loathing in America (2000)
Kingdom of Fear (2003)
Hey Rube (2004)

Related Links:

Commenting On: 1937-2005 - Hunter S. Thompson

ie London, England

tick box before submitting comment

First Previous Next Last