It was another time, another place.
The time was the ‘60s, the decade that broke our hearts. Everything seemed possible at the beginning, but by the end, John F. Kennedy, Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy had all been assassinated, thousands of young Americans and millions of Vietnamese people had been killed in a war that still can’t be explained, and Richard Nixon was president.
The place was Aspen, a small gathering of light and heat 9,000 feet up in the vast White River National Forest. There and then, that plain, lost, contrary small town, was as far away from America as you could get without actually leaving the country. It was already on its way to becoming another luxe American mosh pit, but if we knew that, we didn’t admit it – even to ourselves.
We were the new lost generation.
The night Hunter Thompson and I met, he had just made $50 for driving a car full of bamboo birdcages from San Francisco to Aspen for a local interior designer. I gave him drinks, dinner and a bed. In the morning, he gave me his lucky silver dollar and got on a train to go home to Louisville.
We became fast friends that night and were friends for a long time.
For a while, he was a correspondent for the National Observer in South America, and, returning to San Francisco, he wrote a book about the Hell’s Angels, and then he came to Aspen to stay. A friend of mine had a small house and six acres in Woody Creek that he wasn’t using. Hunter lived there until he bought a larger house and some land further up Woody Creek, where he lived for the rest of his life.
We had Kentucky roots in common. We were both journalists who wanted to write novels. Actually, he’d written his first novel, Rum Diary, before we met, but no one would publish it. We both admired F. Scott Fitzgerald extravagantly. We both thought we’d be dead before our 30th birthdays, but we were wrong. We improvised.
My house was Hunter’s in-town HQ. He did his first radio interview from there. He was there the night Bobby Kennedy was shot (we believed that if we stayed up all night, he wouldn’t die, but we did, and he didn’t). We ran Hunter’s campaign for sheriff of Pitkin county from there. And, for a while, we led the movement to save Aspen from the inevitable boom from there. We failed.
Hunter was an extraordinarily talented writer — original, funny, iconoclastic – but he didn’t have the standard novelist’s gifts, and that bothered him, so he invented a new kind of journalism.
It was Bill Cardosa of the Boston Globe who named it “gonzo“ journalism. Linguists still debate the origins and meaning of gonzo, but whatever it meant, it sounded right and it stuck, and no journalist made a more enduring mark on the 60s and 70s than Hunter. He mixed the surreal and the real, black bile and blacker humor to get to the truth. On the campaign circuit in 1972, he was the boy on the bus who said, again and again, that the bastards were buck naked. He wrote what he saw, and what he imagined was behind what he saw, and, more often than not, he was right.
He spawned a host of imitators, and legions of fans. Jann Wenner may have founded Rolling Stone, but Hunter gave it its voice.
Then, in a turn only he could have conjured, he became his own principal competition.
His alter ego, sometimes known as Raoul Duke, the wild man who turned up in his stories, the crazy guy who trashed hotel rooms and drank more Wild Turkey than there was, and didn’t take a step without fistfuls of drugs, became a new American icon.
As it is for all first-rate writers, writing was always hard for Hunter, but he could make major money by simply appearing at colleges and universities and riffing extemporaneously for an hour or so. It was not only more profitable than writing, it was a hell of a lot easier, and more fun.
As the wild man hit his stride on stages around the country, he turned up more and more in Hunter’s work. After a while, it wasn’t Thompson and Duke, it was Thompson vs. Duke. And Duke was winning.
One night, I told Hunter that he was in danger of being consumed by his own creation. It was Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde redux. He knew I was right, but he shrugged and said it was a game and he could end it any time, and the money was really good.
Years after Hunter gave me his lucky silver dollar, he gave me a silver tray that was inscribed “To Peggy with insufficient funds. HST.” Money was always on his mind. By his lights, there was no such thing as enough, because often there was none.
And so the brilliant writer, the quintessential New Journalist became America’s favorite anti-hero, the savage chronicler of life in the soulless heart of America, and was idolized and emulated by several generations of college kids.
I left Aspen before it became what it is now, spent a couple of good years in self-imposed exile in Philadelphia, and then returned to the Southern California beaches where I’d spent my childhood.
Hunter continued to publish books and magazine articles, as well as doing what had become a stand-up routine. Rum Diary was finally published, not because it was a good novel, but because it was one more book by Hunter S. Thompson.
The last time I saw Hunter was at UCLA. Some students in the audience were dressed like him – in Converse low-top white sneakers, LL Bean shorts, plaid shirts and crew hats. Bottles of Wild Turkey were lined up on the stage like tributes.
Hunter arrived in a stretch limo with a covey of publicists and when he came out on the stage, the audience gave him a hero’s welcome. But when he began to talk, seriously, about politics, it was clear the audience wanted the wild man, not the journalist, and so Hunter did Duke, and everyone was happy.
A couple of months ago, an assistant of Hunter’s called to verify my phone numbers and address and so on. And the next thing I knew, someone on CNN said he’d shot himself.
At first, I was as angry as I was sad. I hadn’t seen him in a long time, but I needed him to be in the world. According to CNN, he had a broken leg, had recently had a hip transplant, and was in pain, but it wasn’t until I saw a recent photo of him that I understood why he’d killed himself. He was becoming an old man and he didn’t know how to be an old man.
What can I tell you about Hunter that you don’t know? Yes, he drank a lot, but in all the years I knew him, I only saw him drunk once. Yes, he did drugs, but not nearly as many, nor as often, as he claimed.
He was portrayed twice in the movies – by Bill Murray in Where the Buffalo Roam, and Johnny Depp in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Murray’s portrayal was dead on. Depp’s wasn’t. He was a brilliant writer who never tested the outer limits of his talent. And he was that very real and very rare thing – an authentic Southern gentleman.
And he wasn’t an anti-hero, of course, he was an American hero – part Tom Paine, part Jonathan Swift, all Hunter Thompson, a bad boy from Louisville, Kentucky, whose last wish was that his ashes be shot out of a cannon.
Describing himself, L.A. playwright Donald Freed might have been describing Hunter when he wrote, “I was a hard case and I never became respectable and never traded away or gave up the wild and radical visions of childhood which I take to be the truth.”