The ‘gonzo’ life: Book says Thompson’s fame was a trap
Celebrity became a trap for Hunter S. Thompson, as the famous “gonzo” writer strove to live up to his self-created image of a drug-addled wild man. That notorious image was firmly based in reality, as dozens of witnesses testify in “Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson.”
“Once he became famous for being Hunter, it made reporting his stories more difficult,” said Corey Seymour, who worked with Mr. Thompson in the 1990s and co-authored the new biography with Rolling Stone publisher Jann S. Wenner.
“At a certain point, Hunter liked to be known as a legend,” Mr. Seymour said in a telephone interview. “At other times, he wanted to be treated simply as a writer and a person. The problem was, you’re not always in control of flipping that switch. That was a source of frustration for Hunter.”
The book tells the story of Mr. Thompson’s life through the eyes of his family, co-workers and friends, some of them famous — including Jimmy Carter, Jack Nicholson and Jimmy Buffett — with an introduction by actor Johnny Depp, who portrayed Mr. Thompson in the 1998 movie version of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”
Mr. Thompson, who committed suicide in February 2005 at age 67, wrote frequently about his consumption of drugs and alcohol. The new biography chronicles the extent of Mr. Thompson’s substance abuse and the problems it caused.
“Hunter was an alcoholic, a serious alcoholic,” Ed Bradley of CBS News says in the book. “Hunter got up and drank for breakfast, he drank all day, he drank all night. And he was a drug addict. [. . . ] He was a serious addict.”
A Kentucky native, Mr. Thompson worked as a newspaper sports editor and freelance writer before gaining fame with his 1966 book “Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Mo- torcycle Gangs,” featuring his firstperson perspective of a year spent riding with the gang. He was hailed as a practitioner of the colorful writing style called “the New Journalism” — along with Tom Wolfe and others — but Mr. Thompson coined the term gonzo to refer to his own work.
Drugs are a frequent theme in his writing. He wrote a 1967 feature about the rise of the drug culture in San Francisco, and his 1971 book “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” — which first appeared as a two-part series in Rolling Stone — made him a hero to a generation of stoners. Yet the drug use that helped make him famous also led to missed deadlines, failed assign- ments and broken relationships.
“I’m sure that quantities [of drugs] like that would take their toll on anybody,” Mr. Seymour said. “The amazing thing to me was how long he was able to pull that off and stay as productive as he did. The way he lived his life would have killed most people decades earlier.”
The biography began taking shape immediately after Mr. Thompson’s death, Mr. Seymour said. It includes inside glimpses of the deadline process — “a relentless siege,” Mr. Seymour calls it — necessary to bring Mr. Thompson’s articles to print.
“Hunter thrived on deadlines and would not turn in a piece until he knew deep in his heart that vir- tually the entire editorial staff was up around-the-clock waiting for him to file,” Mr. Seymour said. “It was very stressful for all parties concerned — for Hunter, for Jann, for other editors involved, for the production department, the art department, Hunter’s assistants, everybody.
“It’s just the way he was built. [. . . ] Everything he did from a very young age was infused with a huge amount of drama. It seems to be something he needed to motivate himself for his best work or his best fun.”
The book also explores Mr. Thompson’s relationships with women — including his first wife, Sandy, who divorced him in 1980. They describe him as a courtly Southern gentleman on some occasions, and as angry, abusive and violent at other times.
“There was a certain Dr. JekyllMr. Hyde aspect to his personality,” Mr. Seymour said, referring to one episode recounted in the book by Sandy Thompson, when she asked her husband whether he knew when his mood was about to turn dark. He replied: “I’m just standing here, and I have a sense that something is about to happen. And then I start to turn my head, and it’s here. The monster’s here.”
One of the women in Mr. Thompson’s life not quoted in the book is the writer’s widow, Anita Thompson, who married him in 2003.
“I actually conducted a number of interviews with Anita,” Mr. Seymour said. “Unfortunately, she ultimately asked that we not use those interviews.”
Mrs. Thompson’s criticisms of the Wenner-Seymour book made tabloid headlines in New York two weeks ago, when she told the Daily News that the book “sensationalizes Hunter unnecessarily.”
The book is “relentlessly negative,” Mrs. Thompson, 34, said in a telephone interview with The Washington Times. “They promised this was going to be a fair and positive biography of Hunter’s life.”
She blames Mr. Wenner for editing the biography to create the impression that “Hunter was great until he [left] Rolling Stone” to write columns for the San Francisco Examiner and ESPN.com.
“He wrote more in the final five years of his life than he did in the previous 15 years of his life,” said Mrs. Thompson, who recently published “The Gonzo Way: A Celebration of Hunter S. Thompson,” and currently is working with Tulane University professor Douglas Brinkley on a collection of her husband’s interviews to be published next year.
“Some of Hunter’s most astute writing was in those ESPN columns,” she said. “He took those very seriously, just as seriously as he took his writing in Rolling Stone. [. . . ] He was reaching hundreds of thousands of readers through his ESPN column but Jann says it was ‘humiliating.’ [. . . ] That attitude goes throughout the book.”
She noted that her husband’s brother, Ohio businessman Davison Thompson, also declined to participate in the Wenner-Seymour project. But Mrs. Thompson admitted it is risky to pick a fight with the publisher of Rolling Stone: “Nobody says ‘no’ to Jann Wenner.”
At a September appearance in Washington, Mrs. Thompson said, “A lot of young people are under the assumption that if you do a lot of cocaine and drink a lot of Wild Turkey, you, too, can write like Hunter S. Thompson.”
On the folly of attempting to imitate the gonzo lifestyle, she and Mr. Seymour are in agreement.
“Unfortunately a lot of people have tried that. It just doesn’t work,” said Mr. Seymour, describing Mr. Thompson as “sui generis” — one of a kind.
“Anybody who tries to imitate him will fail,” Mr. Seymour said. “What’s important in terms of his legacy is the rock-bottom essence of what he tried to do, which was to speak truth to power and along the way, use humor as a Trojan horse with which to smuggle dangerous ideas into the brain.”
Hunter S. Thompson