The ‘gonzo’ life: Book says Thompson’s fame was a trap

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Robert Stacy McCain

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

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