WHEN RALPH MET HUNTER
The story of the improbable gonzo friendship between a polite cartoonist and a rude journalist
A Life in Ink Ralph Steadman Chronicle Chroma
The very last drawing in Ralph Steadman's new book is a self-portrait showing him wild-haired and red-eyed. It first appeared on the cover of Between the Eyes, a collection of his satirical cartoons and drawings published in the 1980s.
Steadman, 84, is speaking from Maidstone, Kent, and the Georgian house where he lives with his wife, Anna. Their daughter Sadie, her husband and two sons also live there — two households, in the one large home.
Hardly a day goes by when he is not at work.
“And just now on my board, I've started doing teeth ... I'm not sure what it's going to be. I tend to do that. You make a mark ... Or dirty water is good. Pour dirty water on to a piece of paper, and you let it dry — it takes three or four days. And the smellier it is, the more interesting the dried textures are. It's like you've harnessed an experience of life, and it shows.
“A lot of people say to me, `but you're not really an artist, are you? You're only a cartoonist.'” He laughs. “I don't know what I am. No, I'll tell you what I am: a pictorial polluter.”
A Life in Ink traces Steadman's career over more than 60 years, from his early sketches of London street scenes and museum exhibits, through his work for newspapers and magazines, his travels in the U.S. — most notably with Hunter S. Thompson — to his various books on subjects as diverse as Leonardo da Vinci and Sigmund Freud.
It is a riotous journey through his favoured betes-noires over the years — politicians, from Harold Wilson to Donald Trump, bankers, the judiciary, priests, Palm Beach society ladies, Republicans, people who just seem to rub him up the wrong way — all rendered in Steadman's frenzied, ink-spattered signature style.
Anyone unfamiliar with Steadman might imagine his drawings to be the product of a tormented and often furious imagination. In fact, he is most genial, almost jolly.
“I wanted to change the world,” he says. “And 60 years on I've succeeded: It's worse now than it was when I started.”
While doing his National Service in the RAF as a radar operator, he saw a newspaper advertisement: You too can learn to draw. He was soon sketching pictures of barrack-room life, “finding my direction.”
He went on to work as a cartoonist for regional newspapers, then The Times, and periodicals such as Punch. But it was his work with Thompson for Rolling Stone magazine that would truly make his reputation. Together their words and pictures were the embodiment of what became known as gonzo journalism — in Thompson's case, a stream-of-conscious reportage, fuelled by copious drugs and alcohol.
Steadman first met Thompson in 1970 when he was invited by the magazine Scanlan's Monthly to work with him on a piece about the Kentucky Derby. The night before leaving New York for Louisville, he had dinner with friends, one of whom was a representative for the cosmetics firm Revlon. It was only as he was climbing the stairs to their apartment that Steadman realized he'd left his inks and colours in the taxi. He flew to Kentucky next morning, his bag packed with lipstick and eyeshadow samples to use as a makeshift colouring kit.
“I had a little goatee at the time and hair out here. Hunter looked at me and said, `Holy God, a matted hair geek with string warts. Where the f--- did they dig you up from?'”
The assignment, more a drunken binge, ended with Thompson spraying Steadman with Mace and damning him as “worthless.” It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship.
“If there was any one person I should have met in America it was him, because we were so different,” he remembers. “I was being polite to him, and he was being rude as hell to me.”
He would go on to illustrate Thompson's work for articles, books and movie posters — an obliging Sancho Panza to Thompson's deranged Don Quixote. In 1980, Thompson visited Britain and stayed with Steadman to work on their book The Curse of Lono. (Thompson's first visit in 1974, en route from the Ali-foreman Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire, had resulted in unfortunate scenes at Brown's Hotel in Mayfair. He was accused of trying to rape one of the maids and of shooting pigeons on the window ledge with a Magnum .44.)
One gets the impression that while a brilliantly original journalist (and an attention-seeking quasi-sociopathic prankster), Thompson was not a particularly nice man.
Steadman thinks about this. “He was OK ... He wasn't a bully.”
But definitely unhappy?
“Well, everything wasn't right. He wanted it all to fall into place — but it didn't.”
Steadman was at home when, in February 2005, he got the call from a U.S. friend. “He said, `Hunter's just committed suicide.'
“I knew he'd do it, but I was still a bit shocked. He'd told me he would. He said, `I'd feel real trapped in this life, Ralph, if I didn't know I could commit suicide at any moment.' He had 23 fully loaded guns in his house. I used to draw him a target and he'd put it up and shoot it.” He pauses. “He just loved shooting things.”
All this talk of death has darkened Steadman's mood. At heart he's a cheerful man — if, in some ways, a disappointed one. “I did think the world was unjust. And I wanted to make it safer and fairer. I thought we'd become better, more enlightened, kinder. I'm a bit sad about the way things have gone,” he says. “But I don't despair.”