The Mystery of Hunter S. Thompson

This originally appeared in the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) on February 22, 2005, as “Larger Than Life, A Mystery in Death.” I wrote it the morning after Hunter Thompson’s suicide, at the request of Mike Wilson of the Times, and at the suggestion of his colleague Kelley Benham. I adapted it as used it as the preface to Outlaw Journalist. Thanks, Mike and Kelley.

‘Word of his death was a shock to me, but not particularly surprising ….  More than anything else, it came as a harsh confirmation of the ethic that [he] had always lived but never talked about … the dead-end loneliness of a man who makes his own rules …. I don’t even know where he’s buried, but what the hell? The important thing is where he lived….
Hunter S. Thompson, writing about a friend, 1967

After a certain age, you learn that when the phone rings at midnight Sunday, it’s never good news.

Click on the cover to order.

“Dude!” It’s an old friend. Though we haven’t spoken in years, I know his voice instantly. He’s a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. “Hunter’s dead. He killed himself tonight.” Pause. “I thought you’d want to hear it from a friend.” Then he’s all business, asking me about Hunter Thompson and his place in American culture and journalism history. I shake off my grogginess and bark a few words of benediction and semi-scholarly wisdom into the phone.

I’m supposed to know a lot about Hunter Thompson. I wrote a book on him in 1991 and worked with him on a literary anthology in 2000. I hosted him when he spoke at a university back in the late 1970s, and we had drinks together when we covered the 1984 Democratic Convention. When he visited Florida, he’d sometimes call and suggest I drive down to Palm Beach and party with him. Usually, I was relieved to have some other commitment. The thought of partying with Hunter Thompson reminds me that amateurs shouldn’t try to play with professionals.

We hadn’t spent a lot of time together, so I never felt that I could legitimately call him a friend. But he was good to me. He gave honest, detailed answers to my questions when I was writing my book, and he gave me his unique seal of approval by writing me a note threatening to have my eyes gouged out for writing it: “How fast can you learn Braille?” The letter, with its many vulgarities, is framed in my University of Florida office. When I put together that anthology a few years ago, while other writers held me up for thousands of dollars to reprint their pieces in our little low-budget book, his fax came back with a scrawl over the contract: “This is free for you, Buddy.”

Not long after I’d remarried, he sent me an inscribed copy of his book Kingdom of Fear, in which he’d named me to his honor roll. He wrote, “Dear Bill: I just got married today, so I’ll make this note short. Congratulations on your new one too. Life is humming along smartly out here on the farm. Give me a ring sometime.” He doodled on his signature and noted the time: 4:24 a.m.

He was so happy. And now, a year later, this phone call.

So, after doing my professorly duty and dispensing wisdom, I hang up with the reporter and stand in the middle of the dark bedroom. “What is it?” my wife asks drowsily.

“It’s Hunter,” I say. Around the house, we call him and Bob Dylan by first names, in comic presumption of familiarity. “He killed himself.” I tell her what I know. Then she says, “Say a prayer for him.”

And so I go downstairs, pour myself a couple of fingers of Wild Turkey, and think about Hunter Thompson.

His writing has always been in the shadow of his larger-than-life persona. Even people who didn’t read books knew who he was: that crazy dude who took all those drugs and was played in the movies by Johnny Depp and Bill Murray, that wild man who showed up on TV now and then, mumbling so much you couldn’t understand a word.

Thompson was his own worst enemy because he fed that caricature. But the fact is he was a marvelous writer. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is perfect in the same way that The Great Gatsby is perfect. Take a pencil and read those books, looking for something that doesn’t sound right, something you’d want to change. You’ll leave the pages untouched.

He came from Louisville and his mother tried to raise him to be a Kentucky gentleman, but his father’s early death shook Thompson and steered him toward a career as a delinquent. Given a choice of jail or the military, he chose the Air Force and served most of his career at Eglin, the huge base in the Florida Panhandle. After getting chased out of the service, he drifted through the bowels of journalism, once getting fired for destroying a newspaper’s vending machine. Perhaps this should be his epitaph: “He had a problem with authority.”

Hunter S. Thompson at work on the Command Courier at Eglin Air Force Base in 1957

He didn’t graduate high school, but taught himself to write, retyping books by writers he admired: Steinbeck, Hemingway, Faulkner . . . the usual heavyweights. He said he wanted to get inside the rhythm of their language and find his own style.

He drifted through the Caribbean and began sending dispatches to The National Observer, a feature newspaper conceived as a Sunday edition of the Wall Street Journal. The editors loved his work and his observations about culture south of the equator. After a couple of long-distance years, Thompson came back to the States but his relationship with the paper soon soured. Thompson was not the sort of writer to sit in an office and churn out copy with the necktie crowd. He split with the Observer.

Married and soon to have a son, he settled into the San Francisco Bay area and sold his blood while his wife worked as a motel maid. He was serious about his writing, but it wasn’t paying. Then he wrote a piece for The Nation about the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang, and book offers stuffed his mailbox. He rode with the Angels for a year, got stomped by them, and had his first national fame, as that lunatic reporter who went on the road with those outlaws.

He had a lot in common with them. He called himself an outlaw journalist because he didn’t follow the same rules as everyone else. His journalism was usually about journalism: No matter what he started off writing about, he ended up writing about Hunter Thompson trying to cover a story.

Then came the marriage made in literary heaven: When Thompson began working with Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner in 1970, he’d finally found the perfect partner, someone who understood him and gave him space. Their first major collaboration turned two failed magazine assignments – one for Sports Illustrated and one for Rolling Stone – into a masterwork.

Hunter in Las Vegas

When it appeared in Rolling Stone, the byline read “Raoul Duke.” But it was too good for a proud author to ascribe to a pseudonym. When it came out in book form in 1972, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was credited to Hunter S. Thompson.

My students still carry that book around, tattered paperbacks jutting out of ass pockets. To students in my journalism classes, Thompson remains some kind of god. One of my old reporter buddies said, “He did what we all wanted to do, but he actually had the balls to do it.”

Thompson told me this in one of our interviews: “As a journalist, I somehow managed to break most of the rules and still succeed. It’s a hard thing for most of today’s journeymen journalists to understand, but only because they can’t do it. . . . I am a journalist, and I’ve never met, as a group, any tribe I’d rather be part of or that are more fun to be with – in spite of the various punks and sycophants of the press. I’m proud to be part of the tribe.”

In my introductory journalism course, I assign the 240 students to pick a book from a list of more than 300 titles and write a brief report. More than one-third read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Hunter Thompson is still a hero to those who want to be journalists.

It has always been that way. When I was a younger, single professor, I knew when the phone rang at midnight it was usually a drunken college student who’d just had some epiphany while reading Fear and Loathing, something they had to talk over with their professor right now. Usually, they wanted me to come over and talk about Hunter and maybe pick up a 12-pack on the way. That L.A. Times reporter had been a frequent midnight caller in school, whenever he had a Hunter Thompson moment to share.

Wenner and Rolling Stone gave Thompson license to cover politics and culture, and Thompson settled into his role as American sage from his fortified compound in Woody Creek, Colorado. For most of America, Hunter Thompson was a character, a writer more famous for his personality than for what he wrote. He always blamed Garry Trudeau for ruining his life by modeling the Doonesbury character Uncle Duke after him. (He threatened Trudeau’s life too, so maybe he was all talk.)

Hunter in a still frame from Wayne Ewing’s film “Breakfast With Hunter.”

The image was an enhanced version of reality. Thompson spoke in hyperbole but up close was kind to most people who approached him, even when they spurted incoherent drug fantasies: “Hunter, remember that time we had a joint, like eight years ago in the back of a car in L.A.?” He’d politely pretend to remember.

He was a good and decent man.

I’m finishing the Wild Turkey when the phone rings again, at 2:30 a.m. It’s a student from my literary journalism class. “Hunter’s dead,” he says. “Did you hear?”

“Yes, I heard. Are you okay?”

He takes in a long breath. “I’ll be all right. I just can’t believe it. Hunter’s dead.”

“Yes, I know.”

I may know a lot about Hunter Thompson, but I don’t know why he did this.

Say a prayer for him.

Copyright © 2020 William McKeen