Sunday, February 17, 2013
At age 16, he was jailed for 60 days for robbery which prevented him from graduating high school. Aimless and desperate he enlisted in the Air Force. After serving two years, he took night classes in creative writing. In 1961, he hitchhiked across country and landed a job as security guard at Big Sur Hot Springs (which later became the Esalen Institute).
In 1963 he married Sandra Conklin and the two settled in San Francisco. Thompson immersed himself in California drug and hippie culture and began writing for the Berkeley underground paper The Spyder.
In 1965, The Nation paid Thompson to spend a year riding with the Hell's Angels and writing about his experiences. The Angels demanded a share of Thompson's fees. When he refused they gave him a savage beating. His subsequent book Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs became a huge success. This led to well-paying writing gigs with the New York Times, Esquire and Harper's.
In 1967, Thompson and his wife bought a home in Woody Creek, Colorado. Thompson was deeply affected by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and the police beatings of protesters at the 1968 Democratic Convention. His words became more political and incendiary and his writing style became personal, rambling and manic. The journalist Bill Cardoso labeled this new subjective style as Gonzo Journalism.
In 1971, Rolling Stone hired Thompson to write about the killing of journalist Ruben Salazar by the LA Sheriff's Department. Thompson decided to leave racially-charged Los Angeles and drive to Las Vegas with Mexican-American activist Oscar Acosta. Thompson's impressionistic account of this road trip became his greatest book, Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. The novel is a hilarious drug-filled, hallucinatory rumination on the failure of 1960's counterculture and the "death of the American Dream." Accompanied by expressionistic illustrations from artist Ralph Steadman, Fear And Loathing made Thompson a literary sensation.
Hunter followed this up with Fear And Loathing On the Campaign Trail about his time covering the 1972 presidential campaign. Thompson became a vicious critic of Richard Nixon whom Thompson described as a man "who could shake your hand and stab you in the back at the same time." After Nixon's death, Thompson wrote "he was evil in a way that only those who believe in the physical reality of the Devil can understand."
In 1980 Thompson and his wife divorced. Thompson became more isolated and fixated on firearms. His substance abuse continued and his behavior became increasingly erratic. In 1981, he was arrested for drunk driving and "raving" at a Colorado state trooper. He visited Jack Nicholson's house with a massive amplifier and broadcast the sound of a pig being eaten alive by bears while shooting a 9mm semi-automatic rifle at Nicholson's home.
In the 80's, editors began critiquing the quality of Thompson's work. Celebrities like Bill Murray and Johnny Depp made movies of Thompson's books which fueled the "gonzo myth" but Thompson continued to struggle. In 1990, he was accused of sexual assault at his Colorado home. Charges were dismissed though a search of his property turned up drugs and a stash of dynamite. In 2000, Thompson accidentally shot his assistant Deborah Fuller after "mistaking her for a bear" (she lived).
In 2005, plagued by numerous chronic and painful medical conditions, Thompson took his own life by shooting himself in the head. At his funeral his ashes were shot out of a massive cannon with red white and blue fireworks while Norman Greenbaum's song "Spirit In The Sky" played in the background. Johnny Depp paid for the funeral expenses. (5" x 6", black ink print)