Well what can I say, Gonzofest 2019 was an absolutely amazing experience. I’m still recovering from the experience and have loads of things to share. First up I just want to share a few links to some media coverage of the event, with particular thanks to Laurel Deppen of the Louisville Courier Journal who interviewed me at Gonzofest.
All the best,
Onstage at Gonzofest with thanks to photographer Jeffery Parrish
6 things you didn’t know about Hunter S. Thompson’s life in Louisville
He was arrested — and left Louisville
In 1955, Thompson’s senior year of high school, he was charged as an accessory to robbery and served 31 days in the Jefferson County Jail. Because of this, he missed his final examinations and wasn’t allowed to graduate.
Thompson’s childhood was always split between his literary side and his “juvenile delinquent side,” said Rory Feehan, a Thompson scholar.
“These two competing sides really shaped Hunter Thompson,” Feehan said. “Of course, inevitably, one side got him into a whole heap of trouble. That incident where he was arrested … is probably the most formative episode of his career — his life. It really is. That left such a mark on his psyche.”
To leave Louisville, Thompson joined the Air Force.
He’s a Kentucky Colonel
In December 1996, poet Ron Whitehead produced a tribute event to honor Thompson’s work. There, Thompson was named a Kentucky Colonel, a title that recognizes achievements and service to the community, state and nation, according to its website.
Thompson would only accept the title if actor Johnny Depp, his friend who played him in 1998’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and again in 2011’s “The Rum Diary,” received the title as well. Depp was born in Owensboro.
The pair’s Kentucky roots contributed to their bond. Feehan said Thompson was able to trust Depp because they were from the same “neck of the woods.”
After they received the titles, Thompson insisted on referring to Depp only as “Colonel Depp,” Feehan said.
“He wouldn’t do that kind of thing if he didn’t want to be associated with the culture here, so he was proud of it. He had issues with it, but he was proud of it,” Feehan said.
The ‘Year of Gonzo’ is Louisville’s love letter to Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson
Today, there is a growing and renewed literary interest in Thompson’s most iconic works, not just his caricature, according to Rory Feehan, a Thompson scholar who holds a doctorate of English language and literature.
“He is an icon,” Feehan said. “He revolutionized journalism. Tom Wolfe called him one of the greatest comic writers of the 20th century, kind of the counterculture’s Mark Twain, and I just think that Hunter didn’t quite get the recognition he deserved, which is understandable in a way because of the character.”
That’s changing today as his work is becoming more mainstream — something the author might have actually hated.
The Speed Art Museum exhibit on Thompson focuses on the years between 1965 and 1974, when Thompson wrote some of his most notable work, including “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and “Hell’s Angels.” Both Thompson’s words and the visuals that accompanied them remain relevant and timely nearly 50 years later, said Erika Holmquist-Wall, curator at the Speed, 2035 S. 3rd. St.
“I think visitors will hopefully come away with a better understanding or want to come back and revisit (Thompson’s work) and really read what he was writing and get a sense of what he was trying to achieve: calling out American culture and counterculture at the time,” Holmquist-Wall said.
Revisiting the work nearly 50 years later begs the question of what Thompson would write about American culture today, Holmquist-Wall said.
“We can only surmise,” she said. “I think it would be equally no holds barred.”
Feehan said it’s a pity Thompson is no longer alive to write about what Feehan says is the “outrage age.”
“I’ve often been thinking lately about what would Hunter be like on Twitter,” Feehan said. “What would a 4 a.m. Twitter back-and-forth between Hunter and Kanye West be like? Or Donald Trump?”
Speaking at the Speed Art Museum Exhibit with thanks to photographer Jeffery Parrish
This new summer exhibit honors the legacy of Hunter S. Thompson
This summer, the Speed Art Museum will present an exhibition centered around one of Kentucky’s most famous exports, writer Hunter S. Thompson. A lynchpin in the world of modern investigative journalism, Thompson’s approach to reporting would not only lead to the creation of the unique “Gonzo” style but would serve to change his medium forever. Gonzo! will take a closer look at the professional and personal collaborations that Thompson enjoyed with the artists and photographers who were tasked with illustrating his work and articulating his unique voice through visual means.
By narrowing the scope of the exhibition to the decade between 1964 and 1974, Gonzo! will track the peak of Thompson’s rise to success from his first major independent work in long-term investigative reporting, Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, to his sardonic analyzation of the Nixon campaign, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. The works produced within that decade led to the Thompson’s development of Gonzo journalism – a subjective, socially critical, participatory style of writing that helped to define the American cultural and political landscape of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Gonzo! An Illustrated Guide to Hunter S. Thompson is the last of three “Gonzo”-related exhibitions taking place in central Kentucky as part of the Year of Gonzo. The first, Ralph Steadman: A Retrospective, was on view at the University of Kentucky Art Museum until May 5, while the second, Freak Power: Hunter S. Thompson’s Run for Sheriff, is currently on view at the Frazier History Museum. Those who visit all three exhibitions and retrieve a novelty pin from each will receive a custom designed notebook.
In celebration of the exhibition’s beginning, the Speed Art Museum is partnering with GonzoFest Louisville, the annual literary and music festival honoring Hunter S. Thompson. The Museum’s monthly After Hours @ the Speed event on July 19 will serve as the official kick-off for the festival, featuring a panel conversation between Hunter’s son, Juan Thompson, Kentucky author Ron Whitehead, moderated by WFPL President Stephen George, as well as a gallery talk with Curator Erika Holmquist-Wall and Hunter S. Thompson scholar, Dr. Rory Feehan, and live music highlighting the songs of Thompson’s most prolific decade.
Buy the ticket, take the ride – Gonzo! An Illustrated Guide to Hunter S. Thompson opens at the Speed Art Museum on July 12, 2019 and will close on November 10, 2019.
Delighted to contribute a chapter on Hunter S. Thompson to this forthcoming two-volume set which will be published in October 2019.
From the publisher:
This two-volume set surveys the profound impact that political humor and satire have had on American culture and politics over the years, paying special attention to the explosion of political humor in today’s wide-ranging and turbulent media environment.
Historically, there has been a tendency to regard political satire and humor as a sideshow to the wider world of American politics—entertaining and sometimes insightful, but ultimately only of modest interest to students and others surveying the trajectory of American politics and culture.
This set documents just how mistaken that assumption is. By examining political humor and satire throughout US history, these volumes not only illustrate how expressions of political satire and humor reflect changes in American attitudes about presidents, parties, and issues but also how satirists, comedians, cartoonists, and filmmakers have helped to shape popular attitudes about landmark historical events, major American institutions and movements, and the nation’s political leaders and cultural giants. Finally, this work examines how today’s brand of political humor may be more influential than ever before in shaping American attitudes about the nation in which we live.
Documents the history of political humor in the United States in all of its many forms, with the bulk of coverage weighted toward contemporary political satire and satirists
Covers writers, cartoonists, radio personalities, television and movie performers, and internet celebrities
Profiles influential television programs, movies, and other forms of entertainment that have made their mark on American politics and culture
Includes a chronology of events
Many thanks to Jody Baumgartner for affording me this opportunity.
A collection of over 180 letters by Hunter S. Thompson recently went up for auction in Los Angeles but failed to meet the reserve of $110,000.
Nate D. Sanders Auctions posted a detailed breakdown of the entire collection which can be read below.
I’ve posted these here mainly as a form of record, given that this is the only public information available on these remarkable letters.
I’ll be posting a further update regarding the importance of this collection in due course.
Dr. Rory Patrick Feehan
Extraordinary archive of over 180 letters by Hunter S. Thompson during the pivotal period of Thompson’s life during the 1960s, with nearly every sentence bursting with visceral, incisive, creative and confessional observations in Thompson’s quintessential Gonzo journalistic style. Archive includes Thompson’s famous letter written the day of JFK’s assassination (the complete letter, which was only partially published in “Proud Highway”), and other extremely controversial letters, such as brutal and unpublished details of his time at the Slates Hot Springs in Big Sur, where he patrolled the grounds, including the baths, when he served as its caretaker. Many letters deal with writing “The Rum Diary”, his time with (and beating by) the Hell’s Angels and the book about them that made him famous, and trying to get published in the early 1960s when he was a struggling author. All but two of the letters are written to Thompson’s childhood friend, Paul Semonin, with one letter written to another friend, and a telegram written to the author Tom Wolfe. Many letters are signed with Thompson’s initials “HST” with others signed in type (and circled by Thompson), and numerous others concluding with funny epithets such as “Mister Magnum”, “Boomer”, “Dr. Bloor” and “Whitey”. Letters total 182 plus three drawings; of these, 49 are autograph letters signed, 126 are typed letters signed (with many of these containing handwritten notes by Thompson), one is the Wolfe telegram and 7 are postcards containing short notes. Of the 182 letters, 25 have been published in “The Proud Highway: The Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman 1955-1967”, leaving over 150 unpublished with very personal content, giving insight into Thompson’s belief system and influences as a young man. The quotes shows here are excerpted in very small part from what is hundreds of pages of Thompson’s writing.
Letters begin in February 1955 when Thompson was a 17 year old, writing to Semonin at Yale University. Signed “Hunter S. Thompson”, he writes in small part about their friendship, “…the knowledge that I can think of you as my friend means more to me than you might suspect…As you know, there are degrees of friendship and I’ve always felt that your friendship for me has been of a condescending nature…you’ve always seemed to have a Midas touch so far as accomplishment was concerned, while I was the ‘black sheep'”. He also writes about his problems with the law at that time, and having to testify against the man who sold him liquor, as an underage adult; Thompson famously spent what would have been his high school graduation in jail. He finishes the letter with a drawing of a coffin to symbolize Yale basketball.
Thompson’s next letter is dated 6 September 1958, on “Time” magazine stationery, where he worked as a copy boy at the time. Signed “Hunter”, letter reads in part, “The egalitarian haste of the modern american negro will put us all in the grave: all in the same grave…so that no one shall be either higher or lower than anyone else in the final worldly reckoning. / I trust this letter will find you in a frenzy of spine-snapping patriotism…the queers in Washington are predatory as hell…I think they’re pushing this ‘democracy’ thing too far when they insist that all of us–men and women alike–have the same sexual tastes…”
Thompson’s next letter, published in “Proud Highway” is dated 26 September 1958, with his thoughts on Khrushchev, Mao and other world leaders. He writes, “…Is it any wonder that Billy Graham is so popular? Oh God give us anything but reality!” In his next letter sometime in 1959, he writes about “lecturing on the Beat Generation [for] $20 an hour”, and then follows it up with several letters back home in Louisville, Kentucky, where he writes, “…my trip convinced me that the white, southern anglo-saxon ‘race’ is without a doubt the world’s stupidest…” He continues with an odd-funny story about being in the apartment of a possibly married woman, “I woke up…and found a huge man in shorts and a cigar standing over the bed, jabbering about friends and bastards sleeping in his bed…”
On 14 September 1959 he mentions an article he was writing entitled “The Dry Rot of American Journalism”, and contacting William Styron, asking for his agent’s name and address. He composes a bit of prose, “I give you a thought, my man, for the season: ‘The child that sucketh long is shooting up……’ / ‘Shooting up?’ you ask. ‘Shooting up where?’ And I shall say to you: ‘Shooting up the soft and hairless leg of God, in search of fiery loins to rub against his own’…”
In a letter dated 2 October 1959 from Louisville he writes about a mutual friend of theirs, “Listening to him was a stinking nightmare! He is, in all seriousness and compassion, a really frightening ass. And god knows, it’s people like Rutledge who’re trying to keep the vote from the niggers!…Things here are otherwise bleak and depressing…I’ll drown if I stay here much longer…” He follows up with a letter dated 14 October 1959, in part, “And for God’s Sake, don’t tell anyone that I’ve left Louisville. All sorts of people are after me – police, creditors, ins. companies, etc…Everything is vile and threatening…Cheerio: HST”.
The next chapter of Thompson’s life begins in 1960 with his move to San Juan, Puerto Rico where he wrote for “El Sportivo” and other newspapers. In one of his first letters he writes, “…if nothing happens to foul the water, I think I’ve come upon the good life…By February 1, I should either be fired or solidly entrenched…” On 18 January he writes, “Dear Bullroar: Lightning-quick Thompsonesque coup shatters dwelling barrier! Beach house acquired…it’s about the size of a toad’s crotch in a freezing rain…I’ve contracted dandruff, rummism, and the jungle rot…”
At the end of 1960, Thompson and Semonin traveled cross-country together from New York to Seattle, and then hitchhiked down the coast to San Francisco, where Thompson settled. In a stream of consciousness letter dated 25 October 1960, Thompson writes from a bar in the Fillmore district, referring to himself as “Doctor Jazz”, who “prowls the foggy streets, seeking food. / O where is the jazz of yesteryear, the lost paycheck of my servile youth? where are the sacked liquor lockers of my Kempian days?…” Four days later he writes, “I commence walking my thumb toward Carmel & Big Sur…found slur on my ego…”
In an undated letter written just after the 1960 election, Thompson refers to the Kennedy win, “we got the touchdown – where do we go from here?…Drinking continues. Sex enters…trouble looms…” Also in this letter, Thompson types up a funny full page parody of the Nixon-Kennedy debate entitled “THE GREAT DEBATE”, where JFK answers “Foah” to the question of “What is two plus two?”, whereas Nixon equivocates on the answer in a long self-congratulatory monologue, finally disagreeing with Kennedy that the answer is “two TIMES two.”
On 20 November, he’s still without a job, “Meanwhile I fester…Queers have taken me in…I am destitute.” On 1 December, his girlfriend Sandy has arrived and he mulls over the meaning of the term “human garbage” used by a mutual friend; he concludes, “that segment of the un-washed masses prone to art, writing and other ‘time-wasting’ devices.” He also writes of a mutual friend, whose “‘good friends’ are G[regory] Corso & William Burroughs. Corso, she says, is writing a novel called ‘Fuck.'”
On December 15 he pens a letter, “The Lord knows where I’m going and the Devil knows who I’ll marry, but everything else is up for grabs…Big money looms. Great Puerto Rican novel now underway.” In late 1960 he writes, “Merry Xmas. No one is pregnant here; how about your shop?…Leechfully, Scarcrotch”. In this letter, he also mentions his novel “Prince Jellyfish”, but here refers to it as “Princess Jellyfish”.
His luck turns in early January 1961, where he sends a picture postcard of Big Sur, with an arrow pointing to Slates Hot Springs, writing, “Just spent Xmas & X-eve in hot sulphur baths…Just me & Sandy.” In a letter dated 6 January published in “Proud Highway”, Thompson writes in the third person, “Mr. Thompson…was kidnapped by queers on NYeve and borne off to the south country…Mr. Thompson will probably deny this, but I think he feels a bit insecure these days…’A woman is fascinated not by art, but by the noise made by those who have to do with art…Massively, [signed] HST”.
On 18 January 1961 he writes, “…am moving into massive castle on cliff above sea, rent $15 per mo. Have also gained control of Eng. Triumph motorcycle (a wild and terrible thing…Fat days are here.” On 3 February from “Manor House”, he refers to the “Birmingham bit”, his suicide plan to drive off a cliff in a car filled with dynamite. He adjusts the plan slightly here to drive off the cliff on a motorcycle (“less impressive, but more personal”). He continues, “…Or as a symbol of ‘the promise of life’…my pendulum has swung toward the sun, and now I fear the inevitable plunge toward darkness…My other plans are to remain on this warm cliff until the completion of The Rum Diary…” In early February he writes, “I have turned my genius to re-creating Big Sur in the image of Playboy. If it bounces I will do the blood-dance…When the big money is there in front of you…strange things will happen in a poor-boy’s brain.”
On 13 February 1961 he writes about wanderlust and giving his dog a “flea massacre” in the sulphur springs, “…You should have heard the queers howl when I plunged this huge dog into the roman tub. They pay $1.25 each for their baths; I living on the property, pay nothing…” He continues, writing about his desire to travel, “…it lays there like a talking sugartit, luring me on, coaxing me out of my sunset womb…”
Also in February he sends a handwritten note, in part, “I am once again headed for fatherhood. I am getting tired of it. A bad joke is funny once…but not twice of three.” Accompanied by a three-paragraph story entitled “It’s Cheaper to Buy Sandals” about a struggling author and journalist who dies of Hutchinson’s disease, “nobody gave a damn. He didn’t even get an obituary…”
An incredible letter is written on 20 March 1961 to Semonin as “Dear long-slick haired queer”, in part, “This is the 13th consecutive day of jabbering whiskeythink…I sense another orgy of destruction, the second in ten days. Last friday I beat down a door with the riding crop and hurled several bed-size benches down the cliff to the sea, drove a horde of queers from the baths, denounced all the sick fuckers in Big Sur, and generally fouled my image in this area…The smell of eviction is in the air…I seriously feel my sanity slipping…”
On 23 March he writes, “On Monday gave a display of mild violence for the crowd — most of them left quickly. Violence, it seems, is its own reward.” A few days later he writes a funny letter about sending photos of Semonin that he took of him during their cross-country trip, “If you can find nothing in this batch to equal your vision of yourself, I can only wonder what the snow has done to your mind…Now working on Rum Diary & will finish it before leaving.”
On 10 April he writes, “Also get my human-skin lamp from Syracuse…Just got back from week of skin-diving in Baja Calif.” And then on 8 May, “New version of an old problem here. This time my balls appear to have done the deed…” Also on 8 May he writes to his friend George Logan, referencing JFK’s problems after the Bay of Pigs, “…It appears that Mr. Kennedy has at least a few false teeth & I am beginning to think we might be better off with Nixon…”
On 21 May 1961, Thompson writes from Big Sur in small part, “In Tiajuana [sic] I bought a switchblade knife for 70cents, one of the finest purchases I have made in many months…” He gives comments on Semonin’s book concluding with, “it sounds good — good enough, in fact, that the only advice I can offer is to count on it falling through…My shallow experience is: when you count on things, they go boom — and when you forget about them they sometimes work…” He then writes, “Yes, the Big Sur thing was all lies.”
In late May or early June he writes in part, “…am working fitfully on Great PR novel – The Rum Diary. Also …stalking boar & generally raising hell…” Also in June he berates a mutual friend for accepting a slot in a bank training program, “When I get back to Louisville I’m going to come steaming into your apartment…like a beast of hell, the sun flashing on my stained teeth and my lips curled back with thirst for whiskey…Rum Diary progressing viciously…”
On 24 June 1961 he writes, “The Rum Diary is mush-rooming into a beastly thing, full of hell and humping and slander…Boomer”. He follows up on 1 July, “…I hauled out a small letter from Rogue magazine…Now, 3 days later, I am flat broke & not a bill is paid…But I am armed at last” (referring to his use of the money to buy a pistol rather than paying rent).
Dated 14 June, but likely 14 July, Thompson writes in small part about a visit from their mutual friend, Eugene McGarr, “…McGarr seems to have either lost or buried a chunk of himself that I kept looking for, but never reached, not once, during the entire week, did we talk of anything but food, money and stale politics…I think McGarr has merged so completely with Eleanor that he is no longer himself…this is a bit disturbing to see in a man…The Rum Diary is moving at a speed that pleases me. It has balls so far and I think it will do the trick…” He adds a handwritten note, “I bought a huge Doberman name of Agar for $100 (on hundred) Yes. Also a pistol for $70. & now I can’t pay the rent”.
In one of the most disturbing letters in the collection, Thompson’s tendency for violence meets his disdain for the clientele that frequent the Hot Springs. In a highly edited excerpt, and perhaps exaggerated, Thompson talks about the event that started with disrupting a friend’s wedding held on the estate, “I write this with…a fresh dose of the Fear. The dirty paw of violence gave me a long shove down the path to eviction…After shooting a bottle of brandy off the table, blasting all the glasses & a head of lettuce, destroying the windows, I headed for the baths…I may or may not be visited by the sherrif [sic]…but the main thing at the moment is to get this goddamn book finished and keep out of jail.”
In a letter dated 13 August, Thompson writes that he has “staved off the dogs” of eviction. He tells Semonin to “hurry over & we will shoot & drink & flatter each other.” On 26 September he writes, “bad deal in TiaJuana [sic] – blew $400 on phoney operation – doctor did nothing – now we face it again – time passing, child growing, terror mounting…Poverty is setting in & disaster looms. I may flee.” Three days later he writes, “Have just been evicted…down to $8…” In early November, he writes on a train en route to Louisville, “I am traveling with 3 guns, 2 gallons of wine, no money, Agar & a big can of gun powder…must finish Rum Diary in rent-free premises. Sandy in N.Y…”
In a long letter dated “Nov ? 1961” from Louisville published in “Proud Highway” (though incorrectly identified as sent to Eleanor McGarr), Thompson writes in small part, “Through the empty house floats the voice of Joanie Baez, an eerie sound to my restless ears…I get the Fear whenever I go outside…Pawned the rifle this morning & put $10 down on a Luger…”
In his last letter of 1961, dated “NY eve”, Thompson writes, “Novel is bogged down horribly. Starting over again…too many details & errands & wasted time saying old things to old people. Only the shooting has kept me clean…Yeah. – H”
Over the next five months, Thompson lived in New York, working on “The Rum Diary”, before he left for South America in May 1962 as a reporter. On 8 January he writes from Louisville, “Dear Wordman…Novel exploded, guns unsold, nothing written, confusion all around. My lowest ebb since SF – ugly…” In the next two letters from New York, spanning 7 pages and published in “Proud Highway”, he writes in small part, “you’ll have to pardon me for not having the faintest idea what the fuck a trump card is……except that it sounds big and bad…I am just becoming aware that a man must literally squeeze his own balls to write a good book…I have lost faith in the system…It’s this money hanging over me that does it. That and the novel…”
On 11 March 1962, he writes, “Dear Humbert…The RD is almost there. I can hardly belive [sic] it, but feel certain it will never be published. No matter. Just to finish the bastard is enough…” On 21 March he writes about time and aging, and also about Peron in Argentina, noting “South America is blowing wide open now & I’m half-wild to get there”. He tells his friend, “I’d advise you to stop thinking about age 30. The future is the next 6 months — no more…Writing a novel is the shittiest thing a man can undertake…My final word is don’t waste your money on clocks.”
On 19 April 1962 he writes, “The Rum Diary went to an agent last Friday & I await comment, but with little optimism. It is 366 pages long & I think you might like it, but god knows who else. Except me, and I’m not even sure of that…It is easy to see now, Why The Man Who Goes to the Right Parties gets published, and the Man Who Stays Home gets fucked.”
On 10 May, he writes from Aruba en route to Bogota. Published in “Proud Highway” (mis-datd as 5 May there), he notes that since he’s broke, “I am going to have to do a lot of smiling.” He then sends a picture postcard of himself, as a model, writing over it, “el poseur”. In the next two letters, published in “Proud Highway”, he writes in small part, “there is at this moment a beetle the size of god’s ass on the table about 6 inches from the t-writer…worse than anything Kafka ever dreamed…a sexual deadness in the air that makes me feel I might be locked up for looking at women on the street…Sandy reports that the agent still has not read the novel after six weeks. It will take him six minutes, I think, to skim 15 pages & toss it aside as the work of a crank…”
From Bogota on 13 June, he writes, “I sold my Aruba piece to the National Observer…Sent them another & they said it was ‘magnificiently [sic] funny’ but they didn’t know if they could use it. God I hope so – probably $150 more!…3 people just escaped from Alcatraz – the foundations are going.”
In a very lengthy letter written 27 July 1962 from Ecuador, Thompson writes in part, “it is late as hell and I am in a shitty town, writing on pills…I am so starved for a sane soul to punch at that I would sit up all night on nails if I thought it would mean a contact…the massive lonliness [sic] is my only real bitch…I feel like I am in it alone here, that even the most enlightened people I talk to don’t have the faintest idea what I’m talking about…Inquisitively, H”.
On 4 August from Peru, he writes an epic letter, published in “Proud Highway”, in very small part, “Dear Niggerboy…They made a show of having free elections here, a queer won, the army didn’t like it and the army took over. The fact that the army and the bankers are still very much on speaking terms sort of speaks for itself. The only ones who think democracy is going to work here are the people in Washington…The grey areas are missing and the whole picture is vastly clearer…”
His 28 August 1962, published in “Proud Highway” reads in part, “I for one see definite humor in the rape of nuns…Life has improved immeasurably since I have been forced to stop taking it seriously…”
In a quick letter penned from Rio on 18 September he writes, “Brazil is the noise I’ve been after. Rio is the nuts. A madhouse if one was ever built…” Writing on “Brazil Herald” stationery on 29 October from Rio, he writes, “it gives me an odd feeling to know there is a pistol in the pocket…The lust to fictionalize is coming back…”
From Rio on 1 November 1962, Thompson writes, “We cannot afford to take ourselves too seriously. That is inevitably the fate of those who get mixed up with studying the habits of niggers. And if this be prejudice, for gods sake have the vision to laugh at it…We have a long way to go and we don’t need any black furhers to take us there. (Fuehers? Fuerhers?) Fuck it…HST”.
He continues in his next letter on 1 December, published in “Proud Highway”, “Jomo Kenyata is a man with a beard and a spear and bright eyes and probably a cyst or two on his balls whose only ambition as far as I know is the acquisition of power. The fact that he is black is incidental, but it is also a fact…I have tonight been reading a stupid, shitty book by Kerouac called Big Sur…”
1963 begins with a busy Thompson, writing from Rio on 20 January, “I am writing constantly for the Observer and pulling in about $400 a month — $500 of which goes to meet my expenses…[William] Kennedy has the Rum Diary and I curiously await a verdict…I am pondering Africa. Send word and advice. I am also pondering suicide. If you have any advice on that, you may as well send it. Bingo, H”.
An extremely dense, near-novella letter is written on 22 February 1963, in small part, “Dear Blackbuster:…I seem to be losing the thread — not so much in my thinking, which is becoming more lucid and tormented (yeah) as time goes by — but by the act that my thoughts and my actions no longer jibe. I am so fucked up that I don’t even have carbon paper to preserve this letter…The horrible thing about it is that I am now making money…Sandy thinks I am going to pieces and I have to deny it because I am…[I] savagely attacked two punks on the street for teasing a dog; beat the shit out of them both in the middle of Av. Copacabana, right in front of a police station with a crowd of about 200 people looking on…I am beginning to believe that in the malignant massiveness of society it is only by single, senseless acts of violence that a man can define himself…”
In his next letter on 29 February 1963, in addition to a lengthy letter, Thompson draws a funny cross-eyed picture of himself as “man in a funk”. He follows it up with a 15 March letter from Rio, in part, “right now i need a break from the spics and I need it bad. Maybe Copenhagen…I am living in a world of cracks, breaks, fizzles, lies, treachery, & overall thirdrateness. My desire to get out is at the point of desperation.” He writes on 29 April from Lima to “Sr. Balderdash…I am off on a mad scheme…absolutely penniless except for a British pound note & the glorious remnants of a half-made reputation…I am running out of sanity & today tore up a hotel room like a wild dog.”
In May, Thompson was back in New York, and writes about a week before his marriage to Sandy Conklin, in part, “…I desperately need peace and thinking room. Big Sur has gone chintzy on me. No hope there. Maybe Aspen…I am going bald…” He writes from Florida on 6 June, “Dear Karl…Our disasters are private, our bombast is public, & our shame & desperation is secretly shared.” In this letter he draws a stick figure of “God” over the sun.
The Thompson clan then head to Woody Creek, Colorado, where they spent the rest of 1963 and early part of 1964. In a letter on 4 November, Thompson goes into great detail in recommending a gun to Semonin and concludes that paragraph with, “You should only purchase a Luger after first laying hands on a dependable killer…I will attempt to communicate at a later date, when rage, hysteria and poverty have somewhat abated.”
Hunter keeps a watchful eye on Semonin’s property while he’s in Colorado and writes on 11 November, “The influx of deadbeats has begun…More people know about the place than you think — and all the worst people. Word is out that you’re a rich communist…” In an undated letter written sometime in mid-November, published in “Proud Highway”, Thompson writes, “…The fucking Reds are putting the pressure on me…I have reliable information that the Denver branch of the IJC is behind this harrassment. [sic] Those communist shits! I used to blame the Wall Street warlords for my troubles, but now I know better…”
On 14 November 1963, Thompson writes, “Forsake your African habit of procrastination…The Reporter…bought my Louisville piece after the Obs. had the shitty gall to bounce it…Maybe now I can write for people I might want to talk to…I feel like the clouds parted.” Thompson then gives Semonin a good deal of helpful advice on how to get his photos published in newspapers.
One of the most famous and important letters that Thompson wrote, the lengthy 2pp. single-spaced letter written the day of John F. Kennedy’s assassination is included in this archive, showing Thompson’s most idealistic feelings, and without his usual bravado. In “Proud Highway”, this letter is combined with Thompson’s letter dated 28 November, so page 2 of this JFK letter is unpublished. Dated 22 November, letter reads in part, “I am trying now to compose a reaction to the heinous, stinking shit-filled thing that occurred today…That the bullet should have come from the Far Left is the filthiest irony of all…I started to cry but figured that was not called for, so cursed instead…Where do we go from here? All of you cheap book-store Marxists who had the answer yesterday had better buy bullets…HST”.
Thompson’s next letter, written 28 November, spans two pages, with the second page published in “Proud Highway”. Letter reads in part, “And when you want to ‘intimidate’ me, try something besides threatening me with your friends. They may be intimidating people, for all I know, but your vague ‘mentions’ thus far smack of such in-group hero-worship that I don’t feel particularly unjust in expecting just a bit more…It may be that the facists [sic] will do us all in the end, but not before getting their balls twisted. ”
Thompson next writes an epic 5pp. letter on 1 December 1963, most of which concerns Kennedy’s assassination and world politics, but also includes a detailed story about Thompson almost losing his life to a speeding automobile that took off one of the doors to his car: “it’s as close as I’ve come in a while to a religious experience”, after he and a friend parked to look over the side of a cliff where they saw a car at the bottom. He then jousts with his friend, who seems to have embraced extreme left wing politics, at least according to Thompson: “your group…a half-baked gang of ‘revolutionaries,’ basking in the dubious status of a Marxist pecking order that impresses me the same way I was impressed by Esquire’s ‘establishment’…Certainly the killing of Kennedy is part of the pattern; he might have been the big maverick to queer the odds, but now I see no hope of it…there is big talk of a Nixon win in ’64…Regardless of the outcome, I think the U.S. has shot its wad in this world…I see a downhill run like England’s…the East, controlled by China, is in the ascendancy…” Thompson then compares Thomas Jefferson to Karl Marx, regarding each man’s writings on the “Rights of Man”, and then continues, “Castro said Oswald couldn’t have killed Kennedy because nobody uses a scope except to shoot 500 or 600 yards. You know how true that is, so try to avoid that sort of bullshit and tell me something original…It is a terrible thing to have Kennedy killed and still not know exactly who did it, or why. The whole thing has been a goddamn nightmare…Lengthily, HST”.
In the next few letters written in late 1963, Thompson continues to challenge Semonin in his political beliefs, but with wry humor always running throughout. He lists a series of questions that Semonin must answer, beginning with “1) Where did you lose your sense of humor?” and then, “11) Is it healthy to have no doubt? / 12) Why is Nixon dangerous? / 13) How do you skin a deer with a dull knife?…A man must keep his sanity and his balls…Dr. Bloor”. He writes about hunting and politics in his next letter, “Johnson is coming on strong: he just announced that the U.S. was ready for talks with Mao whenever they felt up to it. That’s progress. Unlike Kennedy, he is going to have to work for the ‘liberal’ vote, and it may push him to wild action…Keep the faith — HST”
In a letter dated 3 January (1964) from Woody Creek published in “Proud Highway”, Thompson writes, “You accuse me repeatedly of being ‘anti-Marxist.’ I am not…There are two main evils in the world today: One is Poverty, and the other is Governments…maybe that it’s just that I won’t play the Big Game until it stops looking phoney…HST”.
On 20 January 1964, Thompson writes in small part, “I hear you are going to Harlem…Shit, you’ll be a hero in Harlem. Go somewhere and find out how it is to be a bum. Go to Dallas…Johnson’s bullshit is beginning to drive me wild…God fuck us all…I think poverty looms. It may be the only salvation — unless I run for president…HST”.
Thompson’s letter dated 31 January is published in “Proud Highway” and reads in part, “Between Fanon and Bob Dylan I think the blood is moving in my brain again. Dylan is a goddamn phenomonen [sic], pure gold…The tension is ugly. Sandy is in the eighth month…Returning to this country has crippled my spirit; it is easier to be an American abroad…HST”.
Thompson writes a funny/cutting eulogy of his friend in his 1 February 1964 letter, in part, “in his middle years he grew dogmatic and retired into books and theories. Some witchdoctor is said to have inserted a needle into his coxyx [sic] bone and drained out all the fluid. Mr. Semonin then took solace in his own balls, which he could no longer see, due to rigidity of the spine…That is the problem in this country; the network of pleasant ignorance that surrounds nearly everything…Sincerely, Lord Chesterfield”.
In a 11 March 1964 letter published in “Proud Highway”, Thompson writes from Glen Ellen, California, where the family moved. In part, “Dear Doctor Strangelove:…And for shit’s sake stop calling me a ‘liberal.’ I gave up calling you a Communist a long time ago, and the least you can do is return the favor…I am still writing for the White Negro press, alias The Reporter, and am considering a spot with the Saturday Evening Post…Why don’t you subscribe to Time?”
In an informative letter dated 16 March with “I was evicted again” scrawled in his hand at top, Thompson writes in part, “I have just had my first belly to belly encounter with your ‘phoney liberals.’ Both ‘writers.’ And sellers. In the end, one proved out to be an Eisenhower Republican and the other an out-right, fuck all Bircher. And I turned out to be a ‘stinking, sleazy sellout to the Reds.’…” Thompson continues the letter with detailed thoughts and observations on the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X, the “white power structure” and the establishment who’s “got the fear”.
In a letter dated 7 April 1964 published in “Proud Highway”, Thompson writes in part, “Dear Blowhole…the idea of a Negro Nationalist party in this country is madness, because there are too many people in this country just waiting for an excuse to act like the racists they are. Hell, I have a strain of it myself, and the only thing that has brought me around this far is the fact that every time I’ve seen a black-white confrontation I’ve had to admit the negroes were Right…”
In his letter dated 28 April 1964, published in “Proud Highway”, Thompson is worried about the responsibility of fatherhood, “For the past two months I have been in a black bog of depression, fathering a son, living among people more vicious and venal than I ever thought existed, and bouncing from one midnight to the next in a blaze of stupid drink…”
In a letter dated 23 May, published in “Proud Highway”, Thompson writes, “…we will both be old men before the world power structure rests on another three-cornered sense of humor like Khrushchev, Kennedy and Pope John. / I was wrong when I said the negro had already won his right in this country…” A month later, on 23 June, he writes, “Dear X…Unlike you revolutionaries, I can’t get a dole from the Ford Foundation…’The people’ are a myth. They are their own enemies – life is a bread riot…HST”.
On 31 September 1964, Thompson writes a lengthy letter from his 318 Parnassus apartment in San Francisco, where he would live while riding with the Hell’s Angels. In part, “I carry a billy in my pocket and mean to inquire as to the feasibility of carrying a .44 magnum. It is dangerous to walk around this city at night. Beatings, mugging, rapes and no help from onlookers have become so common that ‘vigilante committees’ are forming…I just finished a review of Donleavy’s latest ‘collection.’ He’s done for. Gone creepy sentimental, like Salinger, who may be dead by now.” On 7 October, Thompson writes, “At times I get a feeling that I’m coming back to my sanity, but then the noise begins again and I hit the sink…The nagging lust to rewrite the novel prevents me from focusing on journalism, and the necessity of paying the bills with journalism keeps me from focusing on the novel. There is no excuse for my chaos…”
Another epic 4pp. single-spaced letter is dated 12 October, reading more like a non-fiction novella than a letter; pages are numbered up to six, so it appears that pages two and four are missing. Letter reads in part, “Drink and TV football. Sudden, senseless boozings in this rollercoaster fog. A land of the dead and dying, the desperate fat and fanatically fit, icepick smiles above wooden tits, the dull end of a bad dream…Wiser, perhaps — or ‘more mature,’ in the argot of the whipped — but not much smarter…The gimmick is to survive…The secret is in believing your own bullshit…I think I might have a go at the bible, see what those people meant when they talked about Faith. Faith in what?…Your letter was the usual mass of lies, ignorance and innuendo…You devious red muthorfuckor I know better than to take your garbage seriously. I heard about you and [Porter] Bibb’s wife in the pantry…Don’t come around here you godless creep…Zapata”. Thompson goes into detail about politics, Malcolm X and his theory that everything revolves around man’s universal fear that someone is “fucking his wife”.
Thompson’s next two letters, totaling 6pp. with handwritten notes, was written over the course of ten days, from 15 November-25 November 1964. Published in “Proud Highway”, letters reads in part, “Juan Lechin [Vice President of Bolivia, in exile in late 1964] has become astonishingly rich…he had himself shaved and barbered. He then emerged, looking and smelling somewhat like Ronald Reagan, and mingled with the mob like an oily Lyndon Johnson…A true anarchist is the only man who can afford to relax in this world; his vision is clear and true, his aims are simple…Johnson doesn’t know Chile from chili, and doesn’t give a damn either. I think we are in for the final slide; eight years of it, unless he dies…You are the Gatsby of the Marxist Left, old sport; he had his silk shirts and you have Tomorrow’s Gospel…The enemy is any man who is willing to take the necessary steps to protect his own short-term interests…often never admitting it even to himself…” He also talks about watching Goldwater’s speech on the floor at the Republican convention and feeling afraid because he was the only person not cheering.
In his last letter from 1964, Thompson writes, “Dear Ringo” on 18 December, in part, “why I feel the need for a half-apology re: my last screed. For some reason I misread the tone of yours and replied with uncontrolled spleen…I feel accusations all around, zeroing in on me…I spent all last night in a bitter clash with three Wall st. journal staffers…These people feel guilty and don’t know why; it is the radical hangover, a nagging fear that they have not lived up to the dream they were taught to worship…Whitey”.
In a letter dated 5 February 1965 published in “Proud Highway”, Thompson writes a humorous 2pp. letter from his San Francisco home, in part, “Well Bobo…discount any propaganda you get from Marin County. That is like somebody from Greenwich telling you NY is ‘great, man, just great.’…I’m struck again by your apparent assumption that you have somehow crossed the color line…Why are you the only white man that all your negro friends will tolerate?” He finishes with a funny nod to is infant son, “Juan says Fuck off”.
In Thompson’s next letter from 18 April 1965, also published in “Proud Highway”, and spanning five pages single spaced, he details the genesis of his relationship with the Hell’s Angels, and continues to effortlessly throw down quotable sentences. Letter reads in part, “…If you get arrested once, for instance, a smypathetic [sic] friend or liberal benefactor might be happy to make bail. The second time, maybe…wrote Carey McWilliams, editor of the Nation — for whom I just did a piece on outlaw motorcyclists…this marriage thing is not a killer in itself but in the small routines and trivial obligations that come with it…In closing I remain, increasingly savage and unreasonable — HST”.
On 23 April 1965 Thomson writes Semonin in Senegal, Africa, in part, “…the System kills those who actively fight it just as surely as it does those who love it, and that the only hope is to quit for real. Whether I have the guts to do this or not is another question.” He follows up with a letter dated 17 May with further movement on the Hell’s Angels book, in part, “Dear Punk:…On the day I was evicted the Nation arrived with mine as the lead article…I may be on the verge of writing a book for Pantheon (Random) on what they call ‘fringe types.’…I think it’s about time you started dealing in the real world where people fuck you with a smile and a 5 cent stamp…The trouble with this country is that the poor don’t trust each other.”
In his 9 June 1965 letter published in “Proud Highway”, Thompson writes in part, “I have just finished the most biased, violent and wholly political piece I’ve ever written. [“The Non-Student Left”, published 27 September 1965] For the Nation…HST”.
On 22 June 1965, Thompson gets a check to write “on Cycle gangs”, in part, “you are thinking in terms of 40 years from now, while I hesitate to think beyond 40 days. Or — at the moment — six months, due to the contract I just signed: $6000 guarantee against royalties for a paperback on Cycle gangs…Things are hopping and I shouldn’t be writing letters. I have to whip up an outline for the Cycle book and right now I don’t have the vaguest idea what I’ll write…Incredible. I’ve been drunk for two weeks.” He continues on 6 July, “I warn you that you are going to find me a much tougher and shittier person than the one you left in Louisville 2 years go…It has finally come home to me that I am not going to be either the Fitzgerald or the Hemingway of this generation…I am going to be the Thompson of this generation, and that makes me more nervous than anything else I can think of…Senor Fatback”.
On 24 August 1965, Thomson writes a thick 2pp. single spaced letter, worried about impending deadlines in part, “Dear X…Spent tonight updating a piece for Pageant, weaving in the L.A. riots…Tomorrow a first draft of a Playboy piece on the Hell’s Angels…the awful shadow of the book — not even begun as yet — hangs on me like a pending shitrain…the Rum Diary…I now consider nearly worthless, but what the hell…I have to go on the Labor Day run with the Hell’s Angels…Mr. Fun”.
The next piece of correspondence is Thompson’s telegram to Tom Wolfe, whom he had met after his review of Wolfe’s “Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby” was rejected by the Observer in 1964. Dated 17 October 1965, telegram reads in part, “The addict in the street becomes more alarmed as the instruments of control become more sophisticated…Contact me at Hells Angels Oakland Temple Wednesday morning.”
Dated “Fri late”, in his letter from October 1965 Thompson first describes a story of getting Semonin’s manuscript back from the editor of the magazine “Black Dialogue”, in part, “He acted a bit funny and at first I figured it was because he didn’t like the idea of a white devil claiming something in his possession, but when I saw the crumpled ms. [manuscript] I realized he was just embarrassed. The thing looks like four people slept and fucked on it. But it’s legible, so I’ll suck it up and render a massive judgement…”
In a postcard from 31 October 1965, Thompson writes, “Am considering a total change of a ‘Hell Angels Notebook,’ instead of a standard type book, which bores hell out of me. What do you think – a short of Journal, from my first contact to my last? H”. He follows up a few days later, “finished 35 pages of chapter 1 and will send it off next week. Terrible fatigue here. No word from Playboy.”
In a handwritten letter dated 10 November, Thompson details his motorcycle accident while riding with the Angels, “I have now blooded and broken myself on the machine ‘Over the high side,’ as the Angels would say. 18 head stitches, broken rt hand, concussion, shoulder separation & a very raw back…”
A week later he writes, “Took the cast off 2 wks early and am now going with a ‘floating finger,’ as they say. Word from Ballantine and Random says my fist lump of text is ‘magnificent.’ I think they were afraid to say anything else, for fear I might quit… Sincerely – H”. On 30 November he writes a quick letter, in part, “Playboy bounced…my fink called this morning, full of apologies and saying ‘Hefner himself’ had vetoed the piece…Yours in fear”. Deadlines continue to loom in Thompson’s 28 December 1965 letter, “Word here is ugly…Still not even half through the book and now there is talk of missing the ‘spring list’, which sounds bad & costly”.
1966 begins with a letter dated 6 January, in part, “200 pgs. now sent – feel over the hump…Bike still wrecked & rusting… H”. On 12 January he writes, “going to Sacramento tomorrow (thurs.) for a Hells Angels funeral…Mother Miles got snuffed…”
On 19 January 1966, Thompson writes in part, “Dear Fatjack…I was really taken with the [Hell’s Angels] funeral. It was a gutty thing. They did plenty of showboating, but there was a hard dark tone in the thing…My whole fiscal framework is collapsing. All insurance cancelled, ultimatum on the rent, guns lost in pawn, etc…Dr. Bloor”.
On 23 January, Thompson asks for a $200 loan and warns Semonin, “…For jesus sake be careful what contracts you sign. And if the editor seems like a good fellow, get a lawyer at once.” He thanks Semonin for the loan in a 28 January letter, which has more details on publication of the “Rum Diary” and other works, signed by Thompson, “LSD”.
In his 9 February 1966 letter, published in “Proud Highway”, Thompson makes another reference to LSD, in part, “…My ambition now is to ride the bike to the NCAA basketball finals and then load up on LSD for all four games. I’m looking for a Ky-Duke final, which should generate real hysteria even without acid…”
In his 14 April 1966 letter, shades of “Fear and Loathing” are starting to emerge. Letter reads in part, “…My Quick Raid on NY turned into a 2-week battle of wills, desperation and LSD…Random has reluctantly agreed to do the Rum Diary, but for minimum money. Hell’s Angels is unexplainably postponed to fall…Just heard on the radio that the Angels got busted for a riot with cops in south SF. Wild drunk now, but I think I’ll go out and check…”
On 1 April 1966, Thompson is excited with news of a deal, “Kazinga. The zip is on. Got a call from my tambourine man agent tonight, saying we just cracked Random for $10,000…it’s like this: $3000 for rewrite of Rum Diary and $7000 for as yet unspecified nonfiction book.” He follows up on 5 May, “if the second chunk of the advance doesn’t come through in 3-4 days I’ll be back to pawning guns. I thought the $900 would give me elbow room, but with $200 for you, $200 for the bike, $200 for rent and $150 for a Doberman pup I was left with chickenfeed…”
Still in San Francisco on 29 July 1966, Thompson hints and then later confirms the dangerous break he had with the Hell’s Angels. Letter reads in part, “…Just coming back from a six-day flip on the bike – booze, drugs, no mufflers, burglary, the works…trying to stay alive…I think maybe I am about to be snuffed…Sluggo”. In a 7 September postcard he confirms, “Your word came into the chaos…Pills, 24 hr-writing, no sleep, packing, fear, etc…Am badly beaten here – the Angels turned on me – Ignominiously – H”.
In a letter dated 26 October 1966, Thompson makes the move to Woody Creek, Colorado, where he’d make his home the rest of his life. He writes, “I am now the proprietor of Trudi Pederson’s spread up Woody Creek. It came by accident, but was too good to refuse…” He writes again on 13 November after a ten day trip, signing the letter “THE WIZARD of Woody Creek”, in part, “Have you finally figured out that the geeks are going to get us?…The middle of America is a terrifying place…I want to do a profile on ‘Los Angeles as the Full and Final Flower of the American Dream.’ But they say it won’t sell. Meanwhile I’m trying to get up enough steam and angst to rewrite the Rum Diary, which is already sold…”
1967 begins with a letter on custom-made Woody Creek stationery, showing a mystic, psychedelic owl. Dated 14 January, letter reads in part, “Punko…As for here, it’s the same kind of good-life dullness – maddening stupor, but I’ll take it any day to life on the West Side. The answer is mobility – this is a nice gig to come back to…H”. Thompson’s roots were quickly pulled up, however, in a letter dated 17 March 1967, where he writes “Ugly times here. Friend Trudi has decided to make the ranch into a pottery shop as of May 1 – which means we’re evicted”. It wouldn’t be until early 1969 that Thompson bought the property himself, using proceeds from the paperback sale of “Hell’s Angels”.
On 3 April 1967, Thompson writes, “Dear Fuzzy…It’s been made very clear to me recently that this is not a friendly community to those who can’t pay. And now the same money-grubbing swine call me ‘Hunter’ and offer me credit…I haven’t been doing too well. It’s an ugly game…” On 17 April he writes with money concerns, “I’ll be in a rotten, pill-freak scramble to get this bullshit done to buy myself a summer of peace – for the Rum Diary…Your best bet is to deal hard for possession of the cabin – because otherwise you’re going to be down in the ditch with the rest of us niggers.”
On 17 October 1967 he writes, “Dear Karl…tried to bear down to write on a fuel mixture of 10% natural energy & 90% pills – The result was a raging stupor & no writing progress at all. I finally blew it all & went to sleep for 3 days…Sandy is pregnant again, and crazy like the other times – tears, screaming – like the good ole days…”
In the next handful letters, Thompson addresses Semonin as “Honkie”, “Hero of the People”, “Flojo”, “Wispy”, “Geek”, “Afro”, “Dilletante” and “Dingo”. On 6 December 1967, he writes in part, “I hear rumors that the paperback HA [Hell’s Angels] is selling fatly, but so far I haven’t received a pfenig. Beyond that, my only significant mail concerns lawsuits…”
On 22 February 1968 he writes about the upcoming Democratic convention: “…Any chance of your making the Demo convention this summer? I plan to be there, in one guise or another. I sense some rare photo possibilities. And a chance to use my new karate techniques.” On 2 March he writes about overly convoluted writing, “[SDS leader Carl] Oglesby…is a powerful example of a ‘writer’ whose work I approach with respect and even eagerness, but whose sentences — in print — don’t make any sense to me…It may be bad thinking, too, but the writing is so bad that I can’t understand the thinking behind it. The other side of that coin, of course, is that I’m simply too stupid to grasp it…HST”.
Thompson reacts to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in his 10 April 1968 letter. He writes, “Maybe we’re not all niggers, as somebody once said, but it’s beginning to look like we’ll all end up working for Puerto Rico News Service…The King business has pretty well soured me on the future of this evil fucking country…”
On 13 May 1968, Thompson writes about a story he’s working on, “I’ve spent the past two weeks going very deep, very fast, into the Oil Shale question — on the pretense of writing an article for the L.A. Times. It’s a fantastic piece of action. All technical and geological and $10 million ‘experimental leases’ shrugged off in the shadow of $100 billion possibilities…”
Thompson uses the phrase “Fear and Loathing” in his letter from the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. He writes on “Wed”, 28 August 1968, the night that Chicago police and the National Guard attacked protestors in Grant Park. Scrawled in red ink, Thompson signs the letter “Raoul”, the alter ego he used in his unpublished story about the event entitled “Chicago 1968”. Letter reads in full, “I came & watched it happen – & it’s true. Are you ready for the crunch? A redistribution of the cattle-prods. Fear & loathing. Beware / Raoul”.
On 24 October 1968, Thompson writes, “…I have finally devised a formula for the book – a novel within an article, or a bunch of articles. It will spin their heads & outrage their concepts. Fuck them…Raoul”.
On 14 December 1968, Thompson begins the letter writing “Merry Xmas” and then segues into using the phrase “massive capitalistic peace orgy”. He continues, “Your cabin here has become a snow-bound commune, the source of many foul rumors. There is talk of the new tenants being responsible for the napalm death of a local dog…”
On 14 May 1969 Thompson writes keenly about moneyed interests in America, “You can’t get it out of your head that the people you want to ‘expose’ don’t give a fuck about anything except making money. They are beyond shame & without conscience. I see no serious point in mocking them publicly, because they don’t care what we say about them…You are still living in the ‘We Shall Overcome’ era.”
In late 1969, Thompson writes his second to last letter, upset that Semonin didn’t visit him when he came out to Colorado. Letter reads in part, “You came out here and pulled a bad echo of my NYC act — but without my excuse. Which was at least valid, if not honorable. I got the quick impression that your head has turned to water…We are into different drifts — and no doubt for different reasons — but until last month it hadn’t occurred to me that we might be heading in different directions. Which is worth talking about, if it’s true…Ciao…..H”.
The two men continued to stay friends, evidenced in Thompson’s last letter in the collection, dated 5 December 1974 on custom “Rolling Stone” stationery with his Woody Creek owl logo. He writes in part, “Right now I’m sitting here with a case of malaria & strep throat – an ugly combination…But something has to give, with all this pressure – it’s the silent kind, the worst…Anyway, read a book called ‘Dog Soldiers’, by Robert Stone. See you soon / Doc”.
In addition to the 182 letters in this archive, collection also includes four letters by Sandy Conklin, as well a synopsis of all the letters by Semonin, who provides additional information and context, and also identifies many individuals that Thompson writes about. Letters are all very good to near fine, on paper of varying sizes, with most measuring approximately 8″ x 10″. An extraordinary collection, full of biting wit and sharp observations by a man who, in these letters, evolves from a young 17 year old still in high school in 1955 to one of the most important writers to document the cultural and political landscape of the 1960s and 70s.
Together with the Louisville Public Library and BiblioBoard, We’re celebrating the national expansion of the GonzoFest Literary Contest — and invite all public libraries, their independent authors, and writer communities to enter a single piece of literary nonfiction journalism in the tradition of the late Hunter S. Thompson.
Has there ever been a more suitable time than 2018 for fire-honed and razor-edged journalism in the tradition of the late Hunter S. Thompson?
To encourage such work, and to honor our hometown hero Thompson’s memory, the directors of the annual GonzoFest Louisville event invite writers and artists from all corners of the world to enter a single piece of literary nonfiction journalism and art of any kind to enter this year’s literary and art contests.
There is no type of story preferred over another — so long as it’s true, and interesting. The emphasis will be on the quality of the writing, and the significance of the story it tells.
Entries between 1,250 and 2,000 words are encouraged. They must be unpublished non-fiction, based on the author’s original reporting, observations or insights. Please include a cover page containing the author’s name, address, and contact information — as well as a brief statement attesting to the entry’s originality.
Entries must be submitted via the Literary Contest Portal. All 2018 literary submissions are due by 11:59 p.m. EDT on March 28, 2018.
The winning entry will be considered for publication in the GonzoFest edition of the Louisville Eccentric Observer, Louisville’s venerable alternative weekly. The author will also be honored during the festival, and receive a $1,000 cash prize, thanks to contest sponsor BiblioBoard. BiblioBoard is a community engagement platform for libraries, helping the library connect with and distribute works from local writers, journalists, musicians, artists, filmmakers and other cultural partners. Also supporting the contest as BiblioBoard’s Media Partner is Library Journal, which will feature the winning entry on its website. Library Journal is the most trusted and respected publication for the library community.
The judges, which include prominent journalists from across the U.S. and Europe, encourage work that is reported with a keen eye for detail and written in a bold and elegant style, as Thompson’s best work was. The judges for 2018 will be posted soon.
Here is a review of the recent performance of The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved which took place at Town Hall New York on May 5th last. Many thanks to Peter Knox for sending in this great review.
The crowd at Town Hall on the night before this year’s Kentucky Derby was a bit different from the types of people you’d usually see around Times Square on a Friday night. There were the men, lanky yet somehow fat with long hair beneath Jazz Fest hats sporting sandals and smoking. There were the women, past middle age, wearing clothes that might have passed for fancy forty years ago that could be from a thrift store or their own closets. But my wife and I won’t forget entering the theater behind an old woman with her dog in a carrier (“It’s my service animal, you have to let us in!”) and wondering the whole night what the poor working canine would think about the event.
We were settled into our seats for the stage premier of The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved, to be performed live on Broadway – New York City! I could only imagine what the Good Doctor would make of such an event, but having greatly enjoyed the 90 minute production – I would like to think he’d be enamored with a room full of people roaring from his words aloud . Or at least pleased with how the bartenders were asking everyone whether they wanted a double or triple whiskey mint julep.
If you’re reading this here, you’re familiar with the 1970 Scanlon’s Monthly Derby article that gave us “Gonzo” and gave NPR something to repost every year on Derby day. But you may not be familiar with the 2012 radio show style audio recording of Thompson’s words and Bill Frisell’s original orchestra score. Add Ralph Steadman’s artwork projected onto a screen behind Tim Robbins, three other voice actors, a dancing horse marionette, and Frisell’s capable musicians – then you can get a sense of what I can only call performance art on the big stage, this story re-imagined and brought to life.
And what life it is! The show starts with two old times projector clips; a cartoon short of a few characters meddling with horses (including sniffing glue as running motivation) to outsmart each other, then a black and white Seabiscuit documentary (that while providing cultural and historical context, went on far to long for your correspondent’s liking – but I guess they had to pad the show length to warrant the ticket price).
Then the main event began: Tim Robbins embodying the narrative and spoken voice of our protagonist Hunter S. Thompson, steady, clear, animated, lively, sarcastic, clever, cutting, and every bit as you tried to imagine it in your head as you read those words for the first time. His supporting cast comes in at the right beats, three pros playing several different distinctive voices and each shining in their own sections.
The orchestra really ties the whole operation together and gives it purpose. The jazz of the horns, the tension of the strings, the beats of the drums all keep the story moving forward, the action building to peak after peak. Robbins drives the entire enterprise, with everyone falling in line, even as one of the voice actors steps away to don a horse’s head (sunglasses and light up cigarette in a holder of course) terrorizes the audience and engages Robbins in an impromptu dance onstage.
The story, one I’ve read dozens of times, is so delightfully hilarious (easy to forget when in the depths of Derby-induced stupor), it’s a joy to see how Robbins plays it up and to laugh at the right moments among a huge crowd of Totally Gonzo fans.
But the savagery of Derby drunks feels as timely and relevant as ever – we could all do well to keep this classic alive and in the conversation. Robbins, Frisell, and company do exactly that. We’re left to wonder what HST would think of this story retold now 47 years later, but at least we know Steadman is seeing it – Friday’s performance was recorded for him to see.
Many thanks again Peter, sounds like it was a great night.
Just spotted this updated listing on Amazon.com. It carries a release date of June 1st 2017.
From the details in the listing it looks like a very interesting book! If anyone can hook me up with a review copy I would love to hear from you – email@example.com
An inquiry into the life and death of the master of ‘gonzo’ – Hunter Thompson – with candid memories and appreciations by many of his closest friends and co-conspirators.
Thompson’s compatriots, observe and comment on the journalistic legend’s life and death.
Contains: transcripts of his rants and idiosyncratic phone messages, The Gonzo Master’s Midnight Faxes, The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved, and a humungous introduction (a book in itself!) by Warren Hinckle III.
The Crazy Never Die
including The Night Manager
The Kentucky Derby Is
Decadent and Depraved
Hunter S. Thompson & Ralph Steadman
Adventures with Hunter
including Shotgun Art & Shotgun Golf
John G. Clancy A Master Of Tools
Bill Cardoso The Origin Of Gonzo
Dennis P. Eichhorn What Is Gonzo?
Roger Black Waiting For Copy
Jerry Brown Res Ipsa Loquitur
Ben Fong-Torres Janis Joplin Knew What She Was Doing, Too
Paul Krassner Blowing Deadlines With Hunter
Timothy Ferris Fear And Loathing
William Randolph Hearst III How The Doctor Rated The Game
The Town Hall Presents
Hunter S. Thompson’s
THE KENTUCKY DERBY IS DECADENT AND DEPRAVED
with Tim Robbins & special guests Brad Hall & Chloe Webb
Music Composed and Conducted by Bill Frisell
Performed by Ron Miles, Curtis Fowlkes, Kenny Wollesen, Jenny Scheinman, Doug Wieselman, Eyvind Kang & Hank Roberts
Scripted from the original article by Hunter S. Thompson
Artwork by Ralph Steadman
Produced by Hal Willner
Directed by Chloe Webb
Only a writer as perceptive, talented and insanely fearless as Hunter S. Thompson can turn the coverage of a horse race into an incisive, and savagely funny, snapshot of a society in all its glory and miseries.
As it happened, three days before the running of the Kentucky Derby in May 1970, Thompson, a Louisville native, pitched a story on the race to the editor of Scanlan’s Monthly, a short-lived but feisty political magazine. He got the assignment and was paired not, as expected, with an American photographer but with an English illustrator, Ralph Steadman.
The resulting story, headlined The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved, was Thompson’s first “gonzo journalism” piece and a warning shot announcing a powerful new voice in American journalism. He went on to write other influential works including Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, and The Rum Diary.
The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved will be brought to life in all its hallucinatory splendor at The Town Hall in New York on Friday May 5 by an extraordinary production team comprising actors Tim Robbins and Brad Hall, producer Hal Willner, composer and conductor Bill Frisell and actor and director Chloe Webb. Featuring a live cast, Steadman’s original artwork and a superb music ensemble performing Frisell’s original score, all of whom performed on the original 2012 CD release — Ron Miles (trumpet), Curtis Fowlkes (trombone), Hank Roberts (cello), Jenny Scheinman (violin), Doug Wieselman (woodwinds), Eyvind Kang (viola) and Kenny Wollesen (drums) — the show’s East Coast premiere takes place on theeve of this year’s Kentucky Derby.
“This is such a great piece. People try to define it: Is it music? Is it theater? What is it? And I tell them that it’s performance art – and entertainment,” says Webb. “It’s almost like vaudeville. The music is beautiful, the words are funny, the story is ridiculous – but it’s all very pointed in terms of what is happening now. More than 40 years later, what is different now? It’s still about the rich ol’ white boys in their private boxes and the rest of the people raising a ruckus down on the field. It’s an exploration of ‘So, what’s your excuse for bad behavior?'”
Robbins and Hall play Thompson and Steadman, respectively, and Webb notes that “this piece is in great part about Hunter meeting Ralph and the beginning of their partnership.” An American madman and brilliant writer meets an Old World gentleman with a penchant for drawing observant but horribly unflattering portraits — an odd couple from the beginning, yet the start of a remarkable and fruitful collaboration.
Boom California have published an excellent essay by Peter Richardson on Hunter S. Thompson’s formative years in California and how his time there shaped his development of Gonzo Journalism. It is a well written and well researched article which comes as no surprise as Peter Richardson is the author of A Bomb In Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America and No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead both of which are highly recommended.
To read Richardson’s essay on Thompson, click the link under the image below to be taken to the Boom California website.
Ask any person familiar with Hunter S. Thompson to name the first thing they think of upon hearing his name and you will get the full gamut of responses – from literary legend to hellraiser extraordinaire, author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and inspiration for Uncle Duke, loyal friend or sworn enemy. Yet one association always stands out – Sheriff of Aspen. In a life and career as remarkable as Thompson’s, his campaign for Sheriff of Aspen ranks close to the very top of his greatest achievements, as bizarre as it is unlikely, not to mention touched with the same genius as his most celebrated literary work. And Thompson lost the election.
Thompson memorably documented this campaign in “The Battle for Aspen“ – his first article for Rolling Stone magazine. Running under the Freak Power banner, Thompson demonstrated that Gonzo was far more than a literary technique. It was a philosophy, an approach to life that he unleashed upon an unsuspecting Colorado town, leaving the political establishment there utterly bamboozled. Though Thompson lost the battle that year, his campaign laid the foundations of a political alternative that ultimately won the war.
It seems all the more remarkable then, in light of the importance of Thompson’s campaign, that the story behind it has to date been largely untold. Sure there is Thompson’s account in Rolling Stone and various stories and anecdotes peppered throughout the numerous biographies and memoirs that have been released over the years. The overall impression however, was that this merely scratched the surface of what really happened, not to mention what the legacy of Thompson’s campaign was for the political landscape in Aspen.
The first taste of this larger story came back in 2011 with the release of Thomas Benton:Artist/Activist by DJ Watkins, which I previously reviewed here. In cataloguing Benton’s incredible work, Watkins scoured high and low in Aspen and beyond in search of his art, which threw up a veritable treasure trove of material relating to Benton’s collaboration with Thompson on the Aspen Wallposters and other political endeavours. Given the focus on Benton, Watkins opted to include only the Aspen Wallposters and a handful of other Gonzo material, the rest he set aside for future consideration. Thankfully he has spent the years since then delving into Thompson’s campaign and gathering material to produce the above book Freak Power: Hunter S. Thompson’s Campaign for Sheriff.
Make no mistake about it, this is one of the most significant publications to date concerning Hunter S. Thompson. The book contains a wealth of vintage articles and campaign material that Watkins unearthed in The Aspen Times microfiche at the Pitkin County Library, which were then restored from their original condition for this book. Unless you were on the ground in Aspen during Thompson’s campaign then you are unlikely to have ever seen this material. On top of this Watkins also includes the campaign photography of David Hiser and Bob Krueger alongside the artwork of Tom Benton (including the Aspen Wallposters).
However I think the real value of this book, aside from the aforementioned material, is that it fundamentally re-shapes how we look at Thompson’s Campaign for Sheriff and the legacy of the political revolution he kickstarted in Aspen. Before now there has been a tendency to look at the campaign in terms of its more colourful Gonzo moments – Hunter shaving his head so he could refer to the incumbent Sheriff as his “long-haired opponent,” his promise to not eat mescaline on duty, his well publicised platform for Sheriff including a proposal to rename Aspen to Fat City. Though typical of the kind of humour that characterised Thompson’s work, they also unfortunately serve to draw attention away from the more serious issues he sought to address at the heart of his campaign – police harassment, corruption, threats to the environment and overhauling the archaic drug laws. One could be forgiven for thinking that Thompson’s sole proposals were those of his well publicised Tentative Platform for Sheriff. This could not be further from the truth, as Watkins includes Thompson’s detailed plans for the establishment of a police ombudsman, an environmental crime detection office, a drug abuse control center and school community drug education programs.
Another area that has been previously overlooked is that of Thompson’s opposition. Here Watkins includes such gems as the illegal campaign mailer that was sent to every post office box holder in Pitkin County days before the election. The culprit was none other than former Aspen mayor Bugsy Barnard who was later convicted for election fraud. The campaign mailer in question describes Doctor Hunter (Maddog) Thompson’s Great Puppet Show, depicting him as a Hell’s Angel reject whose henchmen will roam the streets of Aspen setting up “Potshops” and describes Rolling Stone magazine as Thompson’s Mein Kampf. To emphasis the point a cartoon depicts Thompson in full Nazi regalia conducting a puppet show in his office, with a Swastika emblazoned flag hanging behind him.
Finally, Watkins examines the political legacy resulting from Thompson’s campaign, illustrating that although Thompson lost the battle, ultimately he won the war, leading to the election of Bob Braudis who overhauled Pitkin County’s sheriff’s office. Braudis was subsequently re-elected five times. In a fitting touch, he contributes both the foreword and afterword to this wonderful book.