The Gonif of Gonzo

Imagine how Hunter Thompson might have covered the O.J. Simpson trial. Phil Bronstein, executive editor at the San Francisco Examiner, told me, "I thought Hunter would be the perfect person to write about the trial." They even met at a waterfront restaurant to discuss that possibility.

"Hunter's face was all banged up," Bronstein recalled. "He claimed he had gone night-diving and scraped his face on a rock. The waiter had some glandular problem [causing his eyes to bug out], but Hunter accused him of staring at him. Then he started telling me about these rumors he heard from friends in the L.A. coroner's office about nasty activities with dead bodies, including the infamous bodies involved in the Simpson case. Teeth marks on the butt and things like that. He said that he would cover the trial if we put him up at the Chateau Marmont in a suite with three satellite dishes, four fax machines and several assistants."

Inevitably, the assignment was withdrawn. But this was not the first time that Thompson had made such a demand. Art Kunkin, who published the Los Angeles Free Press, told me: "He wanted me to put him up at the Chateau Marmont, and I wouldn't do it, and he threatened to kill me. He was pissed at me for not having the kind of budget to do that."

And Lee Quarnstrom, an executive editor at Hustler magazine who wanted to interview Thompson, told me, "Hunter wanted $5,000 for the interview. He said, 'Get Larry Flynt to kick in some of his money.' I said, 'Well, we don't pay for Q & A's.' So he called me back and he said, 'OK, I'll do the interview for nothing, if Hustler will fly us both to Bora Bora and you can conduct the interview on a veranda as we sip mai tais and watch the sun set into the Pacific.' I didn't hold it against him. I didn't think it was sleazy. I just thought it was opportunistic. Why not give it a shot?"

Thompson has become more a caricature of himself than Raoul Duke, the comic-strip character based on him in Garry Trudeau's "Doonesbury." And now in "The Proud Highway," a thick collection of Thompson's letters from 1955 to 1967, one can follow the early footsteps of his gonzo path, eavesdropping on the constant struggle between his opportunism and his self-destructiveness. Consider his employment record. Thompson sought jobs at various publications--from the Village Voice to the Washington Post--in the same letters in which he rampaged against those publications. He was fired from Time magazine for insubordination and from the Middletown Daily Record in New York for kicking a candy machine--"which rendered the coin slot obsolete," he boasted in one of the collection's letters--but he resigned from the National Observer when they refused to publish his review of Tom Wolfe's "The Kandy Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby" because it was too glowing.

"The Proud Highway's" cover promises in the subtitle, "The Fear and Loathing Letters, Volume I," but this is misleading, since both "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" and "Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72" were published after 1967, so there is no correspondence in this book referring to either one. However, the phrase "fear and loathing" (borrowed from Soren Kierkegaard) does creep into one of the collection's letters that Thompson wrote to his friend, novelist William Kennedy, having just heard of President Kennedy's assassination on Nov. 22, 1963: "There is no human being within 500 miles [of his home in Woody Creek, Colo.] to whom I can communicate anything--much less the fear and loathing that is on me after today's murder." Three years later, he wrote: "If my neighbors in Woody Creek could read my mail, they'd have me locked up."

In the book's introduction, editor Douglas Brinkley states: "The letters within these pages are only a fraction of the approximately 20,000 Thompson has composed since he was a young boy. . . . [He] corresponded ferociously, always making carbon copies, hoping they would be published someday as a testament to his life and times. 'These were the pre-Xerox days,' Thompson has commented about his surprising pack-rat nature. 'And I was anal retentive in my desire to save everything.' Thompson lugged his bulging correspondence around with him in trunks, believing that someday it would be his nest egg." In 1959, he wrote to an Air Force buddy, "Perhaps I'll try to publish my collected letters before, instead of after, I make history."

In September 1957, Thompson had initiated a two-year affair with Kraig Juenger, a former Miss Illinois. A month later, he wrote to her about his shaky status in the Air Force. He quotes a "discharge honcho" at the base who told him bluntly, "There's not much sense in trying to make you either act or think like an airman should. I'll let you know within two days--24 hours, if possible--how soon you can be discharged." It troubled Thompson and he confessed to Juenger, revealing to us his vision of himself as a lone wolf, that this "demonstrates, probably more clearly than any other single incident in my life--just how far I've strayed from the popular ideologies of our time. To go back--or to hesitate--would be unthinkable. And yet, in going on, I can see that I shall be permanently apart from all but a small and lonely percentage of the human race, in all but the most superficial respects."

In another letter written to Juenger a month later, Thompson revealed to her an aspect of himself well hidden beneath the audacity and braggadocio of his public persona: " . . . I don't think you really have any idea who Hunter S. Thompson is when he drops the role of court jester. And, for that reason, I'm afraid I'd be building you up for another fall if I were frank enough to tell you how I feel about you. I don't mean to say that I'm egotistical enough to believe that I have the power to make you feel one way or another about me. But on the other hand, if I were to attempt that, as I'd like to--and succeed--I'm not quite sure that either one of us would be any better off. And, rather than pursue any course of action which might eventually hurt you, I'd rather not do anything at all. But let me tell you, before I leave this somber subject, a little about myself: a very little--but enough. First, I do not live from orgy to orgy, as I might have made you believe. I drink much less than most people think, and I think much more than most people would believe. I am quite sincere about some of the things which people take lightly, and almost insultingly unconcerned about some of the things which people take most seriously. In short, I am basically antisocial: certainly not to an alarming degree, but just more so than I appear to be."

Referring to himself as antisocial may help shed some light on his famously unpredictable behavior. Ken Kesey told me about Thompson's particularly peculiar reaction to a party being thrown in his honor: "When 'Fear and Loathing [in Las Vegas]' came out, there was a big send-off party in a New York hotel penthouse, and Hunter wasn't there when it started at 9, he wasn't there at 10 and finally about 11 he showed up, and everybody's drinking white wine and eating brie, and he came in and looked all around, his eyes wide, and just walked right through the place into a bedroom, closed the door and locked it. He was in there about half an hour. Suddenly the door opened up, and he came back out and left. Without a word to anybody. And everyone is speculating on what the hell he's been doing in there. And about half an hour later, Room Service showed up with 200 ham and cheese sandwiches and 200 Heinekens."

In "The Proud Highway," Thompson's letters range from a complaint to the postmaster general that the ZIP Code system was "governmental harassment" to a request that President Lyndon Johnson appoint him governor of American Samoa. Larry O'Brien, special assistant to the president, wrote back that "you may be sure you will be given every consideration." But a year later, in March 1965, Thompson withdrew his application because of Johnson's "hysterical Vietnam policy, which has put the United States in a position very much resembling Nazi Germany's in the Spanish Civil War. I am neither a pacifist nor an advocate of nonviolence, but my sensibilities are grossly offended by the spectacle of a small group of old men whose mania for blood and bombing will inevitably cause thousands of young men to be killed for no good reason. As a white Anglo-Saxon Air Force veteran and shooting enthusiast I can't be shrugged off as a politically impotent East Coast minority-group liberal beatnik draft-dodger."

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A turning point in Thompson's life came a week after that letter to Johnson when Carey McWilliams, editor of the Nation, suggested that Thompson write about a motorcycle gang, the Hell's Angels. He would eventually expand the magazine article into his first book, "Hell's Angels." He wrote to a drinking buddy, Charles Kuralt of CBS News, "When my article comes out I may be stomped." It was a prophetic fear. On Labor Day 1966, that's exactly what happened. He wrote to Hell's Angels leader Sonny Barger, "I assume it was a sort of drunken spontaneous outburst that I had the bad luck to get in the middle of. Earlier that day I'd noticed some resentment about my taking pictures. . . . " The good news was that he could describe the beating in a postscript to his book, which became a bestseller in 1967 ("Every biker in the country must have bought it," he concluded).

Among the letters in the last sections of the book are a few that Thompson sent to me as publisher of the Realist. I had assigned him to write about his promotional tour for Hell's Angels, paying him $200 in advance. Later, I extended his deadline and offered to send him some LSD. He wrote back: "Good. I've blown every deadline I've had for the past two months and it's good to find somebody with a schedule as ----ed up as mine. The action here for the past two months has been unbelievable. All at once I got evicted, my wife went into a lingering two-month miscarriage and my lawyer came out from San Francisco and flipped out so badly that two sheriff's deputies took him one Saturday night 200 miles across mountains to the state loony bin. . . . As for acid, thanks but I'm suddenly OK." Soon after, another letter arrived asking: "Can I get any leeway on the July 1 delivery date? . . . In the meantime, you can send me some acid to help me level out. And I'll send you a dozen just-born marijuana weeds. You can plant them in Central Park."

As it turned out, Thompson bungled his book tour by appearing on radio and television as either a blathering drunk or an insane mumbler. He walked off his first TV show when the interviewer said, "Tell me, Hunter, what do you think of the Hell's Angels?" On Oct. 22, he wrote to me, "There's no avoiding the fact that I blew this one completely. . . . I'm sending you $200 of the $1,900 I now show as book-profit on the hardcover edition. So now I have $1,700." He segued into a vitriolic rant about his literary agent, Scott Meredith, a rant which he invited me to publish, "surrounded by a big fat black border," but then added, "With Johnson as president, I can't even work up an honest rage against Meredith, who's constantly stealing from me. I feel on the verge of a serious freakout. . . . but if I get over that hump I'll write a good article for you. In the meantime, we're at least even on the money. This check is good. I've sworn off money articles a/o December, so maybe I'll level it out then. If not, I might run for the Senate. . . . or send off for a Carcano [the rifle used to kill JFK]."

As a writer, I could understand; as an editor, I was frustrated. (Once, in another situation, Thompson had blown $6,500 worth of assignments in two weeks.) Compared with completing assignments, it was easier writing three or four letters every night, including those that assured editors that he was busy working on pieces he hadn't even started. Yet like the others, I was willing to tolerate his irresponsibility in the hope of presenting his talent. In 1970, I assigned three countercultural figures who were running for sheriff--Stew Albert in Alameda County, Calif.; George Kimball in Douglas County, Kan.; and Thompson in Pitkin County, Colo.--to write about their experiences and observations during those election campaigns. Albert and Kimball came through, but Thompson ended up, once again, returning my $200 advance. Although he had written the article, he sold it to Rolling Stone instead, and he would subsequently reach new heights of infamy as their roving, raving reporter.

The letters in "The Proud Highway" leading up to this career move will automatically appeal to deep-rooted fans of Thompson's work. However, with a book of this thickness, it works only in small doses. Maybe one day at a time. The first printing for "The Proud Highway" is 100,000, and the publisher has advertised a national author tour. I can hardly wait. Perhaps I'll ask Hunter to write about it for The Realist.

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