‘Gonzo’ Journalist Remembered as ‘Larger Than Life’

Times Staff Writer

They say the Woody Creek Tavern, with its leopard print carpet and chipped wooden booths, is the center of the universe in this hamlet a few mountaintops from Aspen.

For Hunter S. Thompson, it was bigger than that.

The hard-living journalist, who committed suicide Sunday, held court in this pleasantly seedy saloon for decades. He preferred the barstool by the door, where he could tuck himself in on cold winter nights, swig Chivas Regal and rail against the world.

Now his world was railing back. Friends of the man who coined the term “gonzo journalism” and wrote best-sellers like “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” gathered around the bar Monday, trying to figure out this last and most shocking chapter of an already outrageous life.


“I don’t know why he would leave us like that,” said an angry Gaylord Guenin, a local journalist who had known Thompson for 30 years. “I hope it was an accident; I’d feel better if it was.”

Steve Bennett, a bartender, stared at the stuffed marlin on the wall and considered the point.

“Well, it could have been an accident; he always had loaded weapons around,” Bennett said. “Anyone who would shoot propane tanks with a .357 magnum could have easily done something like this by accident. And if a weird thought crossed his mind, he would act on it without thinking twice.”

Thompson, 67, was found dead in his kitchen Sunday evening with a single gunshot wound to the head. The Pitkin County Sheriff’s Department said his death was a suicide.

On Monday, friends said they hadn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary about Thompson -- at least nothing at odds with his mercurial temperament. But Thompson’s health had been fading. He had been staying at home more often because of back surgery, a hip replacement and a recently broken leg.

“I saw him last week, and he didn’t look too good,” Bennett said. “He seemed upbeat, but he had so many mood swings it was hard to tell. He was a larger-than-life character who will be hard to replace, and I’m not sure you’d want to.”


Thompson lived in a secluded compound along a rural highway a mile or so from the tavern. Friends said he liked to pass the time firing automatic weapons, writing and drinking heavily. He typically woke at 5 p.m., wrote through the night and slept all day.

His death seems to have winded Woody Creek, a wealthy enclave eight miles northwest of Aspen. For some, Thompson was beyond eccentric -- he was an enigma. He could be rude and nasty, then turn on a dime and be sweet and lovable.

“Everyone sort of adopted him and accepted him as he was,” said Mary Harris, owner of the Woody Creek Tavern. “I used to live next door to him. I’d hear gunshots coming from his backyard. We used to hang out. He liked to come in when we closed. He could be a bully or your best friend.”

Thompson came to the Aspen area in the early 1960s. It had a rough-and-tumble quality that’s been replaced by wealth and gentility. Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan owns an enormous spread above the city.

Guenin, who once edited the now-defunct Aspen Illustrated, recalled getting rambling letters to the paper from the acerbic Thompson, who would sign his name “Adolf Eichmann.”

“We all knew it was him, but that was just his style,” said Guenin, 70, as he sucked a nicotine tablet to ward off cigarette cravings. As a prank, Thompson once set off an M-80 close to where Guenin was working.


“It took me awhile to get over the shock of the explosion,” Guenin said.

Some believe Thompson’s stunts were more for public consumption than anything else.

“I knew Hunter for 25 years, and I think some of what he did was an act,” said Joel Lapin, drinking a beer at the tavern. “He was an extremely intelligent man. He would walk around town with a drink in his hand, but it was his persona, like Groucho Marx with the cigar. He once showed up at the golf course with a shotgun. He was actually no more outrageous with firearms than any of the rest of us here.”

Those who knew him often found his rambling style of conversation unintelligible.

“I never knew what he was talking about,” said Don Collins, a 50-year-old plumber sitting at the bar. “You would hear this mumbling and then loud interjections. He could have been saying anything. Maybe he was telling me, ‘Get out of my house or I’ll shoot you!’ ”

Groupies liked to drop in or call Thompson at the bar. He didn’t respond well to invasions of privacy and didn’t talk much to strangers, his friends said.

As shocking as the suicide was for many folks, others weren’t surprised.

“It was entirely predictable,” said George Stranahan, a local businessman. “Hunter fiercely determined the course of his own life. He was as honest a man as you will find. I say the king is dead, long live the king!”