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Thompson’s Wife Forgives His Suicide

Times Staff Writer

On the last day of his life, Hunter S. Thompson woke with his usual breakfast of fresh fruit inside a thin layer of jello with gin and Grand Marnier drizzled on top.

His wife, Anita, carefully put a lemon on the side and hovered near his chair. It was 5 p.m., the time the writer normally began his day.

“Suddenly he began talking about something weird, I can’t remember exactly what,” she recalled in an interview Friday. “He began to get angry with me. He had a strange look on his face. He told me to get out of the room. I was like: ‘What do you mean?’ He had never kicked me out of a room before.”

The final countdown had begun.

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Angry and hurt, Anita grabbed her bag and stomped out.

“When I got to the gym in Aspen, I called because I felt bad,” said the 32-year-old, who lived with Thompson for five years before marrying him in 2003. “He was so sweet. I asked if he wanted me to come back, and he said he did. He said we could work on a column. We usually made up when he wrote.”

Then Thompson did something strange. He took her off speakerphone -- his preferred method of talking to people -- and picked up his headset and continued talking.

“Then I heard a lot of clicking noises, it seemed to me to be a typewriter clicking,” Anita Thompson said. “I listened for 45 seconds and heard other noises. I figured he was not going to pick up the headset again, so I hung up.”

About the same time on Sunday -- 5:40 p.m. -- Thompson’s son, Juan, his daughter-in-law and his 6-year-old grandson were in another room of the Owl Ranch compound in Woody Creek, a few miles northwest of Aspen. Juan heard a bang, a noise he figured was a book falling.

Anita Thompson had just finished a yoga class when a friend heard that something bad had occurred at Owl Ranch.

“I called my cellphone and there was a message from Juan saying ‘Anita, you have to come home; he’s dead.’ I started to panic. I knew this day would come, but not like this.”

Thompson, the hard-drinking writer who coined the term “gonzo journalism” and wrote drug-fueled best-sellers such as “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” had finally done it.

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Cursed with increasingly bad health and never expecting to see 40 -- let alone 67 -- Thompson had decided to go out, as his widow said, “like a champion.”

He had put a .45-caliber pistol in his mouth while sitting in his favorite chair at the kitchen table and pulled the trigger.

When Anita Thompson arrived at Owl Farm, guarded by two metal buzzards at the gate, the place was swarming with police. She shouted at officers and demanded to see her husband’s body.

“I was certain I could turn this whole thing around with sheer willpower,” she said tearfully. “The sheriff’s deputies said I shouldn’t see the body because they thought it would be too horrible.”

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She pushed into the kitchen and found Thompson still in the chair. He had done a remarkable job, she thought. The pistol shot did no damage to his face and there was little blood.

“As soon as I saw him, all that craziness, all the anger and fear, went away,” she said. “I held him, kissed his head and rubbed his leg like I always did. Thank God he didn’t do much damage. I said it was OK, Hunter; I know what you did. Suddenly, there was nothing but peace.”

Thompson and his wife had been at odds for years about his talk of suicide. She threatened to leave the compound and wash her hands of his work and his legacy if he carried out his threat. In the end, he would back down and vow not to do it.

But the pain of hip replacement surgery, back surgery, a lung infection and a broken leg was taking its toll.

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“It was definitely not a spur-of-the-moment thing,” said Douglas Brinkley, a professor of American history at Tulane University and literary executor of Thompson’s will. “He had been looking at his options for a few months. One option was physical rehabilitation. A second option was to stop drinking and move to a warmer climate. The other option was to kill himself. No one knows how long he considered it -- he used to say he wasn’t afraid to kill himself all the time.”

In keeping with his outsized persona, gun-loving Thompson told friends he wanted his ashes to be blasted out of a cannon on his property. A team of experts is working on that now.

Angels Flight of Castaic, Calif., which puts human ashes into fireworks and explodes them in the sky, has offered its services.

“We have done cannons in the past. It would not be difficult to do human remains,” said Nick Drobnis, company president. “But if someone didn’t understand pyrotechnics and tried to cram the remains into a cannon, they could end up with a detonation.”

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Before he was cremated this week, Thompson’s wife dressed him in his favorite blue pin-striped, seersucker suit. She put his Tilley hat on his head, a red silk handkerchief in his pocket and his reading glasses on his eyes. She also included snapshots of the two of them -- along with her long, blond ponytail.

“Hunter’s death was not grisly. He was in the catbird seat in the kitchen, in the mountains by his wife and family. He wanted to go out while he was still on top, not wither away,” she said.

Thompson wasn’t always easy to live with. He could be a 6-foot-2 angry child sometimes, his wife said.

“He hated people who talked too much, he hated cellphones and he couldn’t stand a drunk -- he actually never seemed drunk himself,” she said. “The difference between Hunter and other writers is he never used drugs as an excuse not to work. He used them as an excuse to work. He wrote the first half of ‘Hells Angels’ in six months. He wrote the second half in four days on whisky and Dexedrine -- and that was the best part.”

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Despite her vows to leave the ranch if he killed himself, Anita Thompson is planning to stay and promote Thompson’s legacy.

“If you are ever weak, sad or confused, you can read Hunter and feel better,” she said. “I will continue to work with Hunter for the rest of my life.”


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