Bill Cardoso, 68; Writer Introduced ‘Gonzo’
On a press bus in New Hampshire during the 1968 presidential campaign, writer Bill Cardoso told Hunter S. Thompson, “Don’t worry, [the other reporters] are all so square they won’t know what you’re doing.”
Cardoso was referring to the marijuana joint he had just given Thompson, a freelance journalist of some notoriety who had earned admiring reviews for a book about the Hells Angels motorcycle gang. But Cardoso could just as well have been talking about something else he shared with Thompson: a vision of journalism that he later summed up in one spectacularly apt word:
An elegant stylist whose work appeared in such publications as the Boston Globe, Rolling Stone, Ramparts and Esquire, Cardoso never achieved Thompson’s fame. But he assured himself a page in journalism history when he applied that strange five-letter word to the darkly exuberant, drug-infused brand of participatory reporting and novelistic writing that Thompson perfected in such works as “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” a 1972 classic of what became known as New Journalism.
Cardoso died of cardiac arrest Feb. 26 at his home in Kelseyville, about 80 miles northeast of San Francisco, said Mary Miles Ryan, his longtime companion. He was 68, a year older than Thompson was when he killed himself a year ago in a final rebellion.
He christened Thompson’s brand of writing in 1970, when Thompson was anxious about a piece on the Kentucky Derby he had written for Scanlan’s Monthly magazine. With his mind wasted on drugs and his deadline looming, Thompson desperately yanked the pages out of his notebook and turned those in, fully expecting that he would never be asked to write again. Instead, the editor asked for more.
When “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” was published, congratulations poured in, including a note from Cardoso exclaiming that his buddy’s work had been “pure gonzo.” The adjective wasn’t in any dictionary, but “gonzo journalism” was born.
“Hunter grabbed it like a hungry dog and ran with it,” Ralph Steadman, the British artist who was Thompson’s longtime friend and collaborator, said of the “gonzo” tag in an interview last week. Cardoso “had the right word at the right time.”
“Gonzo” eventually made it into dictionaries, defined in Webster’s New World Dictionary in 1979 as meaning “bizarre, unrestrained, extravagant, specifically designating a style of personal journalism so characterized.”
Its origins, however, have been a matter of broad conjecture and scholarly investigation, attributed variously to Boston Irish slang, French patois and a hip 1960 song called “Gonzo” by New Orleans piano legend James Booker. It’s likely that Cardoso, a jazz fan who once was part owner of a jazz club in the Canary Islands, knew the song.
Thompson claimed to know the answer, though perhaps he was only pretending. “It’s a Portuguese word,” he told Rolling Stone in 1996, “and it translates almost exactly to what the Hells Angels would have said was ‘off the wall.’ ”
Cardoso’s origins were Portuguese, but he never pinned “gonzo” on that heritage. In “Who Killed Hunter Thompson?” -- the facetious title of a collection of essays edited by Bay Area journalist Warren Hinckle that will be published in June -- Cardoso offered his version, but it only deepened the mystery: “Gonzo,” he wrote, “is of French Canadian origin, a corruption of gonzeau, which is itself a corruption of the old Dominican Republic dandy inside-baseball phrase sendero luminoso, roughly meaning ‘Signify the batsman electric to take two, then hit to right, sending the spheroid beyond your grandmother’s paisley shawl.’ That’s my claim, see, and I’m staking to it. But what the hell do I know?”
Born in Boston, Cardoso was the son of a fire captain who was descended from Portuguese aristocrats, said Cardoso’s daughter, Linda, who lives in the San Fernando Valley. He started his journalism career covering sports for the Medford Mercury while a student at Boston University in the late 1950s. He landed at the Boston Globe in the early 1960s and by 1968 was covering the presidential campaigns of Eugene McCarthy and Richard M. Nixon.
He met Thompson on the Nixon press bus. According to Timothy Crouse, author of the classic 1972 study of pack journalism “The Boys on the Bus,” Thompson considered the other reporters “a bunch of swine, a collection of suspicious reactionary old hacks who cared only about protecting their leads and were hopelessly out of touch with anything interesting that was happening in the country. He had met only one decent person the whole time -- Bill Cardoso.”
A short time later, when Cardoso became editor of the Globe’s Sunday magazine, Thompson wrote admiringly of him in a letter to literary agent Lynn Nesbit: “A friend of mine has just become the editor [of the Globe magazine] and he is, in truth, a giant real freak.... Billy Cardoso -- remember that name; he’ll probably be editor of Esquire in two years.”
Cardoso did not become editor of Esquire, but he wrote for many of the era’s hip journals. Ten of his pieces, including dryly savage profiles of stunt-meister Evel Knievel and Pasadena’s Tournament of Roses, were published by Atheneum in a 1984 collection called “The Maltese Sangweech & Other Heroes.”
The final piece in the collection was an account of the 1974 George Foreman-Muhammad Ali fight, which drew some of the best-known writers of the day, including Norman Mailer, Budd Schulberg and George Plimpton. The other writers could afford to go home when the fight was delayed, but Cardoso was stuck in Zaire for six weeks.
Thompson, who was there for Rolling Stone, whiled away much of the time drinking with Cardoso in Kinshasa bars. They were the Frick and Frack of counterculture journalism, so close they invented their own language, “part African, part Boston twang,” said Hinckle, who worked with both men. When they returned from their jaunts, “they were always entertaining.... And that was what I always thought a part of this gonzo journalism was,” Plimpton told biographer Peter Whitmer in “The Twisted Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson.”
True to his perverse nature, Thompson skipped the fight he had traveled thousands of miles to see, preferring instead to float in the hotel swimming pool surrounded by a pound of marijuana.
Cardoso, however, sat ringside for the “Rumble in the Jungle,” as the fight with the $10-million purse had been billed. But most of his 15,000-word piece for New Times magazine explored the side shows -- the antics of Zaire’s dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko; the absurdities of Third World politics; encounters with Zairian paratroopers; a house of Pygmies; and a man selling python skin.
“He really got in touch with the people ... spiritually and psychologically,” said longtime friend Jack Thibeau.
Cardoso discovered that the main event was outside the ring, in the streets of the African nation. While most of the other reporters rarely strayed from the official venues, Cardoso -- a live wire known to disperse his excess energy by doing his own hip-hop steps on rooftops -- ventured into the unknown, proud of his ability to capture alternate realities.
“He could really write,” said Karl Fleming, a former Los Angeles bureau chief for Newsweek who hired Cardoso in 1972 to work for a short-lived alternative newspaper called L.A.
But writing was agony for Cardoso; it could take months to wrench a story from him.
“He was a ravaged man when I knew him 35 years ago,” Fleming said. “Enormously talented, [with] a great big huge heart but a lot of pain, inexplicable pain, in his soul. He couldn’t quite seem to find a perch for his being and his talent.”
Cardoso worked as a reporter for United Press International for a few years in the mid-1980s, until the wire service closed its L.A. bureau. The freelance assignments dried up and he was often broke. In the late 1990s, the lifelong smoker was diagnosed with throat cancer. More recently, he had contracted pneumonia.
To the end, there was no greater fan of Cardoso’s writing than Thompson, who called “The Maltese Sangweech” “a fine, elegant little book.” He was particularly impressed by his friend’s Zaire tale, which had been written in a record three days.
Wrote Thompson: “I spent all afternoon weeping over [it].”
It was, in a word, gonzo.
“I remember,” Cardoso wrote, “that the press corps of the world, when they returned, invariably led their pieces with references to the hyacinth pads and other flotsam floating inexorably along the Zaire toward the sea ... almost to a man they wrote such, neglecting to inform the reader that under each hyacinth pad a crocodile smiled.”
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