“Black News” Remembers Hunter S. Thompson

By Sam Johns

DENVER, Colorado (BNW) —
Hunter S. Thompson, the father of Gonzo journalism and author of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" and other books died in 2005, but his legacy lives on in the pens of blacknewsweekly.com writers.

In her new book, "The Gonzo Way: A Celebration of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson," Anita Thompson says her husband built his career with a tireless dedication to the craft of reporting, a keen awareness of his own shortcomings and his personal blend of patriotism: loving his country while mistrusting authority.

It wasn't a reckless obsession with liquor, drugs and gunplay that made the late Hunter S. Thompson the undisputed king of Gonzo journalism, his wife says. Instead, it was old-fashioned principles such as working hard and telling the truth, enlivened by the glee Thompson took from learning and from being right.

"I don't deny his lifestyle, because his lifestyle was pretty extreme," Anita Thompson told The Associated Press, but that lifestyle was made possible by his success as a reporter and writer, not the other way around.

And in a wide-ranging interview, she spoke about a rift between her and Hunter Thompson's son and the agonizing doubts that dogged her in the days after her husband's suicide.

Thompson shot himself in the kitchen of his home outside Aspen in February 2005 at age 67.

He had established himself as an original and riveting voice with "Hells Angels," published in 1966, and "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" in 1972. It was Gonzo journalism — irreverent, outlandish and unapologetically personal. The image it projected, coupled with his undisguised love of guns and explosions, gave Thompson a reputation as an unbridled outlaw surfing on a wave of drugs and excess.

Gonzo journalism is a style of storytelling that mixes factual events into a fictional tale. It uses a highly subjective style that often includes the reporter as part of the story via a first person narrative and events can be exaggerated in order to emphasize the underlying message.

The word gonzo was first used to describe a 1970 story written by Hunter S. Thompson, who later popularized the style. The term has since been applied in kind to other highly subjective artistic endeavors.

Gonzo journalism tends to favor style over accuracy and often uses personal experiences and emotions to provide context for the topic or event being covered. It disregards the 'polished' edited product favored by newspaper media and strives for the gritty factor. Use of quotes, sarcasm, humor, exaggeration, and even profanity is common. The use of Gonzo journalism portends that journalism can be truthful without striving for objectivity and is loosely equivalent to an editorial.

Other writers who have worked in "gonzo" mode include Jordan Kobos, Tom Luffman, Sinclere Lee. Matt Taibbi and Alan Cabal.

Gonzo journalism can be seen as an offshoot of the New Journalism movement in the sixties, led primarily by Tom Wolfe, and also championed by Lester Bangs and George Plimpton. It has largely been subsumed into Creative nonfiction. [citation needed] The work of Greg Palast, however, is considered by many to be a revival of Gonzo journalism.

After his death, Anita Thompson said, she got stacks of e-mails and letters from young people who thought they could duplicate his success by mimicking his infamous consumption.

"They wrote me these letters about drinking bottles of Wild Turkey and doing grams of cocaine," said Thompson, a tall, outgoing, slender woman with shoulder-length dirty blond hair and a ready smile who munched on a salad during an interview at a Denver hotel. "And I realized, OK, I need to correct that."

Also in 1970, Thompson wrote an article entitled The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved for the short-lived new journalism magazine Scanlan's Monthly. Although it was not widely read at the time, the article is the first of Thompson's to use techniques of Gonzo journalism, a style he would later employ in almost every literary endeavor. The manic, first-person subjectivity of the story was reportedly the result of Thompson's sheer desperation; he was facing a looming deadline and started sending the magazine pages ripped out of his notebook. Ralph Steadman, who would later collaborate with Thompson on several projects, contributed expressionist pen and ink illustrations.

The first use of the word Gonzo to describe Thompson's work is credited to the journalist Bill Cardoso. Cardoso had first met Thompson on a bus full of journalists covering the 1968 New Hampshire Primary. In 1970, Cardoso (who, by this time had become the editor of The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine) wrote to Thompson praising the "Kentucky Derby" piece in Scanlan's Monthly as a breakthrough: "This is it, this is pure Gonzo. If this is a start, keep rolling." Thompson took to the word right away, and according to illustrator Ralph Steadman said "Okay, that's what I do. Gonzo."

Thompson's first published use of the word Gonzo appears in a passage in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream: "Free Enterprise. Do it now: pure Gonzo journalism."

Her book, published by Fulcrum Publishing, depicts the man who used the pseudonym Raoul Duke in his famous "Fear and Loathing" as a relentless researcher and a voracious reader. He viewed politics as both worthy and necessary to get things done, the book says, and he believed nothing could be accomplished without friends and allies.

"The Hunter I want people to understand is hardworking, righteous and a patriot — a bedrock patriot and loyal to his country and loyal to his friends," Anita Thompson said. Even his most savage political commentary was written in hopes of inspiring change: "He believed we were better than what we were electing."

Thompson also knew his faults and either compensated for them or harnessed them, his widow said. He thought he was lazy, so he worked hard. He could be angry and violent, so he poured that energy onto the page.

But not all of it ended up there.

"Sometimes, it felt like the walls of the cabin would come down when we would get into our big fights," she said. "Things would fly, grapefruits and a lamp would fly — a lot of shouting."

Their marriage worked, she said, because she fought back, and he was never physically violent toward her.

"To me he was a great husband. He could be scary at times ... but so could I," she said, laughing.

The 35-year age difference between them — she was 32 when he died — enriched their relationship. Thompson described Hunter as her teacher, boss and best friend, while she sometimes played the role of designated grown-up.

"He was such a child at heart that I was often the adult between the two of us," she said.

Anita Thompson was born in Fort Collins, about 130 miles northeast of Aspen. She attended the University of California at Los Angeles but got so heavily involved with environmental groups on the campus that she burned out. She moved to Aspen in 1994 for what she thought would be a one-semester break, but it stretched into years.

She went snowboarding every day during ski season and was working as a nanny and a ski shop bookkeeper when a friend introduced her to Hunter. They became friends, and he asked her to go to work as his editorial assistant on a book of his letters.

They fell in love. She moved in with him in late 1999 and they married in April 2003.

Writing "The Gonzo Way" has helped her heal from his suicide, she said, but the path has been uneven. The first few weeks were especially dark, complicated by a split with Juan Thompson, Hunter's son from a previous marriage.

Twice before the suicide, Juan and his wife had asked Anita to leave Hunter, said Thompson, who does not know why and refused to consider it.

"I had no intention of leaving him," she said. "He was the love of my life and he was sick at the time." Hunter Thompson had undergone a hip replacement and back surgery, and had suffered a broken leg.

After the suicide, Juan told her his father had wanted to end the marriage, and that a paper found near his body was a divorce document, she said. She didn't believe it, but then recalled a note her husband wrote two weeks earlier saying, "I love you enough to set you free." She had asked what he meant but he didn't want to talk about it.

"So when Juan said that 'My dad wanted a divorce,' I thought maybe Hunter did want me to go," she said. "I had to requestion everything -- my place there, if my being there maybe caused Hunter to do it."

Relief came three weeks later, she said, when she got a photograph taken by investigators that showed the paper found near Thompson's body was not a divorce document but an amendment to his will.

"I know Hunter didn't want a divorce. I know that," she said.

Anita Thompson said Juan won't discuss the document with her.

Juan Thompson declined to discuss the assertions, saying they involved "very personal issues."

"If we're going to talk about Hunter, I think we should talk about Hunter's accomplishments and writing rather than his personal life," he told the AP.

Like many others who knew the writer, Anita Thompson said she was not surprised that he committed suicide, because he had spoken more than once about ending his life on his own terms, when he thought it was time to go.

"I have accepted his decision with an open heart. But I do feel it was a mistake. I believe he did it too soon," she said.

Now 35, Thompson said she is doing her best to move on. She is finishing her undergraduate degree in American studies at Columbia University in New York and is considering graduate school.

She may pursue a career in public education, but, she said, "I will always work for Hunter, or at least for the things he thought were important, because they're important to me, too." One of those causes is working with a marijuana-law reform group.

Her family sometimes worries that she is "still orbiting around Hunter." But that's all right with Thompson.

"It's like Venus — doesn't want to lose the sun. One day you wake up and the sun is gone. What do you do?" she said with a laugh.

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