In high school, he was accepted into a prestigious club called the Athenaeum Literary Association along with many of the city's other wealthy and socially elite young people. But around the same time, Thompson's father took seriously ill and died from a rare immune disorder. His mother had to take a job as a librarian to support the family, and Thompson suddenly became the poor member of his group of friends, the only one who couldn't afford to go to an Ivy League school.
Thompson rebelled against the club and became famous for his outrageous pranks. He flooded the first floor of his high school with three inches of water during an assembly and once dumped a truckload of pumpkins in front of a downtown hotel. He began publishing a series of bitterly sarcastic essays for the literary association's newsletter, including one called, "Open Letter to the Youth of Our Nation," signed "John J. Righteous-Hypocrite." He wrote, "Young people of America, awake from your slumber of indolence and harken to the call of the future. Do you realize you are rapidly becoming a doomed generation?"
Thompson was arrested several times in his senior year for vandalism and attempted robbery. He was banned from the literary association, and he spent thirty days in jail. When he was released, he joined the United States Air Force as a provision of his parole. He spent most of his time in the service writing for the newspaper at his base. He was honorably discharged in 1958 and began writing for any small newspaper that would take him. In his spare time, he obsessively studied his favorite novel, The Great Gatsby, outlining it and rewriting passages. He said, "I wanted to teach my neurological system how it felt to write that kind of prose."
In 1964, the California attorney general issued a report on a dangerous new motorcycle gang known as the Hell's Angels, and the national media picked up the story. Thompson was hired by The Nation magazine to write a brief investigative article about the gang. After his article was published, a publisher called him, offering him fifteen hundred dollars to write a book on the same subject. Thompson was so broke at that point that the electric company had recently shut off his power. He later said, "For fifteen hundred dollars I would have done the definitive text on hammerhead sharks and stayed in the water with them for three months!"
Thompson bought a motorcycle with his book advance and began biking around the country, meeting fellow bikers and writing about them. He was nearly killed one day when five Hell's Angels suddenly turned on him and beat him senseless. But he survived, and in 1967, he published his book, Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs.
The first edition of the book sold out immediately and broke onto the New York Times bestseller list, although Thompson had a few problems on the book tour, as he showed up drunk for most of his interviews.
Nevertheless, Thompson soon became one of the most prominent journalists of his generation. In 1969, Playboy magazine hired him to write a piece on Jean-Claude Killy, an Olympic skier turned pitchman. What Thompson produced was the first true piece of Gonzo literature to be published, entitled "The Temptations of Jean-Claude Killy."
Playboy turned it down because the editors felt that it was too mean-spirited. In reality, Thompson had stepped beyond the who, what, where, when, and why of mainstream journalism and delivered something quite different: a piece where the writer was not objective but subjective, allowing his own personality and impressions of his subject to emerge. The article eventually appeared in Ramparts magazine, the first magazine to recognize that Thompson was doing something radically new and revolutionary in journalism.
Soon after the Killy piece, Thompson, along with the illustrator Ralph Steadman, were assigned to cover the Kentucky Derby for the magazine. The result was "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved," which provided readers with a vicious and, at the same time, hilarious description of the Southern sporting classic. Steadman's illustrations were done in lipstick and were perverse and humorous, well suited to Thompson's own literary style.
In 1971, Thompson published his most famous book, Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, about a trip he took to that city, how it almost drove him crazy, and his realization that the idealism of the 1960s had disappeared forever. His most recent book is Kingdom of Fear.
Thompson has often written about the drug culture with which he has long been associated, but he once said, "I haven't found a drug yet that can get you anywhere near as high as a sitting at a desk writing, trying to imagine a story no matter how bizarre it is, [or] going out and getting into the weirdness of reality and doing a little time on the Proud Highway."
A long-time resident of Woody Creek, Col., on the outskirts of Aspen, Thompson received his Doctorate from a mail-order church in the Sixties while he was in San Francisco. In 1970, he ran for the position of sheriff of Pitkin County on the Freak Power ticket and narrowly lost to the incumbent.
Numerous treatments of Thompson's work have appeared in the media over the years. The most recognizable is the "Uncle Duke" character in Doonesbury by Garry Trudeau, followed by the cult movie, Where the Buffalo Roam, starring Bill Murray and Peter Boyle. The most recent is a Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas audio CD and the movie version of the same name, which was released May 22, 1998, starring Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro, with direction by Terry Gilliam.
Thompson once wrote to friend Susan Haselden:
"In brief, I find that I've never channeled my energy long enough to send it in any one direction. I'm all but completely devoid of a sense of values: psychologically unable to base my actions on any firm beliefs. I seem to be unable to act consistently or effectively, because I have no values on which to base my decisions. As I look back, I find that I've been taught to believe in nothing. I have no god and I find it impossible to believe in man. On every side of me, I see thousands engaged in the worship of money, security, prestige symbols, and even snakes. I'm beginning to see what Kerouac means when he says, "I want God to show me his face": it is not the statement, but what the statement implies: "I want to believe in something." The man is more of a spokesman than most people think...and he speaks for more than thieves, hopheads, and whores."
Hunter S. Thompson, 67, in failing health, shot himself in the head at his home on Feb. 20 after a long and flamboyant career.
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