Words: Jeff Jetton
Photos: Victoria Milkovich
It may be a stretch to call Hunter S. Thompson the voice of a generation. His particular brand of writing has it’s place in the annals of history, surely, but his literary voice was so odd, so spectacular (in the true sense of the word), so Gonzo, that it’s hard to imagine the guy speaking metaphorically for an all-encompassing group of people bound only by a span of time. Here’s the guy who said ‘when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro’, and who really meant it. Thompson left a legacy of brilliant, drug-induced rants about everything from politics to the American Dream to Hell’s Angels. His writings were fueled by anger and amphetamines, teeming with genius and often further enhanced by the frenetic drawings of Ralph Steadman. While most will remember him for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, his catalog was vast and reliable in it’s quality.
Hunter’s 2005 suicide left Anita Thompson a young widow. She sat down with BYT at a recent event put together by Flying Dog Brewery (the Aspen-born brewhouse started by Hunter’s friend George Stranahan) to talk about a pair of new books and Hunter’s sleeping habits, amongst other things.
BYT: Let’s start out with the books that you’re here to talk about.
Anita Thompson: The Gonzo Way & Ancient Gonzo Wisdom.
Anita Thompson: Well, I wrote The Gonzo Way for young people, mainly because after Hunter died it left a huge group of young people lost. I received thousands of emails from people looking for wisdom, or answers. I didn’t feel that I had the wisdom or the answers necessarily, but I had time with Hunter. There are some misconceptions that I wanted to correct, and a lot of that is about his lifestyle. A lot of young people were under the impression that it was his lifestyle that created the genius, and I just wanted to make sure to make very clear that it was the years of hard work and paying attention and study that made his genius possible, his lifestyle possible and not the other way around.
BYT: So – was the lifestyle or the persona difficult to separate from?
AT: No, it was a non-issue for him most of the time. It’s when other people made it an issue… He actually DID live a crazy lifestyle. He could consume all kinds of substances. Of course with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas there are exaggerations. Most human being would die with the amount of substances they took in Vegas. And he wrote Vegas when he was sober.
BYT: So he wasn’t ‘on’ like that all the time. He must have had to dial it down, you know, for the home life?
AT: Well he did a lot at home (laughs). Home made a sanctuary where he could take substances. He didn’t like drunkards and people who party just to get high. He used it as a tool.
BYT: Not a crutch?
AT: Not a crutch, a tool. If he felt that it was getting in the way, he would just stop.
BYT: So he had the ability to just stop?
BYT: He wasn’t an addict?
AT: He was certainly an alcoholic, although you never saw him drunk. He just had a different constitution. But he was serious when he said ‘I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me’.
BYT: Do you think it affected him in later life, this lifestyle? Do you think it affected his sensibilities, his awareness?
AT: After his back surgery when he was on heavy medication? Absolutely. It affected his thinking for weeks. He had to learn to write again, he had to learn to walk again. It was a major hurdle. And then when he broke his leg he was in intense pain and had to go on pain killers. That effected his thinking.
BYT: Would you say there’s anyone who is carrying the torch since Hunter’s death in terms of Gonzo journalism?
AT: As Hunter said, it’s lonely being a Gonzo journalist. You can’t copy Hunter’s style, and those who do usually fail. His point for young writers was always to find your own voice.
BYT: Right, I’m not talking about stylistically, but in terms of the genre.
AT: There are a lot of great blogs out there, Huffington Post and Salon.com. Amy Goodman is fantastic. There are great journalists on Al Jazeera and BBC that are not afraid to…
BYT: Anybody on ESPN 2 [ed. note: Thompson wrote for ESPN 2 in his later years]?
AT: Who are the guys who are on ESPN 2 now? There’s a great book on the making of ESPN in Bristol, Connecticut, it just came out last week…
BYT: You’re not supposed to be name-dropping OTHER peoples’ books, you’re supposed to be promoting yours! Do you ever get Ralph Steadman to design birthday invitations for you?
AT: Birthday Invitations? (laughs) He does send constant communication, artwork and such, he’s been a great brother to me and I love him very much.
BYT: What’s your favorite of Hunter’s books?
AT: That’s a tough one, it depends on the mood I’m in, the season, where I am. At this moment it would be Fear And Loathing on the Campaign Trail because I’m in Washington D.C. and I just had lunch with George McGovern at Cafe Milano.
BYT: Did Hunter really like beer? Something tells me this is all just a dramatic ruse to sell more kegs of Flying Dog Ale…
AT: (laughs) In his early years he was a rum guy but most of his life he was a whiskey drinker. Wild Turkey and then later in life Chivas on the rocks. But he would have beer with every meal.
BYT: What would you say his favorite substance was?
AT: Adrenaline. Pure adrenaline. He was an adrenaline junkie.
BYT: Not easy to get, though.
AT: Depends if you’re on a deadline or not.
BYT: Tell me about when you and Hunter first met.
AT: We met through a mutual friend. I had asked the question, what is it about football that will create this bond between men who have nothing in common but can have a lifelong relationship over a game. My friend said I have just the person for you, he’s a sports writer, his name is Hunter Thompson. I had read one part of a piece in Rolling Stone about Bill Clinton, but that was it, I hadn’t read anything else. Hunter taught be about football via betting.
BYT: Bedding? (nods knowingly)
AT: (laughs) Not bedding, betting! Good one. I spent a few years working for him and as friends. And at that point I was going back to school and on my way back to university he said ‘hold on, I’m just finishing a book of letters and I need help with it, why don’t you take another semester off and come work for me’, and I took time off and we fell in love. He taught me about football through betting on it. He taught me about…
BYT: He taught you about capitalism! Do you still watch football?
AT: I do, I didn’t for about two or three years. I didn’t even really turn the tv on. It was hard, emotionally.
BYT: So you live at Owl Farm?
AT: Owl Farm, yes, Hunter’s farm near Aspen. I keep the main area where he worked and the living rooms frozen in time. And his toothbrush.
BYT: Do you ever take his guns out for a shoot?
AT: Of course. The handguns, yes. Last time Jim Caruso and some Flying Dog friends were up we took some bombs out and made some art with paint and double-aught buck and nitroglycerine targets and canvas with a 12-guage.
BYT: Wow, you should have taken videos.
AT: We did, I’m sure you can talk to Jim Caruso and get some.
BYT: Have you noticed [Flying Dog Ale CEO] Jim Caruso’s been beefing up?
AT: He’s been buff for a long time. He’s a black belt in karate.
BYT: So who was a better Hunter, Bill Murray or Johnny Depp?
AT: Oh, I can’t answer that, sorry. They both have a different…
BYT: Ok then… who would win in a fight as Hunter, Bill Murray or Johnny Depp?
AT: I think Jack Sparrow.
BYT: Johnny Depp it is.
AT: No, Jack Sparrow.
BYT: Ok, well then, Jack Sparrow as Hunter S. Thompson.
AT: Well, a fight for what? Johnny was playing Hunter as a young Hunter, Bill was playing Hunter as an old Hunter.
BYT: Fine, then, who would win in a fight, old Hunter or young Hunter?
AT: (pauses) Probably, hmm, I don’t know, if it was a physical fight maybe the younger Hunter would win, if it’s an intellectual fight I’d take the older Hunter.
BYT: A knife fight.
AT: A knife fight? Well, probably older Hunter in a knife fight because it’s sort of like a chess game (laughs).
AT: What a great question. Your questions have been great, actually.
BYT: (laughs) Well let me ruin that. Did Hunter snore?
AT: Actually he didn’t! He was a great sleeper. A quiet sleeper. A very affectionate sleeper.
BYT: Hunter was a snuggler.
AT: He was a wonderful husband. As all of his girlfriends know, he was comforting and very safe to sleep with. And very affectionate. That’s advice for all men out there.
BYT: To be a good snuggler?
BYT: So, Hunter was maybe criticized in his elder years for being less prolific…
AT: Sure, he went through a dry spell for about ten years. When I met him I said ‘you’re a writer, why aren’t you writing?’ and he said ‘good question’. Also, I came into the picture when Bush was elected, so you had these two forces coming together and Hunter started writing again. Also ESPN was a big force, he started his career as a sports writer. He was not thrilled to be working for Disney. But working for his friend John Walsh was great. He’d worked with John at Rolling Stone before John went to ESPN, he really did it for John.
BYT: But the criticism is often waged against people as they age they become less prolific, I was wondering if you find validity in that criticism.
AT: Here’s what it is, he could not sustain those sixteen-hour periods of sitting at the typewriter. He couldn’t. He believed that his insight was just as sharp if not sharper, but he had no interest in sustaining those long riffs like he did in the seventies. However, his work for ESPN, he looked at through the same lens that he did with Rolling Stone in the seventies. He didn’t work for Rolling Stone because it was a cool magazine, it wasn’t a cool magazine yet. He looked at it as he had a captive audience of music lovers and he could politicize them. He looked at ESPN through that same lens, he had a captive audience of sports lovers and he could politicize them, and he did. There is a false impression that he was disgusted with the younger generation. Not true. He had hope in the younger generation and that’s why he kept writing.
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