Two months after Hunter Thompson's suicide, a former admirer rethinks the writer's motives.
By MICHAEL CAPUZZO
Published April 10, 2005
Hunter Thompson once threatened me with violent death and other unfortunate events, including the annihilation of my career as a New Journalist.
It was 2 in the morning, all the decent people in Palm Beach were sleeping, and Thompson had me trapped in his boyish version of hell. A young reporter for the Miami Herald, I had charmingly asked him for an interview. He said yes, he said no, he said many terrible things about my character. He vowed that when he was done destroying my career, I'd be working on the smallest !@#$%*& newspaper in the smallest east bum-*@%$ town, a place it would take "12 hours by train to get to."
He had something there. I now live in a small town, population 3,000, in the northernmost mountains of Pennsylvania. I've recently been asked to be editor of the local weekly, the Gazette, a well-respected newspaper with a circulation of 6,637. But Hunter was wrong about the train. It takes me hours of driving to get to a station.
At the time, I understood his assault no better than did the wide-eyed Okie hitchhiker whomHunter terrorized in the backseat as Thompson and his lawyer blazed across the California desert in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Yet now, with Thompson in the grave less than two months, a victim of his own .45-caliber handgun, I understand the hell game he briefly played with me. What he did to me was identical in form and intent to the extended con he perpetrated on American journalism beginning in the 1970s. "The Gonzo Con," we'll call it, for Hunter was a true master.
* * *
Literary reputations once evolved slowly, with the pace of generations, the rhythm of final and forgotten manuscripts fished from attic trunks. But Hunter Thompson compressed that notion horrifically. He gave us his last story, the mean, little self-promoting tale of his own death, with the speed and savagery of a gunshot - there, finally, Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson, two men he could respect - and his gambit has worked splendidly.
Make no mistake, the action of 5:42 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 20, in the kitchen of Owl Farm, Woody Creek, Colo., was a carefully staged story of strictly controlled gonzo brilliance. As Thompson wedged the gun barrel into his mouth, he was, in this final act of creation - or rather, destruction - precisely mirroring his journalistic work. His suicide, like many of his other stories, was wildly creative, diabolically controlling, massively overinflated, violent, deceitful, exploitive and uproariously, joyfully sadistic. It featured typically hollow bows to literary masters - Hemingway and Conrad - whom he quoted often and fraudulently as a cover for journalistic legitimacy.
Frankly, Thompson's suicide was so ruthless and contrived, narcissistically bloated and appallingly revealing, I wish someone had intervened to stop him, or at least urged him toward honor, away from cruelty. But then it wouldn't have been gonzo.
Most of the newspapers called his suicide a loving, tender, family act, and his work redemptive. "He spent his life in search of an honest man, and he seldom found any," said his longtime editor and publisher at Random House and Summit Books. Somewhere in roiling clouds over the Colorado mountains, the great bald pate is sucking crystal meth and roaring in laughter; he wouldn't have wanted his last and largest Gonzo Con to end any other way.
The New York Times, the Washington Post and others cast Thompson as the boldest iconic figure of the 1970s New Journalism. In those heady, liberating days, pioneers such as Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe used novelistic storytelling techniques - narrative, scene, dialogue - to write entertaining stories that were nonetheless factual in the best traditions of the "old journalist." Hunter Thompson emerged as the first New Journalist widely credited with actively distorting the facts to find "the truth beyond the truth."
As the New York Times explained in "An Appreciation" of Thompson: "Mr. Thompson . . . would begin with a premise - Richard Nixon was doing Satan's handiwork, for instance," blend in many other interesting ideas, not all of them factual, "before landing the entire rococo mix in one tidy package, like a gift." As the paper goes on to explain about this evolving form of reportage: "To Mr. Thompson, it was all true, every word of it. Maybe not literally, you-can-look-it-up true, but true in a way that the bean counters would never understand." In this light, Thompson's legacy seems enormous. Who knew how far ahead of his time he really was?
Tom Wolfe, 1970s godfather of the New Journalism, tried to include Thompson in its ranks. But Thompson, bless his honesty, refused. "He said he wasn't part of anybody's group, Wolfe recalled in the Wall Street Journal. "He wrote gonzo." Gonzo, Wolfe said, was journalism, memoir, "wild invention, and wilder rhetoric inspired by the bizarre exuberance of a young civilization." Wolfe writes there is no better word to cover "this new form unless it is Hunter Thompson's own word, "gonzo' " - Boston-Irish slang, by the way, for the last drunk standing. There is however, quite clearly, a more precise word for Thompson. It, and only it, captures the guiding zeitgeist of his work, the distinguishing vision that set him apart from other journalists, however creative. He was a psychopath.
As bold statements, this ranks with "Nixon was a crook." Thompson, like his archnemesis Nixon, was a psychopath of the Indigenous American Non-Bundy Type, a murderer of the spirit, a ruthless exploiter, not a killer of the flesh; the man without conscience, who uses and misuses others for power and pleasure. Brilliant charm and perception are hallmarks of this breed, who discern with a wizened eye worthy of Saul Bellow the workings of the human heart, its desires and foibles and fears, its tissue-thin hopes, which are disposable and, by the way, make excellent snot rags. Perhaps Thompson loved and was loved, but one cannot read about his "persona," in particular the gleeful target practice at humans on the edge of his ranch, ha ha!, and not reach this conclusion.
I called Richard Walter, one of the foremost forensic psychologists and criminal profilers in the world. When Scotland Yard, or FBI legends, confront a serial killer bafflingly depraved, a suicide utterly inexplicable, they often turn to this gaunt gentleman who lives alone in the Pennsylvania mountains. In international forensic circles, Walter is often said to know more about the heart of darkness than anyone in the world.
Walter sounded disappointed in me. "Of course he was a psychopath," he said, in the scolding "haven't-you-learned-anything" tone. "He also was a sadist, I told you, who got his jollies creating dread, degradation and dependency in others. What did you think he was?"
"When I was younger I thought he was a journalist who had the courage to speak truth to power to help the powerless."
A hoarse laughter sounded on the other end of the phone until he started to cough, a cigarette cough, until he had to hang up.
Thompson will endure, I suspect, as a comic genius. One cannot read parts of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas without a wide grin. If, however, as Tom Wolfe declared in the Wall Street Journal, Hunter was the 20th century's Mark Twain, if paranoid psychopathology is all that's left of the brave, tender hope of Huck Finn, there's more nihilism in that thought thanany man can swallow without gagging and vomiting up all hope, leaving the nihilist in control. That, one suspects, was always the point of Thompson. Nothing is a more dishonest feature of the Gonzo Con than the facile way Thompson cloaked himself in the masters, especially William Faulkner. "Gonzo journalism is a style of reporting based on William Faulkner's idea that the best fiction is far more true than any kind of journalism - and the best journalists have always known this," Thompson said. The ironies here are numerous, but for a journalist to use perhaps the greatest American novelist as a cover for inventing facts because he himself could not succeed either by creative invention or honest reporting is secondary. Chiefly ironic is Thompson's use of the great Southern moralist to preach precisely what Faulkner stood all his life against. Answering critics who thought his vision too dark and negative, Faulkner in his 1949 Nobel Prize acceptance speech warned against the true doomsayer, all but prophesied Hunter Thompson.
Declaring it the writer's duty "to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past," Faulkner warned against writers who succumb to the paralyzing fear and hopelessness of modern life. Such a writer works without "the universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed . . . without pity or compassion . . . though he stood among and watched the end of man."
* * *
Hunter Thompson was sitting in his Palm Beach hotel room at 2 in the morning when he grabbed the phone and called me. He sounded edgy, hard, dangerously high. Barely awake, I asked him for an interview; he agreed.
"Come to Room 36 in exactly 30 minutes. Bring four new cassettes and two six-packs of Molson." To a young journalist, it was the voice of a cavorting god, Bacchus dissembling for the woods. Groggy with sleep, I heard the narratives of the sirens Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe and Thompson calling, "Front-page story. Fear and Loathing in Palm Beach."
Stoned in a red convertible, Thompson had arrived in town to cover the Roxanne Pulitzer trial for Rolling Stone. He wore a T-shirt to court, Heineken in hand, kissing Roxanne. He shared drugs with young journalists who instantly gained status.
Late one night when the acolytes were nodding groggily, he leaped up and announced he was about to demonstrate the ultimate method of disarming a home invader. At his insistence, a poor young reporter walked outside and knocked on the door, whereupon Thompson opened it, distended his mouth horribly as if to devour the young lad, and Whoosh! breathed fire in his face. Thompson had spit petrol into a lighter.
Now I would join the bacchanalia, notebook in hand.
"Make sure it's Molson Gold," the voice croaked.
This was a clear violation of journalistic ethics. Thompson wanted gifts tantamount to cash for an interview. I thought about it hard - the beer was no problem. But where could I get brand-new cassettes at 2 in the morning?
"I'll be right over," I said, and I was already lost, the mouse in the grip of the mad master of Owl Farm. How could I not have seen this, in my early 20s, when Hunter Thompson was one of my journalistic heroes?
"Don't be so hard on yourself," Walter tried to assure me. "The fact of this kind of character is they are wonderfully charming, endlessly disarming and almost nobody can tell. That's part of their great pleasure, it's what they live on. And in point of fact, one of the special thrills of your friend Hunter is the ability, and quite genuine joy, of crushing innocence. The more innocence, the greater the joy."
* * *
The great diabolical exploiter to the last, Thompson brilliantly staged the plot elements of his final gonzo tale. He was sitting at his typewriter at his Colorado home. As he once wrote in Rolling Stone, "But what was the story? Nobody had bothered to say. So we would have to drum it up on our own." For this one, he had invited his son, Juan Thompson, his daughter-in-law, Winkel Thompson, and their 6-year-old son, Will, Hunter's grandson, for the weekend. They were in the house. Everything was ready except for the primary victim.
In the kitchen, it turns out, Hunter Thompson was not alone. At 5:16 p.m., Anita, his wife of two years, 35 years his junior, called him from the health club. She had married him, she said, enchanted by his words. He broke any chill between them with the magic of those words. "All he'd have to do was start writing, and I would start melting at the knees." They spoke on the phone for 10 minutes and 22 seconds. According to historian and family friend Douglas Brinkley, writing in Rolling Stone, Thompson and his wife "began fighting with a shrill, relentless intensity" around Thanksgiving 2004. The night before Thompson took his life, Brinkley recounts, Thompson fired a pellet gun at a gong - "reckless, foolish," Brinkley calls it - and missed his wife by a foot. During their last phone call, the historian says, the couple made up.
On the phone he told her to come home and help him with his column. Thus he re-created a sacred moment between them, one of the most intimate parts of their relationship, and then he blew his brains out. Brinkley claims Anita, in fact, hung up before the shooting, but Thompson believed she was still listening. Thompson's son, daughter-in-law and grandson all heard the blast, thus becoming characters in Hunter Thompson's last story, his final victims. It is perhaps not worth mentioning, except in context that victims come in many forms, that Brinkley described the suicide as carefully planned and deeply tender, a family thing, and the Rocky Mountain News said it had a "beautifully dark logic."
Walter, who does not blink at Polaroids of cannibalism, let out a low whistle when I described the suicide to him. "Well," he said, pausing to inhale from a Kool, "it's quite theatrical. I often tell cops that when you study a murder scene, think of the simplest way the killing could get done. Everything else tells you something about him. Here we have, I believe, a malignant narcissist who'd become his own god, who had given himself the power to create and destroy, and there was nobody left worth destroying. . . . He's all about power, extending himself with maximum impact in every possible direction."
Walter paused for another draw on the Kool. "You see he is not a killer, but while a killer thrives on destroying physically, he thrives on destroying psychologically. He has that same diabolical kind of exploitation. Although, it's ironic, Thompson is relying so much on imagination his persona is much more exaggerated, more out there, than any serial killer I've encountered. It is common for this personality type that there is nothing inside him but the endless need to exploit. By symbolic irony, sarcastic irony, he gives himself the illusion he exists."
Walter saw the suicide as a classic act of sadism. "He enjoyed the pleasures of the sadist - dependency, degradation of family members and control. He was a destroyer, not a creator. It's the ultimate cowardice. He could construct a sentence, yes; a positive thought, no; a life, never. He was a fraudulent Hemingway, trying and failing, in life and in death, to be a man."
I thought this sounded a little cold for a recent suicide, but in fact now I think Thompson was proud of the truth of it. When Hemingway's example proved too daunting for him, Thompson quoted Dr. Johnson: "He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man."
* * *
Hunter wouldn't hang up the phone. He kept talking; I kept asking questions and taking notes. Any moment I expected him to invite me again over to his hotel room. I thought we were getting along.
Then, suddenly, he roared, "Hey, you g-d-- little s--head, you're not writing this down, are you?"
Stunned, I said simply, "Of course I am. I'm a reporter, doing a story on you, remember?"
For a long time I thought I'd blown the interview, to which I was promptly and grotesquely disinvited. But now I realize I did Hunter Thompson a favor. I gave him what he needed. If I'd played along, bent to his will, he would have retreated and acted reasonably, until he would inevitably have tried to entrap me again, roared screaming toward some other common boundary. If you have a beagle you have to let it chase rabbits; a Newfoundland must be exercised in water. Hunter needed you to say, "No, sir, there are rules around here, standards to be met." Then, like a cross between Mr. Hyde and the Incredible Hulk, he could morph into the gonzo persona.
Perhaps you can see now that Thompson, the psychopathic journalist, clearly illustrates "that dark, venal and incurably violent side of the American character . . . a man utterly without ethics or morals or any bedrock sense of decency . . . an evil man - evil in a way that only those who believe in the physical reality of the devil can understand it." But you would be dead wrong. It's easy to get them confused. That beast was Richard Nixon, in the obituary written by Hunter S. Thompson, May 1, 1994, Rolling Stone. The now-classic obit is being reverentially passed around the Internet nowadays, headlined, "He was a Crook . . . Notes on the Passing of an American Monster." RIP, Hunter.
- Michael Capuzzo is the author of Close to Shore, a New York Times bestseller about a series of shark attacks in 1916. He is currently working on a book for Penguin Books on the Vidocq Society, a private club of the world's greatest detectives.