Archive for Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Hunter S. Thompson, 1937-2005

Writer died the way he lived

February 22, 2005


— You didn't really expect Hunter S. Thompson would let age, illness or infirmity slowly sap the life from him.

Did you?

After all, in "What Lured Hemingway to Ketchum?" which he wrote for The National Observer in 1964, Thompson concluded of Papa: "He was an old, sick and very troubled man, and the illusion of peace and contentment was not enough for him. ... So finally, and for what he must have thought the best of reasons, he ended it with a shotgun."

It wouldn't be accurate to say Thompson had a death wish. Just the opposite: He was the self-described "champion of fun."

As Paul Perry, one of his biographers put it: "He rides the edge at high speed while engaging in a mix of raucous verbal and gestural antics: hoax, legerdemain, gargantuan exaggeration, buffoonery, conscious alteration, threat, insult. ... He gets people hooked on him because he's fun, irresistible, liberating, infectious."

But once the fun was over, Thompson often made clear, he wasn't going to stick around and watch the janitors sweep up.

In George Plimpton's "Shadow Box," he imagines meeting death in a flaming car crash. In the introduction to his collected works in 1978, he jokes about leaping from a 28th-floor office window.

In a BBC documentary included with the "collector's edition" of the "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" DVD, he discusses plans for a giant monument on the back 40 of his ranch in Woody Creek, Colo. A hundred feet tall, it would include a cannon to fire a canister containing his ashes out over the valley.

All to the tune of Bob Dylan's "Mister Tambourine Man."

Like Hemingway's, though, it was a quieter end that Thompson chose Sunday afternoon, alone, at his ranch. Thompson "took his life with a gunshot to the head," his wife and son said in a statement released to the Aspen Daily News. He was 67.

No other information was made public Monday, though some speculated that Thompson's four or five decades of unrepentant smoking, drinking and drugging must finally have taken an irreversible toll on his iron constitution. ("About every two years my doctor tells me I'm going to die," he said in that BBC documentary.)

Going out on top

Thompson's best work was years in the past, but you could say the writer went out on top. After years of attempts, his most famous book, "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," finally had been made into a movie -- and a good one, at that. Monty Python's Terry Gilliam directed; the movie starred Johnny Depp as "Raoul Duke" and Benicio Del Toro as "Dr. Gonzo," the character based on Thompson's fellow traveler, the Chicano attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta.

Two volumes of his letters, covering the 1950s through the 1970s, have been published, with an introduction by respected historian Douglas Brinkley. In 1996, Thompson was feted in New York on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Vegas book -- which was republished in a Modern Library edition in 1998.

Many found it hard to take Thompson seriously -- Garry Trudeau turned him into "Uncle Duke" in Doonesbury -- but a roll call of his friends and acquaintances includes many others who did.

From the world of politics, there were George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Gary Hart and Samuel "Sandy" Berger, who became President Clinton's national security adviser 20 years after Thompson met him during the McGovern campaign. From the world of letters, P.J. O'Rourke, "Ironweed" author William Kennedy (whom Thompson befriended as a young journalist in Puerto Rico) and the late Ken Kesey. In the media, Ed Bradley of "60 Minutes" and the late Charles Kuralt. And from Hollywood, Johnny Depp, Matt Dillon, Sean Penn and John Cusack.

'Too weird to live'

After all the columns and slap-dash collections of later years, it's also easy to forget that Thompson was, for much of his career, a careful writer of considerable skill.

He paid his dues as a roving correspondent in South America in the early '60s, wrote a well-regarded book about the Hell's Angels and deeply admired F. Scott Fitzgerald -- to the point that he copied, by hand, "The Great Gatsby," to try to internalize the rhythms of its sentences.

Perhaps his last truly great piece of writing ran in Rolling Stone's 10th-anniversary issue in 1977. Titled "The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat," it was a tribute to Oscar Acosta, "the Brown Buffalo," whose life had unraveled after the Vegas adventure with Thompson.

Rather than the "old, sick and very troubled man" he saw in the latter-day Hemingway, many will remember Thompson with the epitaph he bestowed on Acosta: "Too weird to live, too rare to die."

Commenting has been disabled for this item.