Remembering the Turbulent Life of a 'Gonzo' Writer

Hunter Thompson, at age 8, in his hometown of Louisville, Ky. i i

hide captionHunter Thompson, at age 8, in his hometown of Louisville, Ky.

Courtesy of the Hunter S. Thompson Estate
Hunter Thompson, at age 8, in his hometown of Louisville, Ky.

Hunter Thompson, at age 8, in his hometown of Louisville, Ky.

Courtesy of the Hunter S. Thompson Estate
Thompson exhales a mouth full of lighter fluid at Jann Wenner. i i

hide captionThompson, left, exhales a mouthful of lighter fluid at Jann Wenner, at Wenner's New York home in 1976.

Annie Leibovitz/Contact Press Images
Thompson exhales a mouth full of lighter fluid at Jann Wenner.

Thompson, left, exhales a mouthful of lighter fluid at Jann Wenner, at Wenner's New York home in 1976.

Annie Leibovitz/Contact Press Images

When Corey Seymour first met writer Hunter S. Thompson, Thompson greeted him in his typical brusque style.

Seymour, a young staffer at Rolling Stone who idolized Thompson, was supposed to meet Thompson at his airline gate, but Seymour missed him. Instead, he found Thompson sitting by himself on the floor in baggage claim. When Seymour extended his hand in greeting, Thompson demanded Seymour help him off the ground.

It was the beginning of a relationship that would last more than a decade. Seymour became Thompson's assistant and was soon part of Thompson's world — a world that included drugs, heavy drinking, rock stars, writers and artists. In a new book, Seymour and Jann Wenner, the founder, editor and publisher of Rolling Stone, recount the turbulent life of the journalism pioneer best known for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Their work, Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson, is an oral biography that features interviews with Thompson's inner circle, including his ex-wife, his son, actors Johnny Depp and Jack Nicholson and old friends. Wenner and Seymour also trace how Thompson grew from a reactionary "Gonzo" journalist — using a style of writing where he injected himself into the story — to a writer who defined his generation.

Throughout his life, Thompson enjoyed partying and hazing. Constantly testing his limits — and the law — Thompson pushed people's buttons. At a New Year's Eve party in Aspen, Colo., Thompson ran through a restaurant, punching out light bulbs in hanging lights. Wenner recalls an incident when Thompson sprayed him with a fire extinguisher. And photographer Annie Leibovitz captured another famous moment when Thompson exhaled lighter fluid at Wenner in 1976.

Seymour and Wenner spoke with Andrea Seabrook about Thompson's quirks, his controversial life, his work and his suicide in 2005.

Excerpt: 'Gonzo'

Book Cover Image 'Gonzo'

Chapter One

Coming of Age in Louisville

We had guns in our cars. We shot houses, mailboxes, garbage cans. We shoplifted. We broke into liquor stores. We'd jimmy a lock or break a window. I never paid a hotel bill when I was with Hunter. We'd just go out the window or the fire escape.

SANDY THOMPSON (now Sondi Wright) met Hunter in 1958 and was married to him for seventeen years.

Hunter was born different — very different. His mother, Virginia, and I talked a lot many, many years ago about Hunter as a little boy. He was angry. He was charming. He was a lot of trouble. And what I always used to say - which is interesting, in light of the end of his life - was that he shot out of the womb angry. And then he left that same way.

NEVILLE BLAKEMORE grew up with Hunter in the Highlands neighborhood of Louisville, Kentucky.

My grandmother owned a house a block away from Hunter's. I couldn't tell you the first time I met him; I just knew about him.

It was a neighborhood in which people would sit on the porch and talk to the people walking by. Washing was hung in the backyard to dry, and ironing was done with flatirons heated on stoves. Everybody knew everybody — the generations knew everybody, everybody knew the help, and so on. In the afternoon we'd listen to radio programs like Superman and Sky King. Television did not exist.

Hunter's dad, Jack, was born in Horse Cave, Kentucky, in 1893 and came to Louisville with his three brothers when his widowed mother moved here. His first wife, who was from eastern Kentucky, died in 1923 - two years after their first and only child, Jack Jr., was born. Jack Jr. was raised by his maternal grandmother in Greenup, Kentucky, so he wasn't around much. And he was a lot older; he served in World War II and Korea.

Mr. Thompson was a tallish man with glasses and gray hair combed straight back. He had served in World War I, and he was stern. Hunter's mother was Virginia Ray, who Jack married in 1935, and her mother was named — well, we called her Memo. Hunter was Jack and Virginia's first child - born on July 18, 1937. Mr. Thompson was an insurance agent, and Memo helped with raising the children and was always around the house. She'd read to us.

DEBORAH FULLER was Hunter's personal assistant from 1982 to 2003.

Hunter's mother told me that he was born a night owl. She cursed him for that — "Oh God, he never slept at the same time as his brothers." But Virginia loved him and was very proud of him. She told me he was very charismatic as a young man, even as a boy. Kids — boys and girls — would come around to the house and sit on the front steps to wait to walk to school with Hunter. But she also said that he was a feisty one - that he got in trouble quite a bit.

NEVILLE BLAKEMORE

My parents didn't like my hanging around with him — even when we were pretty young. They thought he was a bully. I think they may have been right. But we always wanted to go over to his house. Hunter was a magnet. There was always something going on. We had toy soldiers and we'd play these huge war games. World War II was a big infl uence. We'd play Germans and Japanese, and have battles all over the neighborhood. People would have cardboard guns and cap pistols and backpacks and helmet liners. Some guys had BB guns.

Hunter got his interest in guns from another neighbor, Joe Bell. Joe understood firearms when he came out of the womb. He loved them, and he always had the latest thing.

Hunter would go over to another friend's house, and behind the street where this friend lived was Bear Grass Creek and a culvert. A lot of African Americans lived on the other side of the creek. Hunter and his group would shoot these guys with BB guns and hurl racial insults, and the black guys would finally have enough and swarm down into the culvert and up the wall, and Hunter and the others would retreat into their friend's house and hide. They'd start these little mini- race wars.

Everybody had bicycles. Hunter used to ride his bike around the neighborhood, shooting matches with a clothespin shooter. You could make a shooter out of just a clothespin and a rubber band and a "strike anywhere" match, and all you have to do is squeeze the thing and out shoots a lit match. People used to burn their leaves in the fall, and they'd rake them into the gutters first. But Hunter would ride around the neighborhood and shoot these things into the leaves and start fires all over the Highlands.

Another time, when I was twelve or thirteen, I had all the neighbor kids over for lunch, and we played soldiers in the backyard. Hunter stole a bunch of my soldiers. I figured it out that night, and it really hurt me. My father said, "Well, I'm very sorry, but it shouldn't be that much of a surprise, because that's the kind of guy he is." That for me meant, "Okay, he's fun to be around, but be careful."

GERALD TYRRELL also grew up a block away from Hunter.

Our group would go to Cherokee Park to play football, or go to the basketball courts, or grab a dime and go downtown to the movies — we would go all over the place — but going to the library and reading books was always given equal billing. Hunter would say, "Let's go to the library," and seven or eight of us would grab our bikes and ride down. It'd be all grab-ass and being rowdy and loud marching up the steps of the library, and then we'd be quiet as church mice inside and each pick out a book and sit down and read for a couple of hours, and then put the books back and leave and be rowdy and grab-ass and ride our bikes home. And it wasn't just on rainy days. It was year-round.

PORTER BIBB grew up with Hunter in Louisville.

I first met him when we were eleven or twelve. Louisville then was a very elitist town, and very small. Geographically it's midwestern, but we all thought of it as very southern.

He lived in a slightly decaying middle - class neighborhood. It had been a prominent upper - middle - class part of the city, but it was within walking distance of downtown, and the city had gone out to the country by the time we were growing up. His mother, Virginia, was a wonderful, very intelligent, very hospitable lady who worked as a librarian. She looked like Betty Crocker. Hunter also had two younger brothers, Davison and Jim.

SANDY THOMPSON

He was very good — looking, tall, slender. He had this wonderful gait — and just a tremendous power of seduction. And he knew this very early on: how he could seduce not just women but men, children — anybody he really wanted to.

LOU ANN ILER was Hunter's high school sweetheart.

I was a new student at Highland Junior High when I met Hunter in ninth grade, in 1951. He was at my locker between classes, and before I knew it he rode home on the bus with me, and then he carried my books; he put his arm around me. It was a very innocent time. We'd go to the movies, which was only twenty-five cents a person — even with popcorn and a Coke you could have a very nice date for a dollar — and we would go to high school football games or walk from my house to the ice-cream shops. Sometimes we got around on the bus, or he had older friends who drove and we double — dated with them. Afterward he would drop me off at my house and say good-night, but once I arrived at my door, my mother knew I was home and she set a time limit: five minutes, and that was it. So after we said good-bye, Hunter would throw pebbles at my bedroom window, and he would stand outside my window and we would talk for another forty-five minutes or an hour.

He was very charming and handsome, and had wonderful manners, and treated me very well. I wouldn't take any guff from him, and I think he liked that. And I could out-stare him, which used to annoy him greatly. He had a lot of energy — I wouldn't call it sexual energy at that point, because it was ninth grade, in the fifties — but he was different from the other young men I dated. There was just a presence about him. And, yes, he would draw attention to himself.

In our sophomore year we were double-dating at a neighborhood theater called the Bard. Afterward he told me that he was going to go with the other couple, and he'd be back. In a few minutes, up drove a car with this little old lady in the back, all dressed up, screaming, "Help me! Help me! I'm being kidnapped!" Well, it was Hunter. He had dressed in his mother's clothes — he had a hat and a veil, and he had on her stockings rolled down to his knee, and he was screeching in this high voice. Well, I got so mad, because it called so much attention to himself. I started walking home, with Hunter following me in the car, hanging out the back window, shouting, "Please get in the car. . . . I promise I'll never do this to you again." I walked all the way home.

We dated through that summer, and then we both went to Atherton [High School] in our sophomore year. Hunter was there for about six weeks, and then something happened — I don't know what — and he immediately went to another school. One day he was there and the next day he was at Male High School. I didn't see him for a while, and I started dating other people, but he kept coming in and out of my life. He would show up unexpectedly at my house.

PORTER BIBB

There were basically four schools. There was Male for the white males who were going to college. There was Manual for the guys who were not going to college and were going to be manual laborers or blue- collar workers. There was St. Xavier for the Catholics and Central High for the blacks. Male, though, was really an extraordinary place, even though it was a public high school. We had people teaching there who had turned down tenure at Yale and Princeton.

GERALD TYRRELL

Hunter went to Highland Junior High School and then Atherton High School for a semester, and then down to Male. It wasn't long before he joined the Castlewood Athletic Club and later the Athenaeum Literary Association. Those were the two organizations that shaped all our young lives — particularly Hunter's.

To get into both Castlewood and, later, the Athenaeum, you had to rush. Hunter loved to pledge people. One of the things he liked best was to have pledges throw "fits." We'd go into a restaurant, and all of a sudden on his command you'd throw an epileptic fit and scream and roll on the floor and carry on. Sooner or later they'd have to call either the police or the ambulance, and you'd have to run off. Hunter would be outside just doubled over laughing.

We were all very keen on athletics. We hired coaches and we played football against other teams in other parts of the city, and we generally won. Hunter played end, and I played tackle. In basketball we played in the city fifteen-and-under league. Three out of four years we won the league championship.

One of Hunter's big disappointments was that he didn't grow in the ninth and tenth grades, when he was fifteen and sixteen. He was short. It wasn't until his junior year that he grew — maybe three or four inches. But by that time it was all over — he was a smoker and a drinker, and he wasn't the athlete that he really wanted to be.

His best friend from his early days was probably Duke Rice. He was a skinny kid and not all that tall, and suddenly he shot up to be six-six or six -seven and got a basketball scholarship to the Citadel, where he was the only player of the time who was able to shut down Jerry West. Duke was the athlete that Hunter always wanted to be. And Hunter's little brother Davison was an All-American high school football player and went to Vanderbilt on a football scholarship. Hunter was surrounded by guys who had the sports dream, and he was really the best of all of us growing up in any of these sports — and then he stayed a little kid at the critical time, and then two years later it was too late to catch up.

Since Hunter couldn't be an athlete, he had to turn his energies to something else — and he turned it to social activities based around various shapes of bottles. Now when we took the bus downtown to the orange bars for hot dogs and orange drinks, we'd put gin in our drinks and go to the movies.

DOUG BRINKLEY is the literary executor of the Hunter S. Thompson estate and the editor of three volumes of his letters.

He learned that he could essentially become a leader or a bully by verbal extravagance and by doing the most outrageous pranks — that he could become cooler than the football quarterback or the head of some glib Kentucky high school club by being a wild-ass maverick ready to find the weaknesses in somebody and rip them to shreds. It gave him the upper hand.

GERALD TYRRELL

Hunter was the most charismatic natural leader I've ever been subjected to. I could walk into a room with him, and everybody would gravitate to Hunter. He just had a way about him. He was very appealing to all the girls, and he was a cutie. It was probably his mother's training: He was very nice to girls, almost chivalrous, really.

DOUG BRINKLEY

It's not easy for a working-class woman to raise three boys full of testosterone when you don't have a support system for it. So she turned to gin. Add to that the fact that Hunter at a young age had a bit of a deformity with his legs - the bowlegged walk that people would imitate later was there when he was young — and it kept him from being the sports star he wanted to be. It wasn't just that one leg was longer than the other - he had a bit of a pain problem with his back and spine, a birth defect in a sense. He didn't cultivate that distinctive walk that he had. He couldn't help it. He turned it into an asset, but he always thought of it as a deficit. And Hunter quickly learned that you can be made fun of when you have a deformity, and the way to not be made fun of is to take the Nietzschean offensive and lash out before you can even be hit, and get people afraid of you. He was railing after bullies or the people that he thought were screwing the little guy.

LOU ANN ILER

Hunter's father died in July between our freshman and sophomore years. Hunter showed up on my doorstep — I had a large porch — and sat for hours, not saying too much. One of the loneliest things I've ever seen was Hunter walking away from my porch to catch the bus on the night his father died. It was dark, and the streetlight was on. He wasn't openly emotional, but I held his hand. He had decided that he needed to be here.

SANDY THOMPSON

Hunter's father had been, from what I heard from Hunter's friends, quite a strict disciplinarian. So I'm guessing that he held Hunter in check. And then he was gone. Virginia became an alcoholic. And even though Hunter was drinking then, he hated Virginia's drinking.

DOUG BRINKLEY

Hunter never really liked Jack Kerouac's On the Road — he thought the writing was kind of sloppy and romantic and oversentimental but he told me he thought Kerouac was a genius for two things: discovering Neal Cassady, whom Hunter thought was flat-out amazing, and using the literary construct of "looking for the lost dad I never had." Neal was never properly raised by a father. He didn't even know whether his dad was alive or dead, and the notion of a young son who never had a dad, looking for his biological father, appealed to Hunter a great deal. Hunter didn't get to know his father, and at times this loss would burst out as oedipal anger, but underneath it all was just a deep longing for the dad he never had and an unanswerable question of how knowing him could have made his life richer and different. He had to figure it all out on his own.

His mother stayed on top of Hunter and his brothers the best that she could, and it was her bringing books home from the library like Huck Finn and White Fang and making her boys read that turned Hunter into a writer. Hunter had a criminal cast to his mind, and he would have become a criminal if not for the literature that his mother infused into their household.

PORTER BIBB

Louisville had what we called literary societies, but they were basically social clubs. The one that Hunter and I were in, the Athenaeum Literary Association, was 125 years old and very prestigious. We would meet every Saturday night for several hours, wear suits and ties, and different members would stand in front of the rest of the group and read something they'd written and be critiqued. After the meeting was over, you took off your tie and your jacket and went out and raised a lot of hell and got drunk.

NEVILLE BLAKEMORE

We published The Spectator, a literary magazine, and we'd put on a spring dance and a Christmas dance in the Crystal Ballroom at the Brown Hotel to raise money. Our dances were followed by breakfast — it was an excuse to stay up all night. And we'd have hill parties — there was a hill in Cherokee Park where you could go up on top and build a fire and sit around and sing, with dates.

PAUL SEMONIN was an Athenaeum member.

The Athenaeum was something that some of our fathers had been in, or even our grandfathers. It was the oldest literary society, and it was a social group - mostly upper - middle - class, people with family ties and things like that — and also a drinking group.

Copyright © 2007 by Wenner Media, LLC

Books Featured In This Story

Gonzo
Gonzo

The Life of Hunter S. Thompson

by Jann Wenner, Corey Seymour and Johnny Depp

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