Remembering the Turbulent Life of a 'Gonzo' Writer In a new oral biography, Rolling Stone editors Corey Seymour and Jann Wenner recount the turbulent life of journalism pioneer Hunter S. Thompson. Thompson's inner circle reflects on the writer's talent and famously wild lifestyle.
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Remembering the Turbulent Life of a 'Gonzo' Writer

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Remembering the Turbulent Life of a 'Gonzo' Writer

Remembering the Turbulent Life of a 'Gonzo' Writer

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(Soundbite of movie "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas")

Mr. JOHNNY DEPP (Actor) : (As Raoul Duke) We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the dessert, when the drugs began to take hold.

(Soundbite of music)


The immortal first words of Hunter S. Thompson's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," the story of two debauched drug kings(ph), set loose in Sin City. It first appeared in Rolling Stone magazine in 1971, then as a bestselling book. And in 1998, a film staring Johnny Depp.

(Soundbite of movie "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas")

Mr. DEPP: (As Raoul Duke) I remember saying something like, I feel a bit lightheaded. Maybe you should drive. Suddenly, there was a terrible roar all around us, and the sky was full with what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car. And a voice was screaming, Holy Jesus. What are these goddamn animals?

Mr. JANN WENNER (Founder and Editor-in-Chief, Rolling Stone Magazine; Co-Editor, "Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson"): He wrote the first 15 to 25 pages when he was in San Francisco living in my house, you know, in my basement. and I was showing that around the office and everybody was just laughing their heads off loving it. They went, oh my gosh, we've got something very mad and very special. I mean, everybody sought right away for what it was.

SEABROOK: That was Jann Wenner, the founder, editor and publisher of Rolling Stone. He was among the first to spot the genius behind Thompson's madcap approach to writing. Throughout the 1970s, Wenner assigned Hunter Thompson to cover stories for the magazine all the while knowing that Thompson's fondness for drugs and calamity might result in a botched assignment or brilliance.

Mr. WENNER: We gave Hunter virtually every top assignment and big story that would come down the pike. He started off writing about his own run to be sheriff of Aspen in 1970, I think. Then, that led really, essentially, to Vegas next which saw this kind of assignment to go cover a motorcycle race and then transmogrified into assignment to cover the national district attorney's special convention on narcotics. And all that became (unintelligible) in Las Vegas.

You know, the next big story that came out was politics, the 1972 election. You know, that was connected with, you know, a lifelong love of Hunter's, that he was really interested in politics, what was going on in America and national policy. And he became good friends with George McGovern and the people in that campaign and was able to really give it a kind of in-depth, in-sight coverage in the fight against Nixon and the war in Vietnam.

Then, we would look around, you know, for every great story there was. And that if there was something out there, we did our - first thing, we all sent Hunter there.

SEABROOK: Jann Wenner recently co-edited a new biography of Hunter Thompson called "Gonzo." He compiled the book with former Rolling Stone editorial assistant, Corey Seymour.

Mr. COREY SEYMOUR (Former Editorial Assistant, Rolling Stone; Co-Editor, "Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson"): Those people who do know anything about Hunter know him as a wild man and almost - to a certain extent almost a cartoon figure, sometimes literally a cartoon figure because he's the Uncle Duke in Garry Trudeau's "Doonesburry." The point of the book was really to show people that while he may have an outlandish personality, there's a lot of substance behind him, or as several people told me during the interview for this book, there was a lot of they're there.

SEABROOK: After Hunter S. Thompson's suicide in 2005, Corey Seymour interviewed Thompson's friends, family and acquaintances. Everyone from Nixon speechwriter, Pat Buchanan to Hell's Angels leader Sonny Barger. Wenner and Seymour pieced these recollections together to create what they call an oral biography. Listen to this clip of an actual interview Seymour did for the book with actor Jack Nicholson.

(Soundbite of interview)

Mr. JACK NICHOLSON (Actor): You know, One of the first times I met him, I mean, he pulled out a gun in the middle of a house, and me, you know, I'm not that relaxed in that situation. You know, we were - I remember me and a friend of mine jumped out of the window, you know? So that was the time where he definitely made me change locations in a hurry.

SEABROOK: Earlier this month, I talked to Jann Wenner and Corey Seymour about their new biography and their memories of novelist and journalist Hunter S. Thompson.

There is in fact an entire kind of journalism that we now call Gonzo journalism after Hunter S. Thompson. The book - this book is titled "Gonzo." And this is where the reporter injects themselves so much into the story that they're an integral part of it. Corey Seymour?

Mr. SEYMOUR: When Hunter, you would call it, invented Gonzo journalism, according to Sandy - Hunter's first wife, Sandy, it was rather an accident. He was trying to report a story on the Kentucky Derby. He simply couldn't get it together. At this point, his writing was very meticulous, extremely painstaking, went through a number of revisions on each piece. And he, more or less, turned over the notes to his Kentucky Derby piece to his editors and they ran with it. And according to Sandy, Hunter's first reaction was could be completely flabbergasted that they would take this seriously and that was sort of the, you know, moment of creation of Gonzo journalism.

Mr. WENNER: But nonetheless, I mean, turning notebooks into finished pieces is not the essence of Gonzo journalism. His writing, whatever it's nicknamed, you know, was painstaking, was carefully crafted. I mean, he - when he was young, he would type out the entire - copy entirely "The Great Gatsby" or "Tender Is the Night" just so he'll understand how Fitzgerald got those rhythms and how it flowed and what it was like to hear that stuff in this mind. He typed the entire novel. That was the level of craftsmanship that he brought to his writing.

SEABROOK: At the same time, it seems like there's this amazing cast of characters in Hunter S. Thompson's life. I mean, you know, you've got Pat Buchanan and George McGovern and Johnny Depp. But it seems like from some of the anecdotes in the book, part of what was fun being around him was how dangerous he was. I mean, there was this party, this New Year's Eve party where he was going around to the lamps in a restaurant and just reaching up and punching the light bulbs so that they would explode over people's dinners.

Jann Wenner.

Mr. WENNER: Well, yeah. Hunter was a mischief-maker and he enjoyed it. And he -I mean, you know, he was arrested as a kid, you know, for some - some kind of juvenile delinquency and a bit of vandal. I've been on - was on - many escapades of Hunter involved stealing street signs, raiding restaurants, breaking things, you know, pranks, you know? I mean, he didn't create any serious level. It's just a minor level of property damage, but, gosh, it was, you know - I mean, how many people in their normal lives go around doing that kind of stuff? You don't. So when you were somebody who's making the fun of it, you know, you reach in, you touch it, and you're a juvenile delinquent. And that was part of that fun and part of that excitement of being around him, you know?

SEABROOK: And drugs. Lots and lots and lots of drugs.

Mr. WENNER: Well, I mean, Hunter was a drug addict and an alcoholic. He admitted it and for many years have worked for him and, you know, he had a lot of fun doing it. And there's this savvy - you know, towards the end it took him over and it destroyed him.

The opening of his classic novel, or movie, the "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," has a scene were cops stop his car in Las Vegas, they open up the truck and then he, you know, has a huge laundry list of all the drugs, guns, ammo and stuff that's in there and, you know, it's part of the Hunter legend and mythology.

(Soundbite of movie, "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas")

Mr. DEPP (Actor): (As Raoul Duke) The trunk of our car looked like a mobile police narcotics lab. We had two bags of grass, 75 pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a saltshaker half-full of cocaine, a whole galaxy of multicolored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers. Also, a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of beer, a pint of ether and two dozen amyls. Not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get into locked a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.

SEABROOK: He was not always - like a happy guy. Corey Seymour, you were talking about him being seen as almost a cartoon character in American culture. But he was abusive to his wife - his first wife. Even though she doted on him, she eventually had to leave him. I mean, he was…

Mr. SEYMOUR: There's really no doubt about the fact that there was a dark side to Hunter. There's no question of that. His first wife, Sandy, talks in this book about how difficult it was to be married to Hunter, to raise a family with Hunter, to essentially get used to almost a lack of a domestic life to a certain extent. And yes, he was very cruel to her at times. He could be very vicious toward his friends. He's probably more vicious toward those that he loved more.

And he had wild mood swings. I think the easy two-cent version is for people to say, well, of course, because he was taking so much alcohol and so many drugs. I don't think it's quite as easily explained as that. He was incredibly - I'm not trying to defend him in this regard. I would just simply say that his personality was massively complex and prone to swing in either direction within minutes.

SEABROOK: Jann Wenner, Hunter S. Thompson committed suicide in 2005. And it seems like this was not a surprise to anyone.

Mr. WENNER: Well, I think, when somebody commits suicide, you know, it's always a shock. It's always a surprise. But, you know, and it was true with Hunter. I mean, you always knew at some point you're going to get the call someday, some hour the night, something saying that Hunter was dead. And I think most of us kind of assumed, you know, it'd be some kind of drug accident or some kind of gun acts, because he love guns.

You know, he was a very deliberate man. He's a very calculating man. He knew what he was doing at all times. And I think that he just made a calculation. He was at a point in his life where he had real physical ailments and disabilities that he is spending, actually, more and more time, you know, in a wheelchair, because he had broken his leg and his hip twice. You know, he's not rehabbing well and he wasn't having any fun anymore. So what was the point of going on? So he thought, you know what? That's a sane decision, I've done what I've set out to do, you know? And I don't want to be ending up in some assisted facility. And then he, you know, wrote a little goodbye note and left.

SEABROOK: Did he say goodbye to you?

Mr. WENNER: Well, you know, he did say goodbye to me. And it's odd he did this to a number of other people. But he committed suicide in February and in New Year's Eve, I got a call from him. I was out town but it's on my message machine. I hadn't heard from him about - I don't know - nine months or something like that. And it was one of those calls, you know, I'm just sitting here New Year's Eve, thinking about the old times and what it was like and what great fun we have these days. And it was a long and upbeat and sweet, you know, reminisce of our times together, you know, and how much they meant to him. All that kind of stuff.

We don't understand at that time it's a farewell call but we now know that he had been thinking of suicide, you know, for the last several years. But I think, really actively, has been considering it in the last two months. I mean, he clearly was saying goodbye. As I just, you know, I was just so sad.

SEABROOK: Jann Wenner and Corey Seymour are the editors of an oral biography of Hunter S. Thompson titled "Gonzo." They joined me from the offices of Rolling Stone in New York City.

Thanks so much.

Mr. SEYMOUR: Thank you.

Mr. WENNER: Thanks very much. I appreciate it.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: Read an excerpt from the book and hear the late Ed Bradley of "60 Minutes" reflect on Thompson's life. That's all at

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