“There was always a powerful comfort in knowing he was out there somewhere in the night, roaring drunk, guzzling high-octane whiskey and railing against a world amok with complacency and hypocrisy.”– Frank Kelly Rich
Hunter S. Thompson: The man behind Gonzo Journalism and a lifetime of crazy escapades. He was also a brilliant writer and journalist, balancing a career with the kind of antics that would get anyone banned from work ever again. So, from out of the legend that is Hunter S. Thompson, here are 42 facts about his storied life.
42. Always Thinking Outside the Box
When he was a teenager, Thompson allegedly made an electric go-kart out of a washing machine engine. Sadly, the detergent wasn’t included.
41. Christians Eat Pork, Right?
Back in the early 1960s, Thompson lived in Big Sur, California. At one point, a group of religious fanatics moved next door, much to Thompson’s fury. He voiced his disapproval by nailing a wild boar’s head to their door and putting the same boar’s entrails in their car. There’s no record of how quickly they moved again, but since Thompson only had to do it once, we’re betting it was that same week.
40. We Were Somewhere in the Atmosphere
For anyone who suspects Thompson might have slowly grown into his rebel persona, things actually began as early as high school. After he was arrested for robbery while in his senior year, the teenaged Thompson was told to either pick jail or military service. Thompson joined the US Air Force, studying and holding a few different positions until he was honorably discharged in 1958. In one of the greatest understatements ever said, his commanding officer recommended Thompson’s discharge, explaining that “this airman, although talented, will not be guided by policy.”
39. Civil Rights Supporter
Throughout his life, Thompson was an avid supporter of the Civil Rights Movement. According to actor Benicio del Toro (who co-starred in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), Thompson kept a large picture of Che Guevara in his kitchen. He also wrote critically of the “white power structures” that existed in American society, and in a letter to his friend, he compared Karl Marx to Thomas Jefferson.
38. Just Add “Captain” to My List of Titles
One of Thompson’s lesser-known novels is The Curse of Lono. The story is based on the true story of Thompson’s 1980 trip to Hawaii with his good friend Ralph Steadman. They cover the Honolulu Marathon, even as Thompson goes fishing for marlin and declares himself the reincarnation of the Hawaiian god Lono. In between these misadventures, the book includes the story of Captain Cook, who visited the Hawaiian Islands, was also considered a reincarnation of Lono, and was killed after his welcome was worn out.
37. Fight Fire With Fire
In 1993, ABC was meant to have an interview with famous Rolling Stone member Keith Richards. However, at the last minute, Richards demanded more money and kept the reporters behind a locked door. ABC turned to Thompson to solve the issue, and Thompson deigned to actually help someone out for once. And what did he do? He blasted the door with the recorded sounds of a pig being slaughtered through a megaphone until Richards opened the door. Thompson promptly began interviewing him. To the world’s unending delight, this interview’s footage still exists and is available online.
36. A Tropical Retreat
In 1960, Thompson moved to Puerto Rico to work as a sports writer for the magazine fittingly titled El Sportivo. The magazine closed shortly after his arrival (we couldn’t find out if that was a coincidence or a result). Thompson would go on to write a book about his adventures in Puerto Rico, titled The Rum Diary. It was turned into a movie, starring Johnny Depp as Thompson (named Paul Kemp in the story).
35. Peculiar Paradox
Interestingly, Johnny Depp was the reason that the The Rum Diary was even published in the first place, as he found the unpublished manuscript. After the book was published in 1998 (over 30 years after it was first written), several attempts to adapt it into a movie were made. At one point, Josh Hartnett was set to star in the film as the main character. Depp would eventually play the role of Kemp in 2011, after he’d already played the older Thompson in Fear and Loathing more than a decade earlier. Luckily Depp shows almost no signs of aging so this worked out.
34. South America Sounds Nice
Thompson wasn’t just limited to North America on his travels. Bouncing between jobs, Thompson spent several months in Brazil, writing for its only English-language daily newspaper in Rio de Janeiro.
33. Tell Us How You Really Feel
One person who received the ire of Thompson’s wrath was Richard Nixon, a man who “could shake your hand and stab you in the back at the same time” according to Thompson. Even in 1994, after the former president’s death, Thompson minced no words when he declared that Nixon’s coffin should have been “launched into one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles. He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president.” Sadly, he was not permitted to write Nixon’s official obituary.
32. No Fan of Bill’s
It wasn’t just Republicans who angered Thompson, however. He also voiced his displeasure for President Bill Clinton, remarking that Clinton was “every bit as corrupt as Nixon, but a lot smoother.” Given Clinton’s famous saxophone solo on the Arsenio Hall show, we’re inclined to agree with Thompson there.
31. I’m Sure He Appreciated That… Never Mind
Cartoonist Garry Trudeau famously used Thompson as the model for his character of Duke, the protagonist in Trudeau’s Doonesbury cartoon strip. Reportedly, and in true Thompson spirit, Thompson once commented that if he ever met Trudeau, he would “set him on fire.”
30. Before Gonzo Was a Muppet
In 1970, Thompson was struggling to meet the deadline for an article he was meant to write. The article, titled “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,” eventually became written from pages in Thompson’s personal notebook. It was written from a subjective first-person perspective, feverish in its intensity and sometimes blending fact with fiction. This style became known as “Gonzo journalism,” and Thompson would employ it for the rest of his life.
29. Neptune Nearly Got Me
In 1972, Thompson covered the Democratic Convention for Rolling Stone. Since it also took place in Miami that year, he decided to go for a swim on the beach after he was finished. As might be considered typical of his luck, a tropical storm happened to hit the coast that night, causing Thompson’s evening swim to turn into a furious struggle to stay alive. He finally did survive, but he didn’t reach dry land until 9 am the next morning!
28. An Explosive Combination
Throughout his life, Thompson was an enthusiast of guns and drugs alike. He was a member of the National Rifle Association and collected a huge amount of different guns. He also campaigned for the legalization of all drugs, pointing out that while there might be some trouble with it, it would be better in the long run. To quote him directly “Look at Prohibition: all it did was make a lot of criminals rich.” Agree with him or not, he did make some good points.
27. So the Z on his Forehead Stood for “Zoo”?
Thompson, like any true eccentric, kept a menagerie of pets throughout his lifetime. A few of the more notable pets that he kept were a pair of dobermans, a pride of peacocks, and a monkey. The monkey was said to have had a taste for alcohol, though we’re not sure if that was only an issue when it became Thompson’s pet.
26. Don’t Forget to Vote
Starting in 1971, Thompson followed the re-election campaign of former president Richard Nixon and the failed campaign of Democratic candidate George McGovern. He wrote many articles for Rolling Stone, and they were eventually converted into a new book called Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, which focused almost entirely on the Democratic Party’s attempts to find a candidate to beat Nixon in the election.
25. Smuggling an Elephant, One Tusk at a Time
In 1974, the world was tuning in to watch the infamous “Rumble in the Jungle” fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman (pre-grill). Getting tickets for this fight were impossible to get, so it was lucky that Thompson and his illustrator Ralph Steadman got free tickets and travel expenses to Zaire (now known as Congo) from Rolling Stone, so they could cover the event in person. Instead, Thompson allegedly either gave away or sold the tickets and went on safari looking for pygmy tribes. There’s no evidence that he ever found any pygmies, but he did purchase ivory from some locals, which caused a huge incident when he was stopped at the airport trying to take the ivory back home without paying customs.
24. You Asked for It!
At one point, Thompson purchased a mail-order doctorate in Divinity, which meant he could legally call himself Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. When his neighbor, actor Don Johnson (Miami Vice, Django Unchained) approached Thompson one day and quizzed him on what the sound of one hand clapping was, according to Johnson, Thompson promptly reached out and slapped his neighbor across the head!
23. No Hard Feelings, Then
Surprisingly, Don Johnson and Hunter S. Thompson would work together on a screenplay for a television movie. It was about a police officer dealing with alcoholism and drug addiction (of course) even as he dated the daughter of a Mafia chief. Surprisingly, NBC bought the script and turned it into a series called Nash Bridges.
22. Hey! I Wouldn’t Do That! Everything Else, Sure, but Not That!
When providing his commentary to the film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson took personal offence at the scene where the character based on him spitefully tosses his waiter’s tip behind him onto the floor. Thompson found it incredibly distasteful and rude (which is an interesting line to draw, given what else his character does in the film). Interestingly, the dwarf actor who plays the waiter in that scene had previously appeared in Where the Buffalo Roam.
21. A Close Shave… The Closest I Ever Gave
To prepare Johnny Depp to play him in the movie Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson personally shaved Depp’s head so that their hairlines matched. Unfortunately, the “Raoul Duke” hairstyle never caught on, which no doubt crushed poor Thompson’s dreams of being a singing barber.
20. Meet My New Friends
To research his 1966 work Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gang, Thompson spent two years living with the Hells Angels. He was able to glean a great amount of insight into their way of life, witnessing their darker side while still being able to write about it.
19. They Said We Were Friends!
Unfortunately, Thompson’s time with the Hells Angels didn’t end as well as it began. On one occasion, Thompson witnessed a particularly nasty member of the gang, known as Junkie George, brutally beating his partner. George also struck his dog when the animal got in the way of the domestic spat. A disgusted Thompson tried to stop George, insisting that, “only a punk beats his wife and dog.” George respectfully disagreed with that sentiment, showing his difference in opinion with a savage beating that he and his friends bestowed on Thompson. Allegedly, Thompson was very nearly killed by this assault, but luckily was only hospitalized.
18. Remember Those Good Old Days
Because the universe sometimes has a strange sense of humor, Thompson appeared on a CBC chat show in 1967, and the show surprised him by inviting on one of the Hells Angels who had beaten him within an inch of his life. This too, is available to be seen online, and it contains far more audience laughter than a story of wife-beating and assault should logically have.
17. Who Knew That Would Be My Big Break?
Despite his near brush with death, the crazy success of Thompson’s time with the Hells Angels led to his writing career really taking off. His writing appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s, Esquire, and Pageant, to name a few magazines that people used to read before the Internet changed everything.
16. A Hipster Hippie?
Despite Thompson’s embracing of the late 1960s counterculture movement, he was also very critical of it in his writing. Thompson took umbrage with the hippies who claimed to be left-wing and political when really they were just after drugs.
15. The Origins of Fear and Loathing
The book that would launch Thompson into American literary history was a case of Thompson initially planning to write one thing and then writing about something else entirely. In 1971, he and the Chicano activist and attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta (known to you all as Dr. Gonzo), were initially going to write about the death of Mexican-American journalist Ruben Salazar. Thompson and Acosta went to Las Vegas for a more relaxed atmosphere, taking advantage of an offer from Sports Illustrated to cover a race being held in the desert. Weeks later, they went back to cover the National District Attorneys Association’s Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. During this, they proceeded to embark on a series of misadventures that would form a manuscript Thompson would write and submit to Rolling Stone.
14. Directors Come and Go
Among the directors who tried (and failed) to get a movie adaptation of Fear and Loathing off the ground were Martin Scorsese, Alex Cox, and Oliver Stone. The project that was finally made was directed by Terry Gilliam, who had only briefly been to Las Vegas before, but still connected with the book immediately when it first came out.
13. On Second Thought, Let’s Bring Back the Jabbering Dupe
Thompson was famous for his hatred of President Richard Nixon, and the feeling was mutual, because Nixon ended up barring him from the White House. However, Thompson found an even bigger fish to fry when George W. Bush was elected President in 2000. He even remarked, “If Nixon were running, I would happily vote for him instead.” We’re sure the ghost of Nixon had a good long chuckle about that one.
12. Things Fall Apart
Sadly, things eventually became strained between Thompson and Rolling Stone. In 1976, he was asked to go to South Vietnam and report on the end of the Vietnam War. Thompson agreed, and travelled to the war-torn region even as most people were trying to flee. While there, he found out that Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner had pulled the plug on the story without telling Thompson. He was left in South Vietnam without support or even health insurance. His report on the fall of Saigon wasn’t even published until a decade later.
11. At Least It Was a Genuine Accident
When a bear appeared at the lodging of Thompson’s assistant, Deborah Fuller, Thompson did the gentlemanly thing and tried to scare it away with gunfire. Unfortunately, when Thompson fired at the ground near the bear, the shotgun pellets ricocheted back up and hit Fuller in the arm and leg. According to Fuller, Thompson felt “horrible” about the accident, and she did not file charges against him.
10. They That Live by the Gun…
In February 2005, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson was in a state of depression. His health problems were increasing, football season was over, and the February weather wasn’t helping his mood. On the 20th of the month, his son, Juan, brought his family up to visit Thompson. During the day, Thompson called his wife, Anita, who was at the Aspen Club. While he was on the phone with her, he cocked a gun and then took his own life as she was hanging up. When his son discovered Thompson, he allegedly called the police and walked outside to fire three shotgun blasts “to mark the passing of his father.” No doubt Thompson would have approved of that. When police looked in Thompson’s typewriter, they found a paper with only “Feb. 22 ’05” written on it and the word “counselor.”
9. Lived and Died by His Principles
According to his friend and longtime collaborator, Ralph Steadman, Thompson had lived under the belief that a man was truly trapped if he couldn’t take his own life at any moment, and his worsening medical condition would have affected that ability. Thompson also left a suicide note titled “Football Season is Over” that reflected this philosophy. It read “No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun — for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your (old) age. Relax — This won’t hurt.”
8. Now That’s a Way to Sign Off
In true Hunter S. Thompson style, his ashes were fired out of a cannon on top of a 153 ft (47 m) tower, all while Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” played in the background. The funeral (which reportedly cost $5 million) was paid for by Johnny Depp. Among those in attendance were Ralph Steadman, Benicio del Toro, Jack Nicholson (no hard feelings about his birthday scare, we see), Bill Murray, Sean Penn, Josh Hartnett, and surprisingly, Senators George McGovern and John Kerry.
7. Sheriff Thompson on Duty
In one of his most bizarre incidents, Thompson ran for the position of Sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado, in 1970. Thompson promised to legalize the recreational use of drugs, put a height ban on all buildings in the county, and rename Aspen “Fat City.” Much to everyone’s surprise, including his own, Thompson was set to win the election, but the Democratic and Republican candidates consolidated their votes, narrowly defeating Thompson and his “Freak Power” ticket. When you force the Democrats and Republicans to work together, you know you’ve stirred the pot.
6. Let Me Show You My Gun Collection!
In the mid-1980s, a very wealthy businessman named Floyd Watkins bought the ranch next to Thompson’s in Aspen, Colorado. The two men hated each other, but in this case, Watkins alienated himself from the whole town as well. He had made his money in debt collections, and he spent his money fortifying his ranch with stronger and more extreme security measures (he even brought in Bengal tigers onto the property). Thompson must have seen all this protection as a challenge, and like any challenge he was faced with, he accepted it full throttle. Thompson drove up to Watkins’ mansion and emptied three guns’ worth of bullets into it before speeding off. By the time he was apprehended, Thompson had an alibi (he was apparently shooting at a porcupine), and his guns had been destroyed so that a ballistics test was out of the question. He walked away from any charges against him, presumably while flipping both birds at a red-faced Watkins.
5. For Liberty!
During his lifetime, Thompson found the time to save a woman from life imprisonment. Lisl Auman was arrested by police in 1998, in an incident where the driver she had been with pulled out a gun and shot one of the police before shooting himself. Due to a bizarre loophole in the law, Auman was deemed responsible for the murder despite being handcuffed in the back of a cop car when it happened. Thompson found out about this injustice and rallied several celebrities to her cause. Finally, after Thompson’s crusade went nationwide, and after spending seven years in prison, Auman was released. Sadly, Thompson did not live long enough to greet Auman when she got out, but we can imagine his ghost nodding in approval before absent-mindedly ghost-wrestling with Richard Nixon and Timothy Leary.
4. Why Aren’t You Laughing?
Hunter S. Thompson and Jack Nicholson were allegedly good friends. We say “allegedly” because one year, on Nicholson’s birthday, Thompson decided that the best gift he could come up with for his friend was a prank fit to give Nicholson the heart attack of his life. Thompson snuck around Nicholson’s house, firing off his gun and playing a tape of animal screams. He also left the heart of an elk on Nicholson’s doorstep. Predictably, a terrified Nicholson called the cops while he and his family hid for their lives.
3. We’ll Call It “Shotgun Golf”!
Thompson became acquainted with actor Bill Murray when Murray played Thompson in the film Where the Buffalo Roam. According to a transcript, Thompson called up Murray at 3 am one morning and pitched a new sport idea to him. The idea involved a kind of clay pigeon shooting, except instead of clay pigeons being launched, a golfer would whack golf balls into the air, while another player would try to shoot the balls with a shotgun.
2. Did We Just Invent “Fear Factor”?
Sadly, it wasn’t always a great idea to have Murray and Thompson in the same room together. In the early 1980s, the two men got drunk enough that attempting a magic trick in a pool was able to pass for a good idea. Thompson duct-taped Murray to a chair and dropped him into the pool. As you can expect, Murray couldn’t break free. In fact, he would have drowned if Thompson hadn’t pulled him back up just in time.
1. I Hate It When People Play Me On Screen
Interestingly, in addition to Murray’s near-death experience, Thompson nearly killed Johnny Depp, who also played Hunter S. Thompson on film. The actor was staying in Thompson’s basement for research purposes. One day, he lit a cigarette, only to notice he was sitting right next to a large stack of dynamite (Thompson hadn’t warned him at all about said dynamite when Depp moved in).