Hunter Thompson the Writer: “He Always Loved Explosions”

By Barnard Law Collier

Hunter Thompson in his 20s.

I first met Hunter Thompson in late 1959 when he was a copy boy at $51 a week for Time magazine and I was writing the People and Latin America sections.

We crossed paths again when I was Latin America correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune . He was freelancing for the Trib and stringing from Brazil. Meanwhile he was writing several publisher-rejected novels.

Hunter was a lean, handsome, athletic, ambitious young guy who took Mark Twain’s advice to heart by first getting the actual facts and then stretching them as he saw fit.

Twain’s advice was the backbone of what was later nicknamed “Gonzo journalism” in which the writer became a character in his own story.  Hunter believed that God, and a good story, is in the details. In Hunter’s mind there was a burning desire to get the factual details so hard they could satisfy even an over- finicky Time researcher.

Facts in hand, he wove the words in fabulous theatrical ways, which he explained to me were mostly mediated by drugs drawn from many cultures and concocted by chemists.

I was innocent of any mind-altering drugs besides alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine.  Hunter insisted that if I’d play his game of scientifically matching certain drugs with particular ways of writing I’d be much happier, less “up tight” and my stories might be more artistic.

He clued me in:

“I’ve got this Chinese friend from the Hip Sing Society who works for the CIA and parachutes into China to bring out people and collect intelligence. Chan cooks up USP-grade crystal in Chinatown—it’ll make you wonder where all those words you can suddenly put together were hiding so long —

“With crystal you sail through all the rational shit you need to write for magazines and newspapers.  Flood of cool memories, orgasmic climaxes—that passion gets into your prose. That’s after just one snort of Chan’s brown sugar. You want to go off the tracks, snort twice.

“You want to write philosophical, mellow, heart-felt sentimental? Then you need Acapulco. For the plots, you drop acid and they write themselves.”

I entirely believed him and took note. But at the time I had no hallucinogenic desires beyond black coffee, Camels unfiltered, and Dewar’s scotch.

For Hunter, drugs led him into the games he wished to play.  Drugs were the essential ingredients for concocting and assembling what he knew were commonplace journalist words and cadences into fire roasted and darkly funny riffs that most Americans in the 1960s had never seen or heard.

That any drug which unleashed creative pyrotechnics should be withheld from a writer or anyone else was to him criminally cruel.

After 1963 we met now and again by geographical happenstance, once for a rum sozzled evening in the El Gato Tuerto bar in San Juan.  I admired Hunter’s writing. When I looked and listened deeper, I recognized in his literary voice and moods some of the chemistry behind his scenes.

His terrible year came in 1987.  He turned 50.

He complained that he had grown old. He had entered death’s foyer.

He was frightened that everything weird, wild, effervescent and joyful about life had already happened to him. He feared the excruciating pain of being bored to death.

His armamentarium of cognition chemicals no longer lighted his writing path; instead, the impotence of old drugs often made him furious and sad. Friends and fans who appreciated his lovably demonic wit and approved and shared his pharmacopeia loyally stuck with him for 17 years of decline.

Then, at his farm near Aspen, Colorado, on February 20, 2005 at 5:42 in the afternoon, Hunter shot himself in the back of the mouth with a .45 caliber pistol while he sat in his favorite kitchen chair during a telephone call with Anita, his wife.  He may have been playing Russian roulette.

Anita said it was a cleanly calculated shot that destroyed his brain and didn’t destroy his face.

One of his many obituaries said:

“The difference between Hunter and other writers is he never used drugs as an excuse not to work. He used them as an excuse to work. He wrote the first half of Hells Angels in six months. He wrote the second half in four days on whisky and Dexedrine—and that was the best part.”

Hunter’s body was cremated.  Six months later, a funeral bash that cost $3 million was held for 300 or so invited guests and paid for by the actor Johnny Depp, who was Hunter’s emotional protégé and had played Hunter’s alter ego character Raoul Duke in the 1998 film of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Hunter’s ashes were mixed with fireworks gun powders and exploded in red, white, blue, yellow and green splendor out of a cannon that Hunter had helped to design.

His wife, Anita, said: “He always loved explosions.”

Barney Collier describes himself as cultural anthropologist, writer, former New York Times correspondent and bureau chief, and publisher.


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