He Was Wrong

Strange Rumblings from the Gonzo Afterlife … Ralph Steadman Ink Stains and Battle Scars … Flashback to a Final Campaign … The Suicide Solution … New Books and Old Photographs … One More Fling in Hollywoodland … An Outlaw’s Farewell, A Son’s Revenge

By Steve Appleford

"Would you like a drink?” It is still an hour before noon, but the man is thirsty and British and far from home, with a mountain of books still to sign and a speech to make about his old friend and tormentor, author Hunter S. Thompson, dead now for nearly two years. It will be fun tonight, another celebration at another bookstore, greeting the fans of gonzo journalism at one more stop on the road. But his friend is gone now to the afterlife, a “road man for the Lords of Karma,” as Thompson liked to say in his final years. Game over. So Ralph Steadman orders us a couple of beers. Mrs. Steadman will have a Manhattan.

This is a peaceful moment on the patio of the Sunset Marquis Hotel, but Steadman looks weary. His hair is completely white. And his left eye is swollen and red from this week’s trip to Los Angeles, a blazing, ghastly eyeball that could have come from one of his own violent drawings. Around his neck hangs a clay talisman shaped like a primitive ceremonial head, a gift from Thompson: “Wear this, Ralph. It will ward off evil spirits.”

Steadman does an excellent impression of his old friend and slips into it easily, his voice deepening and flattening into a serious monotone of authority, like a newsman teetering over the edge: “Ah, Ralph, you filthy little animal. You nasty little beast, I have a job for you ….” And who better? For 35 years they had shared an appetite for dementia and savage humor in their work, beginning in 1970 with an outrageous magazine article on the Kentucky Derby for Scanlon’s Monthly. Thompson’s piece was a vivid deconstruction of Southern high-society and low morals on derby day, and Steadman responded with great splashes of ink and paint that unmasked an America of bruised flesh and gnashing teeth. The horror, the horror ….

The article was “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” a pivotal moment in what Tom Wolfe would soon call the New Journalism, a movement of nonfiction writers who used the literary tools of novelists to tell a more vibrant true story. Thompson preferred to call his stuff Gonzo. And Steadman remained his occasional collaborator, illustrating Thompson’s pieces in Rolling Stone magazine and his most famous book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Wolfe would later declare Thompson “the greatest comic writer of the 20th century,” a Mark Twain for a new age, and Steadman’s role was to create an equally dangerous new visual style.

“There was lots of fun about it all,” Steadman says now with a grin. Thompson was a unique collaborator, a man with insatiable appetites way out on the margins. “There were a lot of strange contradictions. He had a kind of violence, but a gentility as well. It was a relationship I don’t think would happen now. People are far too politically correct. You can’t even get started. It’s fascist, in many ways.”

That was before February 20, 2005, when, at age 67, Thompson shot himself in his kitchen, with his new wife on the phone and his son, daughter-in-law, and grandson in the next room. They were horrified. But the last few years had been dark days for Thompson. He suffered through elaborate surgeries on his spine and hip, and was frustrated with the inevitable dulling of his art after decades of drink, pranks, and extremely dangerous drugs, plus the trauma of one more presidential election gone terribly wrong. He spent months in a wheelchair, and then could barely walk. He spoke of suicide, as he always had. This was understood. And he wanted his ashes shot from a cannon on his property in Woody Creek, Colorado. Steadman hoped he wouldn’t resort to suicide, but often drew images of Thompson with a gun to his head, or with his brain simply exploding off the page with ideas and intensity.

Only the timing surprised him. “He was a guy who knew how he wanted to die,” Steadman says. “He’d already told me he knew he’d commit suicide one day. He said he’d feel real trapped in his life if he didn’t know that he could commit suicide at any moment. And he had an arsenal of weapons. He was a frontiersman, pioneer type. He would have been one of the first to go into Indian country crossing towards the West in a covered wagon.”

Thompson’s sudden exit made a memoir inevitable. Steadman began considering it on the train west from the Colorado memorial service and finished it a year later. He has published many illustrated books, but the Thompson memoir, The Joke’s Over, is his first book of extended writing at nearly 400 pages. The result is a chronicle and character study, a clear-eyed assessment of his time with the outlaw journalist, and not always pretty. As he wrote, Steadman says he often heard Thompson’s voice, repeating one of his frequent admonitions: “Don’t write, Ralph. You bring shame on your family.”

They were comrades forever, and there was occasional friction. “Did people notice the writing before they noticed my pictures, or did my pictures get noticed before the writing? I think that was always a bone of contention,” says Steadman. “He’d say, ‘It was me, Ralph. It was always me doing it. You were along for the ride.’” Steadman has said as much himself. He was like artist Sir John Tenniel to Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll, or the E.H. Shepard to Winnie the Pooh’s A.A. Milne. Except with blood and beasts and broken bone. These weren’t kid stories.

“We were like chalk and cheese,” Steadman notes, “but it worked.”

They often communicated by fax, with letters sent over the mojo wire at 3 a.m. Woody Creek time. Steadman kept all of them, and is traveling with some of that correspondence on his book tour, carefully preserved in plastic folders. A letter from Thompson could be read as either rage or affection, if one knew how to interpret it. Steadman pulls one out, this one written on letterhead for the Woody Creek Rod & Gun Club, and begins reading, again in Thompson’s voice: “Ralph, your Baroque style of psycho gibberish is appreciated here. What I really need is a six-month loan of $50,000 at whatever rate you can handle. Keep your advice and send money ….”

Those days are over, but there remains a hunger for more, to find an afterlife for gonzo. The Joke’s Over is merely the first book to respond to Thompson’s suicide and the life and career he left behind. There is also GONZO, a massive, elegant volume of photographs by and of Thompson. His widow, Anita, will have a book early next year. There will be another volume of letters, an oral history from Rolling Stone, and a book by his son, Juan, in 2008.

A film version of The Rum Diary, Thompson’s only published novel, is planned. And new documentaries, including Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride (a portrait on the Starz pay-TV network), and an upcoming authorized documentary, with access to the author’s film and audio archives, directed by Alex Gibney (the acclaimed Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room). In July comes the Hunter S. Thompson Symposium on Literature, Law and Politics at the Aspen Institute.

Looking back is all anyone can do now. More than a decade ago, Steadman and I had talked once before, as he passed through Los Angeles on another book tour. There was an edge to his voice then, a spark of excitement in his eyes, and he talked openly of his desire to join Thompson on one more gonzo super-adventure. Maybe on a slow boat to China. Steadman liked that idea, but it never happened. He is busy on other projects now, and all that’s left is to cope with what it meant. He still wonders about that. In his book’s closing chapter, he writes a letter to Thompson, questioning the reasons and timing of his suicide, conceding that in the wake of Bush’s reelection, “Your America had gone.”

His wife, Anna, looks up from her drink. “I kind of liked that, really. Maybe it sounded more philosophical.”

Ralph nods. “I’d like to find out for sure what is the gonzo essence.”

Anna notes that he has attempted to understand that legacy before, in his 1998 book Gonzo: The Art, which collected much of his work with Thompson. Steadman agrees.

“I said there was ‘banzo’ as well, which is bad gonzo,” Steadman says. “That’s something I don’t want to do: lousy gonzo.” Thompson himself often said there was nothing worse than reading a writer trying to ape his style, even if those he influenced have a hard time escaping that urge.

There is also, of course, a School of Steadman, the generations of imitators who have adopted the Welshman’s intense scrawl, splashed and slashed across the page, and not always to good effect. “The worst thing for me is for people to try and imitate my style of drawing. But you can’t stop it, can you?”

* * *

“Who are you? Are you smart?” Thompson wants to know who I am. It is October 2004 and he’s just landed on the Sunset Strip. I am here to observe him in action, just as he once traveled to the feet of McGovern, Ali, etc., in search of wisdom and adventure. Now Thompson is himself that source of all-knowing craziness.

He appears to be in excellent spirits, at 67 a grandfather but no less determined and ready to indulge his whims in a blaze of broken glass and burning lighter fluid, if it comes to that. And he has come to meet the reading public, to sit at a bookstore counter with a tall glass of golden fluid and a collection of pens and exploding props, as 250 of his Los Angeles fans line up with copies of his newest book – the longest line on the Strip this night. Just minutes ago, as his van passed the long line in front of Book Soup, he leaned out a window to shout: “You commie bastards!”

“He’s in a good mood,” his wife Anita says anxiously, and it seems true enough as Thompson signs the books and teases his admirers one by one, poking them with a fork or drawing a line across their faces, and accepting their gifts: a bottle of whiskey, a book, a sweater, a joint, a hug.

“Is anybody in this room going to vote for George Bush?” he asks suddenly, and the room goes quiet. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

He is a cultural hero to these people, an outlaw and social critic with a demonstrated obsession with sports and politics, a man who has known presidents and openly cursed his most beloved sports teams. Hey Rube is his newest book, a collection of short essays from his sports column on ESPN.com. But he is not well. His body is broken. Thompson’s left leg is a mess and has been for a year, ever since breaking it in a fall by the minibar in a Honolulu hotel suite. So he’s arrived late, after hours of physical therapy on his leg, which still seizes up at the bookstore, leaving Thompson to laugh and moan between signatures.

Joining him is actor Benicio Del Toro, Oscar-winning Method man and genuine Hollywood celebrity. But here he is most recognized for his alarming presence in the film version of Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, as the crazed and insatiable attorney Dr. Gonzo. It was the portrait of a desperate man about to burst, overstuffed with drugs and madness and the weight of post-’60s malaise. He put on 50 pounds for the role. But tonight the actor is a quiet presence in a black suit and fedora, hovering beside Thompson with a burning cigarette as the great man signs books and pours himself another drink. “Don’t take any shit from these people,” Thompson tells him.

On a nearby CD player, Mick Jagger yowls an ancient lament of real folk blues, a lovely tune raw and dreamy (“I felt so sad so lonesome, that I could not help but cry”). It is a fitting soundtrack to this scene of pain and celebration. Soon Thompson’s leg seizes up again, and he’s led out the back door for a smoke. He notices me there, sees my note-taking, remembers that I am here as a journalist. “Who is he? He better be fucking good,” he begins shouting, slapping Del Toro on the shoulder. “He better be fucking righteous!”

I am the least of his problems. One by one, his fans are led out back to meet him, to get an autographed book or two. Veteran political wizard Pat Caddell stops by to say hello, suggesting they meet for a drink later. Thompson has only signed about 100 books, and he suddenly needs to leave. His leg, his whole body, is turning on him, and he is led to a waiting SUV downstairs, his posture degenerating into the shape of a gnarled claw. The 150 gonzo fans still waiting to meet him are about to be seriously disappointed. Some are angry. As he is driven away, Del Toro follows in his own car, which is when a young woman in black appears and throws a full can of Tecate beer in his direction, just missing the car as he turns the corner.

Two nights later, Thompson is in his 5th floor suite at the Chateau Marmont, settled at a table by the window, a jug of Chivas Regal at his feet. Also on the floor are the three galley pages from his upcoming essay on the presidential election for Rolling Stone, the venue for some of his greatest work. Anita is cooking linguini in the kitchen and Thompson is talking with Laila Nabulsi, his one-time fiancée and the long-suffering force behind turning Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas into a movie, a 10-year quest that ended up as an epic black comedy starring Johnny Depp and Del Toro in 1998, terrifying matinee audiences across the country.

The phone rings. Thompson picks it up, shouting: “What?! Oh. Benicio who? … What are you up to? … Well, I’m up here doing an in-depth interview with a scholarly looking gentleman from the L.A. CityBeat. … He’s a big kind of Frankenstein-looking guy who was looming in front of the stage wearing a big, bright, white shirt, caught all the light? … No, no, I’m having a little fun. And I can’t walk and I don’t have a ride back. So, what do you mean, Where am I at? I’m at the – yeah, yeah … I’ve got nothing but time. Laila’s here … Yeah, definitely, we’ll do a stunt! Yeah … If you bring a bunch of lighter fluid and a burning paper, we could hold that out on the front of this balcony and from the edge, shower the lighter fluid on it, it will go down into the garden. All right.” He hangs up.

Our interview has yet to begin. Thompson is distracted, worried about confirming a private jet back home to Colorado, occasionally rising to struggle across the carpet, stretching his leg, hobbling painfully on the cane Anita bought this afternoon at a drugstore. He blames the weather for his trouble. Young hotel bellmen come in and out, carrying food and towels and a vat of boiling water. Soon, Del Toro arrives with some friends. But there is much to discuss: Thompson did not spend 2004 traveling on a presidential campaign bus, as he did in ’72 during the Nixon-McGovern contest, or when he chased Jimmy Carter for an influential magazine profile four years later. Thompson is no longer the most dangerous boy on the bus, though he had planned on attending both political conventions this year (and missed both). He does, however, remain deeply connected to major players in national politics. He knows these people.

He first met John Kerry during the 1972 protests of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and knew Bill Clinton back when he was a young campaign worker entrusted with a losing district near Waco, Texas. Thompson has warm friendships with Democrats and Republicans, with both James Carville and Pat Buchanan. But he knows no one in the current White House. No one except maybe George W. Bush himself.

“I haven’t told this story before,” Thompson says, and the room goes quiet. “I met George Bush in 1976, I guess, in Houston. And my first real memory of him, and only one, is of him passed out in my bathtub.” It was at the Hyatt Regency, where he also remembers dropping a naked blow-up doll down into the Atrium from his hotel balcony. “I knew people who were in the drug business from Houston, and I was there for a Super Bowl and I was looking for drugs. Of course.”

Could this be true? Had a young G.W. just been another party-boy passing through Thompson’s gonzo orbit, or was this something like his conjecture during the ’72 primaries that candidate Ed Muskie’s bizarre behavior on the campaign could only be explained as a heavy addiction to the powerful, obscure drug Ibogaine? Columnist Ron Rosenbaum wrote about witnessing the same Bush-Thompson encounter in the New York Observer on March 27, 2000, though he says nothing of bathtubs and remembers the year as 1974, after Bush had been a classmate of Rosenbaum’s.

Thompson talks of another Bush classmate, now one of the writer’s close associates, who claims to have been personally branded by the future president during a fraternity hazing. “And it was torture,” Thompson says. “Twenty-four hours of sucking raw eggs and no sleep and people telling you they’re pissing on you and pouring streams of hot water on your back. And the final thing was the president branded the goddamn pledges with a hot poker. It was a scandal. It’s a matter of record in the Yale Daily News.”

Then he hands me the galleys to his Rolling Stone piece and asks me to read a long passage aloud, including a crude limerick young George Bush is said to have told over and over again for two years while at Yale:

There was a young man named Green
Who invented a jack-off machine
On the twenty-third stroke
The damn thing broke
And churned his nuts into cream

I read it twice, and it gets a laugh every time.

He was not sentimental when Richard Nixon died in 1994, still calling his former nemesis “a crook … a political monster straight out of Grendel and a very dangerous enemy.” But Thompson now recognizes Nixon’s behavior as entirely reasonable in comparison to the current administration. And he is not confident about Election Day, or of the wave of newly registered voters supposedly primed to eject Bush from office.

“I’ve been through elections where people are counting on the youth vote before, but they’re not very reliable,” he says. “People tend to inflate it. I think there are more of us than there are of them in this country. That’s what this election is going to be about. Not whether Bush is a liar or thief or a pig or a murderer or a swine and stealing everyone’s retirement funds, but whether the American people want it that way. This will be a very defining moment for the American people.

“Kerry will win the election. Whether he moves into the White house or not … .” He laughs bitterly. “These people are not going to go willingly or not in any spirit of democracy. They never believed in democracy anyway. Shit, if this election goes against us, I’m not going to believe much in democracy either. If these crooked swine are able to manipulate the election and convince the voters to vote against their own interest … .”

He trails off, the thought unfinished, unthinkable. He rubs his leg. It is 2:30 a.m. and I have been a witness to his pain and his fun, but my interview is over and ruined. Virtually nothing of use was discussed. I borrow a cigarette. Benicio lights it for me.

“He’s all right,” the actor says to Thompson. “I can tell.” And for a moment I feel like that young Okie hitchhiker in the back of the red convertible hurtling toward Las Vegas, in the book and the movie, accepted into dangerous territory. (“We’re your friends … . We’re not like the others.”)

Thompson’s not so sure. “How can you tell?”

“I don’t know. I just can,” Del Toro says, watching me. “Well, we’ll find out later.”

Yes, and nearly three hours after I arrived, I say my goodbyes. I’d had many questions, on presidents and politics, on journalism and the writing process. Instead, I’m left with a tape filled mainly with Thompson in a frenzy over his travel plans and of myself reading his words back to him.

He shakes my hand. “Good luck with the piece,” he says, sitting down. “And if it’s not good, someone will be coming by to take care of you.”

Four months later, he was dead.

* * *

This is a party Thompson might have enjoyed. There is beer, wine, and the music is Hunter’s personal playlist: Dylan, the Stones, Neil Young, the Band. The man has been gone almost two years, but he is very much present at the M+B Gallery in West Hollywood. His face is everywhere, in huge photographs printed on archival paper, with color digitally restored. There are pictures of Hells Angels and Dobermans, of pretty girls and slaughtered pigs. But many more are self-portraits, studies toward creating the public legend of a dangerous literary man, modeled first on Hemingway and the Beats, and then something weirdly his own. The aviator shades and cigarette holder, the weapons and loping gait, an image as easy to caricature as Twain’s, and one he would sometimes come to regret. In the pictures is a man slowly ending his time as an observer and becoming the observed.

The images are from GONZO, a large-scale visual biography of Thompson, now selling briskly at the front desk at $300 each. He took most of the photographs himself, back when he was a working journalist providing art for his own stories, and a young novelist documenting his life.

Tonight’s opening has drawn a good crowd. Chatting in one corner is actor Bill Murray, who portrayed the outlaw author in 1980’s Where the Buffalo Roam, the first film interpretation of “the twisted legend” of Hunter S. Thompson. He had also been the subject of the writer’s final “Hey Rube” column, which was a 3 a.m. dialogue between them about a new sport Thompson invented: shotgun golf.

Standing beside him is Juan Thompson, who can be seen as a toddler in Woody Creek in one picture, a Frisbee in one hand, his other pointing to a photograph of G-man J. Edgar Hoover that’s been blasted with a shotgun. Good times. Juan is now 42, and he wears his father’s Aztec medallion over a white tuxedo shirt. “It means the world to me,” he says, touching it gently.

The gallery show opening is one more family reunion of the HST circle, but it can only be an echo of the gatherings that always swirled around Thompson, a rare blend of politics, art, literature, and heavy weaponry. “The reality is that Hunter was the hub and he connected a lot of people and for a lot of reasons he attracted a lot of people,” says Juan. “And when he died, he left a hole there, and there’s no way to fill that.”

Juan Thompson is writing about growing up gonzo for a book to be published by Knopf. He’s not a writer but a computer consultant. And yet he knew that he would one day write this book. They had discussed it. And Hunter wanted his son to wait until he was dead. He supported the idea, but didn’t want to have to read it. “By that time, he knew I wasn’t gonna do a hatchet job on him,” he says. “It just would have been too uncomfortable to actually read it. But he died. I really wanted to try to portray a different side of Hunter than the public persona. That’s how it started.”

His father wasn’t always around. He was often on the road on assignment, and then, after Juan’s parents separated and divorced, they lived apart. “So a part of this book is how both of us dealt with that, and tried to create a relationship where there hadn’t been one, and also how I gradually came to understand that he was a lot more present than he appeared to be at the time.”

* * *

On his final day in L.A., it was Laila Nabulsi who hustled the wounded antihero onto a private plane. It would be the last time she saw him, waving at her from a window. Just a few nights before, she had helped organize a party for him at the Taschen Bookstore. Taschen was set to publish an oversized version of The Curse of Lono, his long-out-of-print excursion into the depths of Hawaiian culture with Steadman. His editor there, Steve Crist, agreed to host the party, even if Thompson was actually in town to promote Hey Rube. And Thompson gave Nabulsi a long list of friends from across the planet who had to be invited. They included some of his Hollywood pals … Depp, Del Toro, Sean Penn, Angelica Huston. Hugh Hefner would arrive with an armful of Playmates. But Nabulsi told him that others further away would never be able to make it. Still, he insisted, “I just want them to know they were invited.”

Something was different. And for months after, Hunter kept thanking her for the party, that “elegant evening,” as he called it. Back in Woody Creek, he would watch a video from the party often. But as Nabulsi stood at the airport watching Thompson prepare to fly out that day, she sensed a change.

“It was so dramatic, and so like a movie, watching this plane,” Nabulsi says now. “And he said, ‘I wish you would come with me.’ And I almost jumped on the plane. I wish I had,” she says, shaking her head. “But, you know, I had something to do, and I couldn’t leave.”

She met him at the end of the ’70s in John Belushi’s dressing room at Saturday Night Live, where she worked, a young producer of short films for the show. That was the center of the universe in those days, a groundbreaking collision of comedy and counterculture. Belushi was her closest friend. And Thompson fit right in.

They had two great weeks in New York together. It turned out he was married. Must not have come up. Eventually, she moved into his house in Woody Creek, traveled with him around the world, became his fiancée, and then left him in the ’80s. Thompson joked that he always feared the exposé she might write. He talked about it for years after, and he even had a title for her: He Was Wrong.

But they remained close friends, and she began working toward finally making a film of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

After a decade of struggle, she managed to put the pieces together, producing a movie directed by Terry Gilliam in 1998. Gilliam saw the story as an antidote to the increasing humorlessness of the endless Nixon-Ford-Carter-Reagan-Bush-Clinton eras. Gilliam described the book’s dangerous duo as a modern Dante and Virgil, descending into the Inferno of contemporary America, with Vegas casinos as the circles of Hell, while around them raged the Vietnam War, the Nixon presidency, and a disheartened youth movement. He thought the time was right for a reawakening of everything that was irresponsible and politically incorrect. It wasn’t. At a press screening I attended on the Universal lot, the film erupted onscreen to a packed room, and only myself and a strange woman sitting next to me seemed to be laughing. The rest was uncomfortable silence.

The reviews were extreme. Critics called the film either a remarkable translation of an acclaimed book, or a document of unspeakable ugliness. It was brutal. More importantly, it was not a hit, which is worse than death in some circles. The timing was just wrong. Five years later, the DVD version was greeted with rave reviews and was embraced as a cult movie for a new generation not even born when the book was first published. College kids were heard quoting the dialogue. And a band called Avenged Sevenfold, a punk-pop-metal act from the O.C. committed to tattoos and styling mousse, had a career breakthrough with “Bat Country,” a song directly inspired by Fear and Loathing. The accompanying video was thick with images lifted from the movie.

Thompson also loved the film, but by then he was on to other things. A new marriage, more books. “He was serious about his stuff,” says Nabulsi. “You couldn’t just hang out and party. He hated that word. It wasn’t about that. It was about working. And if you couldn’t take it, you were out of there. There was one night where he was trying to work on something so he started talking about it, and there were three or four people there, who were supposedly helping. At one point Hunter said, ‘Is anyone writing this down? If no one’s writing this down, it’s just bar talk!’”

That scene was six months before he died. He had many projects: a sex book titled Polo Is My Life, a collection of short stories called The Night Manager, the film adaptation of The Rum Diary. Weeks before shooting himself, he still talked of future work with Steadman. He was on the phone with Simon & Schuster about more books. And Steve Crist had a plane ticket to see him at his Owl Farm compound the Tuesday after that fatal weekend, to meet and discuss the GONZO photo book (to be published by Crist’s new publishing house, AMMO Books), a huge project co-edited by Crist and Nabulsi.

His mountain of unfinished writing projects was not an uncommon affliction for writers who had set a new impossible standard. It took his New Journalism colleague Gay Talese 12 years to finish his last book. Starting and stopping, tinkering and rewriting, throwing it all out and beginning again. Talese would sometimes then study his words from across the room with binoculars. (The next book could be a while.)

Even so, Thompson left behind an impressive stack of books, including the first two volumes of his collected letters that earned his best reviews since the days of Fear and Loathing and The Great Shark Hunt. He wasn’t finished. Only his body betrayed him, the final revenge for a lifetime of fun and abuse. He is still beloved by his long-suffering friends and family, still read and worshipped by fans. All was well enough in his work, right up until the moment he sat at his typewriter and pulled that trigger. For those who cared, it ended too soon. He was wrong.

Illustration by Ralph Steadman, from The Joke's Over, courtesy Harcourt Books.

Los Angeles CityBeat, December 28, 2006

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