And of madness there were two kinds: one produced by human infirmity, the other was a divine release of the soul from the yoke of custom and convention. Socrates
As I summarized in a chart in this last post, the writer Hunter S. Thompson and the composer Richard Wagner had a number of life parallels. Beyond that this fact is just interesting to me—a fan of both of them—I think it is relevant in two ways. First, it indicates what it takes to become a true original in art and simultaneously shows that this pursuit can be torturous. Second, and more importantly for this blog, I also think that the different receptions they have received from their fans is striking. As I will try to show in this post, Thompson was a far darker human being than Wagner, but Thompson’s fans and much of the press still have a very nuanced understanding of him. Many—maybe most—of Wagner’s fans show no such enlightenment. But they should, and that is to their shame.
I will explore both of these topics in detail next post. I want to devote this post to a character study of Thompson, which will show the similarities to Wagner with the detail my chart lacked.
“He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man” – Hunter Thompson’s favorite saying, which hung over his fireplace mantle, serving as a lame excuse for his behavior.
|Hunter S. Thompson with his near-trademarked look|
Much of what I write about Thompson in this section is equally true of Wagner, which should be readily apparent to anyone who has read my posts, or other reliable biographical information, about him. I will put an asterisk when there is a contrast, which I will address next post.
For people who are reading this blog but don’t know a thing about Hunter Thompson, he is considered one of the best writers and social critics of the last century. He is often compared to Mark Twain, though an X-rated one. He used hyperbolic dark humor—filled with obscenities—to make his points, thus his work sits on the very edge of respectability, and many people find it to be without merit. He made himself the story through a blend of outrageous fact and fiction, so his life is truly inseparable from his art—this is what he called “gonzo” journalism. Even though his “journalism” was filled with fiction, he was extremely well respected because through these fabrications, he actually revealed much truth. To my mind—and many others, including prominent historians—he wrote, in his signature style, the best book ever written on any Presidential campaign, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, 1972. His collected letters are amazingly prescient and a fascinating kaleidoscopic documentary history of the ’60s and ’70s. He is also well-known for his biographical portrait of the infamous motorcycle club, The Hell’s Angels, and his fantastic—in both senses of the word—and drug-soaked Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Thompson was, in fact, an outrageous person, but he also created a myth about himself that he was even more outrageous than he was. Thus, separating fact from fiction requires independent verification. As well, for any serious inquiry into his life, it is imperative to read his letters to understand the man—though his letters are written in his hyperbolic style, so the truth of any particular statement is always suspect.
The most reliable and knowledgeable witness to the true Hunter Thompson, I believe, is his first wife, Sandy.
|Sandy now (goes by Sondi Wright)|
Hunter was a very, very, very Big person/personality/being. He was on the one hand extremely loving and tender, brilliant and exciting, generous and kind. On the other end of the spectrum—he was the Full Spectrum—he was extremely cruel.2
His sense of responsibility for his actions was often nil. According to a biographer Peter Whitmer:
Repeatedly, he stiffed his landlords, sneaked out on his wife*, and avoided all forms of responsibility. His power over people, his conniving use of theatrics were honed to an art form, becoming his signature style of interacting with others.3
Sandy thought Hunter got away with this behavior because he had “a tremendous power of seduction…not just women but men, children—anybody he really wanted to.4 And he wanted to put that power to good use, as he was “a very well developed narcissist—a polished narcissist, actually.”5
Thompson had a very troubled and troublesome youth. The death of his father after a protracted illness, when he was 14, deeply affected him, as did the alcoholism of his mother.* His father’s death had pushed the family from middle-class to poor; this also had a lasting effect as he saw how differently he was treated than the rich. He had “resistance to any discipline but his own.” Thompson was gifted with energy—abounding energy—but its focus was often on hell-raising. As a youth, he began his life-long enjoyment of destructive forces—setting fires was a favorite activity as a teenager, lots of fires. He also began his love affair with guns and explosives. He committed a large number of personal and property crimes.* When finally caught, he avoided extended jail time only by a judge giving him the out of entering the Air Force, which he did at age 18. The incident deeply embittered Thompson because he did his crimes with two rich kids who both went unpunished. He realized the game was fixed against those without money.6
While Thompson seemed on a path of self-destruction by all who knew him, unbeknownst to most of his friends, he was a very serious-minded and vociferous reader, particularly of American writers, and planned to become the next great American novelist. He started typing out the great works of Hemingway and Fitzgerald “just to get the feel of how it is to write those words.”7 He went into journalism to make a career as a writer, working on his novels simultaneously.
Thompson also wrote a whole lot of letters. It was through these letters that his style and voice first emerged. He kept every letter he wrote, always making carbon copies, as he knew that they would be published in the future, when he got famous. Thompson was also an extremely meticulous and careful worker, contrary to one of the many self-promoted myths about himself. While the words he chose to use were often shockingly outrageous, this was quite deliberate, and necessary for his style of hyperbolic dark humor. The author Douglas Brinkley wrote, “Like Mark Twain, he believed that the difference between the nearly right word and the right word was a large matter.”8
According to Sandy, before drugs took their toll later in his life,
[h]e was absolutely committed to his writing. He was extremely disciplined. He wrote every day. He edited and rewrote everything. He was a very serious young man — wild, yes…but serious.He believed in his ability, his talent, even genius. In this forward to the second volume of his letters, the journalist David Halberstam wrote about his self-confidence:
[Thompson had] absolute certainty in the value of his talent, [and] his unyielding faith in himself in a world whose editors had not always deigned to recognize his talents. He knows that he is gifted…. Even when no one else yet realized it, he always knew he was the Great Hunter Thompson.9
I think I’ll accomplish more by expressing it [his views] on the keys of a typewriter than by letting it express itself in sudden outbursts of frustrated violence.10
My main luxury in those years—a necessary luxury, in fact—was the ability to work in and out of my home-base fortress in Woody Creak. It was a very important psychic anchor for me, a crucial grounding point where I always knew I had love, friends & good neighbors. It was like my personal Lighthouse that I could see from anywhere in the world—no matter where I was, or how weird & crazy & dangerous it got, everything would be okay if I could just make it home.11
Home, however, only gave him some peace of mind; it wasn’t enough.
Because he spent more than he earned—even after he was a success—he was forever broke. According to his literary agent, Lynn Nesbitt, he consistently spent money “like it was going out of style.”12 He frequently borrowed money, and didn’t pay it back. One such lender, Gene McGarr, said:
He had fucked me, and he knew it. I was confronting him with his basic selfishness, and there was nothing he could say. He never apologized for anything. I’ve never heard Hunter say “I’m sorry”—ever. Hunter was shameless—borrowing money, asking people for help, making these weird deals—and he got away with it.13
Another friend, George Stranahan, said about his slippery morals on the issue of money:
He always had this kind of Robin Hood thing, that it’s okay to take things—if somebody’s got plenty, it’s okay, you don’t have to pay them. In fact, they owe you. He always felt entitled to more than he got—that there was a certain societal abuse of his talent, that society was not giving him enough.14
Thompson wrote in one letter, “I’ve developed a weird talent for producing cash out of nowhere…though I’m tired of having to do it.”15 That talent notwithstanding, his broke state created tremendous stress. In another letter, he wrote that “[my debt is] causing me PAIN, constant goddamn pain, and everybody in town who’ll still speak to me is feeling the rotten effects of it.”16
Thompson felt alone, apart from most of humanity. At the age of 20, he wrote, “I can see that I shall be permanently apart from all but a small and lonely percentage of the human race…. I am quite sincere about some of the things which people take very lightly, and almost insultingly unconcerned about some of the things which people take most seriously.”17
He needed to use drugs, primarily, to help still the pain in his troubled soul. Sandy describes this reality:
Hunter was a tortured man. I knew his mother, Virginia, many of his childhood friends and both his brothers. Everyone agreed that from birth he was brilliant, charming and tormented. The torment, of course, eventually led to the addictions and further torment.18
The drugs, though, also fueled his creativity. His editor, Alan Rinzler, describes the intertwining of his addictions with his writings:
Hunter would juggle alcohol and speed. The speed would get him up and get the adrenaline flowing. It would make him even more manic than he usually was, and give him racing thoughts. Then the alcohol would give him a sense of euphoria. That was the balance he was trying to achieve. Later, unfortunately, he switched from amphetamines to cocaine—around ’74 or ’75. Cocaine is a nastier drug, a more debilitating drug. You have to do more and more of it.”19
The toll the drugs took decreased his abilities and his output. By the 1980s, his best work was far behind him, and his life became more about celebrity and addiction than about artistry.* He got trapped in his own myths.
Sandy wrote sadly about her ultimate awakening to reality:
I was living for Hunter and his work—for this great person, this great writer, who was so disciplined—and then when he couldn’t write anymore, what was I doing? It was sad to see. I was taking care of a drug addict—who loved me and who was also terrifying me.20
Thompson’s central life passion was individual freedom.* His credo was “All I want out of life… is my rightful place and for others to keep theirs.”21 Of course, as a narcissist that meant his individuality—don’t tread on me—but he was perfectly content to tread on others. If he didn’t like something, like the behavior of gay men, he had no problem taking matters in his own hands to stop the behavior he found repulsive. Thus, in Thompson’s letter to a friend in 1961, he relates:
I am about to be evicted for splitting a queer’s head with that billy club I got from Fred. Maxine and me and that club tackled 15 queers in an outdoor bathhouse the other night and I was stomped, but not before doing extensive damage.22
Thompson remained a homophobe, and was unsympathetic to his gay brother James, who died of AIDS in 1993.*23
I could quote racist and anti-Semitic things he said—and some actions he did—too, but I think Thompson writes rather eloquently, in his style, of course, about his misanthropic nature in this letter to his publicist, Selma:
I’ve never paid much attention to the Black/Jew/WASP problem; it strikes me as a waste of time and energy. My prejudice is pretty general, far too broad and sweeping for any racial limitations. It’s clear to me—and has been since the age of 10 or so—that most people are bastards, thieves, and yes—even pigfuckers.*24
As for the second sex, he considered that “about 95% of women are hopelessly stupid”25 and lived, according to Sandy, in a “male world.”26 Yet, he always needed to have a woman to take care of everything for him so he could concentrate on his writing. He liked “nesters” who were drawn in by his charisma.27 Jann Wenner, the Rolling Stone publisher, said of Sandy:
Sandy was not only his wife but also his full-time assistant. She was the one typing the manuscripts, filing, and doing all the administrative work, and she was also the recipient of Hunter’s abusive and unrelenting late-night irritability. 28
Not coincidently, it was mostly to woman that he could let out his softer side. The actress Margo Kidder said:
Women got to know a side of Hunter than men didn’t, because of that Ernest Hemingway nature of feeling very competitive with other men. They feel a great need to keep their macho up in the presence of other guys. There was a side of Hunter that I think almost all women who got to know him as—God knows I saw it—which was a very sad, sweet, lost little boy who was very eager to please.*30
All his friends—male and female—were enablers, allowing him to behave in ways that frequently crossed to cruel and destructive because he charmed them out of their senses. And that includes some really famous guys like George McGovern, Pat Buchanan and Jimmy Carter. Interestingly, it didn’t include Bill Clinton, who called him out for his behavior. Isn’t that rich?
One of his benefactors, Max Palevsky, said of him:
Hunter Thompson is one of the most thoroughly contradictory people I have ever met. Nothing he does makes sense with anything else the he does. There is a great dark side of Hunter Thompson… He must have some hurt, some pain deep down inside that causes all this.”31
Paul Semonin—a good friend in his younger years who was driven away by Thompson’s antics and cruelty—summed him up as a “compassionate shark.”
However, he is most often described by his friends in glowing—or at least understanding—terms: utterly charming, extremely funny, genius talent and smart; a man of morals and ideals; at his core, innocence and sweetness, quite a softy; well-mannered and soft-spoke; a charismatic, natural leader; delightful, unpredictable and unforgettable; a Southern gentleman, all chivalry and charm; a kid in an adult’s body.32
Hunter, light and dark, was, as Sandy wrote, the full spectrum. But even she remains confused by the enigma of Thompson. She says, “It was always hard for me to know—really hard. What was at the core? The bad guy or the good guy?”33
My answer—for what is worth—would be both; they were two sides of the same coin. More on that enigma next post.
1 Peter Whitmer, When the Going Gets Weird, the twisted life and times of Hunter S. Thompson, 230-31
2 Rolling Stone magazine, September 19, 2007, Hunter Thompson tribute issue, 52
3 Whitmer, 56
5 Gonzo, 55
6 Gonzo; this paragraph is based in large part on information contained in the the chapter, “Coming of Age in Louisville,” see specifically 42, 51-52, 20, 67
7 Gonzo, 12
8 Brinkley, ed., Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in America, The Gonzo letters, volume 2, xxii
9 Letters, volume 2, xii
10 Gonzo, 70
11 Letters, volume 2, xxv
12 Gonzo, 89
13 Gonzo, 54
14 Gonzo, 138
15 Letters, vol 2, 138
16 Letters, vol 2, 650
18 Rolling Stone tribute, 52
19 Whitmer, 177
20 Gonzo, 220,
21 Whitmer, 56,
22 Letters, vol. 1, 279; You can find more of the story in a generally sympathetic biography, Fear and Loathing: The Strange and Terrible Saga of Hunter S. Thompson , by Paul Perr, starting on page 60. Adding some complexity to this story, Maxine was an old friend and a lesbian.
24 Letters, vol. 2, 185,
25 Letters, vol 1, 59
26 Rolling Stone, 52,
27 Gonzo, 95
28 Gonzo, 154
29 Gonzo, 398
30 Gonzo, 194
31 Whitmer, 199
32 These are quotes from the Rolling Stone tribute issue from people such as Johnny Depp, Jack Nicholson, Jimmy Carter, etc.
33 Gonzo, 195