San Francisco

He said he wanted his ashes shot out of a cannon. “A great funeral” was what he wanted, he told his son. Then he walked into the kitchen and shot himself dead in the head. That was the end of my old friend Hunter S. Thompson. But the end is only the beginning of his story.

His last column was a sports column, for ESPN’s Page 2. He began his writing career as a sportswriter, and he came full circle to end it that way. Hunter viewed corporate journalism through the same prism of suspicion he used to pull the butterfly wings off professional politicians. He was fond of saying the sports box scores were the only part of a newspaper you could trust because “there were too many witnesses to the final score for anyone to lie.”

Hunter Thompson’s demise at 67 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his compound in Woody Creek, Colorado, has rattled his friends and admirers in this hang-loose city that’s still struggling to ascertain if it was Kool-Aid or Flavor Aid that the Rev. Jim Jones of San Francisco served to his followers in Guyana, and why.

Sudden death shakes this earthquake-prone town, where life is taken so easily for granted. Thompson’s favorite San Francisco hangouts were decked in gloom. The night of his death, in the back room of the Tosca, writer Tim Ferris and others of Hunter’s close Frisco friends sat shiva with owner Jeanette Etheredge. Gavin Newsom, the mayor, sat in to hear the tales. Recalled was the night when Thompson took every glass in the bar and stacked them in an increasingly unstable pyramid on four cocktail tables. The understandably nervous owner told the writer that if he put one more glass on top of the heap the “damn thing will fall down.” Just one more glass, Jeanette, Hunter said. It fell down.

The morning after his death, at the Mitchell Brothers’ O’Farrell Theater, the flags above the marquee were lowered to half-staff. The O’Farrell was Hunter’s other San Francisco hangout. He spent many moons there as the night manager on a prepaid assignment from Playboy about the sex industry, roosting on a high director’s chair up in the wings where the spotlights were played on the girls on the stage below, learning the biz and watching the action. He had broken his leg in an indelicate back flip off the bar at the Tosca, and it was in a humongous cast. A bottle of Chivas Regal was in one hand and his dainty cigarette holder in the other. This was the nightly sight, for months. He never wrote the article, of course.

Action followed Hunter like a shadow from a scarecrow. I met him in the mid-1960s when I was editing Ramparts, a Catholic anti- (Vietnam) war slick. We published out of an office on the lower Broadway strip of San Francisco. Hunter showed up one night and left his knapsack on the couch in my office when we went to dinner. At the time I had a pet monkey named Henry Luce. Henry got out of his cage and into Hunter’s knapsack and opened many bottles of pills and gobbled the contents. When we returned the monkey was bananas and running at top speed along the railing above the office cubicles. He had turned into a ferocious, snarling monster and no one could pacify him. It took a day and a half for him to slow down. “Goddam monkey stole my pills,” Hunter said.

Gonzo journalism–the unedifying concept of the reporter as the active part of the story–grew out of a 1970 assignment I gave Thompson for Scanlan’s Monthly, a successor to Ramparts edited out of New York (with Sidney Zion) and San Francisco, where it was housed in advertising genius Howard Gossage’s firehouse on Pacific Avenue. Hunter had called me at home in San Francisco about 4 am–a normal social hour for him–to say that he wanted to cover the Kentucky Derby, which was then but two days away. I said OK, we’d send him tickets and money and find an artist to hook up with him.

The poor soul conscripted was Ralph Steadman, the brilliant English editorial cartoonist and accomplished oenophile. The way Hunter later told me the story, Steadman arrived on the Saturday morning of the Derby dazed and jet-lagged, to be picked up by Hunter in a rented red convertible. The author had driven but two miles and barely said hello to the Englishman before he put his scheme into action. He braked the convertible, took out a can of Mace and shot Steadman square in the face and threw him out on the highway with his pencils. “You make it to the Derby and we’ll have a story going,” Thompson said he said. Steadman lost his pencils but made his way to the Derby. He caught up with Thompson and gave him a rap on the head and borrowed a lipstick and eyebrow pencil from a woman bettor and produced hallucinatory sketches for what was to become the first of the “Fear and Loathing” series. Gonzo journalism was born slouching its way toward Bethlehem. (Steadman, who differs with Hunter’s recollection of this drug-fueled odyssey, where remembrance is not the currency of things past, was Maced again toward the end of the Kentucky Derby story, forging a cruel bond the odd couple maintained through a memorable series of later articles and books.)

When I was an editor at Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner in the mid-1980s, I talked to Will Hearst, who wanted to liven up the place, about bringing Thompson aboard as a columnist. (It didn’t take much persuading; Will was a fan of Hunter’s.) The bean-counter issue was not so much Hunter’s salary as the amount we had to set aside for accrued damages, given Hunter’s penchant for turning hotel rooms into demolition sites. Hunter’s hi- and low-jinks and his personal destructo-derbies have been portrayed by some as immature, but I think those sourpuss critics miss the point.

Hunter was one of the sanest men I have known–suicide aside, but suicide can be a rational option, ask Clint Eastwood–and his larger-than-life persona as part of the story was his way of shattering what he considered the myth of objectivity in journalism. He thought all media were biased, protected by layers of cautious corporate camouflage pretending to objectivity, and the only way a writer could express his well-founded political likes and dislikes was to break the mold of objective journalism and go for the wild thing; then editors treated you differently because they were either afraid or fascinated by you. You had to be, in a way, bigger than the story to be able to tell the story, which in Hunter’s case was the raw truth as the writer saw it.

A television journo asked me if Hunter had “forged a new path” in journalism. I thought about it and said no, he had, rather, beaten his way back through the overgrown jungle of bureaucratic media to the original path of nineteenth-century journalism, when journalism was actually a popular, participatory sport, and editors swore openly and imbibed freely and spat tobacco and carried guns and cussedly attacked politicians and other editors by name as varmints unworthy of becoming roadkill. (Parenthetically, the glory days of American journalism, which included the great muckrakers, were before modern advertising as we know it. Publishers were previously dependent on the pennies or nickels of readers who actually wanted to read their sheets; with the intrusion of corporate advertising subsidizing the price of a publication came corporate media and corporate caution and self-censorship.)

Hunter’s personal style of journalism blew a hole in the tin can of the profession and let in some welcome air. He has inspired a new generation of young journalists-to-be who have been less than called to a profession assuming the dull armor of accounting. His the-personal-is-political and the-political-is-personal worldview was the seed path to blogging, which makes little pretense to harrumphing “objectivity” but insists on telling the truth as the blogger sees scoundrels and professional humbug.

The galaxy of difference between Hunter and the J-school mafia who carp that he at times made up facts–more precisely, that he fantasized them in the Mark Twain tradition–was that Hunter saw the political reality for what it was, the hog in the tunnel, and one can’t say the same for the New York Times and the Washington Post‘s support of the Vietnam War, or the Times‘s “objective” Judith Miller in her reporting that promoted the WMD-in-Iraq myth.

Was February 20’s tragedy the end of Hunter Thompson? I think not. His friend Tim Ferris said, “Now more movies about him are going to be made, the legend is going to grow, and young people will hear the call–Hunter will become to journalism what Che was to revolution.”

As a Hollywood smartie said after Elvis Presley’s death: This was a good career move for Elvis.