Hunter S. Thompson: The Father of Fake News, Part 1James J. O'Meara
Part 1 of 7 (Part 2 here)
David S. Wills
High White Notes: The Rise and Fall of Gonzo Journalism
St. Andrews: Beatdom Books, 2021
“He’s a drunk and he’s a doper who has got a style which is very dangerous for journalism students to pick up on.” — Harlan Ellison, 1979
David Wills comes not to bury Hunter Thompson, but to praise him; ultimately, he does a pretty good job of both.
Who was Hunter S. Thompson? What and why was Gonzo? What happened to it? Get ready to ride the wild wave. In fact, it may be useful to impose some neo-pertinent order from the start, thus:
- Birth of Gonzo — Portrait of the Writer as Scumbag
- What is Gonzo? — High White Notes
- Gonzo: What Happened? — Decline and Fall of Gonzo
- Father of Fake News — or OT (Original Troll)? . . . The Myth of the Golfing Douchebag
- Gonzo is the Secret — The Power of Positive Gonzo
- Gonzo: Paleocon, Neocon, or Just Con? . . . with an Excursus on Lovecraft
- Final Wisdom: The Truth Was Not in Him!
1. Birth of Gonzo — Portrait of the Writer as Scumbag
Wills’ title makes reference not only to the rise and fall of “Gonzo” but just about any post-adolescent would know talking about Gonzo is not just talking about a style of journalism but about Hunter S. Thompson as well. The two were identified in the public mind, and indeed, Gonzo was a product of Thompson’s life and character, and in turn it reinforced some of his worst traits, becoming both a “one-man genre” impossible — and, I’ll suggest, dangerous — to imitate, and a personal prison. 
One of those traits shared by the man and the genre is self-mythologizing, which Thompson began at an early age, and so although there are many Thompson “biographies,” Wills is to be congratulated for undertaking the task of finally separating truth from fiction; although, when it comes to Gonzo, he seems willing to tolerate Thompson putting a great deal of malarkey into print:
His rage, his determination to be an outlaw, and his use of writing to attack people and vent his own pent-up feelings were all characteristics that he developed in his first seventeen years.
He would carry with him for the rest of his life those attitudes and lessons from his childhood: righteous anger, a strong sense of justice, a fierce intellect, a gift for words, a uniquely creative mind, and a sense of humor.
Born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1937, Thompson’s adolescence already showed him to be brilliant, talented, and anti-social. Wills reconstructs a remarkable series of adolescent “pranks”—in some cases, outright criminal acts — that have several common features: intelligent planning, a bizarrely creative imagination, delight in violence, and the targeting of others not just as victims but as fall guys — which would provide a toolkit for the creation of the “one-man genre” that would be called “Gonzo.”
These range from the simple joy of crafting home-made firebombs — which in the fall he would toss into piles of leaves in front of neighboring houses as he rode past them on his bike to burst into flame after he was long gone and unsuspected — to a full-scale crime wave:
Thompson was suspected of being behind a spate of very serious incidents perpetrated by a group called “The Wreckers,” who claimed responsibility for offenses including flooding churches, destroying athletic trophies, and cutting the sleeves off choir robes. Although Hunter and his friends were never formally charged with the damage, it was widely believed that they were responsible due to the incredibly bizarre nature of the vandalism. While Thompson enjoyed breaking things for the sake of breaking them, he was known for his creative capacity even in acts of destruction. Indeed, looking over the reports in hindsight, his guilt seems rather obvious. The vandals left messages scrawled in black crayon, claiming that they were “not thieves” and professing no reason for their crime other than “excitement,” and then called in confessions in the wee hours. The caller, police reported, “did not sound like a juvenile at all.” He had a “calm, cultured” and “cocksure” voice and sounded about twenty-five. At several vandalized locations, police found emptied fire extinguishers — another lifelong obsession for Hunter.
Indeed, even in Wills’ account, it sounds close to the sort of parody of a concerned police report by some Fargo-like police chief that Thompson would off-handedly compose and slip into one of his screeds.
Wills is honest enough to report all this, but still enough of a fan to not quite be able to call Thompson a sociopath. Had Thompson been the scion of one of Louisville’s old money families, he might have grown up to be another Richard Spencer.
Instead, he took the opposite course: channeling his resentment of the upper classes into socially acceptable “taking the side of the underdog”; indeed, the first manifestation of full Gonzo, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,” is really just an excuse to level a blistering attack on the Kentucky elites:
He was filled with a bitter resentment at the world around him, and this manifested itself in his violent behavior and biting humor.
Otherwise, Thompson had no interest in politics — until he ran for Sheriff of Aspen, Colorado on the “Freak Power” ticket, and then dived into covering the 1972 presidential race — but instead discovered the wonders of literature when his mother took a job at the local library. Douglas Brinkley, editor of Thompson’s letters, says that “It was her bringing books home from the library like Huck Finn and White Fang and making her boys read that turned Hunter into a writer.”
Soon “he was reading Thucydides for fun,” and a classmate who later attended Princeton says that “Thompson was better read in high school than most people were when they graduated from Ivy League schools”:
He enjoyed breaking things, hurting people, and using his language to assault the ideas expressed by those around him. It seemed that literature offered him an outlet.
Even here, Thompson doesn’t entirely reform his character:
Hunter and his friends would ride around town, starting fires, getting in fights, and raising hell, but then Hunter would say, “Let’s go to the library,” and his friends would, of course, all follow him.
Of course, as one does. It’s almost too much like the sort of thing you’d see in a ‘30s movie about “angels with dirty faces”: Hey, gang, let’s torch a gas station, then check out the library’s new books shelf! — or a courtroom sob-story about one of today’s “aspiring rap artists.” But Wills is committed to sifting the truth from Thompson’s endless self-mythologizing, so the reader suspends disbelief.
We’ll look at the effects of his reading later. Unfortunately, Thompson did not entirely sublimate his anti-social tendencies into literature, and having fought the law for years, the law finally won:
On May 11, 1955, at one o’clock in the morning, Hunter was driving around Cherokee Park with two friends, Samuel J. Stallings and Ralston W. Steenrod. They came upon a car parked near Hogan’s Fountain, where Stallings got out and approached the parked vehicle. There were two young couples in the car, and Stallings asked them for a cigarette. He then robbed one of the boys of the eight dollars he was carrying, before grabbing the car keys and throwing them away.
Stallings was arrested and promptly ratted on his friends; though an adult, he was only fined $50, since his father was a prominent attorney. Thompson and Steenrod were charged in juvie and the judge, familiar with Thompson’s reputation as a “hell-raiser,” decided to finally make him pay: 60 days in county jail. This would also prevent Thompson from graduating (250th in his class of 251).
The judge’s action was admittedly a bit high-handed, but rather than thinking of it as karmic retribution (especially given Thompson’s penchant for framing his friends for his pranks, or even prompting them to commit outrageous acts, like hammering a [toy]frog on the sidewalk in front of their school), Thompson, being a narcissist and sociopath, interpreted it as taking the rap for the rich kid (cue Credence’s “Fortunate Son”) and took it as the last, best proof that everyone was against him, and deserved to be taken down a few notches. This would be the leitmotif of his life and his journalism:
He had felt for years that life was stacked against him and that injustice was rife, and here was proof. Stallings had robbed two couples — possibly at gunpoint — and Thompson had been sent to jail for it because he did not have a wealthy, powerful lawyer for a father.
Although Thompson’s young life has already provided some clues to Gonzo, it’s here where things really take off. The judge sends him to jail, but agrees to letting him out if he can get into the Air Force. A month later, Thompson arrives at Scott Air Force Base, “where he drunkenly vomited during roll call” and indeed spent the next six months largely drunk. In his letters home,
he began to write outrageous things as though they were true. . . . These letters are clear evidence of Thompson working out elements of his writing style that would come to mark his most successful work a decade later.
Although a childhood friend recalls that “lying was the thing he did best . . . He did it with total cool and total confidence,” Wills quotes Thompson in 1990 claiming that it was in the Air Force that he learned “full-bore lying as a natural way of life.”
Lying was how he got to become Sports Editor at the Eglin base newspaper, The Command Courier, in the first place: claiming to have edited his high school newspaper and to have appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal (true, but no one checked to find out that the last time was to announce his jail sentence). “He was nineteen years old and already a professional writer.”
Seeking “the best deal I could possibly have in the Air Force,” Thompson was nevertheless bored, which was always a dangerous situation:
He [began] to insert more comedy into his writing, subtly slipping witticisms or imagined scenes into the text. . . . He was beginning to play with elements that would become part of his writing style in the future, including that fake name and even a fake editor’s note that began one of his columns. He clearly inserted at least a few made-up quotes, including an obvious joke about golf that he passed off as a real news story.
After just a year and a half, he had gone from having never covered sports to being a sports editor with two columns and thousands of readers. He could write letter-like articles that contained personal adventures, add fake editors’ notes to explain his stories, turn insignificant tales into vast sagas, fuse sports and philosophy, and even play with the ridiculous language of the grandiose sports epic, in which every contest seems like an historic battle.
It was in these columns that Thompson first embarked upon the odd balancing act between truth and fiction that marked most of his work.
We haven’t quite gotten to the birth of Gonzo, but at least the drunken teenagers have jumped in the back seat of dad’s Chevy:
Already, Thompson is inviting his readers to use their imaginations. He is presenting things that have not happened in any factual sense, but which he feels are representative of what happened. His readers encounter ideas that are engaging, shocking, and thought-provoking and come to an understanding of the real issue that is aligned with Thompson’s own interpretations of it. This was an important discovery.
That discovery would eventually become Gonzo.
* * *
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 Gary Groth, “The Harlan Ellison Interview” (July 3, 2018). Not sure what Ellison means by “doper.” At this time, Thompson’s drug use was largely fictional, a matter of his “image.” Ordinarily he used only cigarettes and beer, with some occasional amphetamine if he needed to meet a deadline. Wills writes that “While he obviously enjoyed recreational drug use, he did not view these substances as a tool for writing and believed that even marijuana was detrimental to his writing process . . . When he wanted to write about the effects of drugs, he would normally do so when he was not high.” Later, as we’ll see, he developed a ruinous cocaine addiction, although at first he had regarded it as “a drug for fruits.”
 The cover is dominated by a pair of overlapping images of Thompson’s lean, handsome face in younger days; only the aviator sunglasses might suggest the man himself during his heyday. The overlapping may suggest the unity-in-duality of Thompson and Gonzo. The splashes of bright, primary paint behind recall the work of Ralph Steadman who, in the nature of Gonzo, became another Thompson doppelgänger in his best work. Steadman may even have done the image, but I can find no credit listed in my copy. Wikipedia tells me the original photo was a self-portrait which appeared on the dust jacket of the first edition of Hell’s Angels.
 One example which illustrates the duality of Thompson and Gonzo is that although, as we’ll see, Thompson was ferociously well-read even as a teenager, he never went to college (other than a couple weeks at Columbia when he was working as a copy boy at the Times; even copy boys there had Ivy League degrees). Like another mid-century writer, John O’Hara, this left him both envious and contemptuous of college boys, which he solved in Gonzo fashion by repeatedly referring to himself as a “doctor of journalism”; on the one hand, as always, Thompson defended himself by asserting that the joke was so obvious that no one would be fooled, yet in those pre-Internet days fans would identify him as “Dr. Thompson” or “Dr. Gonzo.” As so often, the joke not only took on a life of its own, he also became it.
 ““KNOW YOUR DOPE FIEND. YOUR LIFE MAY DEPEND ON IT! You will not be able to see his eyes because of the Tea-Shades, but his knuckles will be white from inner tension and his pants will be crusted with semen from constantly jacking off when he can’t find a rape victim. He will stagger and babble when questioned. He will not respect your badge. The Dope Fiend fears nothing. He will attack, for no reason, with every weapon at his command — including yours. BEWARE. Any officer apprehending a suspected marijuana addict should use all necessary force immediately. One stitch in time (on him) will usually save nine on you. Good luck. — The Chief.” — Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. A bit later, Thompson’s sock-puppet “Raoul Duke” would produce a review of Police Chief: The Indispensable Magazine of Law Enforcement — a real magazine, but the review contained “obviously fake sources” of stories about various weapons more powerful than those being advertised, including “the Nutcracker Flail,” which would squeeze the perp’s testicles until he surrendered.
 “Whilst Hunter was, by all accounts, a little hellraiser from his first years . . . So far, this portrait of the young Hunter Thompson perhaps gives the impression of him as being little more than a vicious child criminal; a reckless, anti-social thug.” Indeed. Later, Wills admits that “Thompson’s attitude was nearly nihilistic at times. He did things just to watch the results, to which he was generally quite detached.”
 Had he lived long enough, Spencer might have provided the inspiration for a new burst of creativity, replacing the late Richard M. Nixon, who had served as a kind of muse throughout Thompson’s career. Later we’ll note some of the ways Gonzo may relate to the “Alt Right.”
 Compare: “I spent a good deal of time playing out in the open, on the long road from school, and mixing up with some of the roughest boys, which caused my mother many anxious moments. This made me something quite the opposite of a stay-at-home. I gave scarcely any serious thought to the question of choosing a vocation in life; but I certainly had no interest in the kind of career that my father had followed.
“I think that an inborn talent for speaking now began to develop in me, during the more or less strenuous arguments with my friends. I became a youthful ringleader, one who learned quickly at school but was rather difficult to manage.” Mein Kampf: A New English Translation by Thomas Dalton (Clemens & Blair, 2018), pp. 61-2.
 Thompson’s penchant for absurd names seems rooted in Southern tradition.
 Just as the “Wreckers” episode recalls the schoolroom vandalism of the girl gang in Ed Wood’s contemporaneous The Violent Years (1956), here we also have a parallel not only to that film’s sternly lecturing judge (“What do you want me to do, give [Thompson] a medal?”) but also the infamous scene where the gang attacks a couple in their car (ending with an off-screen girl-on-boy gang-rape).
 In another testament to Thompson’s sociopathic personality, he was so “charming” that both couples became friendly with him during the trial and argued with the judge for leniency.
 “Had he been sixteen or seventeen [like Thompson], Genet might have rebelled against the judgement and challenged the values of his elders . . .” D. G. Cooper, R. D. Laing: Reason and Violence: A Decade of Sartre’s Philosophy, 1950-1960 (New York: Vintage, 1971), p. 72. Thompson’s anti-establishmentarianism would be solidified by the Kennedy assassination, and later by being gassed and beaten by Chicago police during the 1968 Democratic convention. Jean Genet was also there, along with William Burroughs and Terry Southern, who were “covering” the event for Esquire. Wills ignores this connection, but says “His experiences there compounded the hopelessness he’d felt at Robert Kennedy’s death, confirming for him the fact that the American Dream was dead and his beloved country was being run by brutal fascists.” Thompson later said that “I went to the Democratic Convention as a journalist and returned a raving beast.” Typically, Thompson wrote nothing about it at the time — “Thompson tended to struggle when it came to writing that was highly personal” — but 32 years later, an untitled essay in the collection Fear and Loathing in America would document that this encounter would result in “his explicit embrace of the drug culture as a mark of defiance against the political establishment.”
 “I’m no more qualified for a post like this than I am for the presidency of a theological seminary [Thompson wrote in a letter]; but here is one major fact that makes it possible for me to hold this job: the people who hired me didn’t bother to check any too closely on my journalistic background.” Some years later, Thompson would create “what he thought would be the perfect” resume for an interview with an ad agency. “He gave himself Ivy League qualifications [of course], publications in The New York Times and The Washington Post, and wrote up a reference letter from a senator. When his amazed interviewer asked, ‘Have you ever tried your hand at fiction?’ Thompson could contain himself no more and pointed out that the whole résumé was a work of fiction.”
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