The Unusual And Unapologetic Life Of Hunter S. Thompson

Hunter S. Thompson was an American author and journalist, best known as the founder of the “gonzo journalism” movement. A struggling writer, he saw initial success after the release of his 1967 book about the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang, and slowly became well-known for his unique writing style and hard living. Along with his best-known novel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, several of his works have been adapted into films that demonstrate Thompson’s unusual lifestyle and view of the world. Unfortunately, Thompson took his own life in 2005 at the age of 67 but he left behind an undeniable legacy. See who this gonzo journalist truly was and the impact he made on the literary world.

He Was Named After A Famous Surgeon

Thompson typing
Michael Ochs Archives/GettyImages
Michael Ochs Archives/GettyImages

Supposedly, Hunter S. Thompson was named after one of his mother’s ancestors, a Scottish surgeon named Nigel John Hunter. However, he was no average surgeon. In a 2004 interview with The Independent, Thompson brought a copy of The Reluctant Surgeon: a Biography of Nigel John Hunter.

One passage Thomsposn shared read: “A gruff Scottsman, Hunter has been described as the most important naturalist between Aristotle and Darwin, the Shakespeare of medicine and the greatest man the British ever produced.” Clearly, Thompson’s ancestor was a respected man.

He Was In Jail During His High School Graduation

Thompson wearing sunglasses
Mikki Ansin/Getty Images
Mikki Ansin/Getty Images

At the age of 17, weeks before his high school graduation, Thompson was charged as an accessory to robbery and sentenced to 60 days in jail. Apparently, Thompson was in a car with a friend who wanted to borrow a cigarette from someone but ended up mugging them instead.

The man who was mugged got the car’s license plate and everyone in the car, including Thompson, was arrested Already having a record, Thompson was given the option of jail or the military. After 31 days in jail, he opted to join the Air Force and did not graduate with his class.

He Used To Copy Other Authors’ Books To Practice Writing

Thompson wearing red
Paul Harris/Liaison
Paul Harris/Liaison

In order to get a sense of what writing really felt like, Thompson was known to retype novels in full. According to Louis Menand in The New Yorker, “His true model and hero was F. Scott Fitzgerald.”

Menand continued, “He used to type out passages from The Great Gatsby, just to get the feeling, he said, of what it felt like to type that way, and Fitzgerald’s novel was continually on his mind when he was working on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” Thompson went on to add that “If you type out somebody’s work, you learn a lot about it.”

His Ashes Were Shot Out Of A Cannon During His Funeral

Thompson at a speaking
Frank Mullen/WireImage
Frank Mullen/WireImage

Hunter S. Thompson took his own life on February 20, 2005, at the age of 67. However, he did not leave the world quietly. In August of 2005, in accordance with his wishes, Thompson’s ashes were shot out of a cannon as fireworks simultaneously exploded in the sky.

Also in attendance at the funeral were Bill Murray, Johnny Depp, and plenty of rock and roll groups and other celebrities with more than enough alcohol and fun to go around.

He Stole From Ernest Hemingway

Thompson in a plane
Paul Harris/Getty Images
Paul Harris/Getty Images

In 1964, three years after Ernest Hemingway took his own life in his cabin in Ketchum, Idaho, Thompson visited the author’s home for research while he was writing “What Lured Hemingway to Ketchum?”

According to Thompson’s widow Anita, he “got caught up in the moment,” and took a “big pair of elk horns over the front door.” After Thompson’s death, Anita returned the horns to the Hemingway family, something Thompson had always intended to do. Anita recalls that there were no hard feelings about Thompsons taking the horns.

He Ran For Sheriff In Colorado

Thompson wearing a hat
Michael Ochs Archives/GettyImages
Michael Ochs Archives/GettyImages

In 1970, Hunter S. Thompson ran for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado. He ran on what he called the Freak Power ticket. Some of his political strategies included shaving his head so he could refer to his opponents as “long-haired” and promising to ingest psychedelic substances while on duty.

Furthermore, he also campaigned to rename Aspen “Fat City,” in order to deter “greedheads, land-rapers, and other human jackals from capitalizing on the name ‘Aspen.'” Unfortunately, he lost the campaign race.

He Didn’t Coin The Term ‘Gonzo’

Thompson at a press conference
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

While covering the New Hampshire primary in 1968, Thompson met writer and editor Bill Cardoso of The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine. The magazine was the first place that Thompson heard the word “gonzo” being used with Thompson describing it as meaning “crazy” or “off the wall.”

Two years later, Thompson would go on to write “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” which established Thompson as the face of “Gonzo Journalism” and a new type of writer.

He Helped Write A Television Show

Actors from Nash Bridges
NBC
NBC

At one point, Thompson and Don Johnson wrote a script for a two-hour TV movie called Bridges. The film followed a police officer dating a mafioso’s daughter while simultaneously battling addiction and working in Los Angeles.

Eventually, NBC bought the script and turned it into the 1996 series Nash Bridges. Thompson can even be seen as a piano player in the pilot episode of the show but made no more appearances.

He Was A Huge Supporter Of The Civil Rights Movement

Thompson walking on his ranch
Michael Ochs Archives/GettyImages
Michael Ochs Archives/GettyImages

Throughout his life, Thompson was always a staunch supporter of the Civil Rights Movement. According to Benicio del Toro, who co-starred as Dr. Gonzo in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson even had a large poster of Che Guevara in his kitchen.

Furthermore, he was known to regularly write about the “white power structures” that existed in American society and even wrote a letter to his friend comparing Karl Marx to Thomas Jefferson.

He Almost Drowned In The ocean

Thompson at Columbia University
Steve Eichner/WireImage
Steve Eichner/WireImage

In 1972, Thompson was commissioned by Rolling Stone to cover the Democratic Convention, which was taking place in Miami that year. One evening, Thompson decided to go for a swim on the beach after the convention had finished.

Unfortunately, a tropical storm hit the coast that night, resulting in Thompson’s leisurely swim becoming a battle for survival. Incredibly, he managed to survive the storm, although he didn’t make it back to the beach until 9 am the next morning!

He Made Sure He Interviewed Keith Richards

Thompson and members of the Rolling Stones
Pinterest/Lil’ Brian
Pinterest/Lil’ Brian

In 1993, ABC hired Thompson to conduct an interview with The Rolling Stones’ guitarist Keith Richards. At the last minute, Richards demanded more money and locked the reporters out of the room. ABC looked to Thompson to solve the problem, which he did, although in a rather unconventional way.

He decided to blast the sounds of a pig being slaughtered through a megaphone until Richards finally opened the door. The interview was then conducted and footage of it can still be found on the Internet.

Johnny Depp Had One Of His Books Published

Depp as Kemp
FilmDistrict
FilmDistrict

In 1960, Thompson moved to Puerto Rico, where he worked as a sportswriter for the magazine El Sportivo. He would later go on to write the book The Rum Diary about his experiences in the country.

Being close friends with Thompson, Johnny Depp is the reason the book was published in the first place after he found the original manuscript. The book was published in 1998, and a film was made out of it in 2011. It starred Depp as the main character, Paul Kemp.

He Loved Explosions

Thompson on his ranch
Paul Harris/Getty Images
Paul Harris/Getty Images

Throughout his life, Thompson had always been an enthusiast and supporter of firearms. A member of the National Rifle Association, he was known for his large collection of weapons and for regularly creating large explosions on his ranch.

Thompson was also a well-known narcotics advocate. He campaigned for legalization and argued that it would be better in the long run, citing that all prohibition did was make a lot of criminals very rich. Of course, he had several other polarizing ideas as well.

He Chose Not To Watch The “Rumble In The Jungle”

Thompson and Steadman -112029309
KMazur/WireImage
KMazur/WireImage

Back in 1974, the world was fixated on the boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman known as “Rumble in the Jungle.” Although tickets were impossible to come by, Thompson and his illustrator Ralph Steadman were given free admission and travel to cover the fight in Zaire for Rolling Stone.

However, Thompson either sold or gave away their tickets and opted to go on a safari instead, in search of pygmy tribes. While it’s unknown if they found any of the tribes, Thompson did buy a piece of ivory which got him into trouble when he tried to bring it back to the United States.

He Freed A Woman From Prison

Thompson speaking
Dave Buresh/The Denver Post via Getty Images
Dave Buresh/The Denver Post via Getty Images

In 1998, a woman named Lisl Auman was arrested when the person she was driving with fired on the police before taking his own life. Because of a specific law, Auman was considered responsible for the death even though she was locked in the back of a police car.

When Thompson heard about the story, he couldn’t let it go and rallied people to Auman’s cause. Thompson’s campaign for Auman went nationwide, and after years of being in prison she was finally released. Unfortunately, Thompson didn’t live long enough to see her set free.

He Lived With The Hell’s Angels

Thompson on a motorcycle
Michael Ochs Archives/GettyImages
Michael Ochs Archives/GettyImages

While researching for his 1966 book Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gang, Thompson spent two years living with the group. By immersing himself in their culture, he was able to get first-hand insight into what they were really like.

Unfortunately for Thompson, things didn’t necessarily work out, and after trying to stop one of the members from beating their partner, received a beat-down of his own. Thompson almost lost his life in the assault and his friendship with the gang ended.

He Had A Falling-Out With Rolling Stone

Thompson in his office
Paul Harris/Getty Images
Paul Harris/Getty Images

Thompson’s relationship with Rolling Stone began to dwindle in 1976, when he was asked to go to South Vietnam and report on the ending of the Vietnam War. Thompson agreed, and traveled to the war-torn country during a time when most people were trying to escape.

However, after his arrival, he learned that the story had been pulled without Rolling Stone even telling him. So, he found himself stranded in South Vietnam without support or medical insurance. On top of that, his reporting on the fall of Saigon wasn’t even published until a decade later.

He Accidentally Shot His Assistant

Hunter Thompson aka Hunter S Thompson aka Gonzo Journalist at his ranch standing next to his fireplace
Paul Harris/Getty Images
Paul Harris/Getty Images

Known for his vast collection of firearms, when a bear stumbled onto the property of his assistant Deborah Fuller, Thompson was the right person to call. Happy to get involved, Thompson made his way over the Fuller’s house and attempted to scare the bear away using a weapon.

Yet, when Thompson fired at the ground near the bear, the shotgun pellets ricocheted back, hitting Fuller in the arm and the leg. Fuller claims that Thompson was beyond apologetic, and she never filed any charges against him.

He Had An Interesting Sense Of Humor

Thompson in a tuxedo
Jim Smeal/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images
Jim Smeal/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

Hunter S. Thompson and actor Jack Nicholson were good friends. However, Thompson’s idea of a friendly joke might be a bit different from most people’s. One year, on Nicholson’s birthday, Thompson thought that it would be a good idea to make the actor fear for his life.

He went around Nicholson’s property, firing off his weapon and playing a tape of animal screams. He then proceeded to leave the heart of an elk on his doorstep. During the commotion, Nicholson had called the police and he and his family hid in the cellar.

He Had An Idea For A New Sport

Thompson on his ranch
Michael Ochs Archives/GettyImages
Michael Ochs Archives/GettyImages

Thompson and Bill Murray also became good friends after Murray portrayed Thompson in the 1980 film Where the Buffalo Roam. According to a transcript, one night, Thompson called Murray at 3 am to discuss a new sport that he had been developing.

The idea involved a combination of golf and clay pigeon shooting. One player would hit golf balls into the air, while the other tried to shoot the balls with a shotgun. While it never became an official sport, undoubtedly Thompson played it on his ranch.