Hunter S. Thompson Biography

Hunter Stockton Thompson was born on 18th July, 1937 in Louisville, Kentucky to Virginia and Jack Thompson. He was the oldest of three brothers – Davison and James – and he was by all accounts a little hellraiser. His mother is quoted as having said Hunter “shot out of the womb angry.”

Little Hunter was a charismatic child. He was a walking paradox – intelligent but mischievous, kind but cruel, well-read but badly behaved. When his childhood friends talk about him, it sounds as though they are describing two different people. He was outgoing but bookish and spent his time in equal parts fighting, pranking, and reading. He showed leadership traits and other children gravitated towards him. His peers recall him being creative and experimental, particularly when thinking up his various practical jokes.

Thompson’s first efforts at writing came in 1947 and 1948, when he contributed to the Southern Star, a mimeographed newspaper made by his friends. Hunter was only ten years old. Their efforts were rewarded with a write-up in the Louisville Courier-Journal.

The Southern Star. Hunter Thompson's first published articles.

On 3rd July 1952, Jack Thompson passed away. Hunter was just fourteen years old. He had always been difficult but it appears that he became far more unruly after the death of his father. His mother turned increasingly to alcohol and Hunter resented this.

In 1953, Thompson joined the Louisville Athenaeum, a literary organisation. He was by now a promising young writer with an intelligent and bitingly satiric voice. Still, his bad behaviour rankled his fellow members and he was kicked out before long.

His childish mischief escalated and in 1954-55 he continued to find himself in trouble with the police. A particularly bad incident saw him sentenced to 60 days’ incarceration, during which time he missed his high-school graduation. He was deeply embarrassed but nonetheless maintained that it was a travesty of justice. For the rest of his life, he would feel aggrieved and maintain a contempt for the wealthy.

From jail, Thompson went straight into the U.S. Air Force, where he moved from one base to the next before finding himself at Eglin in the Florida Panhandle. Here, he was made sports editor of the base newspaper, The Command Courier. For about one year, he edited the paper’s sports page, learning a great deal about himself and the industry in the process.

In November 1957, he was discharged from the Air Force. With his experience at the Courier, he was able to bounce around the U.S. for some time, finding work writing and editing for various newspapers. In New York, he even got a job as copyboy for Time, but he was never good at keeping a job and was fired after eleven months.

He continued to try his luck as a writer and in 1960 he fled the United States in search of better prospects, landing in Puerto Rico, where he would gain the inspiration for The Rum Diary, only published in 1998.

Thompson didn’t last long in Puerto Rico and made his way back to the U.S. via Bermuda. He settled at Big Sur to work on his fiction and around this time he made good progress in a process of hybridising fact and fiction into his own hyperbolic style. His writing took on some of the qualities that we would later know as “Gonzo.”

In early 1962, Thompson set off for Latin America. Here, he wrote dispatches for The National Observer, a new newspaper whose editors were open to Thompson’s unique style. They edited him quite a lot, but they at least appreciated his work enough to print it. By the time he returned to the U.S. the following year, he had made a name for himself. That year married his first wife, Sandy, and visited his future home of Woody Creek, Colorado.

an early Hunter Thompson article

Before settling in Woody Creek, however, Thompson would spend some time in San Francisco, which was at that time the centre of the counterculture. Thompson began to write about the freaks and weirdos of the Haight-Ashbury, translating their strange lives for a square audience. It was here that he stumbled upon the story that would set him on the path to journalistic fame.

In 1965, Thompson wrote an article about the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang, then was convinced to turn this story into a book, which he wrote over the following year. Released in 1967, it was a roaring success. Thompson appeared on TV and radio to promote it and is suggested that he crafted his public persona (at least the most excessive elements) around this time.

The final years of the 1960s were an explosive period of productivity for Thompson. He didn’t always publish what he wrote but he learned from each effort, his style of writing transforming rapidly as he added more and more to his literary arsenal.

In 1970, Thompson met up with new collaborator Ralph Steadman and covered the Kentucky Derby. The resulting article was the first to earn the name “Gonzo,” a term suggested by Thompson’s friend Bill Cardoso. For the rest of his life, Thompson would consider this the label for his style of writing.

That same year, Thompson ran for sheriff of Pitkin County on the Freak Power ticket. It was a political organisation he had created the year before. The campaign brought him yet more public attention and also helped him team up for the first time with the relatively new magazine, Rolling Stone, and its founder Jann Wenner.

Hunter Thompson sheriff campaign article

In 1971, Thompson and another friend called Oscar Zeta Acosta went to Las Vegas, where Thompson got the inspiration for his era-defining novel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Serialised in Rolling Stone in November and published as a book the following year, it was an instant classic. It made Thompson’s name and remains his most famous work more than a half-century later.

Even before the book was published, Thompson was at work on his next effort: Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. It was a series of articles for Rolling Stone based upon Thompson’s perceptions of the 1972 U.S. presidential election. It would prove to be another classic.

Coming off the campaign trail, Thompson was exhausted. He had been in a productive and creative frenzy for several years, fuelled to no small extent by drugs, and he was burned out. He struggled to focus on new projects and after he was introduced to cocaine in 1973 he struggled to focus on anything.

Numerous projects were considered and Thompson became notorious for accepting assignments but never completing them. One of his finest works, “The Great Shark Hunt” (to be confused with the book of the same name), was completed and published in 1974, but it took him an absurdly long time to write. His obituary for Acosta, too, was an arduous process, published several years after Acosta’s death.

There was a litany of failed assignments – covering the Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire and the Fall of Saigon, for example – during the 1970s. During this period, Thompson became less devoted to his work and more trapped in the character of Raoul Duke, the alter ego he had created a decade before.

In 1980, Thompson was the subject of the movie Where the Buffalo Roam, starring Bill Murray. It was panned and Thompson became known as a sellout. The ‘80s, an era he considered one of greed, ironically saw him attempting to cash in on his image whilst failing to produce much work. A rare success in the form of an article on running turned into the disaster that was The Curse of Lono, a short and incomplete novella published in 1985.

Thompson then turned to the San Francisco Examiner as a columnist, turning in short pieces on a weekly basis. He wrote for the Examiner from 1985 to 1990, although in the final two years his output was infrequent. In 1988, he collected some of his better columns for Generation of Swine, the second instalment of a three-part volume called The Gonzo Papers.

the gonzo papers

In the 1990s, Thompson’s work continued to decline in quality. He returned to Rolling Stone, from which he had largely been absent during the previous decade, having fallen out with Wenner. Still, he had a reputation for being extremely difficult and it was widely accepted that he could no longer produce coherent work. Everything he turned in had to be pieced together and substantially fixed by a team of editors.

Thompson’s health rapidly deteriorated towards the end of the decade. Years of alcoholism and drug abuse had taken a brutal toll. He was aging prematurely and felt depressed by the loss of his mental faculties and literary abilities. When he took a job working for ESPN in the final few years of his life, Thompson relied heavily upon friends for help with his short articles. It is likely that some of these were even written in part by his team of helpers.

On 20th February, 2005, Thompson shot himself in his kitchen, bringing to an end an incredible but tragic life. He was one of the most important writers of his era and although his talent undeniably waned in the final few decades, having peaked in the early 1970s, what he produced during his heyday was some of the greatest literary journalism of the 20th century. He remains tremendously influential and his work of the late sixties and early seventies is rightfully revered for its fearless, innovative brilliance.