Is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas a True Story?

Is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas a True Story?

A little over fifty years ago, Hunter S. Thompson wrote a two-part story for Rolling Stone magazine, which was published a year later as a book. They were both called Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream and the story became a countercultural classic.

But was this pure fiction or was it a faithful account of an actual trip he took with friend and lawyer, Oscar Zeta Acosta?

I won’t keep you waiting until the end of the article. The simple fact is that Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was based upon a true story but that it was massively exaggerated. In other words, most of it was the product of Hunter S. Thompson’s prodigious imagination.

In this article, I’ll tell you what was real, what wasn’t real, and what we’ll probably never know. For more details, read High White Notes: The Rise and Fall of Gonzo Journalism.

What Really Happened in Vegas…

We’ll begin with what actually happened. It is true that Thompson and Acosta went to Las Vegas and we can hear from their recorded conversations in The Gonzo Tapes that they got quite intoxicated.

The story does appear to have begun with a meeting in the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel and the two men did travel to Vegas by car. Thompson was there to cover the Mint 400 motorcycle race just like his character in the book, Raoul Duke. The race went on between March 21st and 23rd of 1971.

A month later, Rolling Stone editor David Felton suggested that Thompson return to Las Vegas to cover the National District Attorneys’ Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, on April 25th – 29th. This was never meant to be part of the book, though. Mostly, it just seemed like a funny idea – two supposedly drug-addled maniacs roaming freely among a bunch of DAs.

In terms of characters, Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo were clearly based upon Thompson and Acosta. Whilst their dialogue and actions were probably exaggerated or invented to a large degree, there can be little doubt that their descriptions were based on reality. Acosta even used the name “Doctor Gonzo” on the second trip and in subsequent adventures.

Bizarrely, Savage Lucy existed, although most of the details about her were entirely fabricated, and other people, including the waitresses in the interview transcript, were real as well. (This transcript was mostly accurate, too.) Thompson claims that they even picked up a hitchhiker en route to Vegas.

Tape recordings attest to the fact that Thompson and Acosta were fairly debauched, though not nearly to the extent that their characters were in the book. Thompson’s on-the-scene descriptions of the destruction they’d caused in their hotel room and car seem believable.

One last and quite amusing note: The song that features prominently in the book and movie, “One Toke Over The Line,” was indeed something they listened to in Las Vegas.

What Didn’t Happen (Or Was Massively Exaggerated/Distorted)

First of all, it is pretty well documented that the events depicted in Thompson’s book actually took place over two separate trips. As I mentioned above, these occurred March 21st-23rd and April 25th -29th. Thompson combined them into one trip to give a sense of “speedy madness.”

From there on, it is mostly a work of imagination layered upon reality. Most disappointing for Gonzo fans is the famed pharmacopoeia in the trunk of their vehicle, which of course never existed:

The trunk of the car looked like a mobile police narcotics lab. We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers … and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls.

Indeed, Thompson had never even tried cocaine by this point and would only sample it for the first time in 1973. He was hardly a prude when it came to substance abuse and had certainly tried most of what he wrote about in the book, but in fact he and Acosta were fuelled almost entirely by alcohol during their excursions. Thompson admitted this in a letter to an editor, calling the story an “attempt to simulate drug freakout.” Whilst none of what he wrote about drugs really happened in Las Vegas, that didn’t make them wholly untrue: “I didn’t really make up anything—but I did, at times, bring situations & feelings I remember from other scenes to the reality at hand.” He urged the editor to keep this information to himself, keenly aware that the drug use built a certain allure.

It is also evident from their tape recordings, some of which are available as The Gonzo Tapes, that aside from a little weed and maybe a few pills, the Vegas trips were shockingly drug-free. And of course there was no adrenochrome, which was something Thompson had read about. Whilst this chemical exists, it is not extracted from the pineal gland of a fresh human corpse. That was just more of Thompson’s dark comedy.

Without a vast supply of weird drugs, then, it can be assumed that Thompson’s visions were largely invented. He probably did not see “Pterodactyls lumbering around the corridors” and “huge reptile(s) gnawing on a woman’s neck.” However, he had played around with LSD and mescaline enough to know how to pull the bizarre visions from his trips and put them into his writing. Not that he needed to… his imagination had been impressive long before his first acid trips.

Most of the dialogue in the book and some of the minor characters were also very much invented and always for comedic effect. We can see throughout his work of the sixties and early seventies the development of his comic abilities. He typically observed people and then created composite characters, blowing them all out of proportion. An obvious example here is the DA from Georgia. Like so many conversations in Thompson’s works, this one was just too perfect to be true. (In fact, the whole DA conference was incredibly boring and Thompson made up almost all of that part.)

There are made-up quotes and random insertions of fabricated documents as well. For example, Thompson quotes his favoured pseudonyms, Martin Bormann and Yail Bloor. The latter is included in an obviously fake news story about American sailors being “diced up like pineapple.” Even little details like the room number at the hotel Thompson stayed in were invented. When Rolling Stone’s fact-checkers called the hotel, they found that room 303 was non-existent. “Don’t worry about that,” Thompson said. “Let’s move on.”

Speaking of hotel rooms, the “Fear” part of the title comes from the paranoia Thompson inserted into his text and this to some degree came from the spectre of vast debt Duke and Gonzo accrued during their stay. However, Thompson’s credit card details show that he paid about $1,500 in hotel bills, suggesting that this too was an invention. They evidently did not run out on their bill and indeed the tapes from Vegas show that they were mostly in control during their trip and that any paranoia was relatively minor.

Even the story about writing the book was not entirely true. Thompson wasn’t merely in the business of fictionalising his stories – he was an incorrigible mythologiser. He once claimed that he had written much of the book on the spot, as it were: “during an all-night drunk/drug frenzy” in a Vegas hotel room. This was simply untrue. We know from his own words and other sources that he laboured on the book for many months back home at Owl Farm. He wrote mostly on Dexedrine and bourbon, for he understood then – in his heyday – that mind-bending drugs badly impacted his literary capabilities. Elsewhere, he claimed that it was a “spontaneous outburst that almost wrote itself” but in fact he worked hard and even accepted the input of his editor, Jann Wenner. Indeed, although Thompson never admitted it publicly, Wenner and Acosta had a tremendous impact on the creation of Fear and Loathing. Both men practically coerced Thompson into making the book about the search of the American Dream. But that’s a story for another day…

What We’ll Probably Never Know

Thompson died in 2005 but even prior to his death he was far from forthcoming with the truth about Las Vegas. His friend William Kennedy noted that Thompson “claimed it was all true and that he could prove it with his notes, but that only makes his notes a transcript of his performance and his wild and fanciful imagination.” It’s true – we have his notes, but these prove little aside from the fact that he had a hell of an imagination.

In various interviews, Thompson gave contradictory answers to questions about the degree of reality depicted in the book. Once, he told a reporter, “I would classify it, in Truman Capote’s words, as a ‘nonfiction novel’ in that almost all of it was true or did happen. I warped a few things, but it was a pretty accurate picture.” Elsewhere, he said “about 90 percent of it is true.” However, this number changed wildly from day to day. His consistent inconsistencies make going through his interviews for evidence rather pointless. He enjoyed the infamy and the mystique, eager to appear as the Hemingway of the Dope Generation.

So what don’t we know about what really happened in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas? Aside from what I’ve said above, everything else remains a mystery. It was just Hunter and Oscar on their own. Anything Thompson said later is suspect and Acosta, sadly, died not too long after the book was released. They were two zonked-out freaks in a city of excess, utterly outrageous and yet somehow anonymous. There is no one to corroborate and no records to check.

Conclusion

In some sense, it doesn’t matter whether or not Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was mostly true or entirely made up. It can be appreciated for what it is – a story about two men run amok in the City of Sin. We can read it and laugh out loud at Duke and Gonzo’s outrageous adventures without ever looking beyond the surface. Yet, if we do, we are rewarded. It is a deeper book than most people realise, and part of that depth comes from Thompson’s deliberate encouragement to his reader to actually engage their critical faculties and ask whether what they are reading is true. He wanted us to stop simply assuming a story is the truth just because it sounds good. He wanted to us to question narratives and engage in a bit of healthy scepticism. And today more than ever that is something worth remembering.


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