Celebrated author had style all his own

Updated: February 22, 2005, 11:34 AM ET
ESPN.com news services

DENVER -- Hunter S. Thompson, the hard-living writer who inserted himself into his accounts of America's underbelly and popularized a first-person form of journalism in books such as "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," has committed suicide.

Remembering Hunter
Those columns. Those books. That sense of humor.
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  • Thompson was found dead Sunday in his Aspen-area home of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound, sheriff's officials said. He was 67. Thompson's wife, Anita, had gone out before the shooting and was not home at the time. His son, Juan, found the body.

    Thompson "took his life with a gunshot to the head," the wife and son said in a statement released to the Aspen Daily News. The statement asked for privacy for Thompson's family and, using the Latin term for Earth, added, "He stomped terra."

    Neither the family statement nor Pitkin County sheriff's officials said whether Thompson left a note.

    Investigators recovered the weapon, a .45-caliber handgun. An autopsy was planned. Joe DiSalvo, a spokesman for the Pitkin County Sheriff's Department, said the investigation was continuing but declined to elaborate.

    Besides the 1972 classic about Thompson's visit to Las Vegas, he also wrote "Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72." The central character in those wild, sprawling satires was "Dr. Thompson," a snarling, drug- and alcohol-crazed observer and participant.

    Thompson, whose early writings mostly appeared in Rolling Stone magazine, often portrayed himself as wildly intoxicated as he reported on such figures as Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.

    "Fiction is based on reality unless you're a fairy-tale artist," Thompson told the AP in 2003. "You have to get your knowledge of life from somewhere. You have to know the material you're writing about before you alter it."

    Thompson also wrote such collections as "Generation of Swine" and "Songs of the Doomed." His first ever novel, "The Rum Diary," written in 1959, was first published in 1998.

    In recent years, Thompson penned frequent columns for ESPN.com's Page 2 since its launch in November 2000.

    "Hunter Thompson's passing is a tremendous loss, not just to the ESPN family, but to any fan of American literature," ESPN.com Editor-In-Chief Neal Scarbrough said. "He was a trailblazer, a literary icon who has given generations of writers and readers many lessons in finding their voices. As with any sudden loss, there is a search for answers about Hunter's passing. ESPN.com owes him a debt of gratitude for continuing his work on Page 2, where he was -- from the start -- committed to the success of the page and gave us his best as he continued to reach out to his fans, old and new. Through it all, his writing and perspective managed to occupy a space that no other writer could fill. It's sad to realize it's a voice we won't hear from again …"

    Hunter S. Thompson
    APAcid wit. Gonzo journalist. Enigma. Hunter S. Thompson was described in many ways during a career that left an indelible mark on American arts and letters.
    Thompson was a counterculture icon at the height of the Watergate era, and once said Nixon represented "that dark, venal, and incurably violent side of the American character."

    Thompson was often linked with fellow writers Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe as part of a troika of literary titans who invented a reporting style in the 1960s that came to be known as the New Journalism. But Talese, for his part, never saw it that way, saying Monday that Thompson was an original.

    While all three writers took an eye for description and detail to new heights, only Thompson immersed himself so thoroughly -- and often so outrageously -- into his stories, Talese told The Associated Press.

    "I will miss him as a man who was amusing while he was also insightful," the author of "Honor Thy Father" said by phone from his New York City apartment. "He was amusing and also maybe wretchedly out of step with the current morality. At this time of political correctness, he was never politically correct, and that is what I'll miss the most about him."

    Thompson also was the model for Garry Trudeau's balding "Uncle Duke" in the comic strip "Doonesbury." He was portrayed on screen by Bill Murray in "Where The Buffalo Roam" and Johnny Depp in a film adaptation of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas."

    That book, perhaps Thompson's most famous, begins: "We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold."

    Later in the book he wrote, "We had two bags of grass, 75 pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine and a whole galaxy of multicolored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers."

    Whether he actually prepared for his assignments with that kind of indulgence, Talese said he didn't know.

    "You never know what these people do," the author said. "They know what is entertaining about their material, and sometimes what is not true about their life becomes part of their persona."

    Other books include "The Great Shark Hunt," "Hell's Angels" and "The Proud Highway." His most recent effort was "Hey Rube: Blood Sport, the Bush Doctrine, and the Downward Spiral of Dumbness."

    In one of his more recent books, "Kingdom of Fear," he described the members of the current Bush administration: "They are the racists and hate mongers among us -- they are the Ku Klux Klan." And those were his more polite terms for them.

    "He had more to say about what was wrong with America than George W. Bush can ever tell us about what is right," a fellow writer, Norman Mailer, said in a statement released Monday.

    And it was Thompson's relentlessness that drew so much appreciation.

    "He may have died relatively young but he made up for it in quality if not quantity of years," Paul Krassner, the veteran radical journalist and one of Thompson's former editors, told The Associated Press by phone from his Southern California home.

    "It was hard to say sometimes whether he was being provocative for its own sake or if he was just being drunk and stoned and irresponsible," quipped Krassner, founder of the leftist publication The Realist and co-founder of the Youth International (YIPPIE) party.

    "But every editor that I know, myself included, was willing to accept a certain prima donna journalism in the demands he would make to cover a particular story," he said. "They were willing to risk all of his irresponsible behavior in order to share his talent with their readers."

    Thompson's compound in Woody Creek, not far from Aspen, was almost as legendary as Thompson. He prized peacocks and weapons; in 2000, he accidentally shot and slightly wounded his assistant trying to chase a bear off his property.

    But despite the gunfire and the wild, drug-addled image he projected in his writing, Thompson was on good terms with the sheriff's department and was friends with Sheriff Bob Braudis and with DiSalvo, the sheriff's director of investigations.

    "I would definitely call him a friend," DiSalvo said. "This was not the way I expected Hunter to die."

    Born July 18, 1937, in Kentucky, Hunter Stockton Thompson served two years in the Air Force, where he was a newspaper sports editor. He later became a proud member of the National Rifle Association and almost was elected sheriff in Aspen in 1970 under the Freak Power Party banner.

    Thompson's heyday came in the 1970s, when his larger-than-life persona was gobbled up by magazines. His pieces were of legendary length and so was his appetite for adventure and trouble; his purported fights with Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner were rumored in many cases to hinge on expense accounts for stories that didn't materialize.

    It was the content that raised eyebrows and tempers. His book on the 1972 presidential campaign involving, among others, Edmund Muskie, Hubert Humphrey and Nixon was famous for its scathing opinion.

    Working for Muskie, Thompson wrote, "was something like being locked in a rolling box car with a vicious 200-pound water rat." Nixon and his "Barbie doll" family were "America's answer to the monstrous Mr. Hyde. He speaks for the werewolf in us."

    Humphrey? Of him, Thompson wrote: "There is no way to grasp what a shallow, contemptible and hopelessly dishonest old hack Hubert Humphrey is until you've followed him around for a while."

    The approach won him praise among the masses as well as critical acclaim. Writing in The New York Times in 1973, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt worried Thompson might someday "lapse into good taste.

    "That would be a shame, for while he doesn't see America as Grandma Moses depicted it, or the way they painted it for us in civics class, he does in his own mad way betray a profound democratic concern for the polity," he wrote. "And in its own mad way, it's damned refreshing."

    Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.