Photo by Jonathan Becker
It’s 11 p.m., and Hunter S. Thompson is wondering about breakfast. Tonight the famously late riser’s Chateau Marmont suite is a homey landscape of soft furniture and tables cluttered with room-service trays, scotch bottles and Epsom salts. Last night an informal gathering had crowded the suite’s kitchen as Marilyn Manson, Bono, Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro, Anjelica Huston and others partied here, along with Catherine Keener, who dropped by later.
Thompson, perched on a pillowed chair, swallows some Naproxen and rubs his left leg. A year ago he broke it during a fall in a Hawaii hotel, and it’s been giving him hell on this visit to L.A.
“I had a cast on my leg from my toes to my crotch for four months,” he says. “Broke both those bones right there. Freak accident.” Thompson’s clipped, dry voice is as distinctive as the gonzo prose he invented nearly 35 years ago — a journalese of narrative landslides, malarial digressions and Victorian capitalizations.
Thompson lights a Dunhill Blue and steadily rocks back and forth, though he’s not sitting in a rocking chair. Forget the dark legends of life at his Woody Creek compound outside of Aspen, Colorado, or the drug, booze and guns shenanigans on and off his property. Tonight he’s the Dalai Lama of fear and loathing — eyes searching behind a pair of aviators, an Aztec-imaged disc hanging around his neck. This white-gold medallion is the one he wears on the cover of Hey Rube, a collection of his eponymous ESPN.com columns. Subtitled Blood Sport, the Bush Doctrine, and the Downward Spiral of Dumbness, the book is a gambler’s-eye view of sports but includes everything from tirades against the Bush administration to Thompson’s crusade to win the release of Lisl Aumin, the young woman serving life in a Colorado prison for a cop killing even the Denver police admit she didn’t commit. The writing is dark, the outlook bleak.
“[America is] a dead-broke nation at war with all but three or four countries in the world and three of those don’t count,” he writes. “England has allowed itself to be taken over and stigmatized by some corrupt little shyster who enjoys his slimy role as a pimp and a prostitute all at once . . .”
I ask Thompson if he feels any recognition — responsibility, even — for the ether dream of militarism and paranoia that Empire America has embraced.
“Ether?” he considers thoughtfully. “Yeah, I know ether. I learned a long time ago that reality was much weirder than anyone’s imagination.”
Could he, 20 or 30 years ago, have imagined a man like George W. Bush becoming president?
“Shit, I couldn’t have imagined him becoming governor 20 or 30 years ago. He’s an advertisement for ugliness and dumbness as a weapon of victory. It’s really scary to think of what it may mean.”
A few days earlier, Thompson had caught some Sunday football games on TV before the visitors began paying their respects.
“Pat Caddell,” he says, “came over with that girl — Ann Coulter? Right-wing monster!”
I wonder if the fact that Halloween falls on a Sunday this year will jinx any of Thompson’s bets.
“Fuck, I think Halloween’s already started, politically,” he says. “For me it’s a real hard year to have to cover a football season and a presidential election.”
Thompson was in town for two book signings and readings from Hey Rube. The night before, he’d appeared at Taschen Books’ Beverly Hills store with an entourage that included Penn, Del Toro and Harry Dean Stanton. They eased into the signing with wine and smokes, though Thompson seemed distant. Hugh Hefner eventually showed up, as did Kelly Lynch, from whom Thompson bummed a cigarette. (“I didn’t know who she was — I thought maybe a rich girl from Santa Monica or something, some bored housewife.”)
The signings were an odd mix of celebrity worship and counterculture nostalgia. The line ran out the door and onto Beverly Drive as Bob Dylan, Don McLean and Lou Reed exhaled through speakers from a repeating tape loop, while scenes from the film of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas flickered from wall monitors. At 67, Thompson is one of the last bridges to a time before rebels were packaged and cool became an item purchased off the rack like a leather jacket. As it was for Jack Kerouac and others, the American Road, with its barren beauty and brutal promise, was Thompson’s early inspiration in life. Today, that road has been replaced by the information superhighway or paved over with car ads watched by a stay-home nation.
“Howya doin’?” one fan after another asked Thompson as they offered their copies of Hey Rube for signing. A young man requested that he inscribe his copy “To Tricky Dick,” while another shouted, “All power to the people!” Two Playboy Playmates flanked Thompson, each wearing a line of Gonzo bras and bikini bottoms, a display of which sat on a table for sale. (Just in case someone did want to buy a piece of Thompson off the rack.) Hey Rube is oddly sentimental — if you can consider faith in the Constitution and the values of the New Deal nostalgic indulgences.
“There is no such thing as Paranoia,” he writes. “Your worst fears can come true at any moment.” A July 21, 2003, entry reads remarkably prescient:
“[T]he Pentagon’s ‘war strategy’ has failed miserably, nobody has any money to spend, and our once-mighty America is paralyzed by Mutinies in Iraq and even Fort Bragg.”
After the signing, Thompson had some more drinks and smoked some pot in the upstairs lounge, then hobbled unsteadily down the steps to read. He was guided by his young, protective wife, Anita, who handles his schedule and transcribes and uploads his columns to ESPN. (“Everything gets run through his wife,” I was told by a Taschen employee.)
Thompson had trouble standing, so Stanton, Del Toro and Huston took turns reading until Thompson was able to. The book contains more profanity than appears on the Disney-owned ESPN site but reflects Thompson’s metastasizing cynicism about sports: “I am watching more NFL football this year,” he writes in a November 2000 entry, “but enjoying it less and less. There is something wrong with the game, something vital is missing, but I can’t quite say what it is.”
It’s been a long time since Thompson could see half of Kezar Stadium from his old apartment above the Haight Ashbury, when he’d watch a pass sail from the west end zone toward the 50-yard line and then vanish into an existential question mark. Still, he betrays a lingering bonhomie for the sports world:
“I had a soft spot in my heart for Ronald Reagan,” he writes, “if only because he was a sportswriter in his youth, and also because his wife gave the best head in Hollywood.”
I ask Thompson if only gamblers can enjoy sports with today’s corporatized leagues, free agencies, incessant TV replays and deluge of meaningless statistics.
“I think gambling is a way to create an instant fan,” he says. “They should force people to gamble.” He then tells me how, years ago, he taught his then-6-year-old son Juan to bet, because otherwise it would have meant fighting over the TV set with him when the Sunday football games and Mr. Rogers were on at the same time.
“He had a dollar fifty in his piggy bank and bet a dollar. I gave him something like 28 points on the Texas-Oklahoma game. It was impossible for him to lose. Oklahoma was the national champion, and Texas was 18-point underdog. In the last quarter, fucking Texas returned a kickoff for a touchdown and [started to win].” Thompson pauses, I ask about his son’s dollar. “You have to force people to pay off,” Thompson continues. “Otherwise the gambling wouldn’t mean anything to him. He cried. He hated football until he was 20 years old. He finally came back and started betting with me again.”
Football isn’t the only thing that has changed in Thompson’s 40 years of professional writing. The public’s desire to read has undergone a transformation — for the worse.
“I can’t see that people are going to be reading a hell of lot past this generation,” he says. “I’ve already become a mastodon in print — I don’t see a consciousness for my kind of journalism.”
Journalism, which Thompson describes as “a conspiracy between a writer and the editor,” is especially endangered.
“The paper of record,” he says, turning over the phrase as though it were a historical description, like “Indian-head nickel” or “Oldsmobile 88.” “I don’t know if you’re going to be able to say that about any paper, including the Times, in 20 years. Of what record?”
Toward that end, perhaps, Thompson and Taschen have teamed up to republish his 1983 trade paperback, The Curse of Lono, a collection of ripping yarns swirling about the Hawaii Marathon and illustrated by Ralph Steadman, who has become Thompson’s Boswell and Beardsley. The long-out-of-print book, which shows Thompson’s humor at its driest, is so rare that it doesn’t even exist in the L.A. Public Library system. This time Lono will be a coffee-table volume that prefigures a planned movie version in the works. Taschen is also preparing an as-yet-untitled photo-journal of Thompson’s life, due out in summer 2005, that will document his evolution all the way back to childhood.
For now, however, Thompson is obsessed with the election. He recently interviewed John Kerry, whom he’s known since 1971, for Rolling Stone.
“Two weeks ago,” Thompson says, “I was taking a five-point spread to bet on Kerry. You find out how people really think by betting with a campaign manager or the reporters who cover politics. I’ve got a pretty good fix on what people are really thinking.”
The phone, which has been ringing throughout the night, takes on a particularly urgent sound, and there is less time in between the calls Anita answers. More people will be over soon, the interview must end. Perhaps in the minutes between its finish and the arrival of his new visitors, Thompson will be able to get breakfast.
HEY RUBE: Blood Sport, the Bush Doctrine, and the Downward Spiral of Dumbness | By HUNTER S. THOMPSON | Simon & Schuster 272 pages | $23 hardcover