Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs
is a book written by Hunter S. Thompson
, first published in 1966 by Random House
. It was widely lauded for its up-close and uncompromising look at the Hells Angels
motorcycle club, during a time when the gang was highly feared and accused of numerous criminal activities. The New York Times
described Thompson's portrayal as "a world most of us would never dare encounter".
It was Thompson's first published book and his first attempt at a nonfiction novel. Thompson had previously written two unpublished fictional novels, one of which was eventually published in 1998.
The book's epigraph is a translation of François Villon's 15th-century poem Ballade du concours de Blois:
began as the article "Motorcycle Gangs: Losers and Outsiders" (reprinted here
) written by Thompson for the May 17
issue of The Nation
. In March 1965, The Nation
editor Carey McWilliams
wrote to Thompson and offered to pay the journalist for an article on the subject of motorcycle gangs, and the Hells Angels in particular. Thompson took the job and the article, published about a month later, prompted book offers from several publishers interested in the topic.
Thompson spent the next year preparing for the new book in close quarters with the Hells Angels, in particular the San Bernadino and Oakland chapters of the club and their president Ralph "Sonny" Barger. Thompson was up front with the Angels about his role as a journalist, a dangerous move given their marked distrust of reporters from what the club considered to be bad press. Thompson was introduced to the gang by Birney Jarvis, a former club member and, at the time, police-beat reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. This introduction, coming from an Angel and reporter allowed Thompson to get close to the gang where so many others had failed.
Far from being wary of this outsider the Angels were sincere in their participation, often talking at length into Thompson's tape recorder and reviewing early drafts of the article to ensure he had his facts straight. The gang often visited his apartment at 318 Parnassus in San Francisco, much to the dismay of his wife and neighbors. Thompson, however, felt comfortable with the arrangement, having warned the bikers that he "didn't go much for fist-fighting but preferred to settle his beefs with a double-barreled 12-gauge shotgun" which he promptly displayed to them.
Thompson remained close with the Angels for a year, though ultimately the relationship broke down when several members of the gang gave him a savage beating, or "stomping" as the bikers referred to it. Thompson ended his time with the gang at this point, though he would later note in letters to friends and to Sonny Barger that the Angels who had participated in the beating had not been those with whom he had most closely associated. Because of this he continued to think warmly of Barger and other members of the club, such as Terry the Tramp, who had not been involved.
Effects and criticism
was the book that launched Thompson's career as a writer. Though he had by then published numerous articles for various journals and newspapers and was recognized as a journalist, the book was his first true exposure to a national audience. Reviews of the work were generally very positive and despite a poor performance on the publicity tour by Thompson, who was by his own admission drunk or exhausted for nearly every interview, the book sold relatively well. Even so, Thompson himself made little off of the royalties from early editions of the book, a misfortune he blamed on a succession of agents and the book's publisher, Random House
Thompson's flippant treatment of gang-rape by Hells Angels, a practice which the bikers in his book commonly engaged in, was strongly criticized by radical feminist Susan Brownmiller in her own book, 1975's Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape.
- Thompson, Hunter S. Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. New York: Random House, 1966; Ballantine Books, 1996 (ISBN 0-345-41008-4)
- Thompson, Hunter S. Proud Highway, The: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman (Fear and Loathing Letters/Hunter S. Thompson, Vol. 1). New Orleans: Villard, 1997 (ISBN 0-679-40695-6)