Hunter S. Thompson: Fascinating Facts About the Godfather of Gonzo Journalism

By Nova BarelaLast Updated Apr 18, 2020 9:58:14 PM ET
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The legacy of famed writer Hunter S. Thompson is accompanied by bizarre tales, profound quirks — and some of the greatest literary material in history. Although he was a trailblazer, Thompson is remembered for much more than his revolutionary approach to journalism.

Other journalists remarked on the "gonzo" life he led, from his strange pets to his chaotic relationships to his fascinating ascension into his field-altering career. The phrase "gonzo journalism" was coined to describe his unique way of reporting. Check out these other intriguing facts about the "Godfather of Gonzo Journalism," Hunter S. Thompson.

He Copied Famous Novels...Literally

Hunter S. Thompson has gone down in history as a literary genius for good reason. He learned how to write by emulating the greats. How did he pull this off? He literally copied down the works of his favorite writers to learn how to properly craft a book.

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His primary focus was F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. "He used to type out pages from The Great Gatsby, just to get the feeling...of what it was like to write that way," Louis Menand told The New Yorker. This might sound excessive, but this patient exercise led him to write more than 30 generation-defining novels.

He Was in Jail During His High School Graduation

Plenty of people blow off their high school graduation ceremonies, yet Thompson didn't attend the event for a unique reason: He was in jail. During his senior year, he was found guilty of being an accessory to robbery and sentenced to two months in jail, which conflicted with the date of his high school graduation.

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"Hunter had a record, and he was already on probation," one of his friends from childhood, Neville Blakemore, shared with Rolling Stone. "He was given an ultimatum, jail or the military, and Hunter took the Air Force. He didn't graduate with his class."

He Was an Extremely Inventive Child

Before he was one of the great writers of the 20th century, Thompson was an inventor! Okay, the title may be a stretch, but he certainly had some inventive concepts rattling around in his head as a child. One even led him to produce a unique mode of transportation.

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Have you considered turning a washing machine into a vehicle? When Thompson was only 15 years old, he tore apart a washing machine and reassembled its engine to produce an electric-powered go-kart. While the invention was never widely produced, it was one of the first displays of his brilliant mind.

He Almost Drowned in a Riptide

Throughout his journalistic career, Thompson was frequently called to report on political events. When he was on assignment in Miami for the Democratic National Convention in 1972, he had downtime one evening and decided to take a break from his work and enjoy a swim.

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Unfortunately, he picked a bad day to dive into the ocean. Thompson got caught in a dangerous riptide that carried him out to sea. He managed to stay afloat all night and washed up exhausted on the beach the next morning.

He Had His Ashes Shot from a Cannon

When Thompson tragically took his own life in February of 2005, he left behind explicit instructions about how to make his funeral pop — specifically in terms of handling his ashes. Rather than sticking them in an urn on a mantel, Thompson had an unconventional request about what to do with his remains.

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Following his funeral — with some help from Johnny Depp — Thompson's ashes were shot out of a cannon, alongside a plethora of stunning fireworks. Witnesses of the display included Depp, Bill Murray, Jack Nicholson, Sean Penn and some of the writer's other famous friends. His widow told ESPN, "He loved explosions."

He Spent Millions on Illegal Substances

According to those close to Thompson, the writer's life and career was plagued by drug addiction. He was a connoisseur of illegal substances and often wrote multi-million dollar checks to cover his bills for substances that helped him stay awake to write.

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His assistant told The Medium, "Drugs were almost like a ritual. I was like, 'yes, master?' and he would act like, 'Here is the drug; do it for me.' Everything was louder, faster, funnier, totally grandiose...The days would usually last about 36 hours — coking and smoking and drinking and rolling joints the whole time."

He Stole from Ernest Hemingway

In 1964, Thompson was called for an assignment by the National Observer to visit the late Ernest Hemingway's home. While writing the piece "What Lured Hemingway to Ketchum?", Thompson apparently became overenthusiastic about being in the home of a literary great — so he stole the antlers above Hemingway's front door!

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Photo Courtesy: Look Magazine/Wikimedia Commons

His widow, Anita, shared with The Aspen Times that Hunter "later regretted this," and they "planned to take a road trip back to Ketchum and quietly return them, but we never did." Fortunately, Anita was able to later reconnect with Hemingway's family and return the antlers to them with no hard feelings.

He Scored an Unusual Interview with Keith Richards

Back in 1993, Rolling Stones member Keith Richards was slated for an interview with ABC. However, he had a meltdown shortly before the interview and demanded more money for his appearance. No one could get him to leave his dressing room, so ABC turned to Thompson for assistance.

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Photo Courtesy: Raph_PH/Wikimedia Commons

How did Thompson draw Richards out of seclusion? He played the sound of a pig being slaughtered (through a megaphone, of course) until Richards was too annoyed to remain shut in the room with the noise. When he opened the dressing room door, Thompson immediately began to interview the irritated band member.

He Ran for Sheriff in Colorado

Thompson is known for his exceptional writing career, but do you know about his political career? Back in 1970, he took it upon himself to run for the position of sheriff in Pitkin County, Colorado. Running on the "Freak Power" ticket, he used satire (obviously) to draw attention to the problems with local politics.

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He told Rolling Stone, "Why not challenge the establishment with a candidate they’ve never heard of?…Why not run an honest freak and turn him show up all the normal candidates for the worthless losers they are and always have been?"

He Became a Mail-Order Doctor

Despite never participating in a doctoral program, Hunter Thompson boldly assumed the title of Dr. Thompson back in 1974. What inspired this new name? He supposedly ordered a doctorate in divinity through the mail, making him insist he was qualified to claim the title.

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In an interview with Playboy, interviewers asked Thompson, "You're not a real minister, are you?" Thompson replied, "What? Of course, I am. I'm an ordained Doctor of Divinity in the Church of the New Truth. l have a scroll with a big gold seal on it hanging on my wall at home."

He Was Best Buds with Johnny Depp

Thompson and Depp had a close working relationship, and they quickly became besties. Depp starred in several films based on Thompson's books, including his leading role in the movie version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The two kept in close correspondence between filming and developed a lasting friendship.

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Photo Courtesy: Universal Pictures/IMDB

They often hung out at Thompson's farm, discussing art, music, literature and life. They also wrote one another letters over the years. "Whatever his intake was, was his intake...if you were prepared to go that extra mile, he would stop you just to make sure," Depp told Far Out Magazine.

He Was a Major Civil Rights Activist

Although he gained traction in the morally questionable world of journalism, his heart was rooted in civil rights activism. He often used his position of power to call out injustices that he saw within the infrastructure of the government, society and the economy.

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Photo Courtesy: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

"This may be the year when we finally come face to face with ourselves...that we are really just a nation of 330 million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns and no qualms at all about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable," Thompson once shared.

He Owned a Zoo of Pets

Thompson was an avid animal enthusiast. He didn't stick with adopting a cat, dog or goldfish when it came to picking his house pets. Throughout his globetrotting career, he acquired a menagerie of creatures that most people could only see if they went to the zoo.

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What were his pets exactly? He had a pride of (extremely noisy) peacocks who occupied the trees in his yard, a pair of massive Dobermans and a monkey. The monkey also happened to be an alcoholic who loved to guzzle liquor. As a result, he tragically passed away (with dramatic flair) after falling off Thompson's balcony. Sunset Boulevard, anybody?

He Pulled a Terrifying Prank on Jack Nicholson

All of Thompson's friends knew he had a dark sense of humor. His twisted jokes often came at the expense of the peace of mind of his pals, including Jack Nicholson. On Nicholson's birthday, Thompson drove to his home, fired a gun and played horrific animal noises at full blast.

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Unfortunately, Nicholson didn't know Thompson was behind the racket, and he was worried about his safety. Fearing the worst, he locked his family in his basement and called the F.B.I. It wasn't until he found an elk heart on his front porch that he realized Thompson was behind the debacle.

He Had Dogs Who Persistently Dug for Buried Treasure

Thompson preferred to deal with his surplus of cash the old fashioned way — by burying it in the ground. On his farm in Aspen, Colorado, he packed gold Krugerrand coins into ammunition canisters and buried them throughout his yard, determined to keep his pension fund safe from prying hands.

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Photo Courtesy: Alexas_Fotos/Pixabay

The problem with this method? His Dobermans. No matter where Thompson buried the canisters, his duo of strong canines dug up every bit of the treasure. He was so irritated with their behavior that he taped boxing gloves to the dogs' front paws to prevent them from digging.

He Caused a Major Explosion

What does a bored genius do in his spare time? Produce explosions, of course. Once, Thompson and his pals were waiting on a friend who was running late to hang out with them. Suddenly, they got the brilliant idea to fill a tractor tire with flammable gas for fun. Unfortunately, the plan (literally) blew up in their faces.

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His friend Michael Cleverly shared that he "saw a massive orange glow in the sky. Then the concussion hit him...Back at Owl Farm, everyone was flat on their backs. The only one who counted the broken windows was the guy who fixed them."

He Lived with the Hell's Angels Biker Gang

If there was one thing that Thompson took seriously, it was book research. When he began to prepare for writing Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gang, Thompson saw only one reasonable route to becoming informed about the gang — joining them.

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In an interview with Studs Terkel, Thompson shared that he spent a year with the Oakland Hell's Angels. Afterwards, he noted, "The Angels...claim that they don’t look for trouble. They just try to live peaceful lives...but...they go out and put themselves into situations deliberately and constantly that...cause them to avoid humiliation by fighting."

He Was Stranded in Saigon

Although Thompson contributed a plethora of pieces to Rolling Stone early in his career, the magazine and the writer had a falling out in 1976. What was the root of their feud? The magazine left him stranded in war-torn South Vietnam. You read that right — they hung him out to dry in Saigon.

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Photo Courtesy: National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons

Thompson willingly traveled to South Vietnam to report on the fall of Saigon. However, once he touched down, he got the upsetting news that his story had been pulled by publisher Jann Wenner. A furious Thompson was stranded and left to return to the States on his own, with no international healthcare or financial support.

He Almost Killed Bill Murray

In addition to Johnny Depp, one of Thompson's other best buddies was Bill Murray. They bonded over the fact that they both had childish spirits and loved to pull pranks. The two celebrities got themselves into trouble with their jokes at times, and it nearly cost Murray his life in the 1980s.

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Photo Courtesy: Touchstone Pictures/IMDB

One afternoon, Thompson and Murray got drunk, and Thompson decided to duct tape Murray to a chair and drop him into a swimming pool. The intention was for Murray to escape like Houdini, but the untrained actor was obviously unable to escape the restraints. Fortunately, Thompson rescued Murray before he actually drowned.

He Nearly Blew Up Johnny Depp with Dynamite

From exploding a tire to nearly drowning an actor, Thompson doesn't have the greatest track record for safety. The writer often treated the macabre and traumatic as completely normal, finding danger to be interesting rather than upsetting. While living with Thompson, Johnny Depp nearly lost his life to the writer's recklessness.

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Photo Courtesy: TriStar Pictures/IMDb

One day, Depp was seated in Thompson's basement, lighting a cigarette, when he realized he was sitting next to a batch of dynamite. Fortunately, none of the sticks caught fire, yet Thompson hadn't warned him that explosives were sitting under his luxurious home, which was strange to say the least.

He Founded a Journalistic Movement

For all Thompson's journalistic accomplishments, one of the most significant was his formation of a new style of writing dubbed "gonzo journalism." Through his witty, satirical, self-centric reporting, Thompson brought the new form of critique to life. What exactly does gonzo journalism entail?

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It practices pulling the first-person P.O.V. into subjective journalistic pieces, resulting in an opinion-based critique of society or the self. Thompson executed this style in almost everything he wrote. Although many writers since then have attempted to emulate his style, they have all fallen short of the "Godfather of Gonzo Journalism."

He Invented a Bizarre New Sport

It's no secret that Thompson — a lifelong member of the NRA — was a firearms enthusiast. Near the end of his career, he decided to mash his love of firearms with his skillful sports reporting. He ended up detailing the design for a new game for ESPN's magazine: shotgun golf.

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"The purpose of the game is to shoot your opponent's high-flying golf ball out of the air with a finely-tuned 12-gauge shotgun, thus preventing him (your opponent) from...making a ‘hole in one.’ Points are scored by blasting your opponent's shiny new Titleist out of the air and causing his shot to fail miserably."

He Clashed with His Neighbors — Intensely

If you think you have had some bad neighbors, try living next door to someone like Hunter S. Thompson. After moving onto his farm, he made several requests of the local council, including paving the dirt roads so his home wouldn't get dirty. When they refused, he sought revenge on those who resisted his envisioned changes, including his neighbors.

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His squabbles with his fellow homeowners often resulted in intense displays of backlash, including (but not limited to) importing Bengal tigers to scare away trespassers and starting an artificial trout farm in their nearby creek. He even unleashed gunfire near his neighbor's mansion, and he was (obviously) completely unapologetic when caught.

He Skipped the Fight of the Century to Pygmy Hunt

In 1974, Rolling Stone magazine paid for him to travel to Zaire to report on the legendary fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. When he arrived, he promptly gave away his pricey tickets and set off into the forest to search for pygmies, Nazis and ivory.

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While he didn't find any Nazi or pygmies, he did successfully purchase ivory from locals, pretending to be George Foreman's doctor during the exchange. He later returned to his hotel and spent the night drinking. He awoke the next morning with no clue who had won the fight.

He Saved Rolling Stone Magazine

While it's difficult to imagine the publishing world without Rolling Stone, there was a point when the publication almost went under. During the early 1970s, the approach of the magazine began to wane in popularity, causing its sales to suffer. Fortunately, they came across the witty, widely-loved writing of Thompson just in time to save their skin.

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"A year after signing on, [Thompson] produced the articles that became Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1972), a tour de force of pop faction...It sold many copies of Rolling Stone, and it gave Thompson...a permanent running headline," The New Republic shared.

He Wasn't Nixon's Biggest Fan

Of all the critics of Nixon's presidency, Thompson may have been at the top of the list. He frequently jabbed at the president’s ability to lead the country using vulgar and hyper-critical statements. His outspoken hatred was so brutal that Nixon banned Thompson from visiting the White House.

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After his death, Thompson composed a scathing eulogy for Nixon in Rolling Stone, calling him "a political monster straight out of Grendel" and sharing, "My mother hates Nixon, my son hates Nixon, I hate Nixon and this hatred has brought us together."

He Almost Killed His Assistant

When a black bear began to impose on his farmland, Thompson attempted to drive the creature away by firing his shotgun at the animal. Unfortunately, one of his shots accidentally hit his assistant, Deborah Fuller. Of the incident, Thompson shared: "It embarrassed me, and it ruined my safety record."

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Fortunately, there were no hard feelings between Thompson and Fuller. Their local sheriff, Bob Braudis, shared, "Deborah’s mood was stoic. She was smiling and still had her ironic sense of humor. ‘Hunter has threatened to shoot me dozens of times, and now the son-of-a-b***h has!’"

He Landed His First Writing Gig in the Military

In his youth, in order to avoid jail time for robbery, Thompson joined the United States Air Force. Although he pursued an interest in studying electronics during his enlistment, he ultimately turned his attention to a career in writing at Eglin Air Force Base, where he worked as a sports journalist for The Command Courier.

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In order to score the position, he lied about his prior experience on his application. Fortunately, they took a chance on Thompson, and his journalistic career began. He was later honorably discharged, with his commanding officer sharing, "This airman, although talented, will not be guided by policy."

He Is Named After Scotland's Most Famous Surgeon

While Hunter S. Thompson may be the most famous member of his family, he wasn't necessarily the most accomplished. He was named after an ancestor on his mother's side, Nigel John Hunter, who was a renowned surgeon in Scotland. In fact, he was somewhat of a medical rock star.

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In a biography called The Reluctant Surgeon, a Biography of Nigel John Hunter, Hunter was described as "the most important naturalist between Aristotle and Darwin, the Shakespeare of medicine and the greatest man the British ever produced...He prescribed the orthopedic shoe that allowed Lord Byron to walk."

He Has a Son Who Dabbles in Writing

He may not have quite as prolific a career as his father, but Thompson's son, Juan Fitzgerald Thompson, has also tried his hand at writing. Back in 2016, he published a book showcasing the personality, values, hilarity and career of his father entitled Stories I Tell Myself: Growing Up with Hunter S. Thompson.

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Juan wrote the book in response to what he felt the media was failing to explore about his father beyond his gonzo journalism. "I felt this compulsion to point out that there was this other dimension to him, as a person and as a writer," he told The Guardian.