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A True Picture of Gonzo Greatness

November 30, 1998|IRENE LACHER

This is the first installment of Out & About's Believe It or Not: Hunter S. Thompson actually had a mother. We can prove it. We have a witness.

"I went to see his mama," says Thompson's gonzo illustrator, Ralph Steadman, "and she was a wonderful woman, 92, still drinking bourbon and smoking."

So that was her secret to longevity. Thompson's mother, who will hereafter be referred to as Thompson's mother, appears in full flower in Steadman's latest art 'n' words book, "Gonzo: The Art" (Harcourt Brace). After meeting her five months before her death in the spring, Steadman immortalized Thompson's mother as a feathered-hat-wearing, barracuda-chinned motorist cruising through the desert with Thompson's father beneath a bat-filled sky.

Steadman was taking his life in his hands in the process, as it turned out.

"That's unforgivable," Thompson barked to Steadman. "That's the worst thing you've ever done. That's a filthy habit of yours, anyway, drawing pictures of people and making them look hideous. Why is everyone so hideous in your [bleeping] pictures?"

We didn't realize Thompson was so delicate. After all, you know him as the father of gonzo journalism, that drinking, drugging, fisticuffing brand of high-wire reportage he pioneered 30 years ago with such gonzoid classics as "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas."

And now, lo these many brawls later (Thompson's, that is), Steadman is signing his name to the gonzo legacy.

"I have gonzotic frenzy," Steadman says, "so I thought I should put that together as a book. You know, there's gonzo art as well as gonzo literature, gonzo journalism, and I should stake my claim for my part of it."

"Gonzo: The Art" is a screaming vortex of drawings of a four-eyed horse goddess, the Kentucky Derby, God, haggis and the like, just the thing to flip through over a breakfast of muffins (mine) and prune juice (his). Steadman is going toe-to-toe with us at West Hollywood's Sunset Marquis, where he's staying so he can shill his book and prints at Every Picture Tells a Story in L.A. and around town.

Alongside Thompson, the English artist stalked the derby, the Watergate hearings, the 1972 Republican convention in Miami, and the rumble-in-the-jungle Muhammad Ali-George Foreman fight in Zaire. Thompson treasured the memory by slapping down $300 in American Express traveler's checks for two elephant tusks.

"It was a hell of a business getting them on board the plane, but Hunter loved those tusks. And then in New York, they were confiscated. He was mortified by this and angry as well, and so we found a bar."

The gonzo war room.

"I stayed with all our luggage by the airport bar, and he went off to the customs shed. He saw the tusks through a door and took a flying leap over the examining table. He picked up the tusks like a football and shoved them straight underneath the bags where I was sitting."

Thompson dashed off, trailed by two Customs officials, then ducked into a phone booth. He finally stashed the tusks on a plane to Aspen, Colo., and later enthroned them over his fireplace. Rather gonzotic of him, don't you think?

Oh, yes. Customs did manage to track him down by mail. They still wanted their $28 in import duty.

"He doesn't listen sometimes," Steadman says. Thank God a picture says a thousand words.

Irene Lacher's Out & About column runs Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays on Page 2.

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