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HUNTER S. THOMPSON | 1937-2005

New Journalism's Dark Prince

February 22, 2005|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

The suicide of Hunter S. Thompson, the best-selling writer who pioneered an extravagant form of participatory journalism famously labeled "gonzo," brought to a sober close an era of print journalism rooted in the raucous 1960s.

Unlike other practitioners of the so-called New Journalism, Thompson, who died Sunday, was a full-fledged participant in his stories, which explored the dark recesses of the American dream.

Whether he was running with the Hells Angels to chronicle the biker lifestyle or creating genuine "fear and loathing" by running wild through Las Vegas, he wrote eloquent rants that were fueled not only by alcohol and the most potent hallucinogens of the day, but by the suspicions and sensibilities that undergirded the counterculture movement. He was its fierce and funny bard.

"He was the greatest comic writer in the English language in the 20th century," Tom Wolfe, the icon of literary journalism to whom Thompson was often favorably compared, told The Times on Monday. "He not only wrote about but personified the wild personal freedom that began in the 1960s. He celebrated the druggie madness and soared with it .... He was something totally new in journalism and in literature."

Gay Talese, another trailblazer of the New Journalism, said Thompson was a writer "of the moment."

"He caught the fact that you could catch something of the [country's] madness that wasn't particularly historically important but was of the moment," Talese told The Times. "He was one of the first writers of the '60s who was part of the literary celebrity culture who did his song and dance not to any particular rhythm but his own."

Thompson took pride in being the wild man of American journalism.

"As a journalist, I somehow managed to break most of the rules and still succeed," he told biographer William McKeen. "It's a hard thing for most of today's journeymen journalists to understand, but only because they can't do it."

Thompson, who was caricatured by cartoonist Garry Trudeau in the comic strip "Doonesbury" as the sleazy Uncle Duke and portrayed in movies by Johnny Depp and Bill Murray, died of a gunshot wound to the head at his 100-acre farm outside Aspen, Colo., on Sunday night. He was 67.

Joe di Salvo, director of investigations for the Pitkin County, Colo., Sheriff's Department, said Monday that officials had no information on what might have led the writer to take his own life. Friends of Thompson said he had been in pain from back surgery and an artificial hip, but that they had observed no dramatic change in his behavior in the days before he killed himself.

"He lived longer than any of us expected already," Rolling Stone magazine founder and Publisher Jann Wenner, alluding to the drugs and other excesses that had left the writer in poor physical health, said in a statement Monday.

Wenner, who helped seal Thompson's reputation as an authentic voice of the counterculture when he granted him license to develop "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" as a Rolling Stone article, said Thompson was "part of [the magazine's] DNA. I feel I've lost a brother in arms."

Thompson established himself as an original voice with the 1966 publication of "Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga." An investigative work for the Nation magazine that profiled the biker group from inside its outlaw ranks, it was later released as a book that became a runaway hit, selling more than 2 million copies.

Of his 18 books, the most famous was "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," published in 1972. Told through drug-hazed eyes, it was a tale of his trip to the fabled gambling town to cover a motorcycle race and a convention of drug enforcement officials.

The resulting story barely concerned either event but probed in depth a state of mind -- not just Thompson's but that of a generation wistful for the freer-spirited decade just passed. He captured the heaviness of the mood in the phrase "fear and loathing," which became part of the American vocabulary.

Eccentric would be too mild a term to describe the legendary journalist. When he gave guest lectures, "they weren't really lectures," said Wolfe, who was a friend and admirer. "They were happenings, whether Hunter was throwing a glass of whiskey through a window from the lectern or being at the lectern incoherent."

At a book party several years ago, Thompson greeted guests, Wolfe included, by bonking them on the head with a fake mallet.

He blurred the line between fiction and reality not only in his writing but in his life. He was fond, for instance, of calling his home a "fortified compound," which invoked images of barricades and barbed wire. Although he kept a dozen or more guns and enjoyed firing them, he generally shot at an array of iron gongs mounted on a hillside at his spread in Woody Creek, a few miles outside Aspen.

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