Friday, September 14, 2007
Last Thursday night, I was one of approximately 40 people who heard Anita Thompson speak at Olsson's bookstore here in D.C. For those who aren't familiar with her, she was married to Hunter S. Thompson for just under two years. Anita, 35 years his junior was there to read from her book, The Gonzo Way, which pays tribute to her husband who took his life on February 20, 2005. They started to write and outline the book together as a work of humor, once carrying the tentative title, "A Woman's Guide to Hunter S. Thompson".
Shelby Sadler, Hunter's editor for many years was in the front row. Anita described her as "this century's closest thing to Lord Henry". Richard Cusick, former editor of High Times, and Keith Straub, the founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, were standing in the back.
Anita and Hunter began the book with the intention to dispel "the impression that if you did a lot coke and drank a lot of wild turkey, you too could write like Hunter S. Thompson. He put a lot of thought and a lot of work" into every piece. Their collaboration was a rarity, with one of the finest exceptions being, The Lion and the Cadillac, a response to the work of Jack Kerouac.
Anita stood at a podium in the midst of the Children books section, with two books in particular facing out to the audience, for no intended reason, that's just how the shelves were situated that day. Titanic and Jokelopedia. They seem to do a decent job at summing up Hunter's life. Compelled by the freedom to laugh and fly high and tromp through the world with his funny bone always left intentionally exposed. But there was also the impending doom, and not just any doom, but one that when it came upon him, was catastrophic beyond compare. The pendulum.
She began by raising one of Hunter's favorite topics, that of "fear". While Jack Kerouac and Hunter did not have an especially close friendship, she said, they shared an understanding and need for freedom and found that freedom through writing, "the only profession you can do what you want and make a living." As she described it, Hunter always thought of fear as the anti-freedom and security as the opposite of freedom. His classic, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was "a 300 page argument for freedom in the face of fear," she said. She then opened the floor for questions, ending with, "My life is the polar opposite of safe, and I love it."
The first question came from a young man who had briefly interviewed Hunter some years ago and recalled that when asked about his feeling towards Kerouac, Hunter replied, "He's a drunken asshole!...but he taught me how to get away with it."
In the 1970's Hunter launched into the national spotlight with his Rolling Stone articles. He chose the magazine, not because he had any special affinity for it as a publication, but because he saw it as the best conduit to reach America's “very powerful voting block," according to Anita. When asked about Hunter's lengthy hiatus from writing, Anita said, "He did take a long breath, didn't he.” When Hunter did eventually come back to writing articles, he chose ESPN for the exact same reason, he could reach a core chunk of America.
Hunter never gave up on America, no matter how bad the times seemed. "Don't mistake anger for pessimism," she said. He thought "people could do a lot more, and I think he's right." Adding, "He was a bedrock patriot. He loved his country."
Hunter would write for 17-18 hours straight when he was younger, Anita said. "First and foremost, he was a writer." He would start his day with a routine, which served as a meditation of sorts for him to help get the blood flowing. He would eat elaborate breakfasts with cornbeef hash, eggs, orange juice, chivas on the rocks, grapefruit juice and coffee. And then he would dive into his "input", newspapers, television, which remained on, day and night, phone calls, which would continue all day long. Then around 10pm he would start writing, with his best writing coming between the hours of 2am and 4am or 2am and 6am, which was perfect because his ESPN deadline was at 8am. Regarding deadlines, Hunter would say, "Drugs no excuse, booze no excuse." A deadline is a deadline. So, Anita would take his typewriter-written copy, transcribe it and send it on, via email. Hunter resisted technology, even an electronic typewriter, because he thought, "it would speed it (the writing process) up, he would think less, and crap would come out. And he liked the idea of an original manuscript."
One of the only modernizations Hunter used was the fax machine. "He had a deep affection and appreciation for Keith Richards," Anita said. It was to Richards that Hunter could send the craziest, most beautiful and interesting faxes and he would actually understand it.
When asked about modern personages who Hunter appreciated, Anita responded that he like Eminem for his "courage" and he would listen to Dolly Parton's Silver Dagger over and over.
"Hunter didn't want anyone to act like anyone else, which is why he never recommended his lifestyle to anyone else," she said.
When Anita first met Hunter, she didn’t really know who he was. "He was just a guy I had a crush on. I didn't know his work. I just knew that he knew a lot about football and was a writer."
About Woody Creek, where the couple lived, she said to come visit and you would "see why he didn't like to travel much." And that he realized that "he could reach more people is he stayed at home and worked."
Then I asked her a question: "Aside from the writing process, what do you think you taught Hunter?"
She paused, smiled the kind of slow, corner of the mouth twitch that turns into a grin smile, the type where you can tell someone's gone back into a museum of memories, and then she said, "Nobody's ever asked me that." She said she helped him keep his curiosity alive and keep the fun in his life. She said he would always say that he was "a teenage girl trapped in the body of an elderly dope fiend." And she said that she steadily reminded him that he was a writer and that writer's were supposed to write.
She said Hunter appreciated excellence, and it didn't matter what it was you were excellent at. He liked to surround himself with the best criminals, the best writers, the best cops, just so long as you exhibited excellence in what you did.
"He said, everyone fumbles, it just matters if you recover," she said.
His life was based on love. While she doesn't agree with his decision, she believes that it was out of love that he took his life. Hunter had been talking about suicide since he was 22-years old, his favorite age.
All quotes are from Anita Thompson.