A ‘totally unclassifiable’ life
February 20, 2005
Hunter S. Thompson – everybody, everywhere seemingly knows that name, and what it represents. It’s the name of the original gonzo journalist, a man who challenged the world with his writing and personality to think and act differently, and directed change in Aspen during the “Freak Power” era of the ’60s and early ’70s. But to those who never knew him, exactly who was Hunter S. Thompson? “Just like you read about,” said Thompson’s longtime friend and attorney, Gerald Goldstein. “He was a national treasure, a true American. We were very fortunate to have him live amongst us, but for too brief a time.”
Goldstein, who first met Thompson in 1970 and became his attorney in 1990, said one of Thompson’s most unique qualities was his ability to reach, and influence, all kinds of people. “He seemed, in the strangest of ways, to transmute to every generation … he had something to say that was worth listening to. It didn’t matter if it was my 14-year-old kid or my dad, he was provocative and stimulating,” he said. Born in Louisville, Ky., in 1937, to Jack R. and Virginia Ray Thompson, Thompson ran into trouble with the law in his teens. He attended Male High School in Louisville, where he completed most of his course work but never officially graduated. According to the Thompson web site gonzo.org, he missed graduation because he was in jail after being arrested for robbery. Thompson enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1956 and was honorably discharged a year later. In 1963, he married Sandra Dawn Conklin. A year later, their son, Juan, was born. After a stint in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, Thompson began work on his first book, “Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Motorcycle Outlaw Gang.” In 1967, he moved to Aspen, a year after “Hells Angels” was published, settling at Owl Farm, a fortified compound in Woody Creek.
Thompson spearheaded the campaign to elect Joe Edwards, a 29-year-old bike-racing hippie from Texas, as mayor of Aspen in 1969. Thompson writes about election night in his 1975 book, “The Great Shark Hunt”:”We had run the whole campaign from a long oaken table in the Jerome Tavern on Main Street, working flat out in public so anyone could see or even join if they felt ready … but now, in these final hours, we wanted a bit of privacy; some clean, well-lighted place, as it were, to hunker down and wait … We also needed vast quantities of ice and rum – and a satchel of brain-rattling drugs for those who wanted to finish the campaign on the highest possible note, regardless of the outcome.”The outcome wasn’t what Thompson was looking for, with Edwards losing the election. But a year later Thompson was back at it again, running for Pitkin County sheriff and still pushing the “Freak Power” ticket. He promised to stir up the political and social vibe – which included ripping up the paved streets in town and replacing them with dirt – and alter the minds of the local inhabitants. He narrowly lost.
As Thompson wrote in “The Battle of Aspen,” in Rolling Stone in October 1970, both campaigns were aimed to “create a town where people could live like human beings, instead of slaves to some bogus sense of Progress that is driving us all mad.” A year later, Thompson wrote and released “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” and his career as a writer skyrocketed. But Thompson’s connection to Aspen never faded. Goldstein said he was “the conscience of this village,” referring to Aspen. “He never let you get by easily, he demanded loyalty and insisted that everybody plays by the rules. And he was constantly trying to make the rules better for everybody,” he said. “He wouldn’t let anybody get away with anything, the least of which his best friends … he called you on anything, called anybody on anything, it didn’t matter who you were.”We’re going to miss that voice in the politics of our community.”
His death on Sunday devastated those who knew him best, including Tom Benton, a close friend of 40 years. “He was a fantastic guy, a very creative guy, the best we had,” Benton said tearfully.In a strange twist of fate, Thompson was crushed when he learned that his idol Ernest Hemingway had killed himself in Idaho in 1961.”I think he killed himself because he couldn’t write anymore,” Thompson is quoted as saying in a chapter of Paul Perry’s book titled “Totally Unclassifiable.”
“He couldn’t write, he was too sick to hunt. He just didn’t have it anymore, so he decided to end it.” Steve Benson’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org