Jay Cowan’s new book presents Hunter Thompson from another perspective
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN ” Jay Cowan says that his friend, foil and property-mate Hunter S. Thompson would have loved certain aspects of Cowan’s new book about Thompson. He’d have been pacified by the timing: Thompson had ordered Cowan not to write about him while he was alive; Cowan waited a respectable four years after Thompson killed himself before putting his memories and thoughts to the page. And the competitor in Thompson would have gotten a bent pleasure out of the subject matter.
“He’d love the fact that the only book of any consequence I could write was about him,” said Cowan, a 56-year-old resident of Old Snowmass who has one other book to his credit: “The Best of the Alps,” a historical profile of 11 European ski resorts.
It is less clear whether Thompson would have enjoyed another facet of the book: the title, “Hunter S. Thompson: An Insider’s View of Deranged, Depraved, Drugged Out Brilliance.” The alarmingly alliterative name sounds more like a description of a cartoon figure ” say, Uncle Duke, the deranged, etc. political operative from “Doonesbury,” based heavily on Thompson ” than of a living, breathing (snorting, fornicating, shooting, writing) being.
Cowan has disavowed the title, to the point of sending out an e-mail blast specifying that it was the publisher’s choice. His preference: “I’m Not Like the Others,” a favorite Thompson quote of his.
“An Insider’s View” is set for publication on March 3. Local readers get an advance look: The Aspen Book Store, in the Little Nell, will have copies available when the author appears for a book event today from 5-7 p.m. Another event is scheduled for Tuesday, March 10, at Explore Booksellers.
Beyond the title, “An Insider’s View” goes a long way toward fleshing out the legend. Cowan served as caretaker of Thompson’s Owl Farm for most of the years from 1975 to 1988, and as a political junkie, a journalist and a Roaring Fork Valley resident from his teenage years, Cowan got involved in more than seeing that the gutters were kept clear, and that Thompson’s 300-gallon gas tank ” you never knew what emergency was over the hill ” was kept full. There were innumerable confrontations with the law, threats and lawsuits, girlfriends and wives, fights, guns, cocaine and pot and booze and acid, money, and celebrities and hangers-on. Cowan wasn’t just the guy in the cabin next door ” though that would have been cause enough to become entangled in the Owl Farm shenanigans ” but referee, counsel, antagonist, agent and friend.
“Other than the women, there weren’t that many people who got that much time around him,” said Cowan, who has spent most of his career as a freelance writer and is now editor in chief of Aspen Sojourner. (Requisite disclosure: I am a contributing editor of the magazine.) That intimacy is what lured The Lyons Press, the publisher of “An Insider’s View,” to invest in yet another book devoted to a well-examined subject. “The publisher thought the key of it was, I lived 50 yards away from the guy all those years,” he added.
The proximity yields many details, almost all set in the Aspen area, that escaped other biographers. Everyone knows, without having to do a stitch of research, that Thompson was a fiend for guns and explosives. Cowan reveals that, despite his fondness for shooting and the frequency (and often, inappropriateness of these episodes), he was also a curiously awful shot. On the other side of the coin, Thompson ” who began and concluded his career as a journalist covering sports ” not only watched sports avidly, but played them skillfully. He could heave a football an impressive distance; many of his hours in Woody Creek were spent whacking a badminton birdie with Cowan, or playing paddle tennis with his neighbor and benefactor, George Stranahan. No one has touched on Thompson’s sex life as Cowan does; after reading what Thompson told Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis were his biggest regrets in life, a reader might wish the area had remained unexplored.
Cowan gives readers not just a vantage point, and not just scattered factual tidbits. His information comes wrapped in insights and analysis of Thompson’s political instincts, his fragile psyche, his writing and his habits. Cowan’s chapter, “Lawyers, Guns and Money” ” especially the part about Thompson’s penchant for threatening lawsuits while antagonizing his own lawyers ” is novel, and does much to get near the core of Thompson.
I’d always had one unanswered question about Thompson: He lived up the road from a ski resort most of his adult life ” but did he ever ski? Cowan has the answer ” yes, but possibly just once, with ski instructor/house painter Kenny Oakes ” and Cowan uses the occasion to point out several of Thompson’s foibles.
“I was stunned when that happened,” Cowan said of Thompson’s day on the slopes. “I never figured he could get up in time to catch a lift. Just to get him up to play paddle tennis at George Stranahan’s was a feat ” the gear, the everything. I’m guessing he’d probably been up all night, to get on the mountain by noon.”
And there were more dangerous activities, which took place more regularly.
“He used to hate me saying he was a lousy shot,” said Cowan. “But here he was, aiming at a keg with a shotgun ” and he’d miss.
“I didn’t think of Hunter in the Richard Ford pantheon. Ford, Jim Harrison, Thomas McGuane ” the New Yorker considers them ‘men’s men’ writers. I never thought of him that way. But I think he did. One of the things you did if you were a man’s man is, you hunted. But I don’t think anyone ever taught him about guns. And it wasn’t in Hunter’s nature to ask for advice on stuff like that. He wanted you to think he came to it naturally.”
Cowan was a senior at Aspen High School in 1969, when he first met Thompson. A fairly recent transplant then from Wyoming, Cowan was an editor of the school newspaper, To Liberation. He was also active in the effort to get the progressive Joe Edwards elected mayor of Aspen, the first shot in a larger push to clear away the conservative establishment that had run the town for decades. At a strategy meeting, Cowan was heard to say that it was a mistake to assume that every long-hair in town would side with Edwards. Thompson was impressed with the out-of-the-box thinking of the teenage activist. Cowan was simply impressed that any adult ” much less a successful author ” was paying attention.
“When I first met him, I was surprised by everything ” his size, his affability,” said Cowan. “He was one of the best listeners ” and that’s not true of all famous people. I was a kid, 16, and he was listening to me.”
Thompson never lost the ability to surprise Cowan ” but the experience wasn’t always as positive as that first meeting. When Thompson wrote about capturing and torturing a fox that had been bothering his chickens, Cowan was appropriately shocked and dismayed.
“I began to think, ‘What’s the point here?'” he said. “I guess after awhile, the only way you can shock people is, write about having sex with your cat. It’s the stuff that made me think there was a little Southern hillbilly in there. I think maybe he wanted to be sort of a redneck, a good ol’ gun-toting boy.”
Like everyone, Cowan was astonished by the quantity of drugs Thompson consumed, and could handle without catastrophic physical harm. (A major revelation ” or one being treated as such by the publisher’s marketing department ” is Cowan’s estimate that Thompson spent $2 million on cocaine over his 67 years.) But unlike many, Cowan didn’t find this an entirely endearing quality.
“The big thing out there was that fame ruined him. But cocaine ruined him; alcohol ruined him,” said Cowan. “To do more than a thousand words ” that was too difficult. If you were doing the drugs yourself, you could just watch him not be able to finish something. When you’re drinking a bottle of booze a day ” I don’t care how much of a mutant you are, it’s going to catch up to you.”
Cowan, a tall Westerner, a former ski instructor, often went toe-to-toe with Thompson on all sorts of matters: finances, women, the latter’s more attention-grabbing eccentricities. “I tended not to give him much slack. Because he didn’t give anyone else much slack,” he said. Cowan carries that stance into his writing; through “An Insider’s View,” all of Thompson’s tendencies and failings come into view.
The one arena where Cowan’s admiration is unyielding is Thompson’s political sensibilities. Cowan’s favorite Thompson book is “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail,” which he praises for its uncharacteristic focus. And Thompson was never wittier, or more devastatingly insightful than when he was skewering a politician he didn’t like.
“I would go, ‘I can’t believe he just called Hubert Humphrey ‘a treacherous old ward heeler,'” said Cowan. “And the things he said about [Edmund] Muskie ” he destroyed him. Muskie got back from Florida, just about destroyed and Hunter said he looked like ‘a farmer with terminal cancer applying for a loan on next year’s crops.’ He was done. It was over.
“He didn’t go to college. He didn’t write for The Nation. But the man had a political mind and a very sharp political mind. And a very strong sense of morality in that area.”
Like virtually every exploration of Thompson, “An Insider’s View” addresses the question of the character Thompson invented, the pressure he felt to embody that creation, and the desire not to be limited by the caricature. Cowan returns several times to the cartoon character Uncle Duke, and the threats Thompson would send in the direction of “Doonesbury” creator Garry Trudeau.
“No one wants to be a hollow cartoon character,” said Cowan. “Hemingway became a victim of his own press; he had to live down to that persona. And Hunter had to live with that, too ” this guy with the bubbles over his head.”
But Thompson was far from blameless in embracing the caricature and the fame. He’d show up for talks drunk and worse, spar with neighbors, rehash past writings and fret continually about how impossible it had become to simply do his work. For one chapter heading, Cowan uses the line Thompson often used to introduce himself: “My name’s Thompson. I’m in show business.”
Cowan tells about a time he was at the J-Bar with Thompson and Jack Nicholson. The actor was visibly irritated by the attention he was getting. Thompson told Cowan not to be too worried.
“Hunter said, ‘Don’t kid yourself. Famous people want to be recognized. If not, they get nervous,'” recalled Cowan.
“When he started to say he was too famous to do his work well, and to go unnoticed ” well, dude, you’ve been trying to become the story for years.”
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