Hunter S. Thompson, the “gonzo” journalist and novelist, died at his Colorado compound at 5:42 in the afternoon of February 20, 2005, of a single self-inflicted gunshot to the head. At the time, he was on the phone with his wife, who had gone to the gym in town. Thompson’s son, daughter-in-law and young grandson, who were visiting for the weekend, were in the next room.
At 67 Thompson was in declining health, suffering from depression and in severe pain. Decades of heavy drinking and drug use were catching up to him. At the time of his death he was unable to walk unassisted and was using a wheelchair.
A few days earlier Thompson had written a note titled “Football Season is Over,” which his family interpreted as a suicide note:
“No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun — for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax — This won’t hurt.”
Six months after his death Thompson got one of his last wishes. His friend Johnny Depp, who played him in the movie version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, spent 3 million dollars to have a 15 story-tall tower built to have Thompson’s ashes shot into the sky from a cannon amid fireworks on the grounds of Owl Creek, his Colorado compound.
Thompson was born in Kentucky and never finished high school. He did some jail time for robbery before joining the Air Force. After his honorable discharge he travelled extensively across the United States and found a job on a newspaper in Puerto Rico.
He arrived in San Francisco in 1961 when the Beat scene was in full bloom. Thompson was captivated by the counterculture movement (not least of it, it’s drug culture) and began writing for various Bay Area magazines.
He spent a year immersed in the world of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang and wrote his first book (Hell’s Angels in 1967) about that experience.
Thompson found his real niche when he began writing for Jann Wenner’s Rolling Stone magazine, then headquartered in San Francisco. Wenner indulged Thompson in all sorts of excesses in his writing as well as in his expense accounts.
His writing for Rolling Stone introduced the concept of gonzo journalism, where the writer becomes a major part of the story and drug infused fantasies abound. His big breakthrough was Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in 1971, with its famous opening lines:
“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like ‘I feel a bit light-headed; maybe you should drive…’ And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats.”
Toward his later years Thompson’s output became more erratic and he often missed deadlines or had contracts cancelled altogether. His mental and physical health were both precarious, yet he continued to say, “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.”