February 22, 2005,
Fear and Loathing
My night with Hunter Thompson.
Hunter Thompson shot himself in the head sometime on Saturday and a few things are certain. He was either stoned or hung over, and his work will be forgotten.
Ask almost anyone today about Hunter Thompson and he will have no idea who you are talking about. Ask someone in a tiny sliver of demography, say ages 45 to 55, and all sorts of memories come conjuring up. There is the revelation of at least what we thought was his amazing ability with words, though I have not read him for years, so I no longer know if this is true. Even more than his work, however, we recall his comic-outlaw persona which many of us found quite appealing in those days. But the funny thing is that most of our memories come not from his work or even from him but from the seeming dead-on impression of Thompson by Bill Murray in the movie Where the Buffalo Roam, a period piece cobbled together from Thompson's most famous books, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail.
The Thompson schtick was as formally set as any Hope and Crosby road movie; Thompson, the comic yet brilliant journalistic bumbler is sent as the skunk to the garden party where he promptly drinks all the scotch, all the gin, all the tequila, gets the waitresses stoned, frightens the horses, shocks the local burghers and constabulary, and still turns in award-winning copy to his faraway editors in San Francisco or New York.
It is a blessing that his work is not now still terribly well-known for he was a net negative influence on an entire generation. His famous aphorism, "When the going gets tough, the weird turn pro" was the font of more ruined GPAs than any other single source back in the 1970s. "When the going gets tough, the weird turn pro" meant that you could stay up all night doing every manner of substance and in the few milky hours between sunrise and the start of morning classes churn out a master term paper. Almost all of us discovered this was not true. Some, like Hunter himself, never learned it.
Hunter's life was littered with young "handlers" many sent from Rolling Stone to keep him on schedule. More than one crashed and burned living so close to the insanity. I worked briefly at Rolling Stone in the mid-Eighties and remained close to many Rolling Stone types for years after. All the stories you ever heard about Hunter were true. Hunter would come to town to finish a piece, hole up on a local hotel, borrow a Selectric typewriter from the magazine, and proceed to get stoned for days on end. Once a friend of mine was sent at long last to pick up the typewriter and discovered it in the hotel bathtub covered in topsoil. Go figure.
Here is my one Hunter story and with this I say goodbye to Senate confirmation. Sometime around 1990 Hunter and Jann Wenner, founder and editor-in-chief of Rolling Stone, were invited to speak at Columbia University. I sensed at that time that Hunter was on the downward slide and this could be his last hurrah and so I agree to tag along. I decide at the top of the evening to stay until the end of the end wherever that might lead.
Our small group meets in the green room at Columbia. We stand around slugging from a bottle of Chivas Regal. Around and around the bottle goes. Of course, Hunter is well ahead of us, having started much earlier. We stumble upstairs for the speech.
The hall is filled to the rafters, I mean absolutely filled. Hunter and Jann sit at a table center stage. Hunter slurs and slurs, and slugs from the Chivas and hacks up oranges with a huge machete. At one point Jann, wearing natty French cuffs, is lustily booed for being a corporate sell out. Hunter keeps passing the only bottle of scotch through the stage curtain to those of us backstage. "Speech" over, we head cross town to Elaine's, the longtime watering hole of New York writers and Hollywood outriders.
Keeping with my pledge to ride this pony right down to the ground, I plant myself right next to Hunter at our table of now about ten. We are all pretty drunk, but Hunter is wasted. Still he orders about five courses and eats every morsel. He even eats all the bread, which he heavily butters and covers with pepper. I try to engage him in conversation and I swear hardly the only words I understand are "Nixon," "Peru," and "acid." Along with everything else, Hunter is tripping.
At one point Hunter leans over to me and says something on the order that he is going to the bathroom and there is a guy staring at him from the bar and that I am to watch his back. "Errrr, O.K., Hunter." Hunter gets up and heads to the men's room, Jann follows him and sure enough the guy at the bar gets up and follows them both. I join the parade and when I round the turn I see this: The guy from the bar is leaning his full weight on the men's room door, bending it so far back I can see Jann understandably cowering inside. So, I grab the guy and pull him away from the door and back down the hallway. The whole bar descends on the cacophony in that tight little hallway; bartenders, waiters, patrons. Hunter comes out of the men's room, comes up to the guy and the guy says this, really loud; "I just wanted to get stoned with you, man."
The hallway clears, they take the guy back to the bar (they don't toss him out; Elaine's is a remarkably forgiving place), and Hunter grabs me and pulls me into the lady's room whereupon he pulls out a huge bag of cocaine. "It's not very good," he says, "but there is a lot of it." Thankfully, almost immediately Tommy-the-good-bartender yanks us out of the lady's room and puts us back at our table.
I do not remember much of the rest of the evening except that I am the last one to clear out; well, me, Hunter, and his "secretary." It is the weeist of hours. Hunter's limousine takes us downtown. He pulls up somewhere on Central Park South. Hunter gets out and weaves along the sidewalk, scotch bottle in one hand, "secretary" in the other. I yell out to him, "Hunter, where are you going?" "Take the limo," he says, "He'll take you wherever you want to go..."
I slump against the window as the car takes me the few blocks to my Upper West Side apartment. The morning joggers are jogging. People are walking briskly to work. The trash trucks are making that beeping sound that is joyful first thing in the morning but deeply depressing at the end of night. One cannot do this thing too many times or for too long and Hunter did both, and now he has a bullet in his brain.
Requiescat in pace, dude.
Austin Ruse is president of the New York-based Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute and the Washington, D.C.-based Culture of Life Foundation. He spent many years in the New York magazine world.