HUNTER S Thompson, the hard-living writer who chronicled the darker side of American life in books such as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, has committed suicide.
He was found dead from a gunshot wound to the head at his home in Aspen, Colorado, on Sunday. He was 67. His wife, Anita, was not at home and his body was found by his son, Juan.
Apart from the 1972 classic about his visit to Las Vegas, he also wrote Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72. The central character in those wild, sprawling satires was "Dr Thompson", a snarling, drug- and alcohol-crazed observer and participant.
Thompson is credited, along with Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese, with pioneering New Journalism - or, as he dubbed his version, "gonzo journalism" - in which the writer made himself an essential part of the story.
The writer, whose early work appeared mainly in Rolling Stone magazine, was the model for Garry Trudeau’s balding "Uncle Duke" in the comic strip Doonesbury. He was portrayed on screen by Bill Murray in Where The Buffalo Roam and by Johnny Depp in a film adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. That book, perhaps his most famous, begins: "We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold."
Thompson often portrayed himself as wildly intoxicated, while he reported on such figures as Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. "Fiction is based on reality unless you’re a fairytale artist," he said in 2003.
"You have to get your knowledge of life from somewhere. You have to know the material you’re writing about before you alter it."
He also wrote collections such as Generation of Swine and Songs of the Doomed. His first novel, The Rum Diary, written in 1959, was published in 1998.
Thompson was a counter- culture icon in the Watergate era, and once said Nixon represented "that dark, venal, and incurably violent side of the American character".
His book on the 1972 presidential campaign involving Edmund Muskie, Hubert Humphrey and Nixon, was famed for scathing opinions.
Working for Muskie "was something like being locked in a rolling box-car with a vicious 200lb water rat." Nixon and his "Barbie doll" family were "America’s answer to the monstrous Mr Hyde. He speaks for the werewolf in us". Of Humphrey, he wrote: "There is no way to grasp what a shallow, contemptible and hopelessly dishonest old hack Hubert Humphrey is until you’ve followed him around for a while."
The novelist Paul Theroux once wrote: "I think Thompson has remained a writer of significance, because, essentially a satirist, he has displayed an utter contempt for power - political power, financial power, even showbiz juice."
Thompson’s other books included The Great Shark Hunt, Hell’s Angels and The Proud Highway. His most recent effort was Hey Rube: Blood Sport, the Bush Doctrine, and the Downward Spiral of Dumbness.
Paul Krassner, one of Thompson’s former editors, said: "He may have died relatively young but he made up for it in quality if not quantity of years.
"It was hard to say sometimes whether he was being provocative for its own sake or if he was just being drunk and stoned and irresponsible. But every editor that I know, myself included, was willing to accept a certain prima-donna journalism in the demands he would make to cover a particular story. They were willing to risk all of his irresponsible behaviour to share his talent with readers."
Thompson’s home compound in Woody Creek was almost as legendary as he was. He prized peacocks and weapons, and in 2000 he accidentally shot and wounded his assistant trying to chase a bear off his property.
Born Hunter Stockton Thompson, he served for two years in the US air force and was stationed in Florida, where he was sports editor of the base newspaper. He later joined the National Rifle Association and was almost elected sheriff in Aspen in 1970.
His heyday came in the 1970s. His magazine pieces were of legendary length and so was his appetite for trouble. His purported fights with Jann Wenner, the Rolling Stone editor, were rumoured in many cases to hinge on expenses for stories that didn’t materialise.
Corruption of the American Dream fuelled angry power
I MET Hunter Thompson at the Woody Creek Tavern in Colorado. I was playing backgammon with the barmaid when he walked in, and she offered to introduce me.
I ended up at Owl Farm, the ranch in the hills he shared with his beloved guns and peacocks. He smoked grass out of a human skull pipe, and spoke in a voice so broken by abuse that it was hard to understand him when he said to his assistant: "This guy’s checking me out. Maybe we ought to shoot him in the head."
The obituaries will say he was famous for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but some of the other books are better. Hell’s Angels is a terrifying piece of writing, and it was his political journalism that proved the most influential, especially Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, covering George McGovern’s ill-fated 1972 presidential run against Nixon.
It was clear that Thompson was no hippie. Influenced by the Beats, he entered the 1970s angry and engaged. He ran as sheriff of Aspen in an effort to "throw the fat-cat developers out of town" and almost won.
The trouble with Thompson is that it isn’t very sophisticated to be in awe of him. He turned out to be everything I had imagined and more, speaking with passion about freedom, and a visceral hatred for the "low-rent punks" who corrupt the American Dream. He was a symbol, especially now, of a far better country.