Hunter S. Thompson became a known quantity with the publication of Hell’s Angels (1967), but it wasn’t until he teamed up with Ralph Steadman for the first time that true gonzo journalism was born. A new Last Gasp publication, Who Killed Hunter S. Thompson?, reminds us that we were never the same after that.
“We lost all control of events and spent the rest of the weekend churning around in a sea of drunken horrors.” – Hunter S. Thompson, “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved”
Gonzo journalism was born at the Kentucky Derby in 1970. That is, the first piece of collaborative reportage between Hunter S. Thompson and illustrator Ralph Steadman took place there and then, and from that point on this perfect pairing of talents recalibrated the hippie vision of the 1960s into the nightmarish miasma that was the 1970s.
That first piece, “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” was published by Scanlan’s Monthly in June 1970. Scanlan’s was a short-lived contradiction in terms—an upscale, glossy magazine with a politically radical slant inherited from Ramparts. Warren Hinckle, Scanlan’s coeditor (with Sidney Zion), had previously edited Ramparts, which had folded due to monumental debt incurred and an inability to navigate the fractious world of the “New Left,” whose “purity” tests over progressive bona fides alienated a mass audience that might otherwise have responded to its progressive message (sounds a lot like today, doesn’t it?).
Scanlan’s, which only lasted eight issues, is now revered for its groundbreaking attitude, coined as “gonzo” by one of its contributing editors, Bill Cardoso. Copies of back issues of the magazine now go for hundreds of dollars on collector’s sites and at book fairs, full 8-issue runs for thousands of dollars. [Put your wallets back; all of Thompson’s pieces that ran in Scanlan’s are included, though without Steadman’s artwork, in his easily attainable collection The GreatShark Hunt, Gonzo Papers, Vol. 1]
Though cash-strapped at the time, Scanlan’s Monthly nonetheless paid to send the brash Thompson, whose Hell’s Angels had unexpectedly hit the bestseller lists and given him a national profile, and Steadman, a British satirical cartoonist—well known in the UK for his work with Punch—on a four-day junket to Louisville, Kentucky. Louisville just so happened to be the city where Thompson was born and raised, the Southern gentleman that he was. It was the first time Thompson and Steadman had met, and it was Thompson’s home turf, filled with old friends and demented family members who wanted nothing more than to drink, do drugs and wreak havoc with the now famous writer. Talk about tossing Steadman into a trial by fire.
Ralph Steadman talks about meeting Hunter S. Thompson in Louisville for the first time:
The Kent State massacre had just happened days before the 1970 Kentucky Derby was scheduled, and the Black Panthers were on trial in New Haven during the time of its running, and scenes of violent civic unrest were taking place around the country. These events, though far away from the debaucheries at Churchill Downs, served as the backdrop to Thompson’s musings on the pomp and circumstance of the occasion.
Immediately upon touching down in Louisville—in fact, at the airport bar there—Thompson began spreading rumors that the Black Panthers were going to start a race war at Churchill Downs on the day of the Derby. He also told people he was a photographer from Playboy magazine, though he actually had no press credentials, nor did Steadman. But that did not stop them from forcing their way into the heart and belly of the beast, Thompson armed with his drug stash and cannisters of Mace and Steadman only with pen, ink, sketchpad and booze.
The resultant story contained classic Hunter Thompson tropes like “From that point on, the weekend became a vicious, drunken nightmare.” This was also the first printed use of what would become his patented phrase “fear and loathing,” written in reference to Steadman’s habit of making unflattering drawings of complete strangers, usually while deep in his cups, and then giving them the results. (“The results were always unfortunate…Consequently, he was regarded with fear and loathing by everyone who’d seen or even heard about his work.”) In short, Steadman’s artistry was the perfect visual foil for Thompson’s prose.
All of this is revisited in a handsome, door-stopping volume recently released by Last Gasp—the San Francisco publisher that got its start with underground comix in 1970—called Who Killed Hunter S. Thompson? The by-line for Who Killed Hunter S. Thompson? seems to provide an answer to the question posed: “Many of his Closest Friends & Co-Conspirators.” The whole 530-page package was edited by Warren Hinckle, who contributed a book-length introduction and whom Thompson called “the best conceptual editor I’ve ever worked with.” [Hinckle, sadly, died in August 2016, while the volume was in production].
Among the delights of this Whitman’s Sampler of craziness, in addition to Hinckle’s massive opening narrative, are shorter personal reminiscences of “Adventures With Hunter” by Bill Cardoso, Jerry Brown, Paul Krassner, novelist William Kennedy, Ralph Steadman, Johnny Depp, Tom Wolfe, Wavy Gravy, and Garry Trudeau. The volume also contains Denis Eichhorn’s “What is Gonzo?” cartoon strip, which explains the origins of that term with visual flair and great humor.
Oh wait. Did someone mention the Kentucky Derby? In tribute to one of the greatest steeds to ever run in that vaunted race, we close with this musical recessional.