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Hunter S. Thompson, the hard-living writer who inserted himself into his accounts of America’s underbelly and popularized a first-person form of journalism in books such as “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” has committed suicide.
Thompson was found dead Sunday in his Aspen-area home of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound, sheriff’s officials said. He was 67. Thompson’s wife, Anita, had gone out before the shooting and was not home at the time. His son, Juan, found the body.
Thompson “took his life with a gunshot to the head,” the wife and son said in a statement released to the Aspen Daily News. The statement asked for privacy for Thompson’s family and, using the Latin term for Earth, added, “He stomped terra.”
Neither the family statement nor Pitkin County sheriff’s officials said whether Thompson left a note. The sheriff and the county coroner did not immediately return telephone messages Monday.
Besides the 1972 classic about Thompson’s 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.
The rise of ‘gonzo journalism’
Thompson is credited alongside Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese with helping pioneer New Journalism — or, as he dubbed his version, “gonzo journalism” — in which the writer made himself an essential component of the story.
Thompson, whose early writings mostly appeared in Rolling Stone magazine, often portrayed himself as wildly intoxicated as he reported on such figures as Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.
“Fiction is based on reality unless you’re a fairy-tale artist,” Thompson told The Associated Press 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.”
Thompson also wrote such collections as “Generation of Swine” and “Songs of the Doomed.” His first ever novel, “The Rum Diary,” written in 1959, was first published in 1998.
Thompson was a counterculture icon at the height of the Watergate era, and once said Nixon represented “that dark, venal, and incurably violent side of the American character.”
Thompson also 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 Johnny Depp in a film adaptation of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”
‘We were somewhere around Barstow ...’
That book, perhaps Thompson’s most famous, begins: “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”
Other books include “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.”
“He may have died relatively young but he made up for it in quality if not quantity of years,” Paul Krassner, the veteran radical journalist and one of Thompson’s former editors, told The Associated Press by phone from his Southern California home.
“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,” quipped Krassner, founder of the leftist publication The Realist and co-founder of the Youth International (YIPPIE) party.
“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,” he said. “They were willing to risk all of his irresponsible behavior in order to share his talent with their readers.”
The writer’s compound in Woody Creek, not far from Aspen, was almost as legendary as Thompson. He prized peacocks and weapons; in 2000, he accidentally shot and slightly wounded his assistant trying to chase a bear off his property.
Born July 18, 1937, in Kentucky, Hunter Stockton Thompson served two years in the Air Force, where he was a newspaper sports editor. He later became a proud member of the National Rifle Association and almost was elected sheriff in Aspen in 1970 under the Freak Power Party banner.
Thompson’s heyday came in the 1970s, when his larger-than-life persona was gobbled up by magazines. His pieces were of legendary length and so was his appetite for adventure and trouble; his purported fights with Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner were rumored in many cases to hinge on expense accounts for stories that didn’t materialize.
It was the content that raised eyebrows and tempers. His book on the 1972 presidential campaign involving, among others, Edmund Muskie, Hubert Humphrey and Nixon was famous for its scathing opinion.
Working for Muskie, Thompson wrote, “was something like being locked in a rolling box car with a vicious 200-pound water rat.” Nixon and his “Barbie doll” family were “America’s answer to the monstrous Mr. Hyde. He speaks for the werewolf in us.”
Humphrey? Of him, Thompson 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 approach won him praise among the masses as well as critical acclaim. Writing in The New York Times in 1973, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt worried Thompson might someday “lapse into good taste.”
“That would be a shame, for while he doesn’t see America as Grandma Moses depicted it, or the way they painted it for us in civics class, he does in his own mad way betray a profound democratic concern for the polity,” he wrote. “And in its own mad way, it’s damned refreshing.”