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.
Hunter S Thomspon’s suicide note: Football Season Is Over, February 2005
Suicide was never far from Hunter S Thompson’s mind. In his book The Great Shark Hunt, first published 30 years ago, the celebrated journalist and author wrote an introduction which was both alarming and prescient. It was the night before Christmas Eve, 1977. At his typewriter, in a room 28 floors above Fifth Avenue in New York, he imagined going out onto the terrace, leaping "200 yards out into the air”, and landing broken and bloodied in the Plaza Fountain below. “Nobody,” he wrote, “could follow that act.”
At 40, he had already lived and completed the life he planned to live––“13 years longer in fact”––and he wanted to make his feelings clear: “I would genuinely love to make that leap, and if I don’t I will always consider it a mistake and a failed opportunity, one of the very few serious mistakes of my First Life that is now ending.”
On February 20, 2005, in his kitchen at Owl Farm, Colorado, the Fear And Loathing author put one of his favourite guns––a .45 calibre pistol––in his mouth and shot himself through the head. His son, Juan, who was visiting the writer with his wife Jennifer and their young son, Will, described the noise at the time as “a book falling”.
That evening, a blank page was supposedly put in Hunter's typewriter and a wake held with close friends; Hunter’s favourite drink, Chivas Regal, flowed freely while his corpse remained upright in a chair.
The writer’s wife, Anita Thompson, had argued bitterly with him on the eve of his suicide. Hunter had been fooling around indoors with a pellet gun, brandishing it too close to his grandson, Will, for Anita’s comfort. The next day, she threatened to flee, and had vague plans to stay the night at a hotel. His tone during their final phone call––shortly before she entered a yoga class––made her change her mind.
“I was still very angry that he’d pulled out a gun in the house,” she says. “It was a baby gun but he'd never done that before. I mentioned something stupid about going to a hotel and Hunter said, ‘No, I don’t want you to flee, I want you to come home’. He said that we would work on a column together that night.
Juan and Jennifer were supposed to be leaving that hour and Hunter said everything would be back to normal. His voice was so serene and he said some beautiful things to me, so I felt good.”
At the end of their call, rather than hanging up, Hunter placed the phone’s receiver down on the counter, and Anita heard a familiar noise. “I thought the clicking sound I heard was the typewriter, because that was how we often made up,” she says. “Whenever Hunter started writing, our arguments would immediately stop, and that’s what I thought was happening.”
But it wasn’t the typewriter? “No, it was the cocking of the gun,” she says. The official time of death was recorded as 5.42pm, and she had been speaking to Hunter only moments earlier.
The pair had been married for just two years. Thompson–35 years Hunter’s junior, and aged 32 at the time of his death witnessed violent mood swings in the journalist’s final months: he would veer from being “sweet and wonderful” one minute, to “the most angry, confused and vicious person” the next.
Those bouts were getting closer together. Hunter was recovering from back surgery and a broken leg, and was daunted by the prospect of further surgery and the possible consequences, should he lose his mobility, for those around him.
Anita was ill due to a thyroid deficiency and realised that she needed help with her husband. She begged Juan––Hunter’s son from his first marriage to Sondi Wright––to come and visit his father, despite the fact they hadn’t spoken for a year. Three years after the event, she still thinks this was a mistake.
“I regret it because they talked about Hunter’s suicide,” she says. “They made plans for it and of course they kept that from me because I would have intervened.” She claims that Hunter had discussed his suicide with Juan and, shortly before his death, had given him certain heirlooms–– “cups and things”––traditionally passed down on the male side of the Thompson family.
“All these things were going on without me knowing it,” she says. “Hunter had talked about suicide many times in his life but he never had anyone to encourage or support him, and here for the first time he had someone who was not trying to talk him out of it."
Juan’s version of events contradicts this. Interviewed shortly after his father’s suicide, he said that he had known of Hunter’s plans to take his own life “for at least 10 years” and that “it was just a question of when”.
“The way he chose to do it was not a surprise, but the timing was a total, total surprise,” he told reporters. The writer had died, said Juan, “surrounded by his family, at a high point in his life, and with a single, courageous and fatal gunshot wound to the head.
I didn’t expect it to be now, but the means was exactly as we expected. The guy was a warrior, and he went out like a warrior”. Juan’s wife Jennifer, who was in an adjacent room as the gun went off, described her feelings at the time as “a tricky mix of sad. We’re happy for Hunter. This is what he wanted”.
Thompson finds this hard to believe. She says that Hunter was working on several new projects and that his depression constituted a brief, if somewhat severe, “down time”. His suicide “just didn't make any sense”. She thinks Hunter had many years of work left in him, and feels a nagging sense of responsibility for his death. “I can’t be a police-woman,” she says. “But I do have major regrets.”
She still feels waves of anger rolling across her, and beats herself up for not seeing the “signs” in Hunter’s erratic behaviour. In the days and weeks following his suicide, and before Hunter’s ashes were fired from a cannon supplied by his actor friend Johnny Depp, she was a “psychological mess".
Douglas Brinkley, the American writer and historian, would phone Anita with "15 minute projects” to keep her sane. "He would say, ‘You’ve got to call Johnny Depp, he’s crying, and now call Sean Penn, he’s crying too.’ He was sort of guiding me through the first month because I didn’t know what to do.”
Thompson stayed on at Owl Farm in Aspen following the suicide, having been granted the home and its 40 acre property in Hunter’s will. She intends to make the house a research facility and writers’ retreat. Everything is as it was during Hunter’s final days at the property.
He was a believer in the afterlife, she says, in karma, and the idea that “the candle didn’t just go out”. Accordingly, she says she still senses her husband’s spirit.
When the couple met in 1999, she was unfamiliar with Hunter’s work. She was snowboarding in Aspen, working as a nanny, and was introduced to Hunter by a mutual friend. Soon after, she was employed as his "researcher, editor, photocopier and cook”. She had enjoyed the company of older men since childhood, and had never met anyone with Hunter’s vitality––she has described him in the past as a teenage girl trapped in the body of an elderly dope fiend.
He wrote her a note to confess his love; she felt the same way, and the rest was “beyond our control”.
She remembers most fondly that they would go night swimming together, after writing and researching at Owl Farm, at a heated pool in a neighbour’s house, which Hunter had leased from midnight to five in the morning.
“He was like a dolphin in the water,” she says. “It was wonderful swimming with Hunter under the moonlight or just by the light of the stars. He was a great swimmer but also very playful and agile and swift and fun and vivacious in the water.”
There is, she says, something of a battle over the legacy of her dead husband. There are those, like Hunter’s son Juan, who want to see the author firmly established in the academic canon of American literature. She herself contends that her husband was a writer for the people, and not necessarily academics, although his books remain required reading at most American universities. Her own memoir, The Gonzo Way, occupies a steadily filling shelf in bookshops alongside other accounts of the man known most frequently as a “gonzo” journalist.
There are those written by his collaborators, such as the Welsh artist Ralph Steadman, who illustrated Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, among other books, and was Hunter's long-term sidekick; there are those by his former editors and publishers, such as Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone, who supported the writer through years of excess and nearly-missed deadlines.
Hunter’s prodigious drug taking has rendered him less man, in some instances, and more comic book cutout. “I always fear that those people who make money from Hunter’s image as a drug addled Hells Angel reporter have the power and ability to exaggerate that side of Hunter,” she says.
“But I think people will see through that as the decades go by. His legacy will surpass any of the silly caricatures that are on the bookshelves right now.”
He had started “weeding his garden” in the 1990s, she says, freezing out people he had known for many years. “He was very generous in his love and also generous in his abuse,” she adds. “Some of those people are still very bitter and make that very obvious in some of the articles and books."
She is pleased with the forthcoming film Gonzo, by Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney, which is released in the UK next month. It deals with the journalist's heyday in the late 1960s and early 1970s––a period in which he wrote his Fear And Loathing series and incisive interviews with sporting heroes such as Muhammad Ali.
Particular light is shone on Hunter’s savage criticism of President Nixon and the Vietnam War while on the campaign trail with the Democratic contender, George McGovern, in 1972.
Gibney draws parallels in the film between that era of American politics and the George W Bush/Iraq era. Hunter's best pages, according to one of the film’s contributors “captured certain truths about human perversity that will never lose their sting”.
No-one reading or re-reading those pages is likely to disagree. Hunter S Thompson worked best in opposition – stumbling into situations, twisted on drugs and alcohol, and somehow, as an outsider, striking upon stories that defined a generation. If he never regained those literary heights in later life, it’s largely due to his celebrity, one feels, and the weight of expectation placed on his shoulders. He suffered writer’s block for most of the 1990s, but the presidency of George W Bush sparked his most prolific writing period for 15 years.
At times it is devastating, vintage Thompson. In Kingdom Of Fear, he describes Bush Junior as a “whore beast of a false president [who] could actually make Richard Nixon look like a Liberal”. But unlike in his prime, much of the satire in his later work is trumped by flat-out anger and exasperation. His beat was always the death of the American dream, and that joke just wasn’t funny any more.
“We have become a Nazi monster in the eyes of the whole world,” he asserted after 9/11. “A nation of bullies and bastards who would rather kill than live peacefully. We are not just whores for power and oil, but killer whores with hate and fear in our hearts.”
Thompson thinks her husband would have thrown his weight behind Barack Obama, and would have been thrilled with the recent election campaign, although “Hunter’s politics were not as predictable as some people like to think”. She herself wrote columns in support of Hillary Clinton for the news website The Huffington Post, but found her husband’s absence during the campaign “very loud and very painful”.
On election day, she went to vote early, and realised that she was standing at the same desk in the county clerk’s office in Aspen where the couple had married in 2002. “I had such vivid memories of Hunter standing next to me, his smell, the strength in his arms,” she says. It was a crushing reminder that he was no longer there, and that certain pieces of him were disappearing. “The physical memories do fade,” she says. “I had to remember again the exact colour of his hair, his fingernails.”
They had only married at Hunter’s insistence, she says, for fear that she would be frozen out financially by Hunter’s first family in the event of his death. Relations between Anita and Hunter’s son, Juan, are not idyllic by any means, but she wants to keep the peace for the sake of Hunter’s 10-year-old grandson, Will. In what can only be interpreted as a cutting remark to Juan, she says of the boy that “genius skips a generation”.
“He’s such a beautiful kid,” she says. “He’s not just very smart, but also very kind-hearted. I feel so much of Hunter in Will. I want to maintain the peace so that, when he’s old enough to take the reins, he can do so without unnecessary stress. I put all my hope in Will, that he will carry on the good family name.”
There is, though, another option, which Thompson has never before made public. “Hunter and I were always trying to have children,” she says, “but we just never did.” She broke down in tears recently while reading a New York Times article on home birthing, the memories flooding back of the couple’s incomplete family unit.
“Hunter was such a loving person that it would have been a joy to have a family with him,” she says, and then adds, almost casually: “But I could still have his child if I want to.”
As this bombshell resonates, Thompson opens up, clams up, opens up again. There are certain things she wants off the record, specifically the words “frozen sperm”. I respect those wishes, naturally, but, having tried for several days, I genuinely can’t think of any other way to put it. “He left that possibility for me but it’s a long series of ethical questions for me whether I would want to have his child now.”
They made provisions for this eventuality while Hunter was in good health. “Ideally, we said that we would die together in a plane crash,” she says. “That was my ideal, not his. But we knew, because of our 35-year age difference, that he would die and I would still be alive. We had hoped that I would have children and that they would be older by the time Hunter passed away. This [the suicide] was a shock, so I’ve had to re-question everything.”
And so what are the questions, the ethical issues, surrounding a possible heir to the “outlaw” journalist? “Well, would I want to raise the child without Hunter? Children do better with a father, although I think it would be beautiful for Hunter to have another child, as we had tried so many times unsuccessfully. I believe it’s something Hunter would want but at this point in my life I’m a little fearful of making that kind of decision.
"I wouldn’t want to do it as a way of replicating Hunter, of prolonging Hunter, or as a way of filling the void. It’s something I haven’t decided on yet.”
This article was first published in The Sunday Herald, Scotland.