The Five Most Gonzo Stories About Hunter S. Thompson
Terrorizing Jack Nicholson, nearly blowing up Johnny Depp, and more.
A rejection letter that Hunter S. Thompson sent to a prospective Rolling Stone contributor recently popped up online, and it got us thinking about the man, the myth, and the possibly apocryphal pile of stories surrounding his legend. Beyond the stomping by Hell's Angels, beyond the legendary Vegas bender, here are five of the good Doctor's finest moments.
1. He invented the sport of shotgun golf.
The story: Thompson was an avid sportsman and firearm enthusiast, so he was almost duty-bound to combine the two at some point in his life. Enter shotgun golf, first conceived with Bill Murray (of course) at 3:30 in the morning on a Tuesday, then written up for Thompson's last column for ESPN. The equipment list is short and sweet: golf club, golf ball, shotgun. (Preferably a 12-gauge.) The participants are a shooter, a golfer, and a judge, though the game can be expanded for two-man teams. The objective is simple: if you're golfing, you need to make it onto the green. If you're shooting, you need to blast your opponent's golf ball into oblivion. Two points are awarded for success on either end. Thompson played the first game with Aspen Sheriff Bob Braudis… and then John Cusack played a round with him after somehow being coerced (or bullied) into stealing Don Henley's car.
Likelihood that it actually happened: The game? It's real — people still play it. As for Cusack stealing Henley's car? I'd like independent clarification from Henley about that. I'll say it's possible, but only because Thompson must have seen something in Cusack.
Gonzo quotient: "Shotgun golf" is a profound melding of high and low culture, though it's unlikely Thompson had post-modern aesthetics on his mind when he called Bill Murray in the middle of the night. But nothing involving golf can be truly that badass, so this falls relatively low on the scale.
2. He used crates of dynamite as furniture, almost blowing up Johnny Depp in the process.
The story: Johnny Depp lived with Thompson for a while to get his mannerisms down for the film version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. His quarters were down in Thompson's basement, and apparently they were hastily assembled out of whatever was handy at the time: Depp recalls going to ash his cigarette into an ashtray on his bedside table and then casually noticing that the table itself was a crate of dynamite. He called Thompson down to the basement and asked if the dynamite was real; Thompson replied, "Good God, Colonel [his nickname for Depp]! You could have blown us all to bits!" Explosions seemed par for the course during the tenure of Depp and Thompson's friendship. Their relationship began with Depp blowing up propane tanks in Thompson's yard, and ended with the actor bankrolling Thompson's request to have his ashes shot out of a cannon.
Likelihood that it actually happened: Multiple parties have confirmed Thompson's love of explosions, and a police search of his compound at Owl Creek did turn up several sticks of dynamite at one point, so I'm going to go with "likely."
Gonzo quotient: The fact that Thompson had so much dynamite simply lying around his home that he actively misplaced a crate of it is indicative of how much the man loved to blow shit up. Johnny Depp living in his basement like some kind of wacky sitcom roommate only adds to the gonzoness.
3. He terrorized Jack Nicholson on his birthday.
The story: Thompson's birthday celebration for his friend Jack Nicholson consisted of the following, outlined in his book Kingdom of Fear: "a massive outdoor amplifier, a tape recording of a pig being eaten alive by bears, a 1,000,000-watt spotlight, and a 9-mm Smith & Wesson semiautomatic pistol with teakwood handles and a box of high-powered ammunition." Oh, and a frozen elk's heart, which he left on the actor's doorstep while he played the tape through his Jeep and the amplifier, and let off a couple rounds from the Smith & Wesson.
Likelihood that it actually happened: This one's confirmed and corroborated by both Jack Nicholson and his then-partner, Anjelica Houston.
Gonzo quotient: Considering Nicholson had just had a brush with an actual stalker and was home with his two young daughters at the time, this might fall a little to the "jerk" side of the gonzo scale.
4. He autographed books by shooting them.
The story: Writer Douglas Brinkley describes taking a group of students to meet Thompson at Owl Creek. Though some of the students voiced their concern that Thompson might spike their drinks with LSD (possible, though that was probably more of a Ken Kesey move), Thompson had other plans. He had the students line up one by one, propping the copies of his books they'd brought for autographs up against a tree, then using his .44 Magnum to blast a hole through each book. The ritual was completed in near-silence: Thompson's only utterances were "Next!" and (in Brinkley's words) "the occasional primal scream to keep everybody on high alert."
Likelihood that it actually happened: I've only heard this memory recounted by Brinkley, so it's possible that it was a one-time thing Thompson cooked up for what he must've seen as a bunch of wet-behind-the-ears writing students. But the story seems to be on the level. Physical evidence will have to wait until one of those bullet-riddled books goes up on eBay.
Gonzo quotient: Imagine you're a young Thompson fan. Then imagine Thompson blowing a hole through your treasured, dog-eared copy of your favorite book with a massive handgun. The philosophical implications of shooting holes in your own work are interesting, but Thompson probably just enjoyed playing with guns more than signing autographs. Still — pretty gonzo.
5. He turned a fire extinguisher on Jann Wenner.
The story: One night, while staying at Owl Creek, a pot-addled Wenner failed to pay as much attention to a Joni Mitchell album as Thompson wanted him to. Thompson elected to wake him up by discharging a fire extinguisher at Wenner, who awoke coughing and blinded by the spray. Wenner was often on the receiving end of Thompson's "pranks," to give a kind name to what was often closer to sadism. A now-famous Annie Leibovitz photograph (above) depicts Thompson engaging in one of his favorite party tricks: spitting fire. Hunter called his pyromaniacal tendencies toward Wenner "the ultimate ambition every writer has about his editor."
Likelihood that it actually happened: There's photographic evidence of the fire-spitting. The extinguisher story could just be an invention — but at this point, does it really sound like one?
Gonzo quotient: Considering that Wenner was one of Thompson's biggest champions and his technical boss, and kept him on the Rolling Stone masthead long after Thompson stopped contributing to the magazine, the fact that Thompson continually assaulted him is pretty gonzo. (That said, these days, rare is the Rolling Stone issue that I open that doesn't conjure in me the urge to set Wenner on fire.)