Rolling Stone at 50: How Hunter S. Thompson Became a Legend

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“Editing Hunter required stamina,” recalled Jann Wenner. “But I was young, and this was once in a lifetime.” Arthur Grace/Zuma

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In January 1970, Hunter S. Thompson wrote Jann S. Wenner a letter praising Rolling Stone‘s definitive coverage of the disastrous Altamont festival. “[Print’s] a hell of a good medium by any standard, from Hemingway to the Airplane,” Thompson wrote. “Don’t fuck it up with pompous bullshit; the demise of RS would leave a nasty hole.” A bond was formed, and over the next 30 years, Thompson would do much to redefine journalism in the pages of the magazine. He lived and wrote on the edge in a style that would come to be called Gonzo journalism. That term captured his lifestyle, but it didn’t really do justice to Thompson’s command of language, his fearless reporting or his fearsome intellect.

Thompson was born in Louisville, Kentucky, served in the Air Force, and worked as a journalist in Puerto Rico before moving to San Francisco, where an article about the Hells Angels turned into a book project. He spent almost two years riding with the outlaw motorcycle gang, and in 1966 he published a bestseller that took readers deep inside a subculture largely inaccessible to the outside world.

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In that sense, Thompson and Rolling Stone were kindred spirits. After he wrote to the magazine, Wenner invited him to the office to discuss a piece that would be called “The Battle of Aspen,” about Thompson’s effort to bring “freak power” to the Rockies. Thompson had tried to get Joe Edwards, a 29-year-old pot-smoking lawyer, elected mayor; Thompson himself was running for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado. “He stood six-three,” Wenner remembered years later, “shaved bald, dark glasses, smoking, carrying two six-packs of beer; he sat down, slowly unpacked a leather satchel full of travel necessities onto my desk – mainly hardware, flashlights, a siren, boxes of cigarettes, flares – and didn’t leave for three hours. By the end, I was suddenly deep into his campaign.” Thompson and Edwards lost their bids by slim margins, but Thompson’s fate as a self-described “political junkie” was sealed.

A year later, Thompson sent Rolling Stone the first section of a new piece he was working on. “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold,” it began. “I remember saying something like, ‘I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive…’ And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about 100 miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas.”

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” became Thompson’s defining piece, and a defining literary experience for generations of readers. It had begun as an assignment from Sports Illustrated when Thompson was asked to go to Las Vegas to write a 250-word photo caption on a motorcycle race, the Mint 400. Introducing himself as a “doctor of journalism,” he chronicled the fuel he brought along: “two bags of grass, 75 pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multicolored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers . . . and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls… Not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get locked into a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.”

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