Hunter S Thompson was, as he once wrote of his friend Oscar Acosta, “one of God’s own prototypes. A high-powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die.” It was seven years ago today that, sitting at his desk in the kitchen of his “fortified compound” at Owl Farm in Woody Creek near Aspen, Colorado, he put a gun into his mouth and ended a life that had brought him literary notoriety as well as a reputation for personal excess, no-holds-barred journalism and fire-and-brimstone prose. He was 67. Although Thompson’s Gonzo style first appeared in “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” in Scanlan’s Monthly in 1970, the publication that became synonymous with his deceptively chaotic yet incisive writing style was Rolling Stone. Beginning with “The Battle of Aspen”, Thompson’s coverage of his own attempt to be elected Sheriff of Pitkin County under a “Freak Power” banner in 1970, Jann Wenner’s music magazine went on publish his coverage of the Nixon-McGovern presidential race in 1972 as well as his “savage journey to the heart of the American Dream” Fear And Loathing in Las Vegas. Paul Scanlon [Pictured above left with Thompson in 1973] was managing editor of Rolling Stone throughout the Seventies and, along with Wenner, was responsible for managing Hunter Thompson. To mark the anniversary of Thompson’s death, Scanlon told us about trying to persuade him to curb his excess, partying hard and receiving an expenses claim for an incinerated sofa.
GQ.com: What’s the biggest misconception about Hunter?
Paul Scanlon: God knows he drank a lot and did a lot of drugs, but he was incredibly hard-working. That’s something Jann [Wenner] and I tried to put forth in Fear And Loathing At Rolling Stone. You see it in the correspondence that goes back and forth between each piece, especially on the campaign trail pieces. He might have made a big show of waving a bottle of Wild Turkey around but he also worked very, very hard. Hunter did play to his myth. After Garry Trudeau introduced the “Uncle Duke” character [who was based on Hunter] into the Doonesbury comic strips it made it even worse. A few months after the election in 1972 we were sat in Jerry’s, the Rolling Stone watering hole and I took it upon myself to suggest that he drop the Raoul Duke persona and go back to being the guy who wrote Hell’s Angels – maybe even cut back on the drink and drugs a little bit. He looked at me, reached into his pocket, took out a tab of blotter acid, put it in his mouth and swallowed it. He played a lot when he wasn’t working. But when he worked, he really worked. He was a strict taskmaster to himself, and in the days when he was around Rolling Stone he was very generous with his advice for others. He was kind of a team-leader in that way.
What advice did he give the other writers?
There was a very good writer named Tim Cahill, but he was terribly sloppy. His manuscripts were foul-looking. Hunter sat down with him and said: “Turning in a neat manuscript is not only important, it will also make your writing better.” So help me God, that’s what happened! Somehow Tim’s writing got better after that! Hunter was a lover of grammar and good reading. I loved to sit around with him and talk about the kind of writing he liked, especially Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway. He was a fan of Tom Wolfe and they were also good friends. Hunter loaned him his Hell’s Angels tapes to help with his Kesey book [The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test].
When was Hunter at his best?
The early Seventies: Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, of course, from 1971, and “Strange Rumblings in Aztlan”, the piece on the murder of Ruben Salazar that preceded it. Also, I’d say his piece about running for sheriff of Aspen in 1970 and then the whole of his presidential campaign coverage from 1972. He produced something like 90,000 words to extreme deadlines, which became Fear And Loathing On The Campaign Trail. In a way, he never quite recovered from that! He became very popular on the college speaking circuit and he was making pretty good money there. I think his writing dropped off sharply.
What did you learn about management from being Hunter’s editor?
It was like editing 2.0. Some people need attention… and Hunter certainly demanded a lot of attention! He kept his own hours so the copy would come in on the “Mojo Wire”, the telecopier, anywhere between one and five in the morning. It would also arrive in pieces, because he would start in the middle and then he’d go back to the beginning. It usually fell to Jann to make sense out of them. As the years went by the process became more and more difficult. Bob Love, who was managing editor when Hunter wrote “Fear And Loathing In Elko”, one of his last big pieces, was literally on the dawn patrol waiting for the copy to arrive.
What was it like to receive an expenses bill from him?
Somewhere I have my favourite expenses bill, which was for $42,000 for Part Two of “Polo Is My Life”, which was never written. It’s a pretty amazing list, including the bar tabs, the mini-bar tabs and something like $700 for an incinerated sofa! He and Jann were constantly arguing about money, that was a major motif. In a letter from 1998 he wrote: “Some people were fried to cinders, as I recall, while others were transmogrified into heroes. (Which reminds me that you still owe me a vast amount of money – and you still refuse to even discuss payment for my recent politics memo.)” As Jann says, if Hunter wasn’t in a crisis he’d create one. There was always a crisis about money.
How did Hunter’s celebrity affect his writing?
One of the problems was that he wasn’t really that well known when he did the campaign trail of 1972, but when he went back in 1976 to write about Jimmy Carter he’d become a celebrity. That changed the whole landscape, because he couldn’t really do what he had done before. While he still wrote about politics, many of his later pieces like the wonderful two-part piece on Muhammad Ali and his coverage of the Roxanne Pulitzer divorce trial, were a product of the fact that he really couldn’t be out there reporting on the political race because he had become famous himself.
Do you think he would have taken to Twitter?
Probably! He was something of a monster with a fax machine. When I was putting together the book I went through every single piece of correspondence from him. Some of it was really amazing, some of it was gibberish, but I only used maybe 5%. He was an inveterate letter-writer, so yeah, I think he would have had a Twitter account. I think the letters show that he was a naturally gifted writer in any event, but of course he worked much harder on the stuff that was being published.
What was it like to be handed the first manuscript copies of Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas?
He was staying at Jann’s house and we knew he was up to something. He was actually originally working on the Salazar piece, and I found out later that he started writing Vegas as a way to blow off steam because the Salazar piece was terribly difficult. He was in a scary situation and it was through working on that story that he met Oscar Acosta [the inspiration for his “300-pound Samoan attorney” Dr Gonzo]. We were just standing around one day when he came in and handed me this sheaf of about twelve pages and handed copies to the other editors Charlie Perry and Grover Lewis. We all started reading and we were howling! It was one of the funniest things I’d ever seen and like nothing I’d ever read before. We all compared notes and by the end of the day the entire staff had read it. We were just amazed by how good, how funny and how different it was. I’ll never forget the day that [Ralph] Steadman’s illustrations came in from England. We unrolled them one by one and they were just incredible.
Was Hunter concerned about how you’d react to it?
In the book there’s a memo to Jann that I call the “Gonzo Manifesto”. He wrote it when he was working on Part Two ofFear And Loathing In Las Vegas and realised how different and unique it is. He says that he doesn’t think it needs to be edited in the standard fashion, because it’s not a standard piece. [“The central problem here is that you’re working overtime to treat this thing as Straight or at least Responsible journalism… whereas in truth we are dealing with a classic of irresponsible gibberish.”] He also writes, “I like the bastard.” So I think it was around that point that he really knew he had something special.
What was the atmosphere like at Rolling Stonewhen it was published?
Well both Parts One and Two were big events at our office and it was also very close to our 100th issue, so we had a rather interesting party! It was wild. The cops came twice to try and shut it down. We were all young then! This was San Francisco in the early Seventies, so there were a lot of drugs and a lot of “tomfoolery”, if you want to call it that.
Hunter went to Zaire to cover the “Rumble in the Jungle” in 1974 and returned empty-handed. Was there a lot of concern about him at that point?
Zaire was a massive failure and I still can’t quite figure it out. Ralph was really angry because he’d done these very, very good illustrations that were never published. Jann told me that sometime after that he did the same thing that I’d done: sat down with Hunter and tried to tell him to cool it. Of course, Hunter ignored him. Years later a lot of his friends in Woody Creek in Colorado attempted an intervention, which Hunter called “an invasion” and refused to have anything to do with it.
What was Hunter’s fan mail like?
People would send him joints of marijuana and pills. He’d open up an envelope and the stuff would just come falling out of it. Later, when he was on the lecture circuit, people would throw joints at him from the audience.
Did you ever consider asking him to write about music?
Hunter was a great music fan, and a good friend of Keith Richards and Jimmy Buffett and a lot of those people, but he had no influence on the way Rolling Stone covered music. The National Affairs desk was his nest.
How did you manage him day-to-day?
Well, he wasn’t in the office that much! We realised that it was necessary for him to peel off to do his best work. If he was in San Francisco he’d stay at the Seal Rock Inn out by the Pacific Ocean. He did most of his work, when not on the campaign trail, from his home in Woody Creek. That was best for him because people wouldn’t come around and distract him, which could sometimes be a problem! In my rolodex I had a card for Hunter that had two home numbers, for a public and a private line, a number at the Hotel Jerome bar and about five or six other numbers in Aspen.
What’s your abiding memory of Hunter?
The guy I knew in San Francisco. The tall, athletic guy who’d come stomping into the office in shorts and high-top white tennis shoes. A good drinking companion who was a lot of fun to be around. The last time I saw him was 1996 at a party for the 25th anniversary of Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, and Hunter was standing there with a red, white and blue bandana on his head. He had a can of lighter fluid in one hand and looked as if he were about to do his old spitting-the-fluid trick. I walked over to Terry McDonell, who was my successor as managing editor, and he said: “Well, here we are standing around waiting for Hunter to do something amusing again.” But the Hunter I knew best, in the early Seventies, would come into the office with his leather sack and unload the contents, typically a grapefruit, a carton of Dunhills, a flashlight, a bottle of Wild Turkey and a can of Mace, in lieu of saying hello. Underneath it all he was a little bit shy, and courtly in a lot of ways. He was a gentleman… at least when he was sober.
Originally published by British GQ.