Surviving Hunter S. Thompson

By Craig Vetter

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Surviving Hunter S. Thompson:

Doing the Playboy Interview is often something of a rat scramble, but getting the Hunter S. Thompson interview to print was a long, punishing chase after a full moon of a human being. It evolved into a 35-year friendship that was by turns high fun and withering, all-night deadline panic.

I lived in Aspen for about three years after we finished the interview, and during that time we were together often. After I moved away we saw each other half a dozen times for pieces we worked on together, and between those visits he called every few months just to talk. Usually around 3:22 in the dead of night.

“What? You’re not sleeping, are you?”

“The bats are asleep around here, Hunter.”

The morning I found out he’d shot himself with his .357, I remember thinking, No more phone calls.

But that hasn’t turned out to be exactly true. In the nine years since his death I’ve dreamed about the old bastard four times. In the dead middle of the night. The last time he haunted his way into my sleep, I decided to dig out the six hours of raw interview tapes. There was a melancholy to the exercise, but listening again to the staccato rumble of his voice, the violent humor, slashing vocabulary and rough intelligence kicked loose a storm of memories of our long, wonderfully twisted friendship.

We’d met three or four times before Playboy asked me to see if he’d do the interview. It was February 1974, a hard winter in the Rockies. I called him at Owl Farm, his old ranch house in Woody Creek, a few miles from Aspen.

“Tell ’em we can’t do it up to our ankles in the goddamn snow,” he said. “We’ll need a couple of weeks in Cozumel to do it right.”

Some of the editors were not thrilled at the prospect of turning Hunter loose with an expense account in Mexico. I was the magazine’s staff writer at the time, and I lobbied hard for the trip.

“If we get it, it will be cheap at any price,” I told the editors. “If we don’t, it’s on me.”

Before the enterprise finished, it would take us from Mexico to Aspen to Washington, D.C. and finally, in the wake of Richard Nixon’s resignation, to a grisly all-nighter in Chicago.

Cozumel is a small island that sits in bright Caribbean waters off the coast of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. Thirty miles long and flat as a map from one end to another, it has seen a healthy tourist swarm since the early 1960s, when Jacques Cousteau declared it among the world’s best scuba destinations.

Hunter had been there twice before. The first time was with his wife, Sandy, for what was supposed to be a relaxed couple of weeks on the clean, soft sands of the island’s long white beaches. Three days into the trip, during a scuba dive on Palancar Reef, he claimed, he was caught in a rip current 90 feet down, out of air, and was forced to surface so quickly he suffered a case of the bends that put him in a Miami Beach hyperbaric chamber for 19 days. It was a typically melodramatic Hunter story, but it was hard for me to believe he could have gone even 19 hours alone in a steel tube without his usual relish tray of drugs, whiskey and other entertainments.

Not long after he got back to Colorado from that trip, Playboy offered him an assignment covering a sport-fishing tournament that would send him back to Cozumel, which was ideal, he wrote, because his lifesaving flight to Miami had forced him to stash 50 units of the speedy hallucinogen MDA in the wall of the shark pool at the island aquarium, and this trip would give him a chance to retrieve it.

The story he wrote was a rambling gonzo romp that wandered through a blizzard of drugs over a mostly fictional landscape that had little to do with the fishing tournament. Playboy initially rejected the piece, but I agreed to edit it and Hunter did some rewriting. The magazine published it as The Great Shark Hunt.

I knew our trip to Cozumel was going to be a goat dance on a thin ridge, but I didn’t expect it to collapse as it almost did after four days of empty-promise heel-dragging that turned out to be a Thompson signature.

We met in Mexico City, where the first disaster was the humidity turning Hunter’s cocaine into a lumpy paste that had to be blown back to powder with a hair dryer. The next morning, on the flight to Cozumel, he produced about a hundred hits of LSD called Mr. Natural, a sheet of blotter acid stamped with drawings of the R. Crumb character and perforated so a single man could be easily separated into four small squares.

He leaned over from the seat next to me. “You want a quarter of a man?” he said. “I usually start with half a man, which just speeds you up. Takes a man and a half to get psychedelic.”

Here we go, I thought. I’d used marijuana and cocaine and was a heavy drinker. I’d taken acid several times, always in hallucinogenic doses, and had never had a bad time with it. I was hesitant to start what was going to be a hardworking trip by eating a variety I’d never seen, but refusing to share Hunter’s satchel pharmacy wasn’t going to work either. I took a quarter, which finally hit me something like two espressos.

On the island we rented two open-top Volkswagens that looked like small Nazi staff cars, then checked into El Presidente, a state-owned beachfront hotel just south of the town center.

After dinner on the terrace, we drank beer and margaritas and snorted cocaine till I staggered away in the early morning after getting an agreement that we would meet for lunch and begin the long conversation I had outlined for us.

A little after noon the next day Hunter ordered breakfast at the round glass table beside the pool: huevos rancheros, hash browns, tortillas, a whole grapefruit, two bloody marys and two Dos Equis, which he reordered when he’d finished the eggs.

I put the tape recorder on the table.

“Not yet,” he said. “I have to wake up.”

Fair enough, I thought as I watched him dig into the coke bottle and load his nose, then put a Dunhill into his TarGard cigarette holder and light it.

Given the long alcohol-and-drug soak of the night before, a small delay seemed to make sense. But that was because I didn’t yet know I was being drawn into the first step of a hateful tango he would play out on every one of the half dozen projects we would eventually work on together: No matter what, he wouldn’t start any project for any reason until he was slammed against a hard wall. This was not going to be a small delay.

“And we must get some black coral,” he added after that first lunch.

We’d been gathered up at the airport by an enthusiastic local with a Mayan face named Carlos, who introduced himself as our anything-you-want guy. He rode with us to a line of open-air stalls, where he found a group of young black-coral divers. Black-coral divers don’t generally get to be old, because the beautiful ebony branches they hunt grow only at perilous depths of around 200 feet. Through Carlos, the divers told us stories of dead and crippled friends who had stayed too long harvesting the trees, which can be plucked as easily as garden weeds if you sneak up on them, but if they sense your presence, they tense and have to be laboriously taken with a hacksaw. Which turned out to be a bit like getting Hunter to answer questions.

The island is famous for jewelry and knickknacks carved from the coral pieces. Hunter had bought a bunch on his last trip and now ordered more: coke spoons, skulls, roach holders and the double-thumbed fist that was his personal icon.

Before we left Carlos, Hunter asked him to set up a scuba dive for the next afternoon. I protested that we needed to start recording.

“Jesus,” he said. “Relax, we’ve got two weeks. I wrote the second half of the Hells Angels book in four days.”

Which was true. When I left Aspen he gave me the heavy old IBM Selectric he’d used to write the book. Taped across the front of the machine were the words It’s later than you think.

The next afternoon, we were checked out on scuba gear at a dive shop not far from our hotel, then took a small boat a mile offshore to clear water where the fish gathered and flashed as if they were being paid. Half an hour into the dive I was about 30 feet down when Hunter went thrashing past me on a panicked swim to the surface. When I reached him on top he had torn his mask off and was screaming, “You trying to kill me? You bastards—I ran out of air, goddamn it.”

I tried to calm him. It didn’t work, and by the time we were back on the boat the young crewmen were literally cowering. One of them pointed to the small switch at the top of the tank. “La reserva,” he said.

“You had 15 minutes of reserve air if you’d hit the switch behind your head,” I told him.

“Bullshit,” he yelled. “The motherfuckers tried to drown me.”

Hunter took the rest of the afternoon and early evening to recover from the attempted murder with margaritas, beer, cocaine and Mr. Natural. That night Carlos took us to a garishly lit outdoor beachside disco that was packed shoulder to shoulder with a hundred or so young tourists and locals dancing to “I Shot the Sheriff” and “Get Up, Stand Up.”

Carlos had told his friend the owner that we were holding acid, and not long after we arrived he asked if Hunter would sell him some.

“I’ve never sold drugs in my life,” Hunter said, which was absolutely true as long as I knew him. “I’ll give you some,” he told the owner. He took out the blotter sheet of Mr. Natural and passed the owner one man, four hits.

Things were heating up when Carlos took both of us by the arm to tell us that someone had called the cops, saying that LSD was being sold at the disco.

Without saying a word, Hunter and I walked quickly to our cars. “Follow me,” he said, and we took off at reckless speed down the coastal highway. He threw a dirt plume behind a sliding left turn onto an empty two-lane road that we followed through a pitch-black landscape until we reached the wild east coast of the island, where he skidded to a sideways stop on the edge of a small cliff.

No matter where he was Hunter drove like an angry moonshiner. “I’m more proud of my driving than I am of my writing,” he told me once.

We sat for a while under a vivid starscape while I waited for police headlights to come screaming out of the dark. When they didn’t, I tried to talk Hunter down toward the business we’d signed up for.

I told him that we had to get a grip, that it would be difficult to make our tape recordings in the murderous chaos of a Mexican jail. We can still have our fun, I told him. All we have to do is two good hours a day. But we have to start tomorrow. He agreed. I didn’t believe him.

Of all the nights of booze and coke and weed we spent together over the years, I rarely saw Hunter show any but the smallest signs of drunkenness. He seemed to have the capacity of a fighting bull. There were exceptions, however. Around the third day of any sleepless binge, he became angry and erratic, and you wanted to be out of there. Especially if he began to play with one of his many guns, which he often did.

That night I let him go his own way. I drove back to the hotel and slept.

Early the next morning I was awakened by a heavy knock on the glass door that faced the beach. It was Hunter with a big smile on his face, looking like a hobo with his clothes in a bundle hanging from a driftwood stick. He was completely naked.

Overnight he’d gotten his jeep stuck in the sand four miles from the hotel and needed my car to pull it out. He’d been swimming, he said, didn’t have a bathing suit and decided to walk back nude. Said he’d met a few folks, made some friends.

We yanked his car out of the deep sand with the help of an old fisherman. Hunter had been up all night and said he needed sleep.

“Tomorrow,” he said. “For sure.”

The next morning the first thing I heard was Hunter’s voice from the room next door, yelling, “Aieeeee dentalis.”

He had a toothache. Carlos found him a dentist, and he returned full of Novocain and painkillers. We couldn’t possibly start that day, he said.

I spent the afternoon fighting despair. He joined me for dinner at a patio table. He was in good spirits. I wasn’t. We finished eating. He took out the coke, and when I didn’t take any, he asked what was wrong. I called him an asshole, told him I was throwing it in, going back to Chicago while the damage was still small enough that my reputation wouldn’t be completely trashed.

“I told you we’d start tomorrow,” he said.

“I don’t believe you,” I told him. “But if you mean it, we’ll have to meet right here at eight o’clock, because I have a reservation on the morning flight tomorrow.”

We stayed up drinking and snorting cocaine late enough that I fully expected to be on the morning plane.

My phone rang at seven a.m. It was Hunter calling from the hotel restaurant.

“Get up,” he said. “Let’s go to work.”

When I recently listened to the old tapes, they took me back to the seawall where we sat when we began recording. It took about five minutes for my ear to tune back in to the broken lilt of his mumble. Words shot out of his mouth so fast that even if you were used to the runaway rhythm he was often nearly unintelligible.

Appropriately enough, the first sound on the tape was a long, powerful snort of cocaine. It was a sound that would punctuate pretty much all six hours of our recordings.

Shortly after we started I asked him why you damn near had to hold his head underwater to get him to start work.

“I can’t work till the pressure is on,” he said. “I think I’m addicted to my own adrenaline, and I can’t function until something happens to call it up. Production people hate me, but I can’t work until the pressure gets really intense.”

Of the many times I went with him into the pressure bubble he needed to write, I particularly remember Chicago in January 1986. He’d come to town to cover the Super Bowl for a regular column he had in The San Francisco Examiner. The Bears were playing the New England Patriots in New Orleans, and he wanted to be in Chicago for the aftermath, win or lose. He loved football—no particular team—because of the betting action it offered. He spent many football Sundays in Aspen with a small group at Jack Nicholson’s house, where the wagering was furious.

He had a fearful connection with Chicago that reached back to 1968, when a cop had worked him over with a billy club. The police beating stuck with him. While we were in town, there was a moment when we crossed Michigan Avenue and a traffic cop shouted for us to hurry up. Hunter made an instinctive skip step and jumped to the curb. It was a quick fear I’d never seen in him before.

His deadline for the Super Bowl column, about 700 words, was Thursday at five p.m. Pacific time. I showed up in his hotel room Friday afternoon to find him entertaining friends, wearing out room service, worrying out loud about losing the column if he didn’t get his piece in that night.

By eight o’clock it was just the two of us kicking around ideas for his lede. Hunter liked to work with sidemen when he wrote. At times it felt as though I were playing guitar for Mick Jagger.

Hunter was a very precise writer when he got down to it. He loved words, especially violent words.

“You string 12 words together and crack somebody like hitting them with a chain,” he said.

Desmond Tutu was in Chicago that January day, and Hunter had seen him on the street. He decided to go with a lede that suggested the famous South African bishop had told him to bet on the Bears. Three hours into the writing, the coke was overtaken by the booze, and he took a black beauty, a powerful amphetamine capsule, out of a stash he’d been saving for years. He was handing me pages to read as he finished them. About four in the morning I looked over, and he was sitting straight up, hands on the typewriter keys, dead asleep. I tiptoed out of the room as the sun came up.

Some years later, as I sweated and yelled to get him going on a shared project, I told him I didn’t think his adrenaline-addiction theory was the whole story. “I think you’re just afraid to be bad,” I said.

“Aren’t you?” he said.

He finished his Super Bowl column and sent it off around noon on Saturday. It wasn’t bad.

With island parrots screeching in the background, we talked on tape through a grand sweep of his life and career, including the birth of gonzo, his savage beating at the hands of the Hells Angels, his run for sheriff of Pitkin County, his time in Washington, D.C. covering the 1972 presidential campaign and the limousine ride he took with Richard Nixon.

When I asked him about his prodigious drug use, he rattled off a knee-buckling menu.

“Almost any day, if I’m around anything you don’t have to shoot, I’ll take it. Or any combination unless I’m working. There have been days when I used hash, speed, coke, mushrooms, acid, mescaline, booze, crack, Wild Turkey, wine, beer, coffee, cigarettes for four days in a row.”

The next time I heard something like the same list from him he was jumping up and down like Rumpelstiltskin, yelling ugly things at me.

It was a year later, and I was living in Aspen. Hunter was on assignment for Rolling Stone in Vietnam to cover the last days of U.S. occupation. He’d had a bad time of it in the war zone. He fled to Bali, without filing a story, before the final evacuation of Saigon.

When Sandy found out he was tucked into a beachside hut and wanted to stay awhile, she decided to join him. She asked me and my girlfriend Liz to stay at Owl Farm, where they lived with their 10-year-old son, Juan, a Doberman named Lazlo, a pen full of peacocks and a mynah bird.

Juan loved to fool with electrical things, and one night while I was away he rigged the bedroom light switch to play a tape-recorded wolf howl that would scare Liz when she got into bed to read. The wolf howled, and power to the entire house went down. Juan, who went on to become a professional IT wizard, found the circuit breaker and got the power back.

About a week later we began to smell something like a rotting corpse. I tracked it to a huge basement freezer that hadn’t come back on when the power was restored. When I opened it, the smell almost knocked me down. There, floating in blood, was a survivalist’s stock of beef roasts, turkeys, hams, frozen juice and 30 or 40 tightly wrapped aluminum-foil packages. I got a mask and a shop vacuum and over several hours filled three garbage cans with the thawed and dripping mess.

I was angry when Hunter and Sandy finally returned. They arrived seven days later than expected, delaying my trip to San Francisco on assignment. Nevertheless, the homecoming was warm until I mentioned I’d been forced to trash the bloody contents of the basement freezer. Hunter went apoplectic.

“What? You did what?” he shouted.

“We lost power and the freezer didn’t come back on,” I said. “Everything thawed into a tub of blood.”

He began to dance as if somebody were shooting at his feet. “Mother of the sweating Jesus, you have no idea what you’ve done.”

“I dumped a monstrous supply of meat and juices. Took me half a day.”

“What about the tin-foil packages?”

“Gone,” I said.

“Fucking God, man. You just threw out the last organic mescaline on earth, a hundred black beauties and golden pyramid acid, which you can’t get anymore, along with an ounce of cocaine, a pound of mushrooms and 50 hits of MDA. You might as well have burned the Smithsonian.”

He looked as if he might cry. I was laughing. So was Sandy.

Over seven days in Cozumel we recorded for about six and a half hours. I left Hunter behind on the island and flew to Chicago, where transcribers began to work on the tapes. I turned in the expenses, which were met with only quibbles. I spent a week at the hard work of culling the tapes for the interview. We closed it in July, and it was scheduled to run in the November issue.

That August the two of us were in Washington on separate assignments for Rolling Stone: Hunter was covering Nixon’s last days in the Watergate bunker, and I was chasing a Jesuit priest named John McLaughlin, a White House speech-writer who had become famous defending Nixon’s dirty mouth on the Oval Office tapes and who later shed his robes and presided for several years over a mean-spirited television show called The McLaughlin Group. The White House was stonewalling the press, and though I’d chased the priest relentlessly and interviewed half the people in D.C. who knew him, it became clear he wasn’t going to talk to me.

We were staying at the Hilton. Somewhere around 11 o’clock on the night of August 7, Hunter came by my room in a bathing suit and said, “Let’s go swimming.”

“The pool closes at 10 o’clock,” I told him.

“How do you close a hole in the ground with water in it?” he asked.

He loved to swim. It was as close to a Zen exercise as he got: a slow, quiet, elementary backstroke that made him look like a long, pale salamander that liked to stare at the stars.

I sat poolside as he did his laps. After about 15 minutes, a Latino pool man set his equipment on the coping and shouted that the pool was closed. Hunter ignored him. The pool man told him again that he had to leave. Hunter kept swimming.

I watched in horror as the pool man picked up a canister of powdered chlorine, walked to the deep end and dumped it in as Hunter approached. It was an evil thing to do. Concentrated chlorine can be lethal. I yelled as Hunter swam into the intense white cloud and came up screaming.

He was choking as I pulled him out, and he was blind. I looked for a hose to wash his eyes, but the pool man had run with it.

He was in searing pain as I led him by the hand to his room, then shoved him in the shower and turned it on. He ran water in his bloodred eyes for half an hour. I asked him if he wanted a doctor. He said no and collapsed onto his bed.

“That’s how you close a hole in the ground with water in it,” I told him before I left.

Around noon the next day there was a surprise announcement that Richard Nixon was going on TV to resign that evening. I ran to Hunter’s room and pounded on the door, yelling, “They got him; he’s finished.” When he finally made it to the door, his eyes were still the color of ripe tomatoes and he was having trouble seeing.

“We have to go to the Watergate,” he said. “I was there during the break-in.” He gathered the small battery-powered TV he took to his table by the pool every day, and we caught a cab to the infamous apartment complex, where we set up at a cocktail table in a nearly empty ground-floor bar.

We waited. This was going to be a very big moment for Hunter. As he’d said on tape in Cozumel, “For my entire life Nixon has been a bogeyman. I can’t remember a time when he wasn’t around, always horrible, always ugly, and covering his demise is something I have to do. I’ve been through 15 or 20 years with this son of a bitch fucking people over, and to see this wonderful turnaround…you can almost hear the swack of the hammer as the nails go through his palms.”

Around five o’clock Hunter asked the piano player to stop. Richard Nixon appeared on the little TV screen with a short, self-serving good-bye.

When it was over, Hunter was quiet. His great nemesis had been torn from office after months of criminal revelations, hearings and the threat of impeachment. It was hard to believe it had actually happened, and it was going to leave a void for Hunter that depressed him for the rest of his life. Never again did he cover politics with the same hammer and tongs.

The resignation meant we would have to change large chunks of the interview. Hunter flew to Chicago, where we holed up against a vicious storm to record the material that would be plugged into the piece. As we finished, Sandy joined us, and I took the two of them to the Playboy Mansion, which was then on State Parkway.

Hef was in Los Angeles, and the house was quiet. When I showed them the basement pool, we decided to have a swim. In the water, as Hunter began his backstroke, Sandy, a petite blonde with a sunny face, reached up to touch one of the flowers that festooned the rough rock wall along the length of the pool.

“Oh my God,” she said. “Hunter, the flowers are plastic.” She pulled an orchid out of the rock, then swam along the wall, laughing, yanking the flowers out one by one and throwing them in the water.

Hunter implored her to stop—“Sandy, please stop”—as he swam behind her, picking up the flowers and sticking them back in the rock. She giggled her way the length of the wall, flinging flowers and watching her husband of 14 years rushing to clean up after her wild behavior for a change.

A week later, the editors and I finished the revised interview. It ran in the November 1974 issue.

In August 2005, exactly six months after Hunter’s suicide, a lavish memorial was held at Owl Farm. More than 200 friends, including many luminaries, ate and drank and listened as a number of people told stories of their friendship. George McGovern said that no matter where he went in the world, someone would approach him to sign a copy of Hunter’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail.

“He didn’t always have his facts right,” said the former presidential candidate, “but he got the truth better than anyone.”

Johnny Depp had paid a rumored $2.5 million for the celebration. He and Hunter had become friends when Depp lived in a basement room at Owl Farm for a month before making Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and it was said he’d been bitten by a brown recluse spider while there. At the party I told him he was lucky if that was the worst that happened to him during four weeks in Hunter’s basement.

As the night wore on, everyone moved out of the tent to surround a tall steel cylinder with a huge double-thumbed fist at the top. “Going up to the spirit in the sky” boomed across the property as Hunter’s ashes were exploded skyward among spectacular fireworks.

As fiery plumes filled the Woody Creek sky, I half remembered something Hunter had said in Cozumel that hadn’t made it into the interview. When I listened to the tapes again, I found it.

“I am the prototype, the perfect American. Half out of control, violent, drunk, high on drugs, carrying a .44 Magnum. Rather than being strange, I may be the embodiment of the national character…all the twisted notions that have made this country the beast it is.”

I miss him.


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