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.”