Monday, February 21, 2005

Outlaw, druggie, Dunhill-smoking, Chivas Regal-drinking, anti-establishment literary icon Hunter S. Thompson committed suicide after becoming depressed about the United States’ shift toward conservatism, said one longtime friend who spent the weekend at the Aspen, Colo., home of the late “gonzo” journalist.

“He was depressed about the state of society,” said Loren Jenkins, foreign editor for National Public Radio in Washington.

A vehement opponent of President Bush, Mr. Thompson, 67, “was feeling maudlin about the current conservatism sweeping the country,” Mr. Jenkins said. “He felt he’d had a long run, trying to create a freer society in the ‘60s and ‘70s and he felt it had all been closed down.”

Mr. Thompson’s body was discovered Sunday by Juan Thompson, his son by his first wife, Sandra Dawn Thompson. His second wife, Anita, was not home at the time. The family issued a statement asking for privacy.

In recent months, Mr. Thompson had suffered injuries and other health problems. While others expressed shock at Mr. Thompson’s death, close friends ” including Mr. Jenkins ” did not.

“Everyone who knew Hunter knew that he lived by his own rules and that he would end his life by his own rules,” Mr. Jenkins said.

But other friends said yesterday that Mr. Thompson seemed to be in good spirits during the past week.

“I was there Friday evening at his home and left him at midnight,” said longtime friend and neighbor Michael Cleverly.

“We had a lovely evening. He was very upbeat. I’d have been less shocked if he had shot me rather than himself,” said Mr. Cleverly. “He is the last person on the planet Earth I would expect of that.”

Mr. Cleverly, who knew Mr. Thompson for 25 years, said the writer ” who lived at a compound called Owl Farm ” had several assignments in the works, including a book of his photography. “He was in the midst of a productive life. My only speculation was that [the suicide] had to be an impulse, not something he’d been dwelling on.”

Mr. Cleverly also attended Mr. Thompson’s annual Super Bowl party, and said friends were not aware of anything troubling the writer, except he had suffered “a terrible year physically.”

According to Mr. Cleverly, the writer fell in Hawaii and broke his leg. He also had back surgery and pain from an artificial hip.

Yesterday at his favorite haunt, Woody Creek Tavern, patrons and writers gathered to remember Mr. Thompson, perhaps best known for his drug-fueled 1971 narrative “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” which was made into a 1998 movie starring Johnny Depp.

Recently, Mr. Thompson had been a regular columnist for Web site, and his columns had been collected into a book. Passionate about sports, Mr. Thompson gained a loyal following of younger readers who were not yet born when his name, along with Tom Wolfe and Truman Capote, became synonymous with a new style of observational, stream-of-consciousness magazine writing.

He rode with the Hell’s Angels ” the subject of a 1966 book that established him as a leading practitioner of so-called “New Journalism” ” and wrote a widely praised account of the 1972 presidential campaign and, like George Plimpton, became adept at participatory journalism.

“There was an undercurrent of madness to his work,” fellow writer Gay Talese said yesterday. “The story was always inside his head. It wasn’t necessarily what he saw. His power was his disenchantment by just about everything in front of him.”

His last column recounted a 3 a.m. phone call to actor and friend Bill Murray, who portrayed Mr. Thompson in a 1980 movie, “Where the Buffalo Roam.” Mr. Thompson had invented a new, “truly violent leisure sport” he called “shotgun golf,” in which each player attempts to shoot his opponent’s golf ball with a 12-gauge shotgun.

“He was so vital and had endless number of friends,” said Gaylord Guerin, owner of the Woody Creek Tavern. “He was an absolute genius.”

With his aviator sunglasses, cigarette holder and broad-brimmed hat, Mr. Thompson was the inspiration for the “Uncle Duke” character in cartoonist Gary Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” strip.

Known to magazine editors as a prima donna who turned in outlandish expense accounts and demanded high fees, he nevertheless earned respect for his entertaining rants. Mr. Jenkins said Rolling Stone once sent Mr. Thompson on assignment to Vietnam. Rather than cover the war, he spent his entire stay in a Saigon bar getting drunk and arguing on the telephone with editor Jann Wenner, who had canceled the writer’s health insurance.

He inspired a generation of future writers with his vivid first-person accounts of adventures fueled by alcohol and illegal drugs. “I hate to advocate weird chemicals, alcohol, violence or insanity to anyone … but they’ve always worked for me,” Mr. Thompson once said.

He later admitted exaggerating his drug consumption, but truth never seemed to get in the way of a good story. Mr. Jenkins described his late friend as “who Mark Twain might have been if Twain had discovered acid.”

Flipped out and freaked out on everything from psilocybin mushrooms to peyote, Mr. Thompson wrote in the same vein as William S. Burroughs and Charles Bukowski. He especially admired the works of “beat” writer Jack Kerouac and Irish novelist J.P. Donleavy.

But Ernest Hemingway was always an influence, and Mr. Jenkins said Mr. Thompson’s death by self-inflicted gunshot reflected that influence.

“There is a bit of the Hemingway thing,” said Mr. Jenkins. “Both writers had their greatest success very early in their careers, and both created a persona built on that.”

While politically an enemy of all things Republican, Mr. Thompson proudly proclaimed himself a life member of the National Rifle Association and was known to keep a small arsenal of firearms at his home.

Born in Louisville, Ky., on July 18, 1937, Hunter Stockton Thompson was a self-described “wild boy.” After high school, he served two years in the Air Force during which he edited the base newsletter and wrote sports stories for a local newspaper. He then worked as a freelance correspondent for several newspapers and magazines before joining Rolling Stone, where he coined the term “gonzo journalism.”

Always worried about finances, Mr. Thompson churned out a series of books, including “The Great Shark Hunt” (1975), “Generation of Swine” (1988) and “Better Than Sex” (1994). A novel he wrote in the early 1960s, “The Rum Diary,” was published in 1998, and he published a collection of short stories in 1991.

“He kept everything,” said Mr. Jenkins, referring to a cache of material ” letters, faxes, memos and old articles ” Mr. Thompson stored in his basement.

One of Mr. Thompson’s more colorful antics occurred in 1970, when he ran unsuccessfully for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colo., on the “Freak Power” ticket. The gonzo candidate ” whose platform included changing the name of Aspen to “Fat City” and decriminalizing drugs ” decided to shave his head, so he could denounce his crew-cut Republican rival as “my long-haired opponent.”

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