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Hunter S. Thompson: Iconoclast and Writer For Our Times

Hunter S. Thompson. Random House book party, February 16, 1967 (the official publication date of the first printing) celebrating the release of his book “Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs.” Photo courtesy of the Estate of Fred W. McDarrah

Where is a journalist like Hunter S. Thompson (July 18, 1937 – February 20, 2005) when you really need him (or her)? The wild and wooly world we live in is a mixed up brew of politics with a side shot of pop culture; just the firewater that that Thompson could guzzle and spit out in his boozy, brilliant brand of genius.

Alas, he took his own life in 2005, so we will never know how he would illuminate the times we live in.  But as he was born this day in 1937, we can be grateful that he brought Gonzo journalism into the world. And the written word will never be the same. His counterculture lifestyle took root in the Village during his on again off again struggle with New York City.

Emerging from the pioneering journalistic styles of Truman Capote and Norman Mailer, he and his contemporaries, including Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Jimmy Breslin, Joan Didion, John Sack, and Michael Herr, remade American letters.  They provided the perfect, “un-rose-colored lense” through which we could view the tumultuous times of a nation frantically shifting from hope to doom and back again — from war to rock and roll, from the assassination of Kennedy to the debacle of Nixon, from hippie culture to Yippie culture.  “Just the facts” reporting could not adequately chronicle the turbulent force of life in the world.

Gonzo journalism was a term invented by Thompson.  It is a style that includes the reporter as a part of the story via a first-person participatory narrative in which the author is a protagonist.  The style draws its power from a combination of social critique and self-satire.  Thompson made his mark on literary history with the publication of his first book,  “Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs.”  Thompson befriended members of the Hell’s Angels gang in San Francisco and as part insider, part outsider, was able to tell the story of the Angels from the Angel’s point of view, forever changing the landscape of how we consider news and “fact.”

Hunter S. Thompson lived in New York City on and off from 1957 through 1962. One of his books, “The Proud Highway : Saga of a Southern Gentleman,” is a collection of his letters from 1955 until 1967, so there is a pretty accurate chronicle of his residences that can be derived from the return address on each. He couch surfed on the Upper West Side for a time until he was able to afford his own apartment on Perry Street, a dingy basement dwelling. He wrote to an old girlfriend, “”Do you realize that sunlight NEVER ENTERS MY APARTMENT?” He also described it as having “black walls.”

Thompson’s 57 Perry Street residence

He bumped around town and would periodically decamp to destinations in South America and California. But New York was the hub of the publishing industry, and in the early days of his career Thompson would always need to return to pound the pavement for work.  Among his many places of residence was 69 East 4th Street.

69 East 4th Street, Thompson’s East Village residence in 1959

He lived for a time with Sandy Conklin on Thompson Street in the South Village.

107 Thompson Street where Thompson lived with then girlfriend, later wife, Sandy Conklin.

Drinking and drugs were a featured component of Thompson’s life and work.  Among his many haunts during his time in the Village were some of our favorite haunts as well.  The White Horse Tavern was one.

White Horse Tavern

Chumley’s was a frequent stop.

And of course he spent many an hour in his favorite, McSorley’s Old Ale House

His longtime collaborator, political and social caricature artist and friend Ralph Steadman said about him, “I know that inside he felt this deep outrage because people were f***ing with his beloved Constitution.  That was the most important thing for him.  He was still fighting to the end.”  We miss his fight, his truth, and his vision in this troubled time.  Gonzo forever.

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