Thirty years ago, the writer Hunter S. Thompson looked down from a lofty New York City hotel balcony, and considered jumping.
“I feel like I might as well be sitting up here carving the words for my own tombstone,” he wrote in an introduction to The Great Shark Hunt. “... And when I finish, the only fitting exit will be right straight off this (expletive) terrace and into the Fountain, 28 stories below and at least 200 yards out in the air and across Fifth Avenue.
“Nobody could follow that act.”
He was probably right, but he didn’t jump. Not yet.
Instead he went on writing, drinking and taking drugs for 28 more years, never quite living up to his own first act as a writer.
Two years ago, he stopped trying. In poor health, he shot himself to death at his mountain home in Woody Creek, Colo., at the age of 67.
Even now, one is not quite sure what to make of his death. Was it a selfish and cowardly exit? Or a cool, courageous decision by an American original determined to leave on his own terms?
A new book co-written by Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner doesn’t resolve that question, but is worth reading all the same.
Less a biography than an oral history, Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson features contributions from more than 100 people who knew Thompson well. Together, these voices trace Thompson’s rise from the county jail in Louisville, Ky., at age 18 to his role in the 1970s as one of the most recognizable writers of his time.
They also tell how Thompson’s last decades were spent in a war between his own savage talent and the ruinous addictions that had come to dominate him. By 1977, what Thompson feared most had come true: His best writing was behind him.
Even the exceptions—and they included brilliant pieces such as his coverage of Roxanne Pulitzer’s divorce trial in West Palm Beach, Fla., and his furious, vicious and unforgiving obituary of Richard Nixon—stood out for their rarity.
He was encouraged to write more, Wenner says in “Gonzo.”
“I made several serious attempts to get him write a 1,500 word column for us once a month,” Wenner writes. “... How difficult could that have (expletive) been? Fifteen hundred words for $10,000? ... But he just couldn’t do it.”
For fans of his work, it’s pretty dispiriting stuff. But maybe we expect too much of our heroes.
In a 1996 interview, I asked Thompson if he wished he had jumped after all.
“Well, there’s a part of me that thinks I should have jumped,” he said. “But I would have missed a lot of fun. Dramatically, it would have been perfect had I jumped. Is that what you are asking me, whether I should have jumped?
“I wrestle with that. ... Yeah, I was up in New York again, a few weeks ago at press parties, I had a suite on top of the Four Seasons, with a huge terrace, that looked all over the city, and I could still see the Plaza Fountain.”
He eventually decided that the fun was over. Reading Gonzo may help you understand why.