When I stepped off the plane in Aspen, Colorado, in June 1997, I found a 60-year-old Hunter S. Thompson waiting for me in a convertible Cadillac blasting Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit in the Sky" at full volume. I was terrified; he was giddy. He was playing the song because it was a part of the soundtrack put together for the film version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas that was scheduled to hit theaters the following summer, and he could not have been happier. He had gone to the store before picking me up, and the backseat was filled with bags overflowing with Pepsi, Cap'n Crunch, balsamic vinegar, chocolate, and dozens of tubes of red lipstick. There was an oxygen tank, too, and he instructed me to hold the mask to my face and breathe deeply. He told me he "couldn't have the altitude tweaking my work" during that first night as his editorial assistant. With no more of an introduction than that, he lit up a Dunhill, threw his right arm behind my seat, and began driving across the winding mountainside. He slammed on his breaks once to stop and buy seven bags of black cherries from a roadside stand, and then we were off again, speeding straight to his home in Woody Creek.
Despite the rumors that followed me home when I left, he never held a gun to my head or laid a finger on me, but that’s not to say he didn’t throw a tantrum or two.
I had met Hunter six months earlier when he returned to his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, for a tribute. It was the first time he'd been back in years and, as it turned out, the last time he ever visited. Johnny Depp was with him, studying his every move for his role as Hunter in the movie. Hunter's mother made an appearance as well, puffing on a cigar from a wheelchair. It was, without a doubt, an event only for diehard Hunter S. Thompson fans. No one could quite understand what he was barking into the microphone, and the three-hour event featured Warren Zevon playing a number of Hunter-inspired tunes, ongoing jokes about the size of Roxanne Pulitzer's breasts in the tight dress she wore that night, and Hunter's use of a fire extinguisher to blast people off the stage. It was interesting, but I didn't think much about him until the following spring when I received a phone call with an invitation to go to Colorado to work for him. His previous editorial assistant had just left, and with the production of the movie and historian Douglas Brinkley collecting his letters, he said he needed help. So, with much trepidation and even more curiosity, I quit my menial, straight-out-of-college job and packed my bags.
My main responsibility was a manuscript titled Polo Is My Life. It had been scheduled to be published in 2000 by the "dingbats" at Simon & Schuster, but it remains unpublished. At that time, Polo consisted of no less than eleven boxes, each one of them representing a chapter, stuffed with everything from typed pages and scribbled napkins to magazine cut-outs, peacock feathers, and Ben-waa balls. It was my job to sort through each box and arrange its contents on a giant corkboard. Then, at about 9:00 in the evening, Hunter would wake up, down three drinks or so, smoke a pipe, and swim twenty-two laps in a neighbor's pool. At about 2:00 in the morning, he would eat dinner—always with salt and pepper and lemon—and we would begin.
Our sessions go something like this: On the corkboard, among many things, is a banner that reads omnia vincit amor, a brutal photograph of a crime scene, a pamphlet for a wedding chapel in Reno, and several pages of text. I read the pages aloud, he tells a few jokes, smokes some more, gets his house shoes, snorts some coke, coughs phlegm into a waste basket, then types a page. He reminds me of how Polo is "a tale of sex and violence, a good old-fashioned love story, like Psycho and Blue Velvet," then hands me the new page to read aloud. I read it but, tiring and thinking he's half out of his mind, I get lazy, accidentally transpose a few words or skip an article. So he reaches under the counter and pinches my leg—hard. I read the page again. He doesn't like the way it sounds and tells me I'm a mischievous little bitch and wants to know where I stashed the CIA "Deep Cover" files I stole. He throws a peach across the room. He retypes the page and has me read it to him again. This time, he bites on his cigarette filter and stares up at the ceiling while he listens. He is pleased and, smiling, says, "Now that's more fucking like it." We place the page face-down on the counter and type another. Into the night and past sunrise and sometimes into the next night we continue, characters like polo heiress Avery Jane Baxter and Charles "Shiteyes" McCrory coming to life, a girl named Jilly marrying her "money-mad brute of a boyfriend" in Reno and driving off in a Lamborghini Jeep, Jilly having "mind-bending" sex with a Samoan fighter named Pisa Finai, and then, finally, dynamite exploding at the CNN headquarters, on "the true Generation of Cowards and Queaslings Who Failed at everything except building new jails and bombing sand-niggers and turning in each other to the Police."
When we are done, he rarely lets me rest. Instead, if it’s the middle of the night, we might drive to Sheriff Bob Braudis's house, lay on the horn until his lights come on, then quickly drive away. If it is day, we might go to a sporting goods store to buy more safari sun hats. Other times he just sits, staring at the television, daring me to go back to my cabin to fall asleep.
Other work I did for him fills a to-do list that reads exactly like this:
1. Confirm executive meeting with Matt at Atlantic Monthly
2. Find HST's cabochon emerald (check the Red Room?)
3. In town, buy batteries, a lighter from Sharper Image, pool socks, habaneros
4. Copy last night's Polo text and send to Brinkley
5. Remind HST to write back Jaya (necrophiliac poet)
6. Send HST watch to jeweler (in envelope on counter) to replace battery
7. Send note to Bernstein at NY Times
8. Executive meeting at George's office about development project Monday, 5:00 p.m.
9. Tomorrow: lunch with Ed Bradley at 1:00. Burritos?
10. Type letter to Ed Turner
11. For Jeep: check transmission (rough shifting), get wind guards for windows and sunroof, have left front headlight and fog light fixed, talk to custom guy in Vale about tinting windows
12. Tell Deborah: HST was not feeling well last night—very faint, heart palpitations, had to lay down for a nap. . .
It was a distinct mixture of important and trivial tasks, of bizarre challenges and sheer boredom. Once I blew up a propane tank when I finally took correct aim at a flint-charged target. I fed the peacocks, I fought with him for hours over a missing jar of liquid acid I had never seen, and I ran down to the Woody Creek Tavern for guacamole. I wound myself up into the Navajo blanket on his couch while watching hours of football, fell asleep sitting up at dinner, and swept countless dead white moths from his floor in the mornings. I took his blood pressure, and after seeing it was dangerously high, I made him a peanut-butter sandwich and sat next to his bed until he finally admitted he was sick and wanted to rest. He could be a perfect Southern gentleman, opening doors, showing me photographs of his high-school sweetheart, making sure I went to the eye doctor for a checkup. We would call his mother on the speakerphone. And once, when he asked if he could kiss me and I declined, he simply shook his head, giggling "Fuck it then" and never mentioned it again. The next evening, he gave me daisies in a paper cup that read “heartbreaking vixen.” But those, of course, were the good times.
Other times I witnessed his atavistic side. Despite the rumors that followed me home when I left, he never held a gun to my head or laid a finger on me, but that’s not to say he didn’t throw a tantrum or two. Paranoid, he would lock everyone out of his cabin for hours at a time, intermittently setting off his alarm and firing guns into the air. One time I watched him beat his car because his cigarettes were locked inside, and another time he threw me out of the house for refusing to watch a snuff film. And he was hell on his new kitten, Hugo, especially when he felt I was paying it too much attention. He would snatch Hugo up, smudge his pink nose in cocaine, and send him darting across the kitchen floor. If I would get up from our work to shut the front door to keep the cat from fleeing outside, he would berate me with a round of screaming, furiously yelling at the top of his lungs that would have addled me if not for my own experience in a fit-throwing family.
He might have, in his own way, respected animals, but he had no compassion for them. For weeks he played a tape recording of a jack rabbit screaming in a trap. The Red Room off to the side of the cabin looked like the Natural History Museum with a stuffed fox, buffalo, wart hog, and wolverine. He made me wear an elk tooth around my neck that he claimed to have gouged out of the animal's skull himself. When he drove past cattle on the road, he would blow his horn and swerve as close as he could to them. "You need to show them a lesson," he said, "because these bastards will stand their ground as long as they can, moving at the very last second." It was like he was playing chicken with these obstinate cows. One bull stood still on the yellow line until Hunter clipped its rump with his fender. He further vindicated his actions by explaining that if you hit an animal on the road, you must hit it hard to keep it from suffering and from wrecking your car. He told me he hit a deer once, "not leaving a bone in its body unbroken—a pile of flesh and bone splinters. I hit it all the way to Woody Creek Tavern."
He often had the same amount of sympathy for me, especially when I would tire. I remained sober, so when two days without sleep would bring on dizziness and nausea, he would simply throw a bottle of Maalox at me. "There, goddamnit,” he would huff. “Drink it and shut up." Nevertheless, I never witnessed the insane rage mentioned in his biographies and suffered no more physical violence than that. He neither intimidated nor comforted me, and through it all I came to know both a redneck genius with an astounding memory for even the slightest details and a cranky, elderly dope fiend that never knew when to stop. I stayed as long as I could, and when I decided to leave, Hunter sent me off with a letter of recommendation for graduate school and a kiss on the forehead.