Hunter S. Thompson, James Salter, and a Drunken Trip to Kentucky

Hunter S. Thompson, James Salter, and a Drunken Trip to Kentucky

In the course of the remaining week of April 1970—within the midst of a storm that pressed Aspen with a shocking, late-season snow—Hunter and Sandy Thompson drove to dinner on the home of the author James Salter and his spouse, Ann. A chic meal, continental in fashion: they sat collectively for hours. Salter had been coming to Aspen since 1959; just like the Thompsons, he knew the city earlier than its current transition into a resort. His two-bedroom home was situated on the west finish, close to the Meadows.

Salter most popular to spend time with Thompson in these types of settings, personal and contained . . . uncrowded. Someplace they might speak with out distraction. A couples dinner was superb; within the cozy eating room, these two very totally different males have been in a position to take pleasure in each other’s firm. They’d turn into associates the earlier fall, working collectively on a native political marketing campaign for Joe Edwards, who’d run for mayor.

After the meal was executed they sat collectively in entrance of the lounge hearth. They talked about writing. Ultimately Thompson went into his struggles. His present guide undertaking, tentatively titled The Demise of the American Dream, was lengthy overdue, however he had to end it; there was no method he might ever pay again the advance. His expertise operating the current Aspen mayoral marketing campaign had provided a potential repair: by telling the story of his efforts in small-town participatory democracy, he may have the opportunity to present a through-line on the disparate set items documenting the nationwide disasters of 1968. However for that to work, he informed Salter, he’d want to see the method via—within the upcoming November elections he’d determined to run for sheriff of Pitkin County—which might solely delay the guide additional. Within the meantime he was determined for well-paying journalistic assignments. He had a new journal in thoughts: Scanlan’s Month-to-month, which was run by his good friend Warren Hinckle. The issue was discovering the perfect matter to write about subsequent.

James Salter listened attentively. He was 44, hale and unassuming and with out haste. Throughout from Thompson he held himself with the posture of an elite athlete—that of a rock climber, or a swimmer—his carriage a carryover from his earlier profession within the Air Drive, in the course of the course of which he’d flown greater than 100 fight missions. In Korea he’d been a member of the 335th Squadron, damaging one enemy jet and capturing down one other. Whereas nonetheless on lively obligation he’d revealed a novel concerning the conflict, The Hunters, that turned such a essential and monetary success that he gave up his fee to write full time. Over the course of his literary profession he’d loved a collection of successes and additionally stinging failures, and he understood the despair and frustration and want for recognition—for greatness—that his youthful good friend was speaking about: the concept your work, in a sure sense, was you.

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On the entire, James Salter loved Thompson’s writing. On the finish of the night time he had a suggestion: “What about going back to Louisville and doing something on the Kentucky Derby?”

The notion hadn’t occurred to Hunter Thompson. Nevertheless it made sense—he’d been born in Louisville, in 1937, and had spent his childhood there. Later, again at his home, he referred to as up Hinckle in San Francisco, who shortly acquired on board. And identical to that it was occurring: Scanlan’s might pay $1,500, plus $500 for bills, together with aircraft tickets that Hinckle FedExed the subsequent day to Woody Creek. The deadline to meet the June concern was quick approaching; the whole lot would have to be completed the week after the race. Hinckle additionally agreed to ship out an illustrator to present paintings for the function, a political sketch artist for the London-based journal Personal Eye: Ralph Steadman.

“The story, as I see it,” Thompson stated after the dinner at Salter’s, “is mainly in the vicious-drunk Southern bourbon horseshit mentality that surrounds the Derby [rather] than in the Derby itself.”

He arrived in Louisville on Thursday round midnight, April 30th. A couple of hours earlier, Richard Nixon had gone on nationwide tv to clarify a startling escalation within the Vietnam Warfare: the U.S.-backed offensive into Cambodia. “I have concluded that the time has come for action,” Nixon stated. “My fellow Americans, we live in an age of anarchy, both abroad and at home.” No one had anticipated it—solely ten days earlier the president had introduced a drawdown of 150,000 troops—and a wave of protests broke out at schools throughout the nation.

In all places he seemed, Thompson noticed “the mask of the whiskey gentry . . . a pretentious mix of booze, failed dreams and a terminal identity crisis.”

Discovering himself in his hometown of Louisville once more underneath such circumstances—a weekend that includes each the Derby and mass turmoil over the persevering with struggle in Southeast Asia—Thompson was appalled. In all places he seemed—on the airport, at his lodge, at Churchill Downs and its riotous Paddock Bar—he noticed individuals who bodily embodied the nation’s Nixon/Agnew mentality: the kind of People who couldn’t perceive why sure teams in our society felt so deprived; who, of their incuriousness and acquiescence, gave voice to the share of the inhabitants prepared to, with none sense of hypocrisy, help felony costs for one thing like marijuana possession as they proceeded to drink and gamble themselves into a lifelong stupor of mainstream vices; and who, when it got here to the nationwide unrest over the warfare, didn’t hesitate to blame the violence on the victims of the assaults. Briefly: for Thompson it was the newest expression of the injustice he’d grown up with right here through the 1940s and 50s, in Jim Crow–period Louisville—what he referred to as “the mask of the whiskey gentry . . . a pretentious mix of booze, failed dreams and a terminal identity crisis.”

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As a senior in highschool 15 years earlier, he’d barely escaped this metropolis, enlisting within the Air Drive as a approach out. And this was solely after he’d spent 30 days within the county lockup: he and two different associates had been accused of robbing 4 youngsters—this was throughout a confrontation at one of many bluffs overlooking the river—however his buddies, the sons of rich attorneys, had connections to the decide. In the long run Thompson was the one one who truly went to jail. “Returning to the scenes of my youth,” he’d write to Hinckle after the race, “was not, all in all, an exceptionally wise idea.”

The subsequent day—Friday, Might 1st, nonetheless 24 hours from the beginning of the race—he headed to the monitor so he might meet his fellow Scanlan’s correspondent, Ralph Steadman. They lastly discovered one another within the Derby’s press field. “This is a weird place,” Thompson stated to him. “Why don’t we grab a few beers and maybe talk things over.”

Steadman was a gifted 33-year-old Welsh illustrator whose common aesthetic was one among comedian exaggeration. Together with his tweed jacket and thick beard, he’d been struggling ever since he landed in Kentucky to acclimate himself. Which match nicely with Thompson’s personal rage-tinged discombobulation at returning residence. And for the subsequent three days, as America undid itself with a last paroxysm of Vietnam Struggle protests and dissent and deadly violence, these two interlopers—in tandem with hundreds of Southern celebrants—acquired uproariously drunk.

They spent Saturday at Churchill Downs. They toured the infield and its insanity. They drank without spending a dime within the press part. At race time they took up their allotted positions simply beneath the governor’s field—Barry Goldwater and different outstanding politicians have been there, together with native dignitaries like Colonel Sanders—and through the race itself, which solely lasted two minutes, they watched everybody within the grandstand watching the horses. “We’d come there to watch the real beasts perform,” Thompson would write.

Later that night time, they hit up the Pendennis Membership, an previous Southern venue, however virtually instantly they have been kicked out. Sunday it was the identical: a human sea of mud and alcohol and revulsion and anger as they hopped from bar to bar. At one level a can of Mace might have been used.

By Monday, because the college protests continued to escalate, Ralph Steadman lastly left Louisville. Thompson stayed one other night time; whereas nonetheless again in his hometown he heard, disbelievingly, concerning the bloodbath that had occurred that afternoon on the campus of Kent State College: 4 college students had been murdered by Nationwide Guardsmen, who’d fired repeatedly into the unarmed crowd of 5 hundred antiwar protestors.

Afterward he flew up to New York, the place, on the Royalton Lodge—situated close to Occasions Sq., a block from Scanlan’s East Coast workplace—he hunkered down in his dilapidated suite and started the method of remodeling his notes into the article. He stayed within the metropolis till Sunday: his deadline.

That week, Richard Nixon stated, “When dissent turns to violence it invites tragedy.” Spiro Agnew, the administration’s assault canine for all issues regarding civil liberties, anti-war demonstrations, and press freedom, referred to the protestors as “exhibitionists who provoke more derision than fear” and recommended that they’d incited the tragedy, which he referred to as “predictable and avoidable.” A day later each the president and vice chairman have been reprimanded by their very own secretary of the inside in an astonishing open letter that concluded, “Youth in its protest must be heard.” A whole lot of campuses have been closed. In Iowa Metropolis, college students broke into the Previous Capitol constructing and set fires. In Madison, Wisconsin, selfmade bombs have been thrown into empty lecture rooms. The Nationwide Guard used tear fuel at Southern Illinois and Kentucky and West Virginia. In all, 4 million college students went on strike to protest the warfare. On Friday, at Broad and Wall Road—about six miles from Hunter Thompson’s Manhattan suite—tons of of development staff, chanting “All the way, USA!,” attacked a crowd of anti-war demonstrators; afterward they marched to metropolis corridor the place they forcibly raised the American flag, which had been lowered to half-staff in honor of the Kent State victims. On Might 14th, at Jackson State in Mississippi, guardsmen would open hearth once more, killing two extra college students.

He retreated to the Royalton’s bathtub, the place, with a quart of scotch and his typical provide of Dexedrine, he resorted to ending the article by hand.

Working in his suite, Thompson was initially in a position to assemble set items from his collected notes. However by the top of the week—as New York Metropolis was hit by a startling warmth wave, and because the nation deteriorated into all-out battle over the struggle—he retreated to the Royalton’s bathtub, the place, with a quart of scotch and his regular provide of Dexedrine, he resorted to ending the article by hand. In the long run the timing acquired so tight that he discovered himself inserting his unique notes immediately into the draft. On Sunday night time he and managing editor Don Goddard have been in a position to compile a chronological draft and then minimize 4 thousand further phrases—digressions on the deeply Nixon/Agnew-esque character of Louisville society and on his personal expertise rising up there—and then they despatched their draft of the function to Hinckle in San Francisco, who delivered it with Ralph Steadman’s paintings to the printer—simply hours earlier than the deadline.

“The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” got here out in June. For Hunter Thompson, the entire thing felt like a compromise, an unfinished draft—a failure. “I wish there’d been time to do it better,” he wrote to Hinckle when he noticed the galleys. “With another week I might have honed it down to a finer, meatier edge.” To Steadman: “The article is useless, except for the flashes of style & tone it captures—but I suspect you & I are the only ones who can really appreciate it.” To Invoice Cardoso: “It’s a shitty article, a classic of irresponsible journalism . . . Horrible way to write anything.” However as quickly as the difficulty got here out Thompson began getting telephone calls and letters from associates and colleagues. Tom Wolfe stated that it was the funniest factor he’d ever learn. William Kennedy informed him it was a formal breakthrough—half reportage, half memoir, half exaggeration/fiction. And Cardoso despatched a word of encouragement: “Hunter, I don’t know what the fuck you’re doing, but you’ve changed everything. It’s totally gonzo.”

In the long run, the article itself, composed in a New York bathtub as America descended into a horrific replay of the final decade’s battle, labored like a grotesque mirror on a nation prepared to beat and shoot and ship off to warfare—to sacrifice—its personal youngsters: “a symbol,” as Thompson wrote, “of the whole doomed atavistic culture.”

The unique June 1970 concern of Scanlan’s ended on a brief writer’s observe: “Hunter Thompson has gone back home to rest in Aspen, Colorado, where he edits the Aspen Wallposter and is threatening to become a candidate for sheriff of that community.”

A number of months later, Hunter Thompson and James Salter sat down collectively once more; Thompson was placing collectively a group of gifted native residents to assist together with his marketing campaign for Pitkin County sheriff, and Salter agreed to write and produce the primary radio commercial, which he set towards the jazz flute overture of Herbie Mann’s “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”:

Salter narrated this commercial himself:

Hunter Thompson is a moralist posing as an immoralist. Nixon is an immoralist disguised as a moralist. That is James Salter. There’ll be thieves and auto wrecks in Aspen whoever will get elected. However Hunter represents one thing wholly alien to the opposite candidates for sheriff: concepts. And sympathy in the direction of the younger, beneficiant, grass-oriented society which is making the one critical effort to face the technological nightmare we’ve got created. The one factor towards him is that he’s a visionary. He needs too pure a world.


From Freak Kingdom: Hunter S. Thompson’s Manic Ten-Yr Campaign Towards American Fascism. Used with the permission of PublicAffairs. Copyright © 2018 by Timothy Denevi.

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