Introduction to Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson
By Jann S. Wenner
This oral history began with the memorial issue published by Rolling Stone immediately after Hunter S. Thompson’s suicide on Sunday, February 20, 2005. The idea of creating tributes through the eyes and ears of contemporaries began early in our magazine’s history. We’ve done it often, reaching people by phone or in person to capture their memories of the subject, and it’s become a kind of ritual that starts up automatically when a hero of ours or a musical or literary giant passes.
With Hunter it was this and more. We went all out. There were a lot of people who knew and loved him, and they spoke so vividly (many of them, of course, were professional word slingers) and so fully that it was clear from the beginning (Hunter actually, for the first time, left us with a not unreasonable deadline) that we had a lot on our hands. The team effort consisted of two principal features editors, and occasional designated hitter, myself doing a final edit on everything, and the interviews and research done by two former Rolling Stone editorial assistants, both of whom had been tasked to Hunter on separate occasions (you’ll read about that amazing perspective shortly).
I did find it amusing that once again—though for the last time—everyone at the magazine and some far-flung others were being pressed into one final, consuming deadline struggle on behalf of Dr. Thompson. It was like the old days in a curious and sweet way. We were still working for Hunter.
Corey Seymour and Tobias Perse, who were the former assistants who came in to do the grunt work, were deep in the trenches more than a decade ago, when they were each assigned at one point to be Hunter’s aide-de-camp/slave when he was doing major features for the magazine. Their own stories in this volume are both eye-opening and hair-raising. In any case, they came in to show their love one last time; and Corey, because of his special devotion and doggedness, stayed on to expand that special issue fiftyfold, traveling the country and going back in person to many of the principals, visiting childhood friends, chasing down the stars, and collecting transcripts that when they were roughly assembled came to some 500,000 words, about three times the length of this book.
For Corey, it was a labor of love, as much as anything; I feel the same.
Also, from the memorial issue, we have included as prefatory essays here my own eulogy for a man who had been one of my closest friends and lifelong partner in crime, as well as a tribute/memoir/love letter written, on deadline, by Johnny Depp. Johnny and Hunter were both bad boys from Kentucky, and they admired and loved each other deeply. I saw with my own eyes how special Johnny had become to Hunter, and likewise how devoted and worshipful Johnny had been toward him.
Hunter knew an amazing number of people; he was open and friendly to most strangers; he was charismatic and compelling—to a fault, truly—and he attracted and held sway with more good, close friends than most of us have, admirers, neighbors, worshippers, politicians, groupies, fellow writers, bartenders, nut jobs, hard cases, women, and thrill seekers of all stripes. Many people who knew Hunter well over many years spoke to us but, alas, were edited out for reasons of space and duplication. Stories of Hunter’s wild escapades and deadline frenzies are legendary and numerous, but after a while they can become a tedious read. Lack of inclusion here is no denial that strong and real friendships and relationships existed with many good and kind people. I’m also sorry that Hunter’s second wife, Anita, would not allow her quotes to be used, but she was fully cooperative with the reporting and was forthcoming in all other aspects.
In editing this book, I learned quite a bit about Hunter that I didn’t know, and I did think I nearly knew it all. He was a man of many interests, moods, quirks, and passions; more than one hundred voices start to reveal all that here. And there is the common theme of how much everybody loved him, how singular and powerful a presence he was in people’s lives.
To write someone’s biography—or to edit an oral history—is to sift and choose among all kinds of nuances, shadowings, points of view, and points of fact. To print any given fact is to endorse it and to give it validity; to choose any particular individual’s insight or memory is to give it historical importance.
I was glad to take on the responsibility of making these choices; it felt right, and I ask only for the reader’s understanding and faith when it comes to how I portrayed my own role in Hunter’s life and work. In my own mind, those decisions had to be able to stand the tests of time and a skeptical examination.
For my part, I want to thank Corey for his devotion and hard work, then and now; Paul Scanlon, a man with a fine eye and a fine pen; Lynn Nesbit, Hunter’s longtime agent, and out mutual friend, who suggested and sold this book; Colonel Depp, a comrade in arms; Doug Brinkley, Juan Thompson, Sondi (Sandy always to me) Thompson, Laila Nabulsi, and Deborah Fuller, who have been friends and allies and family through many years; and Jane Wenner, “queen of the underground,” whose photo was next to Hunter’s phone until the day he died.
Excerpted from Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson, by Jann S. Wenner and Corey Seymour. Little, Brown & Company.