Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas | Study Guide

Hunter S. Thompson

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Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Hunter S. Thompson emerged as one of the most unique, cunning journalistic voices of the late 20th century. His most famous work, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, pioneered his journalistic style, referred to as "gonzo journalism," which combined autobiographical self-reflection with traditional reporting. First serialized in Rolling Stone magazine in 1971 and published as a book in 1972, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas documents the misadventures of Raoul Duke and his lawyer, Dr. Gonzo—modeled on Thompson and his friend, Oscar "Zeta" Acosta, respectively. Throughout their drug-fueled romp in the city of Las Vegas, Thompson reflects on the failures, successes, and legacy of the 1960s countercultural movements that helped shape an era and define a generation. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was further immortalized by a famous 1998 film adaptation starring Johnny Depp, now considered a cult classic.

1. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas stemmed from a simple assignment to document a motorcycle race.

Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was the result of a seemingly mundane assignment: report on a local motorcycle race for Sports Illustrated. After the job was pitched to him, Thompson agreed to do what he referred to as "the Vegas thing" but with very different plans in mind. The author was starting to craft his unique style of "gonzo journalism" and decided to write his article in an autobiographical format, recording his various experiences with parties, drugs, and the locals of Las Vegas. His decision to document his journey in the city, not just the motorcycle race itself, transformed his assignment from a short sports article into a full-length book.

2. Thompson first thought of the phrase "fear and loathing" in response to John F. Kennedy's assassination.

Thompson originally used the phrase "fear and loathing" in a letter he wrote in response to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. He wrote:

There is no human being within 500 miles to whom I can communicate anything―much less the fear and loathing that is on me after today's murder ... No matter what, today is the end of an era.

Some have speculated that Thompson actually borrowed the phrase from 19th-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who wrote a treatise entitled Fear and Trembling in 1843. Thompson refuted these claims, however, claiming the similarity is coincidental:

I was not aware that I was accused of stealing it from Kierkegaard. People accused me of stealing "fear and loathing" no, that came straight out of what I felt. If I had seen it, I probably would have stolen it. Yeah, I just remember thinking about Kennedy, that this is so bad I need new words for it. And "fear and loathing"―yeah, it defines a certain state, an attitude.

3. Before writing Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson spent a year following the Hell's Angels.

Thompson's journalistic curiosity often led him to strange, dangerous places. In 1965 Thompson was paid to observe and study the notorious motorcycle gang the Hell's Angels and wrote his first book on the experience, Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, published in 1966. Thompson took his research very seriously and spent nearly a year with the Hell's Angels, drinking with them, accompanying them on rides, and witnessing them commit numerous crimes. His project came to an abrupt end when the gang members finally tired of his presence and beat him up. Thompson reflected:

I was no longer sure whether I was doing research on the Hell's Angels or being slowly absorbed by them.

4. The lawyer and activist who inspired the character of Dr. Gonzo disappeared mysteriously in 1974.

The debauched Dr. Gonzo in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was inspired by the real lawyer who accompanied Thompson on his trip to the city, Oscar "Zeta" Acosta. Acosta was both loved and hated for once subpoenaing an entire grand jury to prove a pattern of racial discrimination existed in the Los Angeles court system. The lawyer disappeared mysteriously off the Mexican coast in 1974, thought to have drowned in the ocean. Due to his controversial work, activism, and lifestyle, many assumed foul play was involved. After Acosta's disappearance, Thompson reflected on their friendship, which he had immortalized in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, stating:

I recognized in Oscar [someone] who would push things one more notch toward the limit ... You never knew with Oscar what was going to happen next.

5. Thompson's illustrator left his paint in a taxi when they first met and had to improvise with makeup.

Thompson had a longtime partnership with an illustrator, Ralph Steadman, who was responsible for the unique blot-filled illustrations that appeared in much of his work. When Steadman first visited Thompson in 1970, he left his materials in a taxi and was forced to improvise. In an act of desperation, he borrowed makeup samples from a friend's wife and began using those as colors. Steadman stated that messing up was an integral part of his artistic career with Thompson, explaining:

That's how I feel about drawing and writing. I couldn't draw very well. I kept blotting things by accident, so I decided to make mistakes part of my work.

6. Thompson wrote a scathing obituary about the life of former President Richard Nixon.

Thompson was not a fan of President Richard Nixon—an opinion he made explicitly clear throughout his journalistic career. Shortly after Nixon's death in 1994, Thompson published an article in Rolling Stone entitled "He Was a Crook," a response to Nixon's famous claim in 1973 "I am not a crook" during the Watergate scandal that eventually led to his resignation. Thompson particularly hated Nixon's shady style of politics, his war on drugs, and his overall public image. In a truly scathing obituary, Thompson wrote:

Richard Nixon is gone now, and I am poorer for it. He was the real thing—a political monster straight out of Grendel and a very dangerous enemy. He could shake your hand and stab you in the back at the same time. He lied to his friends and betrayed the trust of his family ... My mother hates Nixon, my son hates Nixon, I hate Nixon, and this hatred has brought us together.

7. Thompson blasted his boss at Rolling Stone with a fire extinguisher—twice.

Thompson was infamous for defying traditional employee-employer relations throughout his life. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was a perfect example of this defiance, as the book was far from the motorcycle race report he'd been commissioned to write. When Thompson wrote for Rolling Stone, he reportedly went so far as to blast the magazine's publisher, Jann Wenner, with a fire extinguisher multiple times. Luckily, Wenner always kept his sense of humor intact when dealing with Thompson. When asked about the "extinguisher incidents" in an interview, Wenner recalled:

Oh yeah, ha ha! Twice, actually. There was a good adolescent in there and you always knew something was going to happen with him around. And pulling out a fire extinguisher was one of his several tricks.

8. Thompson once ran for sheriff—and his political poster appears in the film of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Despite his penchant for lawless conduct, Thompson once ran for public office—and for sheriff, no less. In 1970 Thompson ran for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado. Thompson proposed more lenient sentencing for drug offenders, in particular, and drew up a campaign symbol of "a double-thumbed fist, clutching a peyote button" on the background of a traditional sheriff's star. Although Thompson lost the election, his campaign was immortalized in the film adaption of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, where a poster with his campaign icon can be seen in a shot of Dr. Gonzo's office.

9. Thompson's likeness was used to create an extremely foul-mouthed DC Comics character.

In the DC Comics series Transmetropolitan, one character bears an uncanny resemblance to Hunter S. Thompson. The series' anti-hero, named Spider Jerusalem, is a tattooed, heavy-drinking journalist and activist who was modeled on the author. This isn't the only time Thompson has appeared as a comic book character, either. In the popular comic Doonesbury, the depraved character "Uncle Duke" is an homage to Thompson—and one which Thompson particularly detested.

10. Actor Johnny Depp arranged to have Thompson's ashes shot out of a cannon.

Johnny Depp, who played Raoul Duke in the 1998 film adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, knew Thompson well. Depp and Thompson hung out and drank together often, having several strange adventures, such as Thompson shaving Depp's head while wearing a miner's hard hat and the two trading cars in preparation for the film. At no small expense to himself, Depp honored Thompson's last wish after the author's death in 2005—to have his ashes shot out of a cannon. The ceremony allegedly sent Depp into a period of "financial turmoil," but Depp remained convinced he'd done the right thing, stating:

All I'm doing is trying to make sure his last wish comes true. I just want to send my pal out the way he wants to go out.

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