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THE NEW JOURNALISM AND ITS EDITORS:
HUNTER S. THOMPSON, TOM WOLFE,
AND THEIR EARLY EXPERIENCES
ELI JUSTIN BORTZ
A THESIS PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
MASTER OF ARTS IN MASS COMMUNICATION
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
Eli Justin Bortz
This document is dedicated to Meredith Ridenour, who provided only patience, guidance,
and love throughout this project, and Hunter S. Thompson, whose wordplay continues to
As I worked on this thesis over the last two years, I attempted to keep a list in my
mind of everyone I needed to thank. As the list grew, I realized I was bound to forget
names. Indeed, so many people provided guidance, help, and support that imagining the
list is fairly overwhelming.
I must first thank the chair of my supervisory committee, Dr. Bernell Tripp, for
providing remarkable patience and advice as this project developed and progressed. I
realized early on that I would need someone with an editor's eye to guide my writing.
She provided that, and more. It was with her encouragement that I was able to complete
this project. I am also indebted to my other committee member, Dr. William McKeen,
who accepted the task of serving on my committee during what can only be described as
a busy time in his life. I wish him and his growing family all the best. Dr. Leonard
Tipton, my other committee member, gave me encouragement and advice in the earliest
stages of this project and recognized my interest in the New Journalism.
I am also grateful to the University Press of Florida, in general, and its acquisitions
department, in specific, for providing me with the support that allowed me to continue
working on this project without having to wonder how I was going to survive in
Gainesville. Amy Gorelick, who gave me my first opportunity at the University Press of
Florida, Meredith Morris-Babb, who gave me encouragement during stressful times and
now serves as the distinguished director of the Press, and John Byram, who gave me the
wonderful opportunity to continue with the Press, all have my profound gratitude. Lori
Larson, Nicholas Eliopulos, and Christine Mechanik, former and present colleagues and
friends, helped make the Press a great home for me.
Nathan Vonderheide and Brian Slais, old and dear friends, helped remind me that
Gainesville was not meant only for work and school. It was because of them that I could
occasionally disconnect from this study and take a breath, if only for a few hours. I must
also thank my parents, Julie and Bruce Smith, for encouraging me when the stress was
overwhelming. They always kept me in their thoughts and prayers, and I love them for it.
Finally, I thank Meredith, who did more for me over the last two years of our lives
than I can ever describe. Her love, support, and understanding kept me going through the
most difficult hours of this study and made the better hours that much brighter. It was
only with her help that I was able to finish this thesis.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
A C K N O W L E D G M E N T S ......... .................................................................................... iv
A B STR A C T ............................................................................... ..................... viii
1 IN TR OD U CTION ............................................... .. ......................... ..
Research Hypotheses/Questions............................ ..... ............5
Review of Literature ............ ........................ ........ ........ .... .. ........ .. ..
T heoretical F ram ew ork ...................................................................... ...................23
M methodology ............. ................................................................ ....................26
Im plications of R research ......... ................. ..................................... .......................29
2 H UN TER S. TH OM PSON ............................................................... ............... 31
Thom pson's E arly C areer............................................................ .......31
R o llin g S to n e ..................................................................................... ....................4 5
Scanlan 's M monthly .............. ........... ......... ......... .......... ..... ........... 49
3 TH OM PSON 'S LETTER S................. ......... .................................. ............... 54
Examining the Correspondence........................................................... ..................... 56
T hom pson and H inckle...................................................................... ...................62
T hom pson and W enner...................................................................... ...................70
4 TOM WOLFE............. .. ....................................... 84
The New York Herald Tribune and New York Magazine ................ ... ............ 91
E squire M magazine ....................................... .... ............ .............. 94
5 W OLFE'S NEW JOURNALISM ............................................................................98
The New Yorker Parodies: Wolfe's Exposure to New York Celebrity.....................102
Editors, Deadlines, and the Necessity of Reaching Out to "Sunday" Readers.........107
W olfe as a F ree A gent .... .... .... ............................................ .. ...... .................... 109
6 C O N C L U SIO N .......... ....................................................................... ........ ... .... 116
L IST O F R E FE R E N C E S ......................................................................... ................... 124
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH ............................................................. ..................129
Abstract of Thesis Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts in Mass Communication
THE NEW JOURNALISM AND ITS EDITORS: HUNTER S. THOMPSON, TOM
WOLFE, AND THEIR EARLY EXPERIENCES
Eli Justin Bortz
Chair: Bemell Tripp
Major Department: Journalism and Communications
This study addresses an infrequently investigated aspect of the New Journalism of
the 1960s and 1970s: the relationships between New Journalists Hunter S. Thompson and
Tom Wolfe and the editors of the respective publications for whom they wrote. Crucial
to this study is the release of two volumes of Thompson's correspondence, detailing the
development of his career over several decades.
The purpose of this study is to examine how the writer-editor relationships
developed and to account for the concerns and considerations at play between these
editors and writers. The scope of media scholarship on the New Journalism presents an
incomplete definition, usually ignoring the relationships that necessarily developed
between the editors of alternative publications that supported the New Journalism and the
working reporters that constituted the source of this method of reporting.
This thesis hypothesizes that, regardless of the status of his career, Thompson
struggled with lack of recognition and respect from editors like Jann Wenner, editor of
Rolling Stone, and Warren Hinckle, editor of Scanlan 's Monthly, due to the often
intangible writer-editor relationship that the New Journalism encouraged. Wolfe's
experiences with editors like Clay Felker, founder of New York magazine, and Esquire's
Byron Dobell, however, proved dissimilar to Thompson's. In fact, Wolfe often reflected
that these relationships helped him develop what is recognized as the New Journalism.
This study, or at least its original intent, can be traced to 1997, when Random
House released the first volume of a proposed three-volume collection of journalist
Hunter S. Thompson's correspondence.1 That first volume covered the years 1955
through 1967, including short stories from Thompson's youth and other letters to editors,
colleagues, family, and friends. These volumes marked the first time Thompson's
complete correspondence was released, and the letters provided invaluable insight into
his ambitions as a writer and journalist.
The popular image of Thompson casts him in the role of freelance writer, with only
the pressure of covering the story weighing on him. What was interesting to note, in even
a cursory glance at the letters in The Proud Highway, was the somewhat desperate nature
of Thompson's life as a freelance journalist and reporter, as he tried to remain financially
stable while building a reputation as a daring and entertaining writer.
Like many people struggling to settle into a career or enterprise, that desperation
would often lead to anger, animosity, and frustration at what was perceived as a lack of
respect from various editors and publishers for whom Thompson would write. Indeed, it
appeared that, at least in the early part of his career, Thompson perceived his editors as
enemies who were uncompromising in their rigid demands or unwilling to appreciate his
1 The Proud Highway, the first volume, was released in 1997, followed by the second volume of
Thompson's letters, Fear and I. ',,iii,, i in America, released in 2000. Curiously, the first volume was
subtitled The Gonzo Letters, Vol. 1, while the second volume carried the subtitle The Fear and I. 'lih,,
Letters, Vol. 2.
"vision" of good journalism. It also appeared that Thompson felt this way for most of his
career. In a 1976 letter to Rolling Stone founder and editor Jann Wenner, Thompson
made known his feelings about his relationship with the San Francisco-based magazine at
a time when he had forged a successful relationship that yielded two books2 and a string
of articles. He lamented:
Anyway, by the time you get this I assume we'll be into another round of
haggling-which depresses the shit out of me, but I can't see any way around it
unless we just take a goddamn public hammer to the whole relationship and let the
bone chips fall where they may. I am frankly not in favor of this course, but I've
given it enough thought to feel pretty certain I'll survive the worst that can happen
if you want to seriously get it on.3
This was written, incidentally, only five years after he wrote Fear and Loathing in
Las Vegas, which was to have sealed Thompson's reputation as "a near God to Jann
Letters like the previous dispatch raise questions about the reality of the
relationship between Thompson and Wenner, who both profited from this somewhat
contentious cooperation. Were the details of this writer-editor relationship indicative of a
deeper distrust? Why would that conflict exist then, and what were the contributing
factors? Thompson brought significant exposure to Wenner's Rolling Stone and should
have benefited financially from this understanding. It was possible, however, that the
truth lay somewhere in that gray world of freelance writer-editor relationships.
2 Fear and I. -,li,, i. in Las Vegas and Fear and I. i ,, On the Campaign Trail '72 had both been
published in serialized form in the pages of Rolling Stone.
3 Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and I. ,,hini,, in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist,
1968-1976, ed. Douglas Brinkley (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), 610.
4 William McKeen, Hunter S. Thompson (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991), 63.
The problematic aspects of Thompson's relationship with editors like Wenner, but
also with other editors like Warren Hinckle of Scanlan 's Monthly, needs to be addressed
in order to reach a fuller understanding of the New Journalism. Were these problems
symptomatic of flaws in the necessarily undefined parameters of writer-editor
relationships in the New Journalism in the 1960s and 1970s? By necessity, the New
Journalism required substantially more creative freedom for the writer, and a great deal
more trust from the editor. What insight could Thompson's correspondence provide into
the realities of the New Journalism, as it was known during the 1960s and 1970s? And
could these problems be seen in the experiences of other New Journalists?
As a counterpoint to this investigation, this study intends to examine the career of
the writer who referred to stylized, subjective writing during this era as the New
Journalism, Tom Wolfe. His experiences in the early part of his career, and the later
years when he eventually drifted from journalism (having irrevocably altered how
journalism could be done), will provide a more complete understanding of the writer-
editor relationship in the New Journalism. While this relationship was only an aspect of
the development of this type of writing during this era, it is still integral to understanding
how the New Journalism developed then. The New Journalism essentially amounted to a
way for writers to incorporate the techniques of novelists in their news stories.
Addressing these relationships is also significant in understanding the negotiating and
cooperation at play when these writers would approach various publications. Unless
these editors and writers could work together, the New Journalism would logically suffer
as a method of reporting that required mutual understanding between those responsible.
The question, then, of what the term New Journalism stands for must address the
practical aspects of these relationships and arrangements, and it will serve as the broad
purpose of this study. The specific purpose of this study, however, is to examine the
careers of writers Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe and their interactions with
publications and editors throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Wolfe and Thompson wrote
during a similar era, when journalism was testing its literary boundaries and editors were
publishing writers who were experimenting with technique. It was Thompson and Wolfe,
however, who emerged as two examples recognized by historians as among the most
prolific and revolutionary writers in the New Journalism. That their experiences were
vastly different suggested that attitude and approach were vital to the development of the
New Journalism. In the case of Hunter S. Thompson, this study will examine his
interaction with editor Warren Hinckle and Sidney Zion, who managed the short-lived
Scanlan's Monthly (1970 1971) and witnessed the birth of Thompson's "gonzo
journalism,"5 and editor Jann Wenner, who created and managed Rolling Stone magazine.
In the case of Tom Wolfe, this study will examine his relationship with editors of the
New York Herald Tribune, such as Clay Felker, who precipitated the birth of his New
Journalism,6 and his interaction with editor Byron Dobell of Esquire magazine, which
provided Wolfe the opportunity to write "There goes (VAROOM! VAROOM!) that
5 As noted in the Modem Library edition of Fear and I. ,ai ,,i in Las Vegas, "Scanlan's Monthly
commissioned Thompson to return to his hometown to cover America's premier Thoroughbred horse race.
The result was 'The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,' in which traditional reportage is skewed
through Thompson's wildly funny first-person perspective" (Thompson 1996, v). That passage also serves
as a good operational definition of "gonzo journalism." While Linn placed the origins of "gonzo
journalism" as a 1957 column written by Thompson, this study will consider "The Kentucky Derby Is
Decadent and Depraved" as its first popular, widely accepted exposure to a large audience.
6 As recorded by Tom Wolfe, Hooking Up (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000), when in
1965 he published a parody of the New Yorker for New York Magazine, which also gave him his first taste
of journalistic in-fighting.
Kandy Kolored (THPHHHHHH) tangerine-flake streamline baby (RAHGHIHHH!)
around the bend (BRUMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM......", his first large-scale
contribution to the New Journalism.
The first operational hypothesis considered in this study is that the relationship
between the reporters and editors working in the New Journalism had an impact on the
development and fruition of that genre. This study considers that a cyclical model
existed on at least the surface of this relationship: the New Journalists needed to maintain
a relationship with the editors of these certain magazines so that their work would be
published and exposed to the largest audience possible. Likewise, the editors needed the
writing of the New Journalists to popularize and support the magazines that employed
them, and the editors desired to help shape and guide this emerging, highly experimental
method of reporting.
Writers like Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson relied on magazines like Esquire
and Rolling Stone, respectively, to make their careers, to provide them with financial
support, and to establish their reputations as leading figures in the New Journalism.
Thompson needed editors who could understand and excuse his occasionally irrational
behavior in order to make a living as a writer in the early years of his career.7 Likewise,
Wolfe relied on daring editors to publish writing that was non-traditional, controversial,
and often subject to intense scrutiny and criticism.8
7 See Linn, McKeen, and Meyers. The main point of each of their arguments was that Thompson
was a difficult writer at best.
8 See McKeen, Scura and Bloom for descriptions of Wolfe's general approach.
The second hypothesis employed in this study asserts that the relationship between
the New Journalists and editors was hardly symbiotic, and it occasionally bordered on
contention and outrage. The frustrated relationships that emerged are indicative of the
often schizophrenic reactions of editors to outrageous expenses and negative publicity
associated with controversial writers and reflects the fact that these editors and writers
were working within an imperfect (at best) interactive framework. Some editors thrived
on controversy, while others shied away from it. Thompson's own correspondence,
Wolfe's reflections, and journalism historians all indicate the complicated relationships at
The implications of these two hypotheses are relevant to the fields of journalism,
literature, business, and art. This study asserts that the often conflicting natures and
desires of journalism and business (or, for that matter, literature and business
relationships) create a field where their idea of perfection is rarely achieved, and both
parties are rarely completely satisfied. This is not a situation unique only to the New
Journalism, but within its context, this imbalance suggests that even though
experimentation was understood, its implications were rarely recognized.
In its brief influential existence, the New Journalism as exemplified by Thompson
and Wolfe demonstrated new possibilities in traditional reporting. Experimentation and
stylistic techniques were utilized by both writers, and others, eventually impressing their
ideas onto the mainstream press. And while the New Journalism would adapt and evolve
into traditional journalism, there is significance in understanding which writers
influenced its origins. For the purposes of this study, Thompson and Wolfe are the focus,
given the prominent recognition of their work in the New Journalism.
Review of Literature
Almost all detailed studies involving the New Journalism of the 1960s and 1970s
include at least minor analyses of the work of Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe.
Beyond that, the various reporters and writers included under the umbrella term of "New
Journalism" include Gay Talese, Truman Capote, Joan Didion, Michael Herr, Norman
Mailer, Joe Eszterhas and other writers.9 Defining the New Journalism is inherently
subjective given its loose system of guidelines and rules (as was intended), so it is
understandable that scholars attempting to account for its salient aspects need limit their
scope to a manageable objective. That necessity is not disputed in this study, as the intent
here is to shed light on the demonstrable characteristics and interdependence within the
New Journalism. One possible method of loosely defining the New Journalism is to
assert that any writer attempting to work contrary to traditional reporting techniques
could be called a New Journalist, though any scholar working from this construct will
encounter difficulty as journalism adapted according to generational and literary
For the purposes of this study, the New Journalism is defined as specific magazine
and newspaper journalism written during the 1960s through the 1970s that embraced
experimental literary techniques through increased subjectivity, narrative usage, focus on
the writer, and attention to cultural and social events. As a fairly fluid style of writing, all
examples of the New Journalism and New Journalists may not necessarily fulfill all
9 Michael L. Johnson, The New Journalism: The Underground Press, the Artists ofNonfiction, and
C( Ii,., in the Established Media (Wichita, KS: The University Press of Kansas, 1971). Johnson
references all these writers, with the exception of Eszterhas. See also John Hollowell, Fact and Fiction:
The New Journalism and The Nonfiction Novel (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1977)
and Tom Wolfe and E.W. Johnson, eds., The New Journalism (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), which
aspects of this definition, but the work considered in this study will closely match the
broad focus discussed here.
Scholars have examined the New Journalism in both its reportorial and literary
forms, and by critically examining the work of the individual writers who fall under that
rubric. One of the most interesting preliminary aspects to note is where the New
Journalism is not mentioned. In two mainstream dissident press journalism texts (Voices
of Revolution by Rodger Streitmatter and The Dissident Press by Lauren Kessler), the
New Journalism is not even mentioned, yet only hinted at as being relevant to the study
of the dissident press movement. Yet the dissident press and the New Journalism could
be seen as two different means to an end. As Streitmatter noted, "the dissident American
press has, for almost two centuries, served as a robust and effectual force that has had
substantial impact on the social and political fabric of this nation."10 In other words, this
willingness to take risks encouraged other publications to explore alternative or literary
When it is addressed, the New Journalism emerges as an eminently unique method
of fusing journalistic and literary influences with the intent of grafting these new
techniques onto the traditional, mainstream press. The downside of analyzing the New
Journalism according to this methodology is its assignment to literary examinations
conspicuously absent of journalistic interpretations. Thomas Connery's A Sourcebook of
American Literary Journalism approached the subject of the New Journalism as a literary
phenomenon, referring to literary journalism throughout the volume as a unique
movement. The background Connery provided relied more on introspective examination
10 Rodger Streitmatter, Voices ofRevolution (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), x.
of literary and artistic ideals, rather than exploring the notion that much of this new
"literary form" sprang from an alternative approach to journalistic reporting, often
dependent on support from dissident publications or the traditional press that embraced
Following this method of examination, a number of investigations link the New
Journalism with the concept of the "Nonfiction Novel," which is inarguably a vital aspect
of the mechanics of this new approach to journalism. Fact and Fiction by John
Hollowell is an example of this approach, in that it examines the literary development
and implications of the New Journalism without examining its relationship to fringe
journalism or its publications. Again, Connery is an example of a study that focuses
more on the artistic principles at work.
Much of the research that relates to this current study includes an examination of
the impact of the New Journalism on the discipline of journalism itself. The idea that the
New Journalism had a demonstrable impact on both the relationships between editors and
reporters and on journalism as a whole is central to this study, and certain scholars have
addressed that impact. Paul Thomas Meyers explained the New Journalism's intent,
asserting, "The New Journalism insisted that its audience discover meaning in events by
suggesting what those events meant to the writer."12 This suggested an intensely personal
and subjective discipline under examination in his study, and it provides some
understanding as to the difficulty of delineating a concrete definition. The two essential
1 Thomas Connery, ed., A Sourcebook ofAmerican Literary Journalism (New York: Greenwood
12 Paul Thomas Meyers, "The New Journalist as Culture Critic: Wolfe, Thompson, Talese" (Ph.D.
diss., Washington State University, 1983), 3.
strains Meyers saw in the New Journalism was the attempt to evoke journalistic reporting
as an art form, and the writer's intent to make the work more credible in the eyes of the
reader by writing from a personal perspective.
In the mind of the New Journalist, the ability of the reader to "interact" with the
situation being described is vital to fulfilling their intent. For the purposes of this study,
this writer-reader reaction is vital to the theoretical framework that might help explain the
motivations of the New Journalist. A possible interpretation is to view the New
Journalist as one who looks at traditional press coverage of an event or force in society
and attempts to delve deeper into the reality of the scenario, forcing the reader to examine
what it means to them on a personal level. Meyers focused primarily on individual New
Journalists, namely Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese and Hunter S. Thompson, which is
understandable given the scope of his examination. These three journalists figure heavily
into much of the broad overviews of the New Journalism.13
The New Journalism, and the specific writers and editors who could be thought of
as participating in this admittedly fringe field, is central to this study and to an
understanding of its reflection on journalistic relationships. Michael Linn asserted, in his
study of Hunter S. Thompson's early sports writing, that indications of Thompson's later
contributions to the New Journalism might be evident in those first journalistic attempts.
That same study suggested that Thompson grafted his own literary style onto journalism,
13 Besides Meyers, see also Johnson, The New Journalism; Hollowell, Fact and Fiction; Norman
Sims, ed., Literary Journalism in the Twentieth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990); John
Hellmann, Fables ofFact: The New Journalism as New Fiction (Chicago: University of Illinois Press,
1981); and Ronald Weber, ed., The Reporter as Artist: A Look at The New Journalism Controversy (New
York: Hastings House, Publishers, 1974).
rather than developing his style through his journalistic experience.14 Linn also analyzed
Thompson's sports writing for The Command Courier, the base newspaper of Eglin Air
Force Base, Florida, where Thompson served during his brief stint in the Air Force. Linn
explained why Thompson's writing would be enticing for any magazine to include:
"Early in Thompson's career, it was his copy that won the approval of his readers that
propelled his career early, as he was never a trusted writer among his editors and
William McKeen, in his study of Thompson, emphasized the writer's appeal to a
wide audience of youth and counterculture activists. He noted, "Thompson's best early
association was with the National Observer, a publication started in 1962 as a 'Sunday
edition' of the Wall Street Journal."16 McKeen also noted that the National Observer
was "one of the most elegantly written and edited examples of American journalism,"
and revealed how Thompson's arrangement with the magazine helped him adapt his style
and pace to journalistic writing.
Thompson's National Observer articles are representative of Thompson's desire to
provide a larger social commentary, while utilizing traditional journalistic technique such
as interviewing grounding the story in hard news. In "Democracy Dies in Peru, but Few
Seem to Mourn Its Passing," Thompson examined South American democracy and found
it lacking. He began the article as a broad commentary, noting, "If there is one profound
reality in Peruvian politics it is the fact that this country has absolutely no democratic
14 Michael Linn, "The Sports Writing of Hunter S. Thompson" (Master's thesis, University of
15 Ibid., 20.
16 McKeen, Hunter S. Thompson, 17.
tradition, and any attempt to introduce one is going to meet violent opposition."17
Thompson then continued by examining specific events in Peru that influenced
democracy and concluded by suggesting that the American-based Alliance for Progress is
"a misunderstanding."18 Evident in this article is a less restrictive style of reporting that
allowed Thompson to observe the larger difficulties of South American democracy while
focusing on the specific problems of Peru.
As McKeen suggested, while Thompson's work ethic caused problems with many
editors, only a specific type of editor could accept this writing. He noted that
Thompson's "writing was too loose and ragged for most traditional newspapers, yet not
structured enough for a slick magazine piece. The National Observer allowed him to be
methodical in his writing and slow to build to the point, as was the practice with the Wall
Street Journal's column-one features. Sometimes his pieces fit well within the Journal
After accumulating both clips and a reputation with the National Observer,
Thompson moved on to the liberal magazine The Nation, where he would encounter
culturally significant movements such as the Hell's Angels motorcycle gang. According
to McKeen's study, this interaction proved beneficial in two ways: The Nation had the
appropriate writer who could thoroughly investigate and relate to the group, and
Thompson had a subject that could test his creative strengths.20 The original article for
The Nation had brought Thompson into the good graces of the gang, and, according to
17 Hunter S. Thompson, The Great Shark Hunt (New York: Summit Books, 1979), 352.
18 Ibid., 358.
19 McKeen, Hunter S. Thompson, 18.
McKeen, "earned Thompson a name as a daredevil journalist for associating with the
Angels,"21 an association encouraged by his writing and reputation.
McKeen also noted that Thompson's relationship with Warren Hinckle and his
Scanlan 's Monthly would prove as beneficial as his work with The Nation. McKeen
recognized that "Scanlan's was a breakthrough of sorts for Thompson and the beginning
of a short but influential association with the magazine,"22 and that their journalistic
styles and goals meshed well. McKeen also suggested "Hinckle was one of the few
editors willing to take a chance on Thompson."23 Evident in the Scanlan's pieces is a
much more vigorously asserted humor, as exemplified by "The Kentucky Derby is
Decadent and Depraved." Most interesting in the "Kentucky Derby" article is
Thompson's attention to details, noting "moments after the race was over, the crowd
surged wildly for the exits, rushing for cabs and buses...people were punched and
trampled, pockets were picked, children lost, bottles hurled. But we missed all this,
having retired to the press box for a bit of post-race drinking."24 It was this inherent dark
humor that attracted attention to Thompson, through his writing for Scanlan 's.
McKeen's study demonstrated that Hinckle was similar to Jann Wenner in that the
Rolling Stone editor was also willing to take chances on Thompson. McKeen succinctly
recited the history of Wenner's ambitious project, noting that Rolling Stone quickly
became known for pushing controversial rock and roll coverage (controversial in that few
publications focused solely on rock and roll in the late 1960s. Specifically, however,
21 Ibid., 27.
22 Ibid., 35.
23 Ibid., 11.
24 Thompson, The Great Shark Hunt, 36.
McKeen noted that while Wenner and Thompson both benefited professionally from their
relationship, their fairly intensive friendship would fluctuate due to strain and tension
related to their work.25
While McKeen focused on the factual background of Thompson and the
circumstances of his career, his study benefited from investigating the implications of the
tensions that arose between Wenner and Thompson. While evidence was scant at the
time McKeen studied Thompson, material (such as the collected correspondence between
Wenner and Thompson) is now available that reveals more about their personal feelings,
their reactions to tense business and personal matters, and the resulting animosity.
Paul Perry, in his biography on Thompson, recounted one of Thompson's earliest
conflicts in professional journalism, while working as a reporter in Middletown.
Thompson had a complaint about lasagna at a local restaurant and engaged in a fistfight
with the owner, who happened to be a major advertiser in the newspaper. Thompson lost
his job shortly after that incident.26 By focusing on both Thompson's life and his
contributions to journalism and literature, Perry provided excellent source material and
interpretation of exactly how Thompson conducted his work. As an example of what
Perry described, he asserted that after Thompson destroyed a colleague's car, he fled one
of his first newspaper jobs in Pennsylvania and "fearful that the publisher would deduct
repair costs from his salary, Hunter immediately left the office, drove home, packed and
headed for New York City."27 Perry noted simply that Thompson "had trouble
25 McKeen, Hunter S. Thompson, 10-11.
26 Paul Perry, Fear and I. .,liin,, The Strange and Terrible Saga ofHunter S. Thompson (New
York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1992), 42.
27 Ibid., 29.
conforming to the workplace standards."28 More than a rebellious attitude, however,
Thompson found the inability to conform became a growing element of his reputation
The freelance lifestyle appealed greatly to Thompson, which explained why his
first major output, with the exception of his early Louisville Courier-Journal pieces, as a
roving correspondent in South America for the National Observer worked out so well.
Even though Thompson worked for the National Observer from 1961 to 1962, Perry
explained that the sixteen pieces produced were excellent examples of journalistic gift.
One of the early indications of possible problems with the veracity of his writing,
however, also came from this period in South America when editors began questioning
the facts in his articles. For example, editors doubted the existence of Puerto Estrella,
Colombia, as mentioned in Thompson's "A Footloose American in a Smuggler's Den."29
There were also doubts, according to Perry, about whether a man hitting golf balls into
the streets of Cali, Colombia, (which Thompson claimed in the article "Why Anti-Gringo
Winds Often Blow South of the Border" as "one of my most vivid memories"30) existed.
Thompson defended his writing to a friend, claiming, "A good journalist hears lots of
things. Maybe I heard some of these stories and didn't see them. But they sure as hell
happened."31 Thompson's weaving of fact and fiction was hardly embraced at this point
in his career, but editors, for the most part, chose to ignore possible instances of
29 Thompson, The Great Shark Hunt, 345.
30 Ibid., 348.
31 Perry, 77.
fabrication. The writing was good, and the National Observer was eager to publish
Thompson's work for Scanlan's Monthly, which produced the first definitive piece
of his "gonzo" journalism in "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,"
proceeded comparatively smoother than his other long-term assignments. Hinckle kept
his distance from Thompson and his ideas, either assigning or approving Thompson's
articles and making an effort to cooperate with the notorious procrastinator. When
editing the "Kentucky Derby" piece, Thompson wrote Hinckle to suggest that the
Scanlan's editors helped him edit out unnecessary material, and noted, "in retrospect I
think that was the only way to go."32 Forcing Thompson to produce copy rarely worked
(throughout his writing career, as a matter of fact) and Hinckle would only apply pressure
by having his editors harass Thompson as a last resort.33 This relationship could have
sustained itself for some time, Perry claimed, even though Hinckle's magazine had a
small circulation that precipitated its previously described collapse in less than a year.
By the end of Scanlan's run, Thompson had also begun writing for Rolling Stone,
where Thompson ultimately found fame. His first important article for Wenner's
publication was "Strange Rumblings in Aztlan" in 1971, which would prove important
for several reasons. Accepting the assignment, about a Latino journalist named Ruben
Salazar who was killed in a Los Angeles Police raid, demonstrated his willingness to
produce copy as a staff reporter rather than a freelance writer. Apparent in the article
32 Thompson, Fear and I. ,,ai ,,ii in America, 296.
33 Ibid., 141-142. Hinckle sent Scanlan's managing editor Don Goddard to pressure Thompson to
finish "The Kentucky Derby," which naturally backfired and provoked "writer's block." Eventually,
Thompson broke down and dispatched pages from his notebook to the copy desk, which ran the pages and
gave birth to "gonzo" journalism.
itself is a steady, yet creative, exploration of the events surrounding Salazar's death.
Thompson noted that after Salazar's death, "the very mention of the name 'Ruben
Salazar' was enough to provoke tears and fist-shaking tirades not only along Whittier
Boulevard but all over East L.A."34 That passage exemplifies Thompson's ability to
engage in creative commentary, while connecting the story to a factual basis, and is
indicative of the entire article. The assignment also brought him into close contact with a
crucial source: Latino lawyer, writer and activist Oscar Acosta, who would eventually
become a main character in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The clout Thompson built
up after producing "Strange Rumblings" paid off for the next several years and
assignments, as he pursued his varied interests with the support of editors at Rolling
The story of the origins of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas serves as a good
example of the work Thompson could produce by adhering to his nature and refusing to
"conform to workplace standards." Perry recounted how Thompson and Acosta would
eventually become the crazed reporter Raoul Duke and his attorney Dr. Gonzo captured
in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The concept for Las Vegas was rooted in
Thompson's need to disconnect from the Salazar piece, and "frustrated by the Chicano
culture in East L.A., Hunter had the idea of doing a piece about the American dream in
Las Vegas, a follow-up to the Kentucky Derby piece ... An editor friend at Sports
Illustrated asked Hunter if he was interested in covering the Las Vegas Mint 400
motorcycle race."35 Thompson asked Acosta if he would accompany him to Vegas so
34 Thompson, The Great Shark Hunt, 122.
35 Ibid., 158.
they contemplate the Salazar story outside of Los Angeles. That suggestion led to the
trip, which would eventually be supported by Wenner and turned into an epic story.
Perry quoted a moment when Thompson brought an initial proposal of what would
become Fear and Loathing to Rolling Stone editor David Felton, with whom he was
working on the Salazar piece. "'This stuff is great,' said Felton, handing the pages back.
'I think you are really onto something. Keep it up."'36 Eventually consulting Wenner,
Thompson found the additional support he needed to bring his personal vision, in the
form of Fear and Loathing, to life rather than the (as Thompson saw it) unsettling
experience of grinding out a piece on a murder. Unfortunately, however, as Thompson
mentioned in his letters to Wenner while he was finishing the work, whatever support
Thompson received in the pages of Rolling Stone only difficultly translated into financial
support.37 As Thompson's demands for more money on his personal project continued,
Wenner eventually deducted fees from his story payment. Thompson then helped himself
to one of Wenner's stereo amplifiers.38
Thompson's next book, Fear and Loathing. On the Campaign Trail '72, was
written very differently since he was now a salaried employee of Rolling Stone and
Wenner. Perry recounted stories, occurring during the 1970s, of Thompson's personal
triumphs juxtaposed with anger and animosity (mostly over money) directed at Wenner,
who had by this time become his patron. As his letters demonstrated, Thompson would
take these perceived slights very seriously, eventually severing contact with Wenner and
36 Ibid., 161.
7 Thompson, Fear and I. l,~ainih in America, 378-380 and 390-394
38 Perry, 164.
harboring long-lasting resentments. Journalist Timothy Crouse, who assisted Thompson
in his articles on the 1972 presidential campaign (which would eventually become Fear
and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72), would often find himself at the receiving end
of Wenner's wrath over Thompson's inability to file on time.
Wenner and Thompson would frequently spar over issues such as these, as
Thompson next covered the end of the Vietnam War. Thompson ended one letter to
Wenner by sarcastically thanking him. Thompson angrily noted "all the help and
direction you've given me in these savage hours, and about the only thing I can add to
that is that I genuinely wish you were here."39 Perry related this bizarre situation as
Thompson attempted to learn whether a rumor that Wenner dropped him from retainer
was true. In fact, Wenner had taken out a massive life insurance policy on Thompson
before he left to cover the fall of Saigon. The policy, according to Perry, "would make
the magazine a lot of money if the Gonzo journalist were killed. When Hunter returned
from Saigon, he resigned from the magazine and asked that Wenner remove his name
from the masthead."40 Thompson essentially stopped writing for Rolling Stone after this
instance, producing perhaps a handful of pieces through the rest of the 1970s and 1980s
before returning briefly as a regular contributor for the 1992 presidential campaign. His
experiences with Wenner, however, had proven to be more than he preferred to accept as
either a freelance or salaried journalist.
From the perspective of a biographer, Perry related much of the tension evident
between Wenner and Thompson, though he uses mostly chronological anecdotes to
39 Thompson, Fear and I. ',ii,,in in America, 617.
40 Perry, 214-215.
demonstrate his claims. A more detailed analysis of the working relationship between
Hinckle and Thompson, in particular, would have been especially helpful in gauging the
overall theme of Thompson's relation to other editors. Again, Perry wrote as a
biographer, rather than a historian. This necessarily limited his scope, and demonstrates
what his study lacked when compared to McKeen's study.
Tom Wolfe serves as one of the most potent examples of individual New
Journalists who shaped the genre into the literary style it became. Ronald Weber
declared Wolfe "a founding father of the New Journalism."41 Dorothy Scura edited a
volume that examined Wolfe's career in detail, studying his emergence as a major figure
in 1965 with a parody he wrote for New York Magazine. Scura also included detailed
descriptions of the catalyst for his first major work in the New Journalism, The Kandy-
Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby, which grew out of an assignment he started
for Esquire magazine.42
From the perspective of a working journalist, McKeen expressed a profound
appreciation for the freedom Wolfe injected into his brand of journalism, which in turn
resulted in new freedoms for other reporters. Again, in most studies, Wolfe emerged as a
leading figure and a unique example of the possibilities of the New Journalism.
Wolfe hardly became integral to the development of the New Journalism instantly,
however, and, as previous studies noted of Thompson's own experiences, Wolfe first had
to demonstrate his journalistic capabilities. It was at newspapers like the Washington
41 Ronald Weber, "Tom Wolfe's Happiness Explosion" in Tom Wolfe, ed. Harold Bloom
(Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2000), 5.
42 Dorothy Scura, ed., Conversations with Tom Wolfe (Jackson, Miss.: University Press of
Post where Wolfe began to hone his writing style. The Post was merely an early
example of Wolfe's attempt to shape his own technique. Wolfe eventually demonstrated
his talent at the Herald Tribune and became a staff writer on New York, the Sunday
magazine. The presence ofjournalist Jimmy Breslin helped Wolfe develop a sense of
belonging at the Herald Tribune, but a keenly developed sense of competition with New
York Times reporter Gay Talese had as great an impact on Wolfe's writing.43
Wolfe's Herald Tribune editors willingly accepted his desire to try new journalistic
techniques. Herald Tribune historian Richard Kluger wrote about the paper's initial
embrace of Wolfe's adventurous style. He noted, "For Tom Wolfe, all of New York life
was a single sublime feature. He did not construct his stories like anyone else. He would
plunge into them in medias res, drolly painting the scene and happily twirling images to
tantalize the reader before doubling back to supply comprehensibility."44 Kluger,
however, also explained why the Herald Tribune, and its top editor James Bellows,
embraced Wolfe in the first place. He noted "of all James Bellows's efforts to strengthen
the Tribune, none was more striking than his willingness to take chances on new young
writers, whom he encouraged to work in whatever style made them comfortable and who
understood... that 'there is no mold for a newspaper story.'45
The mindset of the Herald Tribune clearly encouraged the kind of writing Wolfe
was eager to pursue. One particular example of Wolfe's first assignment at the paper
illustrated how Wolfe must have reacted to this newfound freedom. McKeen recounted
44 Richard Kluger, The Paper: The Life and Death of the New York Herald Tribune (New York:
Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1986), 673.
45 ibid., 671.
how Wolfe reacted to this new style, when "on his first assignment, Wolfe asked his
supervising editor how long the story should be. The city editor in Wolfe's description
- looked at him as if he were crazy. 'What do you mean how long do I want it?' the
editor said. Wolfe elaborated: 'Do you want six paragraphsh? Ten graphs?' The city
editor snorted, 'Just stop when it gets boring."'46
While Thompson and Wolfe represent two individual writers examined in this
thesis, they remain only one half of the complete narrative. To balance the narrative, this
study will also focus on specific editors Jann Wenner, Warren Hinckle, Sidney Zion,
Byron Dobell, and Clay Felker as representative of the other central aspect in the writer-
editor relationship. These individual editors are, in turn, representative of the willingness
of their publications to sustain the New Journalism. This aspect of the thesis has also
been examined by a number of writers and scholars: namely, the debt owed to magazines
such as Rolling Stone and Esquire. Linn again explicitly stated the dependence on
liberally minded editors. In a personal note, he thanked "those editors who were willing
to publish these subjective works. Without them, gonzo [the term applied to Thompson's
particular method of writing] journalism in printed form would not exist. They were the
people who decided against traditional journalism. They chose, in essence, entertainment
over news, a style of writing that readers have a difficult time putting down."47
Essayist Jan Morris explained in detail the vitality of Rolling Stone and its value in
the context of journalism. She asserted that "Rolling Stone was the most thrilling
phenomenon of contemporary American journalism, which had established its fortunes
46 McKeen, Wolfe, 22.
47 Linn, 53.
upon the economics of rock music, and found its readers among the lively, restless,
affluent and stereophonic avant garde of young America."48 While this might be a
somewhat idealized interpretation of Rolling Stone's place, it provides insight into its
reputation among its contemporaries.
Finally, Wolfe himself described the journalistic level of freedom he encountered at
Esquire magazine when he first proposed to explore the precedent for what would
become his Streamline Baby. He explained that "I went over to Esquire magazine after a
while and talked to them about this phenomenon [of obsessively creative custom car
designers], and they sent me out to California to take a look at the custom car world."49
With that concise description, Wolfe embarked on forming a new method of interpreting
and reporting journalism, with assistance and understanding from Esquire.
Judging from the resources available, a clear concept of the New Journalism, on a
practical and theoretical plane, emerges and provides a basis for studying the motivations
and methods of New Journalists in the 1960s and 1970s. Curiously enough, at least part
of that theoretical model can be derived from Marshall McLuhan, the theorist who
predicted the dawning of a new interactive information age. Howard Bloom edited a
volume of scholarly research related to Wolfe and included in that volume an analysis of
what New Journalists were attempting to communicate. With respect to the similarities
between McLuhan's ideas and the New Journalism, Richard Kallan noted in Bloom's
volume "Marshall McLuhan's famous dictum about the medium being the massage can
48 Jan Morris, Destinations: Essays from Rolling Stone (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980),
49 Tom Wolfe, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (New York: Farrar, Straus and
Giroux, 1965), xii.
also refer to New Journalism's idea of massaging, or engaging the reader's attention, by
giving the feel of an event instead of simply reporting what has happened.""50 In other
words, closely related to this explanation, an accurate description of the New Journalism
maintains that a direct infusion of the reporter's persona into the mind of the reader is a
If regarded in the context of its era, the New Journalism owes much to the
emergence of both new media theories (as with McLuhan) and new, viable media options
(such as television). The comparison to McLuhan is interesting as well, given that
Kallan's study examined the rise of the New Journalism with the comparable rise of
television in the same era. That is, the same ideals that made television popular might
have played some role in making the New Journalism an equally accessible medium of
communication. Whether the evolution of the two are related or merely coincidental
remains to be examined by other studies, but for the purposes of this thesis that
possibility provides a context for understanding the respective successes of television and
the New Journalism.
Related to this concept of immediacy, or tangible writer-reader interaction, is what
Wolfe described as his "theory of information compulsion." As Wolfe explained to
interviewer Chet Flippo, "My one contribution to the discipline of psychology is my
theory of information compulsion. Part of the nature of the human beast is a feeling of
scoring a few status points by telling other people things they don't know.""51 His
50 Richard Kallan, "Style and the New Journalism: A Rhetorical Analysis of Tom Wolfe" in Tom
Wolfe, ed. Harold Bloom (Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2000), 72.
51 Chet Flippo, "The Rolling Stone Interview: Tom Wolfe" in Conversations with Tom Wolfe, ed.
Dorothy Scura (Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 1990), 143.
comment described a method of reporting that influenced at least Wolfe and possibly
other New Journalists to undertake their own writing style.
The above theories explain the motivations and methodology of the New
Journalists, which serves the purpose of this thesis by providing answers for roughly one
half of the study. The other half, which will deal with the motivations of the editors, will
reference established traditions of journalistic relationships, whereby editors and
reporters maintain respectful and cooperative interactions in order to fulfill both their
However, in the context of the New Journalism, the theoretical model for this study
must also account for any divergences that appear in both the New Journalists' and
editors' motivations. This divergence would occur where editors appeared willing to
allow experimental writing, yielding new journalistic techniques as well as new
considerations. Flippo provided an example of what motivated editors in Wolfe's case.
The catalyst for experimentation came when "Lewis Lapham (now editor of Harper's) .
. quit the New York Herald Tribune. It was there that Wolfe and Jimmy Breslin and Pete
Hamill and others were encouraged by editor Clay Felker to try new avenues in
journalism. New York magazine was the birthplace of New Journalism."52
Throughout the literature, a pattern emerged suggesting that editors who
understood, or at least recognized, this new approach to journalism could treat it as such
and provide a forum for experimentation. Wolfe himself also provided a deeper
explanation of this motivation in Hooking Up, where he described his first encounter with
52 Ibid., 132.
journalistic controversy that resulted in an early example of the New Journalism.53 A
willingness to be professionally daring and an understanding of the value of
experimentation became part of the theoretical guidelines that governed these editors and
it provides a cornerstone of the model for this thesis.
The design of this study essentially suggests that primary source material
(correspondence, memoirs, interviews, essays, novels, etc.) will be the strongest
indicators of the validity and detail of the hypotheses. The content produced by New
Journalists Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson will be central to this study, as are the
personal reflections of editors who worked in the New Journalism, such as Jann Wenner,
Byron Dobell, Warren Hinckle and others. Moreover, the historical record is vital to this
study, so the content of what the New Journalism produced, when and in what
publication will be considered. As individual pieces, when considered with the
background of how these stories were written and published, this content will provide
specific examples of the interaction between these writers and editors.
Specific references to the relationship between the writer and the editor, whether it
is derived from primary or secondary material, will be closely examined for validity and
explication. Particular emphasis will be placed on primary information from New
Journalists such as Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe and editors noted above. These
sources will be examined for reflections or answers that relate to specific experiences
with magazines and editors, whether those experiences were positive or negative, and
whether a lasting judgment emerged from that encounter. Both Wolfe and Thompson are
53 Wolfe, Hooking Up (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000), 248-293.
recognized by most journalism and literary historians as central to the development of the
Perhaps the most essential explanation on why this thesis focuses on Wolfe and
Thompson is to consider the body of work (both written by them and also about them)
readily available to scholars and readers. These two journalists have engendered a
considerable amount of analysis and writing devoted to them, as well as contributed their
own work to the historical record for analysis. To conduct this type of research on other
New Journalists would be more complicated in identifying relevant material and
gathering insight into their experiences as the New Journalism developed.
The methodology in this study will be heavily reliant upon case study techniques of
original primary source material from the publications where the New Journalism thrived,
as well as those specific advances in which the underground press contributed. The
specific publications and individuals to be included in this study will include Hunter S.
Thompson and Tom Wolfe, who contributed to the New Journalism, and those
publications that either ran the work of these writers or provided an environment in which
this material could be published. Wolfe and Thompson are the focus of this study due to
the volume of work they produced as New Journalists, the length of their careers, and the
wide variety of available resources related to each writer. Publications such as Scanlan 's
Monthly, Rolling Stone, Esquire, The New York Herald Tribune, New York Magazine and
others contributing to the development of the New Journalism in the 1960s and 1970s
will also be explored. These magazines and newspapers were specifically considered
given their evident relationships with Thompson and Wolfe and the volume of these
writers' work that each publication provided.
Given the necessarily narrow area of investigation, approaching this thesis as a case
study will yield the most accurate and efficient method of properly addressing the
hypotheses and will also help make the study manageable. Case study techniques are
valuable in the context of providing a precise start and end point for the time period
studied, which in this case will be the decades of the 1960s and 1970s. The reasoning
behind limiting this investigation to these two decades is to account for how these writer-
editor relationships impacted on the New Journalism as both a literary genre and a
Linn, Meyers and Gerald Boyer all approach their respective topics related to the
New Journalism as case studies or "chronicles," which refers to an attempt to account for
specific aspects of either the time period or the source material, such as the 1960s and
1970s where the New Journalism once again emerged as a recognizable literary
technique. These three studies employed techniques to examine both the particular time
period and specific body of work (as with Meyers' focus on Talese, Thompson, and
Wolfe), which define the essential elements of this thesis as well. Every effort was made
to adhere to the techniques and methodology employed in these, and similar, studies.
In particular, all sources pertaining to Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe will be
studied in an effort to obtain evidence of their opinions toward the respective editors for
whom they worked. In the case of Hunter S. Thompson, both volumes of his
correspondence currently released were thoroughly investigated to understand all aspects
of his career and interaction with editors such as Jann Wenner, Warren Hinckle, Sidney
Zion, as well as editors of smaller publications such as the National Observer. In
addition to those sources, works by other scholars investigating Thompson's life will be
examined for insight and specific critiques of his relationship with the editors and
publications noted above.
In the case of Tom Wolfe, scholarly studies of his development of the New
Journalism and his interactions with editors at Esquire, Rolling Stone, and the New York
Herald Tribune will be examined using the same techniques applied to Thompson.
Source material will be searched for references to the editors of the publications noted
above, as well as a careful eye toward Wolfe's published work that reveals his own
perception of how these relationships were conducted.
In a methodological sense, the basic research question under examination in this
study is this: How did the relationship between reporters and editors impact the
development of the New Journalism? To examine this question accurately, the variables
under examination can be represented by the individual reporters, the individual editors
and publications, and their specific reflections as they relate to the New Journalism. To
analyze the question in detail, the necessary focus is on correspondence and information
related to the prior hypotheses that can be derived from interviews, memoirs, and other
primary or secondary research material related to the New Journalism.
Implications of Research
This study is intended to provide a new way of looking at the New Journalism as a
whole, through the individual cases of Thompson and Wolfe and as an overview of how
business was conducted as a New Journalist. As a way of understanding the New
Journalism, focusing on individuals provides more concrete evidence of how the lives
and work of these writers was conducted. Media scholars, journalism historians, and
historians of pop culture in the 1960s and 1970s would find this thesis beneficial to a
fuller understanding of the New Journalism.
Historians of both journalism and culture could find valuable information in this
thesis. This study could also inspire deeper analysis of the New Journalism, through
more intensive studies. Other New Journalists, such as Gay Talese, Norman Mailer, and
Truman Capote, could also be included in a study similar to this thesis, yielding more
evidence of their interactions with editors and the resulting experiences of their careers.
Another aspect of similar studies must incorporate explanations of how these writer-
editor relationships influenced the developing reporting techniques.
This study is necessarily only a start to a thorough understanding of how editors
and writers communicated and worked together. Detailing Thompson and Wolfe's
experiences in the New Journalism provides the basis of conducting a more detailed
analysis of how New Journalists altered journalism history and technique in the 1960s
HUNTER S. THOMPSON
This chapter will focus primarily on Hunter S. Thompson's early life and career.
Thompson's earliest struggles as a freelance writer contributed much to his later persona
as a resilient, yet frustrating reporter constantly pushing the boundaries set by society and
his editor. The period of the 1960s when Thompson became classified as a New
Journalist saw social upheaval related to the evolving Vietnam War crisis, a wide-ranging
civil rights debate, and a growing discontent among political liberals toward the United
States government. These emerging crises all provided creative fodder for Thompson to
critique American culture and government. This chapter will also focus on the
development of two publications that would prove eminently critical to Thompson's
career: Rolling Stone and Scanlan 's Monthly. In the discussions of each publication, the
editors involved and its historical background will be considered.
Thompson's Early Career
Hunter Stockton Thompson was born on July 18, 1937, to Virginia Ray and Jack R.
Thompson of 2437 Ransdale Avenue1 in Louisville, Kentucky, a city that would
influence his career throughout his life. As a youth, he was intelligent and prone to
troublesome antics. Thompson himself related that his "first face-to-face confrontation
with the FBI occurred when I was nine years old."2 His retelling of the incident, brought
1 Paul Perry, Fear and I..,, ih, i The Strange and Terrible Saga ofHunter S. Thompson (New York:
Thunder's Mouth Press, 1992), 3.
2 Hunter S. Thompson, Kingdom ofFear: Loathsome Secrets of a Star-Crossed Child in the Final
Days of the American Century (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003), 3.
on by he and his friends' destruction of a mailbox ["it was a Federal Offense, they said,
and carried a five-year prison sentence"], first described his parents' panic at the
possibility of their child being arrested by FBI agents, but also revealed Thompson's
shrewd analysis of the situation: "Never believe the first thing an FBI agent tells you
about anything-especially not if he seems to believe you are guilty of a crime. Maybe
he has no evidence. Maybe he's bluffing. Maybe you are innocent. Maybe. The Law
can be hazy on these things But it is definitely worth a roll."3
Thompson's first job as a reporter came in September 1947, when he and his friend
Duke Rice wrote for the S,',,lhe, ii Star, a paper edited by ten-year-old Walter Kaegi, Jr.
While the paper lasted only for five issues, it stands as Thompson's first venture into
As a teenager, Thompson was recognized as gifted and inducted into the
Athenaeum Literary Association, a society whose members were "people distinguished
for their literary or scientific achievement."' However, in 1955, "Thompson found
himself convicted of robbery and sentenced to six weeks in the Jefferson County jail. On
graduation day, when his classmates received diplomas, Thompson sat alone in his cell."6
After his release, Thompson joined the U.S. Air Force and was assigned to Eglin
Air Proving Ground in Pensacola, Florida, in 1956. While at Eglin, Thompson soon
talked his way into a position as sports editor of its Command Courier base newspaper.
3 Ibid., 6.
4 Perry, 4.
5 Ibid., 14.
6 Hunter S. Thompson, The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentlemen, 1955-1967,
edited by Douglas Brinkley (New York: Villard Books, 1997), 5.
It would prove to be the beginning of a highly experimental and intuitive effort by
Thompson, and it provided him the opportunity to pursue his ambitious writing career.
Michael Linn investigated Thompson's Command Courier writing and Thompson
himself included much of his personal correspondence from that era in The Proud
Linn placed Thompson's first attempt at highly personal, stylized journalism
(dubbed "gonzo") to an Oct. 15, 1957 column titled "Espeland And The Dogs: A Tale of
Woe." Linn's most compelling argument here was that "the fact that the piece was
written prior to Thompson's first civilian job in journalism may mean that Thompson
didn't develop this style after years of professional writing, but rather, brought this
literary style to journalism from his very first years as a journalist."7 By August 1957,
however, Thompson's patience with Air Force life was waning. A personnel report filed
by Colonel W. S. Evans stated, in part, "this Airman [Thompson], although talented, will
not be guided by policy or personal advice or guidance. Sometimes his rebel and
superior attitude seems to rub off on other airmen staff members .... Consequently, it is
requested that Airman Thompson be assigned to other duties immediately, and it is
recommended that he be earnestly considered under the early release program."8
His brash attitude, as well as a freelance career (against Air Force regulations) with
a local newspaper known as the PlaygroundNews, for which he published under
pseudonyms, had contributed to his decline at Eglin. Thompson, however, was pleased
that his Air Force career could end earlier than expected, and earnestly pursued a
7 Michael Linn, "The Sports Writing of Hunter S. Thompson" (Master's thesis, University of
Florida, 2002), 24.
8 Thompson, The Proud Highway, 63.
discharge. His superiors were willing to consider him a candidate for early release, as
they recognized his aversion to authority conflicted with his duties at Eglin.9 In
November 1957, Thompson was given an honorable discharge.10
Finding an introductory job in journalism proved especially difficult for Thompson,
though hardly for reasons other budding reporters encounter. While small newspapers
were a traditional in-road into a career in journalism, these publications nearly froze
Thompson's progress. Rather than blame these newspapers, Thompson recognized his
natural problem with authority, as noted by his previous superiors. Thompson's first job
in journalism after his discharge was at the Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania, Herald, where he
took over as sports editor on Dec. 9, 1957.11 Perry described Thompson's brief tenure in
Pennsylvania, where he worked for only a few weeks:
One night, Hunter borrowed [a local feature] writer's car to take [the feature
writer's] daughter through the countryside. In the course of the evening's
adventures, one of the car's doors and the front bumper were practically torn off.
The following morning Hunter and the other journalists watched as the writer,
furious, drove the car into the newspaper parking lot, door and bumper grinding on
the asphalt. Fearful that the publisher would deduct repair costs from his salary,
Hunter immediately left the office, drove home, packed and headed for New York
As Thompson said in a Jan. 2, 1958 letter, "the scandal made it necessary for
me to flee town immediately in order to avoid being tarred and feathered by a puritanical
9 Ibid., 62.
10 Ibid., 72.
1 Ibid., 75.
12 Perry, 29.
13 Thompson, The Proud Highway, 94.
Upon arriving in New York, Thompson took up residence at 110 Morningside
Drive, began seeking employment in the city's journalism industry and made plans to
attend Columbia University. He eventually landed a $50 a week position as a copyboy
for Time magazine, which barely paid the bills and hardly helped his trouble with debtors.
In a letter to his friend Sally Williams, Thompson described his plan for avoiding debt
collectors: "Tell them I left several weeks ago to go over to Gainesville, Florida to apply
for ajob as a religion editor on a paper there. Just as long as they never discover that I'm
in New York, I'm all right."14 Thompson concocted a form letter to that end, explaining
that "I might be the assistant religion editor of the Gainesville Sun pretty soon .... I'm
going over there next week to see about a job. If I get this thing in Gainesville I'll be a
religion editor and publish my own book in the paper. After that I'll have ajob and get
well."1 The whole plan, of course, was absolute fiction, but it is representative of his
desperate, yet highly imaginative, humor.
During this time, Thompson developed an ever-evolving interest in pursuing
writing as a career, as exemplified by an interest in Jean-Paul Sartre, Jack Kerouac, and
F. Scott Fitzgerald. This period also reveals his increased confidence in his prose, both in
letters to friends and short stories. He would regularly dispatch letters to the New York
Times and the Village Voice, simultaneously making fun of the publications and inquiring
about a job with them. As Thompson responded to a New York Times want ad,
"somewhere there is a great warp in my training, rendering me unfit to compose eulogies
on 'togetherness,' exposes on prostitution rings, or heart-warming revelations on the
14 Ibid., 114.
15 Ibid., 115.
private life of blind folk."16 In his personal correspondence, he "ponders whether he is a
writer of "action" (Hemingway, Kerouac) or of "thought" (Joyce, Faulkner)."17 At one
point in this letter, he explained that "you can either impose yourself on reality and then
write about it, or you can impose yourself on reality by writing."18 This statement
succinctly demonstrates Thompson's grasp of literature's possibilities, even while he was
struggling to find his voice.
After being fired by Time for insubordination, Thompson arranged a writing spot
on the Middletown Daily Record in New York. As Thompson described it, it was "a two-
and-a-half year-old experimental newspaper,"19 but provided him an opportunity for a
relatively stable reporting position. This job, however, lasted only until the end of
February 1959, given his unruly attitude toward management. "Several days ago I was
instrumental in the looting of an office candy machine,"20 he explained while appealing
for ajob at the New York Times. Without money or a job, he ended up in the Catskills,
writing short stories and trying to determine his next move. By April 1959, Thompson
had the first draft of his first novel, "Prince Jellyfish," which was never published but
excerpted in his later book, Songs of the Doomed. This was the first time he used the
name "Kemp" for a character and would eventually name the main protagonist in his next
novel, The Rum Diary (eventually published in 1998), Paul Kemp.21
16 Ibid., 120.
17 Ibid., 127.
18 Ibid., 130.
19 Ibid., 153.
20 Ibid., 157.
21 Hunter S. Thompson, The Rum Diary (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998).
Not content with waiting for his novel to secure financial stability, Thompson once
again hunted for a newspaper job. Thompson's first job in journalism in the 1960s was
as a sports reporter for El Sportivo, located in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Douglas Brinkley
explained that Thompson's tentative plan was to fund a new novel, based in the
Caribbean, by working as a writer. Much of his experience in Puerto Rico during 1960
shaped The Rum Diary, and also found him becoming closer to Sandy Conklin, whom he
had met in New York and would eventually marry.22 McKeen argued that when this
magazine failed, Thompson felt he was finished with journalism.23 In a letter to friend
Ann Schoelkopf, Thompson claimed the editor was "a liar, cheat, passer of bad checks,
welshing shyster, and otherwise foul."24
A particularly revelatory moment in Thompson's attitude toward editors comes
from his attempts to sell the manuscript "Prince Jellyfish," and the subsequent rejections
he received. One rejection letter apparently struck Thompson as worthy of a somewhat
Few editors, I'm sure, would have taken the time to compose such an informative
rejection slip, and few indeed could have put down their thoughts with such style
and mastery of tone. It's been said, I know, that most editors are boobs, cretins and
witless crayfish who have edged into their jobs through some devious means made
possible by the slothful and incestuous nature of the World of Publishing.25
While Thompson was impatient with authority, it appeared he was not entirely
ungrateful for constructive advice.
22 Perry, 78.
23 William McKeen, Hunter S. Thompson (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991), 6.
24 Thompson, The Proud Highway, 209.
25 Ibid., 208.
Spending much of 1960 in Puerto Rico, until finances tightened and Sportivo
folded, and the first half of 1961 in Big Sur, California, Thompson published his first
feature article in the men's magazine Rogue. The piece, "Big Sur," brought him $350
and led to his eviction because his landlady felt he was "spreading gossip in a smutty
magazine."26 Thompson spent the rest of 1961 trying to finish The Rum Diary, which
never found a publisher that year. In 1962, however, Thompson would find his first
permanent writing assignment with the National Observer as a South American
correspondent, where he decided to travel after his experiences in California.
Thompson's association with the National Observer lasted from 1962 until 1964,
producing pieces such as "Democracy Dies in Peru, but Few Seem to Mourn Its Passing."
Thompson generalized broadly about democratic movements in Peru, with passages such
as "the people who need democracy don't even know what the word means; the people
who know what it means don't need it and they don't mind saying so."27 However, he
also included interviews that revealed the political misgivings of the Peruvian people.
Thompson also wrote articles detailing the plight of the Indian society in South America
("The Inca of the Andes"), anti-American sentiment in Latin America ("Why Anti-
Gringo Winds Often Blow South of the Border"), and military brutality in Brazil
Thompson's experiences with the National Observer helped shape his "gonzo"
style of writing, as Thompson revealed. His editor, Clifford Ridley, enthusiastically
welcomed Thompson's writing, as he wrote to Thompson: "Please send more. Work this
26 Ibid., 280.
27 Hunter S. Thompson, The Great Shark Hunt (New York: Summit Books, 1979), 352-53.
good doesn't come in all the time."28 Thompson's relatively good relationship with the
National Observer did much for his reputation in the United States, while he continued to
write from throughout South America. Capturing personal anecdotes and local 'color'
proved to be Thompson's specialty, evident in pieces like "A Footloose American in a
Smuggler's Den," where the reader is placed in a small Colombian village named Puerto
Estrella, devoted mainly to smuggling.29 As McKeen explained, "much of the
comfortable tone of these short pieces anticipates the tone of Thompson's later gonzo
work, a just-between-us shared language of conspiracy that would mark his work with
originality."30 Thompson focused on the strange experience of being an outsider in small
South American communities. Of his visit to the smuggler's village, Thompson wrote,
"here was a white man with 12 Yankee dollars in his pocket and more than $500 worth of
camera gear slung over his shoulders, hauling a typewriter, grinning, sweating, no hope
of speaking the language, no place to stay and somehow they were going to have to
deal with me."31
Thompson preferred placing the reader in his position, facing circumstances
bordering on dire, even in these early examples. His writing tone, an intensely personal
focus, and his attraction to fringe lifestyles was evident in the National Observer pieces.
Addressing the lessons he learned from his South American experience, Thompson wrote
in the National Observer that "it is an odd feeling to return from a year in South America
and read a book by some expense-account politician who toured the continent in six
28 Perry, 71.
29 Thompson, The Great Shark Hunt, 346.
30 McKeen, Hunter S. Thompson, 19.
31 Thompson, The Great Shark Hunt, 346.
weeks and spoke only with presidents, cabinet ministers, and other 'leading figures' like
The freedom of his assignment (calling Ridley to suggest stories and then writing
the pieces) was the essence of Thompson's best writing for the National Observer, while
Perry described situations where the writing would suffer. "Sometimes Ridley and the
other editors would suggest story ideas, especially when wire service copy alerted them
to upcoming elections. It was these stories that proved the most problematic for the
editors. Hunter had a tendency to overlook some of the basics of a news story, focusing
instead on local color."33 Demonstrative of this, articles like "Democracy Dies in Peru,
but Few Seem to Mourn Its Passing" focused more on interviewing Peruvians than
explaining institutional problems in South American governments. Thompson preferred
writing about the working class and colorful generalities instead of political reporting. Of
Peruvian financial concerns outweighing political considerations, Thompson wrote,
"Even the taxi driver, who is making a good living because there are enough people on
the streets with money in their pockets, does not particularly care who sits in the
Presidential Palace as long as they don't upset the apple cart."34
In late April 1963, Thompson returned to the United States, continuing his work for
the National Observer as a roving correspondent. He continued his relationship with
girlfriend Sandy Conklin as well as an interesting correspondence with Philip Graham,
then-publisher of The Washington Post and Newsweek, that lasted until Graham
32 Ibid., 352.
33 Perry, 72.
34 Thompson, The Great Shark Hunt, 356.
committed suicide in August 1963.35 A return to the United States focused Thompson's
writing on cultural characters, such as an examination of Ernest Hemingway's suicide.
The Hemingway piece "What Lured Hemingway to Ketchum?" was published in the
May 25, 1964, issue of the National Observer. Written in first person point-of-view,
Thompson reported on his impressions of Ketchum, Idaho, and his explanation as of why
Hemingway committed suicide there. Thompson introduced people who knew
Hemingway while he lived in Ketchum, allowing the reader an opportunity to imagine
the conversation that would unfold. Of one of these people, Thompson wrote that
"Charley Mason, a wandering pianist, is one of the few people who spent much time with
him, mainly listening, because 'When Ernie had a few drinks he could carry on for hours
with all kinds of stories. It was better than reading his books."'36 Thompson then gave
the reader his impression of Mason, writing that "as he talked, I had an odd feeling that
he was somehow a creation of Hemingway's, that he had escaped from one of the earlier
Thompson's relationship with the National Observer ended over a dispute about a
review he had written of Tom Wolfe's The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline
Baby, which Ridley refused to run. Thompson bristled at this perceived slight, according
to Perry, and ended the relationship with a short note. McKeen suggested that a quarrel
over a piece on the free speech movement at the University of California at Berkeley
35 Thompson, The Proud Highway, 385.
36 Thompson, The Great Shark Hunt, 371.
37 Ibid., 372.
ended the working relationship. Nevertheless, Thompson's work for the National
Observer ended at the close of 1964.38
Thompson's experience with the National Observer and in the American West
prompted Carey McWilliams, editor of The Nation, to pitch him an idea about writing a
story on the Hell's Angels motorcycle gang. This correspondence and relationship
yielded Thompson's first published book, Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga.
McWilliams' idea about the story was prompted by increasing news coverage devoted to
the Hell's Angels, as their reputation and mythology grew ever more present and
troubling to locals. Thompson's research into the Hell's Angels began in earnest, as he
attended parties and rode with the group starting in early 1965. Thompson bragged to
National Observer editor Clifford Ridley about his friendship with the Angels, declaring
that "I dare say I'm the only reporter in the history of the world who ever got wound up
in a story to the point of going to a Hell's Angels meeting and then taking five of them
home for a drinking bout. After all this rape/beating publicity, you can imagine how
Sandy felt when we showed up; she was quietly hysterical for five hours."39
Thompson's research with the Hell's Angels also introduced him to Ken Kesey and
his Merry Pranksters, as well as drugs like LSD, which would later form a core of his
own mythology and writing. While writing the Angels story, Thompson also covered the
student movements in Berkeley for The Nation and began pitching an idea for a book-
length treatment on the motorcycle gang. In "The Nonstudent Left," Thompson focused
on Berkeley residents who contributed to the protests and demonstrations, regardless of
38 McKeen, Hunter S. Thompson, 7.
39 Thompson, The Proud Highway, 7.
their status as a student or nonstudent.40 Thompson secured a contract for Hell's Angels
in June 1965, propelling him into a year-long sojourn with the gang that began with the
purchase (using his advance contract funds) of a motorcycle that Hot Rod magazine
claimed was the fastest ever tested.41
For Thompson, his reputation as a risk-taker and fringe writer provided him with
some security in his relationship with the Angels, at least for a brief period. Thompson
was also arrested with Allen Ginsberg on his way from a Ken Kesey party for the Angels,
an incident Thompson noted with some pride in a letter.42 Thompson capitalized on the
relative freedom of his writing arrangements to begin a correspondence with Tom Wolfe
(after the National Observer rejection of his review) and build upon his career as a
freelance writer. By early 1966, Thompson was pulling together the material for Hell's
Angels, which would establish the foundation for his reputation and would popularize his
writing with other publications interested in "fringe" articles. Thompson finished the
draft of the novel in March 1966, and the delivered manuscript fulfilled his editors' initial
hopes. Thompson's ability to understand and empathize with cultural outcasts, like the
Angels, was apparent to his editors, and they believed it guaranteed the book would
succeed. That was Thompson's gift, and it would eventually become his thematic
His relationship with the Angels, however, ended in a violent attack by several
members of the gang. While the Angels rarely accepted a reporter into their ranks and
40 Thompson, The Great Shark Hunt, 398-406.
41 McKeen, Hunter S. Thompson, 29.
42 Thompson, The Proud Highway, 538.
clubhouses, they allowed Thompson unprecedented access. An unstable group at best,
however, the Angels eventually turned on Thompson without much provocation.
Thompson acknowledged after the attack in a September 25, 1966, letter that "it was a
sort of drunken spontaneous outburst that I had the bad luck to get in the middle of."43
Thompson took it in stride, acknowledging the risk he accepted by studying and writing
about the group. The book, in its finished state by 1967, demanded Thompson's time for
publicity purposes, which would eventually pay off in about 25,000 copies sold. The
subsequent publicity attached to Hell's Angels would also help with Thompson's rising
notoriety, contributing to his burgeoning friendship with Tom Wolfe and with Ramparts
magazine editor Warren Hinckle, who would eventually provide Thompson with his next
"break." In letters to friends from early 1967, Thompson discussed being interviewed on
NBC and featured in The New York Times Book Review. He described these possibilities
for exposure as nothing more than a "rotten publicity stunt."44
By late 1967, Thompson was well on his way to securing a reputation as a rogue
journalist and intuitive reporter. His highly personal, first-person account of the story
proved to be his strongest technique, as was his ability to interact with the Angels on a
personal level. Thompson wrote in the book about his interaction with Angels' leader
Sonny Barger, which was mostly beneficial but increasingly complicated due to the
gang's growing celebrity status. He wrote, "Barger talked steadily for nearly an hour,
fully aware that he was being taped and photographed. In that respect it was the end of
an era, for soon afterward he realized that the wisdom he dispensed and the poses he
43 Ibid., 585.
44 Ibid., 608.
struck for the cameras were worth money."45 Thompson's ability to truly interact with
his subjects depended on a certain degree of intimacy, which would be honed to near
perfection due to his experiences with the Angels and with assignments that were now
coming in at greater intervals. The last years of the 1960s would see Thompson's
relationship begin with several magazines that would seal his reputation and create his
The evolution of Jann Wenner's Rolling Stone occurred at the same time as
Thompson researched the Hell's Angels, in almost exactly the same place. This
connection, perhaps, contributed to the famous (or infamous) relationship between
Thompson and Wenner and Rolling Stone. The San Francisco area at that time was
fertile ground for the alternative press and provided the perfect community for fringe
writers and thinkers (like Wenner and Thompson) to flourish and build careers.46
Douglas Brinkley explained, "In November 1967, twenty-one-year-old New
Yorker Jann Wenner launched Rolling Stone, a hip rock-music tabloid that quickly
developed into a glossy, ad-fat pop-culture magazine. When Thompson met the shrewd
young publisher in San Francisco in late 1969, Wenner immediately commissioned him
to write an article on the Freak Power movement in the Rockies."47 The article, "Freak
Power in the Rockies," ran in the October 1, 1970 issue of Rolling Stone and reads as
both a news article and political endorsement. As representative of an early collaboration
45 Hunter S. Thompson, Hell'sAngels (New York: The Modem Library, 1999), 192.
46 As Wenner described in 20 Years ofRolling Stone (New York: Friendly Press, 1987).
47 Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and I. ,t h, i.. in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist,
1968-1976, edited by Douglas Brinkley (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), 288.
between Wenner and Thompson, however, it is interesting to note Thompson's
established technique inherent in the piece. Of his intentions in Colorado politics,
Thompson wrote "this is the essence of what some people call 'the Aspen technique' in
politics: neither opting out of the system, nor working within it... but calling its bluff,
by using its strength to turn it back on itself... and by always assuming that the people
in power are not smart."48 Thompson preferred, by this time, an interactive approach in
his stories, establishing himself as part of the action and influencing its outcome.
Correspondence from Thompson to Wenner in April 1970 also demonstrates an easy
friendship between them, as politics and culture are discussed. While business is the
primary focus of this early correspondence, Thompson felt comfortable enough with
Wenner to discuss details of his political campaign.4
The style and structure of Rolling Stone articles was another important
consideration for Thompson as he pursued writing options and established relationships.
Other journalists realized the unique restrictions and demands for writing for Rolling
Stone, with its focus on current cultural events. Jan Morris really framed the style of
writing that flourished at Rolling Stone, in her introduction to a collection of essays she
penned for the magazine. Morris described the immediacy evident in his own Rolling
Stone articles, claiming that "they are essays, but since Rolling Stone is a topical and
indeed urgent kind of magazine, they are not timeless-they describe places at specific
moments, in particular moods or conditions."50
48Thompson, The Great Shark Hunt, 163.
49 Thompson, Fear and I. .,rii,,i in America, 288-292.
50 Jan Morris, Destinations: Essays from Rolling Stone (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980),
Wenner's own ability to interact and relate to his writers years and even decades
later is evident from descriptions by fellow New Journalist Joe Eszterhas, who had a long
standing relationship with the editor. Writing two decades after Rolling Stone's initial
impact was felt, Eszterhas believed that Wenner continued to be a force for progressive
attitudes. Eszterhas claimed, "My friend Jann Wenner, the editor and publisher of
Rolling Stone, the rock and roll bible, called me excitedly the day after Bill Clinton was
nominated for the presidency. He had spent the previous night at a party, celebrating
with Clinton. 'He's one of us,' Jann said. 'He'll be the first rock and roll president in
American history.' I had come to the same conclusion."51 Wenner was able to assert
himself, from the very beginning of Rolling Stone and throughout later decades, as a
figure in alternative journalism worth writing for.
Wenner himself reflected on Rolling Stone's intent in his edited volume of selected
works from the magazine. He explained:
From the very outset of the magazine in 1967, we made a point of commissioning
serious, comprehensive interviews with musicians and artists, much as The Paris
Review had done with writers .... The first time I met Hunter S. Thompson, he
arrived in my office, two hours late, wearing a curly, bubble-style wig and carrying
a six-pack of beer in one hand and his leather satchel stuffed with notebooks, etc.,
in the other. He was wearing the wig because he had shaved his head during his
bid to become sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado.52
His admiration for his star writers is evident in his introduction to their
contributions, though this necessarily must be examined in the context of their
relationships. In Thompson's case, Wenner sounded particularly grateful. Written as
succinct praise, Wenner noted that "Hunter's work in Rolling Stone became legend; it
51 Joe Eszterhas, American Rhapsody (New York: Vintage Books, 2000), 1.
52 Wenner, 20 Years ofRolling Stone, 15.
changed things for everyone. Hunter became an extraordinary and celebrated literary
figure, Rolling Stone became a meaningful voice in national affairs, and political
reporting and writing were forever restyled and reshaped. It was one of those rare, fated,
As with any magazine, Rolling Stone required dedicated writers and editors to
become a legitimate vehicle for alternative journalism. Without this staff, Thompson
would probably have encountered a magazine that would flounder as it struggled to find a
voice. Beside Wenner, several Rolling Stone editors helped the magazine survive in its
early years. Paul Scanlon and Ben Fong-Torres both contributed to its beginning.
Scanlon became Wenner's primary assistant with managing the writing staff, while Fong-
Torres managed Rolling Stone's contribution to music journalism. Of particular
importance to Rolling Stone's mission, according to Wenner, was Ralph Gleason, who
provided the magazine with its name from an essay he wrote, "Like a Rolling Stone."54
Besides its name, however, Gleason also assisted Wenner in his years as a college
Wenner went far in his praise to emphasize others who were involved with
launching and supporting the magazine, even though he was known as its popular
figurehead and leader. Fong-Torres, in his memoir, remembered his first impression of
the magazine he encountered in 1967. His recollection is important because it speaks to
the energy Rolling Stone contributed to San Francisco. Fong-Torres explained that "even
in its raw first issues, sixteen or twenty-four pages of black-and-white newsprint, Rolling
53 Ibid., 16.
54 Ibid., 18.
Stone vibrated from one set of hands to another around our flat on Sacramento Street ....
Solid, classic journalism, but unafraid-urgent, in fact-to be contemporary and to mess
with the established rules and boundaries."55 He also described the location where
Wenner housed Rolling Stone and its miniscule staff. When Fong-Torres first started
writing for the magazine, only four people, including Wenner, worked full-time. The
offices were housed in a loft above a San Francisco printing plant that was rent-free.56
Fong-Torres emphasized that Wenner was the magazine's leader, with occasional
inspiration and help from Gleason, who provided financial help and stability for the
somewhat eccentric young editor. Its humble beginnings would belie the importance of
Rolling Stone to the New Journalism, and it would not be the only magazine integral to
the development of Thompson's reputation.
Thompson's lasting relationship with John Walsh, a former Newsday sports editor
who served as managing editor of Rolling Stone, stands in stark contrast to the tensions
that arose between Thompson and Wenner. Indeed, Thompson's final formal writing
assignment before his death was as a columnist for ESPN, managed by Walsh. Walsh
noted in his foreword to Thompson's Hey Rube that "Jann accurately predicted that
Hunter and I would bond over sports. (It was Jann's last accurate prediction)."57
Scanlan 's Monthly
The second magazine that contained Thompson's brand of New Journalism was
Scanlan's Monthly, a short-lived radical publication that provoked much controversy in
55 Ben Fong-Torres, The Rice Room: Growing up Chinese American: From Number two son to Rock
n 'Roll (New York: Penguin Books, 1995), 157.
56 Ibid., 158.
57 Hunter S. Thompson, Hey Rube: Blood Sport, the Bush Doctrine, and the Downward Spiral of
Dumbness (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), xiii.
its pages. Scanlan's, founded by Sidney Zion, a former assistant U.S. attorney and a
former legal reporter for the New York Times, and Warren Hinckle, former editor of the
alternative journalism magazine Ramparts, in 1969, also provided a venue and catalyst
for Thompson to truly launch his aggressively subjective version of reporting.
Hinckle and Thompson first met in early 1967, when Hinckle was still executive
editor of Ramparts. Perry gave a basic outline of Scanlan's turbulent history, which
provided Thompson with even more of an infamous reputation, to say nothing of the risks
Hinckle and Zion ran. Perry noted that, even in eight issues, Scanlan's had succeeded in
damaging an advertising campaign by Lufthansa Airlines before finally succumbing to a
complicated legal battle over its final issue. American printers declined to publish the
issue, focused mainly on guerilla warfare tactics. Though Canadian printers accepted the
job, the issue was stopped at the border, and in the ensuing legal battle between Scanlan's
and its American printers the magazine went bankrupt.58
Hinckle struck a more humorous tone in his 1974 memoir, in which he devoted a
mere page to his experiences while publishing Scanlan's. Of its birth and death, Hinckle
stated, "Scanlan's began publishing in a burst of hyperpromotional glory early in 1970.
It stopped dead in its tracks under cumulous clouds of confusion in 1971."59 Hinckle
made no mention of his relationship with Thompson, noting his name only once in his
book, which is curious considering the gonzo journalist's fame by 1974, when the book
was written. Hinckle did, however, reflect on his friendship with Zion, in which he
58According to Perry, "Scanlan 's had mined the multi-million dollar advertising campaign of
Lufthansa Airlines, which was trying to lure tourists with the slogan, 'Next year, think twice about
Germany,' by running the slogan over a picture of a man in Nazi costume whipping a naked woman," p.
59 Warren Hinckle, If You Have a Lemon, Make Lemonade (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1974),
sounded somewhat stunned by his friend's later actions. Hinckle wrote, "The chemistry
that made my friendship with Zion did not serve to make a magazine...I went off to write
a book about guerrilla war in the United States which was, suitably, published only in
Germany. Zion went on to perform the journalistically enigmatic act of fingering Daniel
Ellsberg as the man who gave the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times,"60 a fact
confirmed by Ellsberg's own memoir.61 New York Times columnist Jim Bellows noted
that Zion identified Ellsberg in a British newspaper article, never published, primarily to
cause trouble for the Times with the U.S. government.62 Hinckle's brief recitation of
Scanlan 's history revealed much about its untimely end:
During the short-lived Scanlan's carnival I became engaged in ridiculous battle
with Spiro Agnew over the alleged pirating of a suspect memorandum from his
office; was censored in Ireland .... Finally, the entire press run of Scanlan's was
confiscated by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and left to rot in the snow north
of the Canadian border, an absurd if outrageous act which the Montreal newspapers
reported had been done at Washington's behest, but some of my critics said
admiringly I had arranged for the publicity. That issue of Scanlan's never reached
the readers, and there was never another one.63
The facts of the trouble Scanlan's caused are reflected, as well, by members of the
Nixon White House. According to Michael Learmonth, John Dean, Nixon's White
House Counsel, had told a colleague, reportedly: "I'm still trying to find the water
fountains in this place [and] the president wants me to turn the IRS loose on a shit-ass
60 Ibid., 362-363.
61 Daniel Ellsberg, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers (New York: Penguin,
62 Jim Bellows, "His Ego on His Sleeve," The New York Times, 26 December 1982, BR8.
63 Hinckle, 363.
magazine called Scanlan 's Monthly."64 Zion blamed Nixon for Scanlan 's fall, for its
subversive publishing and fringe journalism. Learmonth noted the lesson learned from
the magazine's fall, writing, "Scanlan's was a study in how a little magazine could cause
a lot of trouble. But, after its noisy entrance, it came out just eight times before folding.
'Can I tell you we would have survived? No,' said cofounder and ex-New York Times
reporter Sidney Zion. 'But Nixon did this, and in that way I'm a bit more proud of us
than if we had gone under any other way."'65 Before its eight-month life ended, however,
its circulation had reached 150,000. Thompson published three articles in Scanlan's
throughout its short life, and it was here that he first made a real name for himself.
Including "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved," Thompson also published
"The Temptation of Jean-Claude Killy" in Scanlan's first issue and contributed to its last
The content of the eight issues contain remarkable color, including full-page color
photographs and often more than fifty pages an issue. The articles are vivid personal
accounts of social and cultural events, ranging from pieces on the deaths at the Altamont
music festival to investigate articles on political figures like Edward Kennedy. The
second issue from April 1970 contained a vinyl recording of interviews with U.S. Army
Capt. Howard Turner, accused of brutality in the Vietnam War. That issue also contained
an astrological portrait of President Nixon, as well as an article by Studs Turkel. The
photographs and size of each issue suggest that substantial funds were used to produce
64 Michael Learmonth, "Scanlan's Monthly (1970-1971)," Folio (PRIMEDIA Business Magazines
& Media, Inc.), May 1, 2003: 1.
66 Scanlan's Monthly, March 1970 January 1971. Collected volume, Yale University.
each issue, and its youth-oriented coverage should have guaranteed its success.
Scanlan 's Monthly did not become Rolling Stone, however, and it continued publishing
articles about radical leftist movements in the United States and guerilla warfare. This
eventually prodded the U.S. government to crack down, contributing to Scanlan's
With the emergence of a strong reputation (both as a writer and a persona),
Thompson sought to expand his career with a rising number of freelance assignments
through the late 1960s and early 1970s. His increased fame, however, did not exactly
translate into a less confrontational, problematic relationship with the various editors
taking a chance on his rebellious personal style. Thompson demonstrated an increased
unwillingness to become a professional journalist in order to pursue his writing. This
unwillingness would eventually become a centerpiece in his public persona, as well as a
substantial part of his recurring problems in the field of journalism.
Having written for the National Observer and The Nation, and with his first book
Hell's Angels finished, Thompson enjoyed considerable clout as a freelance journalist. A
greater ability to command his own career in the marketplace made Thompson only more
obstinate in his relationships with editors, however. Thompson was rarely hostile to
editors, but he was determined to be treated, as he felt, fairly in terms of finances.
William McKeen recounted several occasions when Thompson's personal
performance cost him positions (the Air Force, his early jobs in New Jersey and New
York, and Puerto Rico), yet demonstrated that losing these jobs did little to wound his
ambition.1 Instead, it fueled him with experience and knowledge of how the game
worked. Thompson, after his National Observer and Nation experiences, found he could
1 William McKeen, Hunter S. Thompson (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991), 6-8.
exist as a writer practicing somewhere between straight journalism and fiction, and he
eventually discovered he could sell his writing on his own terms, to Wenner and Warren
Hinckle. While these editors welcomed his work, cooperating with Thompson through
the entire process of publishing an article remained a difficult prospect. As a matter of
course, Thompson's difficulties emerged from maintaining long-term relationships with
publications or editors, perhaps due to the same abrasive attitude he embraced that helped
popularize his writing. For example, describing Jann Wenner's reluctance to publish a
piece Thompson wrote on the fall of Saigon in 1975, McKeen pointed out that by this
time Wenner and Thompson were hardly cooperating and that the original article
appeared in its entirety almost a decade later. He suggested, "Perhaps [Wenner's]
relationship with Thompson was so strained that it affected his editorial judgment."2 The
article was originally published as excerpts in the May 22, 1975 issue, a month after the
event. The question of whether this proved to be a fatal Catch-22 for Thompson requires
an examination of the working relationships he encountered through the peak of his
career and after.
While Michael Linn examined in most detail the early part of Thompson's career,
he takes special note of Thompson's already highly individualized reputation as a writer.
His examination is important because it presented Thompson as a writer not easily
persuaded to cooperate with an editor he did not agree with. Linn paraphrased Louis
Menand and provided some insight into why Thompson believed it was so important to
focus solely on what he saw as the strength of his convictions: "People read Thompson
because Thompson's character can teach people a certain attitude, an attitude of rebellion,
2 Ibid., 92.
a sort of 'outcast' type of self-absorbed behavior that is very admired by our culture."3
Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, originally published as Rolling Stone
articles, focused on his role as outsider journalist. In that story, he eschewed his original
assignment to cover a motorcycle race in favor of abusing his privileges as a member of
the press and destroying hotel rooms. Linn made the case that Thompson believed
nonconformist behavior meshed well with honest writing and could only make writing
better.4 His attitude appealed to the readers and so, necessarily, appealed (occasionally
only grudgingly) to the editors.
Examining the Correspondence
The two published volumes of Thompson's correspondence provide context and
background in which to further understand his character and approach to journalism.
However, Thompson's letters provide much more, in that they demonstrate to the reader
why he reacted the way he did to editors or made choices when it came to articles or
assignments. In addition, these volumes provide evidence for concluding that Thompson
experienced certain antagonistic circumstances because it was in his nature to antagonize
any entity resembling authority.
The letters from the early half of Thompson's writing career reveal an aspiring
novelist who adheres to an attitude of rebellion with great relish. One of the most
important aspects in addressing his career is to demonstrate how his thinking progressed
chronologically, as his career rose and fell, in order to address how his career choices as a
journalist and writer affected the output of his writing. Thompson, true to his nature,
3 Michael Linn, "The Sports Writing of Hunter S. Thompson" (Master's thesis, University of
Florida, 2002), 27.
4 Ibid., 48.
rarely minced words when corresponding, referring to a literary agent's rejection of his
work in 1961 as "pompous and moronic."' His commitment to his work was evident,
however, when he would write letters discussing story-editing issues with the editor of
the first magazine to ever publish his work nationally, Rogue magazine. The first few
years of the 1960s would demonstrate that he was needy and grateful (without appearing
desperate), but rarely willing to compromise on his articles.
Thompson relished the freedom his assignment as the National Observer's South
American correspondent, as well as the somewhat steady paycheck Clifford Ridley, his
editor, provided him. By 1962, Thompson was expressing his dependence on this
situation to Ridley in regular letters:
Man, I have not depended on anybody for a long time like I've depended on the
Observer down here .... And money was only one of the reasons. You've given
me enough space (yeah, even with the editing) to really deal with these things I've
been writing about .... Naturally I'll bitch when you cut things, but I think I'd be
remiss if I didn't .... I'll do as much for you as you want, as long as I don't have
to starve or go mad in the process.6
A freelance situation appealed to Thompson's independence, as long as he could
maintain some control over his work. Ridley valued Thompson's willingness to place
himself into difficult, often dangerous, situations for the sake of a story. The response to
Thompson's articles, Ridley reported to Thompson, was strong enough that the National
Observer was interested in pursuing a more permanent arrangement with the writer.
Thompson recognized the debt he owed the National Observer in this early part of his
career, writing in an April 1963 letter to Washington Post publisher Philip Graham "my
5 Hunter S. Thompson, The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentlemen, 1955-1967,
edited by Douglas Brinkley (New York: Villard Books, 1997), 264.
6 Ibid., 354-355.
7 Ibid., 353.
relationship with the National Observer has been exceptionally decent. They have
published all my articles... and paid me well enough so that I don't have to write unless I
feel like writing, or have something sold to write about. In return, most of the things I've
sent to them have been incomparable."8 Articles like "Democracy Dies in Peru, but Few
Seem to Mourn Its Passing" and "Why Anti-Gringo Winds Often Blow South of the
Border" were among the most prominent of Thompson's National Observer articles.
Thompson, at least during this early stage in his career, responded to arguments
over financial matters with a fairly reasoned temper. When Ridley withheld his salary
due to a lack of output, Thompson wrote him on April 28, 1963, to say that he
understood, writing, "I urge you to reconsider the wisdom of plunging me into a crisis in
order to get articles out of me. All it does is make it that much harder for me to get
anything done."9 The next day, Thompson wrote Ridley again to suggest, in a rare
moment of guilt, that "I am disappointed with myself for getting like this & I daresay you
are too, but don't say I didn't warn you."10 This financial dispute did not sour
Thompson's relationship with Ridley, however, as he continued to write for and
correspond with the magazine.
Expressing his opinion of journalism to a rookie reporter writing for advice,
Thompson said "most editors fear for their jobs and would always prefer to publish a
mediocre pro than a talented amateur who might get him in trouble."11 Though he was
addressing the difficulty of making a name and a steady career out of journalism,
8 Ibid., 372.
9 Ibid., 377.
10 Ibid., 379.
1 Ibid., 462.
Thompson believed that reporters would necessarily face resistance unless they chose to
conform to established standards. By the end of 1964, however, Thompson found his
experience in establishment journalism increasing as he began corresponding with Carey
McWilliams of The Nation, who was summarily impressed by his National Observer
articles. Specifically, Thompson had been writing about California for the National
Observer, where The Nation was based. Thompson had written "Bagpipes Wail, Cabers
Fly as the Clans Gather," a piece about a Scottish festival in California, for the September
14, 1964, issue of the National Observer, as well as pieces on California forest fires and
strip joints in North Beach. This new correspondence with McWilliams would
eventually take Thompson to San Francisco, where his reputation would truly solidify.
Thompson wrote his last article, which was never published, for the National
Observer in 1965 and transplanted himself to San Francisco. By March 1965, Thompson
was discussing what he called McWilliams' "cycle idea,"12 which would eventually
become Hell's Angels, Thompson's first book. The gestation period for his first
published book, however, would take place over the rest of 1965 and much of 1966 as
several articles for McWilliams. Specifically, Thompson would publish "Motorcycle
Gangs: Losers and Outsiders" in the May 17, 1965, issue of the Nation. Thompson's
ability to relate to members of the Hell's Angels13 amounted to nearly exclusive access.
"Two guys I know on The Wall Street Journal are trying to do a piece for True
[Magazine] on this thing, but they can't get anywhere near the action," Thompson wrote
12 Ibid., 497.
13 "These guys are the ultimate rejects from our half-born Great Society," Thompson wrote to Ridley
at the National Observer, demonstrating both an inherent understanding of the gang, as well as the courage
to avoid inflating the myth that surrounded the Hell's Angels.
to his friend Charles Kuralt. "Twice in the past week I was inside situations that they
tried to crash and got turned away from."14 His reputation protected him during his initial
encounters with the Angels while he wrote his articles for The Nation, although his
continued interest in them, as a book-length project, would eventually lead to his final
confrontation with its members.
In addition to his work for The Nation, and his occasional correspondence with
Ridley at the National Observer, Thompson was also hired to write an article on Ken
Kesey and the Hell's Angels for Playboy in late 1965. Thompson expressed satisfaction
in these new assignments to his friend William Kennedy in an August 10, 1965, letter,
and boasted of his unique role as a journalist covering the motorcycle gang. "[T]his
Hell's Angels thing has just exploded for real on me ... now even the Stanford Literary
Review wants a Hell's Angels piece. My luck on this is that the Angels dug my Nation
piece, and now consider me the only straight press type they know," Thompson wrote.
"All that stuff I wrote for the National Observer apparently died on the vine, but this one
job for The Nation paid off in real gold."15
By mid-1967, Thompson was also in regular contact with Tom Wolfe. Thompson
wrote Wolfe in a May 24 letter to tell him about the end of his National Observer tenure,
and wrote that he quit the magazine "over the Goldwater [1964 Republican presidential]
convention and the Berkeley [Free Speech Movement] demonstrations. I don't miss that
gig at all."16 This explanation confirmed McKeen's version of Thompson's departure
14 Thompson, The Proud Highway, 499.
15 Ibid., 537-538.
16 Ibid., 614.
from the National Observer. Thompson also started corresponding with Don Erikson at
Esquire magazine, pitching occasional ideas and soliciting writing assignments. In a
letter to Charles Karault, Thompson bragged about various connections he had
developed. "I'm running way behind on two articles that are already paid for-one for
Harper's (on Aspen), and the other for The Realist. Beyond that, The New York Times
Magazine calls about every four days with some new idea."17 Though he repeatedly
mentioned in his correspondence a continual lack of money, he acknowledged steady
work and the sum he made from the relative success of Hell's Angels.18 By late 1967,
Thompson was also friends with Warren Hinckle, who at that time still worked for
Ramparts magazine in San Francisco. As an example of his comfort with Hinckle,
Thompson explained in an October 2 letter that an argument over Tom Wolfe's book The
Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby ended his relationship with the
National Observer, suggesting that the alternate version he explained to Wolfe wasn't
entirely accurate.19 It is possible that all three complaints can serve as an explanation of
Curiously, Thompson expressed only a cursory interest in the concept of the New
Journalism, as it was then being developed, in letters late that year to Wolfe. In response
to a letter from Wolfe asking for contributions to the emerging New York Magazine,0
17 Ibid., 619.
18 In fact, Thompson mentions to Tom Wolfe in this May 24, 1967 letter that "Hell's Angels sales are
tailing off at about 25,000, of which I got 10%. Not a hell of a lot of money for two years of my life, but I
can think of worse ways to make a living."
19 Ibid., 640.
20 As a source of the New Journalism, New York Magazine would become essential to Wolfe and
other New Journalists.
Thompson expressed only lukewarm interest, claiming the magazine was "simply an
updated version of the best Old Journalism."21 His opinion on the subject of the New
Journalism would change only somewhat over the coming years, though ironically his
future work would be considered prime examples of this new style.
Thompson and Hinckle
Editor Douglas Brinkley referred to Warren Hinckle as "a kindred spirit"22 of
Thompson's, in that they were both politically liberal journalists who worked mainly in
the alternative, underground press and championed nontraditional reporting techniques.
Many of the early letters Thompson wrote to Hinckle (before Scanlan 's Monthly was
even formed) showed a warm discussion devoted to the chaotic politics of the 1968
election. In the attempt to define a pattern or trend in Thompson's relationship to
Hinckle, a basic concept emerges. First and foremost, Thompson and Hinckle related to
each other as colleagues, rather than as mere coworkers (or even writer and editor). As
Thompson's fame rose (due in part to Hinckle's publication), contention over editorial
and financial issues appeared, clouding most of the early 1970s as Thompson explored
other journalistic endeavors. When Scanlan's ceased publication, Thompson expressed
little affection, and some anger, toward Hinckle, eventually leading to a somewhat
While Hinckle was still at Ramparts magazine, and almost two years before
Scanlan's Monthly would be introduced in 1970, Thompson related his experiences at the
1968 Democratic National Convention, held in Chicago and the scene of violent clashes
21 Ibid., 644.
22 Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and I. ,,,lini, in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist,
1968-1976, edited by Douglas Brinkley (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), 120.
between protesters and police. When Hinckle had asked for Thompson's opinion of
those events, he wrote that it changed his opinion about the traditional press and the
propriety of the police. He told Hinckle "don't believe anything you read about what
happened in Chicago, and remember that the camera, too, can lie."23 In Hinckle,
Thompson thought, he found a colleague who could understand these political
developments as he had. As Hinckle's tenure at Ramparts ended, Thompson lamented
his loss at the magazine. He wrote of his disappointment at losing a connection to a
respect leftist magazine like Ramparts, and suggested that "the simple fact of Hinckle
sitting there in his office full of bad debts and strange animals lent a sense of possibility
to the task of confronting my mail, some slim wild chance that the fiendish daily stack
might yield up something with a terrible zang and rattle to it."24
As Hinckle pursued a new magazine in the form of Scanlan 's, Thompson expressed
immediate interest in supporting the publication. As Brinkley described it, this new
magazine was more than willing to accept Thompson's experimental writing techniques,
beginning with his 100-page article on skier Jean-Claude Killy's experiences as a
Chevrolet spokesman. The resulting piece, "The Temptations of Jean-Claude Killy," was
originally rejected by Playboy, because of Thompson's brutal criticisms against
Chevrolet, a potential Playboy advertiser. "The editors of Playboy roam the world by
telephone, trying to get everybody down in the same bad hole where they are,"25
Thompson confided to Hinckle when he finally dispatched the piece to Scanlan 's.
23 Ibid., 121.
24 Ibid., 170-171.
25 Ibid., 224.
Thompson had great hopes for the magazine itself. He wrote his friend William Kennedy
to claim that Scanlan 's resembled "something like the old, fire-sucking Ramparts. If their
taste for my Killy article is any indication, I'd say it will be a boomer." Hinckle,
Thompson wrote, had "weird and violent tastes,"26 which, in Thompson's vernacular,
was a compliment. In a January 13, 1970, letter to Jim Silberman at Random House,
Thompson declared, "as an editor, Hinckle is one of the few crazed originals to emerge
from the jangled chaos of what we now have to sift through and define or explain
somehow as 'the 1960s."'27 As a contemporary, Thompson expressed respect for
Hinckle's work and personality.
When early arguments arose over editing issues with the Killy piece, Thompson
reasoned with Hinckle and allowed the editor to have the final say. Specifically,
Thompson had concerns that Hinckle cut the last ten pages from his original article, but
he understood the editor was in control. He submitted, however, a shorter ending that
eventually ran with the piece, attempting to put Killy's life into context. The new ending
read, in part, "this is Jean-Claude Killy's new world: He is a handsome middle-class
French boy who trained hard and learned to ski so well that now his name is immensely
saleable on the marketplace of a crazily inflated culture-economy that eats its heroes like
hotdogs and honors them on about the same level."28 Without this ending, Thompson
felt, the narrative of his experiences with Killy would lack context. What is interesting to
note is how Thompson pleaded his case to Hinckle, trying to strike a bargain while
26 Ibid., 257.
27 Ibid., 260.
28 Hunter S. Thompson, "The Temptations of Jean-Claude Killy," Scanlan's Monthly, 1, 100.
appealing to the editor's literary tastes. Implicit in this bargaining is a sense that
Thompson felt he was justified in reasoning with a colleague, rather than a boss. Indeed,
the sense that Thompson and Hinckle often related to each other as equals becomes
apparent in exchanges such as the Killy negotiations. Thompson wrote:
It seems only fair to restore at least this brutally shortened version of the ending. It
seems a little on the cheap/mean side to go after people with a meat axe without
explaining WHY-or at least trying to. I'm not sure what kind of magazine you're
getting out, but if you're looking for any kind of literate audience I think this Killy
piece will go down a lot easier if they find some kind of rational light at the end of
At this stage in his career, Thompson demonstrated a seasoned freelancer's point of
view that he should have at least some voice in the editorial process. There was no vitriol
apparent in his letters on this issue, only a concern that he expressed on a personal level
to Hinckle. Thompson implored Hinckle, "For christ's sake use my new version of the
original Killy ending."30 Ultimately, Thompson convinced Hinckle to include his revised
ending, thanking him in a March 2, 1970, letter. He also complimented Hinckle on the
general appearance of this first issue of Scanlan 's.31
Thompson next wrote "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved" for
Scanlan 's, a far different story from the Killy piece. As an idea that Hinckle and
Thompson recognized for its potential, the Kentucky Derby presented unique challenges
in both attending the Derby and preparing it afterward for publication. As Thompson
wrote in the piece, "with 30 hours to post time I had no press credentials and according
29 Thompson, Fear and I. ',in,,, in America, 270.
31 Ibid., 283.
to the sports editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal no hope at all of getting any."32
Much of the article is focused on Thompson's inability to properly cover the Kentucky
Derby due to the chaotic atmosphere. The article itself was, for Thompson, a mixed
experience that both thrilled and disgusted the writer, typical for an apparent perfectionist
who often relinquished control of a piece only through force. It appeared Thompson had
mixed emotions about the final product of his Kentucky Derby article. He referred to the
eventual piece, in a May 15 letter to Bill Cardoso, as:
[A] shitty article, a classic of irresponsible journalism-but to get it done at all I
had to be locked in a [New York] hotel room for 3 days with copyboys collecting
each sheet out of the typewriter, as I wrote it, whipping it off on the telecopier to
San Francisco where the printer was standing by on overtime. Horrible way to
To Hinckle, in a letter written the same day, Thompson expressed more confidence
in how the article developed through the editorial process. Thompson was not equally
impressed by the editors in New York, however, telling Hinckle that he detected subtle
problems with how business was being conducted. Thompson wrote, "[Scanlan 's is] one
of the best ideas in the history of journalism. But thus far the focus is missing."34
The lack of focus Thompson detected would prove prescient, as Scanlan 's began to
encounter financial trouble early in its short life. When Donald Goddard, its managing
editor, left after four issues, Thompson told Goddard that he "saw [his] departure as a
very ugly & ominous event."35 Thompson still pitched ideas to Hinckle after his
Kentucky Derby piece, eventually writing a review about The Police Chief magazine in
32 Hunter S. Thompson, "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved," Scanlan's Monthly, 4, 4.
3 Thompson, Fear and I. ,,laini,, in America, 295.
34 Ibid., 296.
35 Ibid., 304.
his new "gonzo journalism" style. The article, "The Police Chief- The Indispensable
Magazine of Law Enforcement," was a bizarre critique of a magazine meant for police
officers, and it was written by a supposed "weapons advisor" named Raoul Duke.
Thompson, assuming the identity of Raoul Duke, wrote in the article "it should come as
no surprise to the self-proclaimed pigs who put out The Police Chief- that most of us
no longer turn to that soggy-pink magazine when we're looking for serious
information."36 Thompson highlighted the possibilities of this "Raoul Duke" pseudonym,
eventually made famous in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in a July 28, 1970, letter to
Hinckle. Thompson wrote, "We can create, with Raoul Duke, a virtual clearing-house
for information on all forms of violence."37
By November 1970, however, Thompson's congenial mood had disappeared due to
Scanlan 's continual problems, sounding almost desperate due to wages still owed him,
money which was looking less likely to appear. Thompson wrote to McWilliams at The
Nation on November 23 that he made "a last-ditch midnight effort to salvage some of the
funds they owe me for things I did for Scanlan's before the [financial] crunch...I'm about
to lose my American Express card-which was very hard to get-and which will make
my free-lance life very difficult in the future if I lose the bastard."38 The financial
situation continued to build to a critical mass and Thompson began to direct his anger at
Sidney Zion, then co-editor at Scanlan's. After submitting a bill in December 1970 for
expenses incurred while writing for Scanlan 's, Thompson appealed to Zion to promptly
36 Hunter S. Thompson, "The Police Chief- The Indispensable Magazine of Law Enforcement,"
Scanlan's Monthly, 7, 66.
7 Thompson, Fear and I. ,',ainih in America, 325.
38 Ibid., 336.
pay him for his time and money. Two months passed and Thompson decided to chastise
Zion for slighting him. He wrote:
This debt was affirmed by Warren [Hinckle], in good faith, and it strikes me as
absolutely incredible thatyou should have anything whatsoever to say about it. In
fact I'm astounded to find you speaking for Scanlan's in any way at all-especially
to a writer. You never showed anything but total contempt and disinterest in
writers up until now ... Now you have the stupid, greedy gall to say the magazine
doesn't owe me any money ... In ten years of dealing with all kinds of editors I
can safely say I've never met a scumsucker like you The name Sidney Zion is
going to stink for a long, long time.39
Thompson went on to accuse Zion of driving Goddard from the magazine, being
unprofessional as an editor and denouncing his work in journalism. Thompson wrote,
"Hinckle has at least tried to square that debt, but you-you lying bastard-have just told
me to fuck off."40 In a February 28, 1971, letter to Jann Wenner, Thompson offered to
write a scathing expose on the fall of Scanlan's, which went bankrupt at that time.
Thompson had mostly praise for Hinckle, while having nothing but contempt for Zion.
Thompson claimed that "Hinckle was the only editor in America you could call at 3:00
a.m. with a sorry idea & feel generally confident that by the time you hung up you'd have
a $1500 story in your craw ... As far as I'm concerned it's not only right but necessary
to fuck Zion. But I wonder about Hinckle."41
In the end, according to Thompson, Scanlan's owed him $5,260 when it went
bankrupt, a debt that would continue to draw his wrath. Exercising his alter ego 'Raoul
Duke' in a June 18, 1971, letter to Zion, Thompson threatened, "I get to New York now
39 Ibid., 358-359.
41 Ibid., 371-372.
& then, and of course we'll run into each other one of these days... we'll have a real
scumbag of fun when that happens, eh?"42
Several years later, in July 1974, Thompson wrote a letter to Hinckle,
complimenting him on an article he had recently written and extending his hand over
their chilled friendship. At this time, Thompson was focusing on the Watergate scandal
threatening President Nixon. This letter provided interesting insight into the friendship
between the two colleagues. Gone was the fantastic, verbose wordplay evident in other
dispatches, as the brevity of the letter suggested Thompson was not as comfortable with
Hinckle as he once was. The fact that this was the first letter to Hinckle in several years
indicated that little had changed since financial disputes clouded the end of their
professional relationship. "I thought I'd sent a sort of general 'thanx note' or whatever
for the help you've unwittingly given me over the past two or three years .... I'll
probably be hanging around the Impeachment scene this summer, so if you notice me
hunkered down in a corner somewhere in the capital, give me a prod and I'll buy you a
drink,"43 Thompson wrote, void of the manic humor he once shared with Hinckle.
As a freelance writer, Thompson counted on his editors to fulfill their end of the
bargain and pay him for his work. At times, Thompson grudgingly admitted that some
expenses were unjustifiable, but the circumstances of the end of his work with Scanlan's
stands as a warning to all freelancers. When Scanlan's went bankrupt, Thompson was
left without recourse to collect the money owed to him. Thompson felt betrayed, and
while it wasn't the first, or the last, instance of financial hedging, it struck a chord with
42 Ibid., 414.
43 Ibid., 592-593.
him that would permanently register. While Thompson's career would move to Rolling
Stone as his next major assignment, he was wary of any situation that reminded him of
Scanlan's. By 1972, Thompson expressed to his occasional journalistic partner Ralph
Steadman that "[Rolling Stone editor Jann] Wenner acts more & more like Hinckle with
every passing day."44
Thompson and Wenner
With Wenner and Rolling Stone, Thompson cultivated a relationship that yielded
key elements of his career, namely the novels Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear
and Loathing '72: On the Campaign Trail. With Hinckle, Thompson finally had his first
big break with articles for Scanlan's. In Wenner's magazine, Thompson capitalized on
that break, in the form of"gonzo" journalism, and built his reputation to its pinnacle.
Eventually named Rolling Stone's national affairs editor, a title he continues to hold on
the masthead, Thompson became more than a freelancer during his time with the
magazine. Like Hinckle, Thompson was able to cultivate a relationship with Wenner that
began while living in San Francisco.
Thompson's first assignment for Wenner was to cover the emerging "Freak Power"
movement that Thompson was personally involved in, becoming its spokesman and
eventual candidate for sheriff of Aspen. Their prolific correspondence45 began in early
1970, as Thompson began his campaign and began soliciting help from liberal circles.
Two letters from April 1970 involve Thompson agreeing to write an article for Rolling
44 Ibid., 491.
45 Fear and l. ,,,daii in America catalogs 41 letters either to or from Wenner from 1971 to 1976.
Brinkley notes in the first volume that all the included correspondence is merely a sample of the many
letters Thompson dispatched, and that these other letters were excluded if they dealt with strictly business
or financial matters. Therefore, the letters included in these volumes are not all the correspondence to pass
between Thompson and Wenner during that period.
Stone in exchange for publicity in the magazine's pages, in the form of unique campaign
advertisements Thompson referred to as the "Aspen Wallposters." Thompson shared
many of the details of his Aspen campaign with Wenner, filling him in on his various
projects, including the still-developing Kentucky Derby story, and acknowledged the
reach that Wenner's new culture and music magazine had developed. These letters
suggest an already formed professional relationship, if not a friendship. Thompson, for
example, wrote that "the important thing here is not whether I win or not and I hope to
hell I don't but the mechanics of seizing political power in an area with a potentially-
powerful freak population."46 Rolling Stone, Thompson noted in the same letter, could
help by publicizing his Colorado campaign.
In early 1971, after he had completed his Aspen piece for Rolling Stone, Thompson
and Wenner broached the topic of Thompson regularly writing for the magazine, perhaps
in the form of a monthly column. Thompson wrote to Wenner on January 30 about the
"double-edged idea about the notion of doing a regular sort of column for Rolling Stone,
which is always a good idea, in abstract."47 Thompson's hesitation was based on the
difficulty of arranging and approving a column with various editors and a freelance-based
notion of writing at will. Thompson wrote, "What happens to anybody who gets into any
kind of forced/regular writing is that he's bound to make a useless fool of himself now &
then."48 Thompson's fear, then, was that he would be forced to concede perfection in
46 Thompson, Fear and I. ,lain,,, in America, 290.
47 Ibid., 354.
48 Ibid., 345.
order to complete a compulsory assignment. This sense of freedom was important to
Thompson's mindset at the time, as first and foremost a freelance writer.
Thompson did, however, find Wenner open to his next project about the death of
Los Angeles Times reporter Ruben Salazar during a police raid, an article originally
commissioned by Hinckle before Scanlan 's went bankrupt. Immensely proud of the
article, Thompson wrote, "It offers a natural framework & a good narrative. And besides
that it embodies a hell of a lot of painful research & detail that would take about two
weeks to duplicate."49 Like the previous letters, Thompson mixed business matters with
personal gossip and his own unique sense of humor.
As their working relationship progressed through 1971, until Thompson began
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, most correspondence pertained to business, either
relating to articles or new ideas about projects. Thompson was, at this point, finishing the
Ruben Salazar story for Rolling Stone, debating the benefits of salvaging his Freak Power
Movement after its defeat in Aspen, and observing the collapse of Scanlan's Monthly.
Writing to his agent Lynn Nesbit on February 22, 1971, Thompson reflected on his
developing relationship with Rolling Stone. "Wenner wants me to become a
'Contributing Editor' of Rolling Stone. Which seems fine to me, but I'm not sure what it
means in terms of money, obligations, time, problems, advantages, etc .... [M]y first
assignment would be to spend six months in Vietnam, covering the U.S. retreat in a series
of articles that would eventually become a Rolling Stone book," Thompson wrote.50
49 Ibid., 360.
50 Ibid., 366.
In communicating the growing complexities of his freelance work, these early
letters indicate that Thompson's career was more and more connected to Rolling Stone.
Thompson also made it clear to Nesbit what he hoped would come from this shift in
career. Thompson noted that "[W]e're talking about a long term relationship that could
(& should, I think) involve a decent amount of money-not only in terms of article fees
but also book rights & other money options that would naturally come with any
contractual association with an aggressive & ambitious little bugger like Wenner & a
'magazine' that's obviously looking to expand in every conceivable direction."5
What remained for Thompson to solidify his early relationship with Rolling Stone
was an exceptionally strong assignment. While he proved to Wenner his strengths as a
reporter and researcher with his previous article on Ruben Salazar, Thompson had yet to
express his humor and creativity. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson's second
book, began as powerfully evocative Rolling Stone articles that would establish his
reputation at the magazine. The assignment that would eventually make Thompson a
legend, however, began as an innocuous inquiry from Sports Illustrated editor Tom
Vanderschmidt, who offered Thompson the chance to cover the Mint 400 motorcycle
race in Nevada during April 1971. On his return from Las Vegas, Thompson wrote
Vanderschmidt on April 22, telling the editor his suggestion led to a perfect opportunity
to advance 'gonzo journalism.' Thompson wrote, "sooner of later you'll see what your
call (to me) set in motion .. your instinct was right ... Your call was the key to a
massive freak-out. The result is still up in the air, and still climbing."52 Probably some
51 Ibid., 370.
52 Ibid., 376.
of the most direct praise Thompson ever gave to an editor, it cannot be overstated that
Vanderschmidt's chance offer would lead to a masterpiece of American literature. More
importantly for Thompson's immediate career, the assignment gave him a chance to
exercise his unique literary voice.53
Despite developing the classic that would eventually become Fear and Loathing in
Las Vegas, Thompson now had to deal with the financial realities of his time in Nevada,
which would be distinguished by perhaps a thousand dollars54 in hotel room charges, car
rentals and other expenses, some perhaps related to the drugs that may or may not have
fueled his experiences. The debt accrued during his Vegas trip, added to an already
present debt from other assignments, would lead American Express to cancel
Thompson's credit card in June after his second excursion to Nevada to finish the story.55
Thompson eventually had to ask Wenner for a loan to pay off the sizable bill before any
other legal action might occur against him. Thompson wrote to Wenner, "I think the
thing to do is for you to lend me the $1K-plus to pay off Carte Blanche. That way we can
worry later about who should righteously pay the tab. Fuck. Maybe I should. I'll never
deny the thing was excessive. But I don't recall spending anything, out there, that didn't
strike me as being necessary at the time."56 With Wenner claiming to have sent his June
53 The articles originally appeared as "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the
Heart of the American Dream," by Raoul Duke, in Rolling Stone, 11 November 1971, 36-48 and Rolling
Stone, 25 November 1971, 38-50.
54 Thompson would tell Wenner that "my Carte Blanche bill for both Vegas trips is $1,289.45."
55 Thompson wrote to a representative of American Express, "I don't need my [American Express]
card. I have others. And I pay those bills. Why the hell should I worry about some gang of flunkies who
keep yelling at me from New York?" Ibid., 389.
56 Ibid., 392.
retainer to cover his expenses in Vegas, Thompson now found himself in a situation
similar to his days as a freelancer, even though this project was developing into a
After his Nevada experience Thompson and Wenner became closer friends, due to
their somewhat common worldview and Thompson's rising popularity in the pages of
Rolling Stone. Thompson invited Wenner out to Colorado, to help him edit Fear and
Loathing, in late June 1971. "[M]y guestroom has been a standing offer for quite a while;
no question about that .... Aim here & plan on socking in for as long as it feels
comfortable. The cell is yours as long as you want it."57 By September, however,
Thompson was once again facing financial trouble even while planning with Wenner to
become Rolling Stone's political correspondent in Washington, D.C., for the 1972
presidential campaign. On September 10, 1971, Thompson told his friend Bill Cardoso
that "I'll be moving to Washington (for a year-no more) on Nov 1, as the Chief Political
Correspondent for Rolling Stone... things seem to be going fast & hard for me."58
Demonstrating how drastically Thompson's life had changed since writing for
Rolling Stone, he realized that the Washington press corps recognized him from his
previous work. Important in that recognition was evidence of the strength of Thompson's
reputation, as he made the transition from a freelancer writer to a Rolling Stone
correspondent. Thompson was stunned on his arrival in Washington to find his
reputation preceded him. Thompson wrote to Wenner on November 18, "It never
occurred to me that so many media people in Washington would know who I was. None
57 Ibid., 415.
58 Ibid., 443.
of these people had even read the Vegas stuff; their interest stemmed entirely from the
[Hell's Angels] book & two things in Scanlan 's."59 Thompson enthusiastically threw
himself behind Rolling Stone's plans in Washington, offering Wenner to check around
the city for publicity opportunities. He mentioned to Wenner "there is ... a first-class
FM rock station here that reaches almost the entire young/music type audience. I'll get
the name & send it along. A few spots on it might work wonders. I'll check around for
other possibilities & let you know."60 His commitment to the details of Rolling Stone's
business in Washington was impressive, as he lobbied for an additional assistant and
reported to Wenner on the specifics of delivering stories via fax from the east coast to the
west. In addition, Thompson also had to contend with convincing the White House that,
as Rolling Stone's Washington correspondent, he was worthy of a press pass.
Throughout most of 1972, Thompson was kept on the road covering the campaign,
yet managed to write prolifically to Wenner about his experiences. Much of his
correspondence made it into Thompson's next book, Fear and Loathing: On the
Campaign Trail '72.61 By the end of January, Thompson had Timothy Crouse to assist
with campaign coverage. Thompson noted in the book the stress he encountered while
forced to conform to a regular deadline. He expressed both disbelief that he
accomplished the coverage necessary for Rolling Stone and humor at the situation he
found himself in. He wrote, "from December '71 to January '73 in airport bars, all-nite
59 Ibid., 451.
60 Ibid., 452.
61 Ibid., 465.
coffee shops and dreary hotel rooms all over the country there is hardly a paragraph in
this jangled saga that wasn't produced in a last-minute, teeth-grinding frenzy."62
The nature of a majority of the 1972 letters to Wenner had less to do with personal
or financial matters and remained predominantly campaign "memos," updates and
reflections that Thompson related to his boss. "Another Wednesday morning, another
hotel room, another bout with the TV Morning News," began a May 1972 letter.63 "All I
ever wanted out of this grueling campaign was enough money to get out of the country
and live for a year or two in peaceful squalor in a house with a big screen porch looking
down on an empty white beach, with a good rich coral reef a few hundred yards out in the
surf and no neighbors," Thompson confided in a June letter to Wenner.64
Disenchantment is evident in many of these letters, as Thompson encountered the details
and minutiae of national politics for the first time.
When financial matters did rear their head on the campaign trial, Thompson reacted
with ire toward Wenner over perceived slights and manipulations. He warned Wenner:
You're already on a nasty collision course with your notion that you can hire first-
class writers and then treat them like junkie cub reporters .... Looking back on
our relationship for the past year, I figure I've carried my end of the bargain pretty
well sorry to sound so testy, but the current atmosphere seems to call for it, and
I think it's better to deal with these problems while they're still minor; and also
while I can still afford to admit that I've fucked up a few times, myself65
Thompson's desire to maintain a manageable relationship with Wenner was
evident, even as he watched his financial situation rise and fall, only to return to the most
62 Hunter S. Thompson, Fear andl I,,h li,,i On the Campaign Trail '72 (San Francisco: Straight
Arrow Books, Inc., 1973), 16.
63 Thompson, Fear and I. ,,iih,, i in America, 479.
64 Ibid., 484.
65 Ibid., 486-487.
comfortable situation possible: wariness and the struggle to mediate cooperation between
two powerful personalities.
After the election on November 2, 1972, and with the defeat of George McGovern
by Richard Nixon, Thompson wanted to regain the freedom his former life as a freelancer
offered and explained his decision to Wenner in an even-tempered letter. Thompson
wrote, "don't read any malice or strange fit of drug-anger into [my resignation from
Rolling Stone]; it merely formalizes the existing situation and confirms my status as a
free-lance writer, vis-a-vis [Rolling Stone]."66 By December, however, Wenner offered
Thompson the tempting deal of a permanent position, as well as a permanent place on the
masthead, as national affairs editor for Rolling Stone. The opportunity of having a fixed
outlet for his writing, and a fixed income and salary, ultimately did not win Thompson
over, as he began 1973 seeking a reprieve from the schedule of a staff writer, "because
my adrenaline reserves are too low at the moment to maintain the same kind
of... schedule we somehow (more or less) sustained for the past 18 months."67 Evident in
this response is Thompson's natural resistance to permanent responsibility. Thompson
preferred freelance assignments, especially after the experience of the 1972 campaign,
and informed Wenner that he wanted to return to his independent lifestyle.
Thompson imposed a sort of hiatus on himself for most of 1973, maintaining a
polite correspondence with Wenner about the developing Watergate scandal threatening
Nixon. Several projects continued for Thompson, however, including an article for
Playboy he worked on from June through September 1973 that developed into "The
66 Ibid., 497.
67 Ibid., 513.
Great Shark Hunt," about yacht racing in Cozumel. Wenner and Thompson maintained a
sparse yet continued correspondence through the year, discussing various projects
involving Rolling Stone and the same financial disagreements they had since the
beginning of their relationship. Thompson told Wenner in a September 14 letter that his
patience was wearing thin with continued bargaining over payment for the occasional
articles that would run in Rolling Stone. Thompson wrote, "I am tired beyond the
arguing point with this insane haggling over every goddamn nickel, dime & dollar ....
Ralph [Steadman, Thompson's occasional collaborator] put his finger on it very nicely, I
think, when he said: 'Jann doesn't seem to realize that every dime he screws somebody
out of today might cost him a dollar tomorrow.' [T]he haggling is getting pretty
goddamn old, I think, and the most depressing aspect of it all is that we never seem to
make any progress."68
The comfortable, semi-freelance style Thompson adopted through 1974 allowed
him the opportunity to broaden his writing opportunities and become involved in political
organizing for the first time since his failed bid for sheriff of Aspen. By the middle of
June, with the Watergate hearings beginning and a major story clearly developing in
Washington, Thompson found that he had enough clout to haggle with Wenner over
money and find some humor in the process. Indeed, having written two books that
developed out of Rolling Stone articles, Thompson felt comfortable capitalizing on his
celebrity status at the magazine. "If we're heading for a terminal haggle, I think we
should at least do it on righteous terms, eh?"69 Thompson asked Wenner. "I don't have
68 Ibid., 537.
69 Ibid., 590
much to talk about-except to say you better hope that missing $500 gets to me before I
find an occasion to do any talking-on the air or for print-about my general relationship
with RS [Rolling Stone]."70 This situation, coupled with his growing unwillingness to
endure the grueling routine of article writing, prompted less interaction between Wenner
and Thompson. Among the most glaring examples of this attitude, Thompson traveled to
Zaire to cover the October 30, 1974, Muhammad Ali George Foreman fight and
returned with no publishable information. In addition, Thompson encountered recurring
troubles when he embarked on the college lecture circuit, angering administrations with
his antics (including drinking and drug use) and establishing a reputation as a "problem
speaker." For example, Duke University refused to pay Thompson for an appearance
because he was almost an hour late.7 Over the next few years, Thompson would
continue that notorious reputation. University of Colorado officials had to apologize to
the increasingly hostile audience because Thompson showed up late to a November 1,
1977, speaking engagement.72
As more time passed from Thompson's close involvement with Rolling Stone
during the 1972 campaign, he and Wenner continued to drift from the friendship evident
in their earlier letters. While Thompson continued to work for Rolling Stone, he became
more disgruntled with his financial relationship with the magazine. As the years passed,
and Thompson saw little change in his negotiations over money, their relationship
became ever more contentious. The end of the Vietnam War, more than Nixon's
70 Ibid., 592.
1 Ibid., 600.
72 Hunter S. Thompson, The University of Colorado (1 November 1977), compact disc recording.
resignation over Watergate, proved to be a tumultuous, and almost irreparably damaging,
period in Thompson's tenure at Rolling Stone. Before he even left to cover the fall of
Saigon, however, Thompson attempted to level with Wenner on the perceived,
continuous problems between the two. He warned Wenner:
Anyway, by the time you get this I assume we'll be into another round of haggling
which depresses the shit out of me, but I can't see any way around it unless we
just take a goddamn public hammer to the whole relationship and let the bone chips
fall where they may. I am frankly not in favor of this course, but I've given it
enough thought to feel pretty certain I'll survive the worst that can happen if you
want to serious get it on .... No doubt there are numerous ambitious typists
who'd be happy to 'cover politics' on the cheap for RS [Rolling Stone], and if that's
what you think you need, why not just write me a letter and say so? There's no
need to skulk around like Sidney Zion.73
On his arrival in Vietnam, however, in April 1975, Thompson discovered that the
worst of his relationship with Rolling Stone was yet to come, as Thompson and Wenner
continued to argue over business affairs. The day he arrived in Saigon, Thompson was
informed that his life insurance policy with Rolling Stone was cancelled and his expenses
would not be paid. Thompson biographer Paul Perry noted that Wenner purchased a life
insurance policy on Thompson that would have benefited Rolling Stone if the writer was
killed covering the war.74 Eventually, Thompson discovered that his retainer had been
cancelled and that he was, effectively, operating without financial protection in a war
zone. Somewhat helpless, Thompson decided to write Wenner with characteristically
dark humor and contempt. This episode would damage Thompson's opinion of Wenner
at a time when the writer already distrusted Wenner and was considering ending their
73 Thompson, Fear and I. -,,ril,,i in America, 610-611.
74 Paul Perry, Fear and I. .,li ,,oi The Strange and Terrible Saga ofHunter S. Thompson (New
York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1992), 214.
working relationship. Thompson was irate about this new development in a cable to
Wenner. As Thompson noted, with trademark dry humor, to Wenner:
Your obviously deliberate failure to reply in any repeat any way to my numerous
requests by phone, cable and carrier for some clarification vis-a-vis what the fuck I
might or might not be paid for whatever I'm doing out here makes a stupid,
dimesucker's joke out of your idea that I'm going to lounge around out here in the
middle of a war at my own expense and with no idea as to what I might write, on
spec, about .... In closing I want to thank you for all the help and direction
you've given me in these savage hours, and about the only thing I can add to that is
that I genuinely wish you were here.7
Thompson's brief stay in Saigon to witness its fall to North Vietnamese forces
ended anticlimactically, as he was forced to find his way out of the country like so many
other Americans. Besides vague assurances that Thompson's expenses would be paid,
however, Wenner provided no explanation as to why Thompson was essentially left on
his own, financially and personally. Wenner merely reminded Thompson, in a cable, to
continue writing. Wenner wrote that "I am just concerned that during that time that you
continue writing so that the story keeps going on in your mind."76
Letters from the latter half of 1975 display little of the affection and humor that
Thompson frequently injected into his dispatches to Wenner. Far from humorous, in fact,
they dealt mostly with unresolved business matters and threats of litigation. Thompson
continued to make clear to Wenner that he had not forgotten how he was virtually
stranded in Vietnam. Thompson wrote, "you might think it's funny to 'unilaterally
suspend my retainer', but the federal bureaucracies of this world we have to live in like to
have things in writing ... if I have any tax, medical or unemployment problems resulting
from your capricious failure to clarify my situation you can be goddamn sure they'll
75 Thompson, Fear and I. aii,, in America, 616-617.
76 Ibid., 629.
bounce back on you in court, in person, and every other way that seems appropriate."7
Thompson began to distance himself from Wenner, both personally and professionally,
though he continued to try to figure out the exact nature of their relationship while
pleading his case to the editor. As Thompson explained, "I fully understand that you
have a different viewpoint-the larger view, as it were-but not all of us live out our
lives from the red-leather driver's seat of a big white Mercedes sedan."78
While Thompson existed in a sort of professional limbo with Rolling Stone,
however, he also began to make plans to cover the 1976 presidential campaign,
communicating early and often with then-prospective candidate Jimmy Carter.
Thompson's continued willingness to move past slights and perceived mistreatments in
favor of pursuing a promising story suggests a strong journalistic desire on his part,
regardless of the magazine it would appear in or the financial details or realities of the
coverage. He preferred to deal with those circumstances after the story was complete,
until this arrangement caused problems between him and Wenner.
His last letter in 1976 to Wenner, dated June 16, read like many of their letters over
the years. Referring to yet more arguments related to expenses, Thompson wrote to
Wenner that "you've made yourself eminently clear on this matter ... and, like you say,
'.. that's that on expenses.' How many other writers have gone to the pawn shop with
that phrase (from you) ringing in their ears?"79
8 Ibid., 650.
79 Ibid., 691-692.
Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson came from radically different backgrounds,
yet emerged as two principal figures in the New Journalism. As with Thompson, it is
first necessary to understand Wolfe's background, in an attempt to understand why and
how he developed as journalist. To contextualize Wolfe's background with his specific
experiences as a journalist, this chapter will also examine his relationship with the
specific publications that helped him develop the New Journalism. Related to that intent,
this chapter will also examine the development of the New York Herald Tribune, and its
related New York magazine, in the context of their development into a vehicle for
Wolfe's New Journalism. The evolution of Esquire magazine in the 1960s and 1970s,
where Wolfe developed the majority of his most popular journalism, will also be
Born Thomas Kennerly Wolfe Jr., Tom Wolfe's father was an editor of the
Snmlte i Planter, an "agronomy journal."1 Wolfe discussed how his earliest memories
were of his father editing the Planter. Born March 2, 1931, in Richmond, Virginia,
Wolfe ensured his introduction into Southern culture and language that would teach him
the complexity and color of writing and speaking. In this environment, Wolfe
encountered the peculiarities of language and memorized the unique nature of dialect
1 William McKeen, Tom Wolfe (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996), 4.
inherent to the South. Wolfe's instinctual use of creative writing would thus begin to
take shape in a culture and household capable of providing continuous inspiration.
Wolfe attended college at Washington and Lee University in his home state, where
he helped found its literary quarterly .\/wheill ,/It/i as part of its editorial staff Wolfe
played for the varsity baseball team, which suggests a rejection of traditional academia in
favor of a more well-rounded approach.2 Wolfe also first encountered American studies
in a class that eschewed tradition and adopted techniques such as field trips and work
experience to expose the students to many facets of American culture and life.3 This
early exposure would leave a marked impression on Wolfe and eventually shaped the rest
of his academic life.
Upon graduating, Wolfe decided to pursue graduate work in American studies at
Yale, in pursuit of his goal of becoming a professor. The culture of student life there
confounded Wolfe's nonconformist instincts, as he tried to stand out from an already
unique community by embracing the bohemian lifestyle. Yale also introduced Wolfe to
the theories of Max Weber and helped shape his views on status. While Wolfe pursued
the bohemian and beatnik movement, during which time he professed some interest in
Jack Kerouac but few of the other beatnik writers, Wolfe found his interest in academic
life waning. Wolfe reflected on his own time in graduate school in the introduction to his
anthology The New Journalism:
I'm not sure I can give you the remotest idea of what graduate school is like. Try to
imagine the worst part of the worst Antonioni movie you ever saw ... or being
locked inside a Seaboard Railroad roomette, sixteen miles from Gainesville,
2 Paul Thomas Meyers, "The New Journalist as Culture Critic: Wolfe, Thompson, Talese" (Ph.D.
diss., Washington State University, 1983), 109.
3McKeen, Tom Wolfe, 5-6.
Florida, heading north on the Miami-to-New York run ... and George McGovern
sitting beside you telling you his philosophy of government.4
Despite his growing disenchantment, he completed his coursework rather than
dropping out completely. He had yet to finish his dissertation, however, and he would
not complete it, titled "The League of American Writers: Communist Organizational
Activity among American Writers, 1929-1942," until 1957, a year after his departure
from Yale. While focused on a particular organization of writers, Wolfe explored an
interest in status that would eventually become an important theme in his cultural writing.
In the year between finishing his coursework and defending his dissertation, Wolfe
entered what he described as the "real world," working odd jobs while deciding what
kind of writer to become. One journalist described this early period succinctly: "He
drove a truck and drank ten cent beer."5 He eventually landed his first job in journalism
at the Springfiehd Union in Massachusetts, building up a portfolio of traditional articles
while finishing his dissertation. Wolfe explained, "I covered all the 'beats' for the paper.
The police station. City Hall. The fire department. The railroad station to see who was
coming into town. It was very good for a person as lazy as me."6 Two years later, in
1959, Wolfe secured a position as a reporter at the Washington Post.
Wolfe, who worked in the Post's "City Life" section as a general reporter, would
stay in Washington only for two years before making his way to New York. The
structure of the Post proved an unsuitable match for Wolfe, since it still served a purpose
as a 'local' paper during the late 1950s and early 1960s. As a small newspaper, the Post
4 Tom Wolfe and E. W. Johnson eds., The New Journalism (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 3-4.
5 Dorothy Scura, ed., Conversations with Tom Wolfe (Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi,
6 Ibid., 16.
focused mainly on news meant for the residents of Washington, D.C., rather than larger
or more unique topics.
Originally assigned to basic local stories, Wolfe continued to express a literary
influence in his articles. In a July 1, 1959, article titled "Companies Scout Talent At
Engineer Convention," his first article with the Post, Wolfe intended to personalize the
convention for his readers and place them there. He wrote, "they were telling the story
yesterday of the big electronics executive who sent 50 men to the Institute of Radio
Engineers convention last March in a crash program to recruit electronics engineers.
Some crash program! He got no recruits and lost 12 recruiters to a California
company."7 Wolfe focused on including the reader in the story, as opposed to merely
recounting the events.
Wolfe also explored the beatnik community with trademark humor and narrative.
In "Beatnik Walker Never Felt So Beat," Wolfe wrote about a beatnik under attack from
the city because he owned an apparently noisy coffee shop. Describing the man, Wolfe
wrote, "Wearing a kimono and shredded Levi shorts, Walker stepped over his living-
room table (which is two inches off the floor), [and] sat down on a cot (the one with the
dead bird under it)."8 In an article about beatnik poet William Meredith, Wolfe attended
a reading of his poetry and wrote, "Beat Generation or no Beat Generation, a new era of
poetry has begun featuring poets who aren't afraid of white shirts, neckties and short
7 Tom Wolfe, "Companies Scout Talent At Engineer Convention," The Washington Post and Times
Herald, 1 July 1959, D6.
8 Tom Wolfe, "Beatnik Walker Never Felt So Beat," The Washington Post and Times Herald, 11
July 1959, A7.
haircuts."9 At this point, Wolfe was still fascinated by beatnik culture, as these articles
indicate. Equally evident from these stories is Wolfe's continued fascination with status
and youth culture. Significantly, these articles also indicated Wolfe's interest in
constructing news articles as personal observations intended for the reader.
Various other Post articles also provide evidence of Wolfe's ability to include
colorful observations and interpretations into regular news items. In one article, Wolfe
recounted a police standoff but focused on the reactions of spectators. When the standoff
ended, Wolfe captured the reaction of the crowd. He wrote, "all of a sudden it was over.
There was almost absolute silence. Then the murmur rose and the crowd charged down
the hill from 4th St."10 As a cliffhanger ending, Wolfe stopped at the crowd's initial
reaction, allowing the reader to imagine the aftermath. Not restricted only to serious
stories, Wolfe also wrote about a visit to a nudist colony. While visiting the colony,
Wolfe wrote that he was admonished to "refrain from writing 'the bare facts are-,' 'the
naked truth is-,' or 'I met a girl who was wearing a smile.'"' These flashes of humor are
apparent in many of the more eclectic articles assigned to Wolfe.
An assignment as Latin American correspondent for the Post would garner him a
Washington Newspaper Guild Award. In these longer feature pieces, Wolfe investigated
Caribbean politics and culture. In "Trujillo, Caribbean Khan, Faces Worst Crisis," Wolfe
visited the Dominican Republic to examine the embattled dictator Trujillo. As Wolfe
9 Tom Wolfe, "Beardless William Meredith Opines Poets Needn't Be 'Inspired Madmen'," The
Washington Post and Times Herald, 20 October 1959, Al l.
10 Tom Wolfe, "Neighbors Watch Calmly As Police Trap Airman," The Washington Post and Times
Herald, 30 July 1959, A3.
1 Tom Wolfe, "Reporter (Stripped-Down Version) Has His Style Cramped by Nudists," The
Washington Post and Times Herald, 6 August 1960, Al.
noted, "the entire New World has ganged up on [Trujillo]."12 As a feature writer, Wolfe
intended to immerse the reader in the Dominican Republic while addressing the
important aspects of its politics. The fairly long article included Wolfe's observations of
the Dominican Republic. Wolfe wrote "homage to Trujillo, in the newspapers, over the
radio and on billboards along the road, is incessant. If a Dominican reporter is pressed
for space, he may cut Trujillo's title down to the bare essentials."13 More intimately,
Wolfe invited the reader to consider an example of Dominican life by incorporating a
restaurant scene. He wrote, "Forget about politics and go off to the town of Azua one
Saturday night at fiesta time. Settle down in the back room of a restaurant. Guitar-
picking folk singers are strolling among the tables. It is quaint. It is indigenous. It is the
Dominican Republic."14 Details such as this description appear throughout Wolfe's Latin
American articles for the Post and indicate his desire to allow the reader greater
involvement in the story.
In another, more humorous story titled "Cuba May Fall but (the) Havana Will Live
Forever," Wolfe focused on the impact of Cuban cigars on foreign policy and the elite.
The rise of Fidel Castro's regime in Cuba severed ties between the island nation and the
United States, resulting in an inability of the American elite to secure Cuban cigars. As
Wolfe wrote, "the Cuban crisis is exposing and endangering the Havana cigar cult-a
private form of devotion that has flourished for decades at the upper levels of American
12 Tom Wolfe, "Trujillo, Caribbean Khan, Faces Worst Crisis," The Washington Post and Times
Herald, 27 November 1960, El.
14 Ibid., E1-E2.
life."15 Wolfe then focused on the history and minutiae of Cuban cigar aficionados,
including John F. Kennedy's affinity for the Havana brand. Wolfe concluded with advice
for Castro. He wrote, "IfFidel Castro is as smart as he acts, he will see to it that the
United States never runs short of Cuban tobacco. He will parachute it in, smuggle it in
by submarine, stuff it into Czechoslovakian diplomatic pouches, or storm the beaches of
Florida with the stuff."16 Castro risked alienating the American elite class, Wolfe
warned, which could threaten his dictatorship. With articles like these, just as he did with
his time in Massachusetts, Wolfe gathered a portfolio of news and feature pieces in
preparation for his next job. In all, Wolfe wrote approximately 300 stories as a reporter
for the Post.
Wolfe's capacity to find a twist in an otherwise mundane story was honed at the
Post, becoming perhaps the greatest lesson he encountered in Washington. The constant
string of general stories may have been an asset, however, given his inherent desire to
write in a unique way. Wolfe's writing had been hindered as a general assignment
reporter, even though his editors recognized his humor by allowing him to explore lighter
articles, such as the nudist colony piece and his explorations of beatnik culture. By 1962,
however, Wolfe had decided to move on to New York, where his career would flourish.
Securing a position at the New York Herald Tribune exposed Wolfe to an entirely
different atmosphere than he encountered at the Post. Some of the most talented
journalists were already working at the Herald Tribune when he arrived, providing Wolfe
with a unique environment and instructive colleagues. His new position brought him into
15 Tom Wolfe, "Cuba May Fall but (the) Havana Will Live Forever," The Washington Post and
Times Herald., 6 July 1961, B1.
16 Ibid., B2.
contact with writers Jimmy Breslin and Dick Schaap, who both worked at the Herald
Tribune, and Gay Talese, who worked at the New York Times. Breslin and Talese,
particularly, would eventually be identified as figures in the New Journalism movement,
although at the time Wolfe first met them they were simply innovative writers looking for
an equally unique assignment. Indeed, Talese would prove most crucial to Wolfe's
development, as the Times journalist originally experimented with literary techniques
applied to news stories, which would eventually become the New Journalism. This
arguably new style of writing did not yet have a name, however, and Wolfe had yet to
fully embrace or understand it.
The New York Herald Tribune and New York Magazine
The Herald Tribune could trace its origins to Horace Greeley and Charles
Anderson Dana, who cultivated the New York Tribune in the nineteenth century as one of
the city's leading newspapers. The New York Herald, founded by James Gordon Bennett
in 1835, became the second half of the Herald Tribune. As historian Richard Kluger
noted in his study of the New York Herald Tribune, it would remain a force in New York
journalism until 1966, when it eventually withered. In the century between, Kluger's
study argued, the Herald Tribune would profoundly change how journalism was written
and what it meant to the public.
Already making a name for itself by 1848, when it covered European revolutions
against the established monarchies, the Tribune demonstrated a resilience and confidence
in its coverage that would prove its worth. In particular, Kluger wrote, its coverage of the
European revolts and uprisings of 1848 proved notable. The Tribune, in the years leading
to the Civil War, became a leading voice in the antislavery movement, placing Greeley in
an increasingly public position as a target for the press in the South. The New York