Fifty years ago this spring, Hunter S. Thompson wrote the article, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,” and assumed it would be the end of his career. “I have no story,” he told his illustrator, Ralph Steadman, in the days after they left Louisville. The story he eventually filed “under duress” was bizarre, at times unsettling, and punctuated by Steadman’s grotesque illustrations. It was a singular voice for a turbulent time.
It was two years into the Nixon administration; two years into a presidency which had won the popular vote by 0.7%. While thoroughbreds were thundering across Churchill Downs, Air Force pilots were bombing Cambodia; hundreds of students at Kent State University were protesting; George C. Scott was playing that pushover George S. Patton in theaters; and Mitch McConnell was a 28-year-old legislative assistant in D.C. dreaming of becoming a Kentucky senator.
We may never know what prompted Thompson to pitch the idea to Scanlan’s Monthly editor Warren Hinckle III over the phone in the middle of the night a few days before the race. Why then? Why the Derby? Scanlan’s had only two issues under its belt, and Thompson’s most significant story to date was about his time spent at Bass Lake, California, with the Hell’s Angels. That article, written for The Nation, had appeared in 1965 and eventually led to a book.
On the other hand, there may have been no better time. While subversive anti-heroes, like Bonnie and Clyde or Butch and Sundance, were suddenly interesting again, journalism remained unscathed. Walter Cronkite—the most trusted man in America—Helen Thomas, and David Brinkley were tried and true, yet they played within the conservative rules of the sport.
Thompson charted a different tack. Where his Hell’s Angel piece feels dangerous and foreboding like, say, riding in a ’70 Pontiac with a radiator about to boil, the Kentucky Derby story is like watching from a distance as the radiator explodes, and fireworks shoot out of every window while a barbershop quartet in seersucker sings “My Old Kentucky Home.”
Thompson’s plane landed in Louisville at midnight on the Thursday before the race. The light from a near-full moon reflected off the tarmac as he headed over to the airport terminal’s lounge and ordered a margarita.
“Naw, naw … what the hell kind of drink is that for Kentucky Derby time?” Jimbo, a Derby-goer for more than 15 years, asked him at the bar when he heard the order. “What’s wrong with you, boy?”
The bartender fixed up something with whiskey, and Jimbo asked what brought Thompson to Louisville.
“My assignment is to take pictures of the riot,” Thompson said.
“At the track. On Derby Day. The Black Panthers. Don’t you read the newspapers?” Thompson said.
“Those sons of bitches! God Almighty! The Kentucky Derby!…Why here?” Jimbo pleaded. “Don’t they respect anything?”
Thompson knew what he was doing. Segregation was as rampant in Kentucky as it was in the deeper enclaves of the South. Thompson’s race-baiting, the social satire—it may have been a little too easy. In May of 1970, Louisville’s most famous native son, Muhammed Ali, was still banned from boxing for refusing to enlist in the military. “My enemy is the white people, not the Viet Cong…” he once said. A native of Louisville himself, Thompson had been to several Derbies. The margarita order, much like the riot bullshit, was a ruse to elicit revealing conversations from locals.
Steadman, a Welsh illustrator, said that he “hit the bullseye” when he met Thompson, who he called the strangest man in America. “Steadman wanted to see some Kentucky Colonels, but he wasn’t sure what they looked like,” wrote Thompson. “I told him to go back to the clubhouse men’s rooms and look for men in white linen suits vomiting in the urinals.” Both Thompson and Steadman become willing participants in the debauchery that ensued. Steadman’s frenetic drawings scream out like rotoscoped Goya canvases and give a sense of the depravity swirling around them. By the end of trip, he was left physically shaking and asking for water.
“It’s the only thing they have that’s fit for human consumption,” he pleaded.
They spread all of Steadman’s sketches from the past few days out across a table.
“Shit,” Thompson said. “We both look worse than anything you’ve drawn here.”
Hinckle ran the Derby piece in the June 1970 issue of Scanlan’s. There were only eight issues of Scanlan’s ever published, leading one person to say that the story was Thompson’s best known and least read.
“Forget all this shit you’ve been writing,” Bill Cardoso told Thompson after he read the piece. “[T]his is it; this is pure Gonzo. If this is a start, keep rolling.”
And he did.
I remember looking up at my parents’ bookshelves as a nine-year-old and seeing one book in particular that scared the shit out of me. On the front of the black dust jacket was a skull that took up nearly the entire front of the book. The frontal bone of the skull was sky blue with three white stars. Vertical red and white stripes colored the “face.” As my eyes grew wide and intense, the skull smiled back at me with jagged teeth. Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 was printed in all caps above the boney face. Underneath: “Dr. Hunter S. Thompson with illustrations by Ralph Steadman.”
Fear and Loathing, isn’t just about the ’72 campaign; it’s about Thompson covering the ’72 campaign. It was an election season with similarities to our own today. On the Republican side: a blustering president seeking reelection. On the Democratic side: a nomination fight between a former vice president, unpopular with college students, and a senator with no national executive experience. “[T]he big thing this year, is Beating Nixon. But that was also the big thing… twelve years ago in 1960,” wrote Thompson, “and as far as I can tell, we’ve gone from bad to worse to rotten since then, and the outlook is more of the same.”
His Gonzo approach to storytelling put an Odyssean stick in the eye of American journalism by removing any notion of objectivity while refusing to shill for a particular side. Thompson takes the reader on his adventure month by month. Will he get access to the right people at the right time? Will he find a place to sleep for the night? We root for the slightly misanthropic, anti-hero and learn how campaigns work. He struggled with the burden of churning out biweekly articles and was intensely frustrated his profile of George McGovern was scrapped when the senator abruptly had to fly back to Washington. He wrote, “Only a lunatic would do this kind of work: twenty-three primaries in five months; stone drunk from dawn till dusk and huge speed-blisters all over my head. Where is the meaning? That light at the end of the tunnel?” There’s intimacy here; there’s soul; there’s humanity.
Intimacy, soul, and humanity are increasingly absent from today’s political journalism and have more often been supplanted with branding. Practically all major news outlets, except public stations, run on subscriptions and/or advertising dollars. This model perpetuates a positive feedback loop: consumers of news remain consumers because they like what they’re hearing/reading/seeing; news producers, then, continue to publish on-brand content.
Gonzo stood athwart all that by being so “aggressively subjective, intensely imaginative, determinedly iconoclastic and almost unremittingly ‘literary’” to be impossible to group one way or another. On the campaign trail, Thompson wrote:
Objective journalism is a hard thing to come by these days…The only thing I ever saw that came close to Objective Journalism was a closed-circuit TV set up that watched shoplifters in the General Store in Wood Creek, Colorado. I always admired that machine, but I noticed that nobody paid much attention to it…
When Thompson wrote those words, Americans had access to a handful of TV channels. Today, there are more than 900 stations not including limitless streaming apps. The diversity of content available to us in 2020, which allows us to carefully construct and curate our own media experiences, is coupled with a mental and physical lethargy that threatens to disfigure our connections in real life. Economist Tyler Cowan’s 2017 book The Complacent Class lamented data that show fewer Americans are willing to move for a new job; innovation isn’t valued by us today as it was earlier in our history, and we are in a cycle of living next to, socializing with, and marrying people who look and act just like us.
The Balkanization of media has lulled us into sleepy corners. The SNL skits, the Noahs, the Colberts—while funny—haven’t offered a new way to see our times. They are, in effect, palliative. Traditional writers haven’t fared much better. My days are filled reading powerful words, but they rarely slap me in the face, force another mint julep down my gullet, and say, “Shit, we gotta get out of this stall! I can hear the Call to the Post!”
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Thompson’s work languished, but his Kentucky Derby story lived on. Tom Wolfe anthologized it along with the Hell’s Angels piece in 1973’s The New Journalism—a popular book for creative nonfiction types—and the University of Kentucky’s Journalism Alumni Association elected Thompson to its Hall of Fame in 2014.
I’m no longer scared of picking up Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 from the bookshelf. Its patriotic skull means something different to me now. And when I look to be challenged and sit in awe of what’s possible in writing, I turn to the Thompson’s Kentucky Derby piece. Its quirky insanity is helpful in equally Gonzo times.
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