A Bullet to the End
Hunter S. Thompson Remembered
By Darlene Vander Hoop, AKA Norma Jean Thompson
I blame this sentimental blathering on the swift and concise suicide of Dr. Hunter S Thompson. He once told me he thought he'd die quickly from something akin to an unexpected breeze wafting in through a back door ... “Poof” gone; something fast, almost clean, but not quite. Suicide by gun to head is never that clean, but it wasn't a shotgun.
Post-mortem we're seeing and reading reams about Thompson's résumé and political writings, and love of firearms. I've decided to speak instead of his manliness and polemics with women. I deliberately leave mention of his politics and illustrious career to others. Forgive me.
I think Hunter S. Thompson was the sexiest man alive. Ask the women who loved him. He brought out the most primal male-female polarity in an ingenious and natural way. I've yet to meet any man who could come close to what he had in that arena. He was like a wild caveman, and I just wanted to be dragged into his lair by the hair, bear down and make babies, and live in the service of my man, near to the fire. I love you Hunter S. Thompson. My heart cracks open in the vacuum of your absence. There are other women remembering the magic and the mystery, and the genius of your romantic prowess. And I know that they too were enriched and wounded by your darker side. I honor my sisters, and nod to each of them in great respect.
I was returning from a late afternoon movie with my son last Saturday, Feb. 19, and suddenly found myself thinking about Hunter, and the sound and smell of his cocktails. Out of the blue and 20-plus years into the future, I started to crave a shot of whiskey or scotch. Making a beeline, (as my son vehemently objected,) to a local Irish Pub a mile from my home, I climbed up on a chair at the bar and, leaving my coat on, ordered as if possessed, a shot of GlennFiddich. Savoring the taste, odor, and memory, my lips now smelled of him, and I was pleased and perplexed. Hunter always seemed to be holding a glass of ice, drenched in Wild Turkey or scotch, or something strong and most certainly expensive. There was always a fresh bottle in his infamous black bag of essentials, “for the road” packed into his personal travel kit. On the drive home from the pub I stopped at the corner liquor store and perused the scotch and whiskey aisle to my son's grumbling, looking for the beautiful box that infamous bottle of GlennFiddich came in, way back then.
In explanation, I began to tell the story of this Hunter person to my 12-year-old boy. I described the day Hunter insisted we celebrate our “doomed love affair” with a fine bottle of scotch. I looked over all the expensive stuff at the store, and ended up choosing a less expensive scotch this evening, all the while trying to describe Hunter Thompson to my son—our first date, and that special bottle. Klee (my son, pronounced Clay) was somewhat interested, but really just wanted to go home. Little did I know that a day later I'd begin this story in detail in honor and for the love of this great man. The cheaper version of booze, I placed on the top of my refrigerator where it rests right now. I opened it for a whiff, nothing more. Whatever possessed me to buy this item on this particular day, 24 hours before Hunter's death, falls under the category of “metaphysical” ... that's all I can say.
As an unrecognizable America continues to morph before my eyes, I'm feeling old and sad. This winter afternoon, I take post with my laptop on the outskirts of Madison, Wis., at some spanking new mall named Greenway Station; alluding to nature, or something rugged or pastoral. I'm supposed to find solace in this blasphemous distortion of the American landscape, and I try to ... The Colorado-themed restaurant/coffee house, with its intensely mediocre food and thick wood pillars, are designed by our brightest graduates, to comfort me/us, as the global corporate blob gobbles homegrown businesses up, rolling ferociously through every American city. Yet, in the enormous shadow of my once having tasted and lived the real thing, shacked up with Hunter S.Thompson in that compound in Woody Creek in the winter of 1979, I'm being force-fed piped-in, “boomer music,” and type away all the truths I can pull forth. My cell phone perches precariously near the edge of the shiny new wood table. I feel embarrassed to have become such a demographic; such a dead beat.
It is comforting though to think that someone might be interested to read all this out of sentimentality, those who can't get enough of our dearest HST and are heavy with grief at his passing as I am. People seem to be in so deep with their own drama, their glue, their desperation. A swift wake-up call rang out last Sunday evening with Hunter's rapid shot to the head. We just may pick up our noses on this sad occasion, look at each other for comfort, and reminisce upon what was one of the most remarkably alive and unique humans to ever grace this planet.
My love affair with Hunter began in the living room of film director, Bob Rafelson's Aspen home in the early spring 1978. I was a sprite, at maybe 25. I heard a tinkling of ice in a glass, as Bob announced his “crazy” friend Hunter was coming up the stairs. This Hunter had just returned from Zaire, Africa, covering the Mohammed Ali fight there. A fight he is rumored to have spent doing laps for 12 hours in a hotel pool ... A drink in hand heading towards a couch, I thought, he must have been drinking and driving ... I, on the other hand, had just arrived the day before and was suffering altitude sickness. Bob gave me a Quaalude, and as Hunter told Muhammad Ali stories, I nodded out on a chair, eyelids too heavy to study his formidable presence or hear his wild tales from Africa; a vapid-looking bimbo I suspect I appeared to him that night.
Hunter was the human who got five times the juice the rest of us got, and thrice the wattage. Being in his presence, for better and for worse, was to be in an altered state. Friends grew accustomed to Hunter's absolute weirdness. He possessed fluidity and buoyancy in what might be thought of as the choppy sea of three-dimensional life. Hunter's joints seemed lubricated with some fine oil deprived from the rest of us mortals, always swaying, just above perception in perpetual motion like certain animations. Those knobby knees remained slightly bent, and exposed in all seasons. I loved to “perform Hunter” for others who didn't know him: embodying his stance, his mumbling. He had a hum about him. It's hard to describe, but he was so highly tuned, that just under the surface of regular perception he hummed. I'll miss that sonofabitch; his voice and the amusing repertoire of odd-ball sounds; yelps and screeches he made like jungle animals and birds. He endlessly talked to inanimate objects, “You bastard ...!” He'd yelp to a pen, and then hurl it against a wall, jump up and stomp it to death. His voice was a cacophony of deep and strangely garbled sounds that became his trademark. Being a yoga student extraordinaire in those days, I was captivated by his physical prowess and even speculated he might be a “Fakir.”* I think though, he was mostly a warlock.
He and I were stopped once driving a car loaded with illegal things, and he managed to do some magic right before my eyes and those of the examining officer. He caught his glasses (or was it his wallet/) after they flew off his head straight up into the air. The juggle was so astonishing, even to him, that we told the story to each other over and over that day. Although speeding and drinking and driving recklessly there was no citation. With those reflexes and Hunter's trickery, even the cop, on that weird routine stop, questioned his own perceptions.
His huge spirit was very hard to escape ... very hard indeed. Friends often found themselves talking and acting like their weird friend, and unable to shake him off as if possessed. Actors love playing Hunter. Yet, no matter the talent and precision with which they portray him, (Johnny Depp did the consummate job in Fear and Loathing,) no one could capture his soul on camera. Hunter owns that completely and it simply cannot be siphoned off. Bill Murray made him into a caricature in Where the Buffalo Roam. The movies themselves were missing something, that magic something was of course unable to be captured.
And he was always hurting himself, smashing his head on sharp corners, teetering in some precarious position which would put everyone on the edge of their seats, and then proceed to do something fucking remarkable. Sometimes he'd hurl an object up over his head, shriek, spin around and somehow catch the sucker ... between his teeth.
Once we were at a local hot springs with another couple in Glenwood, Colo. We were staying at the hotel and spa there. I was disturbed at Hunter's relentless self-abuse and suggested he take up yoga, naively thinking I could teach him some postures. He said he knew some yoga and assumed Full Lotus pose in a blink of an eye, right there sitting on the bed. What followed was witnessed by two other people besides me. Hunter somehow lifted his immense body up off the bed while still in Full Lotus (a pose with both feet and ankles folded up tightly on the thighs,) and did a freakin' back flip off the bed and onto the floor (without use of his arms) only to catch his temple on the corner of a table. He just folded up in a heap on the floor. Gail Chitty and I thought he might be dead. He grumbled about how that smarted, and got up moaning and rubbing his head. Then he took up his Dunhill and suggested we go out to the hot pools. We were speechless.
Actually his entire being had elegance to it down to his refined wrist movement and the way he cocked his head, or placed his Dunhill into an expensive or gold-tipped water filter. Even that crazy-looking orange hat he wore for years atop very expensive outfits seemed classy. He'd wear cashmere over shorts; expensive cashmere. He had many gorgeous sweaters and often waxed poetic about their beauty and warmth. A friend of mine told me that one afternoon he told her to go through a catalogue and order as many as she wanted. When she hesitated, he coaxed her, “Better be quick and get them while I'm feeling generous.” After she placed her modest order, he ordered many more for himself.
It was my second meeting with the good doctor at L'Hermitage Hotel in Beverly Hills, upon which our future was destiny, yet I still didn't see it coming. A tsunami was about to engulf my world. An over-sized picture book on Marylyn Monroe sat on the coffeetable in front of me with little mounds of cocaine piled around her face. A huge hand-carved hunting knife was also on that book looking very sinister. He and Jann Wenner, (publisher of Rolling Stone,) just moments earlier, were carousing like frat boys out on the terrace, hoisting cherry bombs down onto the cars driving on the boulevard below. I was sent to L'Hermitage on business. Yea, monkey business, now that I see I was set up by a mutual friend. I was there, in my mind, to unload the last of the weed I was selling. Hunter resorted to desperate measures to get my attention that afternoon after I delivered the 4 ounces of pot he said he'd buy. I packaged my wears in Guatemalan baskets with beautiful beads hanging from the lids. Each basket held one ounce of homegrown northern Californian weed. Mediocre as it really was, it was a class act in those baskets! He ripped out the pot and gave me back the baskets, and said he'd write me a check. So there I sat waiting for this check which was long-time coming-- just enough time for him to cast his spell. At one point he peeled off his gray V-neck sweater and flung it full-force, right at my face, while I sat opposite him of a coach, mildly distracted by the drama going on around me. It scraped my retina and I was in pain for several minutes. I felt pure rage and violation. He apologized and said I could keep the sweater, it was expensive cashmere. Boys in the 7th grade act like that when they like a girl for god sakes ... I was not impressed, certainly not “seduced,” and was trying to get out of the hotel. I had no idea who he was, nor did I care to find out. He was just weird, and older, and scary; and bald!
Days passed and I was still there ... I slid down the banister of that townhouse-type suite wearing nothing but a rubber Richard Nixon mask I spotted in his suitcase. I still have the photo to prove it. I was competing that day with the Kentucky Derby, so I posed on the TV set. I think that one gesture sealed the deal with us. We ventured out on the town renting a red Mercedes sports car convertible. He insisted we drive around Bel Air at 60 miles per hour, to see how it took curves. The ever present glass of whiskey in his hand didn't lose a drop. Eventually stopping for lunch in the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel, he proceeded to charm me by “teaching” me how to spice and hold a club sandwich like “they do in Washington, D.C.;” applying just the right amount of mayo with that certain flick of the wrist, knife moving away from the body ... And he turned me on to the delights of oysters Rockefeller, with lots and lots and lots of pepper. Hunter so enjoyed spicing up food and creating a new spin on the average meal long before it became trendy. When a waitress approaches to take the drink order, he begins his request in a pensive almost serious tone, cocks his head slightly and sighs...“I'll have ... (sigh) ... umm, let's see, “four Bloody Marys, six Margaritas on the rocks, and five Heinekens.” That luncheon in the Polo Lounge is etched solid gold in my memory. Me, the starlet, decked out in my '40s vintage dress, over a nubile 100-pound, toned-body- to -perfection; he in his beautiful collegiate shirt, watch, hat, and many accouterments. I felt we were reincarnations of Bogart and Bacall. People couldn't take their eyes off of us. Everywhere we went it was like that. That was the first of many breakfasts, and dinners of otherworldly, rule-breaking behavior and decorum for three decades, on and off, to come.
The genesis of my future penname, Norma Jean Thompson, occurred on a trip to San Luis Obispo, Pismo Beach to be exact. I'd fallen hook, line, and sinker for this freaky and fabulous “testosterone extract,” by this time and met him wherever and whenever he wanted; losing jobs and friends as I fell deeper and deeper in what I thought was love. A crowd of college students were at the airport when we landed in San Luis Obispo. People were taking pictures and Hunter was frantic that his wife might see me in the press. He was whimpering under his breath, “Divorce ... ruin ...” He introduced me as Norma Jean and described me as an assistant; an actress from Hollywood helping him out. The university circuit taught me a lot about him and his adoring fans. But it was packing that black bag, fending off the press, dealing with logistics and his distorted sense of time and vacillating moods that were the real challenge. Hunter needed micromanaging.
Hunter I were co-conspirators working up a drama, sketching bold characters and brilliant dialogue. We'd laugh so hard together as our story took on an intricately detailed and treacherous form. I thought I might die from belly bursting laughter and loss of oxygen. Once at the Westwood Marquee in Hollywood, Hunter went raving about how he had become his own grandmother, and was possessed by her spirit for hours; crawling around and wailing and speaking in an old woman's voice: having conversations with her from both sides and crying hysterically. Ralph Steadman was nearby in another part of the hotel; as was Bill Murray and the producer of what was to become the film, Where The Buffalo Roam. Hunter was despairing at the thought of selling his story for an undisclosed and hideously small amount of money that he needed at the time. He ended up tearing that room to shreds.
I'd gotten a place in Manhattan in the fall of 1979, and had a 21-yr old roommate, a nurse. Hunter and I were frolicking and he was wearing a long blonde wig and had very bright pink lipstick smeared on his lips, in the privacy of my bedroom overlooking Central Park West. On the TV that night was unending coverage of a hi-jacking. I speculated that perhaps it was his then wife, Sandy, holding all hostage on that flight, blinded by rage at the realization her husband was running amuck with a young starlet. He jumped on the fantasy and we imagine her lopping off heads and rolling them down the shoot onto the airport tarp. Hunter was in New York City that spring working on the galleys for The Great Shark Hunt at my apartment. My roommate worked the night shift and came home in the wee hours of the morning. This night my lovely roommate is startled by the vision in my room: the sight of such a large and ugly woman seated cross-legged in lotus pose, the bed overflowing with papers and books and all these crazy items scattered everywhere. Within 20 minutes he was drawing a huge black swastika on her naked butt with a thick black marker, “so her patients would see it through the white nurse's uniform.” He was contrite as he remarked, “This'll get the adrenalin going ...”
One time at One Fifth Ave, a trendy night spot in the '70s in NYC, we were with people from the staff of “Saturday Night Live,” and an assortment of other writers, artist and fans; all around a large, central table, when Hunter suddenly disappeared. About 25 minutes later, he reappeared with a big bag which he threw on my lap. I opened it to find a collection of the most exotic dildos, vibrators, brightly colored sex toys, lubes and gels, I’d ever seen! He'd slipped over to the Pleasure Chest and did some shopping. He chose a T-shirt too. That white shirt with big black letters across it read: “Beat me, fuck me, cum all over my tits, tell me that you love me, and get the fuck out.” It was shocking, I mean shocking. He was amused, and, without missing a beat, I pulled it out and down over my dress and proceed to stand and walk around to the other tables telling the diners how romantic my boyfriend was to give me such a sweet gift over dinner. He was purple with laughter and feigned embarrassment, apologizing for this clearly “hopelessly insane” woman. He was yelling out, “Pay no attention, she's on the way to the institution, hopelessly insane, mad, crazy bitch ...” The people in the restaurant that night fell into two categories, the horrified, and the highly amused. Later the party continued at the Gramercy Park Hotel with select guests witnessing the mashing up of coke with dildo tops. I have that photo too and I am wearing the famous t-shirt and the orange hat. We imagined all going out to Studio 54 or the Lone Star with Hunter wearing a thick belt with all these colorful dildos hanging off of it, bobbing around as he moved through the crowd. We liked to resurrect that cartoon on occasion to each other. I'd say before a trip; “And don't forget that dildo belt; never know when that sucker might come in handy ...” He'd always got a kick out of that.
Hunter met Leila on that trip to NYC. It was a matter of months before he'd fall in love with her. My time was up and I knew it, and she eventually moved out to Woody Creek, sick with love ... I saw him much less but did see him from time to time. And it was always so much fun. We managed a trip to Key West, and he visited in L.A., and wrote Curse of Lono (one of my favorite of his books) only to tell me he sketched the character Pele after me. He was charming and seductive as the devil himself.
I took the editor from my magazine LA Woman, up to San Francisco in the mid-'80s. At that time Hunter positioned himself as the “Night Manager” in the Mitchell Brother's Theater. We two gals went up in hopes of getting an exclusive interview. We preposterously thought we'd get Hunter talking about women and relationships, figuring his new job was the perfect backdrop for such a subject matter: this sleazy sex factory, strip club, live Sex Act Theater, porno shop palace. Hunter was like a duck in water up there, cheerfully introducing us around to everyone as “Lesbian journalists from L.A.” Hunter loved certain words; “lesbian” and “nipples” were two of his favorites and he tried to work them into most conversations. He paraded us through dressing rooms with naked women who seemed delighted by his presence. After subjecting us to hours of porno movies at the theater while he went to prepare the apartment for our stay, we ended up holding spotlights for lap-dancers later that night under his tutelage. When he finally took us to the apartment of his current girlfriend, who he said was an “amputee,” and mysteriously absent, the first thing my poor editor saw were several colorful dildos in various sizes and colors, sticking out of a sink of bubbles in the kitchen. Positioned perfectly with the heads reveled and various attachments in Day-Glo colors, I knew we were in for a long haul. He loved to disarm everyone right away; particularly journalists sniffing out a story on him. Hunter had constructed a very nice tiki bar in the apartment from which he offered us a drink. He had donned some bizarre wig or hat made out of alpaca, giving him the look of a hound dog with its long side flaps. I have photos to document this story as well, if there are any folks out there that think Hunter's life was mostly fiction, or that I am delusional; doubt me not.
By the way, my young editor ended up leaving her husband and running off with Hunter. She wanted to have “lots and lots of babies” with him is what she told me. I wished her well and thought maybe this was different and he was going to marry her. She vanished with all of our notes and taped interviews; and I've never seen them again; nor her for that matter. One thing about Hunter S.Thompson, he had a great sense of justice, and he was superstitious about the workings of karma. He knew exactly when and how much to take, and just when to give. Boy, he owed me one. I'd get another chance seven years later when visiting as a journalist for NuCity (now Weekly Alibi) in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and with another young female editor. This confluence of characters resulted in a 16,000 word story and interview called “From Weird to Eternity,” published March 1, 1995.
Yes, Hunter was a complex and double-edged sword. He evoked both love and hate in his friends; and people would become enraged with him and grumble for weeks on end about his lack of responsibility and his selfishness. We sought his company, only to flee from it to the comfort of our homes, and into the mundane tasks of our jobs, when he played too rough. Who could live at such a high pitch? Yet he remains the most forgivable of narcissists.
And yes, there was the dark side, the demonic side. I do have to describe this dark side to flesh him out completely. Hunter could turn a glorious fun time into something sinister and ugly like a dream turned nightmare in a turn of phrase or tiny event. Anything could trigger his rage. We once were having a seriously romantic evening in front of his huge fireplace in the dead of winter. The house was dry and I had candles lit everywhere. He was in his “magic” robe given to him by some African tribal chief or some such tale, and I was scantily dressed. The phone rang and it was another one of his lovers wanting to come over. He told me she was going to show up. I went into a jealous rage and suddenly, out of nowhere, the room began to fill with smoke. A fire broke out in the back bedroom from a candle I'd forgotten about. I ran back to discover the dresser and curtains in flames, the paneled walls beginning to burn. Hunter punched me so hard between the shoulder blades that I hit the floor choking. It got much uglier from there. I got up and he was ranting and raving that my jealously led me to “blowing the house up and ruining his life,” and I heard, “You crazy bitch, you are going to kill us both in a massive explosion.” Sandy, his wife of 20 years had just left him a month or so earlier, and I was naively and selfishly dreaming of babies, and moving in, and playing house with him forever; as most mistresses do once the wife disappears. Again I was young and dumb, and forgive me Sandy.
He picked me up and threw me out the front door into the snow. It was 3 or 4 am and I was in the Rockies in February, wearing nothing except perhaps a T-shirt (no not that one). I started to crawl and cry as I became numb with cold. I was sure my death would happen right there between his house and the house I spot a distance away. I made it to the porch and was banging on the door and whimpering from a fetal position on the floor between the screen and the wooden door. Finally a couple let me in and wrapped me in several blankets, horrified by the scenario. We looked out of the window and could see Hunter tossing the burning furniture into the yard- everything, in a big burning pyre. They told me to stay there and not try to go back. “When Hunter gets this mad you must just let him calm down.” We could hear him screaming and yelling and see his massive body lurching from room to room with a fire extinguisher. I was trembling in fear—trembling. Apparently, by their demeanor, this couple was used to nights like this. Of course he started calling on the phone after an hour or so, demanding I return. And I did. What transpired after that is so strange and surreal that I cannot speak it; the most powerful encounter I have ever had with another human being.
There are so many Hunter Thompson stories, that if I recall mine alone, this exposition would never end. If all the people told only one story at his memorial, they'd be standing on his land for a decade. He made life ridiculously colorful, complex, and real. Not a one forgets the time spent with this man .... not a one.
I still covet that cashmere sweater he so impetuously threw at my eye 28 years ago. I wore that sweater for a year every time I wanted to be close to him, to embody his essence, and that odor, that intoxicating maleness and elixir which lingered in those threads, even after several cleanings... A male friend of mine said on the phone hours after his death as we cried together. “Hunter was beautiful.” He said it so definitively: a peer, a man almost his age in awe of his friend. Yes, this large, wild eyebrowed, often growling monster of a man, full of surprises and dead-on truths, was also full of Love. His eyes transformed so soft at times, and had the essence of a doe in them. Once on a trip to Sausalito, Calif. he spent eight hours in a swimming pool swimming laps, and tossing and flipping like a dolphin as I slept, curled up next to this large pools' edge ... peeking once in a while at this madman-dolphin-man I had grown to love with all my heart and soul so quickly. He was more alive than others. He just fucking was! Drugs, no drugs, he was more alive, more of the time, than anyone I ever met. His abundant and heartily lived moments rubbed off. I always felt my radiance went up for days after spending time with him. As he's sniffing cocaine up a raw nose and yelping in agony, burning himself, pushing himself to his absolute limits of endurance and auto-poisoning, amused and slightly stunned at his antics, we're mesmerized and secretly hoping for a long contact high.
There was a price for all the fun; always a very steep admissions fee. As for him, I believe he paid in “tissue.” Friends speculated frequently about how amazing his long living was, considering the torrential and incessant abuses. I suspect it was pain and body deterioration that tipped the scales towards checking out. It was his contentions with culture that produced such great writing, but his battle with the limitations of biology, I believe lead to his ultimate decision. He had an inordinate tolerance for pain. The body pain had to have become unbearable.
A dear female friend of his would question how that day would be ..., the day we saw his face with two dates under it on CNN. We'd then both laughed, shrugging off the grim thought and said he most likely would outlive us all. And then he was gone. Poof,” Like a book falling off a shelf” was how the sound was described by his only child, adult son, Juan Thompson. The last line in the interview section of “From Weird to Eternity,” was this:
“Are you afraid of death?”
“There is no death”
At long last free from the confines of both culture and biology, Hunter's probably spinning, twirling, and back-flipping in the expanse of quintessence: perhaps even looking down on us right now with tremendous Love. He knew what he was doing last Sunday. And as he often said with utter conviction, “Trust me, I'm a doctor ...”
Hunter, I treasure you, and hope to channel a fraction of your talent for my writing. But I only wish one last thing of you: A dash of that true genius for living life.
“From Weird to Eternity” is available upon request for publication, or for a great read. It is a 16,000 word piece written for the alternative press in 1995; Published March 1, 1995 in Weekly Alibi and republished several times since then. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in elaboration or republication of this eulogy.
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