A day is coming when someone, somewhere will express doubt that Hunter S. Thompson was a real person.
They’ll say that he was just some mythological figure that arose out of the acid-blasted hallucinations of the post-1960s counterculture, or some outrageous McLuhan-esque prank orchestrated by the dregs of the New Left driven to madness by the ascension of Nixon.
And why not? The stories about Thompson sound like legends—blasting his IBM Selectric typewriter with his .454 Magnum, holding court ’til dawn as “night manager” at a notorious San Francisco porn palace, dumping boiling water from a high-rise window onto picketers on the street below, engaging in operatic scorched-Earth tantrum-fights with the editors who paid his salary, destroying hotel rooms, boozing, dosing, smoking, whoring, and still making (some) deadlines with gloriously brilliant and idiosyncratic prose that inspired its own category of non-fiction literature. All without spilling a drop from his ever-present glass of Chivas Regal.
How could a mere mortal live like that? If you weren’t brought up on Rolling Stone magazine and ’70s drug culture, wouldn’t you too think this guy was an invention of some lurid San Francisco hippie novel?
When the God of Gonzo passes into myth, UCSC might be one of the last places to go to get a sense of the real man. Late last year, the Special Collections and Archives at UCSC received an extraordinary gift: a caché of approximately 800 items (in librarian terms, about 35-40 linear feet of material on a shelf) pertaining to the life and career of Thompson, donated by a collector and library professional from North Carolina named Eric Shoaf.
Other than a brother who lived in the area for many years, Shoaf had no direct connection to UCSC or Santa Cruz. As he once did with the work of Beat icon William S. Burroughs—and will soon do with the work of yet another iconic writer, the recently deceased Tom Wolfe—Shoaf is in the habit of amassing literary collections and then finding permanent homes for them. In that respect, he’s something of a matchmaker. And he decided that, like Chivas and Dunhill cigarettes, Santa Cruz and Thompson were an excellent match.
I’m visiting the reading room at Special Collections on the third floor of UCSC’s McHenry Library. The head of the department, archivist Teresa Mora, is showing me some of the highlights of the new Thompson collection. She points to the cover of a literary journal, attached to which is a photocopied image of famed porn actress Marilyn Chambers gleefully holding up her own picture on a box of Ivory Snow laundry detergent. (One of the more lurid pop-culture ironies of the 1970s was that the same woman who was the wholesome young mom on the Ivory Snow box later became hardcore porn’s first superstar).
The image of Chambers is punctured with what looks like a bullet hole.
“It is a bullet hole,” says Mora. It was created by Hunter S. Thompson. He shot this picture. With a gun.
Maybe in the Cult of Gonzo, such a thing qualifies as a holy relic—or, more likely, Thompson shot holes in so many things that it’s not really a big deal. (He did, in fact, regularly shoot holes in photos and posters as a kind of demented artistic expression). Either way, as I run my finger across the hole in the image of a naked porn star holding a box of soap, I can sense the fury and nerve of the man in a more visceral way than I can through his words, mediated through typewriters and editors and magazine articles.
OK, now I’m convinced: Thompson was real.
About a year ago, Mora got the kind of phone call that library archivists dream about. It was a cold call from a man she didn’t know. He was interested in donating a collection of material to Special Collections. People in Mora’s position get offers for donations all the time. But this one was different. This was from a fellow library professional; he understood the process, the standards and the timeline. And what he was offering was about as badass as archival library materials get: rare items associated with the iconic king of outlaw journalism.
“He had amassed this collection that was extraordinarily personally valuable to him,” says Mora. “And he was committed to finding the right home for it. He wanted to make sure that wherever it landed was a place where it would be appreciated.”
GRATEFUL DEAD CONNECTION
UCSC is also famously home to the Grateful Dead Archive, a massive storehouse of material donated by the band itself, which has its own tastefully lit sanctuary near the library’s main entrance. The presence of the Dead archive is not coincidental to this story. It is, in fact, the honey that attracted the bee.
Eric Shoaf works as the dean of the academic library at Queens University in Charlotte. He was using his collection of Thompson material to compile a complete HST bibliography, which he published last summer under the title Gonzology. Shoaf knew all about the Grateful Dead archive.
“To have as wide a cultural impact as possible,” he told me by phone from North Carolina, “you certainly want to find a place where it’s going to attract scholars, but also be complementary to collections that already exist. I was homing in on Santa Cruz because they had this Grateful Dead archive, which is an amazing archive. So I was attracted by that to the institution. And once I got acquainted with some of the people there, I knew it would be really good home for it.”
The collection includes mostly printed material—first editions, uncorrected proofs, broadside posters, and even pirated copies of much of Thompson’s best-known works. There’s a high-school literary magazine in which an unknown Thompson is listed as “art editor,” a beer bottle on which is printed an original HST story, and a fine-press edition of a printed eulogy Thompson had written for psychedelic icon Timothy Leary in 1996, tucked inside of which is a perforated, postcard-sized sheet of (we assume fake) blotter acid.
What does the university plan to do with all this Gonzo swag? Exhibits and displays will have to wait until a full cataloguing of the material is done, which could take a few months. But even without a full online accounting, the Thompson collection is now available for public perusal at Special Collections. There is a registration process, says Mora, and nothing is allowed to leave the reading room. But the materials are accessible to anyone, even those not affiliated with UCSC. “If someone does come in,” she says, “we’ll be able to pull out certain things we know will be evocative for (Thompson fans), like the first edition of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”
As cultural forces, the Dead and Thompson are yin-and-yang complements of roughly equal influence. Both arose from the seedbed of ’60s West Coast counterculture. The Dead’s signature line—“What a long, strange trip it’s been”—sounds like a Thompson line and works well as an epitaph for his career. The famous opening line of Fear and Loathing—“We were somewhere on the edge of Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold”—could have been drawn from a Dead caravan, if you didn’t know better. There are millions of people who are ardent fans of both.
But the differences are worth pondering as well. Thompson was the reckless cynic, eager to eviscerate the rich and powerful and peel away the veneer of phony objectivity from mainstream journalism. The Dead, by contrast, weren’t too concerned with any of that. They were about creating a Dionysian sense of play and an almost-Buddhist awareness of the here and now.
Individually, the Dead and HST presented the two faces by which the counterculture liked to think of itself: the guerrilla truth-teller and the dancing mystic. Taken together, their respective legacies are two steady poles on which to build a monument to the cultural ferment of the 1960s. And UC Santa Cruz is as good a place as any for such a monument.
“Santa Cruz has its own reputation,” says Mora. “I think the university has a history that is very conducive to this kind of collection. It’s not coming out of the blue. It’s not like the Dead came here and now, all of a sudden we were counterculture. The Dead came here because of what UCSC already symbolized.”
Special Collections has other material that sheds light on the counterculture, from original art by Beat poet Kenneth Patchen to photographs of the Black Panther movement and Haight-Ashbury by Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch. Mora does not shy away from the notion that the Thompson collection could make UCSC the go-to site for the legacy of the ’60s.
“We look deeply into our collection,” she says, “and we realize the overlap is everywhere.”
The university, she’s quick to add, is part of that history: “The campus itself was a grand experiment when it was founded in 1965. It all blends in really well together.” Special Collections is not explicitly an archive of any one cultural period but, says Mora, “Counterculture is definitely the thing we’re on the map for, at this point. We are totally being branded.”
In the late afternoon of Feb. 20, 2005, Hunter S. Thompson died after shooting himself at his home in Woody Creek, Colorado. He was 67. His final written words were in a note he titled “Football Season is Over,” the last line of which was, “Relax—This won’t hurt.” Santa Cruz writer and editor Susie Bright was a friend of Thompson. In an obituary, she wrote that he did not act from despair or surrender, but instead from “self-deliverance.” “I’m so proud of Hunter for dying the way he wanted to,” she wrote.
Over the course of the next several months, a giant cannon—taller by a few feet than the Statue of Liberty, and paid for by actor Johnny Depp—was built in Thompson’s honor at his home. On the six-month anniversary of his death, the writer’s ashes were shot into the air and exploded in a burst of fireworks.
Thompson’s suicide was especially poignant for Shoaf. “I was scheduled to go out there to Colorado and see him the winter he passed,” he says.
Shoaf had spoken on the phone to Thompson several times, but he never met him in person. A year after Thompson’s death, Shoaf was invited by his widow to visit Woody Creek to see Thompson’s library.
When Shoaf first made contact, Thompson instructed him to call at midnight, and keep calling until someone answered. “He’s on Mountain Time, and I’m on Eastern Time,” says Shoaf. “So his midnight is my 2 a.m., which meant essentially I had to get up in the middle of the night to call this guy.”
The first time the two men spoke, Thompson came on strong with the famous Gonzo persona, evoked so memorably by Depp in the film version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and in the comic pages with Doonesbury’s Uncle Duke. “I think he was doing it to see what my reaction would be,” says Shoaf, “to test me a little bit. But he quickly fell right in and dropped the persona with me entirely. He managed to be quite cogent, really. I wasn’t talking to some drugged-up crazy man at all. He was actually a pretty sharp guy.”
Thompson talked in “short, staccato bursts” and, because he insisted on using the speaker phone, he wasn’t always understandable. “Typically, he would go on for about an hour and a half, and I’d look up and it’d be 3:30 in the morning, my time. And I was like, ‘Mr. Thompson, I really need to get off the phone.’”
Several years later, Shoaf struck up a correspondence with another figure from the bygone era of literary rock stars, Tom Wolfe. In this case, he did get to meet the man in person. The author of The Bonfire of the Vanities, who died in 2018, invited Shoaf to his home in New York City to take a look at the Wolfe archive.
There is a strong connection between Wolfe and Thompson. Wolfe credits Thompson with supplying him with audiotapes from an infamous party at the ranch of writer Ken Kesey in San Mateo County, an account that formed the basis for Wolfe’s landmark 1968 book The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, which also featured an appearance by the Grateful Dead.
Acid Test chronicles a series of parties during which Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters experiment with LSD. The book not only jump-started Wolfe’s writing career, it established a brand of reportage called New Journalism, made Kesey into a counterculture icon, brought psychedelic drugs to mainstream attention and, in time, became a classic text of the counterculture.
And the first of those “acid tests” took place in … Santa Cruz. Just something to keep in mind for any library professional or collector who might one day have pertinent materials in need of a permanent home.