Renowned writer Hunter S. Thompson was notorious for many things, not least his sense of humor. He played countless and legendary pranks on people, but had no problem turning the joke on himself. At one point, when he had to learn how to walk twice in one year following both spinal surgery and a broken leg, he wrote a note that his wife Anita still has on the refrigerator. It reads, “Well, it’s better to have a chainsaw taken to your nuts than to feel nothing at all, ho ho.”
When Hunter died in 2005—putting the final touch on his life with a .45—Anita was faced with two choices. She could either do nothing and let Hunter become a cherished part of the past, while she sat back quietly at Owl Farm, their home in Woody Creek, Colorado. Or she could take Hunter’s gonzo legacy further—not just keeping it relevant, but breathing new life into all that Hunter stood for.
She chose to grab this gonzo business by the horns and steer it down a new path. Her first step was launching The Woody Creeker, a magazine that focuses on all that makes Woody Creek such a gem of a town—or as Anita puts it, the “beatnik cowboy Shangri-La.” Her next step was enrolling in classes at Columbia University. “There was a huge void in my life when Hunter left,” Thompson says from Owl Farm, “and I was looking for anything to help fill that void.”
Now, she’s published The Gonzo Way: A Celebration of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. It’s a small yet insightful book that discusses what Anita learned from Hunter, specifically how to live life without letting fear get the best of you. The book isn’t so much about the crazed persona that Hunter came to be known for; rather, it’s a series of lessons about courage and the constant quest for truth. It’s this attitude that defines the “Gonzo Way,” according to Anita. “Every time a young person reads a page of Hunter S. Thompson’s,” she writes in The Gonzo Way, “he gains confidence in himself to have courage, and, in my opinion, the world becomes a better place.”
But who is this woman taking the reins of the gonzo heritage? Did she sneak into Hunter’s graces to steal this tradition and make it her own? What kind of fierce and radiant vixen would Hunter deem worthy to further his message of courage and freedom?
“I had gone to boarding school in Switzerland,” Anita reflects. “I was not from a rich family or anything, but my mom saved enough to send me to Switzerland, because I was sort of getting into a lot of trouble in my teens. Not a lot of trouble, but enough. And she’s very Polish, and she wanted me to be in Europe for a while.
“I graduated from there, started going to UCLA, and became involved with the Sierra Club. And I started getting very political, almost to the point of exhaustion. I was the chairperson for the largest student environmental and consumer-rights group, CALPIRG. So I was getting very political and angry.
“I came back to Colorado to just take a semester off, relax a little bit, and sort of regroup, because I was getting a little overanxious thinking that the world was gonna end. I didn’t really think it was gonna end, but I was very angry, and it probably wasn’t healthy to be so obsessed with any political group.
“I came to Aspen for the rest of the semester to ski. But then I discovered snowboarding, and I really loved the carefree lifestyle here. I was working in a snowboard shop and snowboarding every day. Then, during the summer, I was a nanny. And then I met Hunter.”
It was one of those weird coincidences, she says—because, at the time, she knew next to nothing about the famous writer.
“I was very ignorant,” she admits. “I was not aware of his writing. I was vaguely aware from a piece that I’d read that he wrote in Rolling Stone about Bill Clinton. But I had not read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
or Hell’s Angels.
“All I knew was, he knew a lot about football—a mutual friend introduced us because I was curious about football. I was saying to my friend how interesting football is, because it bonds men as life friends, although they have nothing in common except football. Every Sunday they get together and they’re best friends, but they lead basically totally separate, incompatible lives in some cases.
“So I was fascinated by football, and he said, ‘Well, I have just the perfect person to teach you, and that’s Hunter Thompson.’ So he started bringing me over, and Hunter was teaching me about football by betting on it relentlessly, every single play. That was a lot of fun, and I developed a friendship with Hunter, but it was just a friendship. I admired him very much, and I felt very happy and comfortable in his presence.
“As soon as I met him, I started reading his work for the first time. I started with The Rum Diary, actually, because that had just come out.” (Though this was the first book that Hunter wrote, in 1960, it wasn’t published until 1998.) “I enjoyed it immensely,” Anita continues, “and I felt like I understood him, and I thought he was brilliant. The fact that he had written The Rum Diary at 22, and I was 25 when I read it, was fascinating to me. I was fascinated by this guy’s mind.”
It wasn’t until she started working for him that she fell in love. A few months later, she moved in and quickly found out what it was truly like to live with a “teenage girl trapped inside the body of an elderly dope fiend.” After living with Hunter for about six months, “I was in the bathroom, brushing my hair or something, and he opened up the bathroom door and he threw in a whole bunch of Chinese firecrackers—and I realized I was with a big kid,” she laughs. “They were snapping all over the bathroom like it was some sort of mini war zone.
“I was terrified, but by the time I jumped out of the chaos and the smoke and popping firecrackers, I realized I was cracking up and laughing, rolling on the floor because it was so funny.”
As she writes in The Gonzo Way, Hunter was “a champion of fun and a champion of the underworld, which combined to make him most of all a champion of individualism.”
Anita says she plans to stay on Owl Farm and maintain it as “a thriving place for the study of things important to Hunter—politics, literature, history, and journalism.” There’s also another book of letters coming out in the next few years, and a recent symposium at the Aspen Institute on Hunter’s literary contributions is expected to become a yearly event.
Anita is carrying the torch that Hunter lit, shining its glorious light onto the world for generations to come. No, her new book doesn’t read like anything Hunter S. Thompson wrote, but that’s because Anita isn’t trying to copy Hunter. She’s doing this her own way, her brand of gonzo.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 7, 2007