Hunter Thompson on a Bat: Fear and Loathing in Mayfair
May 19, 1975
The famed Gonzo journalist, Hunter Thompson, travels the world in search of stories. Currently he is sending dispatches back from Southeast Asia to Rolling Stone. Wherever he is, though, Thompson is often more interesting than the story he’s covering. Jon Bradshaw, a British journalist and author of “Fast Company,” a book on gamblers, writes about a few days in the life of the Gonzo journalist — Thompson’s story, in this case, was never delivered, and Rolling Stone wrote off $10,000 in expenses.
We were somewhere deep in Berkeley Square in a dive decorated to look like an early ’30s cocktail lounge when the malaria began to take hold. Dr. Gonzo leaned wearily against the bar and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. “Great creeping Jesus,” he screamed, “it’s the cold sweats this time. They’re the fucking worst. This town is diseased. You’d think they’d protect tourists from vicious bugs. The fucking things are everywhere. Ralph, Ralph, where the hell are you? I need a fucking doctor. Immediately!”
Ralph Steadman, artist and amiable patriarch, sat next to Gonzo at the bar scanning the gigantic drinks list. “Have a drink,” he said. “This list says you can have anything from Tequila Sunrises to Scorpions. Have them both. They’ll do you some good.”
“I’ll have three Bloody Marys,” said Gonzo to the startled barman. “And I want a lot of lime in them. The little fuckers hate lime. Takes the poison out of them. And Ralph, if that doesn’t help, I’ll need a doctor. I think I need a doctor anyway. I need a massive jolt of tetracycline. I know. I’ve had malaria before. It’s not the sort of thing you fuck around with.”
Dr. Gonzo and Mr. Steadman had flown into London two days before from Zaire where they had gone to report the George Foreman-Muhammad Ali fight. Now, sitting in this darkened bar, the talk, whenever Gonzo could take his mind off his galloping malaria, was of the fight and their deadline for Rolling Stone the next day. “Shit, I’ve got 10,000 words to write for tomorrow,” said Gonzo, “and I haven’t even started yet. There’s not a lot of time and what do I come down with in this poxy town. Fucking malaria.”
According to the heated accounts of the intrepid duo, Zaire had been an ominous assignment. They had had to fight their way out of the country — “hand-to-hand combat” is how it was described — just managing to catch the last plane out to Lagos and New York. At Kennedy airport, customs officers confiscated a pair of Gonzo’s recently acquired elephant tusks, though he managed to retrieve them by sneaking into the customs shed when the officer had his back turned. In New York, they learned that John Daley, one of the fight’s promoters and a key figure in their story, was in London and would talk to them there. Arriving in London, they learned that Daley had flown to New York. Now, hunkered down in Brown’s Hotel, they seethed and awaited his return.
“We’re lucky to be alive,” said Steadman. “Zaire was a narrow escape. Quite naturally, when we get off the plane and walk into Brown’s at nine in the morning, Hunter orders three Bloody Marys, a dozen beers, a bottle of Scotch, a bottle of Wild Turkey, and the number of the nearest brothel. They thought he was crazy and it was all downhill after that. Last night he was accused of trying to rape one of the maids and of shooting pigeons on the window ledge with a Magnum .44. This morning I find him in bed with a girl. At some point during the night, he had drawn a swastika on her ass in indelible ink. She dropped her drawers to show it to me. She said she would wear it forever. I don’t know how much longer London will put up with us. I don’t like it. We’re getting a lot of weird looks in the hotel lobby.”
Dr. Gonzo orders another two Bloody Marys and says he’s going to the toilet. “Keep your eye on the bartender,” he says to Steadman on the way out. “I think he’s trying to cheat me on the lime. If he doesn’t put in enough, shoot him.”
“How long can he go on like this?” someone asks. “Well,” says Steadman, “it’s not good. I’d say another 50 years. He’ll beat himself to hell, die peacefully in his sleep at 90, and everyone will say he got exactly what he deserved. But he’s never been this bad. I’ve never seen him go this far before. Christ, in Zaire he was an absolute menace.”
Dr. Gonzo returns to the bar, takes a sip of his drink, and glares at the barman. “There’s not enough lime in here,” he says. “Do you want the little bastards to escape?” He is wearing Levis, a checked shirt, a kind of smart Canadian lumberman’s jacket with an obscure foreign press badge on the pocket, tennis shoes, and tinted glasses. Balding, he has the look of an elderly athlete with perhaps another season in him.
“Shit, I feel terrible,” he says. “I haven’t slept for three days. And now this malaria. I deserve better things. Ralph, goddamnit, get a doctor, will you? I want him here now. Tell him to bring some tetracycline with him. I know how to deal with this thing. And I’ll need some coke. I may as well take every precaution I can. It’s a fucking twisted world we live in. I need protection.” Steadman goes to find a telephone.
“I need an Irish coffee,” he says to the barman. “But I don’t want any scum on top. Just whiskey, sugar, and hot coffee. I’ve got the cold sweats. Jesus, l’m beginning to have visions.”
“How was the fight?” someone asks.
“What fight?” mumbles Gonzo, swilling down the Irish coffee. “I never saw the fucking fight. Who won? I don’t like fights anyway. Thirty minutes before it started, I gave our tickets to some crazy wino I found in the hotel lobby. My mind was on other things, important things. I’d bought $1000 of grass the day before and was ripped off. It was bad stuff. Ugly. So I cast it over the waters of the hotel swimming pool and went swimming until the fight was over. Under the circumstances, it was the only thing to do. It’s not the sort of country in which you have a lot of choices. A savage place filled with a lot of malignant mutants, I was lucky to escape with my life, believe me. Thirty years of hard labor at best. You’re looking at a man who has looked into the face of death — and then kicked him in the balls. I’m lucky to be here. Listen, one night, kicking down the door in my hotel room, because I’d lost my key, I heard this awful growl in the hallway. It was pitch dark because the fuses had blown. I flashed a light and there was Foreman walking down the hall with a huge German shepherd beside him. I thought I was having hallucinations. I wasn’t. He walked up and down that dark hall every night — brooding. It was all like that. It was a savage place.”
Steadman returned to say the doctor insisted on looking at Gonzo personally at six that afternoon. Steadman himself would have to leave. The art deadline was imminent. There were a lot of lunatics in San Francisco screaming like banshees for the cover and Steadman didn’t want to be too late. He begged Gonzo to take care of himself, to go back to the hotel, lock himself in, rip out the telephone, and do some work. Gonzo nodded and ordered another Irish whiskey.
“Are there any girls in town?” he asked when Steadman had gone. “I want to rape someone. I need about 113 orgasms before I can do any serious work tonight.” He looked out the window. “What’s the penalty for rape in Berkeley Square?” he asked.
Two Irish whiskeys later, he seemed to have forgotten girls and began to talk of tailors. He needed a suit, he said, possibly two. “Let’s get a few bottles of beer and find a tailor. We’ll need something to drink while I’m being fitted. You know what tailors are like. Mean bastards. Never keep drink on the premises.” He turned to the barman. “Bartender,” he shouted, “I’ll need eight bottles of beer, Tuborg will do, and a brown paper bag to transport them.” He reached into his wallet, extracting his last bill — a Zaire 10-franc note. “Look at this,” he said. “You ‘re not allowed to take the fucking currency out of the country. I forgot. Good thing they didn’t find it on me. The penalty’s life imprisonment.” He handed the note to the barman. “Bartender, here, I think this will just about cover the beer. If there’s any change left, keep it, you deserve it. You have a dirty job. You must get a lot of maniacs in a place like this.” The barman elected to consult the owner. “If they cause any trouble,” whispered Gonzo, “we’ll take both the bastard’s outside and execute them. Castrate the fuckers. On second thought, it might be easier to shoot them. We don’t have a lot of time.”
But the owner was persuaded, and, taking the Tuborg in a blue polythene bag, we set off for the tailor’s. In the back room of the tailor shop, the proprietor listened patiently. “Listen,” said Gonzo, sipping beer, “it’s ridiculously simple. I need two suits, one maybe in white and one in black. You can put in some stripes if you like, or some polka dots, but nothing fashionable. They have to be boss gambler’s suits. That’s the main thing. I use them on my lecture tours. They have to create an immediate effect, you understand. Give me a pencil and I’ll draw them for you.”
After a loud and complicated conversation and a series of surrealistic drawings, the wild-eyed tailor began to scream.
“Listen,” he said, “I don’t know who you are or where you came from, but I’ll tell you where to go. Go to Hollywood and look up one of the studio costumiers. They’ll have exactly what you want, whatever that is. They’ll probably even have it in stock. Try MGM. They did a lot of Mississippi gambler pictures.”
“Christ,” said Gonzo out in the street. “There’s a lot of hate in this town. A lot of dingbats and freaks. We’ll have to be careful. It’s a weird place. That tailor should be locked up. He needs electric shock treatment right away. That’s my advice. Zap him a thousand volts twice a day. He’ll never make it otherwise. Did you see his eyes? Ugly. Really ugly.”
Memories of the rest of the day are extremely hazy. At an Italian restaurant, Gonzo offered the proprietress the opportunity of an afternoon in bed with him in exchange for a free meal. The doctor provided him with a battery of pills, an ounce of coke, and vials of vitamin B-12. We finished off the bottles of malt whiskey and Wild Turkey in his room at the hotel and arranged with an escort agency for five girls to meet us at midnight. Toward eleven in the evening, we attended a crowded dinner party in Belsize Park. We had only been there for 15 minutes when Gonzo began to growl, his eyes shifting to the top of his head. “What sort of weird place have you brought me to?” he shouted. “They don’t have any ice in this joint, not a cube. And worse, there’s no whiskey. Christ, you can’t take any chances in this town. You’ve got to carry your own booze with you at all times. Let’s go out and get some drink. Where the hell are we anyway?”
At this point, a chubby but pretty girl, who at some particularly decadent stage in her life had read a few of the doctor’s mad scribblings, offered to take us back to her flat promising as much whiskey as we could drink. En route in the car, Gonzo extracted the vials of Vitamin B-12 from his pocket. “Shoot some of this,” he said, “it’s a great high. Keep you going for days. It’s absolutely essential. Keeps your mind on the key issues.”
The girl — she was called Sara or Emma or Annabelle, we were never certain — had a penthouse flat in Belgravia. She provided whiskey and a lot of ice. Gonzo produced his coke and passed it round on the end of a switchblade. For about five minutes it was peaceful. But Gonzo, now into his third Scotch, suddenly asked the girl if she would like to be raped. “You’ll like it,” he said. “You have that look about you. I always recognize it immediately. You can see it in the eyes. It’s a fearful look.”
The girl giggled but declined. “Why use violence?” she purred. “Can’t we just fuck normally?”
“Normally?” he shouted. “What the hell does that mean? Are you some sort of weird freak? I want to rip off your clothes, rape you, tear you limb from limb, and throw you into the street. You’ll like it. Believe me, goddamnit, I’m an expert. I know what I’m doing.”
This time, the girl did not giggle. Rather nervously, she suggested it was time for us to go and edged toward the telephone. “No, I think you’d better leave,” he said. “I’m beginning to like it here. You can have my room at Brown’s. It’s a nice hotel, a little crazy, a lot of freaks in the lobby and roaming the halls, but perfectly safe, I’ll stay here. Just show me the bedroom before you go.” The girl, however, seemed adamant and began to scream. Filling her crystal glasses with enough whiskey to last the journey, we left. Gonzo left her a five-franc note for the glasses. “Shit,” he said, on the way back to Brown’s, “have you ever run across a weirdo like that before? A raving lunatic. Must be the lack of sun. This is the coldest town I’ve ever been in. My soul is cold. And all these crazies running round. How do you manage it? I couldn’t live here unless I was heavily armed at all times. Wouldn’t be safe. There are a lot of weird hostilities here. I can feel them everywhere.”
Dr. Gonzo’s hotel room looked as if it had been burgled only moments before. There was litter everywhere — empty whiskey bottles, numerous files on the fight in Zaire strewn on the unmade bed and the floor, clothes, newspapers, magazines, and a purple bra which had been ripped in half. “The maids don’t set a foot in here anymore,” he said. “They’re terrified. I’ve only been here for two days and they sent me the bill this morning. Is that normal?” On the desk was a large IBM typewriter which had been sent over by Rolling Stone. “On that machine,” he pointed out, “I can type as fast as I can think. And I’m going to have to think fast. I’ve only got nine hours till my deadline.” Above the desk on the wall, Gonzo had pasted a large poster of the fight and perching precariously on one of the pictures was a long sign which said, “Anger— High Voltage.” The room looked like that of a man who had been there for several months.
In the bathroom there was about a half an inch of water on the carpeted floor. “Look at that,” he shouted, “there’s no overflow outlet. Every time I turn on the bath it overflows onto the floor. The guy below must be going crazy. Two days of that and I figure the water must be over his head by now. And the miserable geek hasn’t even bothered to inform the management. Stiff upper lip. The English are crazy.”
Toward 3 a.m., the savage drama was coming to its end. All the whiskey had been consumed and four hysterical phone calls to the night porter had failed to provide any more. Gonzo now decided that he would have to return home immediately. “Shit,” he screamed, throwing his mess into a battered case, “I can’t get anything done in this town. There’s nothing left to drink in the whole country, the hotel is repressed, the streets are filled with bands of armed masturbators. It’s a twisted place, teetering on the brink of insanity. It’s ugly, very ugly. There’s only one thing to do. Go home. I’ll never work otherwise. Great creeping Jesus, it must have cost Rolling Stone $10,000 already on this story. I’ll have to give them something. I should’ve hired somebody to write the fucking thing and saved myself a lot of trouble.”
He banged the telephone receiver up and down. “This is Dr. Gonzo,” he said, “I want you to get me on the first plane out to Woody Creek, Colorado. Lean on those fuckers at the airport. Get heavy. Offer bribes. Just get me on anything going west. Get me on anything going west. And be quick about it, goddamnit. I’ve got a deadline to meet.”