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January 04, 2014

Hunter S Thompson - the original Gonzo journalist pens The Rum Diary

 

AUTHOR FIRED UP FOR A FITTING FAREWELL

David Ellis

 

AMERICAN actor Johnny Depp gave new meaning to "going out with a bang" when he organised the scattering of the ashes of his author-friend Hunter S Thompson on the writer's Owl Farm in Colorado in 2005.

 

No solemn casting of the ashes into the wind by grieving family or friends, no dropping amid basket-loads of flowers from a hovering helicopter… Depp instead had them scattered far more spectacularly – with a thunderous bang from a canon mounted atop a near-50m high tower built specially for the job.

 

And for good measure to ensure they'd journey even further than the canon could fire, he had a kilo or so of fireworks mixed in with them.

 

It was a fitting end for the fire-brand writer who gave the world "Gonzo journalism" (a style of writing where the author becomes part of the story itself,) and whose life was an almost stand-alone chapter in survival on drugs and booze… even Thompson himself once writing: "I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence or insanity to anyone – but they've always worked for me."

                                                                                                                               

We were reminded of all this when we mentioned to a travel-writing colleague our plans to visit San Juan in Puerto Rico next April, and he pointed out that it was actually in San Juan that Hunter S Thompson had launched into the world of journalism – albeit with not quite the same impact as he'd departed it.

 

Working as a copy-boy with Time Magazine in New York City in the late 1950s, Thompson had aspirations of working up to a writer's position, but was instead sacked for insubordination. So he headed south to the sunny Caribbean where he scored a junior reporter's position with the El Sportivo newspaper – that went belly-up just weeks later.

 

Thompson then talked his way into a job as a contributor to the New York Herald Tribune, while at the same time writing a novel called The Rum Diary, that wasn't published until nearly 40 years later and well after he'd become famous. It was a thinly disguised autobiography of his almost-maniacal time in a-then tawdry and down-market San Juan where he'd spent most of his time fuelled by rot-gut rum.

 

But as we know he went on to become one of the world's best-known counter-culture authors and newspaper contributors. In the late 1990s, however, he began retreating more and more into despondency over his health, which he did nothing to help with his mainstay diet of booze and drugs; on February 20 2005 he put a gun to his head in his farm's kitchen and ended his tortured life.

 

Exactly six months later to the day his ashes were scattered across the farm as he had requested, with firm friend Johnny Depp orchestrating the job (Depp had played the part of Thompson in the movie version of Thompson's book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.) Over 250 high-ranking politicians, film stars, entertainers and other VIP guests attended the private event – with an army of security guards keeping at bay hundreds of Thompson followers and devotees camped on the hills overlooking the farm after the bizarre ash-scattering scheme had leaked out.

 

When we told our colleague of our planned visit to San Juan he suggested we search out the El Batey bar on which Hunter S Thompson is said to have based the seedy Al's Backyard in The Rum Diary.

 

And for good measure, by comparison we drop into the El Convento hotel just up the road whose simple, unadorned façade belies the fact that it is one of the world's grandest hostelries – and most certainly not likely to have been a Thompson haunt.

 

Originally built in 1653 as a Carmelite convent, it closed 110 years ago after proving too costly to maintain, and over the next forty years struggled through life as a retail store, dance hall, dosshouse for the homeless, and ultimately a garage for garbage trucks.

 

Then in the 1960s retail heir Robert Frederic Woolworth saw it, liked it, bought it and converted it into a lavish 100-room 5-star hotel for the rich and famous visiting San Juan.

 

Cold beers at El Batey, followed by cocktails at the El Convento, certainly sound to us like the makings for a good yarn come next April...

 

                                                       ……………………….

 

PHOTO CAPTIONS:

 

[] HUNTER S Thompson's Owl Farm – fitting site to go out with a bang. (FlickR)

[] THE author about to speak at the Miami Book Festival in 1988. (Wikipedia)

[] WITH one of his many memorable quotes. (FlickR)

[] SAN Juan's El Batey Bar: was this the bar on which he based his seedy Al's Backyard in The Rum Diary? (FlickR)

[] EL CONVENTO – simple convent to one of the world's grandest hostelries. (Malcolm Andrews)

[] CARMELITE Nuns certainly didn't have it as good as this. (El Convento Hotel)

 

 


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