Whisky business

Riding shotgun with Hunter S. Thompson

By David McCumber

Published November 11, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

the view is ominous out my front window. The thermometer on the porch says five below zero, and I can see that the wind is blowing Labrador retrievers and Geo Metros sideways down Lewis Street, which means fall is just about over.

This time of year always makes people a little edgy, here in the Northern Rockies, because we know that for the next five months even walking two blocks downtown for a beer at the Owl Bar could mean a serious case of frostbite. Most of the "locals" have lost their earlobes long ago. They freeze and fall off with a crack like a .22 shot. It's considered quite fashionable — a sleek, streamlined, don't-mess-with-me look, sort of like a docked Doberman.

Actually, it is a time for self-examination — you ask yourself, why am I here instead of, say, fishing in Belize, or even handicapping greyhounds in Juarez? About eight o'clock this morning I was watching the snow, listening to Hank Williams on the stereo and a barricade situation on the scanner and wondering why my life had turned so weird. What was I doing ten years ago, I thought, that made things go this way? I was a journalist back then, riding under Willie Hearst's brand at the San Francisco Examiner, Monarch of the Dailies, one of the best newspapers in America.

Oh, God. Of course. That bastard Thompson. He was the one who ruined my life — he and Will himself, who summoned me to his office in the fall of '85 to give me a new assignment. Hunter Stockton Thompson had joined the Examiner's stable of columnists a week before. David Burgin, the Ex's editor, proudly announced that he would handle the column personally, but that first week he'd tried to change Thompson's lead paragraph, and Hunter threatened to kill him. The rumor in the newsroom was that Hunter had shoved a .45 automatic up Burgin's left nostril.

Anyway, Hearst was looking for somebody more ... expendable than Burgin, who might actually be able to get the Doctor's prose into print. Burgin was new, and had his own reputation for weird violent outbursts, so I had been trying to keep a low profile on the Sunday desk when the call came.

"I'd like you to become Hunter's new control," Will told me, and just then Hunter burst out of the publisher's bathroom, poured two tumblers full of Chivas Regal and handed me one, and, as he would say, the hog was in the tunnel.

Nothing was the same after that. In six months Burgin was gone and Thompson, to everyone's surprise, was still in the paper every Monday.

Nobody ever knew what sort of column we would be dealing with, precisely, from week to week, least of all me. At first Thompson was billed as a "media critic," but that was Burgin's idea, not Hunter's, and didn't begin to cover the actual range of what he produced: everything from hard-eyed political analysis to demented tales of doomed love, whiskey and dynamite. He ran almost invariably in a column-and-a-half well down the side of page D1, next to the Macy's ad — a perverse position that seemed to fit Hunter nicely. He was used to writing much longer pieces, but somehow the 1,000-word format seemed to work.

The actual line-editing work was not arduous. Hunter is a wordsmith in the finest sense. He loves the language and uses it like a weapon, but elegantly. Occasionally transitions were a problem, when some electrical impulse in his brain would take a sharp left turn and the column would lurch from one subject to another. But nothing we couldn't handle.

Actually "editing" Hunter was for the most part a euphemism for flogging him until he actually got hunkered down like some huge carrion bird over his Selectric. There were the occasional squabbles with upper management over his use of certain terms (I usually lost these battles, since editors of large daily newspapers do not like receiving wads of letters from elderly readers scandalized by the appearance of the word "pigfucker.") But I often fought the good fight, because it is just not quite as effective to substitute, say, the word "groin" when the sentence reads, "Then I jumped up and stabbed him in the nuts with my fork."

I pulled out the Thompson file this morning and riffled through the yellowing pages of newsprint, looking at the column headlines: Death to the Weird. The Gizzard of Darkness. Nixon and the Whale Woman. (That was one of my favorites: of all the reporters sent to cover the saga of Humphrey the wayward whale, Hunter was not surprisingly the only one who met "an elderly Chinese woman who claimed to be the former mistress of Richard Nixon. She lived on a houseboat that was moored in a slough near Antioch.")

I kept flipping: Bad Nerves in Fat City. Revenge of the Fish Heads. Let the Cheap Dogs Eat. Then, just as I got to The Time of the Geek, a little Polaroid slipped out from between the pages: A pretty blonde woman in a woodsy plaid shirt, smiling over her shoulder at the photographer. Oh, boy. Did I remember that one. Thompson and I were fishing around for a column topic one Sunday night in May of 1986. "Let's call Bill Dixon," Hunter said. "He'll have something for us." Dixon was campaign manager for Gary Hart, who was generally considered a cinch to be elected president. We got him on a conference call, and as he was smugly chatting with us about the cover story the New York Times Magazine had done on Gary that day, his call waiting went off. When he came back on the line, his tone had changed dramatically. "Holy hell," he said, "The Miami Herald has Gary cornered in his condo with some bimbo. I've got to go."

So it was that we got a scoop on the story that killed Gary Hart's career. In a few hours, when it became known that the "bimbo" was named Donna Rice, Hunter told me, "Hell, I know her. She used to be Don Henley's girlfriend. Gary met her out here at Henley's place, right down the road. I'll go see if I can find a photo of her." And in the best tradition of Hearstian journalism, Hunter went down to Henley's cabin, walked in (Henley wasn't home) and rifled the place until he found ... this Polaroid. He got it on the next plane to San Francisco, and we managed to beat the world on what Donna looked like. And Hunter neatly pigeonholed the failed Hart as a man "with the face of Abraham Lincoln and the soul of Jerry Lee Lewis."

It wasn't the only scoop he managed: Another of his Washington sources from the Watergate era tipped Hunter to the pending retirement of Warren Burger from the Supreme Court. And so forth.
But my favorites were always the more fanciful accounts, like Nixon and the Whale Woman and Saturday Night in the City, which involved a midnight visit to a sleazy tattoo parlor deep in San Francisco's Avenues.

The first two years of columns did produce a bestselling book, eventually ("Generation of Swine"). But not before Hunter poured boiling water on innocent men from the window of Will's office. Not before he ran up the largest room-service bill ever recorded in a 48-hour period at the Miyako Hotel. And not before I nearly froze to death in a snowstorm just like today's — riding in Hunter's red Pontiac convertible, top down, doing 80 down the backroads of Woody Creek, Colorado.

Ah well ... war stories. So what? The hell with my earlobes. I think I'll walk downtown and have a drink. There's no whiskey in the house, and these memories make a man restless, and thirsty.

David McCumber

David McCumber is the author of "X-Rated: The Mitchell Brothers" and "Playing Off the Rail: A Pool Hustler's Journey" (Random House).

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