Son of Gonzo: Juan Thompson Remembers His Father, Hunter

In a new memoir, Denver's Juan F. Thompson explores the fear and loathing of his father: legendary Colorado scribe Hunter S. Thompson.
When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. -- Hunter S. Thompson

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When Juan F. Thompson wears his dad's silver medallion necklace, he believes he's adorning himself with the "distilled essence" of his late father, Hunter S. Thompson.

Juan writes in his recently-released memoir, Stories I Tell Myself: Growing Up With Hunter S. Thompson, that he only wears the medallion when he wants to "invoke Hunter's presence" or when he's "acting as his representative." Juan also pens, "[Hunter] wore jewelry as talismans, not decoration."

Here are what glints, flashes of light, off of that silver medallion reflect about famed gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson -- and about his son, the first-time author who infrequently wears the medallion, as well (such as, when he attended his father's funeral -- and, graciously, during a photo shoot for this article).

When Juan Fitzgerald Thompson was born in March of 1964, Hunter seized sole responsibility for naming him: nodding both to F. Scott Fitzgerald (a favorite author of Hunter's) and John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Most of Hunter's relatives back home in Kentucky still named children after people on their family tree, but Juan notes, "Choosing my name was an act of literary creation for him." At the time, Hunter and Juan's mother, Sandy, lived in Northern California. Hunter was eking out a living as a freelancer, after having worked as a foreign correspondent in South America.

In 1966, Hunter S. Thompson's critically acclaimed Hell's Angels, a book about the infamous motorcycle gang, was published. The previous year, his parents actually took the (maybe) one-year-old Juan along to a wild and disturbing psychedelic party attended by the gang members -- much to Juan's own disbelief as a father today.

The Thompsons then moved to Woody Creek, Colorado, outside of Aspen. In 1970, Hunter shook up the local political establishment by shaving his head and running for sheriff of Pitkin County (he just barely lost). His mother spirited Juan away briefly, after a bomb threat was made against their home.

Juan says, "The Aspen establishment really viewed Hunter as, I think, an existential threat: this was like being invaded by Red China or something. They feared and hated him. . . . He represented the drugs, the lack of tradition, the lack of respect, the chaos, the beards, the longhair. . . . They saw him as the epitome of that." Despite Hunter's defeat, the election would eventually lead to lasting change in Aspen's political and law-enforcement climate.

Paging Dr. GonzoJuan says the coverage of Hunter's death played up his partying over his outspokenness.

In 1972, Hunter followed up Hell's Angels with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (later made into the 1998 film starring Johnny Depp, who later paid for Hunter's extravagant funeral send-off, at which Hunter's ashes were shot out of a towering cannon). Through a haze of substance abuse, the book humorously examines the cultural decay of what Hunter likely saw as an American empire. The silver medallion from Mexico that Juan wears today was gifted to Hunter by Oscar "Zeta" Acosta, the Chicano lawyer and militant (who later disappeared mysteriously) who served as the basis for the book's "Dr. Gonzo" character.

Also in 1972, the Thompsons lived in Washington, D.C., while Hunter worked as a political correspondent for a then-countercultural Rolling Stone magazine. Unlike mainstream journalists of the time, Hunter penned acerbic looks at politicians and the political process. His writings were compiled in the book, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72. (Thompson's 2005 funeral was attended by '72 Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern and '04 Democratic presidential candidate and current U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.)

What might Hunter think of this year's election?

Juan says, "I'm sure he would have been appalled at the current presidential race, particularly the Republican candidates. The question is: Would he have sunken deep into despair or would it have prompted him to call them out and describe what a horrible farce of an election this is?"

A complex characterJuan lives with his wife and son in Highland and works in healthcare IT.

Juan is seated at a table at a Denver brewpub as he discusses his book, Stories I Tell Myself, a meditation on Juan's troubled early relationship with his dad (due especially to Hunter's mentally abusive treatment of Juan's mother, prior to the divorce), their reconciliation as father and son and Hunter's eventual physical decline and suicide -- the latter of which occurred while Juan, his wife and seven-year-old son were in the very next room.

Juan says, "I decided to write the book because watching all the coverage after he died. . . . [It] really focused on his wildman persona. It really bothered me, because I thought, and still do think, that to equate that persona -- you know, the Fear and Loathing character -- with Hunter was completely missing the point. It doesn't do justice to him as a writer or as a person."

And mentioning what aspect of Hunter's life would have done justice to him?

Juan follows up, "His willingness to speak truth to power, and not just to do it in a gentle and non-confrontational kind of way, but to paint as vivid a picture as he could [about] the injustice or corruption, whatever wrong it was that he saw. To write about it so powerfully and unapologetically with the intent to offend. . . . I think his willingness to be so unconventional in certain aspects of his life: That really has inspired a lot of people to realize there are other ways to live, and to ask themselves, 'Well, how do I want to live? What do I want to do, instead of what is expected of me?'"

Juan projects a serious demeanor, but occasionally gives way to wholehearted laughter.

Contrasting himself with his father, Juan says, "I'm just wired differently." During our time together, Juan sticks to one beer, and declines the invitation to order a second. He wears a blue business shirt, having just finished his day's work performing "computer magic in the healthcare IT industry" (as his book's author bio says).

"I've been doing computer stuff since I was in, like, fourth grade or something, just always been interested in it," says Juan. "I just really love the problem-solving aspect of it."

Juan writes about coming into his own, going from being a painfully-shy youth (terrified of a father who never beat him, despite threatening to do so, but who surely left psychic and emotional scars over the years) to becoming better skilled at interpersonal communications.

Juan lives with his wife, Jennifer, and son, Will, in the Highland neighborhood in Denver. Despite the rapid onset of gentrification (like in Juan's onetime hometown of Woody Creek, as well), Thompson appreciates what Denver offers today, calling it a much more interesting city than it was in the '70s or '80s. "I really like Denver," says Juan. "I have no desire to leave."

On the other hand, his father always had a certain loathing for the city: "He didn't care for Denver. I don't know if [that was] because of the Denver he saw in the early '60s: an agricultural, oil town with nothing else going on except that."

According to Juan, his father's angst wasn't just directed outwards: Hunter often turned his fear and loathing inwards, as well, plagued by guilt over how he'd treated people. Juan takes comfort in the expressions of love he knows his father did direct towards him, even if the sentiment remained largely unstated by the wordsmith.

And while some fans might assume that an "anything goes" ethos existed in the Thompson household, Hunter never encouraged Juan to do drugs, and he was pleased Juan never partook around him. Juan says, "The idea of doing drugs with my dad was inconceivable as a kid, as a teenager; that just wasn't in the realm of possibilities. Later on [when I was an adult], he'd offer me what was going around; I think he was very glad that I wasn't taking him up on that."

What they both shared in common, though, was a love of guns. In later years, Juan would visit Hunter at Owl Farm in Woody Creek, and in a spirit of bonding, as an expression of his filial devotion, Juan would ask his father if he needed any of his guns cleaned. Hunter always had some firearms ready for his son.

During what would be their last weekend together, Hunter requested a cleaning of the gun he would use, unbeknownst at the time to Juan, to shoot himself. Juan concludes his book by writing: "My son, Will, tells me he's no longer angry at Hunter for killing himself in the next room that day. He says he is mostly just sad. I miss him too. Very much. That will not change."

The book discusses Hunter's contradictions (behaving like Southern gentleman at times and like a "monster" at others). And his staggering, long-term, daily cocaine and alcohol intake (the booze leading to multiple physical problems, including bowel control issues).

Over the nine years it took him to complete Stories I Tell Myself, Juan sometimes asked himself, "How would [Hunter] feel about this? Would he want me to include this? And I always got the strong feeling [that he'd say], 'Yes, yes, just tell the truth' -- because he was dead."

In a flash -- like quicksilver light off of a medallion -- Juan F. Thompson adds, "If he had been alive? Totally different story! Totally different story."

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Some may never live, but the crazy never die. -- Hunter S. Thompson

Read more articles by Gregory Daurer.

Gregory Daurer is a Denver-based freelance writer and singer-songwriter, whose credits include 5280, WestwordSalon, Draft and High Times. He's also authored the novel A Western Capitol Hill.
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