In the spring off season the West End of Aspen is deserted. With its multi-million dollar Victorians, the West End is the epitome of the American dream, but no one’s home. They’ve returned to Dallas, Miami and LA, leaving their luxury under the questionable eyes of the Aspen Police until the Fourth of July.
Thus, it was hard to miss the black Wagoneer pulling up in front of Jack Nicholson’s “green house,” especially when a six four brute in an un-tucked, brightly-colored madras shirt and a Tilly’s hat emerged from the car with a tall, iced scotch and water in his hand. Definitely, my friend Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.
By the spring of 1996 we had known each other well for over ten years. The O’Farrell Theater in ’85 had lead to shooting the Gonzo Pilot in ’86 and then many nights visiting Owl Farm and videotaping various special events in his life. But my work as a filmmaker took me out of the valley quite a bit the next few years, covering black gangs in South Central LA and the real gangsters of Hollywood for NBC News, then shooting and directing the dramatic series “Homicide: Life on the Streets,” and most recently on the road with the Eagles for their “Hell Freezes Over Tour.”
The Eagles gig came about, like my friendship with Hunter, because I happened to live next door to Eagles singer/drummer Don Henley in Woody Creek. Ironically, Henley hated Hunter. First, Henley has no sense of humor, while Hunter was the Prince of Fun. Second, Henley feared Hunter’s periodic bomb-making experiments were damaging the foundations of his house just down the road. Third, Hunter stole and published a photograph of Gary Hart and his infamous girlfriend Donna Rice partying at Henley’s during the 1984 Presidential Campaign. (Contrary to his editor David McCumber’s account in Salon, Hunter did not burglarize and “rifle” through Henley’s house. Rather, he simply took the photo from the kitchen table and left while the caretaker who had showed it to Hunter was distracted on the phone. But, Hunter could easily have embellished the story for McCumber in a “gonzo” way. )
And, now in the spring of 1996, Hunter was getting out of his car in front of another local celebrity’s house. The potential was ripe, so I stopped and backed up to greet the Doctor, who seemed pleased to see me, although he hadn’t returned my call of three days before. I should have known that he had some purpose in mind for me that afternoon when he immediately asked where I was headed and what I was doing. “Nuthin…” I replied lamely.
Hunter explained that he was on his way home from Court, and still had to write a Eulogy for a friend’s memorial service at the Jerome later in the afternoon. “Stop on by the house. We’ll be there in twenty minutes,” he said.
Hunter had been busted for drinking and driving by rogue Aspen City cops the previous fall on the night of a local election. This bust and his attempts to avoid being taken into “the system” ultimately would form one of the main threads of my film Breakfast with Hunter and was the reason for his court appearance this spring day. The threat of jail always brought out the best in the Beast, including his hilarious challenge to the District Attorney in this case which John Cusack reads in Breakfast…
We were talking about his upcoming trial in the kitchen at Owl Farm, having regrouped from in front of Jack’s house, with Hunter on his stool at the kitchen counter, working his black coke grinder, as always.
“Do you type?” he asked.
I instantly replied, “Sure,” before thinking through the consequences.
Deborah, the Doctor’s long-suffering personal assistant, let out a sigh of relief. She’d only had a few hours sleep in the last two days. Madeleine, the girlfriend du jour, was elegantly frozen in a fetal position in the big chair. Madeleine had been without sleep for longer than she would remember.
Yet, Hunter was still functioning fairly well, despite a similar lack of sleep. He’d been up for days getting ready to go to Court in the continuing saga of his defense against drunk driving charges. Days of planning and turmoil, just to get ready for a five minute continuance hearing. He had a statement, the paper called it “a rant” in the headline the next day, which he read to the Court, saying he was there for the “melancholy purpose of waiving his right to a speedy trial,” and then misattributed a quote to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, “For the wheels of justice to grind exceeding fine, they must also grind slow.”
Repeated phone calls with the editor of the Aspen Daily News – Curtis Robinson – revealed that the quote was actually by the famous German jurist Friedrich von Logau. It was too late to fix the Court record, but the statement was corrected for the press, which was Hunter’s main concern. He always viewed his local battles as essentially political and public opinion as the key to victory.
In the midst of a wailing FAX machine sending and receiving The Rant, and only then after repeated badgering by Deborah, Hunter began to dictate the Eulogy for Steve Wishart which he was due to give at five at the Jerome Bar. Less than an hour to go, including driving ten miles to town which I already knew would be my job as well.
Over the next two hours, I learned a lot about how Hunter writes – slowly above all, but also very deliberately. He would never go for a cliché that he hadn’t invented himself. He was always searching for just the perfect word and the wait could seem endless with my fingers perched over the keys of his “Wheelwriter” typewriter. I felt like an old time wire service transcriptionist who took down reporters’ stories over the phone word by word. Word….by….word, in this case.
In between the words Hunter seemed to be flashing back to the early seventies and the days when the Jerome Bar was his headquarters, along with friends like Steve Wishart who I learned was a small Jewish guy who was crazy and good at barroom battles. The Eulogy was about just such a battle. As he dictated, Hunter kept getting lost in his memories, although never with his words: he had an uncanny ability to remember exactly what the last words were I had typed, even after a lapse of many minutes.
Sometime after five, to speed the process, I asked him just to tell me the story of the fight in the bar, and then back up and write it. He told the story in a couple of quick lines. It was simple: Steve Wishart had jumped out of nowhere to tackle a drunken thug who had started a huge brawl. The point seemed to be that he was a short guy with courage. I kept telling him to “cut to the chase” while Deborah would scream every fifteen minutes “Get to the point, Hunter.”
But, Hunter had other things in mind for the Eulogy, and in the end he was right. The description of the crowd in the bar became elaborate – drunken women dancing on the bar drinking liquid MDA from brandy snifters – was one of his inventions. And, that’s what took the time: the inventions, the elaborations on reality. As I typed his halting twists on reality, I realized that this was the essence of Hunter’s style, the nature of Gonzo Journalism – his contribution to Literature.
Tom Benton – the artist and longtime friend of Hunter’s – called from the Jerome to say the event was well underway. Deborah, too tired to cope, pointed out that the memorial was for Steve Wishart and not Hunter who should get there before it was over. I interjected that Wishart would probably be resurrected before the Eulogy was written, but didn’t get any laughs.
Then, at about twenty to six when the words just weren’t coming out of his mouth anymore Deborah screamed, ‘Hunter, do some cocaine and give some to Wayne too, for God’s Sakes.”
By God, she was right. A couple of snorts later and my fingers were off and running across the keys as Hunter finally wrapped up the Eulogy and even added a short poem as an addendum. I retyped the first page in a few minutes, Deborah had the copier already heated up, and we cut and pasted the rest and were ready to go at six, except for one thing…
Hunter wanted to ‘take something,” some token for the crowd to remember Steve Wishart by, but what? “A bomb!” he ventures. “Not in the city limits,” insists Deborah “they’ll bust you.” Long pause from Hunter, grudgingly accepting the limitations of the nineties in Aspen.
“His heart, I’ll take his heart to share with the crowd.” That idea gets a laugh from Deborah, and Hunter disappears into the room with the big refrigerator I know so well because that’s where they keep an endless supply of Molsons.
Hunter returns with a frozen beef heart in a baggie saying “Do we have any black shoe polish?” with a devilish gleam in his eye, happy now that the Eulogy was done. Deborah refuses to offer any black polish for the heart, but helps Hunter microwave it to get the frozen juices flowing a bit.
“We should take some acid” suggests Hunter.
“Who?” demanded Deborah. “Wayne’s driving and you’re not taking any either,” Deborah screams, trying to desperately get us to the event before it’s over.
“Really…no acid for me,” I insist.
Finally, we’re in the car with two copies of the Eulogy, the melting beef heart, a picture from the Jerome Bar in the seventies, various stashes, and a tall scotch and water with ice in Hunter’s hand. Realizing that the situation abounded with “probable cause,” I decide to take the back road into town –unfortunately, the same route upon which Hunter was busted the night of the last election, but still safer than the main highway.
As we took the high road to town, I remarked that it must be sad to see one of the original gang from the Jerome in the seventies pass away. Hunter agreed and took the riff into a melancholy observation about how Aspen had changed, how money had ruled the day, the greed heads had won, even he couldn’t really afford to live here anymore. In the end, he was targeted, just like his friend Loren Jenkins, the editor of the Aspen Times who was recently fired for opposing the Ski Corporation before the election. “They want me out of here,” Hunter concluded.
People like Hunter make the rich very nervous. He’s right about that.
Rooms run up to $1,000 a night at the Jerome Hotel where Tom Benton stood waiting nervously in front as we pulled up. After being renovated ten years before, the Jerome and its Bar were never as popular with Hunter’s people. This hundred year old hotel was fairly funky in its last days before renovation: women prisoners of Pitkin County housed on the upper floor, orgies being held in stark rooms with bare bulbs on the floors below. I once lived in the suite above the bar for a month in the mid-seventies like a cowboy in from the range. That’s the first time I ever saw Hunter. He was drinking at the end of the bar which had been his campaign headquarters in his race for Sheriff in 1970. But I was too shy then to approach him, thinking “another time perhaps,” having no idea that I would become one of his Boswells.
The memorial service was being held in the Antler Bar, part of the new addition to the hotel. At the entrance to the Antler Bar was a long-haired man in a black Madison Avenue top coat speaking intently into his cell phone. The Antler Bar was New Aspen, but the people inside today were old, hardened characters who had survived acid, MDA, cocaine, alcohol and nicotine – heavies I’d never seen before who seemed to have come out of the woods for this gathering to honor a man who they drank with in the old Jerome Bar.
We had gotten there just in time. The crowd was primed as Tom Benton read the Eulogy. When they laughed uproariously at the images of “drunken women dancing on the bar” and all the other extraneous detail that Hunter had invented for the story, I realized how right he was back in the kitchen, driving us crazy searching for the words.
He was wrong about one thing though – the beef heart. Over the top, but still appreciated by the crowd for its daring. As the event broke up, people thronged around Hunter. I stood behind, content to hold onto his Dunhills and the bleeding heart. A fading blonde in her fifties told me how she was the first person to greet Hunter when he came to town in the sixties with a live skunk in his car.
We moved to the couches in the lobby so that Hunter could get some air. He was obviously fading fast, yet was tempted by the many invitations to party on in town. He worked his way to Main Street in front of the Jerome talking with one old blonde after another and drinking from the tall glass of scotch. The Aspen Police cruised by, eyeing us carefully, and I knew I best get him out of town soon.
He followed me to the car, still wanting to continue the party with old friends, but too tired after the fight in Court to go on. More than ten years younger, and not having been in Court that day, I was already done for the night. Fortunately, Hunter gave up without a struggle. He still made me cruise the Sardy House, insisting we go up the driveway where they used to deliver the corpses when it was a funeral home and not a luxury Bed & Breakfast to make sure it wasn’t open. .
I delivered him back to Owl Farm at sunset where the peacocks screeched a greeting.
Hunter thanked me for all my help. I told him it was “an honor,” and meant it.
Copyright 2009 by Wayne Ewing