“Thank God you’re here,” said Hunter, collapsing like a rubber man into my arms at the gate of his flight arriving at Washington Dulles airport from Denver.
It was April 7, 1997, and in those pre-911 days, you could still get through security to meet folks as they came off the plane. As the Road Manager it was my duty to be there to greet the Rubber Man, and thankfully I was on time since he clearly could not make it any further without assistance. As he continued to go limp in my arms, I spied an empty wheelchair sitting in the boarding area. He could barely put one foot in front of the other as I dragged him into the chair.
“What happened?” I asked.
“The stewardess was giving me a hard time about drinking. I decided the wise course was to take a Halcion rather than get in a fight with her,” replied the Rubber Man.
Keep in mind that Halcion is a cleverly named drug for the treatment of insomnia. George Bush Senior once blamed the pill for causing him to vomit on the Prime Minister of Japan at a state dinner in Tokyo and then pass out. Hunter took it regularly, but never before while traveling. But this was an important trip and he dared not be delayed by armed FAA agents upon arrival. The next day was George McGovern’s birthday and Hunter was expected at a lunch in George’s honor and a symposium afterwards at the National Archives.
The stretch limo was waiting at the curb outside the baggage area. Unfortunately, I had found on the way to Dulles that the driver did not have much of a sense of humor, so I feared he would be the next source of trouble. Life on the road with Hunter was always the Art of the Next Fifteen Minutes; what could go wrong next?
In the limo, Hunter came around quickly from the Halcion, and it’s after effect kept him from fucking with the driver, although he did let loose a ton of abuse on the cell phone at his secretary Deborah when she dared to suggest that he should not have stayed up all night before getting on the plane for Washington, DC.
“Fuck You!. I’ll do it again and again anytime I want to, “he screamed into the phone.
Hunter had agreed to stay at the Fairfax Hotel, a fashionable choice just off Dupont Circle and the home of the storied Jockey Club. Checking into a hotel was always stressful for Hunter, especially the part where they asked for his credit card, so upon arrival I walked him straight through the lobby and into their elegant bar, crowded with men and women in serious suits. Distracted by the women, Hunter gave up his credit card with surprisingly little resistance, and I went to find the Manager to make sure “Mr. Ben Franklin” (his road name that spring) would have a choice room.
The manager must have read a bit of “Fear & Loathing” and seemed to know the dangers involved in any delay so I was back in the bar in less than five minutes with the room key. The Rubber Man was gone, replaced by a suave and sophisticated “Mr. Franklin” who had already managed to pick up a thirtysome lawyeress from Nashville with great legs and a sweet accent in town for a job interview with US Securities and Exchange Commission. Thinking that this development could either make my job a whole lot easier or worse, I sat down for a drink to see how it played out.
“You look just like that crazy writer….you know…what’s his name?” observed the Lawyeress.
“I’m not him,” replied Mr. Franklin with a sly grin.
“Yes he is,” I interjected, anxious to cut to the chase and get him to the room.
Hunter actually welcomed my intervention since it hooked her so thoroughly that she instantly agreed to go to the room with us, rather than being left behind in the wake of fame. Up in the room, we all got quite drunk and giddy as Hunter held court, attempting to seduce the Lawyeress into spending the night with him. I kept trying to excuse myself, but he seemed to want me to stay, fearful that she would bolt as soon as they were alone.
After a few hours of this game, the mouse finally left, insisting that she had to get ready for her job interview. Hunter and I talked for a bit about McGovern’s birthday. Making a sharp appearance was most important to him, and he wanted to be ready for the event. He had marked certain passages in the campaign book to remember, and asked me to read them to him while he got in bed and soon fell asleep. It was a touching moment with The Beast, one that I had never seen before or after. Usually I faded away while he partied on, but not on the eve of McGovern’s Birthday.
The next morning I showed up at the Fairfax sharply at 8am as agreed. Apprehensively I walked down the corridor of his floor, wondering what to expect. At other times I’ve had to call hotel security and have the door removed from its hinges to get him up, but not today, not on McGovern’s Birthday. As I rounded the corner he was already opening the door and grabbing the newspaper from the floor with a smile.
The rest of the day was smoother than a Biff from the Woody Creek Tavern (Bailey’s Irish Cream with an Irish Whiskey floater). The limo driver tolerated us and everyone Hunter invited into the stretch along the way for refreshments. You can see most of the day in “Breakfast with Hunter,” a short preview of which is included here.
The staff of the National Archives even let him smoke in a special room back stage at the symposium. For Hunter, that was a bit of true respect, and that’s what he was looking for that day in Washington, DC. He was lauded by two Presidential candidates – Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern – and his old friends from the Washington press corps from Bill Greider to Jules Witcover came out to hear him speak. That night we went to the Australian Embassy where the Ambassador – a rabid non-smoker – spent the evening chasing Hunter around to stop him smoking, and we ended the night in stitches drinking at the apartment of PJ and Tina O’Rourke.
The next day when I dismissed the serious limo driver, Hunter put a hundred dollar bill for him in an envelope with a piece of Fairfax Hotel stationery on which he wrote:
“Good Luck in Jail”
Still without a sense of humor after three days with Hunter, the driver read the note and then asked sorrowfully, “Am I going to jail?” I noticed that he didn’t ask “Why?” – just whether or not he was. So I replied “Not yet, but I’ll let you know.”