On Aug. 20, 2005, what remained of Hunter S. Thompson exploded in the Colorado sky.
It was the crescendo of a memorial service for Thompson, who committed suicide six months earlier.
About 250 people attended the event, including Bill Murray and Johnny Depp. Both portrayed Thompson in movies, and Depp footed the $2.5 million bill for the program.
“I just want to send my pal out the way he wants to go out,” Depp said.
That way included getting blasted into the sky.
“He loved explosions,” Thompson’s wife, Anita Thompson, said.
And so organizers constructed a 153-foot tower at Thompson’s Woody Creek, Colo., home.
The tower’s design mimicked the late writer’s logo, a clenched fist with symmetrical thumbs extending from a dagger’s hilt. Planners then strapped fireworks to the structure’s top and placed Thompson’s ashes in a cannon nearby.
The memorial service was a party. Booze and music flowed, and Lyle Lovett and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band performed. And then someone lit the fireworks. Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” blared from speakers, and the crowd cheered as red, white, blue, and green explosions burst overhead.
Then the cannon fired, sending Thompson’s ashes into the pyrotechnic display.
A quirky writer of Gonzo journalism
It was a unique way to honor a quirky writer who developed a style Hunter S. Thompson dubbed Gonzo journalism. A subgenre of New Journalism, which involved reporters putting themselves into a story, Gonzo journalism, was created by accident.
Thompson was a reporter assigned to cover the 1970 Kentucky Derby for Scanlan’s Monthly magazine. But Thompson was too drunk or too high to write the piece as his deadline approached.
“I’d blown my mind, couldn’t work,” Thompson said. “So finally, I just started jerking pages out of my notebook and numbering them and sending them to the printer. I was sure it was the last article I was ever going to do for anybody.”
But the opposite happened. People read the story and credited Thompson with pioneering a new form of journalism. Thompson described the experience as “falling down an elevator shaft and landing in a mermaid’s pool.”
Reporter Bill Cardoso was one of the people who wrote to Thompson, praising the Kentucky Derby story.
“This is it,” Cardoso told Thompson. “This is pure Gonzo.”
Thompson took that word, “gonzo,” and used the phrase “gonzo journalism” for the first time in a two-part Rolling Stones magazine series about a fictionalized trip the writer made to Las Vegas.
The book features Thompson’s alter ego, Raoul Duke, and his attorney, Dr. Gonzo, on a drug-fueled road trip to Vegas. The novel’s first line is, “We were somewhere around Barstow on the desert’s edge when the drugs began to take hold.”
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas made Thompson famous, as did the writer’s lifestyle. Thompson was notorious for heavy drinking and using drugs, but he also devoted immense effort to writing.
A friend recalled Thompson once spent 18 hours trying to find a suitable synonym for “posh.” And Thompson retyped The Great Gatsby (Amazon | Bookshop) to understand better how F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that legendary work.
The result of Thompson’s devotion to his craft was a small but legendary body of work. He published Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 (Amazon | Bookshop) about the 1972 U.S. Presidential election. And his other books include The Great Shark Hunt (Amazon | Bookshop) and Kingdom of Fear (Amazon | Bookshop).
By 2005, though, Thompson was suffering. He used a wheelchair and endured many illnesses. Then on Feb. 20, Thompson used a .45-caliber handgun to end his life.
Six months later, family, friends, and special guests gathered to blast Thompson’s ashes into the sky.
A neighbor who attended said, “I’ll always remember where I was when Hunter was blown into the heavens.”
Hunter S. Thompson
- Born on Jul. 18, 1937, in Louisville, Ken.
- Died on Feb. 20, 2005, in Woody Creek, Colo.
Hunter S. Thompson’s Books
*This page contains affiliate links.*
- “Hunter S. Thompson Biography.” The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Feb. 16, 2020. Accessed on Jul. 12, 2020.
- “The Hunter S. Thompson You Don’t Know.” Hampton Stevens. The Atlantic. Jul. 20, 2011.
- “Hunter S. Thompson, 67, Author, Commits Suicide.” Michelle O’Donnell. The New York Times. Feb. 21, 2005.
- “Hunter S. Thompson Obituary.” The Economist. Feb. 24, 2005.
- “Ten Years After Hunter S. Thompson’s Death, the Debate Over Suicide Rages On.” Josiah Hesse. Vice. Feb. 20, 2015.
- “8 Gonzo Facts About Hunter S. Thompson.” Jennifer M. Wood. Mental Floss. Jul. 18, 2019.
- “Hunter S. Thompson’s Remains Shot From Cannon.” Associated Press. Aug. 20, 2005.
- “Antlers Hunter S. Thompson Stole From Hemingway’s Home Returned to Family.” Alison Flood. Aug. 15, 2016.
- “Some Kind of Journalist.” David Gates. Columbia Journalism Review. Sep./Oct. 2008.
- “Hunter Thompson’s Final Moments.” CBS News. Feb. 25, 2005.
- “Hunter S. Thompson Shrine.” Atlas Obscura.