Hunter S. Thompson was one the first high-profile supporters of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. NORML founder Keith Stroup remembers what it was like to work and party with the king of Gonzo journalism, whom he affectionately refers to as “Doc.” Their 30-plus-year friendship started with a joint and ended with the bullet with which Thompson took his own life, and provides one of the more colorful chapters in Keith’s new book, It’s NORML to Smoke Pot: The 40-Year Fight for Marijuana Smokers’ Rights.
What’s Up, Doc?
The first time I met Doc, he was smoking a joint under the bleachers at the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami. It was the convention’s opening night, and I was sitting in the stands listening to the speeches when, quite suddenly – and unmistakably – I smelled marijuana, and realized it was coming from down below. I looked under the bleachers and saw a fairly big guy smoking a fairly fat joint. He was trying to be discreet, but it wasn’t working very well. I could see him hunkering in the shadows – tall and lanky, flailing his arms and looking oddly familiar. Jesus H. Christ, I suddenly realized – that’s Hunter S. Thompson!
Screw the speeches.
I quickly made my way under the bleachers and approached as politely as possible.
“Hu-uh – what the fuck?!! Who’re you?”
“Hey, Hunter. Keith Stroup from the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. We’re a new smokers’ lobby.” Easy enough.
“Oh. Oh, yeah! Yeah! Here.” Hunter held out his herb. “You want some?”
We finished that joint and started a friendship that would last for 33 years.
I seem to recall some recognition on Hunter’s part. It’s possible I had sent him a letter before we’d ever met, inviting him to join the NORML advisory board. So Doc may have known who I was when I approached him under the bleachers in Miami, though I doubt it. But I certainly knew who he was.
Like every other young stoner in America, I’d read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as it was serialized eight months earlier in Rolling Stone. Hunter would soon ascend to great fame, the kind from which one can never look back. The following summer, in 1973, the “Vegas book” – as he invariably called his signature work – was released to extraordinary acclaim, and Doc Thompson blazed his way into the world of 20th-century letters; but on the night I met him, his star was still ascending. With his mass audience in the future and his notoriety on the fringe, he was in Miami working on his next book, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, enjoying an access to campaign managers, strategists, planners, and candidates the likes of which he would never see again.
Doc was a self-described political junkie, as am I, and that was the basis of our long friendship – that, and a mutual predilection for fine drugs. I spent many nights over the years hunkered down in the kitchenette of his home in Woody Creek, CO, stoned to the backs of my eyeballs, jagged on cocaine, too drunk for driving but not for talking politics.
On one of my first visits to Aspen, in the mid-1970s, Hunter and his wife at the time, Sandy, invited me to join them for singer Jimmy Buffett’s wedding. It was being held at the home of Glenn Frey, lead singer of the Eagles and a neighbor of Buffett’s. Hunter and Sandy came to pick me up at the Jerome Hotel, and the three of us took acid so we could fully appreciate the wedding. I can recall arriving at a beautiful home, with Buffett and his soon-to-be wife Jane looking like two bona fide Aspen celebrities, and the Eagles performing after the wedding from a balcony. It was a truly unique and wonderful experience, but I have to take that on faith, as I was tripping my ass off and don’t have much memory of the details.
Hunter on Board
In 1976 and ’77, Hunter was a major player at the NORML conferences we held at the Hyatt Regency Hotel on Capitol Hill. One year he was on a panel that included Christie Hefner from Playboy, A. Craig Copetas from HIGH TIMES and me. I don’t recall the exact topic, but from the pictures, it looks like we were enjoying ourselves. We were focused at the time on the progress we were making as more and more states joined the decriminalization bandwagon, and we honestly felt that we were edging closer to the day when marijuana would be legalized.
When Hunter’s turn to speak came, he stood up at the podium and barked, “I don’t know what all you people are so happy about! You seem to be celebrating! How can you be in such a good mood when I can’t find any marijuana! What the fuck is going on here?”
Of course, he was working the crowd – I’d been up in his room the night before, and Hunter had more drugs stashed away than even he could use (which is saying something). Nevertheless, he continued: “All the progress that you’re talking about doesn’t mean shit if marijuana smokers can’t get good marijuana! What the fuck are you guys celebrating?”
A number of people in the audience began pelting him with joints, letting Hunter know they had his back in case he really did need more weed. But the point Hunter was making – in the way that only he could – was that, as long as smokers continued to be arrested and marijuana remained criminalized, it was premature to celebrate small victories in a few states. History has proven him right: More than 35 years later, we’re still fighting prohibition, and more than 850,000 Americans were arrested on marijuana charges last year – the highest number to date.
During the second year, Hunter didn’t seem to leave his suite during the conference. He ran a 24-hour party room, and anytime I stopped by, a dozen or so conference attendees were having the time of their lives getting stoned with the legendary Gonzo journalist. And, of course, Hunter played that role to the hilt, including throwing room-service carts into the wall and causing perhaps $1,000 worth of damage to his suite – not major, but still expensive.
Once, when I was alone with Hunter and feeling the need to be more responsible with the organization’s money, I complained to him about the room damage I had paid for two years in a row, then asked if he could be more careful. (It should be noted that Hunter, to his eternal credit, never asked for a fee to appear at any NORML event. We sometimes paid for his airline tickets and hotel room, but never an appearance fee.) Sensing the power position he had in our relationship, Hunter smiled and said, “Well, Keith, if you don’t think I’m worth it, I don’t have to come.”
I immediately started laughing and said, “Never mind, Doc. Let’s just keep things the way they are.”
Because he had a point: Whatever expenses we incurred from his hotel-room abuse, attendance at our conferences would sometimes increase as much as 50 percent – from around 300 to more like 450 – when word spread that Hunter would be there. And he never disappointed, making himself available almost around the clock to those who wanted to meet him, which was really code for getting stoned with him. People brought their best weed from around the country just for the chance to share it with Hunter S. Thompson.
Rocky Mountain High
For a long time, one of my favorite things in life was finding an excuse to visit Aspen and spend a couple of nights hanging out with Hunter. Aspen is a lovely town with great restaurants, fantastic skiing and lots of interesting people; it’s a place where it’s difficult not to enjoy yourself, regardless of the season. But my primary reason for visiting was the chance to recharge my batteries with a late night at Owl Farm.
An evening at Hunter’s place was a special experience. He’d be sitting in the kitchen, at the breakfast bar, which he used as his desk and base of operations, with a typewriter and fax machine within easy reach and the remote control to his television set (with the largest home screen available at the time) dangling from the ceiling on a cord, so that he could always find it even under the most chaotic circumstances.
And there were literally scores – perhaps hundreds – of notes and faxes and letters and pictures, most with scribbles from Hunter either editing his original typing or commenting on what someone else had said. These items, along with many other objets d’art, were stuck on the walls and the refrigerator and the kitchen cabinets and the lampshades with scotch tape or tacks or a paper clip. It was a familiar sight that I always enjoyed returning to, sort of a comfort zone away from home.
When you were Hunter’s guest, he would offer you the kitchen stool next to him – and if there were other guests, they would sit on a couch facing the television on the other side of the breakfast bar. The television was important because Hunter was a lifelong sports fan, and he loved to bet – not just on the outcome of a football game, but on each and every play during it. He would often pick up the phone and call a friend, even in the middle of the night, to see if the friend wanted to bet on the next play.
You might be engaged in a conversation with Hunter when he would suddenly fax a note to a friend with whom he was carrying on another dialogue, with some burst of insight that he felt would move it in the direction he wanted to go. Occasionally, he would share what he was doing with you, especially if it was a little out of bounds; at other times, he had two or three conversations going on – one with you in person, another with the recipient of the faxes, and maybe a third on the phone with someone else at the same time.
But you were never left feeling ignored or abandoned by Hunter – quite the opposite. Visiting with him was like being engaged in a never-ending intellectual contest in which his goal was to get you to say or do something that he could then ridicule good-naturedly. If he discovered some issue with which you were obviously uncomfortable, he would return to that subject repeatedly, with a sly grin that let you know he was having fun with you.
In my case, whenever I visited Hunter in the years following my involvement in the Bourne incident [in which Keith admitted to a journalist that he’d seen Peter Bourne, Jimmy Carter’s Drug Czar, snorting coke at a party—Ed.], even if it was two decades later, Hunter would insist on returning to the theme of not ratting out our allies and do his best to get me to apologize. I, on the other hand, would claim not to know anything about the whole affair and accuse him of making it up out of whole cloth. I recall one specific evening, probably around 2000 or 2001, when Gerry Goldstein and I were visiting Hunter, and the two of them wrestled me to the floor in an attempt to get me to “confess” as the first step toward my eventual “recovery and rehabilitation.”
“Admit it and clean your soul!” Hunter screamed as he and Gerry held me down. “You dropped a dime on Peter Bourne! Admit it, you fucker.”
“I neither admit nor deny the allegation,” I protested. ”I demand the right to speak with my counsel.”
One of the most remarkable things about Hunter was his ability to drink and do drugs in substantial quantities for hours on end; then, when I was fading and bidding my farewells at perhaps 2 or 3 a.m., he would call one of his assistants (at least one of whom usually lived on the farm), and they would get to work on whatever writing project was currently front and center. Then they’d work until daybreak, when Hunter might finally go to bed. To say that he was nocturnal seems like an understatement: Sometimes it seemed as if he was afraid of the light and lived the majority of his waking hours when it was dark.
Requiem for a Heavyweight
In February of 2005, word came that Hunter had killed himself. He was sitting at his usual place, his command center in the kitchen, when he put a handgun to his head and pulled the trigger. Hunter was dead by his own hand at the age of 67. His health had been failing him for a couple of years; he’d had a hip replacement and was largely confined to a wheelchair. Whatever his reasons for taking his life at that particular time, it wasn’t a total surprise to anyone who’d known him over the years.
The last time I saw Hunter was in 2002, when my wife Cindy and I had taken a short vacation trip to Aspen in the spring and met him one morning for breakfast (okay, it may have been early afternoon) at one of his favorite spots right across from the Aspen airport. His health was still good at that time; he was in a playful mood, as usual, and sporting a silly red plastic pig hat, the kind that University of Arkansas fans wear to Razorback games.
Hunter insisted that Cindy wear the hat while we ate breakfast, and I have a wonderful photo of them sitting together and smiling, her with the red pig hat on her head. When I look at that photo now, it seems to capture the pure fun it was to spend time with Hunter, no matter where we were or what we were doing. Life was always exciting, funny, and often a little dangerous when you were in his presence, and it made us all to want to hang out with him. It was a chance to live life on the wild side for a while, and then be able to leave and go back to the real world. Only Hunter could stay in that place all the time and survive.