'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas' author takes own life

(CNN) -- Journalist and author Hunter S. Thompson, who unleashed the concept of "gonzo journalism" in books like "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," fatally shot himself in the head Sunday at his home near Aspen, Colorado, police and his family said.

"On February 20, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson took his life with a gunshot to the head at his fortified compound in Woody Creek, Colorado," said a statement issued by Thompson's son, Juan Thompson, to the Aspen Daily News as reported by the Denver Post.

"The family will shortly provide more information about memorial service and media contacts. Hunter prized his privacy, and we ask that his friends and admirers respect that privacy as well as that of his family."

A dispatcher for the Pitkin County Sheriff's Department confirmed Thompson's death.

Thompson, 67, was associated with the "New Journalism" movement of the 1960s, in which writers -- most notably Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese -- took a more novelistic and personal approach to their subjects.

Thompson, who freely dropped cynical opinions and references to his drug and alcohol use into his stories, termed his style "gonzo journalism."

His account of a drug-fueled trip to cover a district attorneys' anti-drug conference as a writer for Rolling Stone magazine was the seed of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," perhaps his best-known work.

Subtitled "A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream," the 1971 book included his lament on the passing of the 1960s and its "sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil."

"There was no point in fighting -- on our side or theirs," he wrote. "We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark -- the place where the wave finally broke and rolled back."

In "Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72," he described the campaign leading to Richard Nixon's re-election as president with terms like "brutal" and "depraved"; puckishly speculated that Democratic Sen. Ed Muskie -- the early front-runner, whose poor showing in the New Hampshire primary doomed his candidacy -- was under the influence of a psychoactive drug, Ibogaine; routinely mocked candidate and senator Hubert H. Humphrey ("the Hump"); and bemoaned Nixon's looming victory by proclaiming, "Jesus, where will it end? How low do you have to stoop in this country to become president?"

Taking risks

Other works included "The Great Shark Hunt," a collection of Watergate-era essays; "Generation of Swine," his lament on the youth of the 1980s; and his account of Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential win, "Better than Sex." His lone novel, "The Rum Diaries," was written in 1959 and published in 1998, while a collection of letters, "The Proud Highway: The Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman," came out in 1997.

Hunter Stockton Thompson was born July 18, 1937, in Louisville, Kentucky. He served in the Air Force and was a newspaper sports editor. In 1966, he published "Hell's Angels," a fairly straightforward chronicle about the motorcycle gang, which Thompson had followed around for a year.

In 1970, he ran for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado, on a Freak Power Party platform of decriminalizing drugs. He lost in a tight race.

The peak of his fame came in the 1970s, when he contributed stories to a number of magazines.

His most notable client was Rolling Stone, where the dispatches that became "Campaign Trail" originally appeared. His battles with Rolling Stone founder Jann S. Wenner were legendary; his stories occasionally arrived on odd media, such as rolls of teletype paper, and Thompson's expense accounts were often challenged by the magazine. (Examples of Thompson's Rolling Stone work have been on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio.)

"He may have died relatively young but he made up for it in quality if not quantity of years," Paul Krassner, the veteran radical journalist and one of Thompson's former editors, told The Associated Press by phone from his Southern California home.

"It was hard to say sometimes whether he was being provocative for its own sake or if he was just being drunk and stoned and irresponsible," quipped Krassner, founder of the leftist publication The Realist and co-founder of the Youth International (YIPPIE) party.

"But every editor that I know, myself included, was willing to accept a certain prima donna journalism in the demands he would make to cover a particular story," he said. "They were willing to risk all of his irresponsible behavior in order to share his talent with their readers."

'Shock and dismay'

In recent years, Thompson wrote a column for the sports network ESPN's Web site. In his most recent piece, posted February 15, he describes shooting at golf balls like skeet with a friend near his longtime home -- he called it "a fortified compound" -- outside Aspen.

"The general reaction here is shock and dismay, because he was such a figure in town," Aspen resident John Hoag told CNN.

Still, Hoag said, Thompson remained a private person. "The most news we heard from him was when a pack of dogs killed his peacock, Attila, and he broke his leg in Hawaii last year."

Thompson also was the model for the character of "Uncle Duke" in the "Doonesbury" comic strip. But Thompson strongly disliked the characterization, once telling an interviewer that he would set "Doonesbury" creator Garry Trudeau on fire if the two ever met.

In later years, however, Thompson said he had made peace with the "Uncle Duke" portrayal.

"I got used to it a long time ago," he told Freezerbox magazine in 2003. "I used to be a little perturbed by it. It was a lot more personal ... It no longer bothers me."

In 1980, actor Bill Murray portrayed Thompson in the film "Where the Buffalo Roam." And in 1998, the film "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" was released, based on Thompson's book and starring Johnny Depp as the journalist. A new film reportedly is in production based on Thompson's novel "The Rum Diaries."

The writer himself, Hoag said, will be missed. "There's no one in the world these days who writes the truth ... as he seems to, to me," he said. "He spoke to the world and said what people were afraid to say."