Fear & Loathing @
The Kentucky Derby
Fear & Loathing @
The Kentucky Derby
HUNTER S. THOMPSON
from Ralph Steadman’s THE JOKE IS OVER
Scanlan’s Monthly magazine, for those of you who missed those nine wild months of publishing history, was the brainchild of Warren Hinckle III, who scorched through three-quarters of a million dollars of borrowed money in the pitiless pursuit of truth – not least, the call to impeach Richard Nixon as early as 1970.
The magazine was named after a little known Nottingham pig farmer called Scanlan and it dedicated itself to maverick journalism and anything that seemed like a good idea at the time. Warren set about making sure everyone knew everything about anything that moved in America, from covert activities in high places to rats in a New York restaurant kitchen. His business partner was Sydney Zion, who later gained a reputation as the man who fingered psychiatrist, Daniel Ellsberg as the source of the ‘Pentagon Papers’, which had made public in The New York Times the US military’s account of activities during the Vietnam War.
They achieved their goal and made Nixon’s blacklist in record time. Unfortunately Warren’s excessive lifestyle and appetites outstripped the financial cornucopia that was there to begin with. After the ninth issue, the well dried up and the magazine sucked itself to death. When it happened (Hunter and I) were out on a limb, covering the America’s Cup for them. Not the best news to learn over a bad line to New York while asking for more funds.
Scanlan’s found me in Long Island in April 1970, not long after I had arrived from England to seek my particular vein of gold in the land of the screaming lifestyle. I was staying with my friend Dan Rattiner in the Hamptons. He ran – and, in fact, still runs – the local newspapers, Dan’s Paper and The East Hampton Other. I was just about to leave his place for the City, when I got a call from Scanlan’s Art Director, J.C. Suares. “We bin lookin’ all over for ya!” he growled with a pronounced Brooklyn accent. “How’d ya like to go to de Kentucky Derby and cover de race wid an ex-Hell’s Angel who just shaved his head, huh? His name is Hunter Thompson. He wants an artist to nail the decadent, depraved faces of the local establishment who meet there every year fer de Duurby. But he doesn’t want a photographer. He wants sometink weird and we’ve seen yer work, man!”
Scanlan’s 42nd Street offices were conveniently situated above a cozy bar serving Irish Guinness and flanked on either side by dark doorways, harboring drunks. J.C. Suares greeted me with some caution, treating me like a hired hit-man with a reputation which had arrived ahead of him. It was some time later that I learned that I had not been the first – get-Steadman-at-any-cost – choice. Hunter had originally suggested Pat Oliphant of the Denver Post. Oliphant, as it happened, was off to London to attend a cartoonists’ convention and had declined the invitation to be Hunter’s sidekick. I have to thank him or hate him for that, but he did save my first trip to America from being a total washout.
I was introduced to the editor, Donald Goddard, a kindly, shrewd man and an ex-foreign editor for the New York Times who had picked up a book of my collected cartoons in England called Still Life With Raspberry, the very week I left for America. Don explained, in a little more detail and with reserved reassurances, how interesting this job might prove to be. Being an Englishman, himself, he put my natural anxiety at ease as only another Englishman can.
On the way to the airport I stopped off at Don’s apartment where I met his wife, Natalie, a representative for Revlon, which was fortunate. You see, I had left my inks and colors in the taxi and was – as far as an artist is concerned, anyway – naked. Miraculously, Natalie had dozens of samples of Revlon lipstick and make-up preparations which solved the problem at a stroke. They were the ultimate in assimilated flesh color and, bizarrely, those Revlon samples were the birth of Gonzo art.
Finding Hunter, or, indeed, anyone who is not a bona fide, registered journalist covering the Kentucky Derby, is no easy matter and trying to explain my reasons for being there proved even more difficult, especially as I was under the impression that this was a bona fide trip anyway and I was a properly accredited press man. Why shouldn’t I think that? I assumed Scanlan’s was an established magazine. As it turned out, Scanlan’s had got me a hotel room cheap at a jerry-built complex called Browns!
Not able to locate Hunter at the hotel, though he had, in fact, booked in, I decided to take myself off to the track, eager to see for myself the color and excitement I had been led to expect. I carefully selected a sketch book, a couple of handy, felt-tip pens and a spy camera. I was imagining, in my naïve way, something like a New Orleans jazz carnival or a set from Carousel. My first impression, therefore, gave me a shock. Ugly people jockeyed and jostled for positions in an uncertain queue like a soup-kitchen line from the 1930’s.
I passed through a green, corrugated portal into a tunnel which led to the centre field where people with absolutely no important mission to fulfill sloshed around in a sea of empty beer cans, hot dog stands and obsolete form cards. Some people were camped out and well-ensconced with all the mod cons necessary for a comfortable three-day stint. This was carnival-centre and not an ounce of influence operated here. These were the Christians waiting to face the lions and the Romans were up there in the surrounding grandstands, making bets.
I retreated back the way I had come, looking around the back of the seat scaffolds and finally located the stairs leading to the Press Box. With a high charge of Welsh bewilderment, I talked myself inside, past a pleasant lady with a southern drawl and got myself a beer at the bar.
From where I stood I could see the course and the finishing posts. Press men were typing away and phoning editors and commentating through mikes to their radio stations. The races were in full swing and I felt heavy with a sense of inadequacy. I couldn’t type, I had no one to phone anything to, I knew nothing about racing and I couldn’t even locate the one man who could fill me in and make me feel that I was here for a purpose. It is a feeling I have experienced on many subsequent occasions where I have been shot into the middle of some strange place by some magazine or other which believes that all credentials are bullshit and that the mere mention of its name will send officials into paroxysms of reverence and respect. It’s understandable, as any magazine proprietor worth his salt will explain that the world is waiting with baited breath for his next issue. He must think like that or go under with plummeting circulation figures.
I had been watching someone chalk racing results on a blackboard while I finished my beer and was about to turn to get another when a voice like no other I had ever heard before cut into my thoughts, sinking its teeth into my brain. It was a cross between a slurred karate chop and gritty molasses.
I turned around and two eyes firmly socketed inside a bullet head were staring at the funny beard I was wearing on the end of my chin. Hunter was certainly not what I had been expecting. No time-worn leather, shining with old sump oil. No manic tattoo across a bare upper arm and certainly no hint of menace. No, this man had an impressive head cut from one piece of bone, the top part covered down to the eyes by a flimsy, white tight-brimmed sun hat. The top half of his body was draped in a hunting jacket of multi-colored patchwork and his bottom half wore slightly small, blue seersucker pants. The torso was prevented from crashing to the floor by a pair of huge, white plimsoles with fine red trim around the bulkheads. But they did seem in proportion as a foundation for what looked like a lot to support. Damn near six foot six of solid bone and meat, holding a beaten-up leather bag in one hand and a cigarette between the arthritic fingers of the other. His eyes gave away nothing of what he thought he was looking at in me – a ‘matted-haired geek with string warts’, as I found out later. Writers have a compulsion to tell all eventually, particularly journalistic ones whose only real reason for being a journalist anyway is to blast out the secrets they are entrusted with ‘off the record’ and surprise the world – or their editors.
We took a seat directly overlooking the race track and I relaxed with a beer in one hand and a sketchpad on my knee. Hunter had a notebook and made sporadic scribblings in red ink.
‘Do you bet?’ he asked. A race had just begun, so we chose a horse just for fun, to see how we made out, without spending a cent. The horse won, so we decided to try again for real. But my luck ran out and a modest amount of Scanlan’s expenses had disappeared within the hour. During that time we had sounded each other out and overcome our first impressions. We were getting along fine as he kept pointing out faces that, for him, represented the real Kentucky face. “That’s what we are here for,’ he would say. ‘Nail that and you have it.”
I had so far made no sketches, or notes, feeling far too intimidated to do either. But my head was buzzing with strange impressions. The last races were being run and there wasn’t much else to do around the track that would be helpful, so we decided to get back to the hotel, clean up and go into Louisville to eat. Hunter had hired a bright red whale of a car and had stored two buckets of beer, on ice, behind the front seats. We stopped off at a liquor store and bought a bottle of Wild Turkey Bourbon – a drink I had not been familiar with up to that point. It tasted good and went down even better, though compared to a good malt whisky it’s still a clumsy way to get drunk.
I was beginning to settle in, watching him drive. From the very first moment, I could tell he could handle a car with consummate skill. He was the sort of driver who could never be a passenger. One hand held the wheel, the other his cigarette holder and a beer can. Between his legs, or resting on the seat, he kept a tall glass full of ice and whisky. His consumption of each was carried out in nervous progressions. The cigarette holder, with lighted cigarette, was placed in the mouth, drawn on, taken out, and then, with the same hand holding the beer can and cigarette holder, beer was swilled. For a moment, the other hand came off the wheel which was held briefly with the free hand, the whiskey was swigged, put back down and then the driving hand was returned to the wheel. All done while turning corners or overtaking in the fast lane, the car following the direction of the front wheels, whatever the speed. It had to. Some divine intervention – or Wild Turkey — kept it on the road. Very occasionally I would hold the wheel at the magic point and the car would do as it was told. The clutch, brake, accelerator and Hunter’s deft footwork did the rest.
We needed to eat. I was in a slightly befuddled state by this time and the potent combination of watery beer and whiskey was bringing on a severe attack of drawing, as always happens when I start seeing unusual faces through a haze of controlled drinking. My body becomes a protective casing and lets me observe through the two keyholes on the front of my head.
We were sitting in a restaurant, Hunter and me on one side of the table and Hunter’ brother Davison and his wife on the other, which prompted a drawing from me. Not a very kind drawing, as I recall, but it was only fun, anyway. However, you could see Davison was visibly shocked and it took me quite a while – many drawings later, in fact, to realize that Kentuckians and many other Americans for that matter, take things like that as a personal comment, and even in some cases, an insult, comparable to a smack in the mouth. Even Hunter was shocked and then horrified as I persisted in adding to the drawing, making it darker and darker and more hideous as lines covered lines. It is at a point like this that the drawing can take over and I am completely immersed in its development. It is no longer a sketch or merely a personal insult, but a battle between the drawing and my desire to mould and twist it. The drawing becomes more important than the subject. Other people were watching now. It was no longer a private affair.
Hunter fidgeted and made lame excuses for my preoccupation. “It’s a habit of his. This is nothing compared to what he did at the track this afternoon. Hideous things. We had to Mace people to escape. That’s enough Ralph. Stop it! Must be the Wild Turkey! He can’t hold his liquor! Sorry about this!” Hunter was fingering the Mace gun he had with him. He glanced around furtively. His brother’s face looked a little hurt and even annoyed. He didn’t say anything but he must have been restraining an impulse to retaliate. I was still unaware of the horrendous insult that this represented to these people and I had begun to draw the waiter. “I think we ought to go. Come on Ralph, cut this out or I won’t take responsibility for what happens!”
I remember the waiter bearing down on our table and Hunter on his feet; a black tube and a fine hissing sound. My eyes began to sting violently and I stumbled up, grabbing my sketch pad. I remember eyes staring from all directions, from dark corners of the restaurant, as we made for the door to the street. “Crazy fool!” Hunter screamed. I don’t remember any more.
I awoke on a bed, in my hotel room. There were pieces of sketchpad strewn around, covered in drunken scrawls of half-formed faces I vaguely remembered. I reached over and managed to grab one or two and gazed at them. The drawings told me I was out of control. They were the scribbles of some raving drunk. This would not do at all. But I keep everything – every piece of paper – or I sell it. But I keep it more often and if I find it by chance, I believe it to contain imagined properties which crave to be seen.
I have always found that whatever time I get to bed, even it it’s six in the morning, I’ll be up at eight, unable to succumb to the slovenly habit of lying in bed to catch up on sleep. Hunter was a different animal. He seemed to gain strength from rakish marathons. I am certain he learned the secret of maintaining a drug-wracked body from living out on the edge of lunacy and apparently normal discourse with everyday events. Whatever reaction he adopted towards a situation, whether it was giving a hell-raiser speech from the interior balconies of the Hyatt Regency Hotel in San Francisco or firing a magnum.44 at random into the night in front of strangers, he would always convince those around him that they were the ones who were mad, irrational or just plain dumb and he was behaving as a decent law-abiding citizen.
Today was Derby Day. I had taken breakfast and thought that, as it was now about nine-thirty, it would be a good plan to wake my friend who must have managed to get that extra hour’s sleep. I banged on his door and waited. Nothing. I banged again more emphatically and thought I heard a muffled cry from somewhere inside, like the sound a whale makes when searching for its mate. I banged again and called his name. A cry like twelve rhinos in mortal combat shook the flimsy walls and doors.
“Crazy English faggot. Go back where you belong. You faggots are all the same.” The door remained closed. I ignored the eccentric insults and tried again. “Come back in another two hours.” A mumble suggested that our conversation was at an end.
I went down to the lobby and observed for one hour with horrified fascination! Obesity was a common sight in most central and southern states. The culmination of years of hash browns and eggs sunny-side up, French fries, oily salads, pancakes with maple syrup and club sandwiches, washed down with sweet Coca Cola and blueberry milk shakes. It is no accident that men’s trousers are made in stretch-nylon synthetics, to accommodate their drooping paunches and elephantine legs and women’s dresses hang like marquees without tent pegs and guy ropes. The swamp-like humidity of a place like Kentucky brings rivers of sweat pouring over these undulating plains of wobbling flesh, dripping onto polished vinyl floors or down their socks into maroon and white sneakers.
I spent a while at the counter of the breakfast shop talking over one or two black coffees. Then made my way back to try Hunter again. Using the same approach, I banged fiercely on the door. I got the same response and a worse stream of abuse than the first time, but this time I wasn’t giving up.
A squinting dome of a head peered over the sheets, eyes contorted into scars as the fierce light bleached his features into a crumpled carnival mask. It was a ghastly sight. “Er, um, my God, what time is it?”
“Midday” I said.
“Goddam, why didn’t you wake me? We should be at the track!”
One hour later we were sitting in a roadside coffee shop-restaurant. Hunter had drunk a liter of orange juice, eaten about thirty different kinds of vitamin pills, two grapefruits, two club sandwiches, four bloody Marys and was just on his second Heineken with a scotch on the side. I have since come to suspect that he was a secret health freak who worked hard at it, devouring great gobs of health food and goat’s milk in vast quantities to build up his flailing insides to concert pitch before any bout with humanity. “Got to stoke up for the day ahead. It could get nasty. Aren’t you going to eat?”
“Well, I did actually. I had a lightly boiled egg and half a grapefruit a couple of hours ago. I’m fine.”
“My God! You won’t make it. This could be a day of ugliness. Horrible, horrible! People drinking and eating like pigs and vomiting everywhere. We’ll be sliding in the stuff before the week is out. And keep that damn thing out of sight.”
I was idly sketching a few of the late breakfast eaters as he talked. “Sorry,’ I said, ‘but I did come here to observe and draw.”
“Yes, but these people are primitive head-hunters. You’re liable to end up in a ditch, kicked to death by a horse.” I had begun to notice amongst all these stern warnings a hint of a twinkle in those tight eyes of his, as though he was secretly enjoying the possibilities that such a strange practice as mine might provoke. He had been used to working with photographers on other assignments and the detachment with which a photographer usually works gave him nothing against which he could spark. Here was something that could conceivably become a part of any story he worked on. An ongoing situation that could rear up and enter the scene at any unexpected moment, though I did not realize this at the time. There was something that was on his mind that he had not yet told me. He had no stomach for this story but he was going through the motions of appearing to be working on it. He had seen it all before and worse, he had been writing stories like these about sporting events and Chicago riots ad nauseam and right now it all seemed like a pointless way to go through life. What he had not yet let me know was that he had harbored a project since very early on that would help him to burn his own particular hole in life, but, in the process, would burn him too by the time he was forty. But here he was, large as life, at age 32, back in his home town, trying to crank up enthusiasm for some rich old vein of resentment he had felt a long time ago while still a youth, a reject from the powers that ran this God-awful place and he was saddled with some weirdly-bearded innocent abroad who was naïve beyond belief and who seemed unable to comprehend that any activity emitting hostile waves was bound to be interpreted as a fair provocation for physical violence by these people.
But maybe that was the reason for the twinkle in his eye. It was likely that at some point I would create some ghastly confrontation with an insulted cattle-rustler who would loom bigger than either of us, even if we both wore cowboy boots. That would be enough to start the juices flowing in anyone with a hint of journalistic flair. Perhaps the light of Gonzo was already beginning to streak across his tarnished mind while I was innocently attempting to contribute something tangible to this assignment. I doubt that it was a fully-formed idea from the very start; most good ideas rarely are, but this was surely the stuff of which stories can be made. The Kentucky Derby alone was certainly no reason to be here. It had been written about annually by armies of reporters since it had begun, but to find himself back on home ground with only a record of disillusionment in his soul, no prospects and an unfulfilled wish to have snuffed it at 30, there had to be something else. If you add to this the fact that at that very time he was experiencing severe family problems too – having to have your mother placed in an institution of care is severe. The stage was set for a weird chain of creative responses in the mind of anyone on that particular high wire. This was no ordinary homecoming. This was a do-or-die attempt to lay the ghost of years of rejection from the horse-rearing elite and the literati who sat in those privileged boxes overlooking the track and the unprivileged craven hordes who groveled around the centre-field where he had suffered as a boy.
“C’mon let’s go. We’d better get over there. You’ve got to see inside that clubhouse before the big race. Maybe you’ll see then just what you’re up against. Scanlan’s could get no passes so we’ll have to talk our way in.”
At the time, talking our way in didn’t seem as much of a problem as Hunter made out but maybe that was eased by the number of people he seemed to know around the Privilege Stand. Real, blue-glass rich, young who had either inherited their horde or started a second-hand car-mart ten years earlier. They were extremely friendly and had been made pliant by the mint juleps, another drink I had only just discovered. They had their own fridge-full under their seats. With their help we acquired the necessary ‘hail-fellow-hi-there – anyone who’s a friend of Jake’s is a friend of mine’ treatment.
The clubhouse, as far as I remember, was worse, much worse than I had expected. It was a mess. This was supposed to be a smart, horsy clubhouse, oozing with money and gentry, but what I saw had me skulking in corners. It was worse than the night I spent on Skid Row a month later, back in New York. My feet crunched broken glass on the floor. There seemed no difference between a telephone booth and a urinal; both were being used for the same purpose. Foul messages were scrawled in human excrement on the walls and bull-necked men in what had once been white, but now were smeared and stained, seersucker suits, were doing awful things to younger but equally depraved men around every dark corner. The place reminded me of a cowshed that hadn’t been cleaned for fifteen years. Resolutely, I stayed there, but really only because of my own desperately befuddled and drunken state. Somehow I knew I had to look and observe. It was my job. What was I being paid for? I was lucky to be here. Lots of people would give their drawing arm to be able to see the actual Kentucky Derby, which was now hardly an hour away. Hunter understood and was watching me as much as he was watching the scene before us.
A bottle hit the wall and its contents spewed down in a bubbling stream to the floor. It is strange how one seems to gain drunkard’s immunity from personal injury when completely plastered and by now we had swilled more than we cared to think about.
Something spattered the page I was drawing on and, as I moved to wipe it away, I realized too late that it was somebody’s vomit. A ghastly-looking gargoyle-faced horse-dealer had hurled from about five feet away and the pressure-driven contents of his insides had miraculously missed me and caught the elevated plane of my sketch pad sufficiently to splatter down the page in an array of color which would have been a wonderful effect artistically, if it had not been for the evil smell.
During the worst days of the Weimar Republic, when Hitler was rising faster than a bull on heat, George Grosz, the savage satirical painter had used human shit as a violent method of coloring his drawings. It is a shade of brown like no other and its use makes an ultimate statement about the subject. Its organic nature lends a powerful presence to the image and no one misses the point.
‘Seen enough?’ asked Hunter, pushing me hastily towards an exit that led out to the club enclosure. “Only another half-hour to the big race. If we don’t catch the inner field now, we’ll miss it.”
Black faces talking bets. Tripping over hot dogs half-eaten in piles of Coke and beer cans, bodies in a final state of consciousness before dying, or just sleeping. Ripped T-shirts and odd-shaped hats, home-painted to say their piece; political or just plain saucy. While the scene was as wild here as it had been in the club house, it had a warmer, more human face, more color and happiness and gay abandon – the difference in atmosphere between Hogarth’s Gin Lane and Beer Street. One harrowed and death-like, the other bloated with booze but animal-healthy.
It was then that I conceived the idea to turn and face the crowd the moment the race started. So what, I thought, I hadn’t come to see the race anyhow. It was the people and what better than to observe them utterly engrossed in their hopes out there on the track? What stories their faces would tell. I would photograph them constantly throughout the race and get myself a group of pictures that would surely reveal the true Kentucky face.
Nobody noticed me facing the wrong way, but it was an unnerving experience. I was experiencing the full weight of an actor’s-eye view of this energized audience whose emotions individually and collectively pulsed forward towards the track as the moment arrived, one second before the race.
I stood my ground, though my impulse was to turn the same way as everyone else. “Hey boy! You’re facing the wrong way, boy!”
This warranted more than a camera shot. It was drawing time again and out came my sketchpad.
“Hey Steadman, hold it!” Hunter was already anticipating trouble. “Put your book away.”
“But he called me ‘boy’!” I protested.
“In this town they call everyone under eighty ‘boy’.”
I succumbed to my natural fear of physical violence and put my sketchbook away. “ I’ll take his picture instead and do the bugger later. He’s the type I think you are looking for – the Kentucky face.”
“I’m looking for something worse than that. The nearest you’ve come to it so far was the picture of my brother and that worries me. My mother is Dorothy Lamour compared to that twisted pig-fucker you were about to tangle with.”
I was watching the man’s binoculars dangle around his belly. “Hold it sir! Photographer for the Courier, Journal and Times. Wanna be in pre-int dontcha?” Snap! ‘Got you, you bastard!’ I thought, keeping it to myself.
The other spectators were too engrossed in the race to bother about some drunken photographer snapping like a demented tourist. It was good publicity, anyway. Might end up on the Louisville Courier front page – friends of the winning horse. Another Asshole!
Who would have thought that I was after the gristle, the blood-throbbing veins, poisoned exquisitely by endless self-indulgence, mint juleps and bourbon? Hide, anyway, behind the dark shades, you predatory piece of raw blubber. Is that your wife by your side or a cake of wrinkled make up, waiting for its owner to return. It was moving with heaving animation, glowing with rouge – an ocean of rolling surf breaking on wet sand, cutting sharp moments of wrinkled sweat into an undulating mask beneath cantilevered shades that sparkled with diamante rims. Some of the pink dinosaurs were slightly younger, softer versions, daughters cleft from pedigree stock to preserve the line. Interbreeding was rife, no doubt, and new blood would only be injected by healthy young rednecks whose ticket to these inner circles came through the stables where they would eventually become trainers and lay an owner’s daughter as soon as was decently possible. The older versions wore light, bright, summer coats, either plain white with acid, julep-green edging or outrageous sack-shaped coats in checks as broad as a freeway.
The race was now getting a frenzied response as Dust Commander began to make the running. Bangles and jewels rattled on suntanned, wobbling flesh and even the pillar men in suits were now on tip-toe, creased skin under double chins stretched to the limit, into long furrows that curved down into tight collars. Mouths opened and closed and veins pulsed in unison on stretched necks as the frenzy reached its climax. Sweat rolled down the flesh-furrows into their collars. One or two slumped back as their horses failed, but the mass hysteria rose to a final orgasmic shriek, at last bubbling over into whoops of joy, hugging and back-slapping. I turned to face the track again, but it was all over. That was it. The 1970 Kentucky Derby won by Dust Commander with a lead of five lengths – the biggest winning margin since 1946 when Triple Crown Champion, Assault, won the Derby by eight lengths.
The next morning I suggested, “it’s time I was thinking of getting back to New York. Let’s have a meal somewhere and I can phone the airline for plane times.” I hugged myself, trying to stop shaking. “I need a drink.”
“You need lynching!” Hunter was not yet up but was making an effort to rouse himself. As always, I had awakened at eight on an unknown day and had gone through my Boy Scout routine to freshen up. “You’ve upset my friends and I haven’t written a goddamn word. I’ve been too busy looking after you.” He was still in bed. “Your work is done. I can never come back here again. Why don’t you go back where you came from and let me sleep. Go and plague someone else with your problems.”
We laid the drawings out two hours later as we ate capsized omelettes and drank stewed coffee. I was feeling bad now and Hunter was preoccupied, worried. “This whole thing will probably finish me as a writer. I have no story.”
“Well I know we got a bit pissed and let things slip a bit but there’s lots of color. Lots happened.”
“Holy Shit! You scumbag! This is Kentucky, not Skid Row. I love these people. They are my friends and you treated them like scum.”
“Well I’m sorry. I just tried to be objective. I’m here to find something worth publishing. It wouldn’t do to go back with picturesque landscapes of Kentucky and elegant horses. You showed me the depravity. You must remember, I’ve suffered culture shock. It’s not easy to stay normal. I’m sorry. I’m more worried about your story, because without it, my drawings are worthless. Without the words they lack authenticity.”
“Fuck the story! At this point there is no story. I grew up here. I went away and I came back. You appeared on the scene with this stuff like a traveling priest peddling twisted morality.”
“I’m just trying to do my job.”
“You miserable Golom!!! That’s what Hitler said. Shit!” Hunter brought his fist down on the omelet set out for him in the coffee bar we had gone to. I wiped feebly at the scrambled substance sticking to my already crumpled sports jacket in an attempt to lessen the shocking effect this would have on my alarming countenance. I had only been there a week.
The few patrons who, for masochistic reasons known only to themselves, had ventured into this World War II concrete tank-trap of a coffee shop, were feverishly finishing their respective beverages as they fumbled for ten dollar bills or anything that would amply cover their tabs without having to wait around to pay at the desk. The scene was getting ugly and ten dollars was, I expect, a cheap price to pay for the preservation of the clothes they were trying to sneak out in and anyway, the cash till and the proprietor, himself, were covered in the stuff, so getting change would have been a messy business and, perhaps, a little weird.
I eyed the proprietor nervously, expecting him to reach for the phone – It was only the excruciating stinging in my eyes that snapped me out of my daydream – a defense mechanism against a situation I couldn’t handle. I heard Hunter raving on as I stumbled about helplessly trying to retrieve my drawings and baggage. “I’ve wanted a worthy cause to try out this chemical billy properly on all week and now I’ve found it, you scumsucking geek! That’s it. Chew on that for a while.”
I heard a quick hiss from the spray can Hunter was brandishing. He had Maced me again! I choked and ripped at my shirt in an attempt to stop the stuff burning my skin. My flailing hands caught something – a beer can – and I tilted the contents over my face and chest to relieve the suffocating pain. I screamed with relief but the pain returned immediately.
A hand gripped my coat and shoved me forward violently. The clammy heat of the midday sun intensified the burning and the hot tar of the car lot outside scalded the palms of my hands.
“My drawings – where are my drawings. I can’t see!”
“I’ve got your drawings, you worthless faggot. Get in the car – you’re causing a scene. Do you want to end up in jail too?” There was no sympathy in Hunter’s voice now. It was as cold and hard as a municipal sewer pipe. I crawled into the open door and grabbed wildly for the ice bucket I knew was behind Hunter’s seat, splashing the still cool water over me with a cupped hand.
“Mind the seats, goddamn it. This is a rental car.”
The cool water eased the searing sting momentarily and I felt the car roar forward as Hunter angrily threw it onto the freeway. “I’m taking you to the airport, though God knows why I should try and save your wretched little ass. If you weren’t a weird stranger I’d let them hurl you in jail but I don’t need you on my conscience.”
The front of my shirt was wet and reeked of vomit, but it couldn’t be mine because I could not remember being sick. Hunter was driving angrily, cursing the traffic as well as me. I saw my face in the rear-view driving mirror. My stinging eyes looked like crushed pomegranates and I remember having a coughing fit. I was not well.
Hunter skidded violently to a stop in front of the terminal. He reached over and opened my door for me and he threw such a barrage of verbal abuse at me, I knew I had really upset him. But I didn’t know why, since I was the injured party. ‘Now bug off, you worthless faggot!’ he snarled, ‘You twisted pigfucker!!’ He laughed maniacally at the sight of me. Then still half-laughing he gurgled: ‘If I weren’t so sick I’d kick your ass all the way to Bowling Green – you scum-sucking foreign geek. Mace is too good for you. We can do without your kind in Kentucky. Now get your bags and get out, and take your rotten drawings with you!’ Then, I watched him go, his wheels squealing on the tarmac.
That was a successful trip, I thought. I fumbled to find my sunglasses to cover my eyes and walked up to the check-in desk.
I cleaned up in the aircraft toilet during the flight and on arrival in New York made my way straight to Scanlan’s offices to lodge a complaint. However, the offices were closed and I took a beer in the bar downstairs while I wrote a note to accompany the drawings, explaining the oily stains from the omelet and the wreak of the cosmetics I had used to color them. I made my way back to the flat I was staying at in West 11th Street in Greenwich village and collapsed onto the bed.
I was awoken from my deep torpor by the phone. It was Warren Hinkle III. “Hey, Steadman, what’d you do to Hunter? He says he can’t write and he’s blaming you for arresting his creative flow. Didn’t you two hit it off?”
““Got on like a house on fire,” I said, “but he seemed to have personal problems to overcome. Home town, past memories, meeting old friends, mother, and so on. I’m sure he’ll produce something soon.” I’ll be along to the office just as soon as I finish this horse drawing.” I rang off and stood silently for a minute or so, staring blankly at the shaking right hand I had raised to wipe the sweat from my brow. It was early May and the heat was beginning to build up in the city.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Before I left New York a month later, I asked Warren Hinckle III out of curiosity about my Kentucky drawings. I rarely part with my work and I certainly would not have willingly parted with those ones. I was assured by JC Suares that they had been taken by Warren, personally, to the printers in San Francisco on one of his twice weekly east-west coast flights with Sidney Zion – ‘for safety’, he added. So I asked Warren where my drawings were.
“How the fuck should I know, Steadman? was his brusque reply. “Maybe someone wiped their ass on ‘em!” he twinkled out of his one good eye.
I never did find out, but, wherever they are, they still belong to me…..
The writing and drawings that make up the legendary 1971 Scanlan’s article Fear & Loathing At The Kentucky Derby elevated Hunter Thompson and Ralph Steadman into overnight superstars, and was the forerunner for the book Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas. A longer version of Ralph’s story about the beginning of this unique creative partnership can be found in The Joke Is Over, his memoir about their strange 30+year relationship.
And now here’s Hunter’s version of their first meeting:
The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved
by Hunter S. Thompson