The Kentucky Derby: Decadent and Depraved?

 

*This is the 2nd in a series of columns by Beatdom editor, David S. Wills, about the role of truth in the work of Hunter S. Thompson. To read the first, click here

Kentucky Derby Decadent

 

With the success of Hell’s Angels, Thompson moved on to his first true work of Gonzo, ‘The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved’.

The problem with Gonzo, and with Thompson’s liberal use of both fact and fiction, is that it is extremely difficult to get to the truth behind his writing. To understand what did and didn’t happen in the writing of the article is a process made harder by the fact that when Thompson recalls the origin of the article in later interviews and writings, he may well have been exaggerating or simply inventing stories to build his legend and myth, or to compound the ideas stated in the article.

As the story goes, Thompson took the job of writing about the Kentucky Derby for Scanlan’s Monthly in 1970, where he first met and worked with Ralph Steadman. Madness occurred and Thompson and Steadman failed to actually witness the race. When deadlines loomed, Thompson began tearing pages out of his notebook and sending them to the magazine, creating a manic series of observations, loosely strung together and exploring the nature of the crowd more than the event.

Did Thompson and Steadman really do what Thompson claims in the article that they did?

Thompson’s writing and Steadman’s illustrations complimented and justified each other, creating a hideous portrait of the greed and drunken affluence of the spectators, something entirely overlooked by the conventional journalists present. Of course, in true Gonzo style, Thompson and Steadman become part of the story, immersing themselves in the depravity and becoming larger than life characters. The article culminates in a musing on how similar the author and illustrator were to their subjects.

Of course, a problem arises in the sheer extent of the carnage and madness. Did Thompson and Steadman really do what Thompson claims in the article that they did? Were their roles as characters accurate presentations of their actions? Was the crowd really as depraved as they depicted? Did Thompson really write notes, tear them out of his notebook and pass them off as professional journalism?

‘Politics is the art of controlling your environment,’ Thompson once wrote. Indeed, he was very talented at persuading the world he was what he wanted them to believe he was, because only his closest and dearest can testify to him being otherwise. Thompson eventually trapped himself with his own created image. But that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a reality behind the illusion. Hunter Stockton Thompson and Raoul Duke could be remarkably similar.

If we go back to Thompson’s childhood, as presented most thoroughly in Jann Wenner and Corey Seymour’s Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S Thompson, we can see a picture of Thompson that he did not create. Throughout his adult life we know Thompson through his own writings, seeing what he wanted us to see. But through interviews with his friends and family, we can see what he was like as a child, and then as an adult. It is interesting to see that even as a youngster he appeared as a junior version of the insane characters he would have us believe he was later in life. His friends present Thompson as an intelligent, sensitive, racist bully. He was a trouble maker with little or no regard for authority, but a penchant for books and a talent with words. He had the ability to blend into any crowd, and to defend or hurt his friends without their understanding of his motives.

As an adult, Thompson’s friends and colleagues testify somewhat to his public and private personae being much the same, albeit that’s most likely what Thompson wanted. He is depicted as a show man, seemingly living up to his name, trying to impress and repulse everyone around him. He would publicly unpack his bags, which, according to Paul Scanlon, managing editor of Rolling Stone, contained ‘fresh grapefruits, notepads, a can of mace, a tape recorder, a carton of Dunhills, spare cigarette holders, a bottle of Wild Turkey, a large police flashlight, lighter fluid, a bowie knife – the usual stuff.’[1]

We see throughout his life that Thompson was a show-off, loving any attention, and realising its potential. Perhaps in his writing his manic actions are simply his way of impressing his readers, while the rest is just the job – the journalistic duties. But it’s hard say.

We know that he claimed from time to time that he felt compelled to live up to his legend, and that he exaggerated some his actions. But he also claimed that much more went unsaid, for fear of reprisals. Of course, stating that he did things he couldn’t legally say is another way of showing off as the badboy… Or perhaps he genuinely did live as dangerous a life as he claimed, and simply downplayed his hyperactivity to gain conventional literary respect from his peers…

 

The Kentucky Derby piece is well known because it fused Thompson’s writing with Ralph Steadman’s illustrations to create an overall image of decadence and depravity. Everyone knows that the piece is about the failure to write about the race and was blinded in carnage. It’s no secret that the failure to write about the race or produce a coherent narrative stemmed from the over indulgence of the writer (and his illustrator).

After the Derby ended, and the two day hangover dissipated for Thompson and Steadman, the illustrator submitted his work and fled the country. Thompson, however, was trapped in a hotel in New York, faced with a deadline. As always, he struggled to meet it. A copyboy ran between the writer and his editors, exchanging notes and pages as they were written. Thompson was baffled. However, as the deadline approached, his grand plans for the article seemed unlikely to be achieved within the time limit, and as the legend goes, he began ripping pages – sketches of scenes – from his notebook and submitting them.HST Kentucky Derby

 

When I first sent one down with the copy boy, I thought the phone was going to ring any minute with some torrent of abuse. I was waiting for the shit to hit the fan, but almost immediately the copy boy was back and wanted more… I was full of grief and shame… They printed it word for word even with the pauses, thoughts and jagged stuff like that.[2]

 

Suddenly, Thompson, the man who thought he was the greatest writer of the 20th Century before anyone cared to read his work, had been humbled by his own irresponsibility. He wrote an apology to the editor, lamenting not having had more time. To Bill Cardoso, he wrote: ‘It’s a shitty article, a classical of irresponsible journalism.’[3] He was certain he’d never work for another major publication.

The article, however, was a success. Scanlans started gaining publicity and Thompson was receiving letters of praise. When Cardoso replied, he said: ‘I don’t know what the fuck you’re dong, but you’ve changed everything. It’s totally gonzo.’[4]

 

The start of ‘The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved’ is pure literary gold, but raises a few questions again about truth and fiction. We believe what we read because it sounds like it happened, but it also sounds a little too perfect, a characteristic that courted many of Thompson’s earlier articles. Read the following and consider whether it was something Thompson heard and reported verbatim, or something he honestly felt could have been said:

 

I got off the plane around midnight and no one spoke as I crossed the dark runway to the terminal. The air was thick and hot, like wandering into a steam bath. Inside, people hugged each other and shook hands…big grins and a whoop here and there: “By God! You old bastard! Good to see you, boy! Damn good…and I mean it!”

In the air-conditioned lounge I met a man from Houston who said his name was something or other–”but just call me Jimbo”–and he was here to get it on. “I’m ready for anything, by God! Anything at all. Yeah, what are you drinkin?” I ordered a Margarita with ice, but he wouldn’t hear of it: “Naw, naw…what the hell kind of drink is that for Kentucky Derby time? What’s wrong with you, boy?” He grinned and winked at the bartender. “Goddam, we gotta educate this boy. Get him some good whiskey…”

I shrugged. “Okay, a double Old Fitz on ice.” Jimbo nodded his approval.

“Look.” He tapped me on the arm to make sure I was listening. “I know this Derby crowd, I come here every year, and let me tell you one thing I’ve learned–this is no town to be giving people the impression you’re some kind of faggot. Not in public, anyway. Shit, they’ll roll you in a minute, knock you in the head and take every goddam cent you have.”[5]

 

Whether this character existed, or whether he actually said what he is quoted as saying, isn’t important. He is a device, whether real or imagined, that conveys in the earliest words of the article, the author’s opinion of the subject of the article. The subject will not be the race, it will be the spectators. And the spectators all sound and act like our friend, ‘Jimbo’. Perhaps this is another example of the collective speech method explored in Hell’s Angels. When he tells us that the ‘people’ whooped and said ‘By God! You old bastard…’ there is no specific person saying these words. Rather, this is the voice of the masses, of the many identical spectators Thompson wants to tell us about. And if ‘Jimbo’ never existed as a single person, he is certainly a fictional character representative of the people Thompson witnessed during the Derby. It certainly sounds real. We’ve all met caricatures who fit a mould too perfectly to be believed.

Thompson is playing a trick on us, too, here, as much as he is fooling poor, gullible ‘Jimbo’ when he tells him that the Black Panthers and ‘white crazies’ will ruin the Derby. Thompson uses his literary brilliance to convince us that this really happened, rather than present us with stale, cold facts. He has our senses tingling with his descriptions, so that the voice is not an abstract piece of information. Everything feels real because it’s so complete: the darkness, the heat, the whooping, the taste of a an ice cold drink… Yet these sensual elements were not forced into the narrative. Rather, they appeared where they would naturally come, as they occurred around the narrator. It’s just like reading a novel and falling into the prose, only this is meant to be non-fiction.

When Thompson meets Steadman, the show really begins, and things get blurry. As with the previous Scanlans article, ‘The Temptations of Jean-Claude Killy’, Thompson set out to write the article as an account of the process of writing. This would allow him to take an alternative view of a subject that had already been reported in depth. Thompson wanted to view the spectators, rather than the race, and after switching from a narrative that cast himself as the behind-schedule, troubled journalist, Thompson found Steadman to be a fitting device. Steadman was both the foreigner to whom Thompson could show his native land, and an intelligent weirdo off whom he could bounce ideas. The result was essentially Gonzo: madness and chaos mixed with musings about the nature of the subject.

As John Hellmann noted, ‘Thompson’s self-caricature is a paradox of compulsive violence and outraged innocence, an emblem of the author’s schizophrenic view of America.’[6] When he portrays himself as a hopeless loser, Thompson is attempting to draw pity and shock, just as when he looks in the mirror at the end and sees that he is no different from those he is studying. His actions shock us, but we begin to suspect that he, like the savages in the crowd, and products of a society that is fundamentally sick.

There are discrepancies between Thompson’s and Steadman’s accounts of the long weekend, but nothing major. For a start, Steadman is neither an Englishman, nor did he fly to the Derby from England. Steadman is Welsh and was staying in America at the time. Thompson was probably taking artistic liberties to portray himself as lost, as well as to portray Steadman as foreign, for the sake of his story. If Ralph came across as weird and alien, then Thompson could use him to compare with the spectators, and as an instrument of his planned narrative: as someone to guide around town.

Thompson’s version of events has the narrator being told about Steadman by their motel manager, who describes Steadman in a comical way. The helps the image of Thompson as lost and confused, whilst getting across some entertainment through another person’s voice. Thompson later finds Steadman in the press box, as both of them had apparently acquired credentials through separate means. Thompson mocks Steadman a little, and then proceeds to play the role of a guide. He is no longer the incompetent journalist, but instead the knowledgeable local.

In Steadman’s recollection, the events are just as amusing, but a little different. Steadman had never been to the motel, and the issue of his appearance was raised at first sight, rather than through the motel manager: ‘They said I was looking for a matted-haired geek with string warts and I guess I’ve found him.’[7] After this meeting, the two sit down over beers, rather than the whiskey that Thompson claimed. Whiskey is used throughout the piece to connect the depravity of Thompson and Steadman to that of the spectators. It appears at the beginning and soaks through as they mingle with the masses. Rather than Thompson taking the instant role as guide, Steadman recalls their talking about gambling, and then suggests that the rest of the assignment just happened, whereas the suggestion is planted in the article that Thompson knew all along what would happen – that the crowd would become the subject rather than the race.[8] However, according to Steadman, it was Thompson that procured the press credentials and not, as Thompson depicted, as matter of fortune for both of them. This little deviation from the truth suggests again that perhaps Thompson was better prepared than he let on, and that consequently the weekend was not as random as the article said.

 

Whatever the truth was behind ‘The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,’ it becomes a lot harder to separate truth from fiction in his most famous work, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.



[2] Nocenti, A., and Baldwin, R., The High Times Reader (New York: Nation Books, 2004) p.79

[3] Thompson, Fear and Loathing in America, p. 295

[4] Caroll, Hunter, p.114

[5] Thompson, ‘The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved’

[6] Hellmann, J., ‘Journalism and Parody: The Bestial Comedies of Hunter S Thompson’ Fables of Fact: The New Journalism as New Fiction, (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1981) p. 70

[7] Steadman, R., from ESPN 2 and Independent

[8] Ibid

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Author: David S. Wills

David S. Wills is the founder and editor of Beatdom magazine and the author of The Dog Farm. He travels a lot, and is currently working as a professor in China. His latest book is called Scientologist! William S. Burroughs the Weird Cult. You can read more about and by David at his blog, www.davidswills.com or on Tumblr.

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