Gonzo Personas: Hunter S. Thompson and John G. Clancy

 

This article first appeared in Beatdom #17.

A little over 10 years ago—February 20, 2005—“gonzo” journalist, Hunter S. Thompson, stuck the barrel of a Smith & Wesson in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Eight months later—October 1, 2005—Hunter’s long-time friend and lawyer, John G. Clancy, died in a rollover on a lonely highway in northern New Mexico.

***

In the summer of 2013, the written and recorded correspondence between Hunter S. Thompson and John G. Clancy was released to the public by Clancy’s widow. Some of these materials provide documentation for several interesting story lines, including evidence that Thompson’s relationship with Clancy may have influenced the development of Hunter’s own “gonzo” persona.

***

Clancy first met Thompson in New York in 1957, when they were sharing an apartment with two other roommates in Morningside Heights, while Clancy was going to Columbia law school. According to one of the roommates, “when they all went home for summer that first year…Hunter, who had been a ‘proverbial, mild-mannered guy,’ had evolved into John Clancy’s character.”1 Another one of Thompson’s roommates–who also knew Thompson when he was at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida—refutes such speculation, saying that Thompson “didn’t need models.” “He developed that persona long before he met Clancy.”2 This same roommate, however, admits that “Hunter and Clancy were kind of kindred souls.” “Clancy had a really wild streak to him and that appealed to Hunter.”3 Certainly, the mad adventures Thompson and Clancy pursued during those days foreshadowed the life-style Thompson assumed in his later years. It is almost as if the college capers he and Clancy pulled off—“all of our midnight jokes,” as Thompson later put it—were “coming true.” “That’s the horror of it,” responded Clancy.4

***

“Who the fuck are you?” challenged Clancy when Thompson showed up at his door unannounced.5 Thus began a life-long series of adventures, misfortunes, disputes, and heart-felt good times.

One of their early adventures that first winter in Morningside Heights, for instance, involved “a bottle of absinthe.” Clancy recalls it was “wicked stuff…notorious for causing brain damage with its wormwood base.” They all decided that “what was good enough for Baudelaire was good enough for them, particularly since it was so cold”:

 

We drank the entire bottle down for warmth, of course, and ended up careening all over the village. When stopped by a cop for the trivial matter of driving in the wrong direction on a one-way street, Hunter handed him an exam paper of mine from the dashboard in lieu of identification. The officer laughed and told us to turn around and get the hell out of there.6

 

Later, as Clancy continues, “when I was working nights on the docks for the summer and he was a copy boy at [Time magazine], we shared a sub-basement apartment on Perry Street in the Village”:

 

He is probably still remembered in that area for having thrown a sack of lime on a bar of a joint in Sheridan Square and loudly demanding a drink as the cloth burst filling the air with the singeing powder and the bartender with rage.7

 

In fact, the most telling examples of the bond between Clancy and Thompson are illustrated by early capers such as these. Some of these escapades, moreover, highlight behaviors by Clancy that mirror Thompson’s anti-social, even violent tendencies. Tearing off a loose cap of a fireplug and tossing in through the window of the Pyramid bar in San Francisco—as Clancy once did, for instance—seems so Thompson-like.8 Nothing to be proud of.

Another one of Clancy’s roommates at Morningside Heights went so far as to characterize Clancy as “insane,” but, of course, in a “gonzo” context that would be a compliment.9

After college, Clancy gained a reputation as a “vicious attack lawyer,” reinforcing the wild and crazy image of himself he had established in his earlier days. “He would come after you with guns, knives,” continued his roommate. “Because he was crazy, and he had no mercy.”10

Clancy’s kind of crazy-ness became most obvious during a visit with Thompson in Aspen in 1967, when he literally “flipped out so badly that two sheriff’s deputies took him one Saturday night 200 miles across the mountains to the state loony bin.”11 As Thompson elaborates:

 

[Clancy] came out earlier this summer and terrified half the town by smoking grass in public for three weeks before they finally busted him…and when the sheriff asked, ‘Do you have any more of that?’ he replied with fine dignity, ‘Not with me, but if you want to run over the Alps, there’s a plastic bag on the bar….’ But the lawyer was never charged with possession because his prior behavior was so weird that he was judged ‘temporarily insane.’12

 

Even into the 1980s, Clancy was getting into trouble.  “What the fuck?” writes Thompson in a letter to Clancy. “I just got yr. letter from out of jail. Is this some kind of joke?”13

 

…why the fuck can’t you tell me what this is all about? I have only a dim idea as to why you’re even in Utah, much less in jail in Utah.14

 

Ultimately, Thompson agreed to put up bail, sending it to Clancy’s alias, Doyle B. Abel.

As a life-long friend, Thompson usually took Clancy’s side, as he did in the earlier “loony bin” incident, extending a vile invective toward “the inbred, fat-faced, life-frightened cop-outs,” who were “likely to hammer” Clancy on that issue and urging him to tell them all to “fuck off.”15 True friendship. During the many legal disputes Thompson had with his publishers and debtors, however, Thompson wasn’t always so loyal to his friend Clancy. Throughout his lifetime, Thompson struggled with finances, often taking out his frustrations on Clancy.

Nevertheless, as Thompson’s ex-wife Sandy points out in a letter to Clancy, at times Thompson’s feelings toward his old friend were particularly touching.

 

Something you should know is that when I had a low and doubting moment, Hunter very late one night told me what Clancy meant to him. That he felt closer to you than any other human being that underneath all the strange times you were soul brothers—together in the deepest sense and nothing could ever change that no matter how strange or how awful some times may be. I cried because I have never heard Hunter speak of anyone with such love and passion as he did that night.16

***

Many more Hunter S. Thompson adventures, some shared by Clancy, are featured in Hunter’s major publications, Hell’s Angels, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72. Some of his later adventures—ranging from a presidential campaign to the Super Bowl—were also the subject of the Universal movie, Where the Buffalo Roam, released in 1979. Bill Murray portrays Thompson in the movie. Peter Boyle portrays his demented lawyer Dr. Gonzo.

It is interesting that Clancy claims to be the model for Dr. Gonzo in that movie. In fact, as Clancy notes in one of his query letters, New West magazine also tabbed him as “the model for Dr. Gonzo in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.17 Whether that claim is true or not is unknown, but some of the letters and telephone conversations between Thompson and Clancy seem to support the notion.

***

Some accounts of Hunter S. Thompson’s legal battles read like the best examples of “gonzo” journalism. There is a full cast of characters: the protagonists, Thompson and Clancy, and the antagonists, Thompson’s publishers, his managers, his agents, his political adversaries, and the law. Then there are the various dramatic conflicts between the protagonists and the antagonists. The complication stages of the drama come about as a result of Thompson and Clancy sharing the “gonzo” persona role.

At one point during these ordeals, for instance, Clancy suggested to Thompson that it had become “time to apply a little fear and loathing” in order to achieve the resolution of some of these conflicts.18

The “fear and loathing” applied included the best of “gonzo” tactics employed by both Thompson and Clancy via their shared personas, including scorching ridicule and disparagement, vituperative language, bold threats, and insidious humor. How else to disdain the “east coast gangsters” and the “Wall Street racists.”19 At times the “invective” went over the line, when Thompson would get carried away attacking Jews and “rich bull fruits,” for instance.20 But the “invective” tactic was often effective. And the “ridicule and disparagement” tactic was equally effective.

As Thompson’s campaign director in his bid for sheriff of Pitkin County in 1970, Clancy unleashed an entire arsenal of “fear and loathing” armament, including the “ridicule and disparagement” tactic, attempting to discredit the personal reputations of Hunter’s opponents.

In a letter to Tom Wolfe, Thompson named “one of our opponents…a moral junkie and the other a twice-convicted felon illegally running for office”21 “What would happen,” asked Thompson, “if a private citizen complained…filed a citizen’s arrest type thing…saying the fucker’s in office illegally now…has been for four years and shouldn’t have run in the first place… what kind of bombshell that would be?”22

Exactly what Thompson had on his opponent isn’t known.  There’s “some horrible thing in the air,” he claimed, “embezzlement…the women,” but “it’s not known yet just how heinous it is.” The “word is,” though, that in California his opponent had some kind of “police record.”23

During his campaign, Thompson also played up the “gonzo” image he had established for himself, shaving his head to create an image in contrast to his Republican “long-hair opponent,” distributing posters and flyers emblazoned with his “two-thumbed, fisted peyote” logo all over the county, and pitching a rap that confused his adversaries. “The candidate first creates an impossible psychic maze,” explained Thompson, “then he drags the voters into it and flails them constantly with gibberish and rude shocks.”24

As Thompson elaborated in a phone conversation with Clancy:

 

HST: Well, it’s that kind of talk…is all that’s going to save me…because they can hit me straight on…

 

C: That’s right, you can’t posture…you can’t give them a fact to pick up on…

 

HST: I’m going to have to keep them off-balance…

 

C: Exactly…25

 

And, later, as Clancy acknowledged:

 

C: Your dope platform was a masterpiece of obfuscation…the whole message was so weird…

 

HST: I had to do that…completely obscure it…to bury the issue…to kill it…

 

C: You’ve done well….26

 

In addition to managing Thompson’s disputes with publishers, managers, agents, and his political opponents, Clancy’s legal work for Thompson also had to do with mundane worries about losing his car or his home or more serious charges of rape, possession of drugs, and DUIs.

 

In 1990, for instance, a former porn queen went to the Glenwood Springs police department, down valley from Thompson’s home in Woody Creek, and filed charges against Thompson for sexual assault and possession of cocaine. Clancy commiserated with Thompson over this, pointing out the facetious nature of the search and seizure that resulted in the drug charges:

 

Be sure not to invite any body to your house in Aspen unless you are prepared to have 5 (?) police officers from Glenwood Springs search everything in your house (tear your house apart) for 11 hours. Any guest can cause the Glenwood Springs District Atty. to get a search warrant. She doesn’t have to be a porn film maker….

P.S.  Welcome to Amerika in the 90’s.27

 

The immediate strategy Clancy employed in Thompson’s defense was a variation of the old “ridicule and disparagement” tactic, to “put in a special request for the porn films of the Witness for the Prosecution in the Doctor’s case.” “I think that attacking her publically,” advised Clancy, “is the correct strategy for now.”

 

It would seem to me that the Glenwood Springs judge must be swayed toward suppression by a combination of disgust for the complaining witness (pictures of her in flagrante delicto (or better) and an accumulation of ‘jarring details’ that point toward an ill-advised vendetta by the Glenwood Springs authorities against Doctor Thompson for his writings and imagined life style—on the one side a sleazy porn performer on the side a freedom of speech issue… Doesn’t it look like a determined effort by Glenwood authorities to get Dr. Thompson?28

 

In this way, as Clancy pointed out, “the Aspen community can, perhaps, be made to see that only by finding the Doctor not guilty will we be able to preserve the American way of life that so many have fought and died for.”29

Clancy used a similar strategy in defending Thompson in the DUI cases. As he instructed Thompson, “when the police target someone…and tail them because they are involved in political activity…the only way to expose this abuse of power is to fight it.” And as Clancy instructed the court:

 

…it is vitally important that there be public confidence in our police to not target citizens who are engaged in controversial political activity protected by the First Amendment. Here, it is well known that Dr. Thompson was leading the opposition to the airport expansion and coming from a political meeting when he was stopped and arrested….30

 

As in the porn queen case above, Clancy set out to discredit the claimant, the arresting officer involved in the DUI:

 

[The officer’s]…psychiatric records should be obtainable by subpoena. A demand for them along with the credibility report would increase the pressure. I don’t see why they would not be relevant—he might have told his therapist he hated people his father hated, his problem might stem from always fighting his father’s battles, etc. And I can see why the D.A. would not want to go to trial with an officer who has been on psychiatric leave in the past—psycho then, psycho now. I’m familiar with that issue…31

 

This is another case for “fear and loathing.” As Clancy explained:

 

Here, your reputation for volatility will work for you. They are afraid of you and they should be. Your intensity scares people. Here is a situation where all of that is useful.32

 

Here, again, the persona Thompson had assumed—in this case, his “reputation for volatility”—paid off.

***

Eventually, Thompson became so allied with his persona he became confused about who he really was. “I think people think I’m…maybe a violent version of that comic strip,” Thompson confesses.33 The comic strip Thompson was referring to was Gary Trudeau’s “Doonesbury,” which featured a caricature of the Raoul Duke persona Hunter ultimately assumed.

The first sign of this confusion between Thompson and his alternate persona occurred during the writing of Hell’s Angels in 1967. “By the middle of the summer,” writes Thompson, “I had become so involved in the outlaw scene that I was no longer sure whether I was doing research on the Hell’s Angels or being slowly absorbed by them.”34 As the novelist, William Kennedy notes:

 

…the transformation of Hunter into a public personality for the first time when he was doing publicity for Hell’s Angels in 1968. He was in New York and he turned up with a cowboy hat and very bizarre sunglasses…It was a costume…and that persona was what he was after, that look…He had  always shown up at my house wearing sweaters, slacks clothes, not costumes. But now the image was foremost. I believe Hunter was captured by that persona, not about what it used to be about. And it seemed he was reveling in it.35

 

This would also mark the point when Thompson’s journalistic perspective would change from third-person to first-person, essentially making it possible for Thompson to step into the story himself, rendering his own character as part of the story. In order to do this, it became handy for him to invent an alter-ego, the Raoul Duke persona. In fact, shortly after the publication of Hell’s Angels, Thompson admits “slipping more and more” into his “pseudonymous foil, Raoul Duke.”36

As he begins work on what was to become his most popular book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson grapples with this problem of identity further as it relates to point-of-view: “This one’s tricky,” he says; “it’s the idea of emphasizing my own involvement with the various scenes to the extent that I become the protagonist.” 37

Ultimately, he settles on “the Raoul Duke approach” in order to become his own protagonist,38 which, of course, becomes a vehicle for pursuing his version of the “New Journalism,” soon to be known as “Gonzo.”

As Thompson explains to Tom Wolfe, a leading exponent of the “New Journalism”:

 

What I was trying to get at in this was [the] mind-warp/photo technique of instant journalism: One draft, written on the spot at top speed and basically un-revised, edited, chopped, larder, etc. for publication. Ideally, I’d like to walk away from a scene and mail my notebook to the editor, who will then carry it, un-touched to the printer.39

 

And as he further explains:

 

I just wanted you to see that Raoul Duke is pushing the frontiers of ‘new journalism’ a lot further than anything you’ll find in Hell’s Angels. I think the main thing is to find some sort of academic-type justification for the Photo/Mind-Warp approach. Otherwise, the grey little cocksuckers who run things will keep drawing that line between Journalism and Fiction.40

 

Ultimately, Thompson finds it harder and harder to distinguish the difference between journalism and fiction. “I suspect that when the final truth is known, if ever,” he writes, “there will be no real difference at all.”41

The same goes for Thompson and his persona. “His persona gets in the way,” says a friend:

 

There were really two Hunters: There was the personal Hunter that you knew as a friend. Who you’d really want in a pinch. Then there was the public, which was all about show and living out his legend…Obviously a lot of Hunter got clouded by the gonzo side.42

 

In the end, Thompson comes to realize that he has become inextricably confused with his alter-ego. As he tries to express himself in a BBC interview:

 

I’m never sure which one people expect me to be…and very often they conflict…most often, as a matter of fact…most often with people I don’t know, I’m expected to be Duke more than Thompson…

 

I am living a normal life…I own a ranch in Colorado and I have a wife and a child…peacocks…a Doberman…

 

I am living a normal life and right alongside me there is this myth, and it is growing and mushrooming and getting more and more warped….43

 

He really has no choice, he concludes:

 

I have to solve this problem…I suppose that my plans are to figure out a new identity…I have to kill one off one life and start another one…

 

I’m really in the way as a person and the myth has taken over…and I find myself as an appendage…I’m no longer necessary…I’m in the way…it would be much better if I died.44

 

Perhaps this accounts for his disastrous end.

***

Success to Hunter S. Thompson meant being able to continue maintaining his “gonzo” life-style and pursuing his “gonzo” writing career without compromise. In the heat of this pursuit, however, Thompson seemed gripped by a self-doubt that dogged him to the end of his life, perhaps, in fact, ending his life. When asked by his ex-wife “if things had turned out the way he wanted,” he answered, “Well, of course not.”45 Finally, he tells his editor, David Brinkley, “I don’t think I can take it anymore.” “I think I’m making a fool out of myself.”46

Suicide, then, was a way out. As Thompson once told Ralph Steadman, “I would feel trapped in this life if I didn’t know I could commit suicide at any time.”47 So when he writes in his purported suicide note, “No More Games…No More Fun…,” he’s done.48

Perhaps Thompson’s last appeal for help ended with the last word he wrote—perhaps addressing his old friend and lawyer, John G. Clancy—as found on the last page remaining in his typewriter, dated Feb 22 ‘05: the single word, “counselor.”49

***

Despite Thompson’s self-doubts, however, the “gonzo” persona he assumed seems to have been politically effective. Although Thompson lost the race for sheriff, for instance, he did win a moral victory in that, as he said, “a lot of people are beginning to understand that to be a freak is an honorable way to go.”50 As he further explained in one of the wallposters he wrote for the campaign:

 

This is the real point: that we are not really freaks at all—not in the literal sense—but the twisted realities of the world we are trying to live in have somehow combined to make us feel like freaks. We argue, we protest, we petition—but nothing changes.

So now, with the rest of the nation erupting in a firestorm of bombings and political killings, a handful of ‘freaks’ are running a final, perhaps atavistic experiment with the idea of forcing change by voting.51

 

Or as Clancy wrote after reading Thompson’s article about the campaign in Rolling Stone:

 

The comment I like best came from a matted freak. He seems to be saying that we can really take over the entire system on our own terms.52

 

Or as Thompson’s son Juan sums up:

 

Individual freedom…that’s a core part of Hunter…as long as you’re not doing harm to other people. It could have been part of his campaign platform in the sheriff’s race—to legalize all drugs but punish dishonest drug dealers. And he really believed in the possibility of change for the better—socially or through politics.53

 

Finally, as Clancy wrote to his old friend after the release of the movie version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:

 

[Your book] was written as an epitaph for a doomed generation, a generation that had fought against a monstrous war and monsters in the White House and despite its success in that fight was now doomed to failure and oblivion as the world crushed their vision…And you could say something about the innocent use of drugs in the 60’s being part of the solidarity of the doomed generation, a motive that was soon perverted into drug abuse without purpose.

In short, despite that other perception of the book, you had a serious purpose because you are a serious and not Uncle Duke or a cartoon character. And many people goddam (sic.) well know that. i.e. Campaign 1972, etc.54

 

“You have the power now,” wrote Clancy, “to be a guru for the 90’s and the Millennium to bring focus again to the values of the 60’s that should endure—justice, peace, love, and cooperation”55

***

At Thompson’s memorial service, Clancy claimed that Thompson’s ashes fell upon his shoulders, which he considered a mantle, charging him with a duty to carry on the “gonzo” tradition.

Clancy’s auto accident, however—Saturday night, on U.S. Highway 84 between the Ghost Ranch and Christ of the Desert Benedictine Monastery in New Mexico—made it impossible for him to carry out that charge.

 

 

 

END NOTES

 

 

 

  1. E-mail to author from Judith Campbell, July 25, 2013.

 

  1. Phone interview with Jerry Hawke, April 10, 2014.

 

  1. Jann Wenner and Corey Seymour, Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson (New York, NY: Back Bay Books, 2008), 72.

 

  1. Phone conversation, Woody Creek-San Francisco, October, 1970.
  2. John G. Clancy, Gonzo Fragments, unpublished autobiographical novel, 1.

 

  1. Ibid., 9-10.

 

  1. Ibid., 10.

 

  1. Ibid., 26-27.

 

  1. Wenner and Seymour, 73.

 

  1. Ibid.

 

  1. Hunter S. Thompson and Douglas Brinkley, Ed., The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955-1967 (New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 1998), 617.

 

  1. Ibid.,636.

 

  1. Hand-written note to Clancy from Thompson, June 5, 1980.

 

  1. Hand-written note to Clancy from Thompson, June 26, 1980.

 

  1. Letter to Clancy from Thompson, May 10,1968.

 

  1. Hand-written letter to Clancy from Sandy Thompson, undated.

 

  1. Letter to Dick Cramer from Clancy, March 11, 1980.

 

  1. Letter to Thompson from Clancy, April 2, 1974.
  2. Letter to Roger Hawke from Clancy, August 19, 1974.

 

  1. FAX to Clancy from Thompson, September 21, 1998.

 

  1. Hunter S. Thompson and Douglas Brinkley (Ed.), Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist, 1968-1976 (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2006), 338.

 

  1. Phone conversation, Woody Creek-San Francisco, October, 1970.

 

  1. Ibid.

 

  1. Hunter S. Thompson, “Freak Power in the Rockies,” The Great Shark Hunt (New York, NY: Simon & Shuster Paperbacks, 2003),162.

 

  1. Phone conversation, Woody Creek-San Francisco, October, 1970.
  2. Ibid.

 

  1. Hand-written note to Thompson from Clancy, March 27, 1990.

 

  1. Letter to Harold A. Haddon from Clancy, April 16, 1990.

 

  1. Letter to Haddon from Clancy, April 24, 1990.

 

  1. Letter to Thompson from Clancy, March 10, 1997.

 

  1. Letter to Thompson from Clancy, March 11, 1997.

 

  1. Ibid.

 

  1. Finch, Nigel, Director, “Fear and Loathing in Gonzovision,” BBC Omnibus, 1978.

 

  1. Wenner and Seymour, 86.

 

  1. Ibid., 90.

 

  1. Thompson and Brinkley (Ed.), Fear and Loathing in America,,61.
  2. Ibid., 266.

 

  1. Ibid., 267.

 

  1. Ibid., 375-376.

 

  1. Ibid.

 

  1. Ibid., 406-407.

 

  1. Wenner and Seymour, 216.

 

  1. Finch.

 

  1. Ibid.

 

  1. Wenner and Seymour, 443-444.

 

  1. Ibid., 418.

 

  1. “Farewell, Hunter,” The Independent, ESPN.com/page 2, February 25, 2005.

 

  1. Ibid.

 

  1. “Combined Records Department Law Incident Table,” The Smoking Gun, March 2, 2005.

 

  1. Letter to Clancy from Thompson, March 9, 1970.

 

  1. Wallposter #1, enclosed with above letter.

 

  1. Letter to Thompson from Clancy, September 28, 1970.

 

  1. Wenner and Seymour, 373.

 

  1. FAX to Thompson from Clancy, May 15, 1998.

 

  1. Ibid.

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Frederic B. Wildfang

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Frederic B. Wildfang has been writing and publishing for over 45 years--beginning his career as a Beat-influenced poet, trying a stint in advertising, and continuing as a free-lance writer in Durango, Colorado.Mr. Wildfang's poetry and prose-poetry has appeared in a number of literary magazines, including: Spectrum, Wind, Loon, West Branch, Owen Wister Review, Puerto del Sol, Atticus Review, Berkeley Poetry Review, Modern Haiku, Petroglyph, and Mountain Gazette.

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