The Hell’s Angels Letters

Last year, I had the pleasure of reading Margaret Ann Harrell’s Keep This Quiet, a memoir that largely focused on her time with Hunter S. Thompson. In the mid-sixties, Harrell edited Thompson’s first book, Hell’s Angels, and this new publication expands upon her memories of working with one of the world’s most difficult authors.

the hell's angels letters by margaret harrell

Finding the truth amidst the Gonzo madness of Hunter Thompson’s life story is not easy. He was an incorrigible self-mythologiser and the books about him tend to incorporate many of his own fantastic – and totally untrue – stories as though they were fact. Harrell attempted to dispel at least one of these myths in Keep This Quiet and digs deeper in The Hell’s Angels Letters, determined to set the record straight about how and where Thompson got the idea for a book on the Death of the American Dream and how his pet snake can to a violent end.

As the title implies, this book is mainly comprised of letters between Harrell and Thompson, some typed and some handwritten, and all printed here in colour. Of course, there are already two collections of Hunter Thompson’s letters available, but somehow they are even more enjoyable when read in the original form. Whether typed or scrawled in giant letters with a red pen, Thompson’s correspondence is invariably annotated and corrected in his unique way, adding a layer of personality that was missing from the collections, as well – of course – as Harrell’s explanations that provide further insight.

Harrell tells the story of Thompson’s attempts to write Hell’s Angels through her experiences editing for him. What is not told in the letters is added by Harrell as part of her narrative (which veers off at times into other topics not related to Hell’s Angels) or else included as notes on their phone calls or other conversations. All of this is fascinating for those of us studying Thompson’s life and work as there is much added that was not in previous books. It is particularly interesting to learn about the relationship between Thompson and Paul Krassner, who was mentioned only fleetingly in other books.

The Hell’s Angels Letters is highly visual, with most pages presenting some sort of note, photograph, or ephemera. There are a great many pictures to illustrate the story and the book finishes with several interviews that show the author attempting to track down information about one of Thompson’s friends and an important figure in getting the book published, David Pierce. It also includes contributions from Ron Whitehead, William McKeen, and Rory Patrick Feehan.

The Hell’s Angels Letters: Hunter S. Thompson, Margaret Harrell and the Making of an American Classic, by Margaret Harrell. Published by Norfolk Press, 2020.

Amongst Nazis: William S. Burroughs in Vienna 1936/37

Another wonderful new book is Amongst Nazis by Thomas Antonic. This is the first book to properly address Burroughs’ brief stint as a medical student in Europe prior to World War II. As Margaret Harrell has done in her book, Antonic is also determined to set the record straight and correct various errors, taking many shots at Barry Miles and Ted Morgan, who have written the best Burroughs biographies to date.

in vienna

Burroughs’ time studying in Europe in the thirties is, of course, a highly under-studied part of his life about which previous biographers and scholars had mostly inferred meaning. His time in Vienna had been mentioned only briefly, acknowledging that he had married a Jewish woman (whom Burroughs amusing described as “mannish”) in order to help her flee from the Nazis. However, Antonic has done meticulous research to put together a more complete picture of Burroughs’ European travels and experiences, and shows us that Burroughs had travelled quite extensively. (In fact, the title of the book is somewhat misleading as much of it takes place not in Vienna but in Salzburg, Dubrovnik, Athens, and elsewhere. Even the cover photo was taken in Dubrovnik.)

 Ilse Herzfeld Burroughs
The only known photo of Ilse Herzfeld Klapper.

Beyond that, he has also attempted to show how his days in Europe influenced Burroughs’ later work. Antonic attempts to explain how Dr. Benway was based upon Eduard Pernkopf, a Nazi doctor under whom Burroughs studied, and points out that other doctors in his work have German names, German accents, or use the occasional word of German. Burroughs not only studied under Nazi scientists but also witnessed a rally in Salzburg, and Antonic is keen to explore the extent to which Nazism crept into his fiction. He argues, for example, that Annexia in Naked Lunch is a “a most obvious reference to Austria, which was annexed by Germany.”

Perhaps most interestingly, Antonic argues that Burroughs deliberately used bad German in his work to allow for the same sort of playful wordplay that he used in English. He makes an appealing case, although it does seem in many instances that he is finding meaning where in fact that there is just a word that Burroughs misremembered many decades later.

Also of interest is the fact that Burroughs’ use of German in his books was not mentioned in German translations, which suffered from a great many faults until recently. They failed to translate Burroughs’ anti-Nazi satire and in one edition even translated “Austrian” into German as “Australian”!

This is a short book whose English-language section is a mere 50 pages, but it was utterly fascinating to this Burroughs enthusiast, and I suspect it will be highly valuable to anyone researching his life or work.

Amongst Nazis: William S. Burroughs in Vienna 1936/37, by Thomas Antonic. Published by Moloko Print, 2020.