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As the 'Decadent' Derby Approaches, Louisville and Kentucky Honor Hunter S. Thompson

Forty-four years ago, the Kentucky Derby and its surrounding spectacle played a major role in spawning a new kind of writing style, created by another Louisville product, the late Hunter S. Thompson.This Derby week, the  father of Gonzo journalism got some new appreciation  from his native city and state.    Hunter Thompson was long associated with his home in Woody Creek, Colorado, but nine years after his suicide there at age 67, Thompson is getting some mainstream recognition back in the Bluegrass State.This week, Thompson was inducted into the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame.    

His induction plaque reads in part:  "His first Gonzo story was 'The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,' in the June, 1970 Scanlon’s Monthly."That piece  was a scathing, bourbon-soaked, first-person account of the Derby scene  and includes this somewhat exaggerated description of the Churchill Downs infield:“Thousands of raving, stumbling drunks, getting angrier and angrier as they lose more and more money.   By mid-afternoon they’ll be guzzling mint juleps with both hands and vomiting on each other between races." The Scanlon's piece was also Thompson's first collaboration with his longtime illustrator, Ralph Steadman. Thompson's reporting on the Derby was the Gonzo cornerstone for his later works like "Hells Angels," "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" and "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72."Thompson left Louisville as a teenager after a run-in with the law that friends and family say left him with some lingering bitterness about the city, but he never let go of his Kentucky roots and the people back home.  That was evident in his personal correspondence.      

“If I could think of a way to do it right now, I’d head back to Louisville, sit on the porch drinking beer, drive around Cherokee Park for a few nights, and try to sink back as far as I could into the world that did its best to make me," Thompson wrote to his mother from Bermuda when he was in his early 20s. Now Louisville is bolstering Thompson’s legacy.Thompson has joined the ranks of famous Louisvillians like Muhammad Ali and Diane Sawyer who have been honored with giant murals placed on prominent buildings.   Thompson’s likeness is a sketch by Ralph Steadman.  Its permanent site, dedicated this week, is on the side of the Bristol Bar and Grille on Bardstown Road, just a few blocks from Thompson's boyhood home.   His mural campaign was spearheaded by Louisville poet and friend Ron Whitehead, who says Thompson came along at a time when literature had become mundane.“He made it exciting again, just like punk music did, the Clash and the Sex Pistols did in the mid 70s for rock and roll, which was about dead at that time," said Whitehead. Whitehead is also involved in the organization of Gonzofest, a weeklong party celebrating all things Thompson. Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer was there this year to read a proclamation crediting Thompson with inspiring "a generation of writers, musicians, journalists and other kindred souls." So what would Hunter Thompson make of all this establishment attention?  “People are surprised to hear me say this, but yes, I think he would be pleased with the attention from the establishment.  He believed that people are the establishment, we make the establishment,” Thompson's wife, Anita, said in phone interview with WFPL. Hunter Thompson wrote: "I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they've always worked for me.”That Gonzo persona is often cited as the reason some in Louisville have been reluctant to acknowledge his connection with the city, but that seems to be changing.Journalist Michael Lindenberger is a Louisville native now with the Dallas Morning News who has written extensively about Thompson.He says Thompson cultivated the Gonzo image, but deserves to be taken seriously by those who might be put off by it.“If you strip away all the talk about guns and drugs, you still have tremendous accomplishment as a writer, three major works that really do survive and are worth re-reading and I think will be re-read for many years to come,” he said. “As crazy as Hunter was, I can say, being his wife, he was a southern gentleman to the core.  I mean, he was a beautiful man," says Anita Thompson. “One of the definitions of gentleman is making people comfortable around you.   And although he could make people uncomfortable with his writing by design, in person Hunter made people that he loved very comfortable and welcome.  And that's something he learned from Louisville." There’s more to come from Hunter Thompson’s literary estate.   Anita Thompson says another group of her husband’s letters will be published within the next few years.

Rick Howlett was midday host and the host of LPM's weekly talk show, "In Conversation." He was with LPM from 2001-2023 and held many different titles, including Morning Edition host, Assignment Editor and Interim News Director. He died in August 2023. Read a remembrance of Rick here.

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