The telephone rang at Warren Hinckle’s San Francisco home at about 3:30 in the morning on Wednesday, April 29, 1970. When Hinckle picked up the receiver, he heard the unmistakable voice of Hunter S. Thompson, calling from Aspen, proclaiming, “Goddammit, Scanlan’s has to cover the Derby. It’s important.”
The pitch, even at the late hour and the late date (barely 72 hours before the race itself), was fairly irresistible.1 Send Thompson, still finding his distinctive voice in countercultural journalism, to his hometown of Louisville to cover the drunken, debauched scene at Churchill Downs for Scanlan‘s, the anti-establishment (some would say subversive) monthly magazine for which Hinckle was co-editor.
1. The inspiration for the idea came earlier that evening to Thompson, when he and his wife, Sandy, were visiting novelist and screenwriter James Salter (Downhill Racer) and his wife for dinner. When Salter learned Thompson was from Kentucky, he inquired into whether he was going to attend the Derby.
Hinckle agreed on the spot, booked Thompson a ticket, wired him expense money, and then set about finding an artist to provide illustrations for the story. Originally, he had hoped to send a photographer to shoot the event, but after haggling with Thompson, he instead hired the English illustrator Ralph Steadman.2
2. According to Paul Perry’s Fear and Loathing: The Strange and Terrible Saga of Hunter S. Thompson, Thompson originally suggested the Denver Post cartoonist (and future Pulitzer Prize winner) Pat Oliphant, only to find that Oliphant could not get free for freelance duty. Ralph Steadman, interviewed in Jann Wenner and Corey Seymour’s Gonzo: The Life of Hunter Thompson, recalled it differently, saying he thought Oliphant couldn’t do it because he was “on his way to England for a cartoonist convention.”
It would prove to be a memorable, historic weekend. And it began, as so many of Thompson’s adventures would, with drinks at a bar.
“The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved”
By Hunter S. Thompson
From Scanlan’s, June 1970
Welcome to Derbytown
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.”
I thanked him and fitted a Marlboro into my cigarette holder. “Say,” he said, “you look like you might be in the horse business … am I right?”
“No,” I said. “I’m a photographer.”
“Oh yeah?” He eyed my ragged leather bag with new interest. “Is that what you got there — cameras? Who you work for?”
“Playboy,” I said.
He laughed. “Well goddam! What are you gonna take pictures of — nekkid horses? Haw! I guess you’ll be workin’ pretty hard when they run the Kentucky Oaks. That’s a race jut for fillies.” He was laughing wildly. “Hell yes! And they’ll all be nekkid too!”
I shook my head and said nothing; just stared at him for a moment, trying to look grim. “There’s going to be trouble,” I said. “My assignment is to take pictures of the riot.”
I hesitated, twirling the ice in my drink. “At the track. On Derby Day. The Black Panthers.” I stared at him again. “Don’t you read the newspapers?”
The grin on his face had collapsed. “What the hell are you talkin about?”
“Well … maybe I shouldn’t be telling you … ” I shrugged. “But hell, everybody seems to know. The cops and the National Guard have been getting ready for six weeks. They have 20,000 troops on alert at Fort Knox. They warned us — all the press and photographers — to wear helmets and special vests like flak jackets. We were told to expect shooting … ”
“No!” he shouted; his hands flew up and hovered momentarily between us, as if to ward off the words he was hearing. Then he hacked his fist on the bar. “Those sons of bitches! God Almighty! The Kentucky Derby!” He kept shaking his head. “No! Jesus! That’s almost too bad to believe!” Now he seemed to be jagging on the stool, and when he looked up his eyes were misty. “Why? Why here? Don’t they respect anything?”
I shrugged again. “It’s not just the Panthers. The FBI says busloads of white crazies are coming in from all over the country — to mix with the crowd and attack all at once, from every direction. They’ll be dressed like everybody else. You know — coats and ties and all that. But when the trouble starts … well, that’s why the cops are so worried.”
He sat for a moment, looking hurt and confused and not quite able to digest all this terrible news. Then he cried out: “Oh … Jesus! What in the name of God is happening in this country? Where can you get away from it?”
“Not here,” I said, picking up my bag. “Thanks for the drink … and good luck.”
He grabbed my arm, urging me to have another, but I said I was overdue at the Press Club and hustled off to get my act together for the awful spectacle. At the airport newsstand I picked up a Courier-Journal and scanned the front page headlines: “Nixon Sends GI’s into Cambodia to Hit Reds” … “B-52’s Raid, then 2,000 GI’s Advance 20 Miles” … “4,000 U.S. Troops Deployed Near Yale as Tension Grows Over Panther Protest.” At the bottom of the page was a photo of Diane Crump, soon to become the first woman jockey ever to ride in the Kentucky Derby.3 The photographer had snapped her “stopping in the barn area to fondle her mount, Fathom.” The rest of the paper was spotted with ugly war news and stories of “student unrest.” There was no mention of any protest action at a small Ohio school called Kent State.4
3. Crump was aboard Fathom, which finished 15th in the 17-horse field. But it was a good day for her anyway. In addition to becoming the first female to ride a horse in the Derby, she won the first race of the day, a six-furlong run aboard a horse named Right Sean.
4. There wouldn’t have been any reporting on the Kent State protests in that Friday paper, because the first demonstrations on the campus came that very day, Friday, May 1, 1970.
I went to the Hertz desk to pick up my car, but the moon-faced young swinger in charge said they didn’t have any. “You can’t rent one anywhere,” he assured me. “Our Derby reservations have been booked for six weeks.” I explained that my agent had confirmed a white Chrysler convertible for me that very afternoon but he shook his head. “Maybe we’ll have a cancellation. Where are you staying?”
I shrugged. “Where’s the Texas crowd staying? I want to be with my people.”
He sighed. “My friend, you’re in trouble. This town is flat full. Always is, for the Derby.”
I leaned closer to him, half-whispering: “Look, I’m from Playboy. How would you like a job?”
He backed off quickly. “What? Come on, now. What kind of a job?”
“Never mind,” I said. “You just blew it.” I swept my bag off the counter and went to find a cab. The bag is a valuable prop in this kind of work; mine has a lot of baggage tags on it — SF, LA, NY, Lima, Rome, Bangkok, that sort of thing — and the most prominent tag of all is a very official, plastic-coated thing that said “Photog. Playboy Mag.” I bought it from a pimp in Vail, Colorado, and he told me how to use it. “Never mention Playboy until you’re sure they’ve seen this thing first,” he said. “Then, when you see them notice it, that’s the time to strike. They’ll go belly up every time. This thing is magic, I tell you. Pure magic.”
Well … maybe so. I’d used it on the poor geek in the bar, and now, humming along in a Yellow Cab toward town, I felt a little guilty about jangling the poor bugger’s brains with that evil fantasy. But, what the hell? Anybody who wanders around the world saying, “Yes, I’m from Texas,” deserves whatever happens to him. And he had, after all, come here once again to make a 19th century ass of himself in the midst of some jaded, atavistic freakout with nothing to recommend it except a very saleable “tradition.” Early in our chat, Jimbo had told me that he hasn’t missed a Derby since 1954. “The little lady won’t come anymore,” he said. “She just grits her teeth and turns me loose for this one. And when I say ‘loose’ I do mean loose! I toss ten-dollar bills around like they were goin’ outa style! Horses, whiskey, women … shit, there’s women in this town that’ll do anything for money.”
Why not? Money is a good thing to have in these twisted times. Even Richard Nixon is hungry for it. Only a few days before the Derby he said, “If I had any money I’d invest it in the stock market.” And the market, meanwhile, continued its grim slide.
Waiting for Steadman
The next day was heavy. With 30 hours to post time I had no press credentials and — according to the sports editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal — no hope at all of getting any. Worse, I needed two sets; one for myself and another for Ralph Steadman, the English illustrator who was coming from London to do some Derby drawings.5 All I knew about him was that this was his first visit to the United States. And the more I pondered that fact, the more it gave me fear. Would he bear up under the heinous culture shock of being lifted out of London and plunged into a drunken mob scene at the Kentucky Derby? There was no way of knowing. Hopefully, he would arrive at least a day or so ahead, and give himself time to get acclimated. Maybe a few hours of peaceful sightseeing in the Bluegrass country around Lexington. My plan was to pick him up at the airport in the huge Pontiac Ballbuster I’d rented from a used car salesman named Colonel Quick, then whisk him off to some peaceful setting to remind him of England.
5. Scanlan’s managing editor in New York was Donald Goddard, who had found Steadman’s book Still Life with Raspberry on a trip to England, and showed it to Scanlan’s art director, J.C. Suarés, who called Steadman and pitched him on the story.
Colonel Quick had solved the car problem, and money (four times the normal rate) had bought two rooms in a scumbox on the outskirts of town. The only other kink was the task of convincing the moguls at Churchill Downs that Scanlan’s was such a prestigious sporting journal that common sense compelled them to give us two sets of the best press tickets. This was not easily done. My first call to the publicity office resulted in total failure. The press handler was shocked at the idea that anyone would be stupid enough to apply for press credentials two days before the Derby. “Hell, you can’t be serious,” he said. “The deadline was two months ago. The press box is full; there’s no more room … and what the hell is Scanlan’s Monthly anyway?”
I uttered a painful groan. “Didn’t the London office call you? They’re flying an artist over to do the paintings. Steadman. He’s Irish, I think. Very famous over there. I just got in from the Coast. The San Francisco office told me we were all set.”
He seemed interested, and even sympathetic, but there was nothing he could do. I flattered him with more gibberish, and finally he offered a compromise: he could get us two passes to the clubhouse grounds.
“That sounds a little weird,” I said. “It’s unacceptable. We must have access to everything. All of it. The spectacle, the people, the pageantry and certainly the race. You don’t think we came all this way to watch the damn thing on television, do you? One way or another we’ll get inside. Maybe we’ll have to bribe a guard — or even Mace somebody.” (I had picked up a spray can of Mace in a downtown drugstore for $5.98 and suddenly, in the midst of that phone talk, I was struck by the hideous possibilities of using it out at the track. Macing ushers at the narrow gates to the clubhouse inner sanctum, then slipping quickly inside, firing a huge load of Mace into the governor’s box, just as the race starts. Or Macing helpless drunks in the clubhouse restroom, for their own good … )
By noon on Friday I was still without credentials and still unable to locate Steadman. For all I knew he’d changed his mind and gone back to London. Finally, after giving up on Steadman and trying unsuccessfully to reach my man in the press office, I decided my only hope for credentials was to go out to the track and confront the man in person, with no warning — demanding only one pass now, instead of two, and talking very fast with a strange lilt in my voice, like a man trying hard to control some inner frenzy. On the way out, I stopped at the motel desk to cash a check. Then, as a useless afterthought, I asked if by any wild chance Mr. Steadman had checked in.
The lady on the desk was about fifty years old and very peculiar-looking; when I mentioned Steadman’s name she nodded, without looking up from whatever she was writing, and said in a low voice, “You bet he did.” Then she favored me with a big smile. “Yes, indeed. Mr. Steadman just left for the racetrack. Is he a friend of yours?”
I shook my head. “I’m supposed to be working with him, but I don’t even know what he looks like. Now, goddammit, I’ll have to find him in that mob at the track.”
She chuckled. “You won’t have any trouble finding him. You could pick that man out of any crowd.”
“Why?” I asked. “What’s wrong with him? What does he look like?”
“Well … ” she said, still grinning, “he’s the funniest looking thing I’ve seen in a long time. He has this … ah … this growth all over his face. As a matter of fact it’s all over his head.” She nodded. “You’ll know him when you see him; don’t worry about that.”
Great creeping Jesus, I thought. That screws the press credentials. I had a vision of some nerve-rattling geek all covered with matted hair and string-warts showing up in the press office and demanding Scanlan’s press packet. Well … what the hell? We could always load up on acid and spend the day roaming around the grounds with big sketch pads, laughing hysterically at the natives and swilling mint juleps so the cops wouldn’t think we’re abnormal. Perhaps even make the act pay up: set up an easel with a big sign saying, “Let a Foreign Artist Paint Your Portrait, $10 Each. Do It NOW!”
A Huge Outdoor Loony Bin
I took the expressway out to the track, driving very fast and jumping the monster car back and forth between lanes, driving with a beer in one hand and my mind so muddled that I almost crushed a Volkswagen full of nuns when I swerved to catch the right exit. There was a slim chance, I thought, that I might be able to catch the ugly Britisher before he checked in.
But Steadman was already in the press box when I got there, a bearded young Englishman wearing a tweed coat and HAF sunglasses.6 There was nothing particularly odd about him. No facial veins or clumps of bristly warts. I told him about the motel woman’s description and he seemed puzzled. “Don’t let it bother you,” I said. “Just keep in mind for the next few days that we’re in Louisville, Kentucky. Not London. Not even New York. This is a weird place. You’re lucky that mental defective at the motel didn’t jerk a pistol out of the cash register and blow a big hole in you.” I laughed, but he looked worried.7
6. “I was in the press room one day and I had a beer,” Steadman recalled. “Suddenly I turned around and this tall man said, ‘Hello, I’m Hunter S. Thompson. I was told to look for a matted-haired geek with string warts. They said you were weird — but not this weird.’ I said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m from England, I don’t … ‘ and Hunter said, ‘I’m pulling your leg; don’t worry. I see you drink. Would you like to have another beer and sit for a minute and talk about things? It’s a strange assignment, because I’ve come back home and I’m feeling a bit weird being here.'”
7. In Steadman’s words, he and Thompson were as different as “chalk and cheese,” but Thompson’s biographer Paul Perry noted “they had the shared experience of being mavericks who wanted to produce weirder material than most publishers were willing to buy.”
“Just pretend you’re visiting a huge outdoor loony bin,” I said. “If the inmates get out of control we’ll soak them down with Mace.” I showed him the can of “Chemical Billy,” resisting the urge to fire it across the room at a rat-faced man typing diligently in the Associated Press section. We were standing at the bar, sipping the management’s scotch and congratulating each other on our sudden, unexplained luck in picking up two sets of fine press credentials. The lady at the desk had been very friendly to him, he said. “I just told her my name and she gave me the whole works.”
By midafternoon we had everything under control. We had seats looking down on the finish line, color TV and a free bar in the press room, and a selection of passes that would take us anywhere from the clubhouse roof to the jockey room. The only thing we lacked was unlimited access to the clubhouse inner sanctum in sections “F&G” … and I felt we needed that, to see the whisky gentry in action. The governor would be in “G.” Barry Goldwater would be in a box in “G” where we could rest and sip juleps, soak up a bit of atmosphere and the Derby’s special vibrations.
The bars and dining rooms were also in “F&G,” and the clubhouse bars on Derby Day are a very special kind of scene. Along with the politicians, society belle and local captains of commerce, every half-mad dingbat who ever had any pretensions to anything within 500 miles of Louisville will show up there to get strutting drunk and slap a lot of backs and generally make himself obvious. The Paddock bar is probably the best place in the track to sit and watch faces. Nobody minds being stared at; that’s what they’re in there for. Some people spend most of their time in the Paddock; they can hunker down at one of the many wooden tables, lean back in a comfortable chair and watch the ever-changing odds flash up and down on the big tote board outside the window. Black waiters in white serving jackets move through the crowd with trays of drinks, while the experts ponder their racing forms and the hunch bettors pick lucky numbers or scan the lineup for right-sounding names. There is a constant flow of traffic to and from the pari-mutuel windows outside in the wooden corridors. Then, as post time nears, the crowd thins out as people go back to their boxes.
Clearly, we were going to have to figure out some way to spend more time in the clubhouse tomorrow. But the “walkaround” press passes to F&G were only good for 30 minutes at a time, presumably to allow the newspaper types to rush in and out for photos or quick interviews, but to prevent drifters like Steadman and me from spending all day in the clubhouse, harassing the gentry and rifling an old handbag or two while cruising around the boxes. Or macing the governor. The time limit was no problem on Friday, but on Derby Day the walkaround passes would be in heavy demand. And since it took about 10 minutes to get from the press box to the Paddock, and 10 more minutes to get back, that didn’t leave much time for serious people-watching. And unlike most of the others in the press box, we didn’t give a hoot in hell what was happening on the track. We had come there to watch the real beasts perform.
View from Thompson’s Head
Later Friday afternoon, we went out on the balcony of the press box and I tried to describe the difference between what we had seen today and what would be happening tomorrow. This was the first time I’d been to a Derby in 10 years, but before that, when I lived in Louisville, I used to go every year. Now, looking down from the press box, I pointed to the huge grassy meadow enclosed by the track. “That whole thing,” I said, “will be jammed with people; fifty thousand or so, and most of them staggering drunk. It’s a fantastic scene — thousands of people fainting, crying, copulating, trampling each other and fighting with broken whiskey bottles. We’ll have to spend some time out there, but it’s hard to move around, too many bodies.”
“Is it safe out there? Will we ever come back?”
“Sure,” I said. “We’ll just have to be careful not to step on anybody’s stomach and start a fight.” I shrugged. “Hell, this clubhouse scene right below us will be almost as bad as the infield. Thousands of raving, stumbling drunks, getting angrier and angrier as they lose more and more money. By midafternoon they’ll be guzzling mint juleps with both hands and vomiting on each other between races. The whole place will be jammed with bodies, shoulder to shoulder. It’s hard to move around. The aisles will be slick with vomit; people falling down and grabbing at your legs to keep from being stomped. Drunks pissing on themselves in the betting lines. Dropping handfuls of money and fighting to stoop over and pick it up.”
He looked so nervous that I laughed. “I’m just kidding,” I said. “Don’t worry. At the first hint of trouble I’ll start Macing everybody I can reach.”
He had done a few good sketches but so far we hadn’t seen that special kind of face that I felt we would need for the lead drawing. It was a face I’d seen a thousand times at every Derby I’d ever been to. I saw it, in my head, as the mask of the whiskey gentry — a pretentious mix of booze, failed dreams and a terminal identity crisis; the inevitable result of too much inbreeding in a closed and ignorant culture. One of the key genetic rules in breeding dogs, horses or any other kind of thoroughbred is that close inbreeding tends to magnify the weak points in a bloodline as well as the strong points. In horse breeding, for instance, there is a definite risk in breeding two fast horses who are both a little crazy. The offspring will likely be very fast and also very crazy. So the trick in breeding thoroughbreds is to retain the good traits and filter out the bad. But the breeding of humans is not so wisely supervised, particularly in a narrow Southern society where the closest kind of inbreeding is not only stylish and acceptable, but far more convenient — to the parents — than setting their offspring free to find their own mates, for their own reasons and their own ways. (“Goddam, did you hear about Smitty’s daughter? She went crazy in Boston last week and married a nigger!”)
So the face I was trying to find in Churchill Downs that weekend was a symbol, in my own mind, of the whole doomed atavistic culture that makes the Kentucky Derby what it is.
On our way back to the motel after Friday’s races I warned Steadman about some of the other problems we’d have to cope with. Neither of us had brought any strange illegal drugs, so we would have to get by on booze. “You should keep in mind,” I said, “that almost everybody you talk to from now on will be drunk. People who seem very pleasant at first might suddenly swing at you for no reason at all.” He nodded, staring straight ahead. He seemed to be getting a little numb and I tried to cheer him up by inviting him to dinner that night, with my brother.
Back at the motel we talked for a while about America, the South, England, just relaxing a bit before dinner. There was no way either of us could have known, at the time, that it would be the last normal conversation we would have. From that point on, the weekend became a vicious, drunken nightmare. We both went completely to pieces. The main problem was my prior attachment to Louisville, which naturally led to meetings with old friends, relatives, etc., many of whom were in the process of falling apart, going mad, plotting divorces, cracking up under the strain of terrible debts or recovering from bad accidents. Right in the middle of the whole frenzied Derby action, a member of my own family had to be institutionalized.8 This added a certain amount of strain to the situation, and since poor Steadman had no choice but to take whatever came his way, he was subjected to shock after shock.
8. This was Thompson’s mother, whom he visited along with Steadman on their last day in Louisville. “I think she was being institutionalized for a while because she drank a lot,” Steadman told Wenner and Seymour. “I met her and she said, ‘Hell no! I’m more worried about his drinking than I am about mine!’ They were both at it, I guess. I’m not trying to malign her, because she was wonderful, a terrific lady. But that was on Hunter’s mind.”
Another problem was his habit of sketching people he met in the various social situations I dragged him into, then giving them the sketches. The results were always unfortunate. I warned him several times about letting the subjects see his foul renderings, but for some perverse reason he kept doing it. Consequently, he was regarded with fear and loathing9 by nearly everyone who’d seen or even heard about his work. He couldn’t understand it. “It’s sort of a joke,” he kept saying. “Why, in England it’s quite normal. People don’t take offense. They understand that I’m just putting them on a bit.”
9. In Gonzo Republic: Hunter S. Thompson’s America, William Stephenson notes that Thompson first used the phrase “fear and loathing” in a distraught letter he wrote on the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
“Fuck England,” I said. “This is Middle America. These people regard what you’re doing to them as a brutal, bilious insult. Look what happened last night. I thought my brother was going to tear your head off.”
Steadman shook his head sadly, “But I like him. He struck me as a very decent, straightforward sort.”
“Look, Ralph,” I said. “Let’s not kid ourselves. That was a very horrible drawing you gave him. It was the face of a monster. It got on his nerves very badly.” I shrugged. “Why in the hell do you think we left the restaurant so fast?”
“I thought it was because of the Mace,” he said.
He grinned. “When you shot it at the headwaiter, don’t you remember?”10
10. “He maced the restaurant!” insisted Steadman. “It was a terrible thing to do. I mean, we got maced too. The whole damn place got maced … It was the first time I realized: ‘Oh, God — this is not an ordinary person. This is somebody that does things with a paranoiac fever.'”
“Hell, that was nothing,” I said. “I missed him … and we were leaving, anyway.”
“But it got all over us,” he said. “The room was full of that damn gas. Your brother was sneezing and his wife was crying. My eyes hurt for two hours. I couldn’t see to draw when we got back to the motel.”
“That’s right,” I said. “The stuff got on her leg, didn’t it?”
“She was angry,” he said.
“Yah … well, okay … let’s just figure we fucked up about equally on that one,” I said. “But from now on let’s try to be careful when we’re around people I know. You won’t sketch them and I won’t Mace them. We’ll just try to relax and get drunk.”
“Right,” he said. “We’ll go native.”
It was Saturday morning, the day of the Big Race, and we were having breakfast in a plastic hamburger palace called the Ptomaine Village. Our rooms were just across the road in a foul scumbox of a place called the Horn Suburban Hotel. They had a dining room, but the food was so bad that we couldn’t handle it anymore. The waitresses seemed to be suffering from shin splints; they moved around very slowly, moaning and cursing the “darkies” in the kitchen.
Steadman liked the Ptomaine Village because it had fish and chips. I preferred the “french toast,” which was really pancake batter, fried to the proper thickness and then chopped out with a sort of cookie cutter to resemble pieces of toast.
Beyond drink and lack of sleep, our only real problem at that point was the question of access to the clubhouse. Finally we decided just to go ahead and steal two passes, if necessary, rather than miss that part of the action. This was the last coherent decision we were able to make for the next 48 hours. From that point on — almost from the very moment we started out to the track — we lost all control of events and spent the rest of the weekend just churning around in a sea of drunken horrors. My notes and recollections from Derby Day are somewhat scrambled.
But now, looking at the big red notebook I carried all through that scene, I see more or less that happened. The book itself is somewhat mangled and bent; some of the pages are torn, others are shriveled and stained by what appears to be whiskey, but taken as a whole, with sporadic memory flashes, the notes seem to tell the story. To wit:
Unscrambling Derby Day — I
Steadman Is Worried About Fire
Rain all nite until dawn. No sleep. Christ, here we go, a nightmare of mud and madness …. Drunks in the mud. Drowning, fighting for shelter …. But no. By noon the sun burns, perfect day, not even humid.
Steadman is now worried about Fire. Somebody told him about the clubhouse catching on fire two years ago. Could it happen again? Horrible. Trapped in the press box. Holocaust. A hundred thousand people fighting to get out. Drunks screaming in the flames and the mud, crazed horses running wild. Blind in the smoke. Grandstand collapsing into the flames with us on the roof. Poor Ralph is about to crack. Drinking heavily, into the Haig.
Out to the track in a cab, avoid that terrible parking in people’s front yards, $25 each, toothless old men on the street with big signs: Park Here, flagging cars in the yard. “That’s fine, boy, never mind the tulips.” Wild hair on his head, straight up like a clump of reeds.
Sidewalks full of people all moving in the same direction, towards Churchill Downs. Kids hauling coolers and blankets, teenyboppers in tight pink shorts, many blacks … black dudes in white felt hats with leopard-skin bands, cops waving traffic along.
The mob was thick for many blocks around the track; very slow going in the crowd, very hot. On the way to the press box elevator, just inside the clubhouse, we came on a row of soldiers all carrying long white riot sticks. About two platoons, with helmets. A man walking next to us said they were waiting for the governor and his party. Steadman eyed them nervously. “Why do they have those clubs?”
“Black Panthers,” I said. Then I remembered good old “Jimbo” at the airport and I wondered what he was thinking right now. Probably very nervous; the place was teeming with cops and soldiers. We pressed on through the crowd, through many gates, past the paddock where the jockeys bring the horses out and parade around for a while before each race so the bettors can get a good look. Five million dollars will be bet today. Many winners, more losers. What the hell. The press gate was jammed up with people trying to get in, shouting at the guards, waving strange press badges: Chicago Sporting Times, Pittsburgh Police Athletic League … they were all turned away. “Move on, fella, make way for the working press.” We shoved through the crowd and into the elevator, then quickly up to the free bar. Why not? Get it on. Very hot today, not feeling well, must be this rotten climate. The press box was cool and airy, plenty of room to walk around and balcony seats for watching the race or looking down at the crowd. We got a betting sheet and went outside.
Unscrambling D-day II
Pink faces with stylish Southern sag, old Ivy styles, seersucker coats and buttondown collars. “Mayblossom Senility” (Steadman’s phrase) … burnt out early or maybe just not much to burn in the first place. Not much energy in these faces, not much curiosity. Suffering in silence, nowhere to go after thirty in this life, just hang on and humor the children. Let the young enjoy themselves while they can. Why not? The grim reaper comes early in this league … banshees on the lawn at night, screaming out there beside that little iron nigger in jockey clothes. Maybe he’s the one who’s screaming. Bad DT’s and too many snarls at the bridge club. Going down with the stock market. Oh Jesus, the kid has wrecked the new car, wrapped it around that big stone pillar at the bottom of the driveway. Broken leg? Twisted eye? Send him off to Yale, they can cure anything up there.
Yale? Did you see today’s paper? New Haven is under siege. Yale is swarming with Black Panthers ….I tell you, Colonel, the world has gone mad, stone mad. Why they tell me a goddam woman jockey might ride in the Derby today.
I left Steadman sketching in the Paddock bar and sent off to place our bets on the sixth race. When I came back he was staring intently at a group of young men around a stable not far away. “Jesus, look at the corruption in that face!” he whispered. “Look at the madness, the fear, the greed!” I looked, then quickly turned my back on the table he was drawing. The face he’d picked out to draw was the face of an old friend of mine, a prep school football star in the good old days with a sleek red Chevy convertible and a very quick hand, it was said, with the snaps of a 32 B brassiere. They called him “Cat Man.”
But now, a dozen years later, I wouldn’t have recognized him anywhere but here, where I should have expected to find him, in the Paddock bar on Derby Day … fat slanted eyes and a pimp’s smoke, blue silk suit and his friends looking like crooked bank tellers on a binge ….
Steadman wanted to see some Kentucky Colonels, but he wasn’t sure what they looked like. I told him to go back to the clubhouse men’s rooms and look for men in white linen suits vomiting in the urinals. “They’ll usually have large brown whiskey stains on the fronts of their suits,” I said. “But watch the shoes, that’s the tip-off. Most of them manage to avoid vomiting on their own clothes, but they never miss their shoes.”
In a box not far from ours was Colonel Anna Friedman Goldman, Chairman and Keeper of the Great Seal of the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels. Not all the 76 million or so Kentucky Colonels could make it to the Derby this year, but many had kept the faith and several days prior to the Derby they gathered for their annual dinner at the Seelbach Hotel.
The Derby, the actual race, was scheduled for late afternoon, and as the magic hour approached I suggested to Steadman that we should probably spend some time in the infield, that boiling sea of people across the track from the clubhouse. He seemed a little nervous about it, but since none of the awful things I’d warned him about had happened so far — no race riots, firestorms, or savage drunken attacks — he shrugged and said, “Right, let’s do it.”
To get there we had to pass through many gates, each one a step down in status, then through a tunnel under the track. Emerging from the tunnel was such a culture shock that it took us a while to adjust. “Cool almighty!” Steadman muttered. “This is a … Jesus!” He plunged ahead with his tiny camera, stepping over bodies, and I followed, trying to take notes.
Unscrambling D-day III
Total chaos, no way to see the race, not even the track … nobody cares. Big lines at the outdoor betting windows, then stand back to watch winning numbers flash on the big board, like a giant bingo game.
Old blacks arguing about bets; “hold on there, I’ll handle this” (waving pint of whiskey, fistful of dollar bills); girl riding piggyback, T-shirt says, “Stolen from Fort Lauderdale Jail.” Thousands of teenagers, group singing “Let the Sun Shine In,” ten soldiers guarding the American flag, and a huge fat drunk wearing a blue football jersey (No. 80) reeling around with quart of beer in hand.
No booze sold out here, too dangerous … no bathrooms either. Muscle Beach … Woodstock … many cops with riot sticks, but no sign of riot. Far across the track the clubhouse looks like a postcard from the Kentucky Derby.
Unscrambling D-day IV
“My Old Kentucky Home”
We went back to the clubhouse to watch the big race. When the crowd stood to face the flag and sing “My Old Kentucky Home,” Steadman faced the crowd and sketched frantically. Somewhere up in the boxes a voice screeched, “Turn around, you hairy freak!” The race itself was only two minutes long, and even from our super-status seats and using 12-power glasses, there was no way to see what was really happening. Later, watching a TV rerun in the press box, we saw what happened to our horses. Holy Land, Ralph’s choice, stumbled and lost his jockey in the final turn. Mine, Silent Screen, had the lead coming into the stretch, but faded to fifth at the finish. The winner was a 16–1 shot named Dust Commander.
Moments after the race was over, the crowd surged wildly for the exits, rushing for cabs and busses. The next day’s Courier told of violence in the parking lot; people were punched and trampled, pockets were picked, children lost, bottles hurled. But we missed all this, having retired to the press box for a bit of post-race drinking. By this time we were both half-crazy from too much whiskey, sun fatigue, culture shock, lack of sleep and general dissolution. We hung around the press box long enough to watch a mass interview with the winning owner, a dapper little man named Lehmann who said he had just flown into Louisville that morning from Nepal, where he’d “bagged a record tiger.”11 The sportswriters murmured their admiration and a waiter filled Lehmann’s glass with Chivas Regal. He had just won $127,000 with a horse that cost him $6,500 two years ago. His occupation, he said, was “retired contractor.” And then he added, with a big grin, “I just retired.”
11. In the following week’s Sports Illustrated, Whitney Tower’s story provided a good sample of the angle much of the rest of the press corps took: “Robert E. Lehmann, born 49 years ago in Fremont, Ohio, is a slightly built, unassuming man who believes in good-luck charms and superstitions and is so delightfully frank that he says defiantly, ‘It would mean twice as much to me to shoot a record tiger as to win the Kentucky Derby.’ Within nine days during the last fortnight, Lehmann, a retired construction company executive with comparatively new thoroughbred holdings in Florida and Kentucky, managed to achieve this wildly improbable tiger-Derby double.”
The rest of that day blurs into madness. The rest of that night too. And all the next day and night. Such horrible things occurred that I can’t bring myself even to think about them now, much less put them down in print. Steadman was lucky to get out of Louisville without serious injuries, and I was lucky to get out at all. One of my clearest memories of that vicious time is Ralph being attacked by one of my old friends in the billiard room of the Pendennis Club12 in downtown Louisville on Saturday night. The man had ripped his own shirt open to the waist before deciding that Ralph wasn’t after his wife. No blows were struck, but the emotional effects were massive. Then, as a sort of final horror, Steadman put is fiendish pen to work and tried to patch things up by doing a little sketch of the girl he’d been accused of hustling. That finished us in the Pendennis.
12. The private gentlemen’s club established in 1881, and fabled for being the birthplace — sometime in its first decade — of the Old Fashioned, invented by a bartender at the club.
Getting Out of Town
Sometime around 10:30 Monday morning I was awakened by a scratching sound at my door. I leaned out of bed and pulled the curtain back just far enough to see Steadman outside. “What the fuck do you want?” I shouted.
“What about having breakfast?” he said.
I lunged out of bed and tried to open the door, but it caught on the night-chain and banged shut again. I couldn’t cope with the chain! The thing wouldn’t come out of the track — so I ripped it out of the wall with a vicious jerk on the door. Ralph didn’t blink. “Bad luck,” he muttered.
I could barely see him. My eyes were swollen almost shut and the sudden burst of sunlight through the door left me stunned and helpless like a sick mole. Steadman was mumbling about sickness and terrible heat; I fell back on the bed and tried to focus on him as he moved around the room in a very distracted way for a few moments, then suddenly darted over to the beer bucket and seized a Colt .45. “Christ,” I said. “you’re getting out of control.”
He nodded and ripped the cap off, taking a long drink. “You know, this is really awful,” he said finally. “I must get out of this place … ” he shook his head nervously. “The plane leaves at 3:30, but I don’t know if I’ll make it.”
I barely heard him. My eyes had finally opened enough for me to focus on the mirror across the room and I was stunned at the shock of recognition. For a confused instant I thought that Ralph had brought somebody with him — a model for that one special face we’d been looking for. There he was, by God — a puffy, drink-ravaged, disease-ridden caricature … like an awful cartoon version of an old snapshot in some once-proud mother’s family photo album. It was the face we’d been looking for — and it was, of course, my own. Horrible, horrible …
“Maybe I should sleep a while longer,” I said. “Why don’t you go on over to the Ptomaine Village and eat some of those rotten fish and chips? Then come back and get me around noon. I feel too near death to hit the streets at this hour.”
He shook his head. “No … no … I think I’ll go back upstairs and work on those drawings for a while.” He leaned down to fetch two more cans out of the beer bucket. “I tried to work earlier,” he said, “but my hands keep trembling … It’s teddible, teddible.”
“You’ve got to stop drinking,” I said.
He nodded. “I know. This is no good, no good at all. But for some reason I think it makes me feel better … ”
“Not for long,” I said. “You’ll probably collapse into some kind of hysterical DT’s tonight — probably just about the time you get off the plane at Kennedy. They’ll zip you up in a straightjacket and drag you down to the Tombs, then beat you on the kidneys with a big stick until you straighten out.”
He shrugged and wandered out, pulling the door shut behind him. I went back to bed for another hour or so, and later — after the daily grapefruit juice run to the Nite Owl Food Mart — we drove once again to the Ptomaine Village for a fine lunch of dough and butcher’s offal, fried in heavy grease.
By this time Ralph wouldn’t even order coffee; he kept asking for more water. “It’s the only thing they have that’s fit for human consumption,” he explained. Then, with an hour or so to kill before he had to catch the plane, we spread his drawings out on the table and pondered them for a while, wondering if he’d caught the proper spirit of the thing … but we couldn’t make up our minds. His hands were shaking so badly that he had trouble holding the paper, and my vision was so blurred that I could barely see what he’s drawn. “Shit,” I said. “We both look worse than anything you’ve drawn here.”
He smiled. “You know — I’ve been thinking about that,” he said. “We came down here to see this teddible scene: people all pissed out of their minds and vomiting on themselves and all that … and now, you know what? It’s us … ”
Huge Pontiac Ballbuster blowing through traffic on the expressway. The journalist is driving, ignoring his passenger who is now nearly naked after taking off most of his clothing, which he holds out the window, trying to wind-wash the Mace out of it. His eyes are bright red and his face and chest are soaked with the beer he’s been using to rinse the awful chemical off his flesh. The front of his woolen trousers is soaked with vomit; his body is racked with fits of coughing and wild choking sobs. The journalist rams the big car through traffic and into a spot in front of the terminal, then he reaches over to open the door on the passenger’s side and shoves the Englishman out, snarling: “Bug off, you worthless faggot! You twisted pigfucker! [Crazed laughter.] If I weren’t sick I’d kick your ass all the way to Bowling Green — you scumsucking foreign geek. Mace is too good for you …. We can do without your kind in Kentucky.”
Warren Hinckle’s memory of the aftermath of the trip to Louisville is that within a couple of days (“as soon as he could walk”), Thompson flew to Manhattan, “where we locked him down for five days in a room in the Royalton Hotel, just up 44th Street from the Scanlan’s office in an abandoned ballroom above an Irish bar a block from Times Square.”
The story didn’t come easily.13 “I would lie in the bathtub at this weird hotel,” said Thompson. “I had a suite with everything I wanted — except I couldn’t leave. After three days of not writing more than two pages, this kind of anxiety/depression syndrome builds up, and it really locks you up. They were sending copy boys and copy girls and people down every hour to see what I had done, and the pressure began to silently build like a dog whistle kind of scream. You couldn’t hear it but it was everywhere.”
13. The Kent State shootings occurred on the same day as Thompson’s story ended, and in a 1977 High Times interview, he recalled “that was all I could think of for a while.”
The messenger between the Scanlan’s office and Thompson’s hotel room was Harvey Cohen, the magazine’s copyboy, who, in Hinckle’s words, kept Thompson “supplied with cigarettes, Heinekens and Chivas. When production slowed, Harvey would seize the time and rip pages out of Hunter’s notebook” and relay them to the Scanlan’s office, where they were read by managing editor Donald Goddard,14 and then sent by fax to Hinckle in San Francisco.
14. Goddard’s other contribution to the story, according to Hinckle, was calling the New York Police Department to help recover Thompson’s wallet, stolen while he was at a bar on Third Avenue watching the telecast of Game 6 of the Lakers-Knicks NBA Finals series. That same week, after Steadman left his set of colored pencils in a New York City cab, Goddard’s wife loaned Steadman her lipstick and eye shadow so he could complete his illustrations for the piece.
The final edit was the responsibility of Hinckle, who recalls that he sat in one of the red booths in the venerable Tosca Cafe on Columbus Street in San Francisco, and “assembled and then reassembled the text, more Lego than Scrabble. Editing Hunter was like picking up the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that had been dropped on the floor and trying to put them back together to make sense without having the benefit of the picture on the cover of the puzzle box.” After the deadline-whipped Thompson finally surrendered the balance of his notes at the Royalton, he was miserable, convinced that “when it comes out I’m going to take a tremendous beating from a lot of people.”15
15. “I wish there’d been time to do it better,” he wrote to Hinckle after turning in the story. “With another week I might have honed it down to a finer, meatier edge. But in fact we were lucky to get anything at all — I arrived in NY in a state of crazed angst, far gone in pill stupor and barely able to think, much less write — I wish I could have written a better Derby piece.”
Instead, the piece, accompanied by Steadman’s beautifully grotesque drawings (and with a byline that read “Written under duress by Hunter S. Thompson”), prompted a rapturous response. Bill Cardoso, the editor of the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, wrote Thompson and told him, “Forget all this shit you’ve been writing, this is it; this is pure Gonzo. If this is a start, keep rolling.” It was the first use of the word “Gonzo” to describe Thompson’s writing, but the name stuck — in large part because Thompson himself loved the description.
One Thompson biographer, William McKeen, noted that because of the story’s legendary status and Scanlan’s small circulation, the story was “one of the most famous and least read articles in Thompson’s career.” (The magazine, which featured an illustration of President Nixon being punched in the face on the cover, wasn’t long for the world, shutting down the following March.)
In his upcoming book Who Killed Hunter S. Thompson? Hinckle argues that the true departure, setting Thompson apart from early efforts in “New Journalism” as practiced by Wolfe and Terry Southern, was “Hunter’s hallucinatory stimulant-fueled novelistic attention given, on a sporting assignment, not to the horses but to the outdoor loony bin of boozed-up burgher spectators. It was the first look through the other end of the binoculars usually trained on the four-footed beasts.” The story also offered an early instance of people questioning the literal veracity of Thompson’s writing. His friend William Kennedy said the piece marked “a moment where he used all his fictional talent to describe and anatomize those characters and just make it all up. I’m sure some of it was real.”
“I was sure it was the last article I was ever going to do for anybody,” Thompson said in a 1974 interview with Playboy. “Then when it came out, there were massive numbers of letters, phone calls, congratulations, people calling it a ‘great breakthrough in journalism.’ And I thought, ‘Holy shit, if I can write like this and get away with it, why should I keep trying to write like the New York Times?’ It was like falling down an elevator shaft and landing in a pool full of mermaids.”
Michael MacCambridge is the author of America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured A Nation, and the editor of The ESPN College Football Encyclopedia. His new book, Lamar Hunt: A Life in Sports, will be published by Andrews McMeel in October.