The sad thing about celebrities is the power they have to make everyone else feel like yokels. At George’s parties this made for an interesting spectacle, because the guestswriters, aspiring writers, poets, publishing people, and so ontended to have a single-minded interest in projecting the exact opposite impression. But then some celebrity or other would walk into the room and you could almost hear the vertebrae grinding as everyone tried not to turn their heads.
Of course there were some parties where all pretense of sophistication went out the window, and you might as well have been at a boat show. Like the Bill Clinton party. I remember being stopped at the top of the stairs on my way outside for a smoke. A man in a dark suit put up his hand and said, I can’t let you go down there. Clinton had not yet arrived, and the sound of 400 or so people reflecting on whether he actually would had become a kind of roar in the background. I tried to explain that I was with the staff, but it was no good. I can’t be responsible for what happens to you if you go down those stairs, he said. I’ll never forget his grammar, the way he described the things I couldn’t do by explaining the things he couldn’t do. Clearly, the guy was a pro. We stood together for a moment as I looked down the stairs, which had suddenly taken on a sinister aspect, and then I wandered off.
No matter who the celebrities are, you can’t help feeling a bit of an idiot, hanging about like a dog, and wondering if it wouldn’t be wiser to just go home and read. On Feb. 6, 2003, most of my colleagues did. There had been a lot of parties that month, and we were all worn out. We simply couldn’t face another cheese platter. But this night I had invited along a pal who I knew was keen on the guest of honor, Hunter Thompson, and so I stuck around. Tom Wolfe was also at that party. I remember him standing in a dim corner of the dining room, shining brightly in his white suit, like some carnival huckster with a bottle of tonic to sell.
Hunter was holding court in the living room, surrounded by mostly young peopleinterns and readers who often pursue jobs at the Paris Review for precisely this purpose: to sit around drinking bourbon with Hunter Thompson. He was wearing thick, tinted glasses, a white floppy-brimmed hat, and tennis shoes, above each of which was visible about three inches of swollen, reddened calf. He looked unwell. Someone told me he had had to be carried up the stairs.
The messages began fairly normally, like, George, I want to go over the new material but then he’d interrupt and start screamingOh my God, oh Jesus, what’s going on? Oh Jesus!
As I approached the group one intern rose to get a drink and I dropped down in her place. Hunter was already bombed. Occasionally he would mutter or grumble an answer to a question that had been put to him with the careful deference reserved for drunks and heads of state. Nevertheless he could not fail to notice the substitution of a toothsome young female intern for a fellow in his 30s, and he began grumbling at me, although I couldn’t make out what he was actually saying.
Neither could anyone else. He seemed less a person than a totem who had been propped there, half-animate. It was impossible to talk to him, but it didn’t seem right to talk among ourselves, either. When he did say something, we would glance at each other to see if anyone had understood. Most of this part of the night I spent talking with Bill Weld, who kept trying to convince us that in terms of livelihood, politics beats business hands down. The governorship of Massachusetts was apparently an easy gig. Then Ed Bradley came up and, realizing that serious, 60 Minutes-type discourse with Hunter was impossible, settled for chiding him about his health.
A few years earlier, we had run an interview with Thompsonissue 156, which also featured an interview with William T. Vollmann, one of Hunter’s many admirers. The interview took place over the course of a few days at Owl Farm, Thompson’s ranch in Colorado. Douglas Brinkley began the interview, and was later joined by George and Terry McDonnell, both of whom were old friends of Hunter’s. If you listen to the original tapes, you can hear Hunter grinding up coke in the background. Some of the clips from the interview are online at the Paris Review website, and I feel sorry for Tom Moffett, my colleague, who was stuck with the job of transcribing them.
Tom recently reminded me of the crazy phone messages we used to get from Hunter as we were preparing the final edit of his interview for publication. The messages began fairly normally, like, George, I want to go over the new material but then he’d interrupt and start screamingOh my God, oh Jesus, what’s going on? Oh Jesus! and he’d start making machine-gun noises, like a war correspondent caught in crossfire. George! Oh my God, George! George would gather us around the speaker phone and we’d call Hunter back, and George would begin: Hunter! Hunter can you hear me! Oh God, I think I hear something! and he’d gesture for us to start whooping it up.
That evening at George’s ended in the study, where we all sat waiting for Hunter to appear on Charlie Rose. Hunter sat in a big, low easy chair directly in front of the TV, and the rest of usonly about 15 people at that pointwere scattered around the room. I was stuck on the couch next to a sweaty, conservative-looking guy wearing a blue blazer and talking about his days dealing LSD. I remember the look of real unease that crossed his face as he recalled the $20,000 of LSD that he once shipped via FedEx. That’s the one great thing about my wife, he said as he took another drag from Hunter’s pipe. She’s not into drugs. On the other side of me, an intern kept going on about riding motorcycles in India, and how terrible all Irish guys are abroad. But the most remarkable character by far was the young, blond woman who seemed to be Hunter’s minder. In the course of the evening we watched her help him up the stairs, fetch his drinks, position him in his chair, take him to the bathroom, and repeatedly refill his pipe with weed. She was one of the most professional people I have ever encountered, and she was also the woman who Hunter later married.
Eventually the Charlie Rose show came on and there was Hunter, wearing the same white hat that he was wearing now. Uncanny is a not strong enough word to describe the feeling of watching Hunter Thompson watch himself on Charlie Rose. To a mind afflicted with the recursive thinking brought on by THC, the spectacle was particularly disturbing. It was as though Thompson was presiding over the death of his own celebrity. On the show, Charlie Rose was clearly embarrassed for Hunter’s slurred, incomprehensible speech, but this didn’t discourage our Hunter from mumbling encouragement or assent as his TV likeness carried on. One wondered if he knew what the TV Hunter was saying, or even if he even recognized the hatted figure.
In the meantime, the general mood of the room had moved past sarcasm to resemble a kind of giddy nihilism. A sense of abandon possessed us as Hunter teetered past the point of his own celebrity and into the sad joke he had become. His minder, as stone-cold sober as Clinton’s Secret Service man, and just as much a pro, kept packing the bowls until everyone in the room was reeling. Hunter sat watching himself in the midst of it all, surrounded, as he surely had been much of his life, by another coterie of drunks. Here was the real death of Hunter S. Thompson. It wasn’t earlier this week. It actually happened years ago.