Uncle Gonzo

A remembrance of days in Phoenix with madman journalist Hunter S. Thompson

Trouble is, now I'll never be able to collect that $21,000 that Hunter S. Thompson's owed me for going on 20 years.

Not that I ever had expected to see a bloody nickel of the money that the son of a bitch had avoided coughing up until he recently blew out his once-estimable brains at age 67. I'd actually forgotten about the whole deal until I heard that Hunter had ended it all.

I started thinking about the man and what he'd meant to me, first as a hell of a writer and, later, as a monstrously flawed and sometimes-cruel human being.

First, a bit of background.

I figure I was born at the perfect time. (I might not be saying that if my draft lottery number in 1970, when the Vietnam War was raging, had been just a little lower.) The Beatles hit when I was 13, the peace-and-love generation arrived when I was old enough to just say yes, and I got to shake hands with Martin Luther King Jr. a few months before he died.

Hunter Thompson came into my literary life just as the '60s were ending, when I read the first sections of what would become the classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. (It first was serialized in Rolling Stone, accompanied brilliantly by the simpatico illustrations of Ralph Steadman.)

It was a thrilling read, and I wanted to know more about this madman scribe. I can remember killing time in Boston one day waiting to see Miles Davis and his electric band at the Jazz Workshop. For reasons I can't recall, I found myself inside the Boston Public Library, where I made a beeline to the card catalogue and looked up Hunter S. Thompson.

It listed one book, something called Hell's Angels. I pulled it out, sat down and started reading. Two hours later, I came up for air.

It was riveting, so well reported that I couldn't wait to get back home to New Haven and buy it. I wondered how in the world someone could get such material, and I like to think that I had a passing thought that journalism might be a rocking good way to make a living someday.

Skip ahead about 15 years, to August of 1985. I'd moved up to Phoenix from a border town where I'd been working at a tiny newspaper after New Times co-owner Mike Lacey seduced me into believing that the chance to try my hand at great journalism was well worth the paltry salary he was willing to offer at the time.

Lacey issued me an assignment about two hours into my first day on the job: He wanted a fresh face to reexamine the still-mysterious assassination in June of 1976 of Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles. He gave me nine months to give birth to a 36-page insert that contained no advertising. Thanks especially to Lacey and to then-New Times editor Jana Bommersbach, the project came out on time in June of 1986 -- though it was a memorably difficult delivery.

Our special section caught the eye of folks hither and yon, no small matter in the era before Al Gore invented the Internet. Literally the last thing I wanted for quite a while after the birth of that story was to hear the name Don Bolles, God rest his investigative soul.

But I made an exception one afternoon in the late summer of 1986 when Hunter S. Thompson's beautiful girlfriend, Maria, knocked unannounced on my office door. Then in her early 20s, Maria was wearing a Walter Payton football jersey and tight blue jeans. Of Pakistani descent, she was bright and had striking blue eyes, a dark complexion and a great laugh.

Come to find out, she was a west-side Phoenix girl who'd run off with Hunter a few years earlier after interviewing him while on assignment for Arizona State University's student paper. Maria told me she and Hunter, who then was pushing 50, were spending time in Phoenix to investigate the city's underbelly for his employer at the time, the San Francisco Examiner.The Bolles murder, she said, and all that it symbolized, fascinated both of them.

Maria invited me out for dinner that evening with her and Hunter -- I was to pick the spot. We went, of course, to Durant's, the venerable Central Avenue establishment where all manner of conspiracies continue to be hatched to this day.

We sat in the corner table on the bar side, watching all the old politicos lumber drunkenly from table to table. Hunter wore his famed aviator glasses and smoked incessantly with his trademark cigarette holder. He and Maria talked over each other for two hours straight, leaping from one topic to another. Hunter only stopped riffing to drink more than $100 worth of Chivas Regal and devour a huge steak.

At the end of the big meal, a foreshadowing: Hunter tried to shove the enormous bill onto my side of the table. I told him, quite honestly, that my salary wasn't much more than that in a week. He grabbed the ticket, mumbled something nasty, and told Maria to pay it.

Over the next weeks, I grew fond of Maria and her only sibling, Bobby, then a burly firefighter performing his duties at Station 21 in south Phoenix. Bobby served as a quasi-"bodyguard" for Hunter during his days off, which meant that he tried to make sure that his possible future brother-in-law didn't get behind the wheel of a car inebriated or punch out a cop.

I also learned that Hunter wasn't down here just for a good yarn. He and Maria really were contemplating marriage. She really needed him to meet her father, a widower who once had been a big-time cotton farmer in the West Valley. But Maria's dad, a terrific guy, had threatened serious violence if he ever laid eyes on the drug-addled author who had stolen his sweet daughter's heart.

Somehow, Maria got her father to agree to meet Hunter one night at a neutral site, a cool, old Italian family joint called Riazzi's at 52nd Street and East Van Buren (it later moved to its current location in Tempe on South Mill Avenue).

For safety's sake, Maria ensured that her brother and her father's lady friend were there for the big occasion. Hunter insisted that Lacey and I also be included at the dinner, which had all the pre-event protocol and tension of a meeting between the leaders of the two Koreas.

Lacey described the event in a delicious New Times story titled "Family Matters," published in early December of 1986.

Hunter was more hyperkinetic than usual, with caffeine, cocaine, tequila, marijuana and natural adrenaline gushing through him. He got so wired during the dinner that he pulled a half-finished joint out of a jacket pocket, lit up in the middle of the restaurant and took a long drag.

Remarkably, no one in authority seemed to notice.

Sample line from Lacey's story: "Maria can be a cattle prod upon a man who swings wildly between explosive creativity and bouts of bovine-like unproductivity masked by frantic tail-swinging at flies."

He only knew the half of it.

Though the San Francisco Examiner would publish several of Hunter's Phoenix-based columns over the next few years, they generally were gibberish from where I sat. I saw firsthand how the onetime master sadly had lost his touch.

One evening during this period, I stopped by Hunter and Maria's Scottsdale hotel room, where he was trying to produce something, anything, on deadline with the Examiner. Actually, he was hours past deadline.

Hunter's manual typewriter sat untouched in a corner as he alternately stared into space, snorted thick lines of coke, and shadow-boxed with a human-size inflatable doll as Maria tried to rein him in.

Hunter wasn't gonzoanymore. He was gone, so . . .

His editor at the time was a fine journalist named David McCumber, whom I'd known a little bit during his days in Tucson. He seemed to be calling the room about every 10 minutes.

Maria handed me the phone during one call.

"How far along are they with the piece?" McCumber asked me.

"Not too far," I said, as Hunter stared at me malevolently.

"Really," the editor probed, how far is "not too far"?

"Well, there's paper in the typewriter."

Truth be told, Hunter didn't seem to be able to string two decent sentences together in those days without Maria's help. Years later, a publishing house released a compilation of his Examiner columns titled "Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the '80s."

Properly, he dedicated the book to Maria.

It was the least he could have done.

A few weeks after Lacey's story on the Riazzi's dinner was published, Hunter called me to complain about the lousy shake he'd gotten. Now thatwas the pot calling the kettle black, and I told him so, reminding him that I'd been present at the scene so aptly described in Lacey's yarn.

It was during that call that we made the aforementioned wager.

On January 2, 1987, the undefeated and top-ranked Miami Hurricanes were to play Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl. It was the game of the year in college football.

While Miami had a pre-hip-hop kind of swagger, the Nittany Lions had the blue-collar confidence of country crooner Merle Haggard.

Hunter was so sure the heavily favored Hurricanes were going to crunch Penn State that he proposed the following wager, straight-up: I'll bet your $21 to my $21,000, he told me over the phone.

In other words, Penn State wins and I win $21,000.

Hold on, I replied, let's put this on tape. I threw a cassette into my machine, turned it on, and asked him to repeat his offer.

A few days later, I went to the game at Sun Devil Stadium, and it was a beaut. Miami had a golden opportunity to win in the closing seconds, but fell just short. Penn State 14, Miami 10.

Yippee!

I called Hunter late that night (this was before cell phones), and told him I sure could use the money.

He immediately switched the subject to something about how the Mafia owned Phoenix, including New Times (well, maybe Irish mobsters, i.e., Lacey and Jim Larkin. But that wasn't what he was talking about).

After a time, I just hung up on the welshing bastard.

Hunter had been calling me incessantly before that bet became due. That suddenly stopped.

Over the next several months, I was the one on the line bird-dogging him.

By then, I'd learned that he'd been cruel to the person whom I'd come to cherish, the fabulous Maria.

She finally left him behind in his fabled compound at Woody Creek, Colorado, which proved to be a very good thing for her, in both the short and long runs.

Maria landed back in Arizona, where she later went to law school and eventually became a speechwriter and top adviser to Arizona Governor J. Fife Symington III.

These days, she's the picture of propriety, a married mother of two who is executive director for a consortium of prominent real estate developers.

Her brother, assistant fire chief Bobby Khan, remains an extremely popular public servant who is one of the Valley's most recognizable faces.

As for Hunter, his books -- including a third great one, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 -- have been selling like crazy since he put the .45-caliber into his mouth and pulled the trigger.

Truth be told, Hunter was mostly known for his booze- and drug-addled revelries in the years following publication of those three tomes. (Wonder what's becoming of Uncle Duke in Doonesbury?) But he was a madman ahead of his time. Before Saturday Night Live when Walter Cronkite was the most famous journalist in America, the angry, young Dr. Hunter S. Thompson was thrilling us with his spectacular stories.

He was a chiseling SOB, but he was an original.

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