Dear Dr. Gonzo

GONZO: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, directed by Oscar-winner Alex Gibney, is narrated by Johnny Depp, who made a serious study of HST’s manner and character before playing him in the movie version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which came out in 1998.  I saw it at the Esquire on 6th and Downing. The film intersperses film clips and interviews with post-mortem commentary from loved ones and associates, including Hunter’s two wives and Rolling Stone magazine founder and publisher, Jann Wenner.

Thompson was the acknowledged founder of “gonzo journalism,” a brand of innovative freestyle reportage appearing in the sixties. Gonzo addresses the major touchstones in Thompson’s life—his intense and ill-fated relationship with the Hell’s Angels, his near-successful bid for sheriff of Aspen in 1970, and the backstory of his best-known book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which details his search for the evanescent American Dream while on assignment for Rolling Stone with a trunk full of mind-altering drugs, in the company of Oscar Zeta Acosta, a fugitive from the Los Angeles Legal Bar at the time. The film also treats of Thompson’s deep involvement in Senator George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign, from which my personal favorite Thompson work, Fear And Loathing On The Campaign Trail ’72 was drawn, and his lifelong intimacy with every twinge of our changing culture.

Dear Dr. Thompson is a work of nonfiction by Matthew Moseley about Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson‘s last act of public theater protesting the wrongful accusation and imprisonment of a young woman who was in the company of racist skinhead Matthaeus Jaehnig when he shot a cop in 1997. I actually met Jaehnig once years before this went down as the hardcore anti-racist I was in high school. We exchanged meaningful looks as ideological opponents, which gives this piece the feel of a personal retrospective. Lisl Auman, who was handcuffed in a squad car at the time of Officer Bruce VanderJagt’s fatal shooting by Jaehnig, should never have been charged with his death let alone imprisoned for it, but I was perplexed at the time by HST’s defense of this apparent skinhead sympathizer, and felt a little betrayed by Thompson, who, while never a personal literary hero, had always struck me as constitutionally opposed to Nazism. Like most of the rest of the public, I was in the dark about the true facts of the case.

According to the official story, once cornered by police in a dead-end apartment complex breezeway, Matthaeus Jaehnig shot himself. He was giving Lisl a ride to her abusive ex-boyfriend’s house to retrieve some belongings and took it on himself to burglarize the place, which led to a high-speed car chase and the gunning down of the beloved VanderJagt. Lisl was coerced into using incriminating phrases (like “muscle”) by bereaved officers when questioned. Two later said they saw her hand Jaehnig the murder weapon and she was sentenced to life without parole.

You’ve probably heard the word “skinhead” before. Its connotation is muddled. The first English skins, known for their close-cropped haircuts or shaven heads, were primarily influenced by West Indian (specifically Jamaican) “rude boys” and the fashion-conscious “mod” subculture, in terms of dress, music and lifestyle. Racially-motivated skinhead violence in the United Kingdom became more political in the late  1970s , and far right groups such as the National Front saw their chance to co-opt the movement before it had spread noticeably to the United States—claiming affiliation with their opponents’ arguments is a favored tactic of infiltration.. By the late 1970s, the general public in the U.S. had largely come to view the skinhead scene as one promoting racism and neo-Nazism, necessitating the formation of groups like S.H.A.R.P. (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice) in an attempt to settle the score.

I never claimed S.H.A.R.P. as a teen, instead styling myself as a “rude boy slash mod,” one of two or three kids at my high school who attended the weekly Club Rub a Dub nights every Friday from nine to whenever at Sadie’s Afro-Caribbean Café in Five Points. When I say, “exchanged meaningful looks,” what I mean is I didn’t say anything to Matthaeus when we met, but we each sort of knew where the other one stood. I knew he was a racist, which made him my natural opponent, but I wasn’t looking to cause any trouble, so I kept my mouth shut. His parents were fervent disciples of Rudolf Steiner’s controversial spiritual science anthropsosphy, which has faced accusations of racism, despite having been attacked by National Socialist ideologues from the 1930s on. Matthaeus was raised within this doctrine in an overgrown mansion guarded by angry dogs in the Washington Park neighborhood, over the years becoming addicted to crystal meth and drifting deeper into criminality.

While serving a life sentence at Colorado Women’s Correctional Facility in Canon City, Lisl Auman wrote a letter to Hunter S. Thompson to complain that his books were not available in the prison library. She didn’t even mention her case at first. Communications strategist Matthew Moseley also wrote Thompson a letter outlining his plan to organize a grassroots campaign to free Lisl Auman from prison and to take on the draconian felony murder law. That’s where this fascinating story began. Dear Dr. Thompson chronicles Lisl’s epic struggles and takes you inside the last and perhaps most heartfelt Gonzo campaign before his death from apparent suicide in 2005, though those details are muddy too.

Thompson died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound on February 20th of 2005, (while sitting at the typer, which reportedly had the word “counselor” at the center of the page).  Family members reported to the press at the time their belief that his suicide was a “well-thought-out act resulting from his many painful medical conditions.  Says longtime Thompson illustrator Ralph Steadman, “He told me 25 years ago that he would feel real trapped if he didn’t know that he could commit suicide at any moment.”  The deed may also have been in some part a reaction to Bush II’s ongoing campaign against privacy and human rights in general; Thompson’s novel Kingdom Of Fear (2003) showed him to be thoroughly disgusted with the state of affairs politically after the September 2001 attacks.  Jann Wenner argues in Gonzo that Hunter’s suicide seems contra-indicated in light of the good he might have done opposing such an encroachment.  I agree that life beats death.  At the same time, I can understand how Thompson might have felt washed up, in light of today’s entertainment culture, like his time in the sun had passed, as it had begun to.  Alive or dead, I’m grateful for the trail he helped blaze. 

“From Kid to Killer” in Westword by Juliet Wittman HERE


Parts of this article have appeared previously in MileHive and at the Examiner.


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