The True Story Behind 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas'
Over the course of his career, Hunter S. Thompson became one of the most influential, divisive, and important figures in the history of literature and journalism through his groundbreaking and pioneering creation of what he termed "Gonzo" journalism. Arguably his most famous work of all, Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream is both a fictionalized retelling of real events in his life and a brutally honest, revealing insight into both Thompson's psyche and the American counterculture at the beginning of the 1970s.
Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas will forever be immortalized by the impressive film adaptation - featuring Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro and directed by Terry Gilliam - and it was a truly revolutionary work of unparalleled literary genius that swept over the American counterculture. The events behind the book's conception and the real legacy of its two main characters - Thompson and Chicano activist and attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta - are perhaps even more surreal than what Thompson penned. The Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas true story depicts what happened behind the scenes that led Thompson to write his version of the great American novel.
The Book Was An Accident That Evolved From Two Separate Journalistic Assignments
While fans know that Thompson's telling of Raoul Duke's substance-fueled adventures in Las Vegas with Dr. Gonzo took place over the course of one particularly surreal week, Thompson's brilliant metafictional roman à clef is actually based on two distinct trips to Sin City, both of which he took with his friend, Chicano activist and attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta.
The first trip through the desert in March 1971 came as an excuse to get away from prying eyes amid social unrest in Los Angeles at the time. It was during this trip that the impetus was formed for what would eventually become the beloved novel. Thompson returned one month later under the guise of a different assignment but with the ulterior motive of hunting for the elusive concept of the American dream and finishing the book he'd started.
It was not Thompson's objective, when he first set out, to write Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The entire novel came together as a result of a wild, weird, and unexpected confluence of circumstances that put Thompson in the right mindset and sparked a visit from his muse (with a bit of help from amphetamines).
- Photo: Luis Moreno / Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Thompson Was Investigating The Suspicious End Of A Chicano Civil Rights Activist
Thompson flew to Los Angeles in March 1971 from his home in Woody Creek, Colorado, to report on and investigate the suspicious and controversial demise of Mexican-American journalist and activist Ruben Salazar. The National Chicano Moratorium March, a protest march against the US's involvement in Vietnam, turned into a small riot and police were called to confront the protestors. Salazar, who'd been critical of the police, was sitting in a nearby bar having a drink with a colleague when a ballistic teargas canister was sent into the bar and hit Salazar in the head, leading to his tragic end.
For his article "Strange Ramblings in Aztlan," Thompson looked to Acosta - who'd written to him to inform him of the unrest over Salazar's demise - to be a source for his story. Journalists were seen by many of the activists in Acosta's circle to be mouthpieces for oppressive government propaganda, so the famed Chicano lawyer was worried about what would happen to his reputation and standing if he was seen talking to a reporter. Thompson found the perfect excuse for a road trip to Las Vegas and he brought Acosta along so they could talk without stirring up trouble or raising suspicions.
'Sports Illustrated' Sent Thompson To Vegas For A Minor Gig Covering A Motorcycle Race
Although Thompson's trips into the desert eventually came to focus on uncovering the state of the American dream after the trying times of the 1960s and early '70s, it all started with an assignment from Sports Illustrated. The magazine tapped Thompson for the relatively ordinary task of going to the Mint 400 off-road motorcycle race in Las Vegas - hosted by the Mint Hotel and on the dusty desert grounds of what is now Floyd Lamb State Park - and writing 250-500 words worth of copy for captions to a photo essay on the event.
With Sports Illustrated footing the bill for travel and lodgings, Thompson used the assignment to travel with Acosta to discuss, at length, the details of the Chicano journalist Ruben Salazar's demise.
- Photo: Rs79 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0
Thompson Blew Past His 'Sports Illustrated' Word Count And His Story Was Rejected
The Mint 400 race proved challenging for Thompson to cover. The race kicked off at noon and contestant start times were staggered, so there were racers over every inch of the dry desert, kicking dirt into the air and creating an impenetrable dust cloud. Thompson decided to retire to the pressroom tent where many of the other journalists had camped out and began writing his assigned captions.
In true Thompson style, what was supposed to be photo captions became a sprawling essay exploring gambling, American excess, and the origins of Sin City using the Mint 400 race as framing narrative. Upon his return home, Thompson submitted his copy, which had ballooned to over ten times the length Sports Illustrated requested, and which didn't conform to the terms of the assignment. Thompson later recalled that the copy he submitted was "aggressively rejected."
Acosta Disappeared In Mexico In 1974 And Was Never Seen Again
Acosta disappeared without a trace three years after he and Thompson went on their infamous Las Vegas trips. He vanished while traveling in Mazatlan, Mexico. It's believed that he might have either been taken out by dealers he associated with or by state agents as part of a political ploy, while others suggest he may have overdosed, but his ultimate fate is still unknown.
In 1977, Rolling Stone received a bill from a hospital regarding a patient supposedly named Oscar Acosta who had been treated for a broken arm. The publication attempted to trace the bill but got no further than the hospital it came from, and they never found out who had actually been treated or if it was really Acosta.
Thompson later penned a forward for the reprinting of Acosta's 1973 novel The Revolt of the Cockroach People, where he reflected on his former friend's disappearance, writing, "His birthday is not noted in any calendar, and his [demise] is barely noticed… But the hole he left was a big one, and nobody even tried to sew it up."
Thompson later penned a memorial, of sorts, for Acosta in an article titled, "Fear and Loathing in the Graveyard of the Weird," published by Rolling Stone, where he explained how there have been reported sightings of the famed lawyer for years, similar to those of Elvis Presley. Thompson wrote:
Ever since his alleged disappearance he's turned up all over the world... It might even come to pass that he will suddenly appear on my porch in Woody Creek on some moonless night when the peacocks are screeching with lust... Maybe so, and that is one ghost who will always be welcome in this house, even with a head full of acid and a chain of bull-maggots around his neck.
The Second Trip To Vegas Was To Cover A Legal Conference About The Dangers Of Narcotics
When Thompson returned to Las Vegas a month after the first trip, again with Acosta by his side, he did so to cover the National District Attorneys Association's conference on narcotics. Thompson and Acosta attempted and failed to blend in among the cops and prosecutors as they listened to conferences and speeches about the problems with unlawful substances and their prevalence in the culture. Thompson later wrote about the experience in a letter to Jim Silberman, his publisher at Random House, recalling that those in law enforcement who attended the event "know nothing at all about the realities of the [substance] culture."
"The whole conference [was] bogged down in 1959-style gibberish," Thompson wrote. "The whole thing was so dank and atavistic that I had no trouble dividing my time between the Vegas underworld and the National DA's conference."
Thompson eventually gave up on the assignment, but not before being awarded a certificate of achievement "for his contribution to and participation in the [institute], dedicated to the purpose of preventing the nation's youth from succumbing to, and the rehabilitation of those already in, the abyss of [substance dependency]."