VANCOUVER — Today Hunter S. Thompson is remembered as a literary icon, whose classic works and impetuous personality firmly stamped his place into the hearts, minds and graphic T-shirts of a malleable generation.
With his seminal classics — Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 and Hells Angels — he spawned “Gonzo journalism,” a subjective style of journalism that incorporates the author into the story.
His fiery prose was fuelled as much by wit and vibrant description as it was by mescaline and Wild Turkey.
But in 1958, Thompson was still a struggling journalist, living in a tiny basement apartment in New York’s Greenwich Village, burdened by crippling debt.
On Oct. 1, 1958 — 52 years ago Friday — self-professed to be in a “frenzy of drink,” Thompson penned a letter of application to the Vancouver Sun. He had heard about the paper through an article in Time magazine — where he worked briefly as a copy boy for $50 U.S. a week — that praised the paper’s new editorial direction under Jack Scott.
Scott, whom Thompson had addressed his letter to, was a Sun columnist who was appointed editorial director in September 1958.
According to Time, the “tart-tongued” Scott “unleashed all of his formidable flair for spectacular stunts” in his new role, which included sending the football editor to Formosa (now Taiwan) to interview Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the Republic of China, and the women’s page editor to Cuba to cover the aftermath of the revolution.
He was promptly demoted in March 1959, summing up his brief stint with, “It was a ball while it lasted,” according to Time.
Thompson’s letter is among hundreds — to friends, family, lovers, editors and debt collectors — published in The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955-1967 (Ballantine, 1997).
TO JACK SCOTT, VANCOUVER SUN
October 1, 1958 57 Perry Street New York City
I got a hell of a kick reading the piece Time magazine did this week on The Sun. In addition to wishing you the best of luck, I’d also like to offer my services.
Since I haven’t seen a copy of the “new” Sun yet, I’ll have to make this a tentative offer. I stepped into a dung-hole the last time I took a job with a paper I didn’t know anything about (see enclosed clippings) and I’m not quite ready to go charging up another blind alley.
By the time you get this letter, I’ll have gotten hold of some of the recent issues of The Sun. Unless it looks totally worthless, I’ll let my offer stand. And don’t think that my arrogance is unintentional: it’s just that I’d rather offend you now than after I started working for you.
I didn’t make myself clear to the last man I worked for until after I took the job. It was as if the Marquis de Sade had suddenly found himself working for Billy Graham. The man despised me, of course, and I had nothing but contempt for him and everything he stood for. If you asked him, he’d tell you that I’m “not very likable, (that I) hate people, (that I) just want to be left alone, and (that I) feel too superior to mingle with the average person.” (That’s a direct quote from a memo he sent to the publisher.)
Nothing beats having good references.
Of course if you asked some of the other people I’ve worked for, you’d get a different set of answers.
If you’re interested enough to answer this letter, I’ll be glad to furnish you with a list of references — including the lad I work for now.
The enclosed clippings should give you a rough idea of who I am. It’s a year old, however, and I’ve changed a bit since it was written. I’ve taken some writing courses from Columbia in my spare time, learned a hell of a lot about the newspaper business, and developed a healthy contempt for journalism as a profession.
As far as I’m concerned, it’s a damned shame that a field as potentially dynamic and vital as journalism should be overrun with dullards, bums, and hacks, hag-ridden with myopia, apathy, and complacence, and generally stuck in a bog of stagnant mediocrity. If this is what you’re trying to get The Sun away from, then I think I’d like to work for you.
Most of my experience has been in sports writing, but I can write everything from warmongering propaganda to learned book reviews.
I can work 25 hours a day if necessary, live on any reasonable salary, and don’t give a black damn for job security, office politics, or adverse public relations.
I would rather be on the dole than work for a paper I was ashamed of.
It’s a long way from here to British Columbia, but I think I’d enjoy the trip.
If you think you can use me, drop me a line.
If not, good luck anyway.
Sincerely, Hunter S. Thompson