HUNTER THOMPSON'S SUICIDE was an act of selfishness and cruelty. But more depraved by far has been the celebration of that suicide by those who supposedly loved or admired him.
The 67-year-old author of the "Fear and Loathing" books shot himself in the head on Feb. 20 as he sat in the kitchen of his home near Aspen, Colo., taking a phone call from his wife. Anita Thompson had called him from her health club, she told the Aspen Daily News, and he'd asked her to come home and help him with the column he had to write. Then, without warning or a goodbye, he put down the phone and fired a .45-caliber handgun into his mouth.
"I was on the phone with him, he set the receiver down and he did it," she said. "I heard the clicking of the gun." There was a loud, muffled noise. Then nothing. "I was waiting for him to get back on the phone."
Could anything be more ghoulish and egotistical than making your unsuspecting wife listen while you put a bullet through your skull? Absolutely: making your unsuspecting wife listen while you put a bullet through your skull — and your son, daughter-in-law, and grandson are just a few yards away. Juan Thompson was in a nearby office when his father blew his brains out in the kitchen. Winkel Thompson and 6-year-old Will were playing in the living room next door.
It takes a real sadist to arrange his suicide so that his loved ones are forced to hear him die. But what kind of degenerate inflicts something so traumatic on a child of 6?
In Thompson's defense, it must be said that he was a hardened alcohol and drug abuser who over the decades had ingested, inhaled, and imbibed a staggering quantity and assortment of recreational poisons. The cumulative damage to his brain must have been considerable. By the time he fired his .45, who knows how clearly he was thinking about anything?
But there is no defense for the treatment of Thompson's suicide as some sort of final gonzo coup by a rebel who never played by society's rules.
"Hunter S. Thompson died Sunday as he planned," begins Jeff Kass's admiring Feb. 24 account in the Rocky Mountain News, "surrounded by his family, at a high point in his life, and with a single, courageous, and fatal gunshot wound to the head, his son says."
High point? Courageous? In what warped moral universe is a man's pointless and ignoble death the "high point in his life?" And what is "courageous" about turning one's wife into a widow or depriving a 6-year-old of his grandfather?
Thompson's son and daughter-in-law, Kass continues, "could not be prouder" of his suicide. It was the result of "a thought process with its own beautifully dark logic. ... The guy was a warrior, and he went out like a warrior." Did Thompson, asks Kass, "have his favorite liquid sidekick, a glass of Chivas Regal, on the counter? 'Of course he did,' Juan Thompson said."
Another story details the impromptu cocktail party that gathered around Thompson's corpse — still in the kitchen chair — to drink Chivas and toast him. "It was very loving," Anita Thompson is quoted as saying. "It was not a panic, or ugly, or freaky." Her husband's death should be cheered, she says. "This is a triumph of his, not a desperate, tragic failure." That is either unhinged grief speaking or overripe counterculture leftism. Either way, it is grotesque.
But it has been echoed everywhere.
"It wouldn't be accurate to say Thompson had a death wish," Mark Layman wrote for Knight Ridder. "Just the opposite: He was the self-described 'champion of fun.'" Douglas Brinkley, the well-known historian and Thompson family friend, declared that Thompson "made a conscious decision that he had an incredible run of 67 years, lived the way he wanted to, and wasn't going to suffer the indignities of old age." One journalist after another seized the moment to reminisce about some wild evening once spent with Thompson, whose suicide they seem to regard as one last piece of roguish bad craziness from an irrepressible original.
How striking is the contrast between Thompson's tawdry death and the excruciating struggle of Pope John Paul II, whose passionate belief in the sanctity of life remains unwavering, even as Parkinson's disease slowly ravages him. The pope's example of courage and dignity sends a powerful message, but the chattering class would rather talk instead about why this stubborn man won't resign. Meanwhile they extol Hunter Thompson and are itching to know — are his ashes really going to be fired from a cannon?
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe. His website is www.JeffJacoby.com).
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