The Gonzo Way: Through the tears and laughter of a widow

Anita Thompson was a 25-year-old bookkeeper in a ski shop and a nanny when she first heard the voice of Hunter S. Thompson pouring through a friend’s cell phone. Immediately struck by the sound of his voice, she knew there was something special about him.

She was 27 when she fell deeply in love with him, having become his assistant.

Two weeks later, she moved in.

Buy the ticket. Take the ride. Anita Thompson didn’t need much convincing. Her mother was a different story. Hunter was 35 years older. Her mother offered an ultimatum: Choose her or the famed father of Gonzo Journalism.

The choice was immediate: her husband-to-be.

Late last week, Anita Thompson, now 35, rolled into town for a reading of her first book, The Gonzo Way, at Olsson’s in Penn Quarter. The book details her marriage to Hunter and offers tributes by those closest to him. At times, it reads like a self-help tome, offering advice on how to live life according to Hunter, minus the drugs and drinking.

The crowd packed into the small space six rows deep, with people staggered amid the bookshelves, to gain a glimpse of their hero’s widow.

Tall and slender and blond, Anita Thompson has almond-shaped brown eyes and resembles actress Jessica Lange. Her attire — black trousers and a short-sleeved black top with pink trim — suits her personality, which is both poised and girly. She isn’t above swearing. More than once in the evening, she gets brutally honest about her husband’s drug-and-drinking-infused writing fests. Not everyone can — or should, she stresses — write while high.

To the audience’s delight, she speaks of Hunter’s late-night fax exchanges with the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards. “Sometimes you need someone who is on your own channel,” she says. She also describes the elaborate breakfast he would have at 2 p.m., beginning with his drink of choice: Chivas Regal.

More tribute than memoir, her book takes the reader on a 110-page journey of what it was like to exist in Hunter’s orbit. The Gonzo Way promises no gonzo writing or salacious secrets. This is a tribute to the man Anita loved. Hunter ended his life in February 2005 by putting a gun into his mouth and pulling the trigger. He was 67.

Over breakfast at the Hotel Monaco on the morning after her signing, Anita, still drying fresh tears from her eyes, avers that she enjoys nothing more than to be in a room full of people who want to talk about Hunter. His suicide was hard, but she says she’s through the worst of the pain. A retreat with Deepak Chopra left her with the axiom “Nothing is permanent, including separation.” She takes it to heart.  
She also takes this to heart: “I don’t want to be a professional widow,” she says, despite what others, particularly some of Hunter’s family members, may think.

The death is a hard subject to broach with Anita, but she doesn’t resist it. At the reading the night before, one man finally asked: “Why did he do it?”

Anita and Hunter’s son, Juan, also tried to answer that question upon her husband’s death. In a joint statement, they wrote, “It is entirely fitting that Hunter, as a master of politics and control, chose to take his life on his own schedule by his own hand, rather than submitting to fate, genetics or chance.

“Though we will miss him bitterly, we understand his decision. Let the world know that Dr. Hunter S. Thompson died with his glass full, a fearless man, a warrior.”

Although Anita describes her relationship with Juan as close when Hunter was alive, they no longer speak. She hopes they will reconcile someday, as she adores his son, Will. Juan has cut her off from the boy.

Some family members don’t approve of her decision to publish the book, or that she is carrying out Hunter’s legacy, considering she was married to Hunter for only two years.

Meanwhile, she protests some other accounts to be published about her husband, such as Jann Wenner’s book, Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson. Anita chose not to be included after she read the manuscript, which she says read more like the Us Weekly version of Hunter’s life. “It was an exaggerated and unfair portrayal of his life,” she says. “Jann and I are still good friends, but as Hunter’s wife, I did not want to be a part of that.”

Today, Anita’s view of her husband’s suicide is more complex than it was two and a half years ago. 

“I had no idea he was planning it,” she says. “He promised me 10 years. We were trying to have a child. He cheated me … It was too soon. I believe it was a big mistake.”

Because of the age difference, they had discussed the fact that Hunter wouldn’t always be there. “Ideally for me it would have been together in a plane crash,” she says. He had always kept the idea of suicide on the back burner, she adds, but she thought of it only in the abstract.
She admits she was “worried” about him, however, in light of his poor health after serious back surgery and mood swings in the last few months.

Two weeks before his death, she found he had written some notes saying that he wanted to “set her free.” She knew he always feared she would leave him because of the age difference, but she says she intended to be with him until the end. When she saw the notes, she panicked and asked, “Hunter, what the hell does that mean?” He shrugged it off.

Through it all, she says, “I accepted his decision with an open heart. I know he loved me very much.”

Their marriage, like his death, had its complexities amid the fun. At the reading, Anita repeatedly told the crowd, “He was the funnest man I’d ever met.”

Up until 30, Anita partied alongside Hunter, partaking in the booze and drugs. “Everything was flowing there,” she says, declining to get specific. “Nobody could keep up with Hunter.”

But there came a point when she knew she’d have to clean up or leave him.

So she stopped and switched to coffee. But it came with an understanding: She was never to try to change Hunter. “He was an alcoholic,” she explains. “But you rarely ever saw him drunk. He hated a drunk. He used drugs as a tool with his writing.”

There was also his brutal honesty and propensity for flirting with beautiful women.

“He was a good husband, but he could be difficult,” she says through tears and laughter. “He could be a big jerk.”

Anita says they always remained faithful to each other. But there were times when she tired of girls throwing themselves at Hunter on the road.

She would occasionally flee to her mother’s home in Fort Collins, Colo., where Hunter would send faxes, saying he loved her and wanted her to come home.

Their romance unfolded slowly in the early years. She helped on projects and the two became fast friends, betting on football. When she decided to return to UCLA, he had another idea. “Will you be my assistant?” he asked.

Within two days of reading his work, she says, she fell in love with his mind. The attraction was more difficult. She was shy due to their age difference.

One night, they took a “road trip” down the street in the middle of a blizzard to a neighbor’s indoor pool. Hunter had rights to the pool from midnight to 5 a.m. Anita describes him as “beautiful” in the 90-degree water, like a dolphin. She remembers being too afraid to get into the pool with him, too afraid yet for anything to happen.

“You wouldn’t know his age,” she says. “He had no wrinkles.”

On the ride home, Hunter flashed the high beams onto a field of fresh snow. He dared her to make a snow angel. She took the dare, but perhaps the challenge meant more. When she returned, covered in snow, he kissed her for the first time.

Within two weeks, she moved in. And soon Hunter began proposing marriage, to which she repeatedly declined.

“I didn’t want the courting to stop,” she says. “I loved being his assistant, girlfriend and fiancee. I didn’t want to be a widow.”

But one day he wrote her a love letter. In it, he said he would always be with her and never to doubt it. “Always. Never doubt it, never be afraid of anything no matter how weird it may seem to be, at the time,” he wrote.

Anita relented: “OK, of course I’ll marry you.”

There are no regrets for Anita Thompson, just lingering sadness over Hunter’s absence and much pride in his work. Her goal is to preserve his legacy at Owl Farm, a 42-acre home in Woody Creek, Colo., which he left to her in a trust until she dies. She would like someday to turn it into a writers’ colony.

For now, she’s finishing up her bachelor’s degree at Columbia University, dividing her time between her residences in the Bronx and Woody Creek.

She keeps a low profile at Columbia and says that students who know she’s the widow of Hunter S. Thompson don’t make a big deal out of it. But one of the downsides of the Ivy League, she says, is that some students “take themselves very, very seriously.” She says she’s making friends with the professors.

Looking ahead, Anita has political aspirations. One day she hopes to run for office in Colorado to revamp the state’s education system. “Local politics is where I think I could make myself most useful,” she says.

She does not want to remarry, but she doesn’t want to close herself off from relationships forever. “I don’t want to be one of those women who is 45 and hasn’t been touched in 10 years,” she says.

Above all, she herself tries to live The Gonzo Way. She always remembers Hunter’s many pieces of advice, but one in particular guides her: “It’s wrong if it stops being fun.”

Perhaps this, too, was his reasoning in the end.