February 27, 2005
Where to begin with Hunter Thompson? At the beginning, I guess: Dan McNelly, a fraternity brother, handing me a copy of Hell’s Angels in 1967 and saying, “You’ve got to read this.” (Dan also gave me a copy of Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me by Richard Fariña; he had a way with books that reached me.) And then in November of 1971, in the Air Force, reading Rolling Stone magazine, the first half of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, with the Ralph Steadman illustrations, hearing this voice, marveling, laughing, imagining.
When I became a reference librarian at Syracuse University, I began searching for a bibliography of Thompson’s work; I wanted to read every word he’d ever written. But there was no bibliography of Thompson’s work. In 1977, he was beneath scholarship.
I remembered a professor in Library School, Antje Lemke, who as a young girl in Germany refused to sing for Hitler and carried messages for the resistance, but those are other stories. Antje once told me about reading J.D. Salinger’s work in the military magazine Stars and Stripes. “Was it indexed?” I asked. “No,” she said. “So how did you find his work?” I asked. And she said simply, “I read Stars and Stripes.” I saw the light.
I knew Thompson had written for the National Observer early in his career. So I read the National Observer in the darkened microfilm room during my lunch hours, spooling through every issue from the time Thompson had written for them. The thrill of the hunt. One “eureka” moment after another. I followed other leads, used Interlibrary Loan, and built a bibliography. And I thought, after a while, why not just ask Dr. Thompson himself? I knew he lived on Owl Farm, outside of Woody Creek, Colorado, so I sent him a letter. When the reply arrived, I trembled. In the Good Doctor’s own hand, the letter read:
Oct 24 ’77
Sorry to be so late & useless with this reply, but I rarely get a chance to read my mail these days, much less answer it! Sorry… Anyway, I’m definitely interested in your bibliography gig — because you have the field all to yourself & I’d like to see what you come up with — especially right now, with a “collection” of my “work” due to be published in ’78.
But nobody bothered to collect the various articles along the way, so anything you come up with — assuming you’re at least half competent — might prove to be very helpful, in a quick & tangible sense, in addition to all the other reasons.
As for Lionel Olay, I have the epitaph I wrote for him somewhere here in the heap of pages that will have to be organized into a book called “The Great Shark Hunt” by Jan 1. Remind me once again, and I’ll crank up the energy to look for it. But now: it’s 4:35 a.m. on a bleak Monday morning & I think I’ll go to bed.
At “you have the field all to yourself,” my heart sang. But my favorite phrase was “at least half competent” — I should have adopted that right then as my signature line, put it on a business card, had t-shirts made, topped my resume with it, purchased a granite marker and carved it in stone. Let others pursue the Grail. I have this letter.
I continued to work, and a year later received a letter from Jill Bailin at Summit Books/Simon & Schuster, telling me The Great Shark Hunt would be published in May of 1979, and, “Secondly, Dr. Thompson was in the office last week to talk about the book. We discussed the possibility of including your bibliography… and he was absolutely delighted with the idea. We’d like your permission to include it. Let me hear from you.”
They heard from me. And in May of 1979, a letter from Kate Edgar at Summit told me the book was at the printer, and “The first copy is yours.” She enclosed a check for $150. A friend and writer, Jeanne Schinto, wrote, “Kihm… Simon & Schuster, that’s Gulf & Western, you should have asked for a fortune.” Hey, I would have paid them $150. And when the book arrived, there was my name on page 591.
On the down side, the typesetter had lifted a block of type from the bibliography and placed it out of order, including the first use of “National Observer,” so the bibliography began with a cryptic “N.O.” The typographer also chose to remove all the spaces between entries, so each one ran into the next. Not reader-friendly. This enabled Gary Wills to describe my work as “jumbled and useless” as he reached for ways to belittle Thompson. (Years later I took some comfort in learning from one of his students that Wills was as arrogant and unlikable in person as he was in print.) Another critic speculated that “Kihm Winship” was a made-up name and the narcissistic Thompson had crafted the bibliography himself. Still another referred to me as “one Kihm Winship” because she’d never heard of me. Well, who had?
More fun were the calls from an assistant to producer Art Linson at Paramount Studios and then from the screenwriter working on Where the Buffalo Roam. A co-worker at the Reference Desk, Pat Adorno, said, “Kihm, it’s the coast,” and rolled her eyes. When I told the screenwriter the bibliography was free, he exclaimed, “What can I say but ‘Thank you!’ ” It was my Hollywood moment.
But the best was yet to come. In 1992, writer E. Jean Carroll tracked me down while writing Hunter: The Strange and Savage Life of Hunter Thompson. Her sister had found me in the microfiche phonebook at Cornell University. “You were easy,” E. Jean said. “You’re the only Kihm Winship in America.”
E. Jean drove up to Syracuse from her sister’s place in Ithaca and we had dinner at Saratoga Steak & Seafood (after my nine-year-old daughter Abbie wished us “Bon appetit!”). I drove to the restaurant, because E. Jean’s dogs were sleeping in her car. E. Jean is more than a person; she is an event. (I recommend her books to you highly, Hunter of course but also Female Difficulties: Sorority Sisters, Rodeo Queens, Frigid Women, Smut Stars, and Other Modern Girls, and A Dog in Heat Is a Hot Dog). I’m not sure if the restaurant has even seen anyone like her, before or since. I started with Wild Turkey and for the rest I only remember the conversation, which was delicious.
Back at our home, E. Jean sat on the floor and went through my HST box and shouted titles into a tape recorder. “Cande, he’s got the Running magazine!” Then she and my wife Laurie sat on the couch and we all laughed a lot. Over my protests, she wrote me a check to cover the loan of my archives. As I carried the box out to her car, I stopped to kiss Laurie in the doorway.
“You’re only going to the curb,” E. Jean said. “Do you kiss her every time you leave the house?” The answer was yes, then and now.
A few days ago, after Thompson’s death, while sipping Wild Turkey on the rocks, I opened to page 270 of E. Jean’s Hunter and there found myself talking about Thompson’s mortality: “You’ve got people on one hand who think this guy is going to go any minute and there are other people who think, my God, he’s lived this long, he’s going to live forever… I mean, you know, we can’t really find a middle ground.”
Well, now we know. And it was like a writer to put such a hard period at the end of his last sentence, one no editor could change.
Without ever meeting Hunter Thompson, I benefited enormously from his life and writing. My desire to read his work taught me to do for myself, instead of waiting for someone else to do for me. He brought me joy. And because I am unable to be wild, he was wild for me. I celebrate his life and work. I mourn his passing and I thank everyone who helped me to get to know him.