May 7, 2013

Bourbon and beasts: Hunter S. Thompson & Ralph Steadman at The Kentucky Derby


Ralph Steadman’s illustration for the article in Scanlan’s

Kentucky Derby weekend (and the hangover that punctuates its end) marks the anniversary of the first collaboration between Hunter S. Thompson and illustrator Ralph Steadman.

In “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,” Thompson returned to Louisville with no interest in covering the business of horses. Steadman was enlisted to illustrate the article published in Scanlan’s Monthly in June of 1970, though the two had never met.

Louisville was Thompson’s hometown, and he’d attended the Derby annually before moving away ten years before. He arrived back in town with a hankering for a margarita on ice (which the bartender denied him) and a can of mace in case the crowd grew rowdy.

“We went into the inner field first to just look at the people,” Steadman told Kelly McEvers in an interview with All Things Considered. “We were really looking for odd faces. People that were kind of weird, you know? That seemed to become our real purpose.”

“We didn’t give a hoot in hell what was happening on the track,” Thompson wrote. “We’d come to watch the real beasts perform.”

The real beasts were the “whiskey gentry,” those attendees with “a pretentious mix of booze, failed dreams and a terminal identity crisis.” Thompson encouraged Steadman to join him in the hunt for a crazy, drunken fool who would serve a “symbol, in my own mind, of the whole doomed atavistic culture that makes the Kentucky Derby what it is.”

From “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved”:

Along with the politicians, society belles and local captains of commerce, every half-mad dingbat who ever had any pretensions to anything at all within five hundred miles of Louisville will show up there to get strutting drunk and slap a lot of backs and generally make himself obvious. The Paddock bar is probably the best place in the track to sit and watch faces. Nobody minds being stared at; that’s what they’re in there for.

Nobody minded their looking, but people did seem to take issue with Steadman drawing their faces in his signature style, which is wholly original but admittedly more imaginative than flattering; they also didn’t seem to like it when Thompson directed his mace toward their faces.

In a piece on NPR this week, Steadman recounted a moment in the Pendennis Club in downtown Louisville. A man ripped his shirt open to the waist, then decided Steadman was after his wife. “No blows were struck, but the emotional effects were massive,” wrote Thompson.

In an effort to smooth things over, Steadman offered to sketch her portrait. She wasn’t pleased with the result. “She said, ‘That ain’t pretty, I’m pretty, ain’t I?’ ” Steadman remembers in his NPR interview. “And Hunter said, ‘Stop that filthy scribbling, Ralph.’ ”

Thompson said Steadman did not heed his advice:

“Look, Ralph,” I said. “Let’s not kid ourselves. That was a very horrible drawing you gave him. It was the face of a monster. It got on his nerves very badly.” I shrugged. “Why in hell do you think we left the restaurant so fast?”
“I thought it was because of the Mace,” he said.
“What Mace?”
He grinned. “When you shot it at the headwaiter, don’t you remember?”
“Hell, that was nothing,” I said. “I missed him…and we were leaving, anyway.”
“But it got all over us,” he said. “The room was full of that damn gas. Your brother was sneezing was and his wife was crying. My eyes hurt for two hours. I couldn’t see to draw when we got back to the motel.”
“That’s right,” I said. “The stuff got on her leg, didn’t it?” “She was angry,” he said.
“Yeah…well, okay…Let’s just figure we fucked up about equally on that one,” I said. “But from now on let’s try to be careful when we’re around people I know. You won’t sketch them and I won’t Mace them. We’ll just try to relax and get drunk.”
“Right,” he said. “We’ll go native.”

Thompson was too far gone to complete the article as planned, and the final pages degenerate into a series of notes he’d sent his editors under deadline pressure. These whiskey-fueled ramblings were ripped out of his notebook one after another and sent to the printer.

A sampling:

Total chaos, no way to see the race, not even the track…nobody cares. Big lines at the outdoor betting windows, then stand back to watch winning numbers flash on the big board, like a giant bingo game.

Old blacks arguing about bets; “Hold on there, I’ll handle this” (waving pint of whiskey, fistful of dollar bills); girl riding piggyback, T-shirt says, “Stolen from Fort Lauderdale Jail.” Thousands of teen-agers, group singing “Let the Sun Shine In,” ten soldiers guarding the American flag and a huge fat drunk wearing a blue football jersey (No. 80) reeling around with quart of beer in hand.

No booze sold out here, too dangerous…no bathrooms either. Muscle Beach…Woodstock…many cops with riot sticks, but no sign of a riot. Far across the track the clubhouse looks like a postcard from the Kentucky Derby.

Ralph Steadman’s depiction of the winner, Dust Commander.

Though the piece scarcely described the horse race, it was declared a runaway success. Thompson was equally surprised his style was embraced and happy to break free of the constraints of traditional journalism, comparing the feeling of to “falling down an elevator shaft and landing in a pool of mermaids.”

In a letter of admiration for the article, Bill Cardoso, editor of The Boston Globe, used term that would tied to Thompson for the rest of his career: “This is it, this is pure Gonzo. If this is a start, keep rolling.”

Soon after the article was published, Steadman was fired from the London Times for cartoons deemed too disturbing. Thompson invited him to come along for another story, and another after that. The rest is history.

The “whiskey gentry” weren’t the only beasts Thompson faced in his lifetime. In a twist at the end of “…Decadent and Depraved,” Thompson and Steadman find the “puffy, drink-ravaged, disease-ridden cariacture[s]” they were looking for in their own reflections on Monday morning.


Kirsten Reach was an editor at Melville House.