A Personal Derby Tradition:
Get him some good whiskey
“Anybody who wanders around the world saying, 'Hell yes, I’m from Texas,' deserves whatever happens to him." -- Hunter S. Thompson, 1970 in his first piece of Gonzo journalism, "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved."
By Kevin R. Hyde
Kentucky Editor / BourbonStory.com
LOUISVILLE – It is Derby Week in Derbytown … and all kinds of grand traditions abound. The best traditions, though, are the personal ones.
My favorite among these is an annual reading of Louisville native Hunter S. Thompson’s balls-out piece of sports journalism, “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved.” It’s indeed the most wonderful time of the year, and nothing gets me into that jangled Derby spirit like Thompson’s words.
This is how I like to do it: I pour a double Old Fitz over ice, put on the Rolling Stones album Sticky Fingers, which includes the country number “Dead Flowers” with its Derby-themed second verse (“Well, when you’re sitting back/In your rose pink Cadillac/Making bets on Kentucky Derby Day”), and grab my dog-eared paperback of The Great Shark Hunt. Subtitled Gonzo Papers Volume 1, Strange Tales from a Strange Time, the book is a collection of Thompson’s magazine articles from his professional and creative prime—a period that started with a trip home to Louisville.
The June 1970 publication of the "Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved" in the short-lived sports magazine, Scanlan’s, was a crucial moment in Thompson’s writing career. While he had achieved national notoriety with his acclaimed 1966 novel Hell’s Angels, he had yet to hone his unmistakably ferocious style and voice.
It was in his Kentucky Derby piece, one that found him on a bit of revenge trip against his hometown’s Old Money Blue Bloods who he’d felt rejected him as a youth, that he found that voice. It was also during that trip to cover the Derby that he first met the British illustrator Ralph Steadman, whose drawings would become perpetually (and for Thompson often frustratingly) linked to his writing. It was the beginning of a very weird friendship, as Steadman proved the perfect foil for Thompson’s biting observations, humor and hijinks.
Steadman told Bourbon Story’s Michael Lindenberger last winter that he had never heard of Thompson, and had never considered the Kentucky Derby, when the editors asked him to meet the writer in Kentucky.
“I had never heard of Hunter S Thompson, so they asked me, ‘How would you like to go to Kentucky and meet an ex-Hell’s Angel who just shaved his head and he’s looking for an artist?” “’How do you mean, ‘a Hell’s Angel?’ I asked. ‘Well, he used to ride with them, he wanted to write a book about them, so he used to ride,’ they told me. ‘Oh.’
“I was looking for work, so I said yes.”
When Thompson traveled to New York in the wake of his lost Derby weekend with Steadman—one very much fueled by Kentucky bourbon—he holed himself up in a hotel and struggled for several days to write the article. He was sick, and then fell into a depression over the Kent State massacre that happened just two days after Derby Day. He missed his deadline and had to be nursed and prodded by Scanlan’s editors and staff to complete his story. The experience was humbling, and Thompson worried he had done mortal damage to his professional career.
The opposite was true. When the “Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” was published, it made a big national splash. After reading it, one colleague referred to it as “gonzo journalism,” the first time the term was used in connection with Thompson’s writing.
Hunter himself described his luck as falling down an elevator shaft into a pool of mermaids. Though, for Steadman, Thompson’s ability to see so clearly America – the whiskey gentry included – was one of a kind. “As far as I am concerned, he was the bull’s eye when it comes to America,” he said. “I felt as if I had just been introduced to the bull’s eye.”
Thompson often described his classic gonzo writing—“The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Fear and Loathing on the ’72 Campaign Trail—as an attempt at writing “cinematically.” And why not? The movie industry at the dawn of the 70s was in the midst of its second Golden Age. Thompson even asked his agent to pass along his Derby article to Hollywood connections, cleverly pitching the story as “Dr. Strangelove meets Gone With the Wind.”
I’d certainly love to see this flick, and have even taken a few stabs at adapting the article into a screenplay. The rollicking opening scene, when Hunter has a little fun in the airport lounge with the over-enthusiastic Texan, Jimbo, is made for the silver screen.
It is excerpted here, to help get you into the Derby spirit. Pour yourself a double Old Fitz on ice and enjoy.
“The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved”
Welcome to Derbytown
I GOT OFF the plane around midnight and no one spoke as I crossed the dark runway to the terminal. The air was thick and hot, like wandering into a steam bath. Inside, people hugged each other and shook hands … big grins and a whoop here and there: “By God! You old bastard! Good to see you, boy! Damn good … and I mean it!”
In the air-conditioned lounge I met a man from Houston who said his name was something or other — “but just call me Jimbo” — and he was here to get it on. “I’m ready for anything, by God! Anything at all. Yeah, what are you drinkin?” I ordered a Margarita with ice, but he wouldn’t hear of it: “Naw, naw … what the hell kind of drink is that for Kentucky Derby time? What’s wrong with you, boy?” He grinned and winked at the bartender. “Goddam, we gotta educate this boy. Get him some good whiskey …”
I shrugged. “Okay, a double Old Fitz on ice.” Jimbo nodded his approval.
“Look.” He tapped me on the arm to make sure I was listening. “I know this Derby crowd, I come here every year, and let me tell you one thing I’ve learned — this is no town to be giving people the impression you’re some kind of faggot. Not in public, anyway. Shit, they’ll roll you in a minute, knock you in the head and take every goddam cent you have.”
I thanked him and fitted a Marlboro into my cigarette holder. “Say,” he said, “you look like you might be in the horse business … am I right?”
“No,” I said. “I’m a photographer.”
“Oh yeah?” He eyed my ragged leather bag with new interest. “Is that what you got there — cameras? Who you work for?”
“Playboy,” I said.
He laughed. “Well goddam! What are you gonna take pictures of — nekkid horses? Haw! I guess you’ll be workin’ pretty hard when they run the Kentucky Oaks. That’s a race jut for fillies.” He was laughing wildly. “Hell yes! And they’ll all be nekkid too!”
I shook my head and said nothing; just stared at him for a moment, trying to look grim. “There’s going to be trouble,” I said. “My assignment is to take pictures of the riot.”
I hesitated, twirling the ice in my drink. “At the track. On Derby Day. The Black Panthers.” I stared at him again. “Don’t you read the newspapers?”
The grin on his face had collapsed. “What the hell are you talkin about?”
“Well … maybe I shouldn’t be telling you … ” I shrugged. “But hell, everybody seems to know. The cops and the National Guard have been getting ready for six weeks. They have 20,000 troops on alert at Fort Knox. They warned us — all the press and photographers — to wear helmets and special vests like flak jackets. We were told to expect shooting … “
“No!” he shouted; his hands flew up and hovered momentarily between us, as if to ward off the words he was hearing. Then he hacked his fist on the bar. “Those sons of bitches! God Almighty! The Kentucky Derby!” He kept shaking his head. “No! Jesus! That’s almost too bad to believe!” Now he seemed to be jagging on the stool, and when he looked up his eyes were misty. “Why? Why here? Don’t they respect anything?”
I shrugged again. “It’s not just the Panthers. The FBI says busloads of white crazies are coming in from all over the country — to mix with the crowd and attack all at once, from every direction. They’ll be dressed like everybody else. You know — coats and ties and all that. But when the trouble starts … well, that’s why the cops are so worried.”
He sat for a moment, looking hurt and confused and not quite able to digest all this terrible news. Then he cried out: “Oh … Jesus! What in the name of God is happening in this country? Where can you get away from it?”
“Not here,” I said, picking up my bag. “Thanks for the drink … and good luck.”
He grabbed my arm, urging me to have another, but I said I was overdue at the Press Club and hustled off to get my act together for the awful spectacle. At the airport newsstand I picked up a Courier-Journal and scanned the front page headlines: “Nixon Sends GI’s into Cambodia to Hit Reds” … “B-52′s Raid, then 2,000 GI’s Advance 20 Miles” … “4,000 U.S. Troops Deployed Near Yale as Tension Grows Over Panther Protest.” At the bottom of the page was a photo of Diane Crump, soon to become the first woman jockey ever to ride in the Kentucky Derby.3 The photographer had snapped her “stopping in the barn area to fondle her mount, Fathom.” The rest of the paper was spotted with ugly war news and stories of “student unrest.” There was no mention of any protest action at a small Ohio school called Kent State.4
I went to the Hertz desk to pick up my car, but the moon-faced young swinger in charge said they didn’t have any. “You can’t rent one anywhere,” he assured me. “Our Derby reservations have been booked for six weeks.” I explained that my agent had confirmed a white Chrysler convertible for me that very afternoon but he shook his head. “Maybe we’ll have a cancellation. Where are you staying?”
I shrugged. “Where’s the Texas crowd staying? I want to be with my people.”
He sighed. “My friend, you’re in trouble. This town is flat full. Always is, for the Derby.”
I leaned closer to him, half-whispering: “Look, I’m from Playboy. How would you like a job?”
He backed off quickly. “What? Come on, now. What kind of a job?”
“Never mind,” I said. “You just blew it.” I swept my bag off the counter and went to find a cab. The bag is a valuable prop in this kind of work; mine has a lot of baggage tags on it — SF, LA, NY, Lima, Rome, Bangkok, that sort of thing — and the most prominent tag of all is a very official, plastic-coated thing that said “Photog. Playboy Mag.” I bought it from a pimp in Vail, Colorado, and he told me how to use it. “Never mention Playboy until you’re sure they’ve seen this thing first,” he said. “Then, when you see them notice it, that’s the time to strike. They’ll go belly up every time. This thing is magic, I tell you. Pure magic.”
Well … maybe so. I’d used it on the poor geek in the bar, and now, humming along in a Yellow Cab toward town, I felt a little guilty about jangling the poor bugger’s brains with that evil fantasy. But, what the hell? Anybody who wanders around the world saying, “Yes, I’m from Texas,” deserves whatever happens to him. And he had, after all, come here once again to make a 19th century ass of himself in the midst of some jaded, atavistic freakout with nothing to recommend it except a very saleable “tradition.” Early in our chat, Jimbo had told me that he hasn’t missed a Derby since 1954. “The little lady won’t come anymore,” he said. “She just grits her teeth and turns me loose for this one. And when I say ‘loose’ I do mean loose! I toss ten-dollar bills around like they were goin’ outa style! Horses, whiskey, women … shit, there’s women in this town that’ll do anything for money.”
Why not? Money is a good thing to have in these twisted times. Even Richard Nixon is hungry for it. Only a few days before the Derby he said, “If I had any money I’d invest it in the stock market.” And the market, meanwhile, continued its grim slide.