On March 7, 2004, the lifeless body of 62-year-old Spalding Gray was pulled from Manhattan’s East River. He had been missing for two months. An actor/storyteller who wrote and performed autobiographical monologues for stage and screen—his most well-known is Swimming to Cambodia—Gray had apparently committed suicide.
Gray became famous by talking about—among other things—his experiences in the warm waters of Southeast Asia while working as an actor in the acclaimed 1984 movie, The Killing Fields. But he ended his life twenty years later in the cold waters off New York City. Was he aware, during the last moments of his life, of that morbid irony?
A year later, on February 20, 2005, Hunter S. Thompson, the famed “Gonzo” journalist best known for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas—a supposedly nonfiction account riddled with drug-and-alcohol-fueled flights of fantasy and made into a movie starring Johnny Depp—shot himself through the head. He was 67.
Both were well-known writers and near-contemporaries. Both received wide critical and popular acclaim, and both had loyal followings.
If they didn’t invent the literary-theatrical form in which they worked—Thompson, the kamikaze type of journalism in which the writer puts himself and his vivid imagination at the risky center of the story; Gray, the self-revealing, highly personal solo stage performance—both brought their genre to the attention of a large public.
Even their names had an odd similarity: a common WASP last name combined with an unusual first name associated with manly activities. Spalding is a large sporting goods company, and Hunter, of course, evokes the quintessential macho pursuit.
Thompson and Gray were cult figures, embodying the spirit of their times. The turbulent, defiant 1960s and the me-decade of the 1970s found their ideal mouthpiece in Thompson, who was self-obsessed and snarlingly funny, always furious at the limitations the world placed on him and guilt-free about his fierce actions and attitudes.
Gray caught the zeitgeist of the late 1980s and 1990s. In that era, he was the WASP Woody Allen: a self-obsessed, helpless post-modern man facing an overwhelmingly complex world. Embarrassingly honest about sex, work, friendship, love, and death, in one of his solo performances, he described his adult self as a whiny, helpless toddler: “I was a wha-wha-wha little two-year-old. Just wha-wha-wha all over the place.”
It can be argued that Thompson and Gray connected with the very same audience at different times in that audience’s life-span. In his unfettered way, Thompson spoke to those born just after World War II when they were still young and unattached and using illegal substances. In his urban, anxious, psychoanalyzed way, Gray spoke to those same people when they had grown up, married, had children and jobs.
At their best, both Thompson and Gray were inventive, brilliant and outrageously funny.
Here is Thompson’s description of a beach scene with birds: “Get out in the surf, in the fog, and slosh along on numb-frozen feet about ten yards out from the tideline . . . stomping through tribes of wild sandpeckers . . . riderunners . . . stupid little birds and crabs and saltsuckers, with here and there a big pervert or woolly reject gimping off in the distance, wandering alone by themselves behind the dunes and the driftwood.”
Gray, inventing an acting resume for himself, tells an agent that his latest movie is “the story of the demise of Dylan Thomas, and his wife’s struggle to go on after his death. I play a lesser American poet who comes to her Welsh boathouse to console her. . . . It’s a cult film that plays in Welsh theaters at midnight. Then there’s, oh, Time of the Assassins . . . It’s about Rimbaud—what a fascinating guy, what a scallywag. . . . I play a lesser American poet who visits him on his deathbed. . . . This one hasn’t been released yet.”
By making themselves the protagonists of their work, by using their own drama as source and inspiration, Thompson and Gray delved deeply into self-consciousness and paranoia, not just blurring but utterly rubbing out the dividing line between what is true and what is invented. Though both ostensibly worked in the realm of nonfiction, both distorted or ignored actual events in order to shed light on what they felt was a deeper truth. Erasing the separation between fact and fiction was another way in which they caught—and helped create—the spirit of the age.
And both, finally, were trapped by the persona they created. In the 1960s and 1970s, Thompson created “Hunter S. Thompson,” a booze-guzzling, drug-taking lunatic ready to do anything for a kick. In the 1980s and 1990s, Gray created “Spalding Gray,” a man who eviscerated himself emotionally and psychologically in front of an audience. In time, with fame and notoriety, both men became the persona they created, and each played out that persona to the end.
Thompson was from Louisville, Kentucky, born into a family at the lower rim of middle-class. While he was in his teens, his father died, after which his mother became an alcoholic, lending a bit of Southern Gothic to his upbringing. Getting in trouble with the law when he was eighteen, Thompson was given the choice between jail-time and the military. He chose the latter. He was eventually identified as someone who had trouble taking orders, and he was mustered out of the air force honorably, but early.
Gray was from a New England Christian Scientist family that was on the upper, more genteel edge of middle class. When he was in his teens, his mother closed the garage door, shut off the car’s tailpipe, and took her own life. This traumatic event gave Gray a reservoir of guilt which he mined in his monologues.
In his work, Gray tended to blame himself for the anxiety with which he lived, constantly exposing his fears and insecurities. He presented himself as an Everyman often flummoxed in the face of events that were out of his control, or ecstatic when things fell into place and gave him a moment of insight or pure joy.
Thompson’s literary world was also filled with anxiety, but he rarely if ever blamed himself. He tended to turn his anger outward, disgusted at the “hideous” way he was treated. His attitude was that the world was “savage” and “monstrous” (two of his favorite words), and that the roadblocks put in his way were the fault of the “swine” who were out to get him.
“Fear” and “loathing,” naturally, were also keywords in Thompson’s universe. From the paranoid point-of-view he perfected, it’s all fear and loathing. The world is to be feared and loathed because a free man will always bump into institutions and individuals determined to keep him from doing what he wants to do when he wants to do it.
Thompson’s appeal was to the rebellious teen inside of us: drinking to excess, using drugs, breaking windows, shooting weapons, destroying hotel rooms . . . and if caught, one says: Never mind about that—any apology would be “giving in to the geeks.”
In his book Love and Death in the American Novel, literary critic Leslie Fiedler pointed out that America’s classic novels, like Moby Dick and Huckleberry Finn, consist of a white protagonist escaping civilization with a man who is nonwhite. In these works, as well as the novels of James Fennimore Cooper, there is a homoerotic connection (neither stated nor acted upon) between the two male protagonists as they go into the unknown—whether it’s the Mississippi River, the open sea, or the American West.
Whatever one thinks of Fiedler’s thesis, there’s no question that Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas falls squarely into that narrative pattern. The only relationship in the book is between “Raoul Duke,” Thompson’s alter-ego, and his “300-lb. Samoan attorney.” Throughout the book, the writer and his attorney engage in macho/buddy challenges involving massive ingestion of drugs and liquor, threatening behavior, reckless driving, property destruction and laughing at the straight world (a district attorneys’ convention).
In Fiedler’s theory, the keywords are “escaping civilization.” What the two protagonists escape from is adult responsibility: the world of wives, children and family obligations.
And what were the obligations that Thompson was escaping from? When he wrote Fear and Loathing in 1971 he had been married to his then-wife for ten years, and they had a son who was then about seven years old. Because Thompson and his wife had conflicting Rh factors, their son’s birth had been extremely difficult, requiring massive blood transfusions. By the time that Thompson wrote Fear and Loathing, he and his wife had gone through more pregnancies which—because of these medical complications—did not result in surviving children.
All this must have been stressful to Thompson, but one looks in vain for any mention of his life as husband and father in Fear and Loathing. Instead, one finds passages like this: “The sun was hot and I felt like killing something. Anything. Even a big lizard.” That’s followed by three blasts of a .357 Magnum. In the classic American story, Fiedler pointed out, instead of sex or love or any kind of normal domestic drama, there’s a baptism of blood in which the protagonist kills some animal. Even a lizard.
The only women in Fear and Loathing are 1) An under-18 semi-crazed flower child. Though the writer has no physical contact with the girl, his all-consuming concern is that he not be implicated in a statutory rape charge. 2) A seen-better-days waitress at an all-night coffee shop. The attorney makes a lewd suggestion to her, she reacts angrily, and the attorney shows a knife-blade to frighten her. 3) A maid who comes to clean up the trashed hotel room. Fearing she might alert hotel staff—or the authorities—the writer convinces her that he and the attorney are government agents. In Thompson’s world, women are avoided, threatened or bamboozled.
Gray, on the other hand, wrote extensively about the women in his life and his children. Having come to parenthood relatively late, it was clearly a source of joy for him, but usually with a dark undertow. Focusing on the small triumphs and disasters of everyday life, he was a tragedian who saw human beings as basically noble but ultimately defeated by forces beyond their control. Appropriately, Gray’s final agony came as a result of no act of his own: he was a passenger in a car slammed by another vehicle.
Thompson, on the other hand, was a comedian who looked at the Big Picture instead of the details, and whose every line embodies the idea that there is nothing noble in the human enterprise: all we can do is make fun of the world and mock our fate.
By the time Thompson wrote a regular column for the San Francisco Examiner in the late 1980s (when he was around 50 years old), he reveled in the celebrity that his earlier writing had won him. In his Examiner pieces, he made a point of letting the reader know that he stayed at the best hotels and was on friendly terms with this U.S. senator or that sports franchise owner—the kind of celebrity-fawning that the younger Thompson would have mocked.
Thompson had always repeated his favorite totemic words over and over (like “bizarre” and “weird”), but as he grew older this tendency became relentless. This was slothful writing, but it was more than that: it was his way of letting his fans know that—at middle-age—he was still the teen rebel. It was also his way of saying that even though he couldn’t write the way he used to, he wasn’t letting the world or America off the hook: the 1980s were even more shameful, degrading, treacherous and insane (his words, again and again) than the early 1970s of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Toward the end of their lives, both Thompson and Gray suffered from crippling ailments and both were in a great deal of pain from a recovery process that wasn’t going well. Thompson could no longer write and create as he once had, whereas Gray was able to shape monologues that were as cogent and human as ever, and his style, if anything, became even more hypnotic and moving, in spite of his pain . . . or maybe because of it.
This is from Gray’s last monologue, Life Interrupted, which was still being worked on when he jumped or fell into the icy waters near Manhattan: “There was no party, just a birthday dinner at home, and I remember Forrest, my eight-year-old, saying, ‘Hey, Dad, remember how much fun it was having a birthday before you found out you were going to die?’”
In the end, clearly, the pain was too much for Gray. There was something oddly jarring and poignant in his demise, which was carried out in secret—his body wasn’t discovered until two months after he disappeared. Even though he had played out his private life in the public arena by exposing his deepest secrets, his last scene, his death—his final separation from those he loved—was played out in private.
There’s even some doubt as to whether it was a suicide. Did Gray jump off that ferry boat deliberately, or was it an accident? The neurotic, problematic character he played, “Spalding Gray,” left his fans and friends and family one final tragic, unresolved anxiety.
In contrast, Thompson’s final scene was carried out in public view: he shot himself while on the phone with his wife, his family nearby. Several months later, in accordance with his wishes, Thompson’s ashes were shot out of a cannon in front of friends and admirers celebrating his life and work. It was the last public act of “Hunter S. Thompson,” the persona he had created many years earlier—a comedian to the end.