Wild Writer: A Look Back at Hunter S. Thompson and the Kentucky Derby

April 27, 2019

It is a forever question associated with Derby lore. Did Hunter S. Thompson attend the Kentucky Derby with artist Ralph Steadman, or did they do a Louisville bar tour and hole up in their hotel practicing Thompson’s pharma booze habits?

I think that for a moment, they did. Just enough to get a cursory glance at the people more than the horses. Just enough to given Steadman his Dallas-TV show- like a spin on racehorse owners: fat, cigar smokers with wide chatty mouths. Also, just enough to imbibe air fresher than their stale hangover-tobacco breath. Artist Ralph Steadman later described his Derby adventure as an endurance test for his liver.

The Steadman art that illustrated the piece was not the prettiest images associated with iconic race and I have to hand it to the organizers at the Kentucky Derby Museum for celebrating the Ralph Steadman Collection, highlighted by depictions of Thompson’s debauched portrayal. It is not elegant, it is a tad unfair, but it IS funny. The museum celebrated the art and got the joke. Alternatively, at least a reframing of the Thompson/Steadman collaboration which was less about the race and more about how Thompson and Steadman spent their time celebrating inebriation and a different kind of speed.

Dr. Hunter S. Thompson had a writing style that was a wicked brew of incisive observation, bitchy wit, and an uncanny ability to blend made-up dialogue from famous people that in today’s litigious world would have kept Rolling Stone’s lawyers very busy. He was also the star of his work, his brand becoming the long-winded op – editorial that fit into the times that also saw the blossoming of the Doug Kenney flavored original National Lampoon that morphed into NBC’s Saturday Night Live. This signature style and his unpredictable behavior at times eclipsed his talent, yet he relished the notoriety and lived his self-ascribed myth.

Wild writing flavored with his dots and dashes mimicking what he conceived to be his reader’s left to right reading speed was evident in all his articles, mainly for Rolling Stone magazine. Publisher Jann Wenner referred to Thompson’s status as the RS political desk. One can imagine a campaign press secretary’s anxiety when seeing this thin maven with his dangling cigarette holder loading his traveling pharmacy-bar-typewriter onto a campaign plane. Our modern-day Washingtonians dodged that bullet.

There is the irony of Thompson’s history. He was a native son of Louisville and was raised on all things Derby. Moreover, he knew the best dive bars, the bartenders and the best brands of Kentucky’s sweet tea- bourbon. Thompson was fond of Old Fitzgerald. The earliest writings show form and a bit of Fitzgerald-like romance, Scott Fitzgerald being another Louisville writer during his Army days that fancied the Seelbach Hotel bar.

Thompson’s Derby article, titled Depraved and Debauched, published initially in Scanlon’s Monthly (June,1970) opens with an airport scene with the pit-stop at the terminal bar where he predictably introduces a Texas horse owner loudly exclaiming on the “nekkid fillies running in the Oaks”. His literary stage set, Thompson as his own star, rents a hard-to-get vehicle by declaring Playboy press credentials and steals away towards Churchill Downs in search of his very British illustrator, Ralph Steadman. Steadman’s role in the Thompson script is foil and bemused companion, partial to Haig scotch, who is bent on assessing the dress code of the Kentucky Colonels (Maybelle senility) while drawing young preppies in seersucker blazers hanging out at the Paddock Bar (greed, fear, bourbon stains). Thompson’s backdrop for much of his story is the old Paddock Bar, the infield and his hotel room, the latter one assumes may have been a constant. Known for his political cartoons in the UK, Steadman’s art matches the manic art of Thompson’s copy.

A brief mention was noted in Thompson’s of the Derby’s eventual winner, Dust Commander, a 16 -1 shot ridden by jockey Mike Manganello, a popular figure in Lexington and a fundraiser for the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund (PDJF).

Meet the real Ralph Steadman on ‘Thursday’, May 2, 2019.

Kentucky Derby Museum, Churchill Downs

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@jonathanstettin I for one can still actually feel the pall cast over the crowd and game that day. It was palpable. Kudos 2/2

William G. Gotimer (@WilliamGotimer) View testimonials