Notes From the Ashtray

Fear, Loathing and Tobacco

Dylan Gyles

Hunter S. Thompson, the creator of Gonzo journalism, was rarely seen without a cigarette. His brand of choice was Dunhill, an British-American luxury cigarette. Thompson’s cigarette holder of choice was a TarGard filter. After seeing how much scum the filter collected with just one day’s use, he refused to smoke a cigarette without one. The cigarette and filter became fixtures of Thompson’s alter ego, Raoul Duke.

Thompson was legendary for his drug use, which included everything from mescaline to nicotine. Through substance abuse, he found a connection with the outsiders and misfits of society. Thompson’s journalism brought him into the world of biker gangs, drug dealers and criminals. He used drinking and smoking as a means of breaking down the barrier between journalist and subject.

“We spent the next six hours in a tiny concrete cell with about twenty Puerto Ricans. We couldn't sit down because they had pissed all over the floor, so we stood in the middle of the room, giving out cigarettes like representatives of the Red Cross. They were a dangerous-looking lot. Some were drunk and others seemed crazy. I felt safe as long as we could supply them with cigarettes, but I wondered what would happen when we ran out.

The guard solved this problem for us, at a nickel a cigarette. Each time we wanted one for ourselves we had to buy twenty-one for every man in the cell. After two rounds, the guard sent out for a new carton. We figured out later that our stay in the cell cost us more than fifteen dollars, which Sala and I paid, since Yeamon had no money.” – The Rum Diary

Thompson’s vices also had a disarming effect on the wealthy and the elite. In the beginning of his career, many of his subjects didn’t take him seriously as a journalist and felt comfortable letting their guard down. His frank personality and love of football won him an exclusive interview with Richard Nixon during his presidential campaign in 1972, despite Thompson's open hatred for Nixon. Thompson made light conversation with the president in his limousine, mostly about football, chain-smoking all the while.

“But suddenly I was seized from behind and jerked away from the plane. Good god, I thought as I reeled backwards, here we go… ‘Watch Out!’ somebody was shouting. ‘Get the cigarette!’ a hand lashed out at my mouth, then other hands kept me from falling and I recognized the voice of Nick Ruwe, Nixon’s chief advance man for New Hampshire, saying, ‘God damnit, Hunter, you almost blew up the plane!’

I shrugged. He was right. I’d been leaning over the fuel tank with a burning butt in my mouth. Nixon smiled and reached out to shake my hand again, while Ruwe muttered darkly and the others stared down at the asphalt.

The plane took off and I rode back to the Holiday Inn with Nick Ruwe. We laughed about the cigarette scare, but he was still brooding. ‘What worries me,’ he said, ‘is that nobody else noticed it. Christ, those guys get paid to protect the Boss…’

‘Very bad show,’ I said, ‘especially when you remember that I did about three king-size Marlboros while we were standing there. Hell, I was flicking the butts away, lighting new ones… you people are lucky I’m a sane, responsible journalist: otherwise I might have hurled my flaming Zippo into the fuel tank.’” – Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72

The success of his books gained Thompson notoriety he was not comfortable with. The public expected him to behave like the character in his writing and he began to have trouble differentiating between himself and his alter ego. Smoking and drinking were some of the few things that still felt natural to Thompson and he clung to the habits, even in the most inappropriate situations.

“Everybody in the room laughed this time, and I felt like I'd been shot out of a cannon and straight into somebody else's movie. I put my satchel down on the bureau across from the bed and reached in for a beer. . . The pop-top came off with a hiss and a blast of brown foam that dripped on the rug as I tried to calm down.

‘You scared me,’ Ali was saying. ‘You looked like some kind of a bum – or a hippie.’

‘What?’ I almost shouted. ‘A bum? A hippie?’ I lit another cigarette or maybe two, not realizing or even thinking about the gross transgressions I was committing by smoking and drinking in the presence of The Champ. (Conrad told me later that nobody smokes or drinks in the same room with Muhammad Ali – and Jesus Christ! Not – of all places – in the sacred privacy of his own bedroom at midnight, where I had no business being in the first place.)... But I was mercifully and obviously ignorant of what I was doing. Smoking and drinking and tossing off crude bursts of language are not second nature to me, but first – and my mood, at that point, was still so mean and jangled that it took me about ten minutes of foulmouthed raving before I began to get a grip on myself.” – The Great Shark Hunt

Thompson smoked everyday up until his death by suicide at the age of 67. He never recommended smoking or any of his other habits to others. He didn’t believe that smoking, drinking, or any other drug was necessary for writers, it was just his own unique way of going about it.


Dylan Gyles

Dylan Gyles is a writer and barista. He writes short fiction and creative non-fiction. He is originally from Winnipeg and now lives in Vancouver.


Kris Rothstein's Blog
Kris Rothstein

VIFF 2019: MODES 1

A collection of experimental short films encourages immersion in image and sound.
Geist news

Winners of the 15th Annual Literal Literary Postcard Story Contest!

Announcing the winners of the 15th Annual Literal Literary Postcard Story Contest!
Michael Hayward's Blog
Michael Hayward

VIFF 2019: "Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom"

A young Bhutanese teacher, wrestling with his commitment to that career, is sent to the remote Himalayan village of Lunana, to fulfill the final year of his contract.