“The Rum Diary”
Hunter S. Thompson
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Back in 1964, while working for the Florida Times Union, I started writing features where I was part of the story. I was one of the first writers to pass myself off as a high-school student and do an insider’s piece. I went flying with the world’s oldest glider pilot. I passed myself off as the world’s worst waiter. I hunted submarines with the navy. I posed as an ambulance driver.
Little did I know I was a Gonzo journalist.
Maybe predating Hunter S. Thompson.
Dr. Thompson is credited as the creator of Gonzo journalism, a style of reporting where reporters involve themselves in the action to such a degree that they become central figures of their stories.
In 1970, Thompson wrote an article entitled “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” for Scanlan’s Monthly. Journalist Bill Cardoso was the first to use the term to describe Thompson’s writing, praising the piece as a breakthrough: “This is it, this is pure Gonzo. If this is a start, keep rolling.”
Thompson said, “Okay, that’s what I do. Gonzo.” It was a style he would later employ in almost every literary endeavor.
Hunter S. Thompson liked hanging out in Key West. Getting zonked with his local pals, partying with Jimmy Buffet and Tom Corcoran and Lloyd Good of Sugarloaf Lodge.
A documentary filmmaker named Wayne Ewing brought him back to Key West in 1986. “The idea was to make a short, entertaining pilot to prove to the right television programmer that Dr. Hunter S. Thompson could actually host his own regular television series,” recalls Ewing. “We were going to call the show either the ‘Gonzo Tour’ or ‘Breakfast with Hunter’ – the latter being Jack Nicholson’s clever idea spoofing morning television talk shows.”
Ewing continues, “Once in Key West among his old friends – drug smugglers, drunks, and Jimmy Buffett – he was much less forthcoming. We all stayed in Hunter’s favorite Florida motel – the Sugar Loaf Lodge on Sugar Loaf Key, about 15 minutes from Key West proper. His girlfriend Maria was there, along with his secretary Deborah. A captive, one-eyed dolphin named Sugar swam endlessly in circles in the motel lagoon while we waited for Hunter to perform for the camera each day.
“After a week at the Sugar Loaf, I figured Hunter was actually in front of my camera for a total of about two hours. He never arose until well after noon, no matter what plan we made the night before, and when I went to beat on his door he would mumble that he needed to take a shower. The water would go on, and it could still be heard running when I returned a half hour later. Of course, Hunter had gone back to bed (‘I never turn on the hot water,’ he would say in defense of the ruse).”
As Ewing recalls, “The Sugar Loaf Lodge Management (who actually were rather fond of Hunter from his previous stays) threatened to kick us all out, unless one of us moved in next door to him. The loud sounds in the middle of the night – light bulbs exploding, Maria gurgling as if she were being strangled – were upsetting the guests next door who checked out complaining bitterly.”
On a boat ride, a school of dolphins began to swim alongside. “I’m back, Boys,” Hunter called out to them.
Now Hunter Thompson is back in Key West in the form of Johnny Depp, his stand-in for a new movie titled “The Rum Diary.” You can catch it at the Tropic Cinema. Not only was Depp a close friend of Thompson, he also played him in the earlier film “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”
“The Rum Diary” is based on Thompson’s semi-autobiographical novel. Written in 1961 when he was 22, it wasn’t published until 1998. The manuscript “bounced about seven times,” Thompson recalled. “I got the standard list of rejection letters.” It was his second novel, although the first has yet to be published. In need of money, he was “faced with the fact of having to dig out my 40-year old story” and find a publisher.
The novel (and the movie) tells of Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp), a footloose journalist who travels to Puerto Rico to write for The San Juan Star. He begins drinking too much rum and becomes obsessed with a woman named Chenault (Amber Heard).
Set in the late 1950s, it’s billed as “a tangled love story of jealousy, treachery and violent alcoholic lust among the Americans who staff the newspaper.”
Truth is, Hunter S. Thompson took a job with El Sportivo, a San Juan sports newspaper which folded soon after his arrival. He applied for a position with The San Juan Star, but editor William J. Kennedy turned him down. Nonetheless, the two men became friends and great drinking buddies. His friendship with the writers at the Star provided the inspiration for “The Rum Diary” storyline.
Director Bruce Robinson decided to write the screenplay for the film version himself. A recovering alcoholic, he had been sober for six-and-a-half years but started drinking again until he finished the script and then quit drinking again. Method writing a la Hunter Thompson?
He stayed on the wagon until they started filming in Puerto Rico. “It was 100 degrees at two in the morning and very humid,” he recalls. “Everyone's drenched in sweat. One of the prop guys goes by with a barrow-load of ice and Coronas. I said: ‘Johnny, this doesn’t mean anything.’ And reached for a Corona ... Some savage drinking took place. When I was no longer in Johnny’s environment I went back to sobriety.” Method directing?
Johnny Depp describes his performance as “No Extreme Hunter like I did in the Vegas movie. The Hunter of that film was somewhat hyped. Now I’m trying to get at the essence of the young Hunter. Everything he said was so (blank)ing funny you had to write it down.” Party on.
Finally, the party was over. Faced with health problems, Hunter S. Thompson committed suicide in 2005 at the age of 67.
Johnny Depp claims two mentors: Marlon Brando and Thompson. “Selfishly, what I miss about Hunter isn’t the Too Much Fun Club stuff,” he says. “It was his steady advice. His radar detector was spot-on. He knew instantly if he didn’t like somebody.”
Depp owns a 45-acre island in the Bahamas. He named a beach in honor of his friend Hunter: Gonzo Beach.
[from Solares Hill]