You met Karen Nozik, Brighton High School ’81, in her piece on Rochester Art Supply, This is what Happiness Looks Like. Recently, I received this email from Karen:
In 1994 I was “lucky enough” to wind up as Hunter S. “Dr. Gonzo” Thompson’s handler when he was in DC for a week to promote his book, Better than Sex, Trapped like a Rat in Mr. Bill’s Neighborhood. It was a scary, once-in-a-lifetime experience that I barely lived through. Years later, long after Thompson had killed himself, I found photos of me sitting on his lap while the Washington Post Style section prepped his cover shot. (I still have the actual Style section clipping and original photos, and it’s plain he’s wearing the same shirt in the paper as in the photos). I was motivated to write this story as many people had encouraged me to do so over the years, to capture the holy terror of the experience. So finally, after years of considering it, I attach here the story, the newspaper clipping, the photos, and a signed copy of the book cover.
Fear and Loathing in DC: Inside Hunter S. Thompson’s Last Book Tour
A weathered man with dark glasses and heavy feet stepped towards me at Dulles.
“Where’s the bar?”
Inside of a minute he demanded the bartender deliver a phone and fax machine.
“I’ll get my lawyer on the line @$%&*!!!… CIA…FBI… they’re watching me, trying to nail me for the Kennedy assassinations!”
And he did. He got his lawyer in Texas on the line right there at the Dulles airport bar. All the while ranting about the spooks trying to nail him for something in his new book.
Hunter S. Thompson was on his way to DC to promote, Better that Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie Trapped Like a Rat in Mr. Bill’s Neighborhood, and apparently he needed a babysitter.
I knew the reputation that preceded him, but truth be told, I had never read any of his work. I was just nine years old “on the campaign trail” in ’72, and Gonzo journalism sounded like an alluring myth that I might want to know firsthand. (see Talker is doing experiential journalism (formerly gonzo journalism). Join us)It was late summer in 1994, and my roommate was in Africa at the time. It was her former college buddy, an editor of Hunter’s (now a famous White House historian) who recommended me in her place. I had lived in Aspen during the ‘80s, so they figured I knew what to expect. But when those creepy phone calls started at 3 am about a week before his arrival, always with ferocious mumbling on the other end of the line…it seemed like classic literary foreshadowing.
Random House wanted someone to make sure Thompson made it to his interviews on time. The notorious Doctor Gonzo known for drinking and drugging apparently wasn’t easily lassoed. In the 24 hours before he was set to arrive, a woman in Aspen called to be sure the limo was fully stocked with Chivas when he stepped off the plane.
We started sipping inside the car; I had forgotten that people warned me never to accept a drink from an open container. When we finally arrived at the Ritz Carlton on Mass. Ave, it occurred to me that as his “handler,” it was my duty to get him checked in.
“Are you MRS. FRANKLIN?” the pretty woman behind the counter had to ask me three times.
“ARE YOU CHECKING IN BEN FRANKLIN FOR THE WEEK?” I started to feel a sick blurriness, a creeping fear. Upstairs in the suite, the weirdness amplified. I helped him unpack—ten pairs of white Chuck Taylor high tops, hundreds of packs of Dunhill cigarettes, scary face masks that he would don at impromptu moments, sticking out his tongue with ghoulish accompanying laughs.
Thompson was a very popular man who brought in friends from many circles. Entourages from the White House stopped in, reporters lined up in the hallways waiting for their turn. An editor from Polo magazine (with a long red mane—a Republican!) stayed up all night doing God knows what.
And he was hell-bent on spending Random House’s money: orders from room service began like clock-work, always brought in or swept away by eager waiters hoping for a big tip (which they got) along with hundreds of plastic cockroaches that he’d arrange in jest around the perimeters of half eaten dishes.
And then there was the moment he sent me out to buy a blow-up doll—said he wanted a companion for the car.
One time during the week, following a “Good Morning America” interview where a famous blonde host trotted around the perimeter of the White House trying in vain to capture something of Hunter’s infamous inaudible mumbling under the sound of a heavy down pour, he dragged me into the gift shop at the Hotel Washington. I had suggested lunch on its rooftop (the best view of DC overlooking the Potomac River, the Washington Monument, the Department of Treasury, and the lawn of the White House) and so, after several hours ordering bloody marys and oysters (and more bloody marys) and where he explained that he and Keith Richards were at one point going to sell their blood (for science), and the reasons he thought he was still alive (karma), we went shopping. For newspapers. And he bought—sixteen.
Through the madness I spotted glimpses of his genius. He’d ordered a typewriter to be delivered to the room, along with a stack of paper. (This was after all, before the digital blitzkrieg). He wanted to be ready if and when the moment struck. He tried desperately to make everyone understand his comparisons of Bill Clinton to a trapped scorpion in the sand, drawing all over the Ritz Carlton carpet in indelible gold magic marker. By the fifth time I had heard the explanation, even if the antics were, the idea no longer seemed crazy.
Several more days and scotches later I needed to escape. The vortex of his surrealist world had sucked me in and I could no longer decipher reality. Random House thought I was so good at lassoing they asked me to handle his next tour stop in Philadelphia.
I actually considered it. Hunter liked my jackets, and he touched them a lot to let me know. We shared a scotch in the limo out to Dulles, and he gave me a hug goodbye. I finally did get around to reading his books. People might think they’re fictitious, but they’d be wrong.
Karen Nozik was once the Communications Director for Rocky Mountain Institute near Hunter Thompson’s home in Woody Creek, Colorado. Thompson committed suicide in 2005. In accordance with his wishes, his ashes were fired out of a cannon in a ceremony funded by his friend Johnny Depp and attended by friends including then-Senator John Kerry and Jack Nicholson. Some say the sound of gunfire can still be heard across the canyon.
ON AND BY BHS ALUMS