Strange Rumblings: The Prickly but Productive Friendship Between Hunter Thompson and Oscar Acosta

November 21, 2021   •   By Peter Richardson

THE 50TH ANNIVERSARY of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is almost upon us, and a critical reconsideration of Hunter S. Thompson’s comic novel is already under way. The Gonzo classic hinged on two drug-fueled weekends in Las Vegas and served as a freeform epitaph for the 1960s. But if the counterculture was faltering during the Nixon era, Thompson was hitting his stride. In November 1971, Rolling Stone ran the Las Vegas story in two long articles; Random House published the book version in 1972 and helped make Thompson a cultural icon. In 1996, Modern Library issued its own edition, and a film version appeared two years after that. Together, they put Thompson in exalted literary company and drew millions of new fans who didn’t read books.

Some of the recent critical conversation has revolved around Oscar Acosta, who accompanied Thompson on both trips to Las Vegas. The two men met in Aspen but lit out for Nevada from Los Angeles. Acosta had been involved in the Chicano Movement and was defending its local leaders in court. At the same time, he was an aspiring novelist who sought and received literary advice from Thompson. As the Las Vegas material shaped up, however, tensions surfaced between the two men. Specifically, Acosta was irked that Thompson converted his character into Dr. Gonzo, a 300-pound Samoan attorney.

But the attention generated by Thompson’s work allowed Acosta to place his own fiction; Rolling Stone’s book division quickly published two autobiographical novels. Sales were sluggish, and Acosta’s personal problems intensified. Following his disappearance and presumed death in 1974, Thompson wrote a lengthy eulogy in Rolling Stone. Later, he also contributed the introduction to the paperback editions of Acosta’s novels, which are still in print.

As Abby Aguirre notes in her recent New Yorker piece, some critics see Thompson’s depiction of Acosta as an enduring slight. “[I]f Acosta lives in the white imagination at all, it is as Raoul Duke’s wingman — a bombastic, cartoonish ‘ethnic’ attorney whose ethnicity is obscured,” Aguirre maintains. “For many readers of ‘Fear and Loathing,’ the real Oscar Acosta remains invisible.” It’s a fair point but not a unique circumstance. Fiction rarely furnishes reliable portraits of actual persons, and few of us worry that Lady Duff Twysden, the real-life model for Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises, remains invisible to Hemingway’s readers. Moreover, Acosta made no effort to distance himself from the cartoonish Dr. Gonzo. To the contrary, he fastened himself firmly to Thompson’s character in the public imagination.

Aguirre’s purpose is to calculate what Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas owes Acosta, but she underestimates Acosta’s contribution to Thompson’s career more generally. For it was Acosta who lured Thompson to Los Angeles to cover the Chicano Movement in the first place. The trips to Las Vegas, which were made in the middle of that research, never would have happened without that intervention. Nor would Thompson have written “Strange Rumblings in Aztlan,” which covered journalist Ruben Salazar’s death and its aftermath. That piece, which Aguirre does not mention, is a standout in Thompson’s oeuvre and was included in the Modern Library edition. The origins of that article, as well as the broader context of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, should be set alongside Aguirre’s account if we wish to understand the two men, their relationship, and their literary legacies.

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In January 1970, Thompson wrote a long letter to James Silberman, his editor at Random House, confessing that he was struggling with his long-overdue second book. The topic was the death of the American Dream, and Thompson originally hoped to fashion a narrative that blended fiction with straight journalism. Although he had generated hundreds of manuscript pages, he admitted that his draft was “a heap of useless bullshit.” He didn’t know that another breakthrough was on the horizon. Several months later, novelist James Salter suggested that Thompson cover the Kentucky Derby. Born and raised in Louisville, Thompson quickly accepted the suggestion and wrote “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” for Scanlan’s Monthly. Thompson had deep misgivings about the article before it appeared, but it was soon heralded as the first work of Gonzo journalism, and its success surprised Thompson. “It was like falling down an elevator shaft and landing in a pool full of mermaids,” he said later.

That same year, the two men ran for sheriff — Thompson in Aspen and Acosta in Los Angeles — and Thompson wrote about their campaigns in his first Rolling Stone article. With Acosta’s encouragement, Thompson also pitched a story to Scanlan’s Monthly about the Chicano Movement in Los Angeles. In August, that story took a dramatic turn when journalist Ruben Salazar was killed during the National Chicano Moratorium march in East Los Angeles. The 42-year-old Salazar was a respected figure in the mainstream media and the Latino community. After reporting for the Los Angeles Times, he accepted a position as news director at KMEX, a Spanish-language television station. He also contributed columns to the Times, some of which criticized the city’s white power structure, especially in the Los Angeles Police Department.

After the antiwar march devolved into what many described as a police riot, Salazar sought relief in the Silver Dollar Bar on Whittier Boulevard, some 10 blocks away from the main action. A sheriff’s deputy shot a tear gas canister through the front door and killed him. The sheriff’s department denied any responsibility, but the county paid Salazar’s family $700,000 to settle a wrongful death lawsuit.

Scanlan’s folded after eight issues, but Thompson returned to East Los Angeles to update his reporting, this time for Rolling Stone. Running more than 19,000 words, “Strange Rumblings in Aztlan” appeared in April 1971. The title alluded to the mythical homeland of the Aztecs, which Chicano activists said they wished to restore. But Thompson was more interested in the notion that the sheriff’s department targeted a troublesome journalist for execution. Sifting through the evidence, Thompson saw no indication of premeditation, but he labeled Salazar’s death “a second-degree job,” insofar as it was committed unlawfully and with malice aforethought.

“The malignant reality of Ruben Salazar’s death,” he maintained, “is that he was murdered by angry cops for no reason at all — and that the L.A. sheriff’s department was and still is prepared to defend that murder on the grounds that it was entirely justified.” Thompson left no doubt that Los Angeles officials were untruthful about Salazar’s death. Recounting the collapse of each public statement, he dismissed them as “garbled swill” and documented the official mendacity that had long been a favorite target.

As usual, Thompson also paid careful attention to the media outlets, including La Raza and other movement publications. He singled out the Los Angeles Herald Examiner for special criticism, noting that one of its editorials supported LAPD Chief Ed Davis’s claim that the violence was attributable to a “hard core group of subversives who infiltrated the anti-war rally and turned it into a mob.” In the same speech, Chief Davis added that the Communist Party in California was “giving up on the blacks to concentrate on the Mexican-Americans.” Thompson dismissed the Herald Examiner as “a genuinely rotten newspaper” whose perverted purpose was a monument to “everything cheap, corrupt, and vicious in the realm of journalistic possibility.” He wondered how “the shriveled Hearst management [could] still find enough gimps, bigots and deranged Papists to staff a rotten paper like the Herald.” Its very existence, he concluded, “explains a lot about the mentality of Los Angeles — and also, perhaps, about the murder of Ruben Salazar.”

“Strange Rumblings in Aztlan” was unique in Thompson’s body of work. Written after the Kentucky Derby piece but before Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, it lacked their Gonzo pyrotechnics and addressed an important current event. Thompson enlivened what he later called a murder mystery with his keen wit, but the piece was never meant to be comical or satirical. He was a figure in the story, but the reporting wasn’t especially participatory, and the world didn’t reveal its meaning through his warped consciousness. He flouted the norms of journalistic objectivity with his frank personal asides, but he also laid out a detailed fact pattern and reviewed it discerningly. By the time he delivered his conclusions, they were persuasive and damning. The article was also a deviation for Rolling Stone. Running almost half as long as Thompson’s next book, it did not revolve around rock music, drugs, or the counterculture as such. “Strange Rumblings in Aztlan” was a clear sign that Thompson had the green light at Rolling Stone.

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The Salazar piece was quickly overshadowed by another work hatched in the middle of that project. After an especially tense week in East Los Angeles, Thompson accepted an assignment from Sports Illustrated to cover the Mint 400 off-road rally in the desert outside Las Vegas. Claiming he needed a break from the Salazar story, Thompson invited Acosta to join him. Part of his plan was to separate Acosta from his militant colleagues, who openly wondered about his friendship with a white journalist. As Thompson would note later, “We were always in the midst of a crowd of heavy street-fighters who didn’t mind letting me know that they wouldn’t need much of an excuse to chop me into hamburger.” A road trip, he thought, would allow the two men to speak openly and at length.

Thompson rented a convertible, which he later dubbed the Great Red Shark, and the two men drove to Las Vegas on March 20, 1971. In Fear and Loathing, the narrator itemizes an enormous drug cache in the trunk, but the actual contraband consisted of prescription speed, marijuana, and alcohol. That exaggeration and others pushed Thompson’s account toward fiction; another clue is that the two main characters were not real persons. After reading the manuscript, James Silberman said he had trouble believing that Raoul Duke was tripping on heavier drugs. In his reply, Thompson suggested that Silberman keep that reaction to himself; his Rolling Stone colleagues, Thompson said, were quite willing to credit the drug orgies described in the book.

When Thompson and Acosta arrived in Las Vegas, they checked into the Mint Hotel and drove to the Desert Inn for a drink. Debbie Reynolds was performing there with Harry James. She was only five years older than Thompson. James’s career had peaked during the swing era. Thompson also met Aspen musician Bruce Innes at the Circus Circus casino for a drink. Innes had already written “One Tin Soldier,” whose cover version was the theme song for Billy Jack, a popular countercultural film released in 1971. After their visit with Innes, Thompson and Acosta repaired to the Mint Hotel bar and then to their room, where they stayed up all night.

Early the next morning, Thompson drove out to Floyd Lamb State Park to cover the race. After completing his notes, he returned to the hotel, picked up Acosta, and dropped him off at the airport. He soon realized, however, that Acosta had left his attaché case in the car. Back at the hotel, Thompson opened it to find a Colt .357 Magnum, a box of bullets, and a large bag of marijuana. Exhausted by his Dexedrine-fueled weekend, he panicked. Nevada had some of the toughest marijuana laws in the country. Moreover, Thompson had little cash, an unreliable credit card, and no confirmation that Sports Illustrated would foot his hotel bill. He decided to return to Southern California without paying it. He drove to Arcadia, checked into a Ramada Inn, and fleshed out his notes for the Sports Illustrated piece.

At 2,500 words, his draft far exceeded the 250-word slot the editors had set aside, and Thompson was predictably irate when they declined to run it. The rejection, however, triggered an important decision. Instead of cutting his losses, Thompson chose to recast his Las Vegas story and offer it to Rolling Stone. He drafted an even longer version with Raoul Duke and his attorney, Dr. Gonzo, as the protagonists. He shared it with Rolling Stone editor David Felton. Felton, who was based in Pasadena and edited his Salazar piece, encouraged him to pursue it. Shortly after that, Thompson circulated the first chapter at the magazine’s San Francisco office. From the opening paragraph, Rolling Stone co-founder Jann Wenner and his colleagues were knocked out.

The Mint 400 expedition sufficed for a long Rolling Stone article, but Felton alerted Thompson to a drug enforcement meeting that would convene in Las Vegas later that month. Sponsored by the National District Attorneys Association, the four-day conference was held at the Dunes Hotel. Thompson and Acosta flew to Las Vegas, rented a white Cadillac convertible, and checked in to the Flamingo Hotel and Casino. Thompson brought a tape recorder and collected more than 100 minutes of commentary and conversation. By now, he was relishing the audacity of his project. In the story, Duke notes that he and Dr. Gonzo were observers during their first visit:

But this time our very presence would be an outrage. We would be attending the conference under false pretenses and dealing, from the start, with a crowd that was convened for the stated purpose of putting people like us in jail. […] If the Pigs were gathering in Vegas for a top-level Drug Conference, we felt the drug culture should be represented.

Thompson and Acosta attended several conference sessions, which made Acosta uncomfortable. “They’re all a bunch of lily-colored liverworts,” he said on tape. “Dodging all the significant issues of the day. They’re spending millions and billions of dollars on rehabilitating persons that they’d obviously like to kill.”

That summer, Thompson returned home to develop the story. Unlike most of the copy he submitted to Rolling Stone, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” came in clean. Even so, the magazine’s editors grappled with it, checking facts and constructing timelines. Thompson told Wenner he would be better off fact-checking a Bob Dylan song or Naked Lunch, but the generic confusion was understandable. The Las Vegas story was neither New Journalism nor traditional fiction, though it overlapped with each. In this case, Thompson claimed later, the work began as a piece of journalism:

My idea was to buy a fat notebook and record the whole thing, as it happened, then send in the notebook for publication — without editing. That way, I felt, the eye & mind of the journalist would be functioning as a camera. The writing would be selective & necessarily interpretive — but once the image was written, the words would be final; in the same way that a Cartier-Bresson photograph is always (he says) the full-frame negative. No alterations in the darkroom, no cutting or cropping, no spotting … no editing.

That plan was too difficult to execute, Thompson later admitted. In the end, he found himself “imposing an essentially fictional framework on what began as a piece of straight/crazy journalism.” Later, he called the book a “nonfiction novel,” which only deepened the generic ambiguity.

As he composed his story, Thompson was unsure how it would appear in book form or even who would publish it. He worried that the story, if packaged with his serious journalism, would undermine his authority. He told Silberman that the last thing he wanted was to “confuse payment of a legitimate debt with the permanent destruction of my credibility.” Thompson did not yet realize that his Gonzo persona, which the Las Vegas project would crystallize, was his most valuable literary asset.

In 1972, Random House published Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as a nonfiction title. The subtitle (“A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream”) reflected the original concept. In one section, which transcribed taped conversations between Thompson and Acosta, Duke and Dr. Gonzo search ironically for that dream in a scratchy part of Las Vegas. A critical and commercial success, the book satisfied Thompson’s contractual obligation but strained his relationship with Acosta to a breaking point.

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As the Las Vegas story headed toward publication, Acosta and Thompson exchanged sharp letters. In Acosta’s view, he and Thompson had formed a partnership on the Salazar story; by extension, that partnership included the Las Vegas adventure. “Like, did you even so much as ask me if I minded your writing and printing the Vegas piece?” Acosta asked. “Not even the fucking courtesy to show me the motherfucker.” (In fact, Acosta saw the first half of the Rolling Stone piece at the Flamingo.) Acosta was also frustrated by Thompson’s condescension. “All I want,” he explained in a long letter to Thompson, “is for you to quit playing the role that I’m some fucking native, a noble savage you discovered in the woods.” Thompson fired off a ferocious reply:

You don’t know how fucking lucky you are that I didn’t run into you cold, as a stranger, on something like the Salazar piece — because, with an act like yours, I’d have crucified you on general principles. Shit, you’re lucky that the L.A. press is a bunch of lame hacks; anybody good would screw you to the fucking floor.

After Acosta pushed for some form of public recognition, Thompson told him that Random House would probably use a photograph of the two men on the back cover without identification. “Let me know if you plan to object,” Thompson wrote. When Acosta threatened a libel action, Thompson lost all patience. “Dear Oscar,” he wrote in April 1972, “You stupid fuck; send me a mailing address so I can explain what’s happening because of what you’ve done.” Acosta’s legal threat served neither of them, Thompson maintained, and he sarcastically called Acosta a credit to his race. “I assume you had some excellent, long-stewing reason for doing this cheap, acid-crippled, paranoid fuckaround,” he added.

Even after Acosta signed a release drafted by the publisher’s legal team, the discord continued. The next year, Acosta said he was planning to sue for gross fraud over the sale of the film rights. By that time, Rolling Stone’s book division had published The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo, but in a letter to Thompson, Acosta vented his frustration:

I’ve been silent on the subject for almost two years because of the blackmail threats from both you and Jann that ultimately my book could be stopped. Well, old pal, the book is out now, and I’m coming after you. You cocksuckers have been ripping me off for a long time.

Acosta urged Thompson to make him an offer: “It would be better for all if we settled it and forgot it. Besides, you can afford it now.”

Later that year, Acosta’s tone took a dramatic turn. After he was charged with illegal possession of Benzedrine, he told Thompson he had been blackballed in San Francisco and Los Angeles and was living on food stamps and petty theft. “I am still looking to you as my only serious white connection for the big contract … the way it looks from here, I’d even settle for a small one.” He asked that Thompson send immediate “seed money” to explore a political alliance between Thompson’s freaks and his Chicano allies, whom he called cucarachas. (His second book, which appeared in 1973, was called The Revolt of the Cockroach People.) He also asked Thompson to forward his share of the film rights for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. “Money-wise, I am desperate,” he closed. “Send help to the above address, quick … thanx.”

Thompson replied immediately. “What in the fuck would cause you to ask me for money — after all the insane bullshit you’ve put me through for the past two years?” The film rights had not been sold, Thompson claimed, and Acosta’s legal threats might have scotched that sale for good. “Anyway, good luck with your grudge. No doubt it will make you as many good friends in the future as it has in the past.” He closed with a salvo:

As for me, my attorney advises me that I can at least deduct something around $10,000 for losses you have caused me in ’73. In the meantime, why don’t you write a nice movie? Or a book? You shouldn’t have any trouble selling the fucker, considering all the people you’ve fucked over & burned …

Good luck,
Whitey

Despite the rancor, the two men kept in touch. Thompson last saw Acosta at the Seal Rock Inn in San Francisco, where Thompson finished Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72. Acosta had drifted away from the legal profession, and Rolling Stone was folding its book operation. “So he decided to get another business, and he needed money,” Thompson said later. He declined the request, and Acosta was last heard from in May 1974, when he told his son on the telephone that he was “about to board a boat of white snow” in Mazatlán. A private investigator concluded that Acosta’s disappearance was probably a political assassination or murder at the hands of drug dealers.

Two years before Acosta’s death became official, Rolling Stone ran Thompson’s eulogy for him, “The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat.” Its length, tone, and detail reflect an important fact: Acosta contributed directly and significantly to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and “Strange Rumblings in Aztlan.” But the literary debt was reciprocal. The association between Thompson and Acosta led to the publication of The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo and The Revolt of the Cockroach People. Moreover, Thompson’s eulogy kept Acosta in public view after his death, and his introductions to Acosta’s paperback editions helped resuscitate that fiction. If Dr. Gonzo was little more than Raoul Duke’s wingman, a closer look at the relationship between Thompson and Acosta suggests that each author helped the other become himself.

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Portions of this essay appear in Peter Richardson’s Savage Journey: Hunter S. Thompson and the Weird Road to Gonzo.

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Peter Richardson teaches humanities and American Studies at San Francisco State University. He has written critically acclaimed books about the Grateful Dead, Ramparts magazine, and Carey McWilliams. He received the National Entertainment Journalism Award for Online Criticism in 2013.