Fear and Loathing in San Francisco
With Hunter S. Thompson
Warren Sharpe
Brian Kevin was searching for Hunter Thompson's ghost during his South American adventures, but this writer was sucked into the all-too-real manic Gonzo vortex after the Democratic National Convention in 1984.

July, 1984, the Democratic National Convention is coming to the Moscone Center in San Francisco and I'll have full press accreditation. It's like the Superbowl or Mardi Gras: Goofy hats, media celebs, politico bigwigs, parties and the attendant circus --- this is going to be fun!

I was managing editor of San Francisco Focus magazine, the program guide for San Francisco PBS station KQED, that we were trying to turn into a cool city magazine, the hot publishing phenomenon of the 80s. I'd put the July issue together weeks earlier, of course. I called Don Novello, a Bay Area comedian best known for his persona Father Guido Sarducci, the chain-smoking priest with the tinted eyeglasses who was "gossip columnist and rock critic for L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican daily newspaper." He became nationally famous through his many appearances on Saturday Night Live.

We had lunch a couple of times in North Beach and we worked out a routine that I fashioned into an interview --- "Italian restaurants are great --- cops and priests always eat free;"

    I won't be in San Francisco long: I have to be in Los Angeles for the Olympics. I have a place on the Vatican boche ball team. Our captain is the Pope. He's a'pretty good, but he's old.

I arranged our cover shoot with Don/Guido perched on a donkey.

I cleared my desk so I could take full advantage of this four-day spectacle and the day before the convention was to begin I sauntered over to Moscone Convention Center to claim my coveted press badge and check on the frenzied preparations for the next day's opening session.

It was on a whim that I stepped into the Cadillac Bar & Grill across the alley from Moscone. And there he was, unmistakably Hunter S. Tompson, balding pate, cigarette holder, tinted eyeglasses, the rangy body that he seems uncomfortable inhabiting, draped over the jukebox in the corner. The media gossip buzz had it that he wouldn't show this year and I told him as much when I approached him and introduced myself. I didn't catch his mumbled response, but accepted the Corona he offered me. "Just bracing myself before facing the hoopla," he told me.

I walked him over to Moscone and the registration booth and pointed out the Wells Fargo Press Lounge --- Anchor Steam Beer on tap! --- and left him there. I saw him several times over the course of the Convention and he was always surrounded by a retinue and diverse hangers on. I certainly wasn't going to contribute to the "hoopla." Instead, along with my then wife Elena and my friend the novelist Steve Chapple, we were los tres amigos aggressively working the Democratic party circuit. Our greatest triumph was crashing the Kennedy party at the St. Francis Hotel --- avoid all eye contact with the security guys, stick your hand out to the first politico you see --- they are genetically incapable of rejecting a hand shake.

I spent the days on the Convention floor and in the press lounge --- Anchor Steam Beer on tap! And at the end reflected on the week's events. It had been less than electrifying: the nominee,Walter Mondale was somewhat lacking in the charisma department, but the choice for Vice President, Garaldine Ferraro, ensured that this would be an historic convention: the first time a woman had been nominated for the post.

The following Monday was when it started to get weird. I was at home when the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson came on. "Tonight's guest host: Joan Rivers with guests Father Guido Sarducci . . ." I watched as Don Novello worked his way through our routine. The phone rang and I answered it to hear that unmistakable growl "Warren? It's Hunter Thompson. Say, where can I get a decent hamburger at this hour." I glanced at the clock, it was almost midnight. I thought for a moment and told him to meet me at Hamburger Mary's, a legendary lesbian-run joint in the so-called leather district, South of Market.

Fifteen minutes after I arrived he showed up with his cab driver who was carrying a bottle of Chivas Regal, a fifth of Stolichnaya and half a dozen grapefruits. Oh, yes, I've seen this movie before: this was "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" or "Where the Buffalo Roam," but this wasn't Johnny Depp or Bill Murray, it was Dr. Gonzo himself.

I took him back to his hotel on Market Street, where it became apparent that he was seriously blocked or had absolutely no interest in filing his piece on the convention for Rolling Stone magazine. I even plugged in his IBM Selectric, but try as I might, he had other obsessions.

He talked at length about work he was doing with Maureen Dean, wife of the Watergate figure. Their concern was the 1983 invasion of the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada. Ronald Reagan sent U.S. Marines to overthrow a left-leaning government, under the guise of saving American medical students attending the island's medical college. Apparently some members of the former government were still in custody and others under forced exile.

Truth be told, I had trouble following his narrative. We drank, consumed copious quantities of cocaine, hashish and some purple pharmaceuticals that I think might have been Darvon. "They work best if you keep drinking," he insisted.

The next night Hunter brought out his collection of evil-looking assault knives, box cutters and other retractable blade devices, demonstrating how easily they could shred newspaper, cardboard and even carving a chunk out of a table. No firearms, thank goodness. And so it went again into the wee hours.

On night three there was a new Thompson obsession: Vanessa Williams, the reigning Miss America and the first African-American woman to be so chosen, was forced to give up her crown because Penthouse magazine had bought and were to publish her nude photo spread. Finding a copy of the magazine was of paramount importance, requiring the search of each of the myriad news stands, bookstores and porno shops of downtown San Francisco and the Tenderloin.

Our quest was fruitless, so we returned to the hotel for solace and another night of carousing. I vaguely recall a disjointed discussion of Vanessa Williams and Geraldine Ferraro as symbol or metaphor or whatever. Needless to add, the Selectric remained unused.

This was starting to take its toll on me: subsisting on two or three hours sleep a night; going through the motions of a full day's work at the office while Thompson slept with his TV set on the white noise between channels; long, blurry nights of drug and alcohol abuse; food merely an afterthought.

It was my wife Elena who saved the day; she brooked no bullshit and didn't care much for this Hunter Thomson character. In a kind of intervention, she met with my publisher and arranged for us to join a press familiarization weekend sponsored by Heavenly Valley to extol the delights of summer in the Tahoe mountains. I was told in no uncertain terms on Friday morning I was to be home early so that we could join the group for the van transporting us to Heavenly. Hiking, healthy food, it was to be my rehabilitation. And so it was.

When we returned to the city on Sunday evening, Thompson had apparently left town; I suspect Rolling Stone had canceled his credit line.

But that was't quite the end of it; the four a.m. phone calls continued for weeks. Elena answered with a stony "yes?"

"Oh, I can't remember your name," came the familiar growl. "But I remember you with terrifying clarity. Is Warren there?"

"No," she said. "Stop calling here."

Go to the writer's
of a new book about Hunter Thompson

Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH