It’s hard to believe that 49 years ago this very week, Hunter S. Thompson was preparing to attend the 1970 Kentucky Derby, where he would gather the experiences he used to pen “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” and also where he would first meet his longtime friend, collaborator and artist, Ralph Steadman.
After that Gonzo-style, first-person article came out in Scanlan’s Monthly in June of 1970, pointing out the disparity of Derby attendees and drunkeness and debauchery that is the infield, some Kentuckians and Derby enthusiasts were a little put off by the nutty journalist from Louisville.
But time heals all wounds, they say, and now Kentucky — and Churchill Downs — is honoring its acclaimed writer with three exhibitions throughout the spring and summer, as well as an entire day at the races dedicated to Thompson, called “Thurby Goes Gonzo,” to be held Thursday, May 2.
(Steadman will be at the track signing his latest artwork and poster dedicated to Thompson from 2 to 3 p.m. It marks the first time the illustrator has been back to Louisville since 1970.)
We’re wondering if Thompson is rolling in his grave or perhaps rolling with laughter at the irony of it all.
Either way, the exhibit, “Freak Power: Hunter S. Thompson’s Campaign for Sheriff,” opens Tuesday, April 30, at the Frazier History Museum. The dozens of photographs, campaign posters and writings tell the story of Thompson’s run for sheriff in Aspen, Colo., in 1970.
It also examines the writer’s more serious political essays.
Later this summer, “Gonzo! The Illustrated Guide to Hunter S. Thompson” will open at the Speed Art Museum on July 12 as a kickoff to the ninth annual GonzoFest Louisville, which will once again be held at the Louisville Free Public Library on July 20. And currently, the University of Kentucky Art Museum in Lexington is hosting “Ralph Steadman: A Retrospective.”
At the Frazier Museum’s media opening for “Freak Power” — held Tuesday morning and attended by Mayor Greg Fischer, members of each participating venue and even a Hunter S. Thompson impersonator — Frazier President Penny Peavler explained that it was important for the museum to recognize and commemorate the achievements of Louisville’s native son.
The exhibit, she said, focuses not only on Thompson’s campaign for sheriff but also his more political writings that were a call to action for many people. “He should be remembered as a fearless opponent of corruption and a man who wrote with a fearless intellect,” she added.
Mayor Fischer recalled first reading some of Thompson’s essays, notably “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” while in college, and he said Louisville should be proud to embrace the author who inspired generations of writers and readers.
“Freak Power” was curated by Daniel Joseph Watkins, an author based in Aspen who created the Gonzo Museum and also wrote a book that shares the same name as the exhibit in 2015.
Watkins also was on hand at the news conference and was honored to share his work with Louisville.
“The legend has grown larger than the man himself,” said Watkins.
The exhibit features more than 125 limited-edition silkscreen prints, offset lithographs, magazine covers and documentary photographs, as well as a recreation of Thompson’s “Owl Farm” kitchen, part of the secluded cabin he lived in, in Colorado, until his death in 2005. It was said that he used his kitchen as his office and wrote thousands of letters and essays from there.
There’s also a section dedicated to his childhood home in Louisville, located at 2437 Ransdell Ave.
Near the pictures of this home is part of a letter Thompson wrote to his mother around 1960. It read:
If I could think of a way to do it right now, I’d head back to Louisville, sit on the porch drinking beer, drive around Cherokee Park for a few nights, and try to sink back as far as I could into the world that did its best to make me. It’s not hard to get tired of interminable palms and poinciana, and I could do at the moment with a single elm tree on a midnight street in the Highlands.
“Freak Power” at the Frazier continues through Sept. 2. The Speed’s “Gonzo!” exhibit will run July 12 through Nov. 10, and the UK Art Museum’s “Steadman: Retrospective” exhibit ends Sunday, May 5. Visitors to each of these exhibits will receive a commemorative button created by Steadman, and if you collect all three, you can claim a free gift from the Speed Gift Shop after its exhibit opens.
Below are more photos from the exhibit and press conference: