A 'Decadent And Depraved' Derby With Hunter S. Thompson

A 'Decadent And Depraved' Derby With Hunter S. Thompson

6:27pm May 04, 2013
When illustrator Ralph Steadman accepted an assignment with writer Hunter S. Thompson at the Kentucky Derby, he never imagined the weekend that would ensue. Here, Steadman depicts the race's winner, a colt named Dust Commander.
When illustrator Ralph Steadman accepted an assignment with writer Hunter S. Thompson at the Kentucky Derby, he never imagined the weekend that would ensue. Here, Steadman depicts the race's winner, a colt named Dust Commander.
Ralph Steadman
  • When illustrator Ralph Steadman accepted an assignment with writer Hunter S. Thompson at the Kentucky Derby, he never imagined the weekend that would ensue. Here, Steadman depicts the race's winner, a colt named Dust Commander.

    When illustrator Ralph Steadman accepted an assignment with writer Hunter S. Thompson at the Kentucky Derby, he never imagined the weekend that would ensue. Here, Steadman depicts the race's winner, a colt named Dust Commander.

    Ralph Steadman

  • A self-portrait of Steadman.

    A self-portrait of Steadman.

    Cartoon Museum

  • Steadman's trademark style became inseparable from Thompson's writing, particularly the book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

    Steadman's trademark style became inseparable from Thompson's writing, particularly the book <em>Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas</em>.

    Cartoon Museum

In the spring of 1970, a British illustrator named Ralph Steadman had just moved to America, hoping to find some work. His first call came from a small literary journal called Scanlan's. It was looking for a cartoonist to send to the Kentucky Derby. Steadman had heard of neither the race nor the writer he was to accompany, a fellow named Hunter S. Thompson.

Steadman hadn't read any of Thompson's work, and he certainly didn't know that the writer had a bit of a drinking tendency, but he agreed to go.

One booze-riddled weekend later, Scanlan's published the essay and launched Thompson into stardom. "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved" so fascinated audiences that one Boston Globe writer deemed it "gonzo" — a term that would stick with Hunter S. Thompson for good.

'The Real Beasts Perform'

Steadman and Thompson flew into Louisville separately and met at Churchill Downs to pick up their press credentials. As Thompson led Steadman around the racetrack, it quickly became clear that the two wouldn't be watching much horse racing.

"We went into the inner field first to just look at the people," he tells weekends on All Things Considered host Kelly McEvers. "We were really looking for odd faces. People that were kind of weird, you know? That seemed to become our real purpose."

It was Thompson's idea. They'd seek out the "whiskey gentry," as the writer called them, and there they'd find that face: "a pretentious mix of booze, failed dreams and a terminal identity crisis."

That search became the central narrative of the essay. "We didn't give a hoot in hell what was happening on the track," Thompson wrote. "We'd come to watch the real beasts perform."

At The Pendennis Club

At one point during the debauched weekend, Thompson and Steadman dined at the Pendennis Club, a private club in downtown Louisville. Thompson had arranged the upscale lunch with Steadman and a young couple Thompson knew.

"In a funny sort of way, he was an old-fashioned Kentucky boy," Steadman says.

During the lunch, the wife noticed Steadman's art supplies and asked for a portrait. Steadman was happy enough to oblige.

His trademark style, though, is distorted and a little disturbing — not exactly a lifelike reproduction. It would come to be inseparable from Thompson's writing, but at the 1970 Derby, Steadman's subjects were not often pleased.

"She said, 'That ain't pretty, I'm pretty, ain't I?' " Steadman remembers. "And Hunter said, 'Stop that filthy scribbling, Ralph.' "

The situation escalated, and the ensuing ruckus resulted in the two being forcefully escorted from the club. At least that's the way Thompson recalled it in his essay. But there's one other tiny detail to that story.

"Hunter maced people in the restaurant in order to get me out safe," Steadman says, laughing. "He was looking after me, you see."

Monday Morning

After a hard weekend of drinking and drugs, Thompson and Steadman eventually found that face they were looking for. On the Monday morning after the race, the two stumbled out of bed and caught sight of a mirror.

"[Thompson] becomes part of the story, and that's what always happened with us," Steadman remembers. "We sort of melded together."

The Scanlan's article ends with Thompson driving Steadman to the airport, and the writer unceremoniously kicking him out of the car. That's totally true, Steadman says.

"He took me to the airport and was like, 'Get the hell outta here, you goddamn scumbag. Get outta here,' " he says. "I just thought I'd never hear from him again."

So Steadman went home to London, where he had a short-lived job with the London Times -- which fired him after readers complained about his disturbing cartoons.

"Then I heard from Hunter," he says. " 'Ralph, what are you working on? Do you want to come back over here?' I said, 'What for? You told me to get out of here.' 'That was just talk, Ralph, just talk. I think I had a good time. I hope you did.' So I said, 'Yes, up to a point, yes, it was great.' "

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Transcript

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

If you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Kelly McEvers.

Today is Derby Day, the 139th Kentucky Derby. This race has always been a spectacle - big hats, big bets. And as Hunter S. Thompson described it, big drinking.

TIM ROBBINS: (Reading) That whole thing, I said, will be jammed with people; 50,000 or so, most of them staggering drunk. It's a fantastic scene - thousands of people fainting, crying, copulating, trampling each other, fighting with broken whiskey bottles.

MCEVERS: That's actor Tim Robbins reading from an essay Thompson wrote in 1970 called "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved." The essay chronicles a very boozy weekend, something Thompson later became famous for. And it was this essay that first inspired the term "gonzo journalism." Thompson's companion that weekend was British illustrator Ralph Steadman. The two eventually would become lifelong collaborators: all the "Fear and Loathing" projects, the Rolling Stone articles.

The 1970 Derby is the first time the two ever met. Steadman says it took them two days to find each other. When they finally did meet, the drinking started almost immediately.

RALPH STEADMAN: I turned around and this bullet head of a man - huge, 6'4, standing in front of me - he said: Are you from England? Yes. Are you Hunter S. Thompson? He said: Yes, I am. Maybe we should get a beer together and sit down.

(LAUGHTER)

MCEVERS: Did you ever manage to see the actual race?

STEADMAN: Yeah. We went into the inner field first, and just to look at the people. We were really looking for odd faces, people that were kind of weird, you know? That seemed to become our real purpose.

ROBBINS: (Reading) He had done a few good sketches, but so far we hadn't seen that special kind of face that I felt we would need for a lead drawing. It was a face I'd seen a thousand times at every Derby I'd ever been to. I saw it, in my head, as the mask of the whiskey gentry - a pretentious mix of booze, failed dreams and terminal identity crisis.

MCEVERS: The face of the whiskey gentry. Was that his idea? Was that your idea? Did you guys come up with it together?

STEADMAN: No. That was his idea, actually. That's what - you see, he becomes part of the story. And that's what always happened with us. We sort of melded together.

MCEVERS: What was it like to work with this guy? I mean, there's this passage in the "Kentucky Derby" essay where he says you guys got kicked out of a restaurant because of you and your disturbing drawings. But actually...

STEADMAN: Well, I kept drawing people everywhere I was. I had a habit, I had a compulsion - still do - a compulsion to draw things. I mean, in a funny sort of way, he was an old-fashioned Kentucky boy. He took me to meet his friends at the Pendennis Club, some guy and his wife. And the wife got sort of interested, and she said: Would you draw me? So I started drawing her, scribbling her down. She says: That ain't purty. I'm purty, ain't I?

(LAUGHTER)

STEADMAN: And then Hunter said: Stop that filthy scribbling, Ralph.

MCEVERS: But then you say that it's because he maced the waiter.

STEADMAN: Yeah, he did. Yeah. Hunter maced people in the restaurant in order to get me out safe.

MCEVERS: Good to know. At the end of this essay, Hunter Thompson actually spies the face, you know, that you guys had been looking for this whole time, the whiskey gentry. Let's listen here for a second.

ROBBINS: (Reading) There he was, by God - a puffy, drink-ravaged, disease-ridden caricature, like an awful cartoon version of an old snapshot in some once-proud mother's family photo album. It was the face we've been looking for - and it was, of course, my own.

(LAUGHTER)

MCEVERS: So it's true. You guys were that depraved by the end of the weekend.

STEADMAN: We were, by the end of the week, yeah. He sent me off. I thought I'd never speak to him again.

MCEVERS: He kicks you - I mean, he kicks you out of the car.

STEADMAN: He took me to the airport and said: Get the hell out of here. You (bleep) damn scumbag, you know.

MCEVERS: Was there a point when the two of you kind of had to make up?

STEADMAN: No, no. No, no. I thought - I just thought I'd never hear from him again. I did go back to England. Then I heard from Hunter: Ralph, do you want to come back over here? I said: What for? You told me to get out of here. Well, that was just talk, Ralph, just talk. I think I had a good time, you know. I hope you did. So I said: Yeah. Up to a point, yes. It was great.

MCEVERS: You were also the artist for Flying Dog beer labels. I just want to tell you we're cracking open a bottle of that beer right now. Here goes...

(SOUNDBITE OF BOTTLE CAP POPPING)

MCEVERS: Ah, there you go.

STEADMAN: Wow. There you go.

MCEVERS: In your honor, I'm going to take a little drink here. Mm-hmm.

STEADMAN: Ah, bless you. That's lovely. That's great.

(LAUGHTER)

MCEVERS: Thank you so much. Ralph Steadman, cartoonist, artist and long-time collaborator with Hunter S. Thompson. Mr. Steadman, thanks again.

STEADMAN: Well, bless your heart. Absolutely wonderful speaking to you.

MCEVERS: A retrospective of Ralph Steadman's work has just opened at the Cartoon Museum in London. And those recordings you heard of Hunter S. Thompson's essay were released last year with Tim Robbins as Thompson and Mr. Steadman as himself. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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