Anita Thompson: 'Hunter is still around'

The widow of Hunter S Thompson was shattered by his suicide but is launching a magazine in the spirit of the gonzo writer, to defend his beloved 'cowboy Shangri-La'. By David Usborne
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Anita Thompson was alone shortly before Christmas in the hillside home she shared with her late husband, Hunter S Thompson, the legendary pied piper of gonzo journalism, who shot himself in the kitchen last February. Suitably fortified from a strong gin and tonic, she picked up the phone and began dialing.

It was a fateful moment which, she freely admits, may turn out to haunt her in the months ahead. She was simply canvassing a few of her local friends about an idea she had had: launching a very low-key "paper-and-stapler" magazine about the Rocky Mountain valley they shared and that her husband had helped make famous, Woody Creek. She even had a potential name for it, The Woody Creeker.

To her slight surprise, everyone she spoke to seemed delighted with the idea. Woody Creek, about a 10-minute drive, but a world away in lifestyle and politics, from the upscale Colorado ski resort of Aspen, was the carefully protected spiritual home of her husband and his decades of drug-fuelled, stream-of-consciousness writing. It seemed an appropriate tribute to record its goings-on now that he has departed.

"I left messages mostly," she explained at the end of last week. "I had just come to realise how grateful I was living in a community like this that is such a rare place and really Hunter had helped to create." Left behind, she is still living the Woody Creek lifestyle. "I thought, 'We should be recording it at least.'" The messages were all answered almost at once. "People were immediately very excited."

And so it was that, a few days before the New Year, she had her first "staff" meeting at the home she inherited from Thompson, Owl Creek Farm. Amid the shared enthusiasm, jobs were quickly allocated. Tex Weaver, a local carpenter best known for never uttering a sentence without at least one expletive, would be her poetry editor. She, of course, would the publisher, managing editor and general boss.

Gaylord Guenin, an old best pal of Thompson's and a former mayor of Woody Creek, would write for the magazine too, as would George Stranahan, a local rancher and self-styled outlaw. So will Jimmy Ibbotson, a former member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, apparently forgiven for firing off a shotgun during Thompson's now infamous and celebrity-packed funeral in August, when Anita followed his instructions that his ashes should be fired into the night sky packed into firework rockets.

If this sounds like a charmingly amateur enterprise, done mostly for love, be aware that there will be some world-class content too. Most notably, the literary humorist PJ O'Rourke has promised Anita that he will write a profile of her late husband for the first issue, based on interviews he did with him in 1987 and 1997. She also hopes that Ralph Steadman, the cartoonist who draws for this newspaper and who is one of the family's oldest friends, will also give of his talent to the magazine.

But, at least at first, the business plan was, shall we say, modest. "I was thinking that the first run would be about 100 copies, you know, just for Woody Creekers," Anita recalls. When she said paper and staples, she meant it. And a photocopier. She had no notions of using colour or anything fancy.

But then a local reporter from Aspen got wind of the project and wrote about it early last week. That was when she realised there was no going back and that the Creeker would be more than a parish news sheet. By last Thursday, more than 100 Hunter Thompson fans around the world, many from Britain, had contacted the Woody Creek convenience shop to ask how they could get subscriptions. On Friday, she called the phone company and had her home number re-listed under The Woody Creeker.

"It's a bizarre phenomenon, but I guess people are just really thirsty for anything to do with Hunter, where he came from, what his work was about," said Anita, who is 32, and had only been married to Thompson for a year and a half when he died, although she moved in with him six years ago.

Memorialising her husband has been the therapy that has helped Anita get through the grief since he committed suicide, apparently out of despondency over his failing health. For the last several months, she has been collecting and cataloguing his many musings and aphorisms, which she hopes to combine in a book to be called Hunter's Wisdom. That, however, will now be pushed on to the back burner by the magazine. "When we got married," says Anita, "he promised me 10 years. With this going on, I get the feeling he is still around."

The magazine is also an expression of her gratitude to the community she lives in for helping her get through. "This is me giving back a little bit. The community has been so great to me, I can't even tell you. I wouldn't have survived in any other place, so the least I can do is put something back in the pot."

If Woody Creek stands for anything, it is a place removed from orthodoxy and conformity. "It's such a beautiful place, like a beatnik, cowboy Shangri-la," she explains. "People who are offbeat and strange or crazy are welcome here as if they were normal. And Hunter helped create that reality, actually. You can be yourself in Woody Creek, and people are very smart here." Residents also include Henry Catto, a US ambassador to Britain during the administration of George Bush Sr .

Now that the world knows about the magazine, it will have to be something a bit more ambitious than she originally imagined, Anita admits. She wants the first issue to be ready in February, and colour is no longer out of the question - perhaps on the cover at least. The first print run has now been targeted at 1,000 copies; she says she is committed to producing it monthly for at least a year.

There is one contradiction that Anita faces. The wonder of Woody Creek has been its isolation and sense of apartness from the rest of the world. What if a magazine bearing its name becomes a bit too successful, and brings marauding hordes to the valley? "We all worry about that," she admits, but adds that Creekers have plenty of experience warding off barbarians, especially with jet-setting Aspen so close. "We will share our stories, but not the land. People have been trying to pounce on Woody Creek for some 50 years, since the boom hit in Aspen. It's our responsibility to keep human beings living here, not those corporate criminals of war with their mansions."

Nor will this be a magazine with free give-aways, pages of advertising from corporate America or a fancy Manhattan launch. Hunter would surely approve of what she is doing, she says, so long as it is in the freewheeling spirit of new journalism that he helped to invent in the 1960s and 1970s with books such as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. "I really do want to keep it pure and be able to write and publish whatever we feel like publishing," she insists. "The history of Woody Creek is very important, and it will be mixed with what is going on here now."

It is time, however, to let Anita go. She has pieces to commission, subscription lists to compile, printers to negotiate with and budget questions to resolve. "I have no experience editing a magazine, so this is going to be a very steep learning curve." And now the word is out, there is no turning back.


Born: Anita Bejmuk in Fort Collins, Colorado, on 27 September 1972 - a 35-year age difference with Thompson. "I always loved the company of older men, and Hunter was the most incredible older man I had ever known." Her parents, Barbara and Alex, were Polish immigrants, who divorced almost the moment she was born. Alex, who was a property developer, now lives in Ukraine. Barbara is still in Fort Collins.

Education: Included two years at a private school in Lugano, Switzerland and another year at the exclusive Cheshire Academy in Connecticut. "I hated it, I wasn't hip enough and they hated me." Studied at UCLA in Los Angeles, but never graduated.

Career: After UCLA, she worked as fundraiser for a San Francisco environmental body, the Sierra Group: "It seemed like a lifetime." She returned to Fort Collins, before leaving for Aspen to ski "just for a winter". She stayed, working in a ski store on the slopes then for five years as a nanny for various families. "I am blessed that I get on very well with children. I adore children." In 1999, she was hired by Thompson as his assistant - "researcher, editor, photocopier and cook".

Lucky break: The day she told a friend that she was interested in learning about American football, and he said he knew a friend who could help. That was Hunter Thompson. Soon afterwards, she was watching a game in his house, and love struck.