Hunter S. Thompson’s Last Assistant Speaks with Journalism Students
By Billy Ludt
Soon before Hunter S. Thompson wrote his suicide note titled, “Football Season is Over,” he visited Sean Penn on the set of “All the King’s Men,” in a wheelchair – a fact that his former writing assistant saw as a sign that he was feeling his own mortality.
Sari Tuschman told Youngstown State University journalism students, “Perhaps he was having a sense he was getting kind of older and not that mobile anymore in a way that he had been.”
Students in Alyssa Lenhoff’s Journalism as Literature course read “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” and Lenhoff contacted Tuschman for a Skype call.Thompson is known for borrowing tools of fiction writers for journalistic pursuits. Some of his works include: “Hell’s Angels,” “Fear and Loathing in Campaign Trail,” “The Rum Diary” and “The Great Shark Hunt.”
Tuschman, who lives in Los Angeles, is the editorial director of “The Zoe Report,” an internet-based fashion magazine.
She had lived in Aspen, Colorado for eight years, working as a senior editor at Aspen Magazine by day and Thompson’s assistant by night. Thompson, well known for living in the neighboring town of Woody Creek, liked to have a hand in local politics and local news.
“He felt that local politics was the one place that you could make a difference, then see it,” she said.
Thompson often called local news organizations to voice opinions. Troy Hooper, a friend of Tuschman’s, worked at the Aspen Daily News and was Thompson’s main correspondent when phoning in.
Hooper told Tuschman that Thompson was seeking a new assistant.
In the past, Thompson’s assistants operated only as “party girls.” Anita, his wife, wanted Thompson’s new assistant to understand words and the facets of reporting, not merely be there for the party.
“I understood the tenets of journalism,” Tuschman said.
In June 2004, Tuschman began working for Thompson.
Tuschman’s duty was to assist Thompson writing his weekly column for ESPN.com. Thompson’s sleep schedule was nocturnal, waking up at 6 p.m. every day to have breakfast. Tuschman would arrive at Thompson’s home at 9 p.m., stay until 3:30 a.m., arrive home at 4 a.m., sleep, then go in to work at Aspen Magazine at 9 a.m.
“We did not always get out the column,” Tuschman said. “In fact, it was a huge feat when we got out the column.”
Tuschman said she got to know a different Thompson than the person who had been portrayed as little more than a volatile drug addict willing to push limits of responsible reporting.
“It was not in any way like a party,” Tuschman said. “The drug use for him was very much like a journalist’s tool. It was a party, for sure, when he did ‘Fear and Loathing [in Las Vegas],’ but by the point in his career and life when I knew him, it was very much about doing something; [drug use] was a part of his life to keep him writing and stay awake.”
Thompson’s treatment of his assistants progressed through a series of hazing.
“I remember we would be watching football, and if the team didn’t score, then it was my fault,” Tuschman said.
If his assistants made it through this series of trials, Thompson’s actions altered drastically.
“He cared about me,” Tuschman said. “We watched ‘Fear and Loathing’ together—which is probably one of my favorite memories of my life—he had his arm around me, but in this affectionate way.”
Tuschman said that Thompson began to take on fatherly qualities, becoming protective of her even. It was easy for Tuschman to get close to Thompson because of his intense personality.
“Hunter’s favorite subject was Hunter,” Tuschman said.
Aside from the column, Tuschman would read from Thompson’s older work, reminding the writer of all he accomplished.
Tuschman juggled assisting Thompson and working on deadline at Aspen Magazine. Yet lack of sleep rarely canceled her visits to Thompson’s home, which he had named, “Owl Farm.”
Thompson’s work, as well as his exploits, garnered attention from people of great importance, and Tuschman said she never knew who she would see behind his door.
“Everyone from world-class journalists, to A-list move stars, to major politicians respected him,” she said.
Even in the short time Tuschman worked for Thompson, his intense demeanor left a huge impact on her. She noticed quirks and had insights pertaining to Thompson that were not brought to light in his work or public image.
Tuschman noted that, despite his unhealthy lifestyle, Thompson always insisted on having something green on his plate.
“He was the most brilliant man I’ve ever been in a room with,” she said.