Elk antlers purloined by gonzo journalist returned at last to Hemingway’s Ketchum
by Allen Best
KETCHUM, Idaho – When Hunter Thompson was 27 years old, he traveled to Ketchum, at the foot of the Sun Valley ski area. Ernest Hemingway, the writing icon, had moved there in the late 1950s and, in 1961, had committed suicide, shooting himself.
Thompson had idolized Hemingway. As a young writer, he tried to ingrain Hemingway’s sentence structure into his head by typing passages from the great one’s novels. But in 1964, he visited Ketchum for another purpose. He wanted to understand why his hero had gone there to spend his final years.
“Aside from the brute beauty of the mountains, he must have recognized an atavistic distinctiveness in the people that piqued his sense of dramatic possibilities,” he wrote in a story published in a long-defunct periodical called the National Observer. But he also concluded that Hemingway was an “old, sick and very troubled man” at the end, looking for a refuge.
Thompson got his story—but he also nabbed something from Hemingway’s home: a pair of elk antlers that hung from an entrance to the home.
A few years later, Thompson began carving out a place for himself as probably the most distinctive American writer of his day, using a form of outsized, first-person journalism that he called gonzo. Covering the 1972 president campaigns of Richard Nixon and George McGovern, his long, exciting and insightful pieces in Rolling Stone gave the magazine a stature that elevated it as a serious publication. McGovern’s campaign strategist, Frank Mankiewicz, later said that Thompson’s reporting was “the most accurate and least factual account of that campaign.”
In time, Thompson also became disabled and perhaps very troubled. In February 2005, at his long-time home along Woody Creek, outside Aspen, he used a gun to kill himself.
It just so happened that there was a story in the Aspen Times that week about Hemingway’s home in Ketchum (a Mountain Town News dispatch similar to this one). It is not known whether he saw it or it motivated to emulate his hero. He had, however, talked about suicide previously.
He had also told his young wife, Anita Thompson, that he regretted stealing the antlers, which he had hung in his garage. He talked about a road trip to Idaho to return the antlers. In an interview with historian Douglas Brinkley that appeared in Rolling Stone after his death, Thompson had confided his theft publicly.
Recently, his widow did return the antlers to Ketchum, but the antlers won’t stay there for long. The Idaho Mountain Express reports that they are bound for a Hemingway collection in New York.