The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved
"The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved" is a seminal sports article by Hunter S. Thompson on the 1970 Kentucky Derby in Louisville, Kentucky, first appearing in an issue of Scanlan's Monthly in June of that year. Though not known at the time, the article marked the first appearance of gonzo journalism, the style that Thompson came to epitomize through the 1970s.
Accompanied by Ralph Steadman's sketches (the first of many collaborations between Thompson and Steadman) the genesis of the article has been described by Thompson as akin to "falling down an elevator shaft and landing in a pool of mermaids". Faced with a deadline and without any coherent story for his editors, Thompson began tearing pages from his notebook, numbering them, and sending them to the magazine. The resulting story, and the manic, first-person subjectivity that characterized it, were the beginnings of the Gonzo style.
The article's focus is less on the actual race itself—indeed, Thompson and Steadman could not actually see the race from their standpoint—and more on the celebration and depravity that surrounds the event, as well as other events in Louisville (Thompson's home town) in the surrounding days. Thompson provides up-close views of life in the Derby infield as well as the grandstand, and a running commentary on the drunkenness and lewdness of the crowd, which he states in narration as the only thing he was focusing on with the work. The narrative ends with a bittersweet anagnorisis somewhat common of Thompson's work in which Thompson and Steadman (the latter of whom also had similar goals to Thompson's, of capturing the debauched atmosphere in his surreal drawings), after several days of immersing themselves in raucous partying and alcoholism to get a sense of the event, realize they're exactly the type of people they originally planned to caricature.
Shortly after Thompson's suicide in 2005, Steadman recalled their meeting at the Kentucky Derby to the British newspaper The Independent. In the article Steadman remembered his first impression of Thompson that day:
- "I had turned around and two fierce eyes, firmly socketed inside a bullet-shaped head, were staring at a strange growth I was nurturing on the end of my chin. 'Holy shit!' he [Thompson] exclaimed. 'They said I was looking for a matted-haired geek with string warts and I guess I've found him.' [...] This man had an impressive head chiselled from one piece of bone, and the top part was covered down to his eyes by a floppy-brimmed sun hat. His top half was draped in a loose-fitting hunting jacket of multi-coloured patchwork. He wore seersucker blue pants, and the whole torso was pivoted on a pair of huge white plimsolls with a fine red trim around the bulkheads. Damn near 6-foot-6 of solid bone and meat holding a beaten-up leather bag across his knee and a loaded cigarette holder between the arthritic fingers of his other hand."
The article was first released in June 1970 edition of Scanlan's Monthly. It was later reprinted in Tom Wolfe's anthology The New Journalism (1973) and also in one of Thompson's own books The Great Shark Hunt (1979), a book collecting several of his earlier works.
The article was not widely read at the time, but Thompson did garner attention from other journalists for its unusual style. In 1970, Bill Cardoso (editor of The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine), wrote Thompson praising the "Kentucky Derby" piece in Scanlan's Monthly as a breakthrough: "This is it, this is pure Gonzo. If this is a start, keep rolling." It is considered the first use of the word Gonzo to describe Thompson's work. Cardoso had first met Thompson on a bus full of journalists covering the 1968 New Hampshire primary. Thompson took to the word right away, and according to illustrator Ralph Steadman said "Okay, that's what I do. Gonzo."
- Sullivan, James (January 21, 2005) Hunter S. Thompson. Rolling Stone.
- Martin, Douglas, (March 16, 2006) Bill Cardoso, 68, Editor Who Coined 'Gonzo', Is Dead. The New York Times.