Arts, Culture & Media

Ralph Steadman helped make Hunter S. Thompson famous — and endured his 'fond torture'

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Credit: Courtesy of Ralph Steadman/Sony Pictures Classics

Ralph Steadman's original cover art for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, by Hunter S. Thompson.

“Gonzo journalist” Hunter S. Thompson probably wouldn't have been half as famous if not for the work of his co-conspirator, illustrator Ralph Steadman.

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.)

Steadman’s style is instantly recognizable: His pictures are splattered with ink, his people twisted and contorted, his lines violent. Perhaps no other illustrator has depicted ugliness as beautifully as he has.

He says the reason his trademark style developed was simple : “Clumsiness.”

“It wasn’t a conscious ‘Jackson Pollock' thing,” he says. If he made a mistake or accidentally splattered ink on the page, he’d let it go and make it part of the drawing. Later, he says, he developed a distinctive “flick of the wrist” he would purposely use to splatter his drawings with ink.

Now Steadman and his ink spots are the subject of a new documentary called For No Good Reason, which comes out on DVD next month. The film takes its title from a response Steadman frequently got from Thompson when he asked, “Why are we doing this, Hunter?”

"For no good reason, Ralph,” Thompson would reply. “For no good reason at all.”

Steadman didn't set out to draw or to become an illustrator. “I was building model airplanes,” he explains. He got an apprenticeship at de Havilland Aircraft Company doing design and technical drawings. “I was doing little scribbles in the border. I hadn’t really made any positive decision to become an artist.”

Then Steadman saw an ad in a newspaper for the Percy V. Bradshaw Press Art School. “Twelve lessons to learn to how to draw,” Steadman says with a hearty laugh. “So I took the course while I was doing military service, but I didn't really get into drawing properly until I came down to London.”

He was offered a job in an editorial office as the in-house cartoonist. His first published cartoon, a drawing about the Suez Canal crisis in 1956, appeared in the Manchester Evening Chronicle.

Then, in 1970, Steadman came to America looking for work. He quickly landed a gig with a literary journal called Scanlan’s, which asked him to cover the Kentucky Derby with a writer he had never heard of: Hunter S. Thompson. The piece they created together, titled "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved," launched both their careers and the style of journalism that came to be called “gonzo.”

Gonzo journalism, Steadman says, is when "you go to cover a story, ostensibly, but in fact you don't cover the story, you become the story.”

Steadman had a very close relationship with Thompson, but one that was also fraught and sometimes abusive. Steadman once told NPR that, after their first collaboration, Thompson kicked him out of his car at the airport, telling him, “Get the hell outta here, you goddamn scumbag.”

“There was a sort of fond torture going on with Hunter,” he explains.

In the documentary, Steadman says to Thompson that it was his illustrations that got Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas noticed and made it iconic. Thompson does not seem pleased. “It wasn’t a denigration in any way of Hunter and his words,” Steadman says. “The words are wonderful. I was just saying [the illustrations] are the 'trademark,' if you like.”

Once he and Thompson became well-known, people expected him to be dark and vicious and theatrical like his partner. “They were expecting me to be unpleasant,” Steadman says. “I said, ‘No, no — all that goes down on paper. Get it out of your system. Don’t harbor aggressive thoughts. Get them out.’”

When Thompson killed himself nine years ago at age 67, Steadman was shocked — but not surprised. “He told me early on, ‘Ralph, I feel real trapped in this life ... I could commit suicide at any moment.’ He had 23 fully loaded guns at Owl Farm in Aspen. I knew that one day he would do it. It’s that old phrase: ‘I always knew that one day I would make this journey, but I did not know yesterday that it would be today.’”

This story first aired as an interview on PRI's Studio 360, a weekly show about arts, culture and creativity.

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