Ralph Steadman Remembers Gonzo Journalist Hunter S. Thompson: 'He Used to Have Six Bloody Marys on a Breakfast Tray'

Rumble in the Jungle
"Escaping From Kinshasa," an original sketch by Ralph Steadman, inspired by his experience with the Rumble in the Jungle fight. Ralph Steadman/Moogfest

Hunter S. Thompson and Ralph Steadman were supposed to cover the Rumble in the Jungle together.

It was to be the greatest sporting event of the 20th century, an epic 1974 boxing showdown between world heavyweight champion George Foreman and Muhammad Ali in Kinshasa, Zaire. The late Thompson, the intemperate gonzo journalist, and Steadman, his illustrator-sidekick known for delightfully ghoulish drawings, had become a madcap journalistic duo several years prior when they drunkenly covered the Kentucky Derby together, resulting in Thompson's famous—and profoundly influential—stream-of-consciousness piece "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved."

A new genre emerged: "gonzo journalism." By 1974, Thompson was Rolling Stone's most celebrated writer. Steadman provided the visual universe to his warped sensibility, illustrating both Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72. But Thompson's self-destructive tendencies and bottomless appetite for drugs and booze were interfering with his output, and the Rumble in the Jungle assignment didn't go as planned.

Thompson eventually went out, gonzo style, in 2005: He shot himself in the head with a shotgun at his home in Colorado. He ws 67.

Now, nearly 45 years later after Rumble in the Jungle, the Brtish born, Wales-raised artist debuted an exhibition of exclusive and newly unearthed sketches at the recent tech conference Moogfest in North Carolina, including one drawing ("Escape From Kinshasa," reproduced above) inspired by his Rumble in the Jungle experience. The sketches will be part of the Ralph Steadman Retrospective, scheduled to tour the United States in June.

Steadman, now 81, spoke with Newsweek about his wild experiences with Thompson, his newly unearthed artwork, and his desire to see President Trump take a pie to the face.

Ralph Steadman Cartoonist and illustrator Ralph Steadman admiring a lifesize waxwork of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud in 1979. Ian Tyas/Keystone Features/Getty Images

What was your first impression of Hunter S. Thompson?
It was my first visit [to America], back in 1970. We spent three days looking for each other in Kentucky. We finally met up in the press room. He said, "Where the hell you been?" I turn around and there's this huge, six-foot-seven guy, with like a block of stone for a head. He said, "You Ralph Steadman?" I said yes. I had a little goatee beard at the time. He said, "Well, they said you were weird. But not that weird." Then we sat looking over the race course in Churchill Downs.

Tell me about your Rumble in the Jungle experience there.
We were staying at the InterContinental in Kinshasa in Zaire. Thompson really didn't want to watch a couple of guys fighting. He was doing it for the job. He was very insulting about it. He was really insulting about Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. 

All he wanted to do was swim or sleep or take drugs. One of the first things he did was go out and get a big bag of grass. People got to know about it, and they were forever knocking on his door, saying, "Can I have some of the grass, man?" Huge bag of grass. 

When did you find out that he wouldn't make it to the fight?
I said, "Are we gonna watch the fight?" And he said, "I sold the tickets, Ralph." "You sold the tickets?" He said, "If you think I'm gonna watch a couple guys beat the shit out of each other, you got another thing coming." 

What was your reaction?
"For God's sake, we've come all this way to do that. I mean, it's crazy! We might as well take a stab at it."He said, "No. [It's] hateful." I don't know why he took it on. But he did. He just threw the grass into the pool. I'd given him a bottle of Chivas Regal as a present when we arrived. He threw the grass into the pool and dived into it and watched it go down the filters. And he had the bottle of Chivas Regal on the side of the pool and was drinking that.

Did you go to the fight without him?
No, I couldn't! He sold the tickets. I had to watch it in the hotel room.

Tell me about this sketch in your exhibition, "Escape From Kinshasa."
The moment the fight was over, everyone wanted to get out. And there was a hell of a scramble to get on the last planes out of Kinshasa. Nobody wanted to be there anymore. I've got a picture of them escaping. The original sketchbooks are in the exhibition, in a display case.

Curse of the Lono Another original sketch by Ralph Steadman, part of his traveling exhibition. Ralph Steadman/Moogfest

Some of these drawings were lost and newly discovered?
There was a time when you used to have to send the originals to be reproduced. And then you never saw it again. I eventually got some of the drawings back. A lot of drawings went to Jann Wenner for $75 each—my agent sold them to him. I'm a trusting sort of person. I was an easy catch, as they say.

You and Hunter are mentioned prominently in that new Jann Wanner biography, Sticky Fingers.
Don't tell him this, but I think Jann Wenner would have made a good property developer. A rent collector. A collector of debt.

Did you remain friends with Thompson after Rumble in the Jungle?
Oh, yeah. We were gonna travel all over America and do something on every place we could go to. But we never did get around to that.

Were you bothered by the extent of his drug and alcohol use?
He was forever doing it. That was his undoing. He used to have six Bloody Marys on a breakfast tray in his hotel room, when he finally awoke—at 3:00 in the afternoon. That’s when his day started. It started with those six Bloody Marys.

It must have been quite a challenge to get stuff done.
It was hopeless. He came across something [in Zaire], too: a pair of elephant tusks. He did a deal and bought them for $300 from some fellow in the market square. Getting them through customs was hell. Apparently, it was becoming illegal at the time. Everything he did, really, was transgressing the law of whatever country he was in. It was part of his charm, if you like.

What would Hunter have made of Trump?
It would have been more than bat craziness. I think that Hunter would have brought something else out that none of us have thought of yet. He would have talked about Trump’s intestines, something about his bodily movements. I did one drawing of [Trump] as a baby, fouling his diapers. It’ll be in the retrospective. I’ve also done one of him as Trumpelstiltskin.

You drew an album cover recently for the rap duo Huncho Jack.
I’d never heard of them before. I spoke to them on the phone. I waited two hours! [someone in the background informs Ralph it wasn’t quite two hours.] Well, it seemed like two hours. Because I wrote a poem in the time.

What did you think of their music?
They’ve got energy. That’s the most important thing. I don’t mind them at all. I think they put my drawing up on Sunset Boulevard.

I was told you’re doing some sort of American tour in June.
I’m supposed to be coming to America to talk—to say something. We’re going for the retrospective launch in Washington, D.C. We invited Trump. Hopefully he will turn up. I just want to flan him. I want to hit him in the face with a custard pie.

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