Lonesome Liz: Hunter S. Thompson & The Derby

I love Louisville, Kentucky. One-time home of Stephen Foster and Johnny Depp; current home of river boats on the Ohio River, rolling hills dotted with horses and the best theater in the country outside of New York and Chicago. It was also the home of Hunter S. Thompson and the setting of the very first Gonzo tale, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved”.

Mr. Thompson wrote the story for  a tiny little magazine called “Scanlan’s Monthly” in May, 1970. He was soon so immersed in the Derby that, when deadline time came, he hadn’t written a thing. So, he did what my Grandmother used to call, “the best you can with what you’ve got to work with” and started sending in his notes.

The magazine had also failed to produce press credentials for him. So, like most people who go to the Derby, he didn’t see the race. Therefore, he wrote about what he did see. Which was, of course as his title indicates, decadent and depraved.

My favorite scene from his adventures follows. Just arrived in town, he is soon  drinking whiskey with a fellow named “Jimbo”:

“Say,” he said, “you look like you might be in the horse business…am I right?”

“No,” I said. “I’m a photographer.”

 “Oh yeah?” He eyed my ragged leather bag with new interest. “Is that what you got there–cameras? Who you work for?”

 “Playboy,” I said.

 He laughed. “Well, goddam! What are you gonna take pictures of–nekkid horses? Haw! I guess you’ll be workin’ pretty hard when they run the Kentucky Oaks. That’s a race just for fillies.” He was laughing wildly. “Hell yes! And they’ll all be nekkid too!”

I shook my head and said nothing; just stared at him for a moment, trying to look grim. “There’s going to be trouble,” I said. “My assignment is to take pictures of the riot.”

 “What riot?”

 I hesitated, twirling the ice in my drink. “At the track. On Derby Day.

By Derby Day, armed forces were present in anticipation of the riot Mr. Thompson had, unwittingly, created.

It’s somehow still very F. Scott Fitzgerald. (He included Louisville’s Sealbach Hotel in, “The Great Gatsby”, in fact.) So, in a way, was Hunter S. Thompson; though Zelda Fitzgerald actually strikes me as more likely have been Gonzoesque than Scott… but he and Thompson shared an ability to embody their era. Or, rather, they were not so much products of their times as their times were products of them; like the Derby and Louisville in a way.Once upon a time I lived in a haunted house in Old Louisville right by Churchill Downs. I loved going there. Not so much for the betting, though I was pretty good at it, but for the horses. Watching them run was like watching the spirit of the wind twined with some of the best parts of the spirit of the South. The parts full of roses and magnolias and ladies in hats with white gloves. And, more importantly, with really good bourbon being given the reverence it deserves.

Living in Louisville at Derby time is awesome. Aside from the obvious fact that you get to walk right over to the Kentucky Derby, if you live in Old Louisville like I did anyway, there are other perks. For example, you get not one but two days off for Derby weekend, (unless you are in the service industry, in which case Derby weekend either kinda sucks because you work like crazy or is awesome because you work like crazy; depends on your take on that sort of thing.) You also get to charge for parking in your front yard… and possibly see Johnny Depp, (big bonus).

The reason for one not two days off is that, for most Louisville natives, the best part of the Derby is the day before, Oaks day. Oaks Day is the party for you if you’re Kentuckian. Derby is the party for everyone else. And yes, it IS decadent and depraved.

At, at the same time, it is the embodiment of Southern charm and tradition.

As it should be.

And oh, by the way, if you’re fortunate enough to be there, keep Mr. Thompson’s advice in mind:

“You should keep in mind,” I said, “that almost everybody you talk to from now on will be drunk. People who seem very pleasant at first might suddenly swing at you for no reason at all.”

Send me a photo of your hat so I may live vicariously through you! And send bourbon; I prefer Knob Creek.

Read “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” here: http://www.kentuckyderby.info/kentuckyderby-party.php     

~ Lonesome Liz











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