Fifty years ago, Hunter S. Thompson published a two-part story in Rolling Stone that could only be categorized as Gonzo—a one-man literary genre marked by bizarre flights of fancy, hyperbole, depictions of drug abuse, and often violence. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas introduced a generation of readers to the hilarious and shocking antics of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo: larger-than-life characters based loosely upon Thompson and his friend Oscar Zeta Acosta.
The story, published in book form the following year, catapulted Thompson to fame, but before long he was frustrated by the fact that readers could hardly separate him from his creation. The device he had created to fuse fact and fiction in a wholly original form of literary journalism quickly became an encumbrance. Hordes of young fans viewed Thompson and Duke as one and the same—something that irked the writer, even if he did little to dissuade them. In his writing, he readily presented himself as a cartoonish outlaw and in public he played the role his fans wanted to see, frequently appearing on stage in costume whilst blind drunk and openly imbibing illegal substances.
Even today, the Duke/Thompson image is a popular Halloween costume and dorm-room poster, and on social media thousands of fans proudly boast about their own consumption of hallucinogenic substances whilst quoting Raoul Duke and attributing his words to Thompson. Less interested in his literary innovations than his outrageous actions, most fans seem utterly unaware that Raoul Duke was merely a figment of Thompson’s prodigious imagination. To them, the exploits of Duke and Gonzo were a relatively faithful account of Thompson and Acosta’s own Vegas adventures. But of course these were carefully invented for satiric purposes.
Indeed, it is quite possible to pick apart the real and the imagined in Thompson’s hallucinatory Gonzo prose, and many of his close friends will attest to the marked distinction between Thompson the author and Duke the character. With some effort, one can delineate the real and the imagined in most of Thompson’s work, yet it is far harder to pin down just where exactly Duke came from and why he was given his unusual name. Thompson, an incorrigible self-mythologizer, was reluctant to explain and, as he did when asked about what really happened in Las Vegas, simply complicated matters further by giving contradictory or deliberately vague answers. In an interview with the Paris Review, he was typically circumspect on the matter, pretending not to remember, but suggesting that “Raoul” came from Fidel Castro’s brother.
Thompson’s letters are often a good insight into the truth behind his various fictions, but they are also littered with attempts at obfuscating the reality of his life. Still, in discussing Raoul Duke with his publisher, he appeared honest about the purpose of his creation. These letters from the ‘60s show that he created Duke in order to do and say more outrageous things—things even the notoriously outspoken writer wouldn’t do. Duke was intended to be a comical, fictional device that would engage a reader throughout an otherwise accurate piece of journalism, allowing Thompson to explore serious and complex issues. However, as illuminating as his letters are, they do not pinpoint where and when Duke was invented or why he was given his odd name.
This confusion is further exacerbated by those who have previously attempted to uncover the truth. According to his biographer, William McKeen, Thompson invented Duke when editing the Command Courier at Eglin Air Force Base in the mid-1950s, but Duke’s name never appeared in any of Thompson’s articles from that era. His former literary executor, Douglas Brinkley, claimed in Fear and Loathing in America that Duke had been created to write about the 1968 Democratic Convention, but this is also incorrect. Whilst Thompson did use Duke in aborted efforts at writing about the tragic events in Chicago, the name appeared two years earlier in Thompson’s 1966 debut, Hell’s Angels.
Although Duke played no real part in this breakthrough book about the infamous motorcycle gang, his name was casually included in a list of outlaws near the end. Readers at the time must have been baffled, as this was the first time Thompson had ever used that name. However, it was not the first time that the words “Raoul Duke” had appeared next to each other in print. The improbable appellation had popped up in a series of articles in December 1965—a month when Thompson was furiously scouring newspapers from across North America in search of material for his book, which he considered a meditation on the media as much as the biker gang. In the midst of his press binge, he more than likely stumbled upon a series of stories about an unassuming businessman from Calgary by the name of Raoul “Duke” Duquette.
It is likely no coincidence that the name Raoul Duke first appeared in print the year before Thompson adopted it. Throughout his career, he frequently latched on to words (savage, doomed, atavistic) and names (Yail Bloor, Claude Fink, Martin Bormann) that he found amusing or otherwise significant. He was a literary magpie, borrowing the phrase “fear and loathing” and the word “gonzo,” as well as titles for several of his unpublished books, including “guts ball” (taken from Ken Kesey). Many of these became his catchphrases, parroted often enough that they became inseparable from Thompson himself. But seldom did he acknowledge their true origins.
It is not hard to imagine that the same happened with Raoul Duke. From a seemingly insignificant reference in Hell’s Angels, Duke became the device around which Gonzo journalism was conceptualized. Over the next five years, he was trialed in short stories, articles, and satirical reviews before being immortalized in the era-defining, genre-bending classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. As with most of his other favorite words, phrases, and names, Thompson refused to disclose the origins of Raoul Duke, but perhaps now we can speculate with some confidence that this countercultural legend began as a humble Canadian shop manager.