Saturday, January 5, 2013

1968: The New Collier's Encyclopedia Yearbook Has Arrived, But Hunter S. Thompson Has Not (Quite Yet)

One of my favorite, annual, not-long-after-Christmas presents when I was growing up was the new edition of the Collier's Encyclopedia Yearbook, a big, alphabetized volume of articles about stuff from the previous year. My parents started buying the annual supplements when they shelled out for the 1958 edition of Collier's Encyclopedia, when my siblings were 6, 4 and 1. 

By the time that I came along in 1968, their collection of yearbooks was already substantial. Mom and Dad continued paying the $30 or so for the yearbooks year after year after my brothers and sister grew up and out and through when I was in high school. Then I took over the collection and subscription after I was out on my own. I'm pretty certain that Collier's simply stopped publishing the yearbooks once people started buying reference books on CD-ROM and before the Internet took off, as I quit receiving the yearly marketing mail and I've been able to backfill years before my parents' collection started (the oldest yearbook I have is 1945) but can't find anything after 1996.

Anyway, each year when I would rip open the brown, corrugated-cardboard sleeve in which a yearbook would be shipped to our house in Paducah, I typically turned first to the articles recapping the previous year in football, TV and Kentucky. These would be thorough and totally readable--but unadorned--recitations of the year's winners and losers, breaks from the past and leanings toward the future. Another personal favorite article was "Personalities of the Year," which would include several dozen 500-or-so-word biographies for folks of topical interest that year. The 1968 yearbook, covering events from 1967, documented these "Personalities of the Year:"

-- Lew Alcindor,
-- Svetlana Alliluyeva,
-- F. Lee Bailey,
-- Christiaan Barnard,
-- H. Rap Brown,
-- Johnny Carson,
-- Francis Chichester,
-- William Ramsey Clark,
-- Cassius Clay,
-- Moshe Dayan,
-- Charles De Gaulle,
-- Thomas J. Dodd,
-- Abba Solomon Eban,
-- John Kennedy Galbraith,
-- Jim Garrison,
-- Barbara Garson,
-- Jacqueline Grennan,
-- Ernesto "Che" Guevara,
-- James Riddle Hoffa,
-- King Hussein,
-- Lyndon Baines Johnson,
-- Jean-Claude Killy,
-- Billy Jean Moffitt King,
-- Aleksei Nikolayevich Kosygin,
-- Howard Brett Levy,
-- Liu Shao-Chi,
-- Wiliam Manchester,
-- Mao Tse-Tung,
-- Thurgood Marshall,
-- Melina Mercouri,
-- Gamel Abdel Nasser,
-- Chukuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu,
-- Pope Paul VI,
-- Lester Bowles Pearson,
-- Harold Pinter,
-- Adam Clayton Powell,
-- Bertrand Russell,
-- Moshe Safdie,
-- Ravi Shankar,
-- Charles Monroe Schulz,
-- Nguyen Cao Ky and Nguyen Van Thieu,
-- U Thant,
-- Twiggy,
-- Moise Kapenda Tshombe,
-- William Childs Westmoreland,
-- Harold Wilson,
-- Duke and Duchess of Windsor and
-- Carl Yastrzemski.

Growing up in a house that received a couple of newspapers and played two or three network news broadcasts per day, I don't remember ever not recognizing any of the Collier's "personalities of the year" after I was about 12. But, of course, some of these 1968 Collier's Encyclopedia Yearbook names of 1967 are lost on me today:

If some readers and critics chose to ignore Barbara Garson's caveat about her first play, MacBird, and interpreted the work as a political parody of Shakespeare's Macbeth, well, what could the poor girl do? After all, the play is only the innocent tale of an ambitious politician, MacBird, who, urged by Lady MacBird, arranges the assassination of visiting President John Ken O'Dune at the MacBird Ranch. Vengeance is sought by the next in line, the brutal, calculating Robert Ken O'Dune, and his idiot brother, Ted Ken O'Dune. Such minor characters as the Earl of Warren and the Wayne of Morse also participate.

Among my other favorite articles were the obituaries, the rest of the sports section beyond football and "Music--Popular, Jazz and Folk" (which came after "Music--Classical.") Hardly ever, however, did I dial in to the big section of longer, non-alphabetized, thematic articles at the opening of the book. These "Special Articles of the Year" were less like encyclopedia entries and more like take-out stories from a newspaper Sunday magazine (other than the encyclopedia writer's stylistic/AP-anathematic usage of a comma before the "and" in a series of three or more), and they would cover some kind of extraordinary news development or trend, a current fascination or a fresh perspective on some event from history. Here are the titles of those articles in the 1968 book:

-- "The 6-day War,"
-- "The Arab World,"
-- "Noise,"
-- "Canada,"
-- "The Unborn Child,"
-- "The Beginnings of Man,"
-- "Armistice 1918,"
-- "Backpacking in California,"
-- "Photographing the Third Dimension,"
-- "The Hippies,"
-- "Appalachia" and
-- "The Black Temper."

I'm sure the producers of Collier's Encyclopedia pretty much saw the rest of the yearbook to be tablestakes for getting to produce the important Special Articles of the Year. While the rest of the yearbook was black-and-white text and photographs presented in two columns per 8 1/2-by-11 page, the Special Articles received elaborate layouts that might utilize white space, color pictures and other illustrations. Also the authors of each of these articles got bios and pictures of themselves in coats and ties (yes, all 12 of the 1968 articles were by men, and, yes, all are photographed in coats and ties). The authors would be big-deal journalists, authors or experts in their fields. Charles Collingwood, the CBS News chief European correspondent, did "The 6-day War," for example; Duncan Barnes, a Sports Illustrated staffer, did the one about California backpacking, and it was a Berkeley poli-sci professor, Dwight James Simpson, who gave us the 411 on the Arabs.

"The Hippies" is by Hunter S. Thompson.

Now I mentioned that these articles were looser than the just-the-facts, encyclopedia delivery that is typical of the rest of the yearbooks. Thompson's "Hippies" is significantly (but suitably) looser than even the rest of the Special Articles. Here's his opening, "... so-as-I-was-saying ..." paragraph:

The best year to be a hippie was 1965, but then there was not much to write about, because not much was happening in public and most of what was happening in private was illegal. The real year of the hippie was 1966, despite the lack of publicity, which in 1967 gave way to a nationwide avalanche--in Look, Life, Time, Newsweek, the Atlantic, the New York Times, the Saturday Evening Post, and even the Aspen Illustrated News, which did a special issue on hippies in August of 1967 and made a record sale of all but 6 copies of a 3,500-copy press run. But 1967 was not really a good year to be a hippie. It was a good year for salesmen and exhibitionists who called themselves hippies and gave colorful interviews for the benefit of the mass media, but serious hippies, with nothing to sell, found that they had little to gain and a lot to lose by becoming public figures. Many were harassed and arrested for no other reason than their sudden identification with a so-called cult of sex and drugs. The publicity rumble, which seemed like a joke at first, turned into a menacing landslide. So quite a few people who might have been called the original hippies in 1965 had dropped out of sight by the time hippies become a national fad in 1967.

The rest of the eight-page article continues this apologetic tone--we are/I am not late to the game; this game is not the real game, and the real game was not/could not be televised--in which Thompson characterizes 1960s hippies as, basically, a reform movement of 1950s beatniks. "Many hippies deny this, but as an active participant in both scenes, I'm sure it's true." He talks about how he lived in Greenwich Village 1957-58 and in Haight-Ashbury in 1964-66 ("when I moved in ..., I'd never even heard that name"). Thompson discusses his own impressions of the evolution in the San Francisco neighborhood in terms of race and economic background (black and poor to white and middle class), music ("Charlie Parker-type jazz" to "the wildly electric ... acid-rock sound") and drugs (alcohol to marijuana and LSD). By 1967, Thompson laments, "the Haight-Ashbury had become such a noisy mecca for freaks, drug peddlers, and curiosity seekers that it was no longer a good place to live."

There is, however, as much journalism as there is Gonzo in the piece. Thompson's "Hippies" in Collier's comes a couple of years before the 1970 Kentucky Derby and his defining "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved" in Scanlan's. In this Collier's article, he sprinkles in commentary from William Buckley and plenty of back and forth between the hippies and the "New Left;" he paints the movement against the context of Ronald Reagan's winning California governor and GOP Congressional gains in 1966 and Ken Kesey's and Timothy Leary's experiments in the middle 1960s, and, in compelling detail, Thompson illuminates the profit to be had in the contemporary, illegal drug trade (a kilogram of marijuana goes for $35 in Mexico, sells in bulk for $150 to $200 in the United States and then yields a gross of $510 to $850 once that kilo is parceled out in individual cigarettes). 

The price varies from city to city, campus to campus, and coast to coast. "Grass" is generally cheaper in California than it is in the East. The profit margin becomes mind-boggling ... The risk naturally increases with the profit potential. It's one thing to pay for a trip to Mexico by bringing back three kilos and selling two in a circle of friends: The only risk there is the possibility of being searched and seized at the border. But a man who gets arrested for selling hundreds of "joints" to high school students on a St. Louis street corner can expect the worst when his case comes to court.

But, for sure, this Collier's piece evidences plenty of the technique that would infuse Thompson's famous Fear and Loathings and Watergate material in the 1970s. He's throughout his own story, and, early on in the piece, he uses several, eye-opening quotes from an unnamed "23-year-old girl in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district." It's a totally over-the-top soliloquy in which she declares herself "the divine mother" and advocates communal living and widespread usage of LSD, including by children, toward the goals of enlightenment and "total freedom."

I wonder whether the interview happened.

Here's a freaking great sentence from Thompson's "The Hippies" in 1968 Collier's Encyclopedia Yearbook: "Publicity follows reality, but only up to the point where a new kind of reality, created by publicity, begins to emerge."

Collier's Encyclopedia Yearbook5 stars, highly recommended for anyone who needs a little more Christmas, right these very early minutes of the new year.


  1. This is great. I've read a bunch of stuff on Thompson, and a bunch of stuff by Thompson, and I've never heard of this article. I bet most of his fans don't know about it.

    My guess is that the interview did happen, but that the speaker was someone Thompson knew very well -- it may have even been his wife.

  2. The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that this is really an important article in terms of understanding Thompson. Almost everything he wrote after 1968 was poisoned by his hatred of Nixon and his rage over the death of Robert Kennedy. He also lost interest in trying to persuade folks who didn't already agree with him.

    This article -- written between his book on the "Hell's Angels" and the death of RFK -- was probably one of the last times he tried to write in a relatively straightforward manner for a broad audience about issues that he really cared about. After 1968, the mask just gets thicker and thicker.