In December 1972, I was a college freshman at Yale in New Haven, Connecticut. Christmas break, one of my best friends invited a group of us to share his uncle’s condominium near the ski lifts in Aspen after New Year’s. We had grown up skiing together in New Hampshire. I flew into Denver, a cow town small enough you could roll a basketball down Broadway at four PM and it would roll to the other end of the city. The next day I took a bus to Aspen.
That night when we were fast asleep in the duplex, there was a loud banging on the door. My friend, the responsible party, went downstairs to see about the commotion. I gradually focused on a heated exchange between my friend and an interloper. It was late. We had smoked a little reefer. Who knew. The long and the short of it: the raised voice on the other side of the door was the manager of the US Women’s Ski Team. In the van behind him was the US Women’s Ski Team. They had flown in from Europe and driven straight to Aspen from Denver. Their race began the next morning, and they intended to take possession of said, same condominium they had rented.
After a frantic phone — rotary dial — call, my friend established that his uncle had sold his condominium a few months earlier. Although we had a key that let us in and his promise we that could use the condo, he had forgotten. We were on our own. We offered to share the condo for that night only. The manager of the US Women’s Ski Team gave us an hour to clear out.
Aspen in 1972 was a sleepy place that was home to a landmark: the Hotel Jerome. I knew about the hotel from the writings of Hunter S. Thompson. While my friends opted for a boarding house, I hauled my luggage, skis and boots through the frigid, alpine night down dark streets until I reached the front desk of the hotel where there was an indifferent night clerk and indeed a dorm bed for $35, through the bar and up the staircase.
I was still a little high and flushed from the ordeal of traversing from said condo, but I was an aspiring poet/revolutionary and happy to be right there. I awkwardly dragged my kit towards the bar, and — on bar stools — sitting next to the most famous actor in America, Jack Nicholson, was America’s chronicler in sunglasses at midnight: Hunter S. Thompson. The bar was empty. It was just the two of them gurgling whatever, and I was still too young to be served in Colorado.
In 1973 I was a Yale sophomore and had moved from freshman housing to one of the campus colleges, Calhoun. In early September, a sign was posted by the college social committee inviting recommendations for guest speakers.
There was a budget to provide an honorarium including travel expenses for speakers of interest to the emerging generation of Yalies: Nobel laureates, powerful people, well-regarded artists and those generally fit to be recognized by the august institution. I sought out the upper classman who was head of the social committee — a prestigious appointment, though by whom I never knew — and recommended the invitation of a writer he probably didn’t know. He didn’t. It was the man I had seen at the bar in Aspen who I couldn’t drink with: Hunter S. Thompson.
He wrote for Rolling Stone, I said, and didn’t get into the colorful part. It was hard to discern if the counter culture played in the social chairman’s world at all. A few weeks passed. When I next bumped into the social chairman he told me, nonchalantly, oh by the way, Hunter Thompson had accepted our invitation and he’s coming in October.
Wow. The news set me back a step, further than my poetic self could reach. I asked to be included on the welcome committee or whatever. You know, meet and greet. The social chairman said, no we will take care of that. You’re not on the committee.
Not on the committee? It was my idea to bring one of America’s finest journalists not just to Yale but to Calhoun College. I glared at the social chairman, I imagined from Greenwich or Cleveland, shouldering me out of the way, barring me from shaking the great man’s hand and explaining I was not just any student from Yale: I dragged my luggage past him at midnight just last winter as he drank at the bar of the Hotel Jerome with Jack.
It turned out that on the Saturday Hunter S. Thompson was to make his first and only appearance at Yale (unrecorded so far as I can tell in any history but this), I couldn’t be there. I played for the men’s soccer team and a game had been scheduled for that day, away from home.
I took my aggression to Dartmouth or wherever. On Sunday after the team bus had returned to New Haven, I made my way back to my dorm. Inside the quad, I met a friend and asked how the event had gone with HST. I don’t think there was an event, he said. Really?
The following day, leaving the dining room at Calhoun, I crossed paths with the social chairman. With information that HST had not given his speech, I was curious. Was it true, or, had my source been unreliable? The social chairman was livid. We went to the airport to pick up Mr. Thompson and he wasn’t there. He paused. She was.
The social chairman said, they were looking for Mr. Thompson — frantically as the plane passengers had all dispersed — when a woman appeared and said, “I’m Hunter Thompson.” He was in drag, wearing sunglasses “and everything”. We brought her back to Calhoun, we helped her to the guest suite, and then…
And then, what? I asked.
He leveled his gaze above reproach: she never came out. You mean, I said, he never gave his talk? I imagined a full room, a warm fire, students waiting expectantly forty five minutes, an hour, then melting away. The social chairman sputtered, he had a contract! Don’t bring me any more recommendations! I felt my connection as a recommender to the social committee slip away. We never spoke again.
A few weeks later, the dean of the college and I were walking together. Christmas was approaching. He asked, what was I doing for vacation? Skiing. Utah. Which reminded me and I asked him, what happened when Hunter Thompson visited a few weeks ago? The dean was philosophical. He locked himself in his room and did drugs for twenty four hours. When we opened the door, he had disappeared.
That is how my story ends of Yale, Hunter S. Thompson and the social contract.