02/23/2005 1:00AM

A life on the edge of lunacy


ARCADIA, Calif. - In December of 1996, native son Hunter S. Thompson was presented the key to the city of Louisville, a quaint and touching moment for a writer who once paid twisted tribute to his old hometown in a magazine piece called "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved."

"Today is Friday the thirteenth in Louisville," Thompson wrote of the event, in an introduction to a volume of letters. "The sky is low and the view from the penthouse suite at the Brown Hotel is dense. There is only one window in the hotel that opens, and I have it right here in my room. My chief of security had it chiseled open yesterday, despite the whining of the manager, who said it was an invitation to suicide."

By now, anyone weaned on "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" or "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail" knows that Thompson finally jumped - or, more accurately, pulled the trigger - last Sunday in his Colorado wilderness compound at the age of 67.

In recent years Thompson had become, for better or worse, one of those people who are famous for being famous. Bill Murray and Johnny Depp played him in movies. Garry Trudeau immortalized him in "Doonesbury."

But for those who write and report for a living - especially anyone coming of age during the agonizing era of Vietnam, race riots, and Watergate - Thompson was a liberating influence, a legal intoxicant, and a mainline antidote to traditional journalism, which required the polite explanation of horribly monstrous events. Thompson was not polite.

Editors unsure of their ground would assign Thompson to cover sporting events where, supposedly, he could do no harm, and therefore dull the confusion over whether or not to take him seriously. That is how he found himself at the Kentucky Derby on May 2, 1970.

Those who attended that Derby (attendance, roughly 105,087) are forgiven if they fail to recall the sight of Thompson, wearing his trademark floppy white sun hat and multi-pocketed hunting vest and accompanied by a small, bearded, and furtively nervous British illustrator named Ralph Steadman. They probably fit right in.

The Derby scene, at least through Thompson's eyes, was definitely decadent and depraved, warped into awful shapes by alcohol and hallucinogens, fed by memories of a childhood spent in the Churchill Downs infield, then filtered through his early years as a journalist, filled with Hell's Angels, rum-runners, and South American dope smugglers.

"The main problem," he wrote, "was my prior attachment to Louisville, which naturally led to meetings with old friends, relatives, etc., many of whom were in the process of falling apart, going mad, plotting divorces, cracking up under the strain of terrible debts or recovering from bad accidents. Right in the middle of the whole frenzied Derby action, a member of my own family had to be institutionalized."

Steadman, whose ghastly images have become welded forever to Thompson's rabid prose, recorded his own thoughts on the Derby experience in the text of a collection titled, "Gonzo, the Art."

"He has learned the balance between living out on the edge of lunacy and maintaining an apparently normal discourse with everyday events," Steadman wrote. "Whatever reaction he may adopt towards a situation, whether it be giving a hellraiser speech from the interior balconies of the Hyatt Regency Hotel in San Francisco or firing a Magnum .44 at random into the night in front of strangers, he will always convince those around him that it is they who are mad, irrational or just plain dumb and that he is behaving as a decent, law-abiding citizen."

Somehow, as he did at the '70 Derby, Thompson always found a way to file the story.

"The mob was thick for many blocks around the track; very slow going in the crowd, very hot," he wrote. "On the way to the press box elevator, just inside the clubhouse, we came on a row of soldiers all carrying long white riot sticks. About two platoons, with helmets. A man walking next to us said they were waiting for the governor and his party. Steadman eyed them nervously. 'Why do they have those sticks?' 'Black Panthers,' I said."

Then later, after Dust Commander had won:

"By this time we were both half-crazy from too much whiskey, sun fatigue, culture shock, lack of sleep and general dissolution. We hung around the press box long enough to watch a mass interview with the winning owner, a dapper little man named Lehmann who said he has just flown into Louisville that morning from Nepal, where he'd 'bagged a record tiger.' The sportswriters murmured their admiration and a waiter filled Lehmann's glass with Chivas Regal."

Everyone has their favorite cut of Thompson's work. This reporter clings dearly to the tribute Thompson paid his friend Pete Axthelm, of Newsweek and Sports Illustrated, upon Ax's death in early 1991. As a way to say adios, it's as good as any, and it fits today for Thompson.

"Pete Axthelm was one of the last free spirits in journalism or anywhere else in these humorless times," Thompson began. "He wrote brilliant essays and sometimes asked morbid questions, which eventually led him into a place that some of his friends called 'the gray area.' . . . We will miss him, but not weep for him. Pete Axthelm was a winner, and he got out just in time. He was one of us."