If I could think of a way to do it right now, I’d head back to Louisville, sit on the porch drinking beer, drive around Cherokee Park for a few nights, and try to sink back as far as I could into the world that did its best to make me. It’s not hard to get tired of interminable palms and poinciana, and I could do at the moment with a single elm tree on a midnight street in the Highlands. Hunter S. Thompson
Louisville is known for many things—home of Churchill Downs, home of the G.O.A.T. Muhammad Ali, home of the “Happy Birthday Song,” but it is also the hometown of a larger-than-life personality, Hunter S. Thompson, who would eventually establish his own subgenre of new journalism that referred to as “Gonzo” that would help catapult Thompson as one of the greatest comic writers of the late 20th century.
Born 1937 to Virginia and Jack, Thompson was the eldest of three boys, and grew up in the Cherokee Triangle area of the Highlands where his interest in journalism began with writing for his local neighborhood newspaper. Thompson called Louisville home until he left for the United States Air Force in 1955, after which he went on to further establish his writing career and embody the “Gonzo” journalism we know today. It has been noted that Thompson was a great admirer of writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, who also had ties to Louisville as well from being stationed at Camp Taylor to enjoying cocktails at the Seelbach Hotel—which provided the inspiration for The Great Gatsby.
From roaming around Cherokee Park to spending hours reading at the library, Louisville had an impact on Thompson from his early years to young adulthood. Throughout his career, Thompson returned to Louisville on a variety of occasions from covering the 1970 Kentucky Derby for Scanlan Magazine to a tribute event in his honor. Thompson’s career brought him face-to-face with celebrities, motorcycle aficionados, and Louisville’s other native son, Muhammad Ali—one of Thompson’s idols. Sent to cover the Rumble in the Jungle fight between Ali and Foreman for Rolling Stone magazine, Thompson missed the fight and meeting Ali who he would finally have a chance to meet a few years later.
Let’s discover a few places around town that were part of Thompson’s Louisville:
Childhood Home | 2437 Ransdell Avenue. Private Residence
In 1943 when he was six years old, Thompson’s parents moved the family to into a charming Arts & Crafts-style bungalow within the Cherokee Triangle area of the Highlands neighborhood. Thompson called this place home until he left for the military in the mid-1950s.
Male High School | Corner of Brook Street & Breckinridge Avenue (Original Location) Thompson transferred to Male High School in 1952. While at Male H.S., Thompson was accepted into the prestigious Athenaeum Literary Society where he befriended Porter Bibb who would later become the first publisher of Rolling Stone magazine. However, during his senior year he and a few classmates were arrested resulting in Thompson missing his final exams. Despite not being able to graduate with his class, Thompson was inducted into the school alumni hall of fame in 1992 and his photo graces the hallways alongside other inductees at the new location of the high school. (Currently the old school campus is the headquarters for the local Salvation Army.)
Cherokee Park | 745 Cochran Hill Road
With its close proximity, Cherokee Park was the Thompson’s backyard for childhood shenanigans and adventures to a place to spend with friends or for respite for the world around him.
Louisville Free Public Library Main Branch | 301 York Street
Thompson spent hours within the walls of the library where his mother Virginia was the head librarian. The Main Branch of the library also hosted GonzoFest, an annual literary festival that honors the Thompson’s legacy, for several years before moving to a new location.
Louisville Memorial Auditorium | 970 S. Fourth Street
In 1996 the official Hunter S. Thompson Literary Tribute was held at the auditorium where he was given the title of Kentucky Colonel, but Thompson was only willing to accept the honor if his friend Johnny Depp (also a Kentucky native) received the title as well -- which the organizers obliged.
Churchill Downs | 700 Central Avenue
In 1970 short-lived Scanlan Magazine teamed Thompson with illustrator Ralph Steadman to write a story about the Kentucky Derby. “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” was one of his first article to utilize Gonzo-style of journalism. Thompson and Steadman explored all the areas of the historic track with drinks at the Paddock Bar, checking out the antics that filled the infield, and watching the horses vie for first place from a seat below the Governor’s Bow where dignitaries such as Barry Goldwater and Colonel Sanders sat.
Pendennis Club | 218 W. Muhammad Ali Boulevard
Home of the Old Fashioned Cocktail, Thompson and Steadman stopped by this members-only social club in downtown Louisville for cocktails with Thompson’s oldest friends after the Kentucky Derby.
Tyler Park | 1501 Castlewood Avenue
Athletically inclined during his youth, Thompson was invited to join Castlewood Athletic Club (1928-1967) located near Tyler Park in the Highlands.
Cave Hill Cemetery | 701 Baxter Avenue
Located not far from his childhood home, picturesque Cave Hill Cemetery is the final resting place for many Louisvillians from bourbon trailblazers to Muhammad Ali and Colonel Sanders. Though not interred here, Thompson’s mother Virginia and his youngest brother Jim were laid to rest next to each other in section 22. If you plan to pay your respect, you will need to locate Jim’s headstone as there is not one for Virginia who is buried to the right of Jim.
A fun fact is that Thompson has been portrayed by actors with ties to either Kentucky or Louisville. Johnny Depp, an Owensboro native, portrayed Thompson in the 1998 film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and was the lead in the 2011 movie The Rum Diary based on Thompson’s novel. In 1980, Bill Murray also portrayed Thompson in Where the Buffalo Roam and though Murray is not from Louisville, he did spend time a few months in the city and at Ft. Knox filming Stripes.
Throughout the Highlands neighborhood are a few murals paying homage to Hunter S. Thompson. Snap a photo or a selfie along the side of V-Grits (1025 Barrett Avenue), outside of the Bristol Bar & Grille (1307 Bardstown Road), or at the most recent location at Hi-Wire Brewing (643 Baxter Avenue).