Over fifty years ago, on November 11, 1971, Rolling Stone published the first installment of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” a genre-bending, era-defining tale of drugs and debauchery that was, in spite of its adolescent overtones, a satiric masterpiece and a fitting epitaph for one of the most turbulent yet optimistic eras of American history. Written by Hunter S. Thompson, it told the outlandish story of two men and their hallucinogen-fueled escapades in the desert city of sin. One of those men was Thompson himself, loosely fictionalized as Raoul Duke, and the other was Oscar Zeta Acosta, referred to in the book as Doctor Gonzo.
Despite the roaring success of Rolling Stone’s publication of “Fear and Loathing” and the fact that the book rights had been sold even before the story was written, eight long months passed before it was published by Random House and that waiting period was largely due to the legal action taken by the man Thompson had repeatedly referred to in his story as “my attorney.” Acosta felt aggrieved that his friend had used his ideas, words, and even personality without consulting him, and this enraged Thompson, who believed that the story was his own and that Acosta had no right to intervene.
Given Thompson’s subsequent fame, it is unsurprising that their dispute is almost always viewed from his perspective. His letters, interviews, and even biographies explore the problem from the vantage point of a fundamentally rational writer being temporarily inconvenienced by his drug-addled, jealous, irrational friend. In 2000, Thompson restated the problem in words that adequately summarize most previous discussion of it:
On Las Vegas cover, Oscar wanted: By Hunter Thompson and Oscar Acosta. He said, “I’m not some fucking Samoan,” which I had written to protect him. I said, “Oscar, you’re a fucking member of the California Bar Association. You’re engaged in extremely public hearings protecting the guys who tried to burn down the hotel when Reagan was speaking.” I put Samoan in there for a reason. […] But he insisted on this photograph and being identified in the photograph.
Indeed, Acosta had wanted some degree of credit for his role in producing the book, which was a result of two trips the men had taken to Las Vegas. Thompson had fictionalized Acosta as a “300-pound Samoan” and always claimed this as a form of legal protection for his good friend, but Acosta felt he had been used and dismissed. In the end, Acosta agreed that putting a photo of the two men on the back cover of the book was a subtle nod to the fact that they were the real Duke and Gonzo, and he agreed to drop his legal objection to the book’s publication.
The rest, as they say, is history…but only from Thompson’s point of view. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas catapulted him into countercultural lore and secured his name in the pantheon of twentieth-century literary greats. However, it did little for Acosta, who died obscure and impoverished less than two years later.
To understand why a lawyer would be willing to admit publicly to a litany of felonies, as would be the case if Thompson had acknowledged Acosta in print as the real Doctor Gonzo, then one has to look back at his life. Oscar Acosta was, of course, not Samoan. Nor was he, as Thompson sometimes claimed, a Mexican. Acosta was born on April 8, 1935 in El Paso, which he argued “isn’t really a part of Texas no matter what the maps say. Not that I’m an authority on Texas history or on El Paso, but believe me, I wasn’t born in Texas!” A child of the Great Depression, he migrated westward with his family and grew up poor in the Chicano section of Riverbank, California.
At school, he was different from his Hispanic peers and seemed to fit in more with his white classmates. He was studious and athletic, and he excelled at music. While the other Hispanic kids dropped out, he became class president and earned a scholarship to the University of Southern California. He fell in love with a white girl and, perhaps to please her, joined the Air Force rather than attend university. When she broke up with him, he began using drugs, then converted from Catholicism to Baptism. Never one for half measures, he immediately began preaching his newfound religion and soon converted most of his family. In the barracks, he sermonized to such extent that his commanding officers had him shipped off to Panama, where they figured he would cause less trouble.
In Latin America, Acosta soon decided that he no longer believed in Jesus, but continued preaching for several months in spite of his lack of faith, then returned to the United States and attempted suicide. This triggered his first visit to a psychiatrist—a habit he kept up for the next ten years. His later writings bear the hallmarks of the psychoanalytic process. They are deeply confessional, showing a man uncomfortable in his own skin, uncertain of his own place in the world, yet with strong if frequently changing convictions. He addresses his reader directly, though always appearing to be attempting to understand himself, saying things like, “When I was four years old I lost my mother’s wedding band. The analyst would have a field day with that, wouldn’t he?”
Back in the US, Acosta attended San Francisco State, where he studied creative writing and mathematics, but dropped out to focus on a half-written novel. He then quit the novel to work on John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign. This was his first interest in politics, and he soon decided to study law so that he could get involved in more important political activities, like helping Cesar Chavez. He tried to enter the wider civil rights movement, but was rejected by the Black activists, who he felt wanted nothing to do with the nascent Chicano rights movement.
Acosta studied law while supporting himself as a copyboy at the San Francisco Examiner, graduating in 1965 and passing the bar on his second attempt. He took a job as a Legal Aid lawyer but became severely depressed at having to listen to people’s problems without being able to do anything with the resources available to him. This is where the first of his two books, Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo, begins:
Yes, for twelve months I have seen their frightened eyes, that look of desperation that only hungry people carry with them to their lawyer’s office. Some even bring babies in their arms and pull the tit out for the kid right in front of me while I write out all the relevant information. And after they tell me their sad tales, show me the tattered contracts with coffee stains, while they sit and sigh and gaze into the deep purple of my rugs, I call the piggish creditors at Household Finance and tell them I represent Mrs. Sanchez, that I'm with the Legal Aid Society.
Until this point, Acosta’s life had been frenetic and marked by a profound confusion over his own identity. He was a physically imposing man, but insecure and sensitive. He was American by birth, yet he knew he was an other in his own nation. He flitted from cause to cause and ideology to ideology, desperately wanting to know more of his heritage and to know his people—whoever they may be. This was all to change the summer that he met Hunter S. Thompson.
It was not Thompson, of course, that changed Acosta; it was acid. When he could no longer stand his Legal Aid job, he stormed out (leaving behind his therapist, too) and fled to Aspen, which was then a small town popular with young hippies. “I started dropping acid,” he wrote “and staying constantly stoned most of the time and doing all kinds of odd jobs—construction work and washing dishes—and, within about three months my head was clear. I felt like I knew who I was and what I was supposed to do.”
From Aspen, Acosta attempted to travel to Guatemala to run guns for revolutionaries but was arrested and jailed in Mexico. Here, he was humiliated by his poor Spanish. The Mexicans viewed him as an American just as the Americans viewed him as a Mexican. With his plans for revolution in Guatemala ruined, he returned to the United States, where his life changed permanently. After learning of the La Raza movement and meeting with several prominent Chicano leaders, he decided to devote the rest of his life to fighting for this particular cause. “It seems to me,” he wrote, “that at some point in your life you have to make a stand, and I’ve decided that I might as well be here as anywhere else.”
These were his people and this was his cause. Oscar “Zeta” Acosta (the middle name newly acquired, replacing the Anglo “Thomas” given at birth) was now an activist-lawyer. He became increasingly radical in action and views and used his knowledge of the law to defend young Chicanos whom he viewed as victims of a racist system. He worked for free and often paid his clients rather than take money from them. He thought of his people as “slaves” sold by the Mexican government to the American one in 1848, now stateless in their own land, and he worked tirelessly to protect them. He was a vicious lawyer, outrageous in his actions and demeanor, with little respect for the system in which he worked. To prove his notion that a Chicano client could not receive a fair trial in California, he subpoenaed all 109 Superior Court judges and questioned them about their racist views.
In 1970, having gained some stature in the Los Angeles Chicano community, he ran for sheriff and was interviewed by a reporter named Ruben Salazar. Six months later, Salazar was shot dead by police officers in what Acosta felt was an orchestrated killing—a political assassination of a prominent Hispanic journalist. He knew it would not be hard to convince the Chicano population and raise anger over the murder of one of their own, but to effect real change required a wider reach, and for that he got in touch with the journalist he had befriended in Aspen several years earlier: Hunter S. Thompson.
1970 was a busy year for both men. Thompson was running his own campaign for sheriff of Pitkin County in Colorado and, while covering the Kentucky Derby in May, he had accidentally stumbled upon an entirely new form of writing—Gonzo journalism. His star had been rising for some years by this point, with a moderately successful spell in the early 1960s as a roving reporter in South America followed by an explosive breakthrough book, Hell’s Angels (1967). In the latter half of the decade, he had been less prolific, but his writing had grown experimental and angry as he had become politically radicalized. He viewed his talent for vitriolic prose as his most potent weapon in a fight against what he perceived as American fascism.
Thompson and Acosta had met at the Daisy Duck bar in Aspen during Acosta’s brief summer there and the two men had gotten along well. Both enjoyed recreational drug use and both were large, aggressive, but intelligent men with wild and often frightening senses of humor. They saw each other, in a sense, as allies. Thompson leaned on Acosta for legal advice and Acosta looked to Thompson for guidance in his own literary career.
Their personalities made it a turbulent friendship, but they were able to make it work for at least a few years. Acosta sometimes sent Thompson samples of his own writing in an effort to elicit some useful feedback and introductions to open-minded editors, but Thompson’s brutal replies cut deep. Oftentimes he offered genuine insight and advice, but sometimes his words were hurtful:
As much as I hate to say this, I’m afraid it’s become perfectly clear to me and a lot of other people that you’re wasting your time trying to communicate in a language you’ve never mastered and probably never will…
It is important to note here that this was part of Thompson’s humor and that Acosta would have known this, but nonetheless Thompson’s savage criticisms, coupled with his own success, stung, particularly as Acosta grew increasingly to feel that the system was rigged in favor of white men and against brown ones like him.
Still, they liked and respected each other, and although Thompson often used racial slurs and stereotypes for satiric purposes, he was vehemently opposed to what he perceived as real racism—particularly of the institutional sort. Thus, when Acosta needed help bringing the death of Ruben Salazar to the public’s attention, he sought out his old buddy and Thompson was eager to lend a hand.
It was not an easy case for either man. First of all, there were the racial tensions of East LA to negotiate and Thompson did not feel welcome among the violent Chicano activists, who referred to him as a “gabacho pig.” Acosta was by now a prominent member of the community and so the white journalist was tolerated and went unharmed, but he felt constantly in danger. Thompson tried to assemble an article, but the magazine he was working for—Scanlan’s—went bust and so the project was stalled until he found himself fawned over by Jann Wenner at Rolling Stone. Such was the affection Wenner had for the Gonzo journalist that he printed the entirety of the resulting investigative piece, “Strange Rumblings in Aztlan,” which ran to nearly 20,000 words.
Though Thompson did not agree with Acosta’s assessment that the killing of Salazar had been a premeditated hit job, he did put it down to murderous, racist police action and showed that there had been a deliberate cover-up. It was a magnificent article—one of Thompson’s best pieces of relatively straight journalism, and a damning exposé of police brutality. Acosta was grateful, telling Hunter that he “came through like a champ”; however, their friendship would soon begin to dissolve as a result of the trips they took during that story.
“The character of Doctor Gonzo was not merely based upon Oscar Zeta Acosta; it was Oscar Zeta Acosta.”
While in Los Angeles, Thompson and Acosta had struggled to hash out the details and history of the Salazar case because of the suspicions of the Chicano activists that constantly surrounded them. Though tolerated, Thompson was, as a white man, the enemy, and Acosta, despite being respected in the community, was putting his own life on the line by working so closely with him. In order to escape this oppressive environment, they took off for Las Vegas, where they could communicate freely and also cut loose. In spite of what Thompson claimed in his book, there were no drugs during the first of their two visits, but there was a lot of alcohol imbibed. On a second trip that occurred several months later, there were a few pills and a lot of marijuana, but little else in terms of recreational drug use.
Most of what went into the book was a heavily fictionalized version of their drunken carousing, with the acid visions coming from Thompson’s own drug experiments at other times. He had done a lot of LSD in San Francisco in the mid-sixties and he had done a little mescaline in more recent years. Fear and Loathing saw him exercising his prodigious imagination and the results were stunning. He is rightly remembered for producing one of the most brilliant and innovative books on drugs, even if he was not on drugs when he planned and wrote it.
However, while it was a fiercely innovative book, it was not entirely Thompson’s own work, and that is precisely what enraged Acosta and stalled the book’s publication. The brilliance of Fear and Loathing comes not from its silly, often puerile surface plot but from the layers of savage satire that lie beneath the descriptions of fornicating lizards and crucified gorillas. It was subtitled “A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream” and that was the overarching theme of the book. It was a road trip but with a much deeper purpose—they were searching for that lost ideal and inspecting the very soul of the nation.
Tape recordings from their second trip show Thompson as fairly disinterested in this concept, however, and it is only Acosta who pursues the American Dream angle. In fact, all of the action from the second half of the book is the result of Acosta’s ideas and insistence upon speaking with people. It is Acosta who conducts interviews with bemused waitresses as Thompson mostly roams around in search of drugs. Gonzo journalism differed from its New Journalism counterpart in that it was highly participatory. A New Journalist sought to observe but a Gonzo one got into the mix and gave the story a shove in the right direction. While Thompson definitely did this, in Vegas it was mostly Acosta who crafted the story through his actions, thereby handing Thompson the plot of the novel.
But it was not only this that he felt was his contribution—the character of Doctor Gonzo was not merely based upon Oscar Zeta Acosta; it was Oscar Zeta Acosta. In those same tapes, we can hear Acosta making phone calls and giving his name as Doctor Gonzo. His words and ideas and actions were all taken by Thompson and turned into prose and this is precisely why Acosta felt so aggrieved when he finally read it and discovered he had been turned into a “300-pound Samoan.” He was not worried about being defamed or disbarred; he was angry that his successful white friend had screwed him over. To editor Alan Rinzler, he wrote, “Hunter has stolen my soul! He has taken my best lines and has used me. He has wrung me dry for material.”
Not only had Thompson used Acosta’s words, actions, and ideas without attribution, but he had also turned him into a foreigner simply to function as a literary device. He had essentially reused the template from “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” to have Acosta take the place of Ralph Steadman, whose naïve foreign perspective allowed for a greater dissection of American culture. By making Doctor Gonzo an outsider, Thompson was able to more easily satirize American excess and even explain the basic premise of his book in simplistic terms from the very beginning. But to Acosta, it was just another reminder: he was not an American in the same way as his white peers.
A month prior to the story’s publication in Rolling Stone, Acosta was arrested and found his own life falling apart just as Thompson shot to fame. He wrote to his friend to remind him that he did not want “a little footnote that says, this idea came from Oscar,” but rather to be treated better than he had been:
All I want is for you to quit playing the role that I’m some fucking native, a noble savage you discovered in the woods. […] Like, did you even so much as ask me if I minded your writing & printing the Vegas piece? Not even the fucking courtesy to show me the motherfucker. […] Your only statement on the subject, which I tried very hard to raise on several occasions… “Your name’s not on it.”
Although Thompson helped Acosta publish Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo through Jann Wenner’s publishing company, Straight Arrow Books, their relationship was profoundly damaged. Thompson was not interested in being conciliatory and fired back at his friend with venom, calling him “paranoid” and accusing him of “self-pity.”
Their relationship never recovered after this falling out, but in 1973 the two men briefly reconciled in Mexico to work on a story called “Fear and Loathing in Acapulco.” Though it was never written, they recorded themselves planning it and these tapes are illuminating for they show once again just how integral Acosta was to the writing process. It was Acosta who came up with at least half the story and, even when Thompson produced ideas, Acosta continually pushed and questioned him, getting the best out of his old friend. Perhaps most interestingly, Acosta appeared to see no distinction between himself and Doctor Gonzo, who was supposed to appear in this new tale, using first-person pronouns whenever talking about Gonzo. This something he reiterated later that year in a letter to Playboy. He was aggrieved that they had referred to Thompson as “the creator of Gonzo journalism” and wrote to inform them that he, “the world famous Doctor Gonzo,” had created Gonzo “hand in hand” with Thompson.
Sadly, “Fear and Loathing in Acapulco” was never written, and that is hardly surprising because Thompson had just discovered cocaine and, thanks largely to its devastating impact upon his ability to focus, he would never again write a brilliant or coherent piece of work. However, he did revisit the notes for the Acapulco story, rehashing their ideas for other works—again without ever crediting Acosta.
The meeting in Mexico was the last time Thompson and Acosta ever saw each other. Thompson was a minor celebrity now and, despite his waning talent and productivity, his name became more famous with each passing year and this brought adoring fans and big checks. Meanwhile, Acosta was spiraling into despair. In his last letter to Thompson, in November 1973, he explained bitterly that for the past six months he had “lived on food stamps and petty theft.” He offered to help Thompson in a planned run for Senate but also begged for money—a painful thing for a proud man. “Money-wise,” he wrote, “I am desperate. Send help to above address, quick … thanx.”
Thompson snapped back, “What in the fuck would cause you to ask me for money—after all the insane bullshit you’ve put me through for the past two years?” He complained that Acosta had scuppered any chances of selling the book as a movie and told his old friend to go do something productive instead of just whining. Testament to how the two men now viewed each other, he signed off, “Whitey.”
Five months later, Acosta was missing and presumed dead. To this day, no one is sure how exactly he died, though he was last seen in Mazatlán and his son, Marco, believes that he was murdered while attempting to smuggle drugs into the US by boat. “The body was never found,” he said, “but we surmise that probably, knowing the people he was involved with, he ended up mouthing off, getting into a fight, and getting killed.”
Acosta was deeply troubled in the months prior to his death. In addition to being stone broke and feeling betrayed by his closest friend, he had become increasingly paranoid and had even been hospitalized. He changed his will several times and told his son that he was worried about being assassinated. Theories abound, but a body was never discovered and even today his death remains a mystery.
After Thompson’s descent into cocaine addiction, his output become sporadic and whenever he wrote anything of value it tended to take absurdly long to write. Indeed, it was only in December 1977, three and a half years after Acosta’s death, that he took to the pages of Rolling Stone to issue a bizarre obituary, entitled “The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat.”
It is a violent, often offensive piece of work that would have no doubt baffled most readers, but which makes sense in the context of Thompson’s writing and the two men’s tortured friendship. Rather than celebrate his friend in any conventional sense, he excoriates Acosta, calling him a “rotten fat spic.” Yet throughout the long story, he makes sure to give his old friend the highest of praise, at least from Thompson’s perspective—he makes Acosta into an outlaw. He portrays him as a fearless and brilliant man, albeit crazy and violent. Thompson wanted little more for himself than to be a legend, and in a way he was attempting to do the same for Acosta, even subtly alluding to a bombing campaign Acosta had been involved in. Later, he claimed that the harshness of the obituary had been intended to provoke Acosta into coming out from hiding, if he had—as some suggested—faked his own death. But he never did reemerge.
After it was published, Thompson received an odd offer. Art Linson, a movie producer, wrote him a large check in exchange for the rights to “The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat,” which he intended to turn into his directorial debut. No one, including Thompson, seriously thought this would work, and so it seemed like easy money, but the film was made and became Where the Buffalo Roam (1980). It was universally panned, but what few seemed to notice was that, in spite of it having been based on an obituary for Oscar Zeta Acosta, he was essentially written out of the story. The filmmakers had hired a white actor, Peter Boyle, to play Acosta, and when this move was protested by Chicano activists, they simply turned Acosta into Carl Lazlo, a Hungarian attorney.
Hunter Thompson was roundly criticized for selling himself out with this awful movie, but few except those early Chicano protestors seemed to care that it had been Oscar Zeta Acosta who suffered the most. A man who called himself the “Brown Buffalo” and viewed himself as a crusader for his people had been replaced by a white man in a cartoonish film based on his obituary. If he had indeed faked his own death, it is hard to imagine him staying quiet about that gross injustice.
Only in recent years has the legacy of Oscar Zeta Acosta begun to undergo a sort of resurrection. The 1998 film version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas at least had his character portrayed by a Hispanic actor, Benicio Del Toro, and in 2017 a documentary about him was released: The Rise and Fall of the Brown Buffalo. The following year, the UK-based Tangerine Press reprinted the first of Acosta’s two books, The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo. Unlike Thompson’s books, it is disarmingly open, with Acosta lamenting his numerous vulnerabilities, from erectile dysfunction and premature ejaculation to the alienation and inadequacies he felt as a Chicano man. His other book, The Revolt of the Cockroach People, was recently released on Kindle by Vintage Books.
Oscar Acosta was a fascinating character whose contributions to literature have sadly been overlooked. He is too often viewed as a footnote in the life of his more famous friend, and while Hunter Thompson no doubt deserves the credit for writing Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, it is time to acknowledge Acosta’s role in its creation. More importantly, however, we must also look beyond his collaborations with Thompson to his own body of work. Though he was marginalized like so many people of color in that era, and though his own literary output was modest in size, he was an excellent writer whose subject matter—both his own life and the story of his people – ought to be better known.
Sources consulted and quoted from in this essay include: The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo (Straight Arrow Books, 1972) by Oscar Zeta Acosta; Oscar “Zeta” Acosta: The Uncollected Works (Art Publico Presse, 1996) by Ilan Stavans; Ancient Gonzo Wisdom: Interviews with Hunter S. Thompson (Da Capo Press, 2009) edited by Anita Thompson; Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist, 1968–1976 (Touchstone, 2001) by Hunter S. Thompson; Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream (Vintage, 1998) by Hunter S. Thompson; When the Going Gets Weird (Hyperion, 1993) by Peter O. Whitmer; and The Gonzo Tapes: The Life And Work Of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.
David Wills is the author of books on William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Hunter S. Thompson. He has written for Lit Hub, Quillette, Salon, and The Millions, as well as the US Library of Congress, the Dutch government, and the Allen Ginsberg Estate.