Arts, Media, and Entertainment

Underappreciated Irony

On February 20, two 1960s cultural icons died: journalist Hunter S. Thompson and actress Sandra Dee. The days following their deaths were filled with eulogies about their lives and careers -- eulogies that say much more about us than about the deceased. Thompson was the inventor of what came to be known as "gonzo journalism." Like the so-called "new journalism," pioneered by Tom Wolfe and others, "gonzo journalism" put the writer at the center of the story. But unlike Wolfe and company, you could never be sure whether what Thompson was describing actually ever happened. That's mostly because, as he told us, he had taken literally mind-blowing amounts of LSD. For all we know, he may never have left his hotel room. Following the news of Thompson's suicide, nearly every major paper and magazine ran "appreciation" articles. While they all noted what the New York Times called his "long and sophisticated romance with drugs" and his other excesses, Thompson was hailed as a "legend" and as an "an avenging proxy for the American polity." In contrast, Dee's death from kidney disease was greeted with a mixture of irony, snickers, and condescension. Writers couldn't resist the urge to show the distance between her Hollywood persona, the "perky blonde teen matinee idol," and her more complicated personal life: an abusive childhood and marriage, her subsequent alcoholism, even the fact that her real name was Sandra Zuck and that she was from Bayonne, New Jersey. This deconstruction of Dee, as blogger Kathy Shaidle pointed out, allowed critics to deconstruct the wholesome, "All-American girl" ideal that Dee portrayed onscreen: the one satirized in the song "Look at Me, I'm Sandra Dee" from the musical Grease. It allows them to "cue up that stock footage of '50s suburbia" and snicker "knowingly about the cesspool of incest, murder, and Wonderbread we just know . . . is lurking beneath the plastic pastel surface." They can, as does Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of Catcher in the Rye, decry the "phoniness" of it all. But, as Shaidle tells us, the joke is on them. Dee's story, not Thompson's, is the stuff of real life. Dee responded to abuse and addiction by "[getting] help, [keeping] up appearances, [and, in due course, she] died of natural causes." This is the "normal, boring stuff of real life." Dee's "artifice," Shaidle tells us, "was grounded in the real." In contrast, Thompson, "faced with the unbearable prospect of being an intelligent, able-bodied" American, spent much of his life in a chemically altered state and devoted himself to "small-scale violence and irresponsibility." As even his admirers noted, his final act of self-destruction was consistent with how Thompson lived his life: without a sense of meaningful limits. Even this "gonzo" bit was an act; it wasn't "real." Limits, and the appearances they require, are the stuff that good societies are built of. In fact, it's because most people acknowledge limits and keep up appearances that the occasional gonzo character is possible. They're the exception, and their excesses don't pose a real threat to the society's well-being. Oddly, it's the Sandra Dee's that create room for the Hunter Thompson's, an underappreciated bit of irony lost on the critics.


Chuck Colson


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