Pensacola and the Start of Gonzo Journalism

Trader Jon'sWhen most people talk of Hunter S Thompson, Pensacola, Florida very rarely makes it into the conversation. However, one could argue that America’s First Settlement is where Gonzo journalism began.

In 1956, a young 19 year old Hunter Thompson was stationed at Eglin Air Force Base. The following excerpt is from a Paris Review interview on how he got started as a writer:

“When I got to the Air Force, writing got me out of trouble. I was assigned to pilot training at Eglin Air Force Base near Pensacola in northwest Florida, but I was shifted to electronics . . . advanced, very intense, eight-month school with bright guys . . . I enjoyed it but I wanted to get back to pilot training. Besides, I’m afraid of electricity. So I went up there to the base education office one day and signed up for some classes at Florida State. I got along well with a guy named Ed and I asked him about literary possibilities. He asked me if I knew anything about sports, and I said that I had been the editor of my high-school paper. He said, ‘Well, we might be in luck.’ It turned out that the sports editor of the base newspaper, a staff sergeant, had been arrested in Pensacola and put in jail for public drunkenness, pissing against the side of a building; it was the third time and they wouldn’t let him out.”

Hunter Thompson didn’t say which building it was, but it is probably safe to say it was Trader Jon’s, the popular military hangout at the time. Trader Jon’s was founded by Martin “Trader Jon” Weissman, a WWII Army paratrooper, in 1953 when Weissman moved to Pensacola after receiving an honorable discharge for an injury during his last training jump before deployment. His bar quickly caught on with the military crowd. Many world renowned military personal frequented Trader Jon’s when stationed in Pensacola including Senator John McCain and astronaut John Glenn. And the bar was also popular among non-military celebrities as well such as John Wayne, Elizabeth Taylor and Bob Hope. In fact, Weissman and Bob Hope were such good friends, Weissman was featured in a 1986 Bob Hope birthday special filmed on USS Lexington. In 1997, Weissman suffered a stroke which left him unable to tend to his loyal patrons and in 1998 the bar closed. Weissman died in 2000 and so did Trader Jon’s. Although new owners tried to reopen the bar it was not meant to be and in 2004 Hurricane Ivan caused such severe damage to the building that Trader Jon’s was closed for good. Trader Jon’s has forever been immortalized in the Taylor Hackford movie, Officer and a Gentleman, as “TJs,” the bar the officer graduates go to celebrate at the end of the movie.

We may never know exactly which bar in Pensacola was pissed on to give Hunter Thompson his big break in journalism, but being that it was a military newspaper, the editor a staff sergeant and the popularity of Trader Jon’s at the time we can probably agree it was there. It’s what I tell people anyway. And if told enough and believed by enough people, it becomes true, right?



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