In 1992, Cheryl Della Pietra was a 22-year-old recent grad from Penn State looking to break into the publishing industry when she got a tip from a friend interning at Rolling Stone. Hunter S. Thompson was looking for an assistant. “I said, ‘Why don’t you apply?’” she remembers. “And he said, ‘Because he wants a girl.’”
Pietra wrote an application letter, faxed it, and waited. A few days later she got a call at 3 a.m. It was Thompson, telling her to come to Colorado for a three-day trial period. She boarded a plane the next day. “It felt like the experience of a lifetime at the time,” she told The Daily Beast. “I didn’t realize until much later how much it was the experience of a lifetime.”
For a few months that spring, she lived in the cabin outside Thompson’s Woody Creek, Colorado, ranch. Her job was to make sure the hard-partying author sat down at the typewriter by 2 a.m.—not an easy feat as she’d soon discover—to work on his in-progress book titled Polo is My Life (it was never actually published).
Now, more than 20 years later, Pietra is making her debut as a writer. In her new book, Gonzo Girl, she recalls that debauched time through the eyes of a semi-fictional character: “Alley” is similarly fresh from college and looking for adventure. She gets a gig with a notorious writer holed up in Colorado, surrounded by celebrities and struggling to reignite the success he had in the ’70s. Alley’s job is to get pages. Every night she must trick, bribe, and corral the booze- and drug-fueled author to sit down in front of his typewriter. All the while she is trying desperately to earn his respect, which comes by partaking in drug consumption, drink mixing, and gun shooting.
The book, Pietra says, is 60 percent factual—so much time had passed since her fateful gig that she couldn’t pass it off as nonfiction. So, she took her real experience, put new names to the characters, and re-created the dialogue. “It feels true,” she says, then laughs. “All the drug use is true.”
“I always knew it was a good story,” she says. “I was 22 at the time—I’m 45 now. I definitely needed some perspective on it to write longer form. It’s something I haven’t been able to shake.”
In the book, Alley finds Thompson—who is dubbed Walker Reade—surrounded by adoring fans from the highest ranks of politics and Hollywood. The first night, they’re reading passages from his newest book aloud, a technique that Thompson used in real life, all while snorting copious quantities of cocaine and downing strongly mixed drinks. She immediately realizes part of her job is keeping up.
“I guess I survived it,” Pietra remembers.
Today, her most vivid memories are of those early days. On her second day on the job, she and Thompson ate psychedelic mushrooms, shot a .44 magnum at exploding targets, and joy-rode a speedy convertible up a mountain in Aspen. They got pulled over. “It felt like being in a movie: in a giant red car with Hunter S. Thompson, on drugs, and there’s a cop,” she says. “That couldn’t get more cliche—which I mean in the best way.”
By the time Pietra went to work for him, it had been two decades since Thompson’s early successes such as Hell’s Angels and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas that made his name as a literary powerhouse. He was in his 50s and continued to drink, smoke, and do drugs like his younger self. But he was still larger than life. “Hunter S. Thompson not at his peak is still pretty fantastic for everyone else,” Pietra says. “I think arguably the substances took their toll and he was just older and maybe didn’t have quite the fire he had in the ’70s—though I feel he always did love writing… he once said, ‘I’ve never taken a drug yet that can get me as high as writing.’”
In Gonzo Girl, the real-life character counterparts are made fairly obvious. “Claudia” is a replica of Thompson’s devoted-to-a-fault assistant Deborah Fuller, who stuck with the author for more than 20 years. Pietra, though, is keeping her lips sealed on the celebrity behind “Larry,” a Hollywood heartthrob with whom Alley strikes up a romance in the book.
She also devotes many pages to her feelings toward the author, and “Alley” and “Walker Reade” share a few romantic moments. Pietra has publicly written before about a fumbled kiss she shared with Thompson, but now she demurs on questions about how far their relationship went. “It’s a question I’m not fully comfortable answering,” she says. “I don’t like the kiss-and-tell aspects… he could be very very charming and it was a very exciting place to be.”
There was a softer side to the the wild man, she discovered, when the adoring fans had left and it was just the two of them curled up on the couch, watching a movie and drifting to sleep. “It’s hard to describe how there were quieter moments in this raucous crazy life,” Pietra says.
She hopes the book will reveal Thompson’s multi-faceted personality. “I do think there’s this cartoonish caricature aspect of how he’s portrayed. The hat and aviators, drink in hand, a cigarette holder: the Doonesbury character,” she says. “People see him in a way that’s not totally human. I do hope the book humanizes him in that way.”
Pietra didn’t want to give up working for Thompson, but after a few months, she grew weary of her life revolving around the manic author’s whims. “I wanted to be the one who didn’t leave,” she says. But she’d realized it was time to focus on her own career, and had grown uncomfortable with some of the things Thompson asked her to do, like a big cocaine run to his dealer.
“Emotionally and physically and psychically it all became a little too much for me,” she says. “It’s a hard lifestyle to keep up. The fact he’d done so for so many years is really remarkable. He survived it—it’s really unbelievable.”
Even after just a few months, readjusting to the outside world was tough: “After I left, everything felt a little boring for a little while.” But she settled back into real life, working as a magazine editor in New York City, and now raising her son in Branford, Connecticut.
When asked what her 9-year-old son will think about her hard-partying past with the legendary author, she laughs. “I didn’t really think about my son until it was too late. He can read it when he’s 40,” she says. “I’m 45 years old. At this point the character based on me compared to me now—it’s laughable. I’m kind of a soccer mom. It’s a success if I get a sip of wine before I go to bed.”