03/07/2005 at 01:00 AM EST
Hunter S. Thompson spent his life on the edge of the abyss, and some weren't surprised when he jumped in. With the publication in 1971 of Fear
and Loathing in Las Vegas
, a drug-drenched account of a journey through the Nevada desert, Thompson established himself as the godfather of a generation of rebels (including Johnny Depp
, who played him in a 1998 film version of the book) and invented a form of reportage he coined "gonzo" journalism. "People like him because he said all the stuff everybody wishes they could say," says University of Florida professor William McKeen, who wrote a biography of Thompson. Thompson's response to the book was typical: "He sent a fax to me saying, 'I warned you not to write that vicious trash about me. How fast can you get fitted for an eye patch in case one of your eyes gets gouged out?' " recalls McKeen. "That was his way of saying, 'You did a nice job.' "
The prolific Thompson wrote 15 books and was recently working on a piece for Playboy
about a movie starring Sean Penn. But in recent years the author, who lived with his second wife, Anita, 32, and had a son, Juan, 40, endured back and hip operations and talked of ending his life. On Feb. 20, at 67, he put a bullet in his head at his house near Aspen. His gonzo spirit, however, lives on. In accordance with his final testament, his body was cremated, and his ashes will be fired from a cannon—perhaps provided by Depp, says his neighbor Michael Cleverly. "He died with dignity," says the county sheriff's spokesman Joe DiSalvo, a friend. "He did what he wanted to do, on his terms."