Keep This Quiet! opens with the question, “How does the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, manifest itself in the world, if not through people?” Margaret Harrell looks back at such manifestations in the forms of three writers she was involved with, aesthetically and romantically to various degrees, in the 1960s. These men were Jan Mensaert (a Belgian painter and poète maudit); Milton Klonsky (Greenwich Village intellectual and brilliant essayist); and Hunter S. Thompson (a category unto himself).
But Harrell’s own history—as a college student with journalistic ambitions, a newspaper woman living the Bohemian life in the Village, and an aspiring novelist journeying through Europe—captures the Zeitgeist as well. In her European travels she stays with a number of men, avoiding sex, and in Marrakech meets Mensaert, with whom she has a dramatic but lethargic romance. She stays with him a while but flees the seductive do-little style of the Moroccan expatriate life.
Back in New York she becomes a Random House copy editor and begins meeting literary figures, including, in 1965, the much older Klonsky. “No one else I’d met so covered this stretch of what a human could be in one container from logic to mysticism, ‘the street’ to erudite and ineffable ends alike,” she writes. Fascinated by the older man’s way with language—he describes her apartment as having “roaches running wild like buffalo on the plain, curtains like a coal miner’s lungs” —she enters into a close, but (to Klonsky’s frustration) platonic relationship that lasts for years.
Things, however, go quite differently with Thompson, whom she encounters when assigned to do the copy editing for Thompson’s first book, Hell’s Angels. (She was also copyeditor for Richard Farina’s Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me and other well-known titles.) Through Thompson’s blustering, contradictory, substance abuse fueled letters—he tapes two hits of Dexedrine to one page, but Harrell doesn’t take them—she finds herself ready to sleep with him on his first night in New York City.
Keep This Quiet!—an admonition from one of Thompson’s letters—tells the tale of Harrell’s intertwined relationships with these three men from 1965 to 1969. (A second volume is in progress.) She remains Klonsky’s intellectual student, Mensaert’s correspondent in an orchid-ripe Romantic exchange, and lustily dons a mini-skirt and garter belt to fly to L.A. to be with Thompson when he calls.
Thompson dominates the book once he enters. Harrell relates anecdotes, clears up historical falsehoods (some perpetuated by Thompson himself, such as the truth about the death of his Blue Indigo snake), and includes a number of previously unpublished letters from Thompson. Stories include nights spent carousing with San Francisco’s mayor, and a momentous day in Thompson mythology:
Some things [William] Kennedy remembers better than I. The book launching [of Hell’s Angels] was the first time he saw Hunter “in costume.” For the tour Hunter wore bizarre sunglasses and a cowboy hat, his first. “I’d never seen him dressed like that. Ever. . . . He was presenting this new persona. It was the costume element of his outrageousness. . . .”
Three men, embodiments of three different dimensions of the late 1960’s Zeitgeist—wispy dissolution, language-charged intellect, and Gonzo persona-building—are brought together by Harrell to invoke a world of passion and commitment, the world she had always hoped she would inhabit. Keep This Quiet! is at once noisy, sensual, and word-drunk, as well as quietly intimate and full of Harrell’s wonder at her luck. While most readers will come to this book for the Thompson content, in truth all the portraits here—all four of them—are compelling and often touching.