Warren Hinckle: Innovative Publisher, Champion Of Skin Flick Kings And San Francisco Seniors, Dead At 77

On Thursday, the world lost an irreplaceable intellect with the passing of longtime San Francisco scrivener Warren James Hinckle III. The one-eyed journalistic impresario was more than a writer, and he was more than an innovative editor. Hinckle was a force to be reckoned with whether stationed at a typewriter or holding court in his favorite city dive bars and watering holes.

Longtime friend and Beyond Chron editor, Randy Shaw, reminisced in Fishbowl NY about the big man with the Basset hound named Bentley.

“Herb Caen was the greatest San Francisco columnist over the past fifty years, and Warren Hinckle might well deserve to be viewed as the city’s most influential reporter. No San Francisco newspaper reporter over the past fifty years catalyzed San Francisco readers like Warren Hinckle. He was our version of the legendary San Francisco muckraker Fremont Older, and his flamboyance matched the spirit of former Chronicle editor Scott Newhall. Warren Hinckle would have been right at home in the dizzying world of deadline journalism portrayed in His Girl Friday or The Front Page.”

Before The Chronicle

Warren Hinckle did not come up with the original idea for Ramparts magazine. He did, however, turn the pedantic publication on its ear when he assumed the executive editor’s position in 1964. When conceived in 1962, Ramparts was a no-nonsense literary quarterly that touted itself as a “forum for the mature American Catholic.”

Published in Menlo Park, California, the somewhat stodgy Ramparts boasted a readership of 5,000 in a good quarter. Upon Hinckle’s hiring, Ramparts moved to San Francisco, began publishing every two weeks, and revved its national readership to some 250,000. Under Hinckle’s stewardship, Ramparts became what the New York Times described as a “slick, muckraking magazine that was the most freewheeling thing on most American newsstands during the second half of the 1960s.”

On Hinckle’s watch, Ramparts feared no one and poked everybody. Glossier and more widely distributed than other
“underground” publications of its time, Ramparts published the diaries of Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara as well as the prison letters of incarcerated Black Panther leader, Eldridge Cleaver. The Cleaver letters were later compiled into the groundbreaking Soul On Ice. The writing of Susan Sontag appeared in the pages of the bi-monthly magazine, as did that of Noam Chomsky, Angela Davis, and Seymour Hersh. Ramparts was one of the first national magazines to publish Christopher Hitchens. Ramparts contributor, sociologist and author Todd Gitlin called the left-leaning bi-monthly “a place where grown-up journalism met the movement.”

Ramparts had a big budget and the national readership to expose controversial topics, including conspiracy theories surrounding the JFK assassination. Unfortunately, the magazine never made much money. Hinckle left the magazine in 1969, three years after winning the prestigious George Polk Award in 1966 for a Ramparts exposé of CIA recruitment practices on university campuses. Pursuant to his time at Ramparts, Hinckle founded Scanlan’s Monthly and wrote for The Examiner, The Chronicle, The San Francisco Examiner and Argonaut magazine. For the last nine years of his life, Hinckle continued to refine, re-edit and re-release a book about his late chum, Hunter S. Thompson. Currently out of print, Who Killed Hunter Thompson? is poised for re-release later this year.

David Talbot, Salon co-founder and author of Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror and Deliverance in the City of Love, lauds editor Warren Hinckle as a journalistic innovator whose love for a weird story provided the inspiration and impetus to launch publications such as Mother Jones and Rolling Stone.

Peter Richardson’s 2006 tome A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America recounted the Warren Hinckle years at the now-legendary publication.

“Mr. Hinckle embraced, editorially, a kind of controlled mayhem. He wore a black eye patch, a result of a childhood accident, and was piratical in other ways. He kept a pet Capuchin monkey named Henry Luce in the Ramparts office. He frequently worked out of a North Beach bar called Cookie Picetti’s, and his drinking and stamina were legendary.”

Forward into the Gonzo years

In the spring of 1970, Hinckle was directly responsible for enabling another remarkable shift in subjective journalistic sensibilities. It was Hinckle who assigned Hunter S. Thompson to cover the Kentucky Derby for the June edition of Scanlan’s Monthly.

In an April 28, 1970 letter, Thompson asked Hinckle to send Denver Post illustrator Pat Oliphant with him on the assignment to Hunter’s hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. Oliphant, who’d won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning in 1967, was otherwise engaged. So was a Bay Area shutterbug friend that Hunter attempted to recruit for the gig.

At what has been described as “the very last minute,” Hinckle assigned an English cartoonist by the name of Ralph Steadman to illustrate what eventually became a Scanlan’s feature entitled “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.” The article carried a pair of bylines that read, “Written under duress by Hunter S. Thompson” and “Sketched with eyebrow pencil and lipstick by Ralph Steadman” and is generally credited as the premiere example of “Gonzo Journalism.” Ralph Steadman described the Scanlan’s article that marked beginning of his long partnership with Thompson.

“Not everything in Hunter’s story was true, but its effect was quite correct. The important thing about Gonzo is that you don’t cover the story, you become the story. That’s the most fundamental part of it, really, and that’s what we did.”

Although the term “Gonzo” as it relates to journalism was probably coined by erstwhile editor of The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine the late Bill Cardoso, credit and kudos for enabling the wondrously weird alliance that commenced when Ralph Steadman and Hunter S. Thomson collided must be extended to Warren Hinckle.

Champion of city porn kings

To hear Hinckle tell it, he became fast friends with San Francisco skin flick kings Artie and Jim Mitchell after being arrested in probable retaliation for a piece he penned in The Chronicle in 1985. The article was critical of the fact that local constabulary saw fit to send “30 cops to arrest one naked woman.” The woman it took two and a half dozen boys in blue to subdue was former Ivory Soap model and 99 44/100 percent pure Behind the Green Door porn star Marilyn Chambers. Hinckle described the scene in Counterpunch in 2007.

“[Marilyn] was dragged as naked as Venus exiting from her tub off the O’Farrell stage by a phalanx of police during a valedictory one-woman show; a total of eleven cops escorted her to her dressing room to ascertain that she didn’t conceal a weapon in some bodily orifice and more than 30 officers were eventually on the scene when backup was called because her bodyguard had a gun.”

Whether then-mayor Dianne Feinstein encouraged local police to hound Hinckle –and his basset, Bentley– after his scathing Chronicle piece is up for debate. The fact remains that Hinckle was followed and arrested for walking Bentley the basset hound without a requisite leash. Warren, being Warren, did not take the arrest as admonition to lighten up on the mayor or the SFPD.

Feinstein remained a favorite target of Hinckle’s caustic wit throughout the 1980s. At one point, after witnessing numerous unwarranted police raids on the Mitchell Brother’s O’Farrell Street adult entertainment venue, Hinckle was instrumental in posting the mayor’s unlisted telephone number on the strip club marquee along with the tantalizing message, “For a good time, call Dianne.”

A champion for the downtrodden, too

In the winter of 1982, current Beyond Chron editor Randy Shaw was staff attorney for and sole employee of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic. Upon receiving Shaw’s THC press release about senior San Franciscans living without heat in single room occupancy residential hotels, Hinckle composed articles including “The Cold Facts” and “A City’s Shame—The Way It Treats Its Poor” and used his media influence to help bring about new legislation.

Calling Hinckle’s involvement a perfect case study of how activists can work with the media to win progressive change, Shaw said the following in an August 25 Beyond Chron tribute to his fallen friend.

“I have never seen a reporter so directly involved in passing legislation as Hinckle was on behalf of SRO tenants. Some may have seen this as crossing journalistic boundaries, but I saw it as Hinckle being so angry at what he saw in the SROs that he wanted to personally make sure they got heat once the crisis died down. Warren truly related to the oldtimers living in heatless hotels, and his passion was seen in the many follow up stories he wrote in the weeks ahead.”

Hinckle, who had been in declining health for some time, died in the company of his family in San Francisco on August 25, 2016. His daughter, journalist Pia Hinckle, noted that her dad had no regrets, never looked back and was always on the prowl for the next adventure. She added that shortly after her father took his final breath, the family proclaimed last call for Warren with a toast of Guinness and Jameson’s.

One veteran journalist expressed the feelings of many when he succinctly posted on Facebook.

“No more like this guy around, and none likely to come along.”

[Photo by RHH/AP Images]