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Warren Hinckle: Remembering the Godfather of Gonzo

Posted on Aug 26, 2016

By Peter Richardson

  From left, Ramparts’ Warren Hinckle, Sol Stern (who was the assistant managing editor) and Robert Scheer. (RHH / AP)

SAN FRANCISCO—Warren Hinckle, the swashbuckling editor of Ramparts magazine, died Thursday. His daughter Pia cited complications from pneumonia as the cause of death. He was 77.

Warren began working for Ramparts when it was a Catholic literary quarterly in Menlo Park, Calif. He converted it to a stylish monthly, moved the office to San Francisco and recruited editor Robert Scheer (now editor in chief of Truthdig) and creative director Dugald Stermer. Under Warren’s leadership, the magazine ran blockbuster stories about Vietnam, the CIA and the Black Panthers. It also landed prestigious journalism awards, drew the scrutiny of national intelligence agencies and exhausted the private fortunes of two publishers.

After Ramparts filed for bankruptcy in 1969, Warren co-founded Scanlan’s Monthly, which published only eight issues. For one of them, he paired Hunter S. Thompson with Welsh illustrator Ralph Steadman. Their story, “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” is widely considered the first example of gonzo journalism.

Thompson and Steadman later worked for Rolling Stone magazine, which Warren unintentionally helped to create. When he wrote a critical story about San Francisco hippies for Ramparts in 1967, contributing editor Ralph Gleason resigned in a fury. Gleason and another Ramparts staffer, Jann Wenner, decided to start their own magazine. The first issue of Rolling Stone appeared later that year.

Warren was born in San Francisco, attended parochial schools and edited the campus newspaper at the University of San Francisco. While drinking at the House of Shields, a San Francisco Examiner watering hole, he learned that a San Francisco Chronicle columnist had been arrested at a public bathroom on Union Square. Warren wrote an expose for the USF Foghorn and created minor embarrassment at the Chronicle, which then hired him as a police reporter in Oakland.

Warren was attracted to the Chronicle’s spirit of showmanship under Editor Scott Newhall. In his memoir, Warren encapsulated that spirit by quoting entertainer George M. Cohan, who once advised Spencer Tracy, “Whatever you do, kid, always serve it with a little dressing.” Warren’s style reflected that advice. His white linen, velvet or three-piece suits and patent-leather dancing shoes earned him a reputation as a dandy. His most distinctive accessory was a black eye patch, which he wore after a childhood auto accident.

The author of many books, including his 1974 memoir, Warren later edited Francis Ford Coppola’s City magazine and wrote for The San Francisco Examiner. But his signal achievement was presiding over Ramparts, the “radical slick” known for its audacity and irreverence. According to The New York Times, the magazine restored the lapsed institution of muckraking, put showmanship back into journalism and gave radicalism a commercial megaphone.

Warren’s effect on his Ramparts colleagues, especially younger ones, was dazzling. “He raced through each 18-hour day with dizzying speed,” Adam Hochschild recalled.

All action swirled around him: a pet monkey named Henry Luce would sit on his shoulder while he paced his office, drink in hand, shouting instructions into a speakerphone across the room to someone in New York about a vast promotional mailing: on his couch would be sitting, slightly dazed, a French television crew, or Malcom X’s widow (who arrived one day surrounded by a dozen bodyguards with loaded shotguns), or the private detective to whom Warren had given the title Criminology Editor. Then would follow an afternoon-long lunch where Warren would consume a dozen Scotches without showing the slightest effect and sketch dummies of the next issue’s pages on the restaurant’s placemats. Finally he’d be off on the night plane to see new backers in the East.

Warren’s style didn’t make for smooth sailing, but most of the magazine’s major achievements took place during his tenure.

At Ramparts’ peak in 1967, Warren clashed with founding Publisher Edward Keating. Editorial board member Jessica Mitford described Warren and Scheer as “brilliant young bandits doing an extraordinary job,” while acknowledging that their “ruthless handling of people” was creating problems. “It seems obvious to me that if it had to come to a choice between Hink/Scheer and Keating—well, I mean there simply is no choice; Hink/Scheer are the mag, the creators of everything that’s so splendid about it. … But one does wish they could be a trifle less Animal Farm-ish about it.” In the end, the board dismissed Keating and retained Warren.

As the magazine’s financial picture worsened in 1968, Warren turned his gaze to the Democratic National Convention. He transported 10 staff members to Chicago to cover it and installed them in the luxurious Ambassador Hotel. He also decided to produce the Ramparts Wall Poster, which reported on the convention and related street activities. The posters were single full-folio sheets whose title and format recalled the publications of Mao Zedong’s Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution. (The motto for the Ramparts Wall Poster was “Up Against the Wall.”) Hunter Thompson lifted the idea during his 1970 run for sheriff in Pitkin County, Colo. He promised to send Warren a copy of the Aspen Wallposter. “And if the Wallposter name rings a bell,” he wrote Warren, “well, I’ll never deny it.”

In January 1969, the magazine’s board of directors put Ramparts into bankruptcy. The magazine reorganized and continued until 1975, but Warren went on to co-found Scanlan’s with New York Times legal reporter Sidney Zion. After the magazine ran “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” Thompson told Warren that he and Steadman could travel the country together producing pieces from high-profile American events. Although Scanlan’s folded soon after that, Thompson and Steadman executed that idea in their 1971 book, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”

Scanlan’s also ran a memo, purportedly from Vice President Spiro Agnew, about a top-secret plan to cancel the 1972 election. In his memoir, former White House counsel John Dean recalled his first order from President Nixon. “I’m still trying to find the water fountains in this place,” Dean complained to one Nixon adviser. “The President wants me to turn the IRS loose on a shit-ass magazine called Scanlan’s Monthly.”

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