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Warren Hinckle: Remembering the Godfather of Gonzo

Posted on Aug 26, 2016

By Peter Richardson

(Page 2)

I came to know Warren while I was researching “A Bomb in Every Issue” (the title echoed Time magazine’s description of Ramparts). He was exceedingly difficult to contact. Leaving a message on his answering machine was like stuffing a note in a bottle, flinging it off the Golden Gate Bridge and waiting patiently for a reply. Some Bay Area journalists laughed when I mentioned my difficulty. They suggested I stake out Warren’s favorite bars. In the end, that wasn’t necessary. I found him in a bar at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, the site of a large book convention. When I introduced myself and mentioned a mutual friend, he said he wasn’t especially interested in rehashing the Ramparts story for posterity, but he was happy to help a friend of a friend.

For the next hour, Warren was helpful, engaging, and good company in every way. After going over the Ramparts stories and legends, I asked why he thought the magazine had been so successful during his tenure. “Probably because the rest of the press was so shitty,” he replied. He offered the judgment gently. The corporate media’s shortcomings disturbed him no more than the Catholic Church’s had 50 years earlier. But his answer was remarkable for another reason. In a rare departure from interviewing custom, he had declined an opportunity to burnish his own legend. Could it be that he really didn’t give a damn? As I considered that possibility, he excused himself, picked up his cellphone and placed a call to celebrity editor Judith Regan.

When my book appeared, Warren offered only two corrections. The first concerned a fundraising pitch he gave to an heiress in Manhattan. Equipped with flip charts to emphasize Ramparts’ imminent success, he began his presentation in her Park Avenue apartment. As he spoke, her rare toy dogs scampered around the apartment. The purebreds were so tiny, Scheer said later, they looked like “moving slippers.” Deep into his pitch, Warren accidentally stepped on one. Scheer claims that Warren killed it, slipped the dog into his pocket and said he would get her another one. A famous dog lover, Warren admitted that he stepped on the dog but denied that he killed it.

The other correction concerned a drive to the airport with Reese Erlich, at that time a Ramparts employee. Warren instructed Erlich to pull over to a bar. When the bartender saw Warren enter, Erlich told me, he immediately prepared 15 screwdrivers. Warren polished them off and missed the flight. But Warren told me he would never order 15 screwdrivers at a time, noting that the last ones would be too watery. When I mentioned that point to Erlich, he conceded that Warren may have drunk the screwdrivers in three batches of five.

When it became clear that Warren’s death was imminent, stories about him began flowing freely in print, on social media and in conversation, especially here in San Francisco. He was a Big Personality, and he will be remembered as such. But Warren also made American journalistic history at least twice: by directing Ramparts magazine and by pairing Thompson and Steadman at Scanlan’s. His remarkable achievements, some obscured by the passage of time, should be part of those memories as well.

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