Quentin Kopp barks into his car phone as he roars down I-80, another overcast afternoon commute for the senator to the Bay Area from Sacramento. The subject is his old friend, journalist Warren Hinckle, and the question: What has Hinckle contributed to the city?
"He's stirred up some shit, that's what he's done!" exclaims Kopp in his characteristic growl.
"He's the best writer in this city," adds Kopp flatly. "Once in a while somebody can surpass him, but he's your steady single- and double-hitter on what happens. He has the best instinct for the jugular."
Has he ever directly picked on Kopp?
"Yeah, the prick got me about 1975. It was the first year Jerry Brown was governor. I'm trying to think of what it was. Some goddamn thing ..." Kopp trickles off, experiencing a late '60s/early '70s memory block common to those who weathered the period in San Francisco. "I screamed at him, but, oh, the hell with it."
Kopp says the first time he met Hinckle was in 1961 at a meeting of city politicians. The young Warren was decked out in a white linen suit, announcing his intention to run for city supervisor, demanding that the old-school political gentry listen to him and his ideas. He was all of 21 years old.
"He looked like a fop," says Kopp. "He had the gall to think that he could serve with the likes of J. Joseph Sullivan or Harold S. Dobbs. I'm talking about the greats."
Linen suit or no, Warren Hinckle is many things to many people. He has been a public relations hack, magazine editor, muckraking reporter, columnist, procrastinator, mayoral candidate, con man, conspiracy theorist, and loving pet owner who recently held a pre-death wake for his ailing basset hound, Bentley, at Stars restaurant, feeding the mutt a final burger before the dreaded visit to the vet. Next to Herb Caen, he is arguably the town's most well-known newsman.
The late Randy Shilts described him as "San Francisco's foremost sob sister muckraking journalist."
Hunter S. Thompson has said Hinckle is "the best conceptual editor I've ever worked with."
"He's a man who invents things, who often gets his facts wrong, who gets carried away by the emotion," says veteran Chronicle reporter Maitland Zane. "He lets his prejudices dictate his writing. He's not even a good speller."
"I think he's as good or better than Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson -- he beats them all cold," says Los Angeles Times columnist Robert Scheer.
Former Examiner staff editor David Beers reduces the Hinckle message to this formula: "We're gonna take over the world, we're gonna do it early enough to knock off for happy hour."
"I think one can argue that everyone knows Warren is Warren, and don't take everything he writes seriously," says Examiner Executive Editor Phil Bronstein. "Some people take nothing he writes seriously."
"He's the Jimmy Breslin of San Francisco," says longtime friend, collaborator, and former FBI agent William Turner.
"He will be a wonderful case study for future students of journalism, future students of publishing, future students of the political scene in this country -- particularly the '60s and '70s," says his aspiring archivist, Boston University professor Dr. Howard Gottlieb.
"He's one of my best friends," says political consultant Jack Davis, just before refusing to be interviewed.
"Isn't he that guy who's always drunk in North Beach?" asks my landlord.
But how did he get here? How does a one-eyed Irish Catholic son of a Hunters Point shipyard worker end up barhopping with senators and politicos, helping shoehorn mayors into City Hall? Well, don't ask Jack Davis for help. Or Warren Hinckle, who also declined to go on record. As did other members of his family, frequent foils like Angela Alioto, certain journalists, and employers like former Examiner Publisher Will Hearst III. When Hinckle is informed of the strict code of silence Davis has adopted, he crows gleefully:
"It's a conspiracy!"
Such high jinks breed mythology, a blur of fact and fiction that has always embodied the city, from the homeless Emperor Norton or the stray dogs Bummer and Lazarus on up to Kerouac or Kesey's busload of white punks on dope. Reality and cartoon converge quickly in San Francisco; we find ourselves celebrating our loonies almost involuntarily, whether they be genuine nut cases or contrived attention-getters. And native son Warren Hinckle, known as much for his extravagant failures as heralded successes, as much for drunken political pranks as ball-busting journalism, proves to be no exception.
Hinckle's impact is largely a memory now. The days in which he published assassination scoops, helped stop a war, uncovered nefarious CIA plots, published Che Guevara's diary, and midwifed gonzo journalism twinkle like distant galaxies.
"I don't want to contribute to furtherness of the myth," says one of his former collaborators. "Just by writing a cover story on him you equate him with something important, and he ceased being that, oh, 20 years ago."
But Hinckle, Hinckle little star's impact remains palpable. He still writes a weekly newspaper column (for the Fang family's Independent), he still cuts a swath on the party circuit, he still hobnobs and schemes with politicos, and up until two weeks ago he still had a basset hound. And he continues to prank practically every notable San Francisco politician and editor. Why, he must ask himself, should he bust his ass on the mundane like those sweathogs at the dailies?
Warren James Hinckle III was born in 1938, the grandson of native San Franciscans. The eldest of three siblings, he shared a fogbound house in the Sunset, a home where his 90-year-old mother still lives today, and where sister Marianne runs a book-printing company out of the basement.
After surviving 12 years of Catholic school, and landing at the Jesuit University of San Francisco, the curious young man observed that the school library carried the New Republic but didn't stock copies of the Nation. He asked why, and was told that "one liberal magazine is enough."