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Hinkle, Hinkle, Little Star (Part II) 

There are two joys in life - making things and breaking things - and pirate journalist Warren Hinkle has excelled at both

Wednesday, Feb 14 1996
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The excitement was not lost on William Randolph Hearst III, who had just taken over his grandfather's Examiner newspaper and wanted to reinvent the Monarch of the Dailies. The plan was to stack the newspaper with lively personalities. Hinckle was the first. David Burgin came aboard from the Miami Herald, and Hunter Thompson was convinced to sign on, as well as Cyra McFadden, Joan Ryan, Rob Morse -- even Herb Caen was nearly persuaded to defect.

Hearst had his dream team; Hinckle and Thompson were reunited again. Hinckle picked on the cops and other local hypocrisies, and Hunter roared off on various adventures, composing disjointed screeds against the national political swing to the right. And they were driving the rest of the paper crazy.

"They're incorruptibly corrupt, both of those guys," remembers Bob Callahan, Hinckle's research assistant at the time. "They're nuts, and you're not going to get them to moderate their behavior under any circumstances. Neither one of those guys knows what time it is. There were guys that were hired -- their whole job was to chase these guys around all day, trying to get copy out of them. Here's the whole Damon Runyon, Ben Hecht, goofy universe that I saw movies about, being re-enacted live. And they kind of knew that's what they were there for."

Hinckle relished his growing celebrity. Callahan recalls attending an industrial art performance in a South of Market parking lot with the columnist and his friends.

"We had to walk by the stands, and when Warren walked by with Bentley they all started applauding him -- all these fucking kids," Callahan says. "They knew who he was. It was like, man, isn't it great that Warren Hinckle comes to these events."

In 1987, the Examiner marked its 100th Hearst anniversary. Will Hearst assigned Hinckle to edit a special centennial package composed from Examiner back issues, and Hinckle brought on Ramparts art whiz Dugald Stermer and Callahan. The team was entrusted with keys to a subbasement in the old Hearst building that housed 40-foot stacks of Examiners dating back a century. Callahan stood in awe.

"It was like the real vault that Geraldo wanted to find in Chicago," says Callahan.

The three assembled a weeklong series of daily supplements, primarily reprints of old Hearst contributors -- Jack London, Mark Twain, George Herriman, Ring Lardner, Ambrose Bierce, Damon Runyon, and others.

Reporters from the BBC snooped around the project, recognizing Hinckle and Stermer from Ramparts, and asked them jokingly:

"How can two commies like you end up working for Hearst?"
But the taillights of the Ramparts era had receded into the distance, according to Stermer:

"Warren would go to the bar, and I would do the paper at the office. I don't think anybody during those nights and days, even with the Hinckle apologists, would claim that he had any impact on the thing. He would be in and out, and he'd scream, 'Oh, why'd you put this to bed, I was going to write something!' and I would explain, 'Fuck you,' and that would be it. Will would come in at 2 in the morning and say, 'Where's Warren?' and I'd say, 'Who?' "

Dusting off old Examiners in the stacks wasn't the first time Hinckle had plundered the archives for inspiration. Callahan, now the editor of Avon Books' Neon Lit series, remembers one afternoon waiting in Hinckle's personal library for a meeting with the man.

"This is where all the debris of all the magazines went. It was amazing to me, because it was all these journalists that I had never read, like the complete Gene Fowler, the complete Ben Hecht, the complete Mencken. Everything these guys ever wrote -- every book. I opened the books, and they were underlined. And then I realized, Warren Hinckle invented Warren Hinckle, to fit this tradition that he imagines himself in the middle of. The dress, the dog on the leash. I realized, here's a guy who had gone to journalism the same way a lot of artists had gone to art, this sense of inventing his own role in it and then living it out.

Callahan continues: "He made himself up, and in this town you can. This is a shy, overweight one-eyed Irish kid who decides he's gonna just invent himself as Warren Hinckle, living successor to Ben Hecht, Gene Fowler, and Lucian Beebe. And he did. And he is, and it's a great fucking story. He had impact on this town over and over again, and he's not through yet."

"I think Warren is a lot smarter than he thinks," says Robert Scheer. "I think he had an inferiority complex, really, about not being an intellectual, about not being really educated, and not being from New York, not having gone to one of those schools. And so as a result, he always felt he should report on what he knew about bars, or Irish San Francisco. I always felt that was his biggest problem."

But if one consistent philosophical thread runs through Warren Hinckle's work, it is sympathy for the working man. Like Old Man Hearst 100 years before, he insists on fighting for the little guy.

"He's sort of an old liberal, which is different than a modern liberal," says Zoran Basich of the San Francisco Independent, where Hinckle's column now appears. "He's not real politically correct, but he is for the underdog."

Underdogs might need to reach for an unabridged Webster's to fully comprehend some of Hinckle's prose, which is often peppered with arcane turns of phrase, antiquated language, and references to Henry Fielding novels.

"As I read his stuff, there was always one word that I had to look up," says Paul Krassner. "He told me that he always deliberately put one word in it that had to be looked up."

Callahan also attributes the peculiar Hinckle spin to a strong heritage of Irish writers.

"I think if you're Irish and you're writing in English, you have a really interesting relationship with the language you're writing in. You're constantly trying to subvert it as you make it work. Because it's English, it's not Irish. You like to make it work better than it actually did before, by breaking its own rules. And that's what it's like to be Irish."

In August 1987, Hinckle agitprop became more overt when he ran for mayor. In an Examiner column, Hinckle listed his civic accomplishments:

"I exposed the slumlord heatcheats who froze our senior citizens in Tenderloin hotels in winter. ... I was the first straight journalist to decry the ugly wave of gay-bashing in this town. ... When three San Francisco fishermen died when the drag boat Jack Jr. was run down by a killer tanker, I spiked an attempted cover-up on the part of the ship's owners and campaigned to make the sea lanes safe for our fishermen. ... [E]ven though Madame Mayor was against it, I managed with the public's overwhelming support, to change the city song from the smarmy 'I Left My Heart in San Francisco' to the robust 'San Francisco,' from the best movie ever made about this town."

Not to mention that business about turning Alcatraz into a casino.
Hinckle explained to his readers he would be "going on vacation." Will Hearst III said Hinckle would be welcomed back to the Examiner after he "wins, loses, or withdraws" from the race.

In true San Francisco fashion, a variety of half-serious candidates expressed interest in running for office that year, including comedian Will Durst. Somebody had the bright idea of staging a mayoral debate between Hinckle and Durst, moderated by Jello Biafra, at the Mission's Victoria Theatre.

"He showed up late," says Durst of the evening. "He had some other Irishman debate me."

An hour later Hinckle arrived, and the event proceeded. Who won?
"I did," Durst says. "Oh yeah, easy. I was sober."
When Art Agnos won the election, Durst went back to comedy clubs and Warren Hinckle went back to writing Examiner columns.

By this time Hinckle had earned a reputation as an editor whose magazines were forever crashing into a mountainside, yet he always managed to dust himself off and stroll away from the wreckage. Astonishingly, and certainly against their better judgment, people still gave him more opportunities. Will Hearst was going to give him one more, handing him Image, the Sunday Examiner magazine. It will be like People, Hinckle promised, except with occasional hard-hitting exposŽs! We'll get art director Roger Black to give the whole thing a face lift!

David Beers, then editor of Image, was assigned to help Hinckle. He knew the Hinckle horror stories -- the abrupt last-minute scrapping of one idea in favor of another, the dozing off drunk at the computer terminal, the staff begging him to dictate his column word by word, Bentley snarfing the contents of brown-bag lunches. He wanted no part of it, but since he was only 29, he had no cachet whatsoever. He struck a deal with the Examiner that he would work as Hinckle's managing editor for five weeks, and insisted his name appear nowhere on the masthead.

The tension was immediate. According to Beers, Hinckle arrived each morning around 11, tore up all the work the staff had done to that point, would go out to a long lunch, come back around 3 p.m., tear up any other work that had been accomplished, and leave around 6 to go out drinking, with strict orders everything had better be completed by the following morning.

About week four, Beers had had it. Hinckle had barreled out the door one evening, as always, telling the staff everything had to be redone. It was going to be yet another long night, racking up more overtime that was undoubtedly to be fruitless. Beers told the staff, Screw it, everyone go home.

"They were close to mutiny at that point anyway," he remembers.
Beers went out to dinner, and when he returned home, he found his wife lying in bed with all the lights off, huddled in terror.

"There's a strange man on the answering machine, threatening you," she said.
Beers played the message, and heard the unmistakable voice of Warren Hinckle, calling from a bar.

"You are guilty of insubordination," snarled Hinckle, "and I will take this up with the highest court of the Hearst Corporation." The tape continued, ordering Beers to be back in the office at 6 a.m., or face the consequences. At the end of the message, Beers heard Bentley bark in the background.

Beers arrived at the Examiner the next morning, answering machine tape in hand, eager to talk to Executive Editor Larry Kramer. To his surprise, Kramer approached him first.

"Did you get a phone call from Warren last night?" asked Kramer.
So had Kramer. After a short discussion, Beers was offered another job on the paper. Hinckle strolled into the Examiner around 11:30, and not a word was ever mentioned about the phone calls.

The episode was recounted in the East Bay Express by Sean Elder, who wrote, "Obviously by now, anybody can tell that giving your magazine to Warren Hinckle is like asking Roman Polanski to babysit your teenage daughter."

Hinckle was eventually eased out of Image and plopped back into his column, which continued from New York, where he now made his home. After an amicable divorce, in which Quentin Kopp had handled both sides, he had married novelist Susan Cheever, and the two now had a son, Warren Hinckle IV.

Hearst was unhappy with Hinckle writing a local column from New York, a point that Kopp doesn't buy. Even from afar, the senator says, Hinckle can still write better "day in, day out, what's happening in San Francisco."

The newspaper's ultimatum was either live here, or lose the column. In January 1991, the columnist was fired.

A few days later a motley menagerie of noisy Irish, old hippies, and others converged on the Examiner building. They protested that Hinckle had been fired for writing a column critical of the Gulf War that compared President Bush to Tojo, a column that the Examiner was too chicken to run. The atmosphere was that of a drunken circus. A 10-foot-tall replica of George Bush's head stared at passers-by from the bed of a truck. Flasks were passed to warm up the chilly morning. Strippers wobbled on their high heels, carrying picket signs with slogans like: "Stop Harassing the Visually Impaired."

Jim Mitchell seized the opportunity to expand from the porn business and launch his own newspaper, to combat the disinformation America was receiving about the Gulf War. It was called War News, and Mitchell appointed Hinckle as its figurehead editor/publisher, whose primary duties were riding around in a car from bar to bar with his dog, while everyone else did the work.

A nightclub in North Beach was opened as an office. Hinckle commuted back and forth from New York, calling in favors and rounding up contributors, including Barbara Ehrenreich, whose Time magazine piece had been killed, as well as Daniel Ellsberg, Michael Moore, Paul Krassner, Art Spiegelman, Ron Turner, Bob Callahan, Peter Bagge, Jim Woodring, Trina Robbins, S. Clay Wilson, even a fax from Hunter Thompson. R. Crumb designed a logo. T-shirts were printed up.

Callahan was amazed at the array of talented shit-disturbers they had attracted for this one last tweak of the establishment. "It was like 'The Over the Hill Gang' gets one more ride on the range."

Hinckle was back in his element, ear glued to the phone. This wasn't some bullshit Sunday magazine -- it mattered. And like most of Warren Hinckle's gut instincts, at heart he was absolutely right. Hinckle didn't get a chance to kill War News, though. Jim Mitchell did by shooting to death his brother, Artie. (Thanks to a Hinckle-led publicity campaign, Jim Mitchell got only six years.)

From his perch in New York, Hinckle began writing a weekly column in the Independent that slammed then-Mayor Art Agnos. His confederate was campaign consultant Jack Davis, who just happened to have a candidate in the race, former Police Chief Frank Jordan. A collection of the vituperative columns called The Agnos Years was published just days before the 1991 election, with Hinckle signing copies on the steps of City Hall. Jordan unseated Agnos, and Davis toasted Hinckle on a job well done. At the end of the year, Hinckle negotiated a fee with the Independent and began a regular column.

Borrowing a long-dead title of a newspaper founded a century ago by Ambrose Bierce -- the Argonaut -- Hinckle launched yet another publication. Actually he launched two, an eight-times-a-year free newspaper and a quarterly literary journal that went by the same name. Editor/Publisher Hinckle promised that it would compete with Granta. "We will bury them like a moldy dog," he wrote in his opening editorial.

Argonaut offices were established in a ramshackle building on Geary Boulevard, owned by Joe O'Donoghue, president of the John Maher Irish Democratic Club. Roger Black graciously designed a template. John J. Simon accepted a senior editor post. Ishmael Reed signed on as literary editor. Daughter Pia became managing editor. More old names reappeared from the past, from Studs Terkel to William Turner and Sidney Zion.

The quarterly was occasionally brilliant, such as the second issue's exploration of Germany's burgeoning neo-Nazi movement. The third issue was delayed for months, however. Staff members came and went, including the firing of Pia Hinckle by her father. "Crazies: Is America Going Nuts?" was eventually published, but the advertised fourth issue, discussing the "Phenomenon of the Vanishing Jew," was never completed.

The newspaper edition of the Argonaut quickly devolved into an occasional throwaway, published mostly in the vicinity of local elections, stocked full of ads from Hinckle's political pals and attacks on his enemies. During the last mayoral election, the paper published a Photoshop-faked picture of Jordan in the altogether -- the man they had helped to elect in 1991. Hinckle's choice for mayor this go-round? Jack Davis' candidate, Willie Brown.

Davis has filled an obvious void in Hinckle's life. He has a partner-in-crime once again. Cut to the Mitchell Brothers' theater in 1994, a Sunday afternoon birthday party for local politico Barbara Kolesar. As guests milled about, chatting and drinking, suddenly loud music cranked up from the sound system, a hybrid Don Ho/Ohio Players disco thump. The showers activated in the fabled Shower Room. Some sort of show was about to begin.

But it was to be a performance that would forever haunt the dreams of all assembled. Stepping out from the wings were not two nubile, naked women, but Warren Hinckle and Jack Davis, Hinckle wearing red checked boxers and patent leather shoes, Davis parading around in B.V.D.s. The crowd was slack-jawed at this tableau of two rotund, nearly nude men, drinks in hand, frolicking under the shower heads. Bentley suddenly recognized his master -- perhaps it was the checkered boxers -- and, despite a bandaged paw, eagerly jumped into the shower. As the columnist attempted to calm his excited dog, Bentley's soaked bandage began to unravel. A silent crowd fumbled for their cameras.

Despite all the public pranks and moldy magazine carcasses, Warren Hinckle remains audacious in his Independent columns, issued weekly from the Argonaut office. Chronicle columnist Phil Matier is dismissed as a "toilet brush." Examiner Executive Editor Bronstein is alleged to have a secret latent homosexual crush on Jack Davis. Bay Guardian Publisher Bruce Brugmann is said to sport "well-manicured fingernails." And this very newspaper represents "square-headed yuppiness," in Hinckle's words.

"I think that it's Warren as catalyst that makes him important, more so than Warren's own ideas," says Boston University's Dr. Howard Gottlieb, "which of course are numerous, and go in all directions." Gottlieb is eager to collect Hinckle's work and papers at the BU Library, and has pursued the man relentlessly since 1965. He compares his quest to a minuet:

"He would promise yes, I would send truckers, and archivists to help pack the materials, and something would develop, and they would come back without the materials. This went on year after year, and each time Warren had another excuse. Oh, he had to leave town, or Ramparts was going into bankruptcy, or he had to think of something else, or this would happen, or that would happen. I'm hoping that as he lopes into maturity, and as the onset of middle age comes upon him, he may be tired of carrying all this material around. And then I think he might weaken. And I'm ready to pounce when he does."

Robert Scheer is quick to point out that in the case of Hinckle, the path of an iconoclast is probably the most difficult road to take for a journalist:

"There's a lot of people who were nowhere near as smart and talented as Warren, who had the presumption to become pundits. A lot of them make a good living now in Washington. I think Warren can beat 'em cold as a reporter, as a writer, as a thinker. ... Surviving in this life as an interesting person -- doing interesting things -- is not easy."

"He needs that story," says Bob Callahan. "That's his addiction. The idea of something quiet, or any kind of spiritual life, the quiet life -- Hinckle would laugh in your face. No philosopher king for Warren. He's the last of his kind."

Some would like to see Hinckle return to his sense of righteous indignation.
"He's a muckraker," insists the Examiner's Bronstein. "He was passionate about going after things, and exposing things in his own inimitable way. But if you're the booster for the establishment of San Francisco -- I don't care if it's somebody as interesting and entertaining and colorful as Willie -- you can't engage in what you do best, which is muckraking."

But Hinckle's legendary style of fast and loose with the facts, creating his love-it-or-leave-it reputation with readers, is beginning to worry longtime friend Jim Wood, food critic at the Examiner:

"He's done something recently that's extremely troubling. I don't know why he did it. I don't understand it."

Wood refers to a lunchtime crowd at the M&M, a newspaper bar on the corner of Fifth and Howard. Three weeks ago, a huddle convened of Chronicle and Examiner reporters, including Wood and Maitland Zane. All were discussing Hinckle's recent column in the Independent about Chinatown activist Rose Pak. Hinckle had listed a few observations about her character flaws, then wrote:

"I raise these points as a person who genuinely, personally, likes Rose Pak. She swears and drinks and that is my type of person."

The journalist beehive was completely baffled.
"She's a non-drinker," says Zane with the air of authority.
"It's not like she's a recovering alcoholic -- she just doesn't drink," says Wood, a puzzled tone in his voice. "She's never drunk. I thought that was the weirdest thing."

Quentin Kopp is still on the line, tooling down I-80, talking about his lifelong friend Warren Hinckle.

"He has the most verve, the most imagination. He's also fearless. It's a wonder he hasn't been whacked on defamation." The senator pauses, then adds wryly, "Maybe because everyone figures, 'Ah, who the hell pays attention to Hinckle?' That could be, too.

About The Author

Jack Boulware

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