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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
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.

About The Author

Jack Boulware


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