American political journalist Warren Hinckle (1938–2016), the flamboyant editor of the magazine Ramparts, covered the radical movements of the 1960s with a showman's flair and challenged the U.S. government and the Vietnam War with aggressive muckraking. As editor of the short-lived Scanlan's Monthly in 1970, he published Hunter S. Thompson's experimental fever-dream writing, giving birth to the rule-breaking genre known as “gonzo” journalism.
Born on October 12, 1938, in San Francisco, California, Warren James Hinckle III was the child of Warren Hinckle, Jr., a shipyard worker, and Angela (DeVere) Hinckle, an office worker for the Southern Pacific Railroad. When he was ten years old, Hinckle lost his left eye in an accident and would wear an eye patch for the rest of his life. A rebel from a young age, he attended strict Catholic schools, where he once pushed a school librarian to add the left-wing magazine The Nation to the library's collection.
While studying at the University of San Francisco, Hinckle became editor of its student newspaper, the Daily Foghorn, and sometimes staged news incidents so he could report on them. For instance, he once got a friend to burn down a guardhouse on the university campus. Although Hinckle may have graduated in 1961, Washington Post contributor Harrison Smith suggested that he may have left school without a degree in the summer of 1960. In any event, he now got a job at the San Francisco Chronicle, one of the city's daily newspapers. Hinckle quickly realized that he was bored by news reporting, so he left the Chronicle and briefly ran a public relations firm. He also married Denise Libarle in 1962, although the couple would later divorce.
Hinckle got his second chance to be a journalist in 1964, when Ramparts magazine hired him in 1964 as executive editor. Ramparts was a quarterly magazine that pressed for liberal reforms in the Roman Catholic Church, and Hinckle quickly transformed it. He changed its publication schedule to monthly, produced it on slick paper, added catch design and graphics, and expanded its coverage to American politics.
Hinckle's goal was to make Ramparts a “radical slick,” the equivalent of the influential news magazine Time, but geared for the radical movements of the 1960s. (Hinckle kept a capuchin monkey in the Ramparts office and named it Henry Luce, after the founder of Time.) He commissioned long essays about the rise of feminism, the growth of left-wing Catholicism, and the birth of hippie culture. The magazine ran provocative cover images, such as Vietnamese Communist leader Ho Chi Minh posed in a boat, in the style of a famed painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware River, and a close-up of hands holding the editors' military draft cards, which were on fire.
Under Hinckle, Ramparts challenged the U.S. government's involvement in the Vietnam War and the activities of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). He helped revive the American muckraking tradition of aggressive investigative reporting, commissioning in-depth reports and promoting them with full-page ads in major newspapers. Ramparts' most famous investigation revealed that student groups at Michigan State University had worked with the CIA and police in South Vietnam. When the CIA attempted to use bugging and wiretapping to discredit Ramparts, Hinckle stood by the magazine's story.
Ramparts won journalism's prestigious George Polk Award in 1966 for its coverage. It also investigated the CIA's funding of the magazines Encounter and Partisan Review, the prominent AFL-CIO labor union, and the National Student Association. Aware that this story was forthcoming, the CIA held a news conference to admit it funded these organizations. Hinckle, not content to be scooped, bought full-page advertisements in the New York Times and the Washington Post to break the story before the actual publication date.
Hinckle also published the diary of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the Communist guerrilla leader who participated in the 1959 Cuban Revolution and died in Bolivia in 1967, running it with a long introduction by Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. A January 1967 photo essay highlighting Vietnamese children maimed by American bombs helped convince civil-rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., to come out against the Vietnam War. Also influentially but less credibly, Hinckle published several conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. While critics complained that his brand of journalism broke ethical rules, Stephen Schwartz explained in the Weekly Standard that “notoriety, not facts or provenance, was what counted.” In 1969, Hinckle described Ramparts as “totally and absolutely and joyfully biased,” as quoted by William Grimes in the New York Times. “We went in to hang the Saigon government [of South Vietnam], to kill the war in Vietnam. That's what political journalism is about.”
Hinckle's work made Ramparts widely known and influential, and by 1968 it had 300,000 subscribers. The magazine did not make a profit during his tenure as editor, however. One contributing factor was Hinckle's lavish, impulsive spending and his disdain for budgets. At the end of 1969, amid a financial crisis for Ramparts, Hinckle resigned and decided to start a new magazine.
In the winter of 1970, Hinckle founded Scanlan's Monthly together with two partners: Stanley Zion, a former New York Times reporter, and Howard Gossage, a former advertising executive. They raised $675,000 in a public stock offering and published the first issue of Scanlan's in March of 1970. This issue included an article by Hunter S. Thompson, the wildest, most provocative American journalist of the 1970s.
Hinckle met Thompson in 1967 at the Ramparts offices, soon after the publication of Thompson's first book, Hell's Angels. Although Thompson never wrote for Ramparts, he approached Hinckle while attempting to place his article “The Temptations of Jean-Claude Killy” in late 1969.
Playboy had commissioned Thompson to profile Killy, a French skier who won three gold medals at the 1968 Winter Olympics. It refused to publish the draft Thompson submitted when it turned out to focus on Killy's decision to make huge sums of money as a celebrity pitchman for automobile manufacturer Chevrolet. As Thompson wrote of the French athlete (in the version of the article included in the anthology The Great Shark Hunt), Killy “is a handsome middle-class French boy who trained hard and learned to ski so well that now his name is immensely saleable on the marketplace of a crazily inflated cultureeconomy that eats its heroes like hotdogs and honors them on about the same level.” Hinckle agreed to publish the story in Scanlan's with minimal editing.
Hinckle then contracted Thompson to visit his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, to write a satirical report about the Kentucky Derby, the famed annual horse race. He gave the journalist a generous budget to cover expenses, and Scanlan's hired Ralph Steadman, a British satirical illustrator, to create illustrations. Thompson and Steadman proceeded to spend a week on a drinking binge that included bourbon, whiskey, beer, and mint juleps. Their inebriated state helped them fit in with the drunken crowd at the race, which Thompson used as a metaphor for the moral decline of the American South. After returning to New York City, Thompson struggled to write a story out of his garbled notes and alcohol-fuzzed memory. Hinckle told the journalist to check into a hotel room—paid for by Scanlan's—and stay there until he finished the story.
The result, “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” ran in the June 1970 issue of Scanlan's. It was unlike any magazine article ever written, voiced in “a manic, highly adrenal first-person style in which Thompson's own emotions continually dominate the story,” as Tom Wolfe wrote in his The New Journalism. Thus was born “gonzo journalism,” Thompson's electrifying style of writing from then on. In a key passage of the article, the journalist wrote that he had searched Derby crowds for a certain type of person for Steadman to draw. “It was a face I'd seen a thousand times at every Derby I'd ever been to,” he wrote, as republished in The Great Shark Hunt. “I saw it, in my head, as the mask of the whiskey gentry—a pretentious mix of booze, failed dreams and a terminal identity crisis; the inevitable result of too much inbreeding in a closed and ignorant culture.”
Enthused by the story and its positive reception in the journalism world, Hinkle planned to commission a series of similar articles, with Thompson and Steadman crashing major sporting events to expose their peculiarly unique cultures. Before Thompson could write his account of their attempt to spray-paint graffiti on a yacht at the America's Cup boat race in Newport, Rhode Island, however, Scanlan's shut down. Hinckle and his partners had lost a million dollars in a single year.
Years later, Thompson would praise Hinckle's aggressive support of his work. He “is an editor that would do anything to get a story, including writing bad checks,” the journalist told Marc Weingarten in The Gang That Wouldn't Write Straight. “But I liked him as much as any editor I ever worked for. Whatever needed to be done, he would do it. I've always thought of him as a good offensive tackle. As long as he was blocking for me, even if it entailed questionable tactics, I valued it tremendously.”
In 1974, Hinckle produced a memoir about his journalistic adventures, If You Have a Lemon, Make Lemonade. He also turned from national journalism to local journalism, working as a magazine editor and then a newspaper columnist. Filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola hired him to edit City, a San Francisco magazine, during the mid-1970s, but Hinckle's characteristic extravagant spending caused City to close down in 1976. He then founded a new magazine, Frisco, which did not last long. He worked as an editor for various small publications and wrote several books that advanced conspiracy theories about topics such as the CIA and Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Hinckle wrote opinion columns for local newspapers, including the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner. When Mayor (and future U.S. senator) Dianne Feinstein closed several San Francisco strip clubs, he badgered her in print so fiercely that she poured a drink over his head in retaliation. Hinckle ran for mayor of San Francisco in 1987 and won 2.8 percent of the vote. His ruthless criticism of the next mayor, Art Agnos, contributed to Agnos's defeat in the 1991 mayoral election. Hinckle also published the journal Argonaut on an irregular basis from 1992 to 2012. He married the writer Susan Cheever in 1989, although they later separated.
In his later years, Hinckle remained the man about town he had always been. “With his ever-present basset hound, Bentley, in tow, Mr. Hinckle held forth at watering holes and strip clubs, tossing off one-liners in a low growl like a late-night comic,” wrote Kevin Fagan in the San Francisco Chronicle. He died in San Francisco of complications of pneumonia on August 25, 2016, at age 77.
Thompson, Hunter S., The Great Shark Hunt, Fawcett Popular Library, 1979.
Weingarten, Marc, The Gang That Wouldn't Write Straight, Crown Publishers, 2006.
Wolfe, Tom, The New Journalism, Harper & Row, 1973.
Atlantic Monthly, December 2017, Rich Cohen, “The Rise and Fall of Rolling Stone,” pp. 34–37.
New Criterion, October 2016, Peter Collier, “The Passing of a Sixties Showman,” pp. 12–15.
New York Times, August 26, 2016, William Grimes, “Warren Hinckle, 77, Ramparts Editor Who Embraced Gonzo Journalism,” p. B14.
San Francisco Chronicle, August 25, 2016, Kevin Fagan, “Muckraking SF Journalist Warren Hinckle Dies at 77.”
Washington Post, August 30, 2016, Harrison Smith, “Warren Hinckle, Editor of the Swaggering 1960s Magazine Ramparts.”
Weekly Standard, September 19, 2016, “Lightweight Champion: Warren Hinckle, 1938–2016,” p. 39.□