Warren Hinckle: “There's Nothing in the Job Description of an Editor That Can't be Done in a Bar”

SANTA CRUZ (April 30, 1998) — Hinckle’s eye-patch is barely noticeable behind his sunglasses, and is overshadowed by his olive green shorts, teal sport coat, bright blue knee-high socks, and a tie adorned with bizarre headlines.

On this sunny, breezy, opening-day on the San Francisco Bay, Warren Hinckle stands, a bottle of Full Sail Ale appropriately in hand, in front of the wind-whipped bay and the swaying masts of the yachts docked at Pier 38, home of his two current publications, The Waterfront Times and The Argonaut.

With The Argonaut, Hinckle is following what he says is “a tradition of one-man newspapers, rat-fucking, practical jokes, and a multiplicity of newspapers that is part of the West.”

“I publish what’s going on that’s worthwhile that no one else is doing. Big small-time news issues. I’m following in the 19th century tradition of local writing on political issues. I have an ax to grind.”

The entrance to the Argonaut office is reached by climbing over a railing two feet from a drop in to the Bay. Hinckle’s girlfriend, Linda Corso, passes their basset hound, Melman, to Hinckle before climbing over the railing herself.

Melman is the third in a series of basset hounds Hinckle has owned over the years. He knew from the time he got his first, Beauregard, that basset hounds were trouble.

“He would get bits of glass and metal from soda cans in his balls and cock [because they dragged on the ground],” Hinckle says. “They’re a nightmare, stubborn; a really bad breed,” he says.

Hinckle likes that, “You wake up in the morning and they look as bad as you feel. You start off equal for the day.”

The walls of the Argonaut office are relatively bare. The main room has concrete floors and high ceilings. It is furnished with several couches, tables, and desks, two cases of wine, stacks of old publications, a couple of computers, and a Char-Broil propane barbecue. A poster from Hinckle’s unsuccessful mayoral campaign reads: “Tired of the same old crap? Warren Hinckle for Mayor”.

In Hinckle’s office, walls of books are stacked three rows higher than the bookshelf and spill out on to his L-shaped desk. Snapshots of his daughters, Pia and Hillary, both when they were children and as grown women hang next to fading newspaper clips. Several framed covers Scanlans, The War News, and Ramparts also hang on the walls.

“Ramparts is probably the coolest thing he’s done,” says his daughter Pia, who is now the business editor at the San Francisco Examiner. “It had good looking design and content that was investigative. He took it from being a quiet catholic magazine, to being a radical weekly.”

Hinckle explains how he went from working on Ramparts to publishing it. “The guy [Edward Keating] who had it ran out of money. It was actually his wife’s money. He said to me one day ‘I can’t go on, I don’t have any more money.’ And we said, ‘well, what the fuck are we going to do?’ So we read a book on magazine publishing, and we ran around fat and happy.”

Hinckle says that Ramparts was not revolutionary, but rather, “evolutionary.” When he took over, Hinckle didn’t want a magazine that looked like the other radical political publications of the time, which he describes as, “left wing butcher paper.” Ramparts was successful, according to Hinckle, because it was “slick looking, and by breaking distribution patterns broke into main stream.”

“We were basically white niggers,” Hinckle says.

Hinckle recalls one day in 1968 when the staff of Ramparts “were all drunk” and in possession of two rental cars. “It was providence,” he says with a shrug, “we only needed one to go up to the country.”

“We had too many cars, everyone was drunk, and we said, ‘let’s throw it in the bay.’”

They drove the car up to a six inch log, and got the motor racing, thinking it would “skip” into the bay.

“We were yelling at Lucian Truscott IV, who wouldn’t get out of the car, ‘Get the fuck out, the car is going in the bay!’ Someone threw it in gear, and it skidded and jumped, and jumped into the bay.”

Hinckle tried to get his secretary to tell the rental company that the car was stolen. “Just say, ‘he left the keys in the car’,” he told her.

“Ultimately Ramparts went out of business. There were a million better people, we just put our ideas in a better format and for a few years confused the hell out of everyone.”

After Ramparts, Hinckle got a job as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. When William Hearst inherited the Examiner, Hinckle says, “His idea was to get me from the Chron and drag others like Hunter Thompson.” He recalls that, “There was a permanent government of people who had always been there. They hated us. We were freaks.”

Hinckle had a falling out with the Examiner that he describes as, “a big pissing match.”

“At the end of the Examiner there was a huge fight,” he says. “I was spending half the time in New York, I had a kid, a marriage [with Susan Cheever]. They didn’t want me writing about the City if I was spending time in New York.”

After leaving the Examiner, Hinckle says, “I was between jobs. [Francis Ford] Coppola calls me up, he wants me to be the editor [of City magazine]. I had to call back to make sure it was him.”

“I was brought in as a guest editor, with an editorial budget of five thousand bucks an issue. So I said, ‘can I have it in cash?’ I told him: ‘I’ll give it out. I’ll spend it wisely.’ So he asks ‘can I come along?’”

Hinckle and Coppola went around San Francisco gathering material for the next issue. “We went to some bars in North Beach, some poetry readings, the South of Market Area. In three days, they hadn’t spent all of the $5000, but they did have a “brilliant issue.”

“Two years later,” Hinckle summarizes, “the mag folded and he threw me in a pool.”

Although now divorced from Cheever, he still spends about half of his time in New York with his eight-year-old son, Warren Hinckle IV, who has been nicknamed “Quaddy.”

His frequent trips across the country may make the position of his travel agent, Mary O’Donnell seem enviable. However, she says, “He’ll tell me [his plans] a day before, if I’m lucky. He makes me nuts.” O’Donnell worked with Hinckle as a copy editor for The War News and The Argonaut where they pulled frequent all-nighters. “It was the most stimulating work I’ve ever done,” she says. “Stressful, but stimulating.”

“He is a perfectionist, but also a procrastinator, so he had better be able to perform in the last minute,” says O’Donnell, “He’s such a good writer, deadlines are just a beginning for him.”

Hinckle’s daughter Pia, who also worked with him until on The Argonaut until he fired her for keeping him on deadlines, says, “I learned a lot. He has an incredible sense of design and how to pull together a publication. I wish he could do it more consistently.” Pia believes that his inconsistency is just a part of who he is. “He’s also getting older, and he drinks too much,” she says.

“My father is a drama queen,” says Pia. When he fired her, she says, “He had some of his flunkies change the locks on the office. I screamed on the phone that he was a rat-fucker asshole.”

Despite the conflict, however, they are still close. Growing up with Hinckle as a father was fun, Pia says. “He would make us beer pancakes on Saturday mornings.”

Born and raised in San Francisco, Hinckle attended Archbishop Riordan High School, and later, the University of San Francisco. “It’s an unusual American city with a wacko tradition of publishers and gun-slinging editors,” says Hinckle. “I’m a throwback to small-time publishing where people don’t care about salary.”

“Originally there were a lot of political magazines called the penny press. They were muckrakers. They charged two or three cents and that paid for everything - the writers, the printers, everything,” explains Hinckle.

“Advertising came in and put them out of business. Print didn’t do shit after that.”

Hunched over the bar at the Irish Cultural Center, Hinckle sips a Guinness and comments on the “cancer of the intellect” he sees in today’s press. “This is a big rich country, there’s no ideology. The outrage that stood for politics has eroded in the last 30 years.”

As Hinckle’s garbled but intelligent speech issues forth from his round face, he smiles a blissfully drunk smile with lips together, nodding and closing his twinkling blue eye with each point.

“Being objective is the death of the American Press,” he says. “You have to be honest about your prejudice, factual in your argument, and have the balls not to be too PC to sell your product.”

“Neutrality is at best an uneasy situation. Journalism is very opinionated, why should you hide your prejudice? You should show the facts that lead to that prejudice. If you want to argue opinion you can, but you can’t argue with facts.”

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Copyright 2016 © Colin Turner. All Rights Reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, quoted, or transmitted without prior written consent of the author. This article was originally written for Conn Hallinan’s “Practical News Writing” course at UC Santa Cruz in April 1998.

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