He Made Lemonade: Warren Hinckle, Flamboyant Publisher

I first met him in 1966 or early ’67. I’d had a freelance assignment from Ramparts salvaging a story about a murderous Croatian fascist living happily ever after in Southern California. I dropped my copy off at Hinckle’s house on Castro Street, a comfortable Victorian. The living room was dominated by a stuffed animal —an almost life-sized elephant. What wonderful parents, I thought. The elephant had been custom-made for the 1964 Republican Convention, which was held in San Francisco, with Barry Goldwater emerging as the nominee. According to Warren’s sister Marianne, the elephant had been put on sale at I. Magnin’s department store on Christmas Eve, and Warren snapped it up for his daughter Pia, who was about to be born. It wouldn’t fit into his car, so the manager, who had a convertible, drove him home.

Hinckle went from editing his high school paper, The Riordan Crusader, to editing his college paper, the University of San Francisco Foghorn, to being a reporter in the SF Chronicle’s Oakland bureau. In his memoir of the ’60s, “If you Have a Lemon, Make Lemonade,” Hinckle describes the bureau chief as having “a face that was not so much flushed as a constant, cheery, Valentine’s Day pink.” He could have been describing himself.

Hinckle’s friend and trusted advisor, Howard Gossage, was in the advertising business. “That at least was how he made his living,” Hinckle wrote, “but he did it wholly on his own terms —first class— and with an originality of purpose an imagination that staggered the redundant minds of his profession.” Again, Warren could have been describing himself. Among Gossage’s many creations was the Beethoven sweatshirt, which was striking and original back in the early ‘60s, and, for better or worse, started the trend of sweat- and t-shirts being used to display graphics.

Hinckle had been granted a leave of absence from the Chronicle to help a wealthy man named Ed Keating launch a journal called Ramparts whose office was in Menlo Park and whose target readers were liberal Catholic intellectuals. Keating’s idea of a provocative article was “The Case for Contraception.” Everything changed drastically in ’64 when Hinckle published an expose by a serious leftwing journalist, Robert Scheer, about the role of the church in preventing the reunification of Vietnam based on free elections (which was supposed to happen under an agreement known as the Geneva Accords). Hinckle and Scheer made one of those magical duos, each supporting and potentiating the others’ strenghts, like Marx and Engels or Ike and Tina Turner.

This is how Hinckle, in his memoir, described the role of New York’s Francis Cardinal Spellman:

“The Cardinal worked overtime to help condition American opinion to the necessity of Uncle Sam’s assuming the Christian colonial burden of the decamping French in Southeast Asia. He was an early sponsor of the Catholic mandarin Ngo Dinh Diem, who lived under the Cardinal’s approbation in New Jersey and New York seminaries in the early fifties, while Spellman used his influence to open Washington doors to the then little-known Vietnamese politician-in-exile. When Diem was named Premier in 1954 and consolidated his power with United States money and guns, he proceeded to turn official Saigon into something approximating an Indochinese Vatican City. The ranking jobs in the army and government were given to Catholics, the fringe Catholic philosophy of personalism was elevated to a kind of state religion, and the yellow and white flags of the Vatican fluttered from flagpoles in rural Catholic enclaves; all the while, Diem made life miserable for the Buddhists, who comprised the majority of the population. This seemed to Spellman’s liking, as the New York Cardinal began to fly in and out of Saigon as if it were a satellite parish of his diocese. Diem ordered army units to work through the night preparing triumphal arches for the Cardinal’s visits. The American Catholic Relief Agency gave over $35,000,000 in aid to the refugee Catholics who formed the base of Diem’s support… and Spellman personally intervened when Eisenhower, in a wavering moment in 1955, considering dumping Diem.”

Keating was ditched and Ramparts moved to San Francisco.  There would be many more dynamite exposes in the years that followed. Hinckle, whose prose was sometimes as florid as his face, wrote:

“The CIA’s covert operations abroad were said to pervert the independence and free choice of other peoples. Then Ramparts disclosed…that the CIA was about the same perversions in the United States —recycling intellectuals, co-opting universities, buying labor unions, renting students. We uncovered the secret CIA tunnels to the board rooms of the mightiest and the bell towers of the loftiest of American institutions, and found the Agency susceptible to the journalistic metaphor of Drano run amok —it was everywhere outside the kitchen sink of intelligence where it belonged…

“Hundreds of newsmen lined up to scour the records of foundations revealed in Ramparts as CIA conduits, to find what other groups had received funnymoney. Reporters traded off foundation tax returns like bubble gum cards, and the orgy of disclosures continued for weeks in the press. Almost everybody got dirty. The National Council of Churches. The American Newspaper Guild. The International Commission of Jurists. The American Friends or the Middle East. The United Auto Workers. The National Education Association. the International Retail Clerks. The Asia foundation. The National Newman Club. The African-American Institute. The Congress for Cultural Freedom. The Synod of bishops of the Russian Church Outside Russia. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. People-to-People, Inc. etc.”

Until Ramparts appeared in living color with eye-catching covers on glossy stock, leftwing publications were printed on butcher paper and the target readers were intellectuals.  Until Hinckle started taking cleanly designed full-page ads in the New York Times to promote them, stories about antiwar soldiers were ignored by the corporate media. When Master Sergeant Don Duncan, the most highly decorated enlisted man in the US Army, told a crowd of 20,000 in Berkeley that he was turning down a silver star and retiring to protest the US role in Vietnam, the story was ignored.  But when Duncan appeared in uniform on the glossy cover of Ramparts in February, 1966 saying “I quit!” —and Hinckle took a full-page in the Times to publicize Duncan’s revelations— did the significance of his dissent break through. The sight of MSgt Duncan was like a trumpet blast of hope for everyone who thought “we” should not be supporting the South Vietnamese regime. It gave me the idea to set up coffeehouses in Army towns so that antiwar GIs would have a place to find each other.

Hinckle’s obituary in the New York Times was informative and respectful, but it made no mention of “War News,” the newspaper he launched as the US invaded Iraq in the spring of 1991. Hinckle would recall in 1998:

“There was once in this fair and compassionate city an urgently topical publication called War News. Publication began on March 2, 1991 and ceased on March 16, 1991 with a circulation of 200,000. War News’ purpose was to oppose the Gulf War, and, when the war ended, it ended.

“The antiwar newspaper was an instant product of San Francisco’s antiwar culture that made the city the epicenter of Vietnam War protests. It was largely a creation of the city’s famous underground-comics artists of the ’70s–Robert Crumb, S. Clay Wilson, Dan O’Neil, Gilbert Shelton, Winston Smith, and Ron Turner of Last Gasp Books, and writers included Hunter Thompson, Daniel Ellsberg, Andrew Kopkind, Ishamel Reed, Barbara Ehrenreich, and novelist John Berger. I was the editor of War News, which was financed by the Mitchell Brothers from their porn profits; it was a very San Francisco thing.

“Bombs don’t come from the stork; they come from the IRS, from personal income taxes.” —Hunter S. Thompson in San Francisco’s War News

“There were few Gulf War supporters in town —I seem to recall state senator Quentin Kopp and political consultant Jack Davis (when they were still speaking) waving little U.S. flags dork-like at a military parade— but most city politicos denounced the war and there were massive street protests; being against the invasion of Iraq in 1991 was as natural to San Francisco as summer fog.”

Warren Hinckle will forever be remembered as the publisher of Ramparts, but he was also a prolific writer with an entertaining style, a radical point of view, and a treasure trove of anecdotes to spice up the stories he was reporting. The above recollection was written for the San Francisco Independent, a biweekly published by his admirer Ted Fang. It went on:

“Seven years later, in 1998, President Bill Clinton is trying to dodge the impeachment bullet and he drops more Tomahawk and Cruise missiles on Iraq than former president George Bush did during the entire Persian Gulf War and there is hardly a ripple of outrage on the city streets.

“Whatever has happened to the Frisco left? Seven years ago, it would have had Clinton’s head on a pike for carpet-bombing Iraq. And San Francisco would have been the starting gate for a push to impeach Clinton —not from the right for lying but from the left for the seriously high crime of using the war power, without authorization from Congress, to inflict civilian casualties to create a diversion from an obsessed special prosecutor’s investigation of his sex life and his lies about it.”

Hinckle launched War News from New York, phoning and faxing copy and instructions to an ad hoc staff in San Francisco.  The full-folio-sized paper was originally laid out in a vacant restaurant/bar on Montgomery Street at Broadway recently acquired by the Mitchell Brothers. Jim Mitchell and Warren had been planning to launch a San Francisco newspaper later that year, but Warren felt impelled to respond immediately to Operation Desert Storm. I was working at UCSF medical center at the time, editing the internal weekly. Warren asked me to write something for War News and one evening after work —on February 26, to be precise— I delivered a piece to the Montgomery Street HQ. Someone with no experience was trying to set type using a Macintosh and was being taught over the phone how to paste up columns with rubber cement. I told Jim Mitchell there was a program called Pagemaker that might be more efficient. He asked me to take over the whole production side of the operation. I said I couldn’t. He said let’s to get some dinner and talk about it. I said I was a divorced dad, had to drive up to Sonoma and see my kids that night. Jim said he had a soccer-playing kid, too, let’s take them all out someday soon. I said sounds good. But that night Jim Mitchell drove to Corte Madera and shot his brother Artie dead. There are people who think the shooting would have happened anyway, but I think it was the utter chaos of the “newsroom” and the stream of faxed scrawls from Warren in New York that put Jim Mitchell over the edge.

Warren was a brilliant idea man who didn’t need a focus group to tell him what would get people’s attention. I saw him at his best in the spring of ’68 when the idea for the Ramparts Wallposter sprang fullblown from his brain. I had gone into his office to ask for two-weeks leave from the magazine to put out a mimeographed map, at the request of Tom Hayden, with instructions for the antiwar demonstrators coming to Chicago to implore and confront delegates to the Democratic Party convention. Hinckle immediately said it should be on newsprint like the political wallposters then being whitewashed against walls in China —”One side covering the protests, one side with reports by delegates from inside the hall!”  I pulled it off, then he took it over.

In 1976 Warren was hired by Francis Ford Coppola to replace John Burks, a competent editor with less pizzazz, as the editor of City magazine, for which I’d been writing.  I told Warren I wanted to do a study of the San Francisco workforce. He asked me if I’d been named after Frederick Engels. He said he’d taken delight in my leaflets attacking the classy left and asked if I would do a piece focused on Tom Hayden’s history as a movement leader. Hayden was then living in Santa Monica and running in the Democratic Party primary for US Senate against the incumbent, John Tunney. After the piece came out, Coppola contributed a grand to the Hayden campaign, Herb Caen reported. Warren called me up to say he knew that publishers were supposed to stand by their editors and writers, but Francis did not. When City folded, Coppola reportedly said of Hinckle, “I gave him an unlimited budget, and he exceeded it.”

Warren’s art director gave the Hayden piece a kind of National Enquirer splash that made me wince. That issue was one of two in the history of City magazine that sold out the press run, thanks to the cover story by Susan Berman, “Why Women Can’t Get Laid in San Francisco.”  The other best-seller was the special Dashiell Hammett issue edited by David Fechheimer, the well-known private investigator, whose first job for Hinckle had been in 1964. It involved bugging the garden outside the Ramparts office on Pacific Avenue.  Warren thought people he was doing business with were likely to hold secret consultations back there.

I was surprised when Warren showed up at Dennis Peron’s San Francisco Cannabis Buyer’s Club on election night in 1996 to celebrate he passage of Proposition 215, the ballot measure that legalized marijuana for medical use in California. I had made him, incorrectly, for one of those heavy drinkers who has contempt for pot smokers. “He didn’t have any prejudice like that,” Marianne reminded me. “We were fourth generation San Franciscans who knew all about the opium dens in Chinatown and were very accepting. Marijuana was nothing new.”

After Tina Brown of the New Yorker spiked my piece about the Prop 215 campaign (at the urging of Mitch Rosenthal, MD, owner of the Phoenix House chain of rehab centers), Warren published it in The Argonaut, a tabloid backed by the Fangs. Cannabis wasn’t his drug of choice, but he was very proud that the medical marijuana movement —now international— started as a San Francisco thing.

It was around this time that I told Warren I had an idea for a monthly that ran obituaries and could be called something tasteful like “Who’s Leaving Us Now?” He said, immediately, “It’ll look just like the old Life and we’ll call it Death!

Yesterday was his funeral at SS Peter and Paul’s in North Beach. There were five priests (and no altar boys). They spoke of Warren being in heaven. Which inspired a veteran lawyer to recall, as we walked into the sunshine of Washington Square, that Vincent Hallinan, a militant atheist, had once been asked what he would say if the teachings of the church turned out to be true and he found himself before St. Peter… “Vince said, ‘Well, I’ll be damned!'”

Fred Gardner is the managing editor of O’Shaughnessy’s. He can be reached at fred@plebesite.com