Warren Hinckle, 77, Ramparts Editor Who Embraced Gonzo Journalism, Dies

 

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Mr. Hinckle, left, in 1967 at the Ramparts magazine office with Sol Stern, center, an assistant managing editor, and the writer Robert Scheer. Credit Associated Press

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Warren Hinckle, the flamboyant editor who made Ramparts magazine a powerful national voice for the radical left in the 1960s and later by championing the work of Hunter S. Thompson and helping introduce the no-holds-barred reporting style known as gonzo journalism, died on Thursday. He was 77.

The cause was complications of pneumonia, his daughter Pia Hinckle said.

Ramparts was a small-circulation quarterly for liberal Roman Catholics when Mr. Hinckle began writing for and promoting it in the early 1960s. A born provocateur with a keen sense of public relations, he took over as the executive editor in 1964 and immediately set about transforming Ramparts from a sleepy intellectual journal to a slickly produced, crusading political magazine that galvanized the American left.

With cover art and eye-catching headlines reminiscent of mainstream magazines like Esquire, Ramparts aimed to deliver “a bomb in every issue,” as Time magazine once put it. It looked at Cardinal Francis Spellman’s involvement in promoting American involvement in Vietnam and the Central Intelligence Agency’s financing of a wide variety of cultural organizations.

It published Che Guevara’s diaries, with a long introduction by Fidel Castro; Eldridge Cleaver’s letters from prison; and some of the wilder conspiracy theories surrounding the Kennedy assassination. The magazine’s photo essay in January 1967 showing the injuries inflicted on Vietnamese children by American bombs helped convince the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to take a public stand against the war.

The covers became countercultural classics: an illustration depicting Ho Chi Minh, the Communist leader of North Vietnam, as Washington crossing the Delaware; a photograph of four hands, belonging to the magazine’s top editors, holding up draft cards that had been set on fire.

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The December 1967 cover of Ramparts, showing the hands of four of the magazine’s editors with burning draft cards. Credit Ramparts

 

By 1967, the magazine, which began with about 2,500 readers, had a circulation of nearly 250,000 and an ability to wrest coverage, however grudging, from mass-circulation magazines and newspapers.

“What journalism is about is to attack everybody,” Mr. Hinckle told The Washington Post in 1981. “First you decide what’s wrong, then you go out to find the facts to support that view, and then you generate enough controversy to attract attention.”

Warren James Hinckle III was born on Oct. 12, 1938, in San Francisco, where his father, Warren Hinckle Jr., was a shipyard worker and his mother, the former Angela DeVere, worked in the accounts department of the Southern Pacific Railroad. At 10, he lost an eye in a car accident, and for the rest of his life he wore a large eye patch, which became a prominent feature of his buccaneering image.

He attended Roman Catholic schools and enrolled in the University of San Francisco, a Jesuit institution, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1961.

As editor of the college newspaper, The San Francisco Foghorn, he showed early signs of the flair that would insert Ramparts into the national conversation. On a slow day, he and a friend generated news by burning down a wooden guard house at the entrance to the campus, an incident he described in his 1974 memoir, “If You Have a Lemon, Make Lemonade.”

After graduating from college, he started a public relations company and ran, unsuccessfully, for the county board of supervisors before joining The San Francisco Chronicle as a city reporter.

His relationship with Ramparts began inauspiciously, when Edward M. Keating, who founded the magazine in 1962, hired him to develop a promotional plan. Mr. Hinckle proposed a splashy party at a Manhattan hotel for leading Catholic laymen and journalists, with models and film stars thrown in for glamour. Mr. Keating, appalled, fired him.

Undeterred, he contributed an article on J. D. Salinger to the magazine’s first issue and, after whipping up press attention for an article on the killing of three civil rights workers in Mississippi in June 1964, was named executive editor.

It was a turning point. Before the year was out, he had turned the publication from a quarterly to a monthly and hired Robert Scheer, a seasoned foreign correspondent, who wrote some of the magazine’s most hard-hitting antiwar articles and secured the rights to publish the Guevara diaries.

In short order, Ramparts scored some stunning coups. A cover story exposed Michigan State University’s Vietnam Project in the 1950s as a C.I.A. front to train Saigon police and stockpile ammunition. It persuaded Donald W. Duncan, a former special forces sergeant in Vietnam, to describe how he was trained to torture prisoners. (Mr. Duncan died in 2009, but his death became widely known only in May.)

Mr. Hinckle extracted maximum publicity at every turn. When the C.I.A. learned that Ramparts was about to reveal the agency’s secret funding of a long list of organizations, including the National Student Association, the A.F.L.-C.I.O., and Encounter and Partisan Review magazines, it tried to minimize the impact by holding a news conference to admit the facts.

Mr. Hinckle counterpunched. “I was damned if I was going to let the C.I.A. scoop me,” he wrote in his memoir. “I bought full-page advertisements in The New York Times and The Washington Post to scoop myself, which seemed the preferable alternative.” The magazine received a George Polk Award that year for its coverage.

Ramparts was always in the news, always in chaos, always in debt. The hard-drinking Mr. Hinckle often worked from Cookie Picetti’s, a bar in San Francisco’s North Beach thtat was frequented by the police. When Mr. Cleaver told him that colleagues at Ramparts objected, he challenged him to name a decent left-wing bar. He spent lavishly, traveling first-class and staying in top hotels. He particularly enjoyed treating investors to sumptuous meals at their expense.

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Bobby Seale, a founder of the Black Panther Party, on the cover of the January 1970 issue of Ramparts. Credit Ramparts

~~~  READ THE STORY  ~~~

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