Books

Go-Cup Journalism

"Who Killed Hunter S. Thompson?" by Warren Hinckle, 520 pages, Last Gasp, $39.95.
"Who Killed Hunter S. Thompson?" by Warren Hinckle, 520 pages, Last Gasp, $39.95.
Warren Hinckle's editor at the San Francisco Examiner takes us into the newsroom on a "wacko" night with the infamous muckraker — and reviews two Hinckle books in the process.

The night of October 21, 1985, was one of those nights Hunter Thompson craved — whacko. Action, man. The hog is in the tunnel. Alert the desk and stand back. We had a story.

Death had come to a killer, and the suicide of Dan White, shooter of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, was fraught with symbolism in San Francisco, where the horror of the AIDS epidemic had left the city’s wounds raw.

My problem was, in a word, Hinckle. I needed to find him, and quick. Nobody on earth was better qualified to write about what the suicide of this failed and hateful man really meant to the city. I was Warren Hinckle’s editor at The San Francisco Examiner at the time, and the bastard was like a ne’er-do-well brother-in-law — he only showed up when you didn’t want to see him. At the most inopportune times, there he would be, stepping out of a cab in front of the Ex, utterly smashed, red jowls and ridiculous opera pumps, eye patch rampant and thinning hair still rebelling over his collar, hauling on poor Bentley’s leash. “Come on, fuckface,” he’d say to the long-suffering Basset hound, and you knew you were in for another trip down the journalistic rabbit hole.

But come anywhere near actual deadline, on the day his column was supposed to run, and he was in the wind.

So it was that night. Of course, it was well before cell phones (not that Hinckle would ever have had turned one on). But I had experience at this, and after a couple of dry holes, I walked into Paddy Nolan’s Dovre Club in the Mission, and bingo.

“Come on Warren, damn it, Dan White’s killed himself, and I need you to write about it,” I said, and the place turned quiet as the grave.

I dragged his ass down to The Examiner, installed him behind a computer and Bentley on a chair next to him, and hung on for the ride.

Every hour or so, after writing 50 or 60 words, Hinckle would rise, stagger downstairs and out the door to the newspaper’s favorite watering hole, the M&M, and come back with two go-cups, one for himself, one for me — blissfully uncaring about the fact I hadn’t touched the last two or three he’d brought — and settle himself back down to the task.

I remember Managing Editor Frank McCulloch, mindful of the fact the presses started up at around 7 a.m. on The Examiner’s early edition, showing up about 5:30. He gazed at the ring of go-cups on my desk, the chair with snoring Basset hound and, next to it, Hinckle, reeling like a helmsman in heavy seas, in and out of consciousness, tap-tapping on the keyboard for brief spurts. Frank just looked at me and shook his head.

“Come on Hinckle, you fuck,” I’d bellow occasionally, if only to jar him back to consciousness, and at 6:40 a.m. he turned in 900 words of utterly perfect prose. Not slap dash, not incoherent, not even merely good. The column was crisp, searing, perfect, and it played across the top of A1.

Hinckle fixed his solitary gleaming, prosecutorial eye on me as I passed the story onto the composing room: “Come on, buy me a drink.”

And so what? As Hunter S. Thompson — also a semi-reliable Examiner columnist in those days — would have said, “This is the business we have chosen.” But I couldn’t help but think of it as I perused words from the grave — two significant new Hinckle tomes that memorialize both the late writer’s impact and prose, and that of Dr. Thompson himself, who was my other editing charge back then. Editing both of them at the same time was sort of like being on the trading floor on a bad day on Wall Street — except the hours were worse and the craziness didn’t stop at 5 p.m., or at midnight, for that matter.

The beauty of “Who Killed Hunter Thompson?” is in the collective memory of so many of HST’s friends and colleagues. Hinckle’s stories of his time running Scanlan’s magazine are useful to understand just how the Kentucky Derby assignment of Hunter and Ralph Steadman caught lightning in a bottle — when Hunter realized, in extremis, that his notes were better than most people’s finished manuscripts.

Hinckle’s recollections of Hunter, the O’Farrell Theatre and The Examiner era are less valuable, primarily because they are shot through with errors and omissions. For instance, he casts the wonderful Maria Khan as Hunter’s editor, when in fact, brilliant as she is, she was mostly his girlfriend and partly his assistant.

This opening of this volume is a chunk of the unpublished manuscript of a book Hinckle was commissioned to write after pornographer Art Mitchell’s murder, but never produced. While archivally interesting, it makes the book too long by half.

But, hey, reading the recollections of so many people who knew Hunter well — from Will Hearst to Bill Kennedy to Michael Stepanian to Terry McDonell — is immensely entertaining and enlightening. The book, in pulling all of those voices together, gives the readers something that so much of the Thompson hagiography published after his suicide does not — a collective kind of verite that actually summons some of the old sparkle and energy that consumed life with the Doctor.

With an exception or two. The otherwise smart and funny Marty Nolan, who knew Hunter in the Campaign Trail days, credited Dave Burgin with hiring Hunter at The Examiner “at some risk while Ex higher-ups blanched and stammered.” I have to take issue: Will Hearst was The Examiner’s publisher, and he didn’t install Burgin as editor to hire some boring lump like — well, like damn near everybody at the competing Chronicle. Hearst did not blanch and he did not stammer. He was a co-conspirator with Burgin in Thompson’s hiring (and, indeed, nurtured Hunter long after Burgin disengaged, then departed.) It may have been the highest-impact hire of all the brilliant talent grabs Hearst made at the Ex, which routinely punched several weight classes higher than a 150,000-circulation afternoon daily should have been able to.

Indeed, this book finds its place near the head of the Hunter bookshelf because of the sheer strength of the anecdotes, once you get through Hinckle’s extended wandering words at the beginning.

The other Hinckle volume shows more of how utterly brilliant the guy was. “Ransoming Pagan Babies” is a skillfully edited, evocative anthology of a unique writer, editor and schemer at his very best — the whip-smart provocateur who made Ramparts an international sensation and followed with the zesty, if short-lived,Scanlan’s.

But more than that, to me, it shows that Hinckle over the years developed that special relationship with San Francisco that the very best columnists, the Breslins and the Roykos, have with their cities — funny, empathetic, wickedly perceptive, never treacly. In many ways, Hinckle was better at San Francisco than Herb Caen was — at least at street level. To read this book is to understand why.

Hinckle was a friend to the cops, but took them on mercilessly for their support of Dan White, for their own behavioral excesses. He was, at his best, unflinchingly honest when it would have been more convenient to gloss over things. He was a journalist to the core, exposing the petty corruption of a landlord who refused heat to his Tenderloin tenants, the rottenness of the power elite of both Oakland and San Francisco who turned their collective backs on their cities’ poverty and problems — and, oh, yes, the homophobia of Dan White and his sympathizers.

“A detailed look at Dan White’s life shows an All-American boy movie that only worked in freeze frame,” he wrote. “The man of action never finished anything … always striving for an ‘A’ in manhood and always ending with an ‘incomplete.’ The only thing he ever finished was the lives of George Moscone and Harvey Milk.”

This book shows the Hinckle that I always wanted, as a reader and as an editor, and sometimes — after the correct number of go-cups — actually got.

Longtime journalist David McCumber is the author of several books and the editor of the Montana Standard.