BOOKS

Warren Would Have Written a Better Headline

Warren Hinckle
MATTHEW NAYTHONS
Warren Hinckle
Two new collections celebrate the best of the legendary San Francisco writer, editor and rapscallion.

Warren Hinckle wrote like an angry angel when he felt like it, which was often, but that was not what made him the hero of freewheeling journalists. Writers and editors emulated his spirit, studying his many gifts and tricks, from hyperbolic irony to self-plagiarism — both of which I am employing here. Warren was a wonder of eccentricity, and his recent posthumous books, “Who Killed Hunter S. Thompson?” and the anthology of his writing, “Ransoming Pagan Babies,” show off the reach of his genius.

As an editor, Warren was a master of mix, filling his issues with journalism, humor and twisted history — a high-low range that called to mind Claude Levi-Strauss’ “The Raw and The Cooked” — the idea being that the reach between opposites is both amusing and a useful conceptual tool to understand where you stand in the world.

Thus, in a single random City magazine from 1975, you’d find “There’s No Place Like Home” (on the capture of Patty Hearst), a modest proposal that San Francisco adopt the Boston Red Sox, and a pop sociology piece on Gay Cowboys — all written by, or with an introduction by, or assigned and edited by Warren. Every issue was like that, with Warren writing as often as he did to make his mix.

When it came to layout and magazine makeup, he was like an infantry commander pushing columns around on a battle map. Weak design directors couldn’t stand up to him. Strong ones loved him for his graphic imagination and riotous display copy, which are obvious in “Who Killed Hunter S. Thompson?” which Warren also designed.

Warren pushed deadlines to the brink, even when editing himself. His closes were creative pandemonium, and that excitement still lives somehow in his prose. At City, where I worked briefly for Warren, he killed the masthead in what he called an “act of selflessness,” then brought it back with the staff listed alphabetically. Warren said he was simply eliminating the distractions of hierarchy and status, but the result was chaos, which is what he was after in the first place. No one took orders from anyone but him, except, of course, Francis Ford Coppola, who was bankrolling the magazine as a kind of public service.

Francis said City was what San Francisco needed. Warren said what San Francisco needed was more laughs. Warren’s first cover story was about the predicament of straight women surrounded by the gay culture, under what became his most famous headline: “San Francisco, City of Sin, Why Can’t I Get Laid?” City was brilliant, but it incinerated cash.

In “Who Killed Hunter S. Thompson?” we learn that Hinckle’s Ramparts magazine had an office monkey — a capuchin Warren named Henry Luce to annoy the eponymous founder of Time and Life magazines. When a Time editor told him Luce had become aware of his namesake, Warren noted: “Such are life’s little triumphs.”

Review: “Who Killed Hunter S. Thompson?” and “Ransoming Pagan Babies.”

At Scanlan’s Monthly, the roller coaster of a magazine he co-founded after leaving Ramparts, Warren nurtured Thompson’s early gonzo work and teamed him with Ralph Steadman on a Kentucky Derby piece when Hunter was still inventing himself. Ralph’s illustrations branded Hunter from then on. Hunter always said that Warren was the only editor he trusted.

Not long after Hunter’s suicide in 2005, Warren visited me at Sports Illustrated. He arrived dressed in shorts, wrinkled blazer, tuxedo shirt and formal black pumps. I offered him coffee or water. He mumbled, as if forgetting something, then remembering:

“What would Hunter say?”

“Hunter’s dead,” I said.

“I’ll have a gin and tonic,” Warren said, adding that if I didn’t have a bar in my office (like I should), we could order out from Hurley’s, across Sixth Avenue, where he had just been. Warren never seemed drunk, just enhanced. With his eye patch and rosy cheeks, he looked like a cherub pirate.  I found a gift bottle of Scotch and we talked about starting a new magazine, something bold. “A journal of significance that Hunter could have written for with dignity,” Warren said.

I didn’t know it then, but Warren was already working on “Who Killed Hunter S. Thompson?” Warren had planned a short introduction, but it got away from him and went over 100,000 words. “The Crazy Never Die,” Warren called it, and it opens with Hunter showing up at the Ramparts office on North Beach’s topless strip and engaging the capuchin, Henry Luce, in a one-sided conversation while Warren pours drinks.

When they go to dinner, the monkey riffles Hunter’s knapsack, finds some bottles of pills and gobbles the contents and, as Warren writes: “When we returned a few drinks later the poor thing had gone bananas, running at ferocious speeds along the railing atop the office cubicles with his leash clanging dementedly against the frosted glass. Loveable Henry had turned into Cujo. No one could pacify him.”

The metaphor is obvious. Without quite understanding how he was doing it, Warren worked with the confident joy that always seems to accompany the most surprising acts of creativity.

I am far from the only editor to come up in awe of his audacity, and we all studied his leadership style as a creative force in journalism. He was a hero of appetites and ideas, and both are all over his new book

EXCERPT FROM ‘WHO KILLED HUNTER S. THOMPSON?’

On Feb. 20, 2005, author Hunter S. Thompson died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head at his home in Woody Creek, Colo. His son Juan and daughter-in-law Jennifer were in the next room. His wife Anita, who was at the Aspen Club, was on the phone with him as he cocked the gun.

Very soon afterward, San Francisco’s own Warren Hinckle started work on a memorial volume, soliciting tributes from a vast array of Hunter’s friends and collaborators. Hinckle had first worked with Thompson in 1970. As co-founder and editor of the magazine Scanlan’s Monthly, he matched illustrator Ralph Steadman with Thompson to produce “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” (1970), the first work of Gonzo journalism.

Naturally, Warren felt he should also write a memorial essay for the book, which became a personal history of San Francisco and his adventures with Hunter — a virtual book within the book. Warren continued to revise this memoir until his own death in 2016. Linda Corso, his longtime companion, said, “the only deadline for the book was Warren’s death. He had no intention of it being published before then.”

The book, laced with pages of illustrations, photographs and cartoons, has finally been published as “Who Killed Hunter S. Thompson?” — a question derived from Warren’s instinct for conspiracy, but also suggestive that forces in contemporary culture played a hand in Hunter’s demise.

This excerpt from the book describes another genius of media: Howard Gossage, the legendary San Francisco advertising executive whose style and wit influenced generations of creative spirits and ad campaigns. And Hunter, naturally, plays a small part in the story.

[ THIS IS WHY NEWSPAPERS ARE DYING ]

Scanlan’s masthead read, Publisher: The Late Howard Gossage. This was more than a tribute to a dead friend. Scanlan’s was the first publication to adopt the philosophy of publishing that Gossage had preached, Cassandra-like, to the deaf ears of publishers. His thoughts are particularly apt now when newspapers are falling like autumn leaves.

Gossage was a maverick advertising genius who hated advertising. He was always biting the hand of the industry that fed him. “He treated advertising as if it were radioactive waste,” said Jeff Goodby, a student of Gossage and a contemporary San Francisco ad man whose agency created the “Got Milk?” campaign.

Gossage scolded his advertising clients that they were responsible for the piss-poor state of the media by rewarding mediocre publications with advertising. He was admiringly referred to by the natives as the Socrates of San Francisco. He worked out of his magnificently restored firehouse on Pacific Street, where bold-faced names from Tom Wolfe to the actor Terry-Thomas came to call. Everything Gossage did was first class — he had a restaurant face that could reduce a maître d’ to tears, and he ate, flew, wrote, talked and traveled first class. He believed that a man should be comfortable when engaged in the necessary business of saving the world.

In his spare time, he was a genius scout. Tom Wolfe credits Gossage with finding, promulgating, promoting and virtually inventing Marshall McLuhan. When McLuhan heard that, he said to Gossage that if Howard didn’t mind, he preferred the word “discovered” to the word “invented.” Gossage’s Delphic reply was: “Marshall, we don’t know who discovered water, but it certainly wasn’t a goldfish.”

Gossage died of leukemia, tragically young at 60, in 1969, a few months before the first issue of Scanlan’s.

Howard Gossage was a maverick advertising genius who hated advertising. He was always biting the hand of the industry that fed him. COURTESY OF THE HOWARD GOSSAGE AND GEORGE DIPPEL ESTATES

Howard Gossage was a maverick advertising genius who hated advertising. He was always biting the hand of the industry that fed him.

The ad-man manqué left something behind when he left the planet. It was a memorial to another dead one, Miles Archer, the partner of Sam Spade in “The Maltese Falcon,” who met a treacherous end on Burritt Alley above the Stockton Street tunnel in San Francisco. The memorial was in the form of a plaque in homage to the dead — and being done by Gossage, it was a very handsome sign indeed.

We were sitting around Howard’s firehouse office one afternoon, sipping Paddy’s whiskey, the Irish Whiskey Distillers numbering among Gossage’s clients, when somehow the subject of Sam Spade came up. Gossage lit up like an electric eel on a bungee cord. “Some-some-something has to be done for Miles Archer, the sap. Dashiell Hammett never gave him a decent goodbye,” Gossage stammered. The result was your classic historic plaque, like the one in the High Sierra marking the spot the cannibals in the Donner Party ate their people. It read:

“On approximately this spot, Miles Archer, Partner of Sam Spade, was done in by Brigid O’Shaughnessy.”

The monument had hardly been delivered from the engravers when Gossage up and died. I was more than a little depressed by that, and bothered with the collapsing of Ramparts and launching Scanlan’s and such, and it was left in a corner of Scanlan’s San Francisco office, on the garden ground floor of Gossage’s Pacific Street Firehouse, next to the bed of Scanlan’s pet rabbit (who had replaced Ramparts’ monkey, Henry Luce). The rabbit distinguished itself by gobbling up the electric cords of all the office machines.

HUNTER S. THOMPSON: When I told Hunter our publishing plan, he told me that this was a plum insane thing to do. MATTHEW NAYTHONS

When I told Hunter S. Thompson Hunter our publishing plan, he told me that this was a plum insane thing to do.

One day Hunter Thompson was on the premises, and when he noticed the plaque standing in a corner, free of its box, I told him the story. “Let’s put the fucking thing up,” Hunter said. And so we did, after more than a few drinks at the Tunnel Top bar down the street from Burritt Alley, a real place where Hammett had Brigid shoot Miles Archer. Things did not go well that night, in terms of getting the plaque to stick to the wall — Hunter was on the lookout for the cops because what we were up to was, of course, illegal. The next night we came back and, with the assistance of the Nibbi Brothers, who are well-known in construction in San Francisco, completed the task at 3 a.m. Hunter gave the secured plaque a little kiss. “That Brigid,” he said, “goddammit.”

Scanlan’s gobbled whole Gossage’s unorthodox publishing ideas — in a way we were his posthumous Petri dish: no cut-rate subscriptions through mass mailings, make it good and charge what the sucker is worth, let the reader pay his way, don’t be seduced by advertising. Scanlan’s spurned paid advertising (and impishly charged $1 a word for letters to the editor to encourage brevity) but paid creative small advertising firms for ads we thought were neat. We vowed to make it on circulation alone with the reader paying the freight.

Howard Luck Gossage believed that the reader lost his/her effective freedom of the press when advertising subsidized the cost of the publication beyond what the reader paid — thus publishers came to care more about the interests of advertisers than subscribers. Scanlan’s therefore charged a premium price for subscriptions and newsstand copies with the goal of making it financially on what the readers were willing to pay. When I told Hunter our publishing plan, he told me that this was a plum insane thing to do. I patiently pointed out to him that it was not as crazy as it sounded — a new national magazine such as Scanlan’s, and a radical magazine at that, had no realistic chance of getting national advertising in its first years, so why not be a little perverse and pay to print ads it liked? The Gospel According to Gossage was that people don’t read advertising, they read what interests them, and sometimes it’s an ad. Hunter still said I was crazy.

Scanlan’s passed 150,000 paid circulation in its first six months. Our breakeven point was 180,000. Whether this experiment in publishing economics would have been successful remains unknown, because the magazine went out of business after the Mounties arrested it in Canada. But the Gossage/Scanlan’s approach to publishing is especially resonant today when daily newspapers are withering and dying as the weed of the Internet blights the stalk of print advertising.

Gossage once paid out of his pocket for an ad in the New York Times protesting the Times folding its then-Western Edition in 1964. The ad was headlined: “What good is freedom of the press if there isn’t one?” Gossage’s ad credited the saying to the legendary press critic A.J. Liebling. But Liebling didn’t say that. Gossage just made it up, and attributed it to Liebling. I asked him why he had done that and Howard said that it sounded more interesting coming from Liebling, and since Liebling was dead he figured he wouldn’t mind; besides, it was something Liebling would have said.

The point Gossage argued in his ad was that the Times should have asked its subscribers permission to fold the paper — perhaps the readers would have been willing to pay more to keep it alive. Gossage wrote: “You see, if a paper is losing money on each copy it sells (because it doesn’t have enough ads), then the more readers it has the worse off it is. Isn’t that ridiculous?”

The way Gossage saw it, advertising did not exist in the form that we know it much before the First World War, and did not exist in much of any form at all before the 19th century. But before advertising, there were newspapers and magazines in the 19th and early 20th centuries that were very much as we know them today — except, of course, that the pages were filled with writing, instead of the paid hustle of advertising. Since they had almost no other source of revenue, the publications of that time lived or died on reader’s penny spent, and charged an honest price; if a publication cost 4 cents a copy to produce, you can bet the publication charged at least 5 cents for it, and hoped like hell that what the paper had to say was interesting enough that enough people would pony up their nickels. It is no coincidence that the great muckraking magazines of American legend flourished under these game conditions.

If this was publishing’s state of nature, advertising was its original sin. With the growth of consumer advertising early in the 20th century, publishers found themselves in the sudden happy situation of getting income from both ends, and they enjoyed that mightily, as one will gravy.

At a point uncertain in time but no later than the flapper days of the post-World War I period, publishers took the fatal bite from the apple. Faced with rising costs, most publishers decided not to risk losing circulation by raising the price per copy accordingly. This decision was dictated by elemental greed, not charity toward the penny-pinching reader; the way publishers figured it, they could get more money from advertisers the more readers they had, so what the hell, why antagonize the customers when the advertisers were footing the bill?

“Well,” said Gossage, with his unique stammer — which bore an uncanny resemblance to Hunter’s mumble — “That tore it.” The day a reader paid 5 cents for a publication that cost 6 cents to produce was the day that he lost his “economic freedom of the press.”

Publishers soon became so hooked on the nectar of advertising that they could not do without it and, the first junkies, took to junk mail, discovering that they could “buy” readers, i.e., build up circulation, simply by lowering the subscription price, making the publication a loss leader while getting a handsome return from the advertisers.

This was all right while it lasted, but readers have paid dearly for this free ride. For one thing, Gossage said, they suffered the ultimate indignity that Western society can bestow upon its members: They became consumers. Howard’s favorite illustration of the utter madness of publishing economics was that a newspaper or magazine was the only consumer product, from bubble gum to bras, where the selling price had no relation to the actual cost of production. It costs less, for instance, to have a magazine delivered at home than it does to buy it in the store; try that with milk.

When Gossage began preaching this Apocalypse, in the early ’60s, a veritable armada of mass-circulation magazines was going down with their circulations intact — Life, Look, Collier’s, the Saturday Evening Post, venerable names all. The mass slicks lost their advertising to the new demon of television. That was the story of the last century.

In the first two decades of the new century daily newspapers as once here-forever as the Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer are folding like bad poker hands. Yes, the internet had sucked up their advertising and there were other brutal economic factors, but at bottom line Gossage was right: if readers weren’t paying their way for the publication they read, then its survival was no longer in their hands.

Scanlan’s wasn’t around long enough to prove or disprove Gossage’s publishing theories. But one of his idealistic enthusiasms did get put to a practical test.

The genius that scout Gossage had adopted after McLuhan was Leopold Kohr, the philosopher of smallness. Professor Kohr theorized that when things — corporations and governments alike — got too big they did not function well, if at all, and concluded that the ideal form of government was the city-state. Gossage put Kohr’s theory to the fire and the experiment crashed and burned on the Lilliputian island of Anguilla in the Lesser Antilles. The Anguilla experiment provided one of the great examples of unintended consequences in the annals of San Francisco journalism, a story so similar to the Peter Sellers classic ‘50s movie “The Mouse That Roared” that it hints of the copy book, although this time the real thing happened.

Warren Hickle and his dog Bentley. CHRIS FELVER/GETTY IMAGES

Warren Hickle and his dog Bentley.

The San Francisco Chronicle at that time was under the buccaneering editorship of the wooden-legged Scott Newhall, a buddy of Gossage who was to became a close friend of mine. Scott was front-page gung-ho for the idea of Anguilla declaring its independence from Great Britain, as an example of the independent city-state that Newhall wished San Francisco would become.

The Chronicle hastened to the just cause of Anguilla’s succession in 1967. Copy boys overstruck Spanish doubloons on a coin press in the Chronicle basement with the words “Anguilla Liberty Dollar,” while Gossage manufactured deluxe Anguilla passports and designed a lovely Anguillan flag: two sexy mermaids on a field of blue. The ad man placed a full-page ad in the New York Times to sell Newhall’s Anguilla Liberty Dollars to coin collectors and thereby finance the new country so it could remain small and free from the blight of tourist hotel development. The headline on the ad read: “Is it ‘silly’ that Anguilla does not want to become a nation of busboys?”

Alas, that was precisely what Anguilla wanted to become, only not so small. The founding fathers of the declared republic flirted with casino developers and other schemers, from free-love colonies to miracle-cancer-cure clinics. The spurned British overseers of the ugly duckling island smelled organized crime moving into their domain and the Chronicle-sponsored faraway city-state was invaded by the English, who landed paratroopers in 1969 to take charge. Anguilla today is no longer small, more a neon-less Vegas strip in the far Caribbean of hotels and resorts and the employer of many busboys.

Just before he died, Gossage wrote an article for The Atlantic about dying. It was titled “Anytime Is Better Than Right Now.” The same could be said of applying his ideas in real time. Gossage died in December 1969 as Scanlan’s first issue was being put together, and he would never know that the publication that put his publishing theories to the test would be lassoed by the Royal Canadian Mounties before the test results were in.

Scanlan’s managed to cause trouble far out of proportion to its circulation and its youth. The cover of the issue with Hunter’s Kentucky Derby piece was a sketch of Nixon’s face being punched in by a fist, with the headline “Impeach Nixon.” In 1970, this was arguably a tad early in the Nixon impeachment process, but it was said first in Scanlan’s.

  Strange things began to happen to Scanlan’s. The strangest of all was when the press run of the Guerrilla Warfare issue — printed in Canada after American printers’ unions in five states refused to print it — was confiscated by the Canadian authorities as the trucks carrying Scanlan’s neared the U.S. border. Our Canadian bindery was also raided and the workers roughed up. The Montreal Star quoted a homeboy police inspector saying that the raid involved “a good deal of cooperation with the White House.”

My business partner Sidney Zion and I had our (paranoid? I thought) suspicions, and were both shocked and elated — Voltaire said when you hear the news, wait for the sacrament of confirmation — to discover the details of Nixon’s plotting against Scanlan’s with the publication, years later, of White House attorney John Dean’s memoir, “Blind Ambition.” Dean complained that the first task he was assigned as White House counsel was “to get” a “shit-ass” magazine called Scanlan’s, and he was specifically ordered to sic the IRS on us.

After Scanlan’s went under, I remained in touch with Hunter through his favored methods of communication, frantic faxes and pre-dawn telephone conversations, and occasional evenings at Elaine’s in New York and field trips to Irish bars when he came to San Francisco. Hunter and I re-bonded in the Great Game when he enlisted with the O’Farrell adult theater team as night manager in 1985, and we thereafter proceeded to commit the sin of daily journalism together at the San Francisco Examiner. n

Excerpted from “Who Killed Hunter S. Thompson? An Inquiry into the Life & Death of the Master of Gonzo,” edited by Warren Hinckle, published by Last Gasp Books.