I had heard of Warren Hinckle before I happened upon Ransoming Pagan Babies, the collection of his writings just released by Heyday Books, but I had never read him.
I knew of him only as the guy who, when he was editor of Scanlan’s Monthly in the early 70s, sent Hunter S. Thompson to Louisville to cover the Kentucky Derby and arranged for Ralph Steadman to meet him there. The result—The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved—is considered the foundational work of gonzo journalism.
But the story as I’ve told it is at once too much and too little.
Here’s Hinckle’s summary of it, from an appreciation penned just after the renowned doctor of journalism shot himself dead in the head:
Gonzo started when Hunter called me from Colorado at home in San Francisco about 4 a.m.—a normal social hour for him—to say that he wanted to cover the Kentucky Derby, which was then but two days away. I said Okay, we’d send him tickets and money (“With expenses, anything is possible,” Hunter frequently said), and find an artist to hook up with him. That of course would be poor, dear Ralph Steadman.Indeed, Hinckle pointed out in that same appreciation that the great ‘Fear and Loathing’ author didn’t invent anything.
A television journo asked me if Hunter had “forged a new path” in journalism. I thought about it and said, no, he had rather beaten his way back through the overgrown jungle of bureaucratic media to the original path of nineteenth-century journalism, when journalism was actually a popular, participatory sport and editors swore openly and imbibed freely and spat tobacco and carried guns and cussedly attacked politicians and other editors by name as varmints unworthy of roadkill. (Parenthetically, the gloryhole days of American journalism which included the great muckrakers were before modern advertising as we know it; a publisher was previously dependent on the pennies or nickels of readers who actually wanted to read their sheet—with the intrusion of corporate advertising money subsidizing the price of a publication came corporate media and corporate caution and self-censorship.)Hinckle was a great perpetrator of open, opinionated, participatory journalism (and, parenthetically, his use of 'gloryhole' to describe the halcyon days of American news reporting was dead-eye marksmanship.) He looked the part—a big guy with an eyepatch (the result of a car accident when he was eight.) And he acted the part, too. According to local lore, when Eldridge Cleaver called him out for editing Ramparts in rightwing hangouts like Cookie Picetti’s Blue Star Café—Hinckle swung back. “Know any good leftwing bars?” he asked the Black Panther Minister of Information. And once, embroiled in a dispute with then-Mayor (and current Senator) Dianne Feinstein over her harassment of local strip joints, he reportedly posted her unlisted number on a club marquee with the message “For a good time, call Dianne.”
But beyond the cartoon caricature, Warren Hinckle was doing his own thing—creating a profoundly political and personal kind of gonzo journalism long before gonzo became a hackneyed and oft-imitated thing. Hinckle wrote presciently and thoughtfully about many of the things that have come to characterize our culture decades on.
Working with a bevy of writers for Ramparts, which he edited in the mid-60s, he covered the melee in Selma on March 7, 1965. The dispatches from various Ramparts' reporters that he cobbled together put readers inside the Bloody Sunday March (“What do you want, nigger? Jump off the bridge? Well, go on, jump.” The troopers and possemen herded the fleeing Negroes cross the bridge with cattle prods, clubs and whips. Those who were too young or too old to move fast enough got hit the most.”) and outside it with villainous cops and their hangers on (“The sidewalk line of whites stretched from corner to corner. “I'm going to take that little nigger over there to the barber's and give him a haircut—right down to his neck,” said one of the whites. “What do you want, freedom? You black pig asses got more freedom that you deserve.”)
The magazine revealed how Michigan State University was secretly in cahoots with the CIA to prop up the corrupt Diem regime in South Vietnam. And Ramparts savaged inequality in Oakland as a board game called Metropoly. “Playing rules are simple,” Hinckle wrote. “If you are among the substandard income families that make up 47 percent of Oakland’s population, you wait your turn, shake the dice, count your spaces, and keep quiet. Go to jail when you are told, only pass Go when you receive permission. Pay your taxes. And above all, don’t rock the board.” Hinckle went on to indict the nation: “Despite the singular obtuseness of its public officials, Oakland is not unique. It is America—it is the American core city. Oakland may be a funny place, but the joke is on all of us.”
He wrote critically of the Hippies in March 1967. This was before the summer of love became the summer of love. Before Jimmy Hendrix set his guitar on fire at Monterey. Before Woodstock. Before The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test put the hallucinatory lifestyle on the literary map.
“If the people looking in from the suburbs want change, clothes, fun, and some lightheartedness from the new gypsies,” he wrote, “the hippies are delivering it—and some of them are becoming rich hippies because of it.” He warned that the new movement underplayed the importance of politics. “If more and more youngsters begin to share the hippie political posture of unrelenting quietism, the future of activist, serious politics is bound to be affected. The hippies have shown that it can be pleasant to drop out of the arduous task of attempting to steer a difficult, unrewarding society. But when that is done, you leave the driving to the Hell’s Angels.”
Fifty-one years on, you might say that legacy – think American Chopper and Duck Dynasty – is what brought Donald Trump to power.
In 1989, when former Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton was gunned down in West Oakland, Hinckle was again on the case, noting the revolution in style the Panthers had wrought. “The Panthers,” he wrote, “contributed the lion’s share of sixties political iconography—the clenched-fist Black Power salute, free breakfasts for ghetto kids, the coloring-book symbolism of cops as pigs, the slogan “Power to the People,” images of blacks with the guns that the NRA thought were its alone.” Newton—“radical icon, dope fiend, Kantian scholar, baby-faced muscleman, alkie, Hollywood darling, thug, revolutionary theorist, silk-suiter, Kools smoker, bad dude, recidivist ex-con, writer of books, poster boy, FBI psy-war victim and, finally, pipehead—held in one mystery personality, all the contradictions and accomplishments of the century’s most contentious decade. After the shooting was heard at dawn in Oakland on Tuesday, a mute inglorious taps was played for the sixties; this time the stake had been put through the heart of the vampire.”
In the 70s and 80s, Hinckle wrote excellent, heart-on-sleeve, Jimmy Breslin-style appreciations of the characters of San Francisco. In 1985, he was arrested in the San Francisco Chronicle newsroom, purportedly for walking his dog without a license.
In 1987, he ran for Mayor.
He wrote of Cuba in the 80s, sensing the possibilities three decades before the rest of America was ready: “What many Americans who view Cuba through grim glasses forget is that this has always been a nation of traders interested in making a deal. Lest we forget, the Cubans traded the captured CIA Bay of Pigs invaders for baby food and aspirin.”
“At various times,” Hinckle once acknowledged, “I have been called licentious, a profligate, an adventurer, a sensationalist, a wastrel, a capitalist guerrilla, a boozer, a corporate wrecker, a degenerate, a wheeler-dealer, and a pirate, among other things. There exist sufficient grounds for most of those appellations.”
These were big decades in America and Hinckle, who died in 2016 at the age of 77, played a big game. He was a cosmopolitan, a crusader, promoter, myth-maker, masquerader, confidence man, and, perhaps because of all these things, straight and true. His writing was powerful, literate—pulling from Heraclitus, from James Bryce’s 1888 work The American Commonwealth, and, befitting his deep Frisco roots, from Upton Sinclair and Jack London—and always on the side of society's victims.
Heyday's collection is uneven and repetitive—or, you might say, appropriately informal—but it makes you wish the master himself was still belly-to-the-bar, beloved basset hound in tow, clucking over where we are today and booming out bemused broadsides about the problems we'll have to reckon with in a generation or two.
Ransoming Pagan Babies takes its title from the opening essay, in which Hinckle describes his cavity-prone years in Catholic schools and how students were expected to buy babies born in China out of sin by paying for their baptisms. Though Hinckle skewered this cheapskate modern-day version of indulgences, you might say that his output was a continuation of the program. He wrote to ransom three hundred million of us, pagan American babies all, from the stain of our original—and not-so-original—sins.
Here's all you have to do to save yourself: read him.