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Warren Hinckle, beloved longtime SF newsman, dies at 77

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Warren Hinckle III poses with his dog Bentley at his mother’s 80th birthday in 1985 at Golden Gate Park Hall of Flowers in San Francisco, Calif. (Photo by Robert Altman)
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Longtime San Francisco journalist Warren Hinckle, whose writing ripped into the rebellious soul of the 1960s and catapulted him to the iconic status of one of the most well-known newsmen in The City, died early Thursday morning. He was 77.

Recognized in part for the unmistakable eye patch that he wore following a childhood accident and his beloved basset hound Bentley that accompanied Hinckle everywhere from assignments to the newsroom to bars, Hinckle dipped his pen into San Francisco politics for decades, writing memorable columns for numerous publications including the San Francisco Examiner.

Hinckle, who had long running health problems over the past six years, died following complications from pneumonia, his longtime friend Lee Houskeeper confirmed Thursday. He is survived by his longtime companion Linda Corso; three children Pia Hinckle of San Francisco, Hilary Hinckle of New York City, and Warren Hinckle IV of Boston; and five grandchildren.

His friends described him as a dandy, partial to dressing stylishly with wild green socks and shoes shined to a polish. He helped birth “gonzo” style journalism with colleague and fellow-adventurer Hunter S. Thompson, said Hinckle’s friend Ron Turner, publisher of Last Gasp Books.

Hinckle’s imperious, swaggering and boisterous writing grabbed readers by the collar, and “got three mayors elected in San Francisco,” including former Mayor Willie Brown, Turner said.

His byline appeared in numerous publications. In addition to the Examiner, Hinckle wrote for Ramparts, the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Independent and The Argonaut. He also published his autobiographical book “If You Have a Lemon, Make Lemonade.”

“Even the people who hated him, still loved him,” Pia Hinckle said. “He kind of thrived on that sort of tension.”

Pia and her “very eccentric but super fun” father were extremely close but butted heads as much as he did with friends and politicians. She even recalled a time when she worked with him at The Argonaut that he fired her because she tried to make him stick to his deadline.

“He’s a pirate,” she said with a laugh. “He accused me of mutiny.”

Growing up, her father would drive them from their Castro home to North Beach to pick up cakes for Thanksgiving. After a stop at a bar, “we’d put down the top of the convertible and yell ‘Gobble, gobble,’ at everyone,” she said.

Pia Hinckle eventually went into journalism herself, somewhat “in spite of her father,” she said, who “did not believe in objective journalism.” Pia Hinckle also worked at the Examiner, as the business editor in the late 1990s.

“It certainly gave me a way to relate with him,” she said of her father. “He really encouraged us to find our passions and not get hung up on, ‘Is this going to make me money?’”

Hinckle’s tenure at the Examiner included writing under the leadership of David McCumber, now editor of The Montana Standard. McCumber recalled plucking Hinckle from the barstool on more than one occasion to roust him ahead of his deadlines — though Hinckle never missed one.

“Warren was an utterly unique character,” McCumber said. “I remember his personal flamboyance and habits made for some interesting times as his editor. [But] when the chips were down, Warren would come through.”

When former Supervisor Dan White, who was convicted in the killings of Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone, died by suicide in 1985, McCumber “went looking for Warren because I wanted his voice in the paper the next morning,” he recalled.

“I found him in a bar in the Mission,” McCumber continued. “I remember getting him down to the paper with his dog Bentley. Warren would write a little bit and get up and go out to the M&M Tavern down the street [for a drink]. He’d come back with a to-go cup, and one for me.”

By the time the paper went to press at 7 a.m., McCumber had woken up Hinckle several times at his desk, with Bentley in the chair next to him.

“He ended up filing an absolutely fantastic column that we put across the front page,” McCumber said.

Phil Bronstein, a former Examiner editor and later Chronicle editor at large, said, “Warren had an outsized impact on the culture of San Francisco.”

Bronstein said that ability to truly scathe San Francisco’s power players was amplified by Hinckle’s prowess to turn a phrase, bolstered by his literary lineage.

Though Hinckle probably wouldn’t like being compared to legendary San Francisco columnist Herb Caen, Bronstein said that between the two columnists Hinckle more often cast an eye to the long arc of San Francisco’s history.

“I think he articulated in many cases who it was we wanted to be,” Bronstein said.

Judge Quentin Kopp, a longtime fixture in San Francisco politics, met Hinckle in 1960 and the two became instant friends –– and foes.

“Sometimes I’d get mad at him for junk he wrote, particularly about me, but it’s just a storied history,” Kopp said.

Within the next several decades, the pair would sue each other, battle over the naming of Tony Bennett’s signature “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” as The City’s official ballad, and attempt to create alternate Olympics after President Jimmy Carter ordered the U.S. Olympic Committee to boycott the games in Moscow in 1980.

“We couldn’t get then-Governor Jerry Brown to participate,” Kopp recalled of the Olympics bid. “Hinckle called him ‘a poor sport.’”

Chinatown community organizer Rose Pak met Hinckle in a Chinatown bar. Pak, a San Francisco Chronicle reporter at the time, said the two journalists argued over something (she could not remember what). This led Hinckle to declare, “I bet my eye” that Pak was wrong.

When Hinckle lost the bet, he plucked his glass eye out and dropped it right into his scotch.

It was “floating, staring at me,” Pak said. “I freaked out and started to cry!”

Pak laughed loudly as she recalled Hinckle’s fungible relationship with the truth. Famously, he once criticized her in his column in the Independent, and to soften the critique wrote, “She swears and drinks and that is my type of person.”

Yet Pak doesn’t drink at all. Never has.

Hinckle, however, loved a tip of the bottle. “That was a big part of his existence,” said his friend Turner.

But the booze actually fueled the hijinks, he said. For instance, Hinckle was once asked to lecture about journalism at Urban High School where his daughter attended, Turner said.

“When he arrived a cab rolls up, the door pops open. Out bounds his dog, Bentley, a couple of beer cans and Hinckle,” Turner recalled. “He says, ‘Where can I get a drink around here?’ He took [the kids] up to a bar that serves food and gave the rest of the lecture up there.”

Turner said he and Hinckle had a chance to say their final goodbyes.

“His daughters have told him how much I love him, and blah blah,” he said.

It’s hard to keep a good columnist down, Turner said. To wit: After all the political take-downs, the shake-ups, back stabbings, one escaped monkey, and even an incident involving a rented car rolling into San Francisco Bay, Hinckle has one last work awaiting publication.

He wrote a foreward to a collection of stories called “Who Killed Hunter Thompson,” which will publish soon, Turner said.

In pure Hinckle style, that “introduction” is 200 pages.

“We had lots of fun, got into a lot of trouble, and hopefully something politically was done here and there that he was part of that made life better for those who follow,” Turner said.

And as he looked back on Hinckle’s boozy, ink-stained misadventures, Turner was sure of one thing:

There won’t be another newsman like him.

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