On the evening of Sunday, May 3, 1987, David McCumber, an editor at The San Francisco Examiner, was on the phone with one of the paper's weekly columnists: Hunter S. Thompson.
“Editing Hunter always meant staying up late,” recalled McCumber, 62, who today is editor of The Montana Standard. “Hunter knew what time the press turned and was not about to be given a false deadline.”
That particular night, McCumber, in San Francisco, and Thompson, in Colorado, were sharing a three-way phone call with Bill Dixon, campaign manager for Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart. Dixon, according to McCumber, was touting a recent story in The New York Times about Hart in which Hart was quoted as saying, “If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They'd be very bored.”
Unbeknownst to Hart, the Miami Herald was, in fact, tailing Hart at the very moment that three-way call was taking place.
“Dixon got call-waiting and said, 'I'll be right back,'” McCumber remembered. “When he got back, he said, 'Holy shit. The Miami Herald has Gary cornered in his condo with some bimbo. I've got to go.'”
As the story developed, McCumber and Thompson discovered that the woman involved was named Donna Rice. But a photo of her had yet to surface.
“I'm talking to Hunter about it and he said, 'I know Donna Rice. She used to go out with Don Henley,'” referring to the former Eagles singer who at the time lived near Thompson in Colorado, McCumber said.
Henley was not home at the time, but McCumber recalled that Thompson broke in to Henley's house and snatched a Polaroid photo of Rice that was thumbtacked to a corkboard in Henley's kitchen.
“He took it to the Aspen airport, put it on air express, sent it to me in San Francisco, and we beat the world by a full cycle with the photo of Donna Rice,” said McCumber.
Such adventures are how McCumber remembers The Examiner newsroom, particularly when he edited Thompson.
“There was never a dull moment. It was pretty kinetic all the time,” he said.
Adventures in the 1980s Examiner newsroom, however, extended beyond Thompson's eccentric flair. McCumber edited other columnists as well, including the legendary Warren Hinckle, who, as the SF Weekly noted in 1996, “Next to Herb Caen … is arguably the town's most well-known newsman.”
One night deep in the “kinetic” 1980s news world, Hinckle convinced McCumber to give him a ride to the Hall of Justice to research the purported sloppy security there. Hinckle and his beloved basset hound Bentley piled into McCumber's car and followed a set of police officers to the Hall of Justice.
“They told us, 'Just wave at the gate guard and follow us in,'” McCumber said of the officers who had led them to the hall. “I waved at the gate guard, he motioned me through, and I turned to Hinckle and said, 'We're in.' I got no response.”
Hinckle, McCumber recalled, was passed out in the front passenger seat.
“I parked the car, and the cops came up to the car and said, 'Let's go,'” McCumber said. “I couldn't rouse Hinckle, so I went with them.”
McCumber ended up touring the Hall of Justice, including the police chief's office. The next day, Hinckle called McCumber and asked what had happened.
“I relayed to him what happened and he wrote the column,” said McCumber. Though the episode stands out in McCumber's memory, it was not particularly unusual.
“I remember feeling so fortunate to have Warren on the staff the night Dan White killed himself,” McCumber said of the former supervisor who fatally shot Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk in 1978. “I did have to go grab him out of a bar in the Mission to get him, but he wrote a fantastic column on the front page.”
The Examiner newsroom of the 1980s was not just wild column chases and eccentric antics. Yes, the paper was known for being “irreverent, surprising and interesting,” but the talented bevy of reporters and editors took the responsibility of journalism seriously, McCumber recalled.
“We were all really proud to write under The Examiner brand. I think that people always have been,” he said. “It has occupied a pretty special place in the hearts of San Francisco readers as well.
“I look back on it as one of the best periods of my career.”