Warren Hinckle, the flamboyant editor who made Ramparts magazine a powerful national voice for the radical left in the 1960s and later, by championing the work of Hunter S. Thompson, helped introduce the no-holds-barred reporting style known as gonzo journalism, died on Thursday in San Francisco. He was 77.
The cause was complications of pneumonia, his daughter Pia Hinckle said.
Ramparts was a small-circulation quarterly for liberal Roman Catholics when Mr. Hinckle began writing for and promoting it in the early 1960s. A born provocateur with a keen sense of public relations, he took over as the executive editor in 1964 and immediately set about transforming Ramparts from a sleepy intellectual journal to a slickly produced, crusading political magazine that galvanized the American left.
With cover art and eye-catching headlines reminiscent of mainstream magazines like Esquire, Ramparts aimed to deliver “a bomb in every issue,” as Time magazine once put it. It looked at Cardinal Francis Spellman’s involvement in promoting American involvement in Vietnam and the Central Intelligence Agency’s financing of a wide variety of cultural organizations.
It published Che Guevara’s diaries, with a long introduction by Fidel Castro; Eldridge Cleaver’s letters from prison; and some of the wilder conspiracy theories surrounding the Kennedy assassination. The magazine’s photo essay in January 1967 showing the injuries inflicted on Vietnamese children by American bombs helped persuade the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to take a public stand against the war.
The covers became countercultural classics: an illustration depicting Ho Chi Minh, the Communist leader of North Vietnam, as Washington crossing the Delaware; a photograph of four hands (belonging to the magazine’s top editors) holding up draft cards that had been set on fire.
By 1967, the magazine, which began with about 2,500 readers, had a circulation of nearly 250,000 and an ability to wrest coverage, however grudging, from mass-circulation magazines and newspapers.
“What journalism is about is to attack everybody,” Mr. Hinckle told The Washington Post in 1981. “First you decide what’s wrong, then you go out to find the facts to support that view, and then you generate enough controversy to attract attention.”
Warren James Hinckle III was born on Oct. 12, 1938, in San Francisco, where his father, Warren Hinckle Jr., was a shipyard worker and his mother, the former Angela DeVere, worked in the accounts department of the Southern Pacific Railroad. At 10, he lost an eye in a car accident, and for the rest of his life he wore a large eye patch, which became a prominent feature of his buccaneering image.
He attended Roman Catholic schools and enrolled in the University of San Francisco, a Jesuit institution, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1961.
As editor of the college newspaper, The San Francisco Foghorn, he showed early signs of the flair that would insert Ramparts into the national conversation. On a slow day, he and a friend generated news by burning down a wooden guard house at the entrance to the campus, an incident he described in his 1974 memoir, “If You Have a Lemon, Make Lemonade.”
After graduating from college, he started a public relations company and ran, unsuccessfully, for the county board of supervisors before joining The San Francisco Chronicle as a city reporter.
In 1962, he married Denise Libarle. The marriage ended in divorce. In addition to his daughter Pia, he is survived by his wife, the writer Susan Cheever, from whom he was separated; his companion, Linda Corso; another daughter, Hilary Hinckle; a son, Warren Hinckle IV; five grandchildren; a brother, Robert; and a sister, Marianne Hinckle.
His relationship with Ramparts began inauspiciously, when Edward M. Keating, who founded the magazine in 1962, hired him to develop a promotional plan. Mr. Hinckle proposed a splashy party at a Manhattan hotel for leading Catholic laymen and journalists, with models and film stars thrown in for glamour. Mr. Keating, appalled, fired him.
Undeterred, he contributed an article on J. D. Salinger to the magazine’s first issue and, after whipping up press attention for an article on the killing of three civil rights workers in Mississippi in June 1964, was named executive editor.
It was a turning point. Before the year was out, he had transformed the publication from a quarterly to a monthly and hired Robert Scheer, a seasoned foreign correspondent, who wrote some of the magazine’s most hard-hitting antiwar articles and secured the rights to publish the Guevara diaries.
In short order, Ramparts scored some stunning coups. A cover story exposed Michigan State University’s Vietnam Project in the 1950s as a C.I.A. front to train Saigon police and stockpile ammunition. It persuaded Donald W. Duncan, a former special forces sergeant in Vietnam, to describe how he was trained to torture prisoners. (Mr. Duncan died in 2009, but his death became widely known only in May.)
Mr. Hinckle extracted maximum publicity at every turn. When the C.I.A. learned that Ramparts was about to reveal the agency’s secret funding of a long list of organizations, including the National Student Association, the A.F.L.-C.I.O., and Encounter and Partisan Review magazines, it tried to minimize the impact by holding a news conference to admit the facts.
Mr. Hinckle counterpunched. “I was damned if I was going to let the C.I.A. scoop me,” he wrote in his memoir. “I bought full-page advertisements in The New York Times and The Washington Post to scoop myself, which seemed the preferable alternative.” The magazine received a George Polk Award that year for its coverage.
Ramparts was always in the news, always in chaos, always in debt. The hard-drinking Mr. Hinckle often worked from Cookie Picetti’s, a bar in San Francisco’s North Beach that was frequented by the police. When Mr. Cleaver told him that colleagues at Ramparts objected, he challenged him to name a decent left-wing bar. He spent lavishly, traveling first-class and staying in top hotels. He particularly enjoyed treating investors to sumptuous meals at their expense.
In Feed/Back magazine in 1975, Adam Hochschild, a staff writer and later a founder of Mother Jones, wrote: “All action at the magazine swirled around him: a pet monkey named Henry Luce would sit on his shoulder while he paced his office, drink in hand, shouting instructions into a speakerphone across the room to someone in New York about a vast promotional mailing; on his couch would be sitting, slightly dazed, a French television crew or Malcolm X’s widow (who arrived one day surrounded by a dozen bodyguards with loaded shotguns), or the private detective to whom Hinckle had given the title Criminology Editor.”
With the magazine teetering on bankruptcy, Mr. Hinckle resigned as editor in 1969. Ramparts carried on until 1975, but the end of the Vietnam War and the splintering of the American left left it stranded.
With Sidney Zion, a former legal affairs reporter for The New York Times, Mr. Hinckle founded Scanlan’s Monthly, named for a pig farmer and reprobate whom the two men had heard being toasted, sardonically, in a pub in Ireland.
The magazine lasted only eight issues, but Mr. Hinckle used his platform to his advantage. He ran a scathing profile of the French skier Jean-Claude Killy that Hunter Thompson had written for Playboy, which rejected it. He then dispatched Mr. Thompson to cover the Kentucky Derby, in company with the English illustrator Ralph Steadman. The resulting article, “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” put Mr. Thompson on the road to gonzo glory.
Mr. Hinckle briefly edited City of San Francisco, a magazine owned by Francis Ford Coppola. “Insiders joke that Hinckle is the only man who can spend money faster than Coppola can make it,” Newsweek wrote. After that magazine ceased publication in 1976, Mr. Hinckle founded another magazine, Frisco, which quickly died.
In the 1980s and 1990s, as a columnist for The Chronicle, The San Francisco Examiner and The San Francisco Independent, he validated his reputation as a free-swinging street brawler. He led a campaign to remove “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” as the city’s official song, calling Tony Bennett “an over-the-hill Italian croaker,” and attacked Dianne Feinstein, when she was mayor, with such gusto that she once tried to empty a drink over his head.
“He’s a man who invents things, who often gets his facts wrong, who gets carried away by the emotion,” Maitland Zane, a reporter for The Chronicle, told SF Weekly in 1996. “He lets his prejudices dictate his writing. He’s not even a good speller.”
In 1993, Mr. Hinckle revived The Argonaut, a 19th-century magazine once edited by Ambrose Bierce, as a thick journal devoted, he told The Times in 1994, to “muckraking, left politics and the willingness to promote new writing and celebrate popular culture.”
In 1969, Mr. Hinckle described Ramparts under his editorship as “totally and absolutely and joyfully biased.” He added: “We went in to hang the Saigon government, to kill the war in Vietnam. That’s what political journalism is about.”
Correction: August 27, 2016
An obituary on Friday about Warren Hinckle, the editor who made Ramparts magazine a voice for the radical left, referred incorrectly to Mr. Hinckle’s marriage to the writer Susan Cheever. Although separated, they were still married; they were not divorced.
Correction: August 30, 2016
An obituary on Friday about Warren Hinckle, the editor who made Ramparts magazine a voice for the radical left, omitted two survivors, based on information from his family. A brother, Robert, and a sister, Marianne Hinckle, also survive him.