by Larry Bensky, September 1, 2016
“The Great Bensky!”
The ironic, powerful voice I would come to know so well blasted the ancient telephone in my obscure eighth floor corner of the gloomy New York Times building.
Warren Hinckle identified himself. Quickly said that a lot of people had told him about me. And wondered if we could get together that very afternoon. He had something very important to discuss, and a night flight to San Francisco that he couldn’t miss.
I was interested. I knew who he was, read his magazine regularly, and assumed he was trying to do what most strangers who called me were trying to do. Get assigned to write a review for the then highly influential Times Sunday Book Review. I was a lowly “deskman,” with some responsibility for suggesting reviewers to the editor.
To Hinckle’s delight, we met at the Yale Club. I could afford such status luxuries because the Times paid well (about $100,000 a year in today’s money) and I had few expenses, including a $72 a month rent-controlled walkup in central Greenwich Village.
Hinckle, whose San Francisco working class and Jesuit schools background were about as un-Ivy as possible, walked in as if he totally belonged there. Splendidly attired in heavy tweed suit, sporting an eye-patch and cape. At a quiet table in the bar; he ordered some expensive name brand concoction; I had a glass of red wine. Before the peanuts were gone, he called for another. All the while asking me if I knew some radical or other, and what I thought of sending that person somewhere or other to write for Ramparts.
The subject quickly changed. To me. He had heard that I was unhappy at the Times. That I was considered the House Commie or its equivalent. How my organizing efforts among reporters and editors, trying to get them to support an anti-war protest ad, (which Hinckle had signed) had been largely ineffective. How I’d had a couple of pieces, commissioned by the Times Magazine and Daily Books column, killed by timid, cautious editors who legendarily kept a lead curtain fastened around potential elements of off-agenda discourse.
I knew immediately who his source was. Times reporter Sidney Zion, a brash apolitical careerist with a gift for storytelling and a hatred for self-important bureaucrats, kept a Dickensian mental accounting of everything anyone told him. People like me, who didn’t bother to bullshit and politic, found him an annoying gossip, and an unwanted (and usually ineffective) ally. Hinckle hung out with him a lot.
Then the flattery began. “Everyone” had told him I was a word whiz. I could transform the most turgid prose into at least passable material. I was notoriously responsible, spending longer hours in the office than almost anyone else. I was famous for racing through corridors correcting galley proofs as deadlines loomed.
Moreover, I’d been in trouble. The FBI had visited my Times boss after I turned in my draft card at a march on the Pentagon. The Newspaper Guild had told management, according to Zion, that it wouldn’t defend me if I was terminated, since I had organized meetings of Times workers, urging them to quit membership unless the union changed its pro-Vietnam War position (few did). It was common knowledge that most nights, after work, I walked down to the Union Square Offices of the Fifth Avenue Vietnam Peace Parade Committee (later the Moratorium) to do my subversive work: stuffing and stamping envelopes, making phone calls seeking housing for out-of town activists and military resisters.
Warren’s pitch continued. Ramparts was in a bind. Its circulation had grown to around a quarter of a million. But it couldn’t manage the growth, because it couldn’t publish on time. Distributors and vendors were pissed off. Many subscribers wrote and called. Ramparts needed professionals, and they needed them now. I could be Managing Editor. He’d match my salary at the Times.
I took a long walk to think things over. It was the end of winter, I recall, an unusually frost and slush free night. At the Brooklyn Bridge, I could see behind me I the cave of high rises which hid the office building where my immigrant father had begun his upwardly mobile, cautious organized work life, almost forty years before. In front of me, an expanse of urban nightscape, at the end of whose red brick apartment buildings and modest houses, was my birthplace.
The Times had recruited me, two and a half years before, for the same skills Ramparts now coveted. Living in Paris, a magical experience, but penniless with a miserably paid job as Paris Editor of The Paris Review, at the end of a several sad romances, frustrated at being an anti-war militant in France, whose government (or some elements of it, anyway) agreed that Vietnam was a disgraceful, unsustainable horror I said yes to the Times.
And now, the next day, I was about to say no .
I told my boss that I had to leave, to do something I believed I really should be doing. He was sympathetic, and generous. But he said that I really couldn’t responsibly just give two weeks notice and exit. I had assigned reviews, had brought reviewers on board who related especially to me. No one could take over many of them. Some, who I’d worked hard to get accepted, would probably even stop doing their assigned work if I weren’t there.
We worked out a compromise. I gave six weeks notice, with the understanding that I would be at the Times from Monday through Thursday. Take a red-eye to San Francisco Thursday nights. Work three days at Ramparts. Then take a late Sunday plane to N.Y. And do this over and over.
On the N.Y. end, it worked out. On the San Francisco end, not so much. Mostly because of Warren Hinckle – though he was aided in his disruptive inefficiencies by the magazine’s ostensible editor-in-chief, Bob Scheer, an impassioned, abrasive political narcissist. Most of the eras militants stayed faraway from the electoral system; he, atypically, was trying to get elected to Congress.
Hinckle was almost always the smartest guy in the room, and even when he wasn’t, he thought he was. He had a visceral hatred of injustice and inequality. And verbalizing on such subjects (or, indeed any subjects) made him your prototypical air-sucker at any gathering.
But as he was usually well fueled with booze (although rarely dysfunctionally drunk) any editorial questions in which he got involved – which was pretty much all of them - had to go through the extensive, Jesuit-trained synapses of his reasoning. For Warren, there was no finality possible in drawing conclusions, and facts supporting or opposing what he articulated needed to be subjected to extensive vetting. (Once, excessively loaded, he had me call the Vatican – where it was the middle of the night - from a Grant Street bar, to ascertain whether there were 12 or 14 stations of the cross , a detail mentioned in passing in an article I was editing. A detail which, if moderately sober, he easily would have remembered from the time of his first communion. Or one could have gone to at least three nearby North Beach churches to find this out. But for Warren, only the Vatican would do.)
As social gymnastics, Warren’s mental pyrotechnics were entertaining. But the problem was that if one is producing printed products, eventually one has to settle, definitively, on a specific locution. “Stop the Presses!” is not a useful editorial procedure. Warren, however, wanted them stopped, reversed, delayed, transformed, all the time.
And that raised the already substantial ante for a magazine that carried little advertising, and relied on newsstand sales and subscriptions for a significant part of its income. But Warren had no sense of money at all. From a modest Sunset district background himself, he married into a higher class of folks, and lived their life style, complete with his in-laws lovely Sonoma retreat for occasional weekends. Most of all, Warren associated with wealthy lefties (two of whom he helped bankrupt). Enormous tabs were run up at restaurants and hotels. Travel invoices went unpaid; we just changed agencies. Payrolls were iffy. Printers and typesetters and distributors put Ramparts on cash only accounts; once I had to fly to Long Island with a certified check before a printer (who had been recruited to replace another who had been repeatedly stiffed) would run the presses. Some in our thrall were political sympathizers; San Francisco had leftish heritage characters in almost all trades and professions. Warren knew them all, and worked their sympathies assiduously.
When he wanted to go somewhere, or wanted someone to go somewhere, they went, regardless of expense. (Including me, on a ridiculous, futile trip to Paris, ostensibly to get the “truth” about the Kennedy assassination from French intelligence operatives, a story he tells in his 1974 autobiography, “If You Have a Lemon…)
One day he asked me to go for a drive (his only time outdoors, other than brief walks with an obnoxious basset hound, was spent in his retro convertible). Our destination, as almost always, was Sam’s Cafe in Tiburon, one of the places where he ran a serious tab. In his signature growl, he told me what I already knew: the magazine was in bad trouble.
Money had run out. The conscientious Catholic shopping mall developer (Ramparts was founded as a Catholic progressive magazine) who had stepped up, selling one property after another, to fund us had sold off all he could, or would. So, Warren had concluded that a big change was needed. (“Who was it, Bensky, he asked, who said: ‘in time of crisis, expand? Lenin? Trotsky?’” I thought it might have been Napoleon but feared to say so, lest we be diverted by an immediate need to find a phone booth and call Paris.)
Warren’s idea – which he’d mentioned to me as far back as our New York meeting, a long four months before – was that Ramparts now needed to switch from monthly to twice monthly. And as soon as possible after that, to weekly publication.
As calmly as I could, I told him he was out of his mind. With his endless brainstorm editorial interventions alternating with Scheer’s constant absences, it was impossible to meet monthly deadlines. Doubling them was unthinkable Weekly was even more ludicrous. And where was the money to come from?
Hinckle had that part covered. A sweet young heir was newly on board as publisher. Thoroughly ignored in the editorial process, in which he’d somehow been led to believe he’d have a role, he was now being asked for a fortune well beyond even his considerable wealth.
Lunch at Sam’s deck consisted of Warren getting blasted, his countenance reddening wth the sun and the booze, folks dropping by to discuss any and everything, and me retreating to an isolated table to edit the articles I’d brought along, knowing we were unlikely to get back to San Francisco at any reasonable time.
I should have, in fact, been apprehensive about even the short drive from Tiburon to North Beach. But Warren was the best drunk driver I’ve ever known. Although constantly talking animatedly, with his one functioning eye he was able to navigate smoothly. Once we were stopped for making some sort of illegal turn. Warren brought out the full verbal ammo: his high school and college (Riordan and USF) cop friends, and who he drank with at the bar next to the old Hall of Justice. A story a priest told him about how to talk to police. On and on. The summons book disappeared; we were left with an admonition to take care of a tail light.
I lasted less than a year as Managing Editor, before quitting, and soon migrating to radio, at KSAN. Not long afterwards, Ramparts eventually got too impossible for even Hinckle to navigate. But it had built his reputation as a swashbuckling loudmouth with pipelines into the national and international political horrors we were enduring. War, assassinations, urban uprisings; a significant number of people wanted to read all about it, and there were no national media even trying to consistently, or even occasionally, offer reporting and explanations. But Hinckle had lost whatever appetite he’d had for the kind of writing that is more than just political cotton candy (as was that of his fervently promoted budd in gonzo, Hunter S. Thompson and his ilk).
All of Warren’s post Ramparts efforts to go large failed to impact. Scanlan’s, S.F. City Magazine, and in more recent years, a tiny local magazine The Argonaut. His own well-done local newspaper columns, combining classic insight and invective (although requiring extensive editing; his grammar and spelling were atrocious) failed to get significant syndication.
It’s easy to forget – his obituaries have already done so – that there was a serious and responsible side to his life and work, beyond the bling. Books on the CIA’s crazy efforts to kill Castro, the covert militarism of post WW II’s U.S. governments, the Milk-Moscone murders were among his works. In a different kind of country, with a different kind of culture, he would have been what William F. Buckley and Bill O’Reilly were allowed to become.
It’s also easy to forget, or even not know, what a warm and loving father, son, and brother he was. Numerous times I accompanied him in that convertible to his home to the Castro from our North Beach offices, since it was one of the few occasions when we could be, even briefly, alone to talk. At his front door his two young daughters jumped all over him, and he dropped everything (except a martini glass) to read to them on his lap.
Like those of us who worked with him, his closest kin seemed to act as if our endless experience of his eccentricities had nothing to do with our parallel love and admiration.
He always deserved both.