Hidden in plain sight during the spontaneous eruption of Hunter S. Thomson’s meteoric rise to the pinnacle of fictitious non-fiction in the early 1970s was a man named Warren Hinckle III, whose posthumous book, “Who Killed Hunter S. Thompson,” was just released by Last Gasp Publishing.
Hinckle had been the long-time editor of a magazine called Ramparts, which was published by a liberal wing of the Catholic Church. Hinckle turned it into one of the most-respected (or despised, depending on your politics) New Left magazines in the country during the tumultuous Vietnam War era. One of his staff writers was a man named Jann Wenner, who, germane to the Thompson legacy, went on to found Rolling Stone.
Hinckle left Ramparts in 1969 to co-found a publication called Scanlan’s Monthly, which lasted less than a year, during which time it managed to get investigated by the Nixon/Hoover FBI for its radical ravings.
One of the articles Hinckle published during Scanlan’s short existence was a lengthy piece of frantic writing called “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved.” Boston Globe Sunday Magazine Editor Bill Cardoso described the piece thusly: “This is it, this is pure Gonzo. If this is a start, keep rolling.” It is generally accepted to be the first use of the word “gonzo” to describe Thompson’s inimitable style, which he took with him all the way to the grave.
It would be both an exaggeration and inaccurate to say that the publication of “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” launched Thompson’s career because, after all, his book, “Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga,” which was critically acclaimed, had been published three years prior. But “Hell’s Angels” was penned in a more traditional journalistic style compared to much of Thompson’s subsequent work.
The Kentucky Derby article was eventually anthologized in both Tom Wolfe’s “The New Journalism” and Thompson’s own “The Great Shark Hunt.”
Moreover, it was while working on that story that Hinckle paired Thompson with British illustrator Ralph Steadman. The two worked on many noteworthy projects together over the years.
The relationship between Hinckle and Thompson, who lived for several decades outside Aspen, transcended that of a typical editor/writer partnership. The two became fast friends and co-conspirators. In the early 1980s, they shared an office in a space upstairs at San Francisco’s O’Farrell Theater, one of the most infamous erotic dance clubs in the country.
“Hunter ended up living at O’Farrell’s,” said Ron Turner, who founded Last Gasp Publishing in San Francisco in 1970. “He also worked as the night manager. He was there off and on for I think five years. It was his intention to write a book about his experiences. I think he got an advance from some book publisher and spent it. He never wrote a lick about the theater that I knew about.”
(Here it should be noted that Thompson revealed in his 2003 book, “Kingdom of Fear,” that he had indeed worked as a night manager at O’Farrell’s in 1985, a vocational reality also noted in several contemporary news articles, as well in the history section of the O’Farrell’s official website, which, to this day, states, “On June 1, 1985, underground writer extraordinaire Hunter S. Thompson starts as the O’Farrell Theater’s night manager. The Mitchell Brothers and Thompson became fast friends and his short rein [sic] as the night manager remains legendary to this day.”)
The Mitchell Brothers, according to Turner, were siblings Jim and Artie, who at the height of their entrepreneurial run, owned 11 porn palaces.
The O’Farrell Theater had also been the site of a battle between then-San Francisco mayor Dianne Feinstein and the Mitchell Brothers, who over the years were the defendants in over 200 court cases involving obscenity or related charges. They were never convicted.
In 1991, Jim fatally shot Artie and was sentenced to six years in prison for voluntary manslaughter.
All in all, it made for a colorful setting for future retrospective wordsmithing.
Sometime shortly after Thompson took his life in 2005 — Turner does not remember the exact year — he sat down with Jim Mitchell, who, after his release from the slammer, was back running the O’Farrell Theater, and Hinckle to talk about doing a book centered around Thompson’s time at the O’Farrell, as well as reminiscences of Hunter’s columnist stint at the San Francisco Chronicle. Mitchell even ponied up $10,000 to get the project rolling.
The book that eventually became “Who Killed Hunter S. Thompson,” just released last week, was, according to Turner, essentially done in 2008. (Read: Almost 10 years ago.)
“We announced the book’s release time and time again,” Turner said. “But Hinckle would never come through. He never met a deadline he couldn’t avoid.”
To wit: In 1991, Hinckle revived a magazine called the Argonaut.
“It was a political publication that was supposed to come out well before whatever election was going on at the time,” Turner said. “There were times when he would still be working on it during Election Day. He would end up getting it to the printers at 10 a.m. and it would be out on the streets before the polls closed.”
His tendency to push the deadline envelope conspired to make it so Hinckle not only was not getting the Thompson book done, but he didn’t really want to get it done, according to Turner.
“He liked the fact that he was always working on it,” Turner said. “I told him the book was going to end up being like ‘A Picture of Dorian Gray.’
“His original vision was to make the book like a journalism-school text book,” Turner continued. “That’s not how it turned out. The introduction ended up being 250 pages. He recruited some other people who knew Hunter to contribute. Forty-four of them responded.”
There was also a fair amount of vacillation on the book’s title.
“The first title was ‘The Crazies Never Die,’” Turner said. “The next one was ‘Polo is my Life.’ Neither really made any sense. Warren ended up going with ‘Who Killed Hunter S. Thompson’ because they were both conspiracy theorists who were especially interested in the Kennedy assassination. The title didn’t have anything to do with Hunter’s actual death. We both knew Hunter shot himself.”
When Hinckle finally set his mind to finishing the book, he was once again faced with a dreaded deadline.
“They were still inputting copy at 1:30 a.m. the day the manuscript was due,” Turner said. “He beat the deadline by a couple hours. He died of a heart attack three hours later. His daughter, Pia, helped see the process through.”
“Who Killed Hunter S. Thompson” will be officially unveiled at a book-signing party Monday in San Francisco. Many of the contributing writers will be in attendance, Turner said.
“Actually, there will be a lot of widows filling in, since many of the contributors have passed away,” he said.
Turner said he hopes to have an event in the Aspen area, but will need to set up a venue.
“Hopefully, at some bar,” he said.
Thompson’s widow Anita is stoked about the book.
“Since Hunter put Rolling Stone magazine on the map, it’s a normal misconception that Rolling Stone was the first to publish Gonzo,” she said. “But it was actually Warren Hinckle, who was Hunter’s editor who midwifed gonzo journalism for Scanlan’s Monthly. Hinckle had an amazing mind and eye. I look forward to reading his book.”
Contributors to “Who Killed Hunter S. Thompson” include: Roger Black, Susie Bright, Phil Bronstein, Jerry Brown, Bill Cardoso, John G. Clancy, R.L. Crabb, Robert Crumb, Johnny Depp, Emory Douglas, Dennis P. Eichhorn, Wayne Ewing, Christopher Felver, Timothy Ferris, Ben Fong-Torres, Deborah Fuller, Jeff Goodby, William R. Hearst III, William Kennedy, Paul Krassner, John R. McArthur, Terry McDonell, Matthew Naythons, Martin F. Nolan, Dan O’Neill, Stephen R. Proctor, Jonah Raskin, ‘Dr. Hip’ Schoenfeld, Jonathan Shaw, Winston Smith, Barbara S. Solomon, Ralph Steadman, Michael Stepanian, Dugald Stermer, Jack Thibeau, Juan Thompson, Garry Trudeau, John Walsh, Wavy Gravy, S. Clay Wilson, Barbara Wohl and Tom Wolfe.
The book is 520 pages, weighs almost four pounds and lists for $39.95. It contains much in the way of graphics, handwritten notes, texts of emails, photos and illustrations, including work by Steadman.
The book can be ordered directly from lastgasp.com or from Bookbinders in Willits or Explore Booksellers in Aspen.