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Book Excerpt: A Bomb in Every Issue

Hunter S. Thompson, a pill-popping monkey, Black Panthers, and CIA dirty tricks: Scenes from the short, crazy life of Ramparts, the muckraking magazine that paved the way for Mother Jones.

| Fri Oct. 16, 2009 3:43 PM EDT

Hinckle's style was nothing if not kinetic. Staff writer Adam Hochschild recalled it this way:

He raced through each 18-hour day with dizzying speed. 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. Then would follow an afternoon-long lunch where Hinckle would consume a dozen Scotches without showing the slightest effect and sketch dummies of the next issue's pages on the restaurant's placemats. Finally he'd be off on the night plane to see new backers in the East.

In New York, the maelstrom continued. James Ridgeway's 1969 profile of Hinckle in the New York Times Magazine described his fantastical performances at the Algonquin Hotel.

In the dining room Hinckle would be recounting his scheme for a publishing empire, expanding Ramparts, starting one, two, or three radio and television stations, starting an author's agency, setting up teams of reporters who would get the goods on LBJ, NATO, the Pope, etc. Ramparts would publish books, set up book clubs, start a syndicate… If one dared to ask where the money was really going to come from, Hinckle would fall back into his chair and suck on a grasshopper while Scheer lunged forward. "What's the matter?" he'd say, "Got no guts?"

Hinckle's effect on his colleagues, especially younger ones, was dazzling. "Hinckle was amazing," said Michael Ansara, a Harvard Students for a Democratic Society leader and Ramparts researcher. "As an undergraduate, I'd visit him at the Algonquin. He'd start talking in the shower, continue the conversation while putting on his tuxedo, and then we'd be off for oysters with Abby Rockefeller." The company Hinckle kept was part of the glamour. "I once had dinner with him and Oriana Fallaci," Ansara said. "I was about eighteen years old. I'd never seen a woman like her, much less had dinner with her. He was the most cosmopolitan, flamboyant, creative guy I'd ever seen."

 

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Ramparts reported stories that the mainstream press would not touch. In April 1966, Robert Scheer revealed that the CIA had secretly used Michigan State University to train South Vietnamese police and write the country's constitution. The expose led the agency to order a "rundown" on Ramparts. It eventually investigated 127 writers and researchers and 200 other Americans connected to the magazine.

As Ramparts dug into the less savory aspects of America's most powerful institutions, the staff suspected that the government was watching them. One of their colleagues, William Turner, confirmed that suspicion. Raised Catholic in Buffalo, Turner had joined the FBI, received training in wiretapping and burglary, and listened in on telephone conversations in the Bay Area. But he had run afoul of J. Edgar Hoover after objecting to the FBI director's characterization of Martin Luther King as "the most notorious liar in the country." Turner left the FBI after ten years of service, settled in Marin County, and wrote a piece about the bureau's failure to obtain convictions on civil rights violations in the south. After his Ramparts articles appeared, Hoover wrote about him in an internal memo, "It's a shame we can't nail this jackal."

Turner assured his Ramparts colleagues that the government was watching them. "Wiretaps are your tax dollars at work," he told art director Dugald Stermer. "If your phone isn't bugged, we're not doing our job."

There were other indications, too, that the magazine's adversaries were trying to undermine its efforts. Stermer was audited in two consecutive years, and when Turner arrived at the office the morning after Easter 1967, he found shattered windows, fire extinguisher goo covering the furniture, and an IBM Selectric typewriter lying askew in the toilet. Turner suspected that the CIA had ransacked the office but saw no signs of forced entry. Years later, Hinckle telephoned Turner from Cookie Picetti's; a former law enforcement officer and GOP official had just confessed to him about burglarizing the Ramparts office in 1967. Hinckle asked Turner to question his new acquaintance about his burglary story. "But he couldn't have done it," Hinckle added, "because Gene Marine and I did it." Hinckle and Marine, a staff writer, had trashed the office after a drinking session at Tosca, another North Beach bar. But the burglar claimed that his caper had occurred two nights earlier, and he convinced Hinckle by producing the editor's bar receipts from Cookie Picetti's along with some Ramparts files. He told Turner that right-wing organizations had sponsored the burglaries, and that the findings were shared with CIA agents.

Photo courtesy of Guy and Gregory Stilson

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