Feinstein Lost Famous Porn Spat

The recent passing of longtime Democratic politician Diane Feinstein of California took me down a faded path that, among readers, I probably followed alone. So, why not share?

It was a meandering trail that circled through racy neighborhoods of San Francisco strippers, police raids, arrests, pornography and obscenity charges, guns, murder, luxury Mercedes sedans, Harvey Silk – and, yes, even the glory days of “Night Manager” Hunter S. Thompson, high priest of Gonzo journalism.

Imagine that: a blast from the past, stirred by the death of a stubborn 90-year-old lioness of the US Senate, who should have retired long before old age sullied her dignity and took her down. In her final days, she was reduced to a confused, pathetic sight indeed. Why would anyone with her resources hang on so long and choose such a demeaning public exit?

Addictive power sure can lead to humiliating ends, and did just that regarding this Left Coast moderate. After graduating from Stanford University, her career took a meteoric rise from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to mayor to powerful US Senator. Then, sadly, she exited in a sad state that displayed on television as dementia.

I had heard brief personal tales of the San Francisco mayor from a friend who knew her as a customer at his jewelry business in the city’s historic district, and who had been to her home. I had also read about her pornography wars against a San Francisco strip club featured in a biographical compendium about HST published in 2017. Other than that, I only knew her as portrayed on the nightly news and daily cable-news feed.

As I absorbed the many Feinstein tributes in the days following her death, it occurred to me that one of her early springboards to fame was being totally ignored. Not one word did I read or hear about her very public, Goodie Two-Shoes crusade against the infamous O’Farrell Theatre and its controversial owners – flamboyant brothers Jim and Artie Mitchell, who made the movie Behind the Green Door, made a star of Marilyn Chambers, and eventually could fill the fingers on both hands with theaters they owned.

When I went to Wikipedia for Feinstein’s profile, I found the same void related to her altruistic and unsuccessful stand against the Mitchells. Nope, not so much as a whisper.


I suppose Feinstein preferred to ignore defeats and focus on her political victories. Who doesn’t? Still, how could her losing, decades-long battle against the flamboyant Mitchells – Army vets and pranksters with “Okie” roots – be ignored? The brothers Mitchell partied hardy, fished from their notorious boat moored in the Bay, made porn flicks, ran strip joints, spent millions in legal fees and, in the process, managed to rake in dough and soften federal laws governing porn.

By the time the dust had settled, Jim Mitchell had done time for shooting brother Artie dead with a handgun (1991, voluntary manslaughter) and died himself young (2007, age 63), but not before he had carved out a West Coast reputation as the undefeated “Rocky of the First Amendment.” As defendants in more than 200 obscenity-related court cases, not once were the Mitchell Brothers convicted.

Put that in your bong and smoke it.

Although her porn wars with the Mitchells were ignored in mainstream Feinstein obits, I knew right where to refresh my memory with a full and quite biased accounting. From my bookcase I pulled out Who Killed Hunter S. Thompson, an unvarnished Warren Hinckle III tell-all published in 2017 by flower-power San Francisco institution Last Gasp. The late Hinckle was a San Fran newsman and HST pal who had a bigger impact on shaping Gonzo style than Rolling Stone magazine founder Jann Wenner, who loves to hoard credit.

Swashbuckling Editor Hinckle was the man who put leftist Ramparts magazine on the map, publishing the San Francisco monthly during the Vietnam War/civil-rights era when Sixties musical legends like Jerry Garcia, Grace Slick, Janis Joplin, Jorma Kaukonen, David Crosby, Chris Hillman, and Peter Rowan were walking the Haight-Ashbury streets, sitting at Tenderloin bars, and performing to pulsating psychedelic crowds at Golden Gate Park and the Fillmore.

In 1970, after Ramparts fell into fatal financial distress, Hinckle took charge of short-lived Scanlan’s Monthly. There he assigned Thompson to the Kentucky Derby for his breakout article, “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” and Gonzo journalism was born. Better still, Hinckle paired Thompson with zany British illustrator Ralph Steadman, whose art accompanied Thompson’s unique tales all the way to the author’s abrupt end.

Like Thompson, Hinkle had no use for “objective journalism” as laid out in the doctrinaire Associated Press manual. Thus, he was the perfect editor for that inaugural Dr. Gonzo-Steadman piece, which, by the way, is republished in its entirety in Hinckle’s Thompson book. Gonzo style was ready to roll, and the Thompson-Steadman partnership for the ages was off and running.

Hinckle, who died the year before his long-delayed Thompson tribute hit the streets, was never widely recognized nationally except in counter-culture circles; however, that was not the case in “Frisco,” where he was born, raised, educated, employed, and died. The University of San Francisco alum became a household name in the progressive city built by the California gold rush and known to many as America’s Paris. Having lost an eye to a childhood archery accident, the carousing journalist was known for the apropos black pirate eye patch he sported.

When he wasn’t managing provocative left-wing magazines that mattered, Hinckle wrote books and penned popular columns for his city’s two daily newspapers – the Chronicle and Examiner. Later his byline appeared in the free San Francisco Independent, a publication similar to our own weekly Valley Advocate in its earliest days of the ’70s.

No San Francisco journalist of his day knew the city’s underbelly quite like Hinckle, a hard-drinking, old-time journalist in the Bay Area tradition of quirky Ambrose Bierce. In fact, in 1991 he even revived the Argonaut, a San Francisco political rag that for many years in the late 19th century published Bierce’s popular “Prattle” column.

Hinckle and his Bassett hound Bentley were regulars at the O’Farrell Theatre, where he enjoyed VIP status, along with HST, who served as night manager for a couple of years in the mid-1980s. Try to imagine the wild scene: Dr. Gonzo perched high above center stage on his director’s chair, training the spotlight on nude performers for a crowd that could on any given night include the likes of revolutionary activists Abbie Hoffman or Huey Newton, poets and performers like Allen Ginsberg and Marilyn Chambers, random pols from nearby City Hall, police, lawyers and a steady cast of celebrities from the rich music scene.

The O’Farrell was a destination capable of pulling in virtually anyone, from curious tourists to local luminaries and regular patrons making their daily rounds. Feinstein viewed the place as an undesirable den of depravity, a city black eye that needed to be closed. She was, however, not exactly preaching to the choir in the progressive Bay Area, where freedom of speech and thought were sacred human rights.

I didn’t choose to focus on a neglected chapter of the Feinstein story to in any way diminish her proud legacy. Like all politicians, she won some battles and lost some. Count the extended O’Farrell dustup among the latter, and it only gets richer when the Hinckle-HST dynamic jumps in. Thompson intended to write a book that never came to fruition about his night-manager days.

Although I never uttered a word in print about Hinckle’s book the first time I read it, I couldn’t resist when mired in Feinstein eulogies. I would recommend Who Killed Hunter S. Thompson to any fans of HST or Sixties/Seventies lookbacks. It opens with Hinckle’s 200-page “intro,” is followed by personal essays from 42 friends who knew Thompson best, and promises soon to be “out of print” and hard to find.


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